Nick Clarkson


Filed By Nick Clarkson | October 22, 2006 2:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex

Two incidents of misrecognition in the last couple weeks:

1. I am picking up my laundry from my grandma's house. My sister has been doing laundry there earlier and has left her bras there to dry. I am packing up my stuff and grandma says, "Oh these are still here too." She starts folding them up and asks, "Are they yours?"

2. It's "trans week" in my queer theory class. Our readings are uninspiring and my professor has let the discussion devolve into the things we've heard transpeople say on panels by sharing things she has heard transpeople say on panels. Furthermore, we will be having this classroom discussion about transpeople as if there are none in the room. One student says something about how interesting it was when these two guys were talking about the bathroom problem. Chances are I'm one of the guys she's talking about, but there's no way of really knowing. Then another woman very specifically quotes me, not recognizing me sitting across the room from her as the same person who sat at the front of a small classroom and said what she is now quoting.

Two different sorts of misrecognition. The first: my grandma looks at me with denial so deep that she can't see that I no longer have breasts. I am misrecognized as female. The second: I pass so well as some random gay boy, apparently, that my classmate doesn't recognize me as my trans self, one year later.

I told my parents over dinner this evening about the second episode. I said, "I guess I'm blending in too well as a gay boy." My poor dad, having struggled with why I would transition from female to become a gay boy, asks, "Isn't that what you wanted?" To which I answer, "Yes and no."

I started transitioning feeling that, of my two options, being called by male pronouns and understood as a boy was more in alignment with how I understand my gender identity than the female-pronouns, understood-as-a-woman option. Transition was to help me communicate this nonverbally and with much less strain to people I know only superficially. My friends, though, needed to be able to continue to understand my gender identity as somewhere between male and female; I needed them to be able to acknowledge my female history when necessary and recognize that the same history informs the way I move through the world.

So yes. I wanted to "blend in" to the extent that I wanted people to know to use male pronouns for me without me having to ask them to do that (and consequently explain why and what "trans" means and how I know...). But no, I don't understand myself unequivocally as a boy. So--especially in the context of an upper-level gender studies classroom--I want to be recognized as something more complicated than a gay boy. I want to be recognized as something I don't have words for.

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Melissa Williams | October 22, 2006 10:26 AM

I guess the question begs to be answered: why did you not speak up in class? Also, if you don't have the words for how to recognize yourself, can you expect others to have the language? As much as it may suck, you have the responsibility (in my opinion) to educate people about how you would like to be recognized.

Ellen Andersen | October 22, 2006 1:17 PM

I agree with Melissa that you're stuck, Nick, with part of the responsibility of educating people about how you'd like to be recognized. But I think that there are multiple ways of doing that. One option would be to out yourself in the classroom. It'd certainly force the issue, and by dint of making yourself visible you'd become the authority figure on the subject by default. You'd also, of course, become less of an individual and more of representation of transgendered people. (I've been known to answer questions about "what lesbians think" by saying "Speaking as I do for all lesbians...."] This representational burden may not be one you're willing to assume right now.

So a second option would be to out yourself to your teacher in private, transferring the responsibility for communicating your understandings and concerns to her/him. Your willingness to do that is obviously dependent on your take on your professor. And if you choose to do so, I'd go armed with some good readings, the kinds of materials you wish your class had read.

And a third option would be to out yourself anonymously, through a letter that you ask to be read to the class. This has got its own advantages and disadvantages. You retain your individuality. At the same time you destabilize the gender assumptions of the entire class. Students (and the prof) won't be able to help themselves from wondering who the author is. That has the possibility of opening up some really rich dialogue, but also of turning the rest of the semester into a game of Clue. It also limits you from being able to address followup questions, at least to some extent.

As for grandma, ouch. Never underestimate the willing blindness of people, I guess.

Wow, Nick. Good post!

I won't really address the 2nd incident since Melissa and Ellen have focused in on that - other than to say that I agree heartily with Melissa - if you don't have words for yourself then it makes impossible for others to have those words too.

