So I got edges that scratch
And sometimes I don’t got a filter
But I’m so tired of eating
All of my misspoken words
I know my disposition gets confusing
My disproportionate reactions fuse with my eager state
That’s why you wanna come out and play with me, yeah
– BANKS, Beggin for Thread
The inner Sydney tattoo parlour is hot, and it suits my mood to a tee. The heatwave sweeping across Australia is in full swing, and even for a Whyalla girl it feels oppressive. These vinyl couches aren’t exactly helping either. I’m sweating so much that I’m sliding down in the seat; every time I slip my skirt catches on something and rides up my legs. There’s not a lot I can do to stop the accidental upskirting, but for once I don’t fucking care who sees what. I’m staring at the artwork on the parlour walls, and my attention is drawn to a skeevy cartoon of Minnie Mouse on all fours, giving a blowjob to Mickey Mouse while another Mickey fucks her from behind and the two Mickeys give each other high fives; irritated, I idly wonder why I’m doing this. It’s not the most comfortable situation I’ve been in, admittedly, but I don’t feel any regret. The rage is white-hot and leaves very little room for anything else.
I’ve wanted a tattoo for a long time, and never had the courage to do it. “What if you regret it?” the voice in my head whispers, “Your body will be permanently marked.” Once upon a time I’d have listened, but my body is already marked. I’ve had medical lasers fired at almost every part of my skin to remove the dark, disfiguring hair, I’ve hijacked my own endocrine system to reshape my body and mind from within, and as the tattoo artist holds down my wrist and starts to ink me, I note with bitter amusement that the semicolon tattoo overlays old, faded scars that I carved into my own skin all those years ago.
Yeah, I think we’re past the point of thinking of my body as a blank slate.
I was expecting the tattoo to hurt, but it doesn’t feel like much. Certainly it compares pretty favourably to laser hair removal – or slicing your wrists with a dull blade, I suppose – and I have time to think about my anger and the history that brought me to this point.
I’ve been sitting on a twitter account since 2010, but didn’t do anything with it until April 2018, when I finally worked up the courage to publicly come out and use my own name online. I’d been transitioning for a long time by then. It’s hard to know how put a time stamp on a long, slow process of becoming though. By the “knowing something is deeply wrong” measure I’ve been this person all along, but by another - my willingness to name it for what it is - I was only aware of my gender since 2013. But by the “willingness to show others” measure, it’s much more recent.
By the time I started posting as myself on twitter, my colleagues at UNSW had known something was up for a long time - through most of 2017 I’d been experimenting with different ways of dressing, breaking the rules of how men were supposed to look at work, but not so much that I’d provided an obvious opening for anyone to ask me what was happening. By the Christmas party it was fairly clear though, and that was when I wore a dress to a work outing for the first time. So while I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a coming-out moment, December 2017 is as close to one as I have.
Transitioning hasn’t been the easiest process. Until you try to change it, you never realise how deeply other people’s opinions about your gender have been coded into every social interaction, every administrative system, every piece of documentation that you have. There’s a period I went through when I was - in some respects - largely undocumented. None of my ID matched my own name, none of the photos looked like me at all, and I’d feel like at any moment I’d be discovered as an impersonator, an identity thief stealing a man’s place in the world. As far as the world was concerned, Daniel was a real person with a job, bank accounts, passport, birth certificate, staff card, qualifications, publications, research grants, students, social media profiles, friends, family, medicare card, private health insurance, employment history, rental history, drivers licence, mobile phone, a car, ESTA travel approval, a US social security number, fingerprints, medical history, prescriptions, and a great deal more beside. Danielle? Who was she? What did she have? A small wardrobe, a few people who knew her without him, and a lifetime of terror and hiding. I couldn’t prove I even existed without pretending to be a man.
As the last 40 years or so have demonstrated, I’m not very good at that. Ask anyone.
Piece by piece, I’ve started constructing a documentary record of myself as a person. It’s taken a lot of work to discover what my options are and the processes that I need to follow. I have a birth certificate now. I have two actually, because the South Australian government is awesome and deliberately issues it in two formats, one that formally lists the change of name and gender, and one that doesn’t. The first version is super handy when I need to prove to an administrator that Daniel became Danielle and that they are legally required to update their system accordingly; the second version is nice when I tire of people gawking at the tranny.
Having a birth certificate is a game changer, because everything else flows (often quite indirectly) from that. Using this certificate I was able to update my name and gender marker within the UNSW Human Resource system and get a staff ID card under my own name, complete with the requisite terrible photo, and it’s been interesting to watch how that representation propagates in fits and starts through different IT systems across the university. I even have a new drivers licence now, which should finally put an end to the humiliating process of hotel reception staff arguing over whether the sullen man in the photo is the same person as the woman holding back tears in front of them.
Next week I’ll try my luck with the passport office.
My words can come out as a pistol
I’m no good at aimin’
But I can aim it at you
– BANKS, Beggin for Thread
Fear and Self-Loathing
I had an anonymous twitter account before becoming active on my current one. I didn’t tell anyone who I was, and didn’t include any academic content. It was revealing, and not in a good way. Trans women are quite vulnerable to online harassment, and I’ve had a number of rather unpleasant interactions. From my current vantage as a tenured academic, fortunately, I’m insulated against the worst of it in ways I wasn’t previously.1 I now have almost 4000 scientists, programmers and other “respectable” people following me for other reasons besides the fact that I am a trans woman, and that tends to scare off a lot of the harassers. But not all of them. There are some very big predators swimming in the transphobic waters of twitter, and where they go the little accounts follow. I’ve had a lot of little accounts give me grief on twitter, but when it’s isolated the abuse from them is generally pretty easy to ignore. Yes, it hurts like hell to be called a man and a pervert, it’s creepy when someone starts talking about autogynephilia on my timeline, and it gets into my head and feeds into the self-loathing I’ve been taught over a lifetime… but when it’s just a few random harassers on twitter I can usually shake it off and walk away.
The big fish are a different story entirely. Some of them are openly hostile to transgender people (particularly trans women), but not all of them are like that. Some position themselves as neutral observers of “the trans debate”. They frame their actions as though they are impartial arbiters - and I suspect they earnestly believe that they are neutral - yet somehow they always end up saying things that make it harder for transgender people to win or preserve the few legal protections we have, so not unreasonably trans people tend to see them as the enemy. Because they are.
These people are a nightmare to deal with. Out of fear I’ve tried to steer clear of them but it’s not always easy now that I’ve started acquiring a profile of my own and some of my colleagues are friends with these people. Indeed the whole reason I scrubbed my twitter history last week was that some fucking clown snitch-tagged two of these “reasonable people” into a thread about me just for shits and giggles as far as I could tell. Because my life and my mental health is just a game, apparently.
Maybe I shouldn’t be as scared as I feel when these things happen. After all, I’ve got a lot of followers of my own, and while my follower count is much smaller than that of the people I’m afraid of, it’s not nothing. Yet past history has taught me that I can’t rely on very many of them to be particularly helpful when the bigots arrive. Meanwhile these “very reasonable people” have enormous platforms, and a lot of their followers are transmisogynistic assholes. I’ve seen what happens to trans women on twitter when one of the big fish arrives on their feed - the big fish shows up and says a few somewhat frustrating things and departs. But the needling and