“What do you think it would be like to live in a world that isn’t structured against us?” I ask my partner after a group of teenagers taunt us; one of them made an effeminate jeer when we began walking away and the rest of the group laughed.
“I don’t know…” he says, confused by my question.
“This world does not accept our love and there is nothing we can do to change it.” He is silent, perhaps speechless. “How do you not care about what other people think?” I inquire, remembering him describing how he does what he wants without letting other people get in the way. I used to be this confident too before the trauma of working for MAC Cosmetics in an international airport.
“It’s because strangers don’t matter; I only care about what my friends and family think about me,” he says. I recall spending my childhood and teenage birthday wishes on not being gay before asking him whether anyone has ever harassed or assaulted him for being queer. “No…” he says, appearing frightened.
The sun is setting into the haze that obscures the city below us.
“What would you do if someone came up to us right now and called us faggots and started to get violent?” I ask, externalizing the terror that lurks within the structures of my troubled psyche. Hell is other people and I might be both the devil and an exorcist.
“I don’t know…” he says, more out of breath than before as we walk up the hill toward a bench to watch the sunset.
“I worry about this all the time and don’t know what to do about it,” I conclude, realizing that my whole world changes the moment we hold hands. I feel simultaneously safer and more in danger when I am with him in public, but I still prefer this dissonance to being alone or acting straight. Straight people’s problems are my burden.
“The straight man becomes (mimes, cites, appropriates, assumes the status of) the man he ‘never’ loved and ‘never’ grieved; the straight woman becomes the woman she ‘never’ loved and ‘never’ grieved. It is in this sense, then, that what is most apparently performed as gender is the sign and symptom of a pervasive disavowal.”
— Judith Butler in “Melancholy Gender — Refused Identification,” 1995.
I am allergic to the new version of estrogen I received from my doctor. I haven’t taken my medication in a few weeks and feel truly awful. I am easily angered, perpetually distraught, full of emptiness, and in excruciating pain that reverberates ominously from deep within my organism. This pain is classified as “gender dysphoria” by the American Psychiatric Association and is conceptualized as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.” I do not think this is an accurate diagnosis; I am hurting as a result of others falsely assuming my penis dictates who I am and how I want to behave. My distress is based in the proscriptive usage of sex assignments to enforce gender norms, not a discrepancy between my crotch and sense of self.
The conflation of sex and gender begins before birth. A penis is found with the ultrasound and he is assumed to be a boy who wants to wear blue and play with trucks. He is also expected to desire women in virtue of his penis. If he does not prefer to act like a dick then he is shamed, ridiculed, rejected, and perhaps even killed by those who consider themselves to be normal.
I learned from friends, family, and society that being gay was wrong before puberty began, and once puberty began I started to see someone of the same sex in the mirror who I thought was attractive. My body thus became a site of forbidden desire and pervasive disavowal through which I learned to associate testosterone with the horrifying realization of my biggest fears.
I was tormented by desire for the boys in the middle school locker room who nonchalantly undressed and whipped each other with their recently-removed t-shirts. I was not supposed to feel these ways and yet my desire moves autonomously beyond my control. I bet yours does too.
When sex started driving recklessly toward homosexuality I began to fear for my life because I knew that the most important people in my world would disown me for it. My nightly habit of praying to not be gay started to fizzle away as I realized God had not answered my prayers or birthday wishes. I believed God hated me as much as my dad was going to if he found out who I was and so I distanced myself from both of them and the rest of the world. I hid away who I was into a dissociative pall of dissonance that was brought upon by testosterone.
Testosterone is the harbinger of my embodied dislocation i.e., “gender dysphoria.” It feels like a swarm of bees whose hive collects honey harvested from the pollens of my cavernous mind. It is a poison that I intimately associate with the traumatic sexual awakening of my prepubescent body — but my sexual awakening was only traumatic because of the heterosexism I introjected during my upbringing. Testosterone is an intrusive invasion that upends my capacities to experience life as anything other than dissonance between who I am and what others expect me to be.
My experience of gender dysphoria is not based in a discrepancy between my genitals and gender identity; it is based in a discrepancy between my existence and cultural ideology.
My dysphoria originates from being perceived as male and expected to therefore act like a man, not from a discrepancy between my biological sex and gender identity. There is nothing inherently wrong with me, my identity, or how I choose to express myself; there is something wrong with the normative gender/sexual expectations that dominant groups enforce. Just as racism is ultimately a white person’s problem, heterosexism is a straight person’s problem. I do not know what it’s like to be straight, nor do I want to; I would prefer not to be gendered at all because it is my gendering that causes me so much pain in the first place. I have learned the hard way that gender is a sexual expectation.
I started wearing makeup to express my feelings (but not necessarily my femininity) during my early 20s. I began with lipstick and felt empowered by the stares I would continually receive. I later smeared lipstick across my face in an intentional defacing of femininity that reflected my ambivalence toward gender norms. I also sometimes wore bruises as contour to represent the feeling of being pummeled by society for expressing my truth.
My first experience of public harassment came from a white man in the driver’s seat of a jeep at a red light who told his passengers to “Look at that fag!” as I crossed the street wearing a deep reddish lipstick named Rebel. I blew him many smiling kisses in response and he yelled “Fuck you!” before having to continue driving toward his destination. I was flattered by the attention and maintained this level of confidence throughout my early 20s until working in the makeup industry and being subject to inescapable harassment from the public for 40 hours a week.
