I told my dad about my wishes to go full-time today. It went about as poorly as I thought it would. Here are just a few of the highlights from our “conversation”:
- I am an embarrassment (ouch. That stung.)
- I am insane (yep. I’ve heard that one before.)
- I am living in sin and in fact am no longer a Christian (well, okay. If you say so.)
- I am just trying to escape from the difficulties of life (Really!? by coming out as transgender, I hope to make life easier???)
- And the kicker: what’s the point because, in the end I’ll always be an ugly excuse for a real woman.
Alright. So I’ve touched on why I’m not crazy nor sinning in previous posts, and I’ve no desire to go back to them today. The thing about escaping from my “hard-knock life” (insert obligatory eye roll) is so nonsensical I don’t even know where to start with it yet. The last two, though…ouch. My dad always said he was proud of my accomplishments, of what I’d done, of the person I was. Clearly that’s changed, and I don’t think I have it in me to try and weed anything out of it right now. It was the kind of jab that hits home no matter how many defenses you’ve put up.
That leaves the last thing, then. The one about me being ugly. There’s so much wrong with this statement, it will be tough to pick a place to start. I will say it. I am not some beautiful, brown-haired babe. I knew that. I’ve been living for 27 years with testosterone wracking my body. I have a bulging adam’s apple, my shoulders are too broad, my hips are too narrow, the little bit of pudge around my belly just won’t go away, my nose is too big, my jaw is too square, my boobs are basically non-existent. ALL OF THAT. I pick myself apart everyday several times a day. I look at myself and compare my fears about my self-image to every other cisfemale out there. And I hate to admit it, but I’ve looked at pictures of transwomen who are less attractive than me just to make myself feel better.
It’s got me thinking: why. Why do I feel this way about my body? Why did what he said upset me so much? I think there are several answers, all of which are part and parcel of the general sexism and anti-trans ideology permeating our culture. Women have always had their womanhood judged based on their appearances. People like my dad crack jokes at women who don’t perfectly fit our cultural preconceptions about female beauty. These women aren’t perceived as women. They are gazed at as something other, something different. For transwomen, I think it can be even worse. If you see a transwoman who doesn’t pass as a woman, not only do you consider her ugly, but you fail to see that person as a woman at all. Neither is that person a man. In fact, when my dad looks at me, he doesn’t even see a human being. He sees something in-between and far-away, something inconsistent, something that doesn’t fit any mold. He looks at me and sees an absurdity. I am ugly and I will never be female. I will always be a mockery, a caricature, something fake. And all because I am ugly.
Assuming my experience is not singular, is it any wonder that transwomen are worried so much about passing? Think about it. If being “beautiful” is not only about being seen as female but also about being seen as human, then it’s not so hard to blame transwomen for spending tens of thousands of dollars on cosmetic procedures, hormones, electrolysis, facial feminization surgery, and new wardrobes. It’s suddenly not so difficult to imagine why we obsessively look in mirrors and take relentless selfies. In my situation, cultural ideology has affected me so deeply so deeply that subconsciously, even I have trouble seeing myself as a human when I look in the mirror or take an especially bad picture of myself. And since coming out has been about my becoming more authentically human, when I can’t look at myself and feel like I see a genuine person, I get angry and sad and my dysphoria kicks into overdrive x 10.
On the same note, I finally got around to watching Dallas Buyer’s Club. I’d heard all about Jared Leto’s “transface” performance, how it unintentionally belittles the trans community, and why the role only perpetuates stereotypes. Needless to say, I was a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I basically had to force myself to see it, and even then, I figured I’d be super-critical about Leto et al. Well. I was wrong. There’s one scene near the end of Rayon’s life when she says a prayer. I can’t remember the exact wordage, but it went something like this: “God, when I get to heaven, I swear I am going to be pretty.” This, right after the (eerily similar) confrontation with her dad. At that moment, and for several hours afterwards, I just couldn’t get that prayer out of my head. It struck me, and that’s because it hits at the core of so much of my gender dysphoria.
To explain what I mean, I’ll take a look at Rayon as a person. First (because it’s what society would have us do), let’s analyze her appearance. I am sure I won’t be the first to admit that Jared Leto does not make a (culturally) pretty transwoman. As Rayon, he certainly doesn’t pass. And Rayon’s mountain-of-make-up and brightly colored dresses make her seem just a little shallow and over-the-top. I think a lot of people saw this physical portrayal and immediately thought that Leto was doing transwomen a disservice. Why? Because Rayon is ugly. Rayon fails on just about every level to look like a ciswoman. It would have been better if Rayon were less made-up, less drag-queenish (I know it’s not a word, but whatever). If she looked like a normal girl, viewers would see that transwomen don’t all look like half-starved, coked-up hookers.
But that would miss the point.
Like so many transwomen, Rayon wants to be pretty. She wants to look in that mirror and see what the culture expects to see. She fears her ugliness, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Her image is part of her, and, whether we like it or not, our trans images our part of us, too. MIne certainly is. I know I’m not pretty, but I want to be. Not because I’m shallow or vain. But, like Rayon, because I want to be accepted as a person.
By forcing Rayon onto viewers in this way, Jean-Marc Vallee asks that we deepen our gaze and go beyond the physical. He wants the culture-at-large to look at transwomen and see beyond the material. When we see past Rayon’s horrible, ugly skin, we see a real beauty. She is kind and loving. She cares about people. She helps Ron with his charlie horse the first time she meets him. She worries about Dr. Saks. She presents as a male in front of her father. She gives the money from her life insurance policy to Ron. These are the sorts of things that exemplify true beauty. Rayon’s actions are images of God’s beauty, the beauty that perpetuates and spreads, that builds up instead of tearing down, the beauty that humanizes rather than objectifying. Tragically, though, the ideology of appearance is so insidious that, even after all the good she’s done, Rayon still feels less-than-human. And, also tragically, I’m afraid that most viewers (cis- and trans- alike) feel the same.