But as for grandma, that one I can share a similar experience with. My grandma absolutely refused to believe that I was gay. I came out in high school - and until my mid 20's, she'd still ask "Do you have a girlfriend yet?" For the first few years, I'd ignore it. Then for a couple years I ignored her! When we started talking again, I let her know why I'd shut off communication - that her words were hurtful to me.

She hadn't realized that. She apologized profusely and told me she'd thought (wrongly) that by continuing to remind me that the "girlfriend" option was open, maybe I'd change. She's now visited with Jerame and refers to our daughter as, well, our daughter (as versus "Jerame's daughter.")

So, don't give up hope for grandma. They do come around - but I think, like with the class, you have to give her the tools to do so. It's a time-consuming issue dealing with our families and teaching them how to best support us.

Nick Clarkson | October 22, 2006 10:30 PM

Um. Those examples were meant to be illustrative and were thus only sketched in their momentary specificity. I did, in fact, use the second woman's comment as an opportunity to out myself during that class.

I guess I'm not quite sure what I expected in posting this. I guess I hoped people would hear that we all live with a vocabulary that's completely insufficient in terms of descriptions of queer gender identities.

I didn't expect my classmates to have the words to name me. I would like to live in a world in which people were open to more complications around sexuality and gender. A world in which it's not my responsibility to explain to everyone exactly how I feel. I want to live in a world in which people can own their own discomfort around ambiguous gender identities and not take it out on me by saying it's my responsibility to make them feel safer.

Sounds as if you want to live in a world of mind readers to me. Good luck with that.

I don't read this as Nick asking for people to read his mind. I think it's an issue of wanting people to not be bothered so much by his expressions and respect his choices. These are things that we all ask of people every day, and I don't think that it's too much to ask by any means.

Nick's point about responsibility is very poignant. Whose job is it to see that a person understands something if not their own? And if they don't understand it or are uncomfortable, it should be their obligation to deal with those issues, not everyone elses.

Melissa Williams | October 23, 2006 4:57 PM

I think that if you want the world to understand you on your terms, you absolutely have the responsibility to define your terms and parameters to people. Not everyone is on the same page, has had the same education, has poured over the engaging and lucid writing of Foucault (ha ha; his work is important but not the most accessible), and this goes not only for gender identity but for every other human experience. No one is asking to feel safer, we are just asking you to take the responsibility to share how you would like to be interpreted; if you don't take responsibility, don't fault people for filling in the blanks. It's human nature; we are virtually hard wired to think in black and white.

Marla R. Stevens | November 18, 2006 6:00 AM

I don't think Nick has a responsibility to do anything other than live his life with honesty and integrity.

Everyone has a responsibility to educate themselves enough about basic human differences such as the normal range of gender identities to live with civility with our fellow humans.

When we step outside the basic living of our lives to help others accomplish that, it's a gift, not an entitlement on our very selves that others have a right to expect -- and it should be treated with the graciousness associated with the receipt of any other gift.

That said, I recognize that the world is populated with too many of the sort of wogs who will not trouble themselves to properly educate themselves in these matters so that, in practical reality, it will take lots of those gifts to make reasonably paced social change. I wish for all of us willing to give the gifts much energy and strength in the giving. I am also impressed with the wisdom and creativity embodied in the solutions that Ellen has offered.

Nick Clarkson | November 18, 2006 10:50 AM

Thanks Marla. I appreciate your comments. Those were definitely some of the things I was thinking as those first comments came rolling in.

Elaine Albright | February 9, 2007 11:38 PM

Being involved with a transgendered person (who was once my 1st girlfriend and now years later is my future husband) I am still struggling with the "appropriate" words because he has such strong negative feelings about life before transition yet he was in my life in a very different way. It is a difficult conversation but I can't respect his feelings if he can't express them! No it isn't fair that trans people have to take responsibility for helping the rest of the world understand but if life were fair you would have been born the gender you were meant to be!