White women were always the nastiest in response to my transfeminine gender presentation. Black women were the most respectful and kind.
“Oh my god your makeup is so funny!” a white flight attendant with blonde hair cackles. “I am going to take pictures of you to show my friends,” she tells me before snapping photos with her phone as I search in drawers for the lipsticks she requested. She smiles expectantly after I find her lipsticks but I feel humiliated and refuse to pose for her entertainment. “Oh!” she exclaims, phone plummeting from her sickening smirk and blazing blue eyes. “You’d rather me take candid photos, I get it — luckily I already got some while you were getting my lipstick.” I want to vomit but the customer is always right.
“Okay, talk to me!” she — a tan white woman with dark brown hair and black eyeliner — barges whitely into the store enraged.
“About what?” I ask, bracing for impact.
“Men in makeup!” she demands. She expects an answer from me as though I owe her one.
“Well,” I say, choosing my words carefully, “I don’t identify as a man, nor do I represent all men, but I think gender is becoming less relevant of a construct to define how people — ”
“I don’t want to know why it’s happening, I want to know where it’s coming from!” she interjects. “Is it San Francisco? New York? Los Angeles…?” She continues listing cities with large LGBTQ populations then goes into a tirade about seeing a gay couple at a mall in Orange County, one of whom was wearing makeup. “I just don’t get it! Why was he wearing makeup if they’re gay?” Her confusion apparently was my problem.
She continues rambling as I dissociate into the dysphoric haze before my manager — a tall, fierce, and beautiful lesbian woman covered in colorful tattoos — suddenly emerges from the hidden closet/office behind the register to ask her if she needed any help. Her fury fizzles away into intimidation as she is held accountable for her heterosexism by the presence of my manager. She scampers out of the store without anything to satisfy or appease her obvious hatred.
“I am so sorry, D.” my manger says and hugs me. I say it’s okay and tell her I am used to it. “It’s not okay,” she reminds me. I am too numb at this point to feel devastated.
“Why are you wearing makeup?!” exclaims an older white woman who had just tried on an unsanitized lipstick that was on display for the public. I am tired of being kind to rude customers.
“Why does anyone wear makeup?” I retort angrily across the store as heads turn.
“Oh…” she says, fumbling over muttered words before walking quickly out of the store.
“Is that the fashion?” asks a well-dressed and snotty Latina woman in reference to my smoky eyes as I was talking to a Black airport employee who was one of my favorite customers.
“Wow, there are some rude people in the airport today,” says my ally loudly enough for this other woman to hear. “See you later, sweetie,” she says with the kind of eye contact only oppressed people know how to make with each other.
“It apparently is the fashion because I’m wearing it,” I reply with sass. “Can I help you?” She rolls her eyes and demands I sanitize numerous lipsticks for her to try. This woman’s energy is palpably ominous. I try to avoid her as much as possible but she continues to bark questions and demand services from me. She is in the store for a horrible amount of time, buys a few things, and when she leaves one of my coworkers looks at me and says “Fuck that bitch. She was so fucking rude.” I laugh and we commiserate.
A Muslim woman walks by the store with her children and observes me with a mixture of surprise and horror. I can feel her fearing for my safety with me.
A young white boy points at me and loudly exclaims, “Uh oh!” in response to the avant-garde blue splatters sprayed across my face. His father laughs very nervously and averts eye contact. This is the beginning of the end of my time working in the airport.
The group of men approach buzzing excitedly and clamoring agitatedly as they near the store. I know they are laughing at me and can feel the stings of their judgements bouncing off my haze of dissociation. Today my lipstick is red and they are going wild for it as straight men so often do but they will not look directly at me, instead averting their collective eyes when they walk past the store.
After they pass I grab a black eyeliner and draw an arrow from my eyes pointing toward my lips to indicate I know what they are seeing and that I see them. I suspected they would be coming back because I’ve learned men like this get off on dominating faggots like me.
Shortly thereafter I hear them coming around again. I stare at them and their laughter grows louder as one of them shoots a pointer finger in my direction. I shatter but they never physically enter the store.
None of the aforementioned encounters would have occurred if I was perceived as a woman. If I others saw me as a woman then my partner and I would not be stared at or made fun of for being together because we would be seen as a straight couple. I would also be able to wear makeup without being harassed or threatened with violence if I were perceived as a woman.
I could also safely be myself as desire wishes without fear if others did not enforce gender/sexual norms. Heterosexist resistance to my queer authenticity is the site out of which my gender dysphoria emerges.
While I do not consciously wish to be a woman, nor do I feel like I am really a woman on the inside, I think I unconsciously recognize that achieving womanhood is the only feasible solution to living in a world that is structured against my queer transfeminine existence.
I will never forget how deeply warmth and safety bloomed within me the first time I took estrogen. Testosterone carries too many traumatic associations for me to live comfortably with it. It just so happens that my body changes appearance in relation to taking estrogen. I have no goals in mind for how I want my body to change— I just want to feel safe again like I did before puberty’s sexualization.
On the night my partner was flying to the United States from South America I wrote an essay to unpack the complicated feelings about love that had been lying dormant within me. Prior to writing this essay I put on makeup for the first time in many years because it simply felt right to do so. I nevertheless quickly took it off and suppressed the meaning of having done this. I still have not worn makeup in front of my partner because I am terrified of being rejected by him like I already have been by American society.
I asked my partner yesterday how he would feel if I wore makeup and he said he wouldn’t mind it. I am so excited to finally meet him again.