Content note: This is a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about cissexism and transphobia, both external and internalized. If you’re a trans person and you’ve had a particularly bad or dysphoric day, you might wanna skip this one.
Today in my literature class, the professor said we were going to deconstruct race and gender in Frankenstein. A sense of dread settled over me as she wrote “Race” and “Woman” on the board and asked a room of mostly white students what race is. After a very intellectual discussion, she asked the class what woman is. The first response was exactly what I was dreading. A student said, “Being biologically and anatomically female.”
The teacher wrote “biology” and “anatomy” on the board. She turned around to see my expression and said, “Tristan, you look so perplexed right now.” Quickly, I wondered if this comment was the result of some neurotype difference. Maybe what to me is a deeply uncomfortable, pained expression looks like deep confusion to a non-autistic person.
I don’t remember all the things I said in response to her. Initially, I just replied, “I don’t know if you want me to get into it.” But she pressed for more of a response, and I said something vague like, “There are those of us who would strongly disagree that their biology in any way determines their identity.”
I had no idea how to explain to her that I was upset because I was trans, but I didn’t necessarily want the entire class to know that because I didn’t trust them. I didn’t have the words to describe how the implication that I was biologically a woman had made me more aware of my genitals than I’d been all day. It had dug deep into my chromosomes and left little aching pockmarks in every one of them, so that my entire being throbbed with inauthenticity.
She said that what I said was a helpful thing to bring up. I said, “Well, I don’t know if it’s helping anyone,” thinking of how vague I’d just been and how I’d failed to advance the cause and be a Good Trans Advocate. She said that it was helpful to bring up that gender was about social norms and wrote that on the board. And as she did, I hated academia for expecting people like me to discuss these concepts intellectually and not bring our tumultuous emotions concerning them into the conversation. It wasn’t socially appropriate for me to say, “This discussion is fucking me up; can we switch to something else?” or “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this right now. Bye. See you next class.” So I sat in my seat, silent and curled up, the rest of the time the class was discussing gender.
After my remarks, the teacher made a point of mentioning that sex and gender were different things, one being biological and the other being about social roles. It didn’t help at all. Now I was a walking contradiction. My sex was female, and my gender was male…ish. My body and my mind were at odds, never to be reconciled, no matter what physical changes I made to myself. After all, I can’t change all of my sex characteristics, just the more obvious ones that people can see.
During the discussion, I thought of the time my seventh-grade science teacher listed biological factors a person can’t change. He included eye color, skin color, and gender. One of my classmates joked about how sex reassignment surgery was a thing. The teacher tapped his own arm and said, “Yeah, but you can’t change your chromosomes. If you have XY chromosomes, you’re always going to have XY chromosomes.” I am always going to have my chromosomes. No surgery will ever change them. Even if I go stealth someday, on a deep, cellular level, I will never be cis, no matter how hard I try.
And as I sat still in my lit class, I thought, “I am not biologically female and mentally male. I am not half one thing and half another. I am 100% myself.” And I felt sick of gender theory, even though I’ve enjoyed it sometimes. I didn’t want to switch off my feelings and detach myself from my experiences and have a “rational discussion” about emotionally loaded concepts. I didn’t want to split my emotions and my intellect apart. They work together and inform one another. They wouldn’t function without each other.
And I was so resentful that I wasn’t supposed to cry or speak in a shaky voice or allow my voice to rise while talking about ideas that have hurt me my whole life. It would have been inappropriate. After all, discussing ideas that deeply affect you in a class is just part of the curriculum. Just deconstruct the text. Don’t make it about your feelings. But we encourage you to talk about your views, because you’re mentioning important concepts and you need a good participation grade. Is something wrong? We’re sorry. We didn’t mean for you to fall into a silent rage.
I want to make it clear that I don’t hate this professor. She’s one of the most intersectional teachers I’ve ever had, and I like her insights. I think some of these concepts are emotionally loaded for her too, and I think she does care. I just don’t know how to describe the way it feels when you’re (presumably) the only trans person in a room full of cis people intellectually discussing gender. Maybe I wasn’t the only one having overwhelming, painful feelings. The category of “woman” was also described as being inferior, weak, and immoral, and that probably didn’t feel good to the cis women in the class. But I don’t know if they felt as deeply othered as I did, if they read Frankenstein and thought, “I am Frankenstein’s monster.”
I related to Frankenstein’s monster much more than any human characters in the novel. As a trans autistic person, I know what it’s like to feel strange and alone in the world, like nobody else is like you and no one will ever understand you. Victor Frankenstein thinks that he animated dead matter into a horrible semblance of a person. But as I read the book, I couldn’t help but think that Frankenstein’s monster is a person. He eats and sleeps and longs for love and companionship, and he never gets what he wants. And because of that, he dissolves into rage and murders the family of the creator who rejected him. His loneliness is what makes him a monster. He has no place in any community, so he never feels like a real person.
And that’s the way I felt in that class. I felt like the monster, cobbled together from a motley assemblage of parts–female body, male brain, non-binary mentality–and fused into an inconsistent whole that would never find true acceptance or understanding. I could never change my chromosomes, after all. I could never become consistent, no matter how hard I tried.
And I felt agonized, betrayed by an educational system that was supposed to nurture me and accommodate me and make me feel safe. And I wanted to cross my arms above my head and smash my XX chromosomes down onto the culture that made me feel like I wasn’t human. I wanted to use my XX’s to cross out every transphobic remark I’ve ever heard, the ones still percolating in my mind and bubbling up at the worst of times. I wanted to sharpen all the points on my XX’s and hurl them like throwing stars into the detached intellectualism surrounding me until it bled as much as my self-esteem was bleeding.
Let me make another thing clear: I don’t give a damn about biology or anatomy. I don’t care what my biological sex is. I don’t give a damn about the intellectual cisgender boys who have told me that having breasts and a vagina made me female, as though I was somehow unaware of my own body parts. (Oh, really? I have a vagina? I’d never noticed that before! Thanks for calling me on what my real gender is!) And I certainly don’t give a damn about being medically accurate when medical terms are laced with societal assumptions and norms. How can people delude themselves into thinking that words like “female” and “male” are ever going to be gender-neutral, purely scientific terms?
Laverne Cox once said that calling a trans woman a man is an act of violence. I wondered as I sat silently in that class if violence was being committed in that moment, with students talking in mild tones about how bodies like mine were women’s bodies. But I felt like I was being attacked. And maybe erasure is violent too. Maybe making someone feel alone in the world and disconnected from humanity is also an act of violence. I probably won’t ever commit the kind of gruesome revenge that Frankenstein’s monster exacted on his creator. But I am sharpening my XX’s and waiting for the day I can hurl them into the system that made me a monster like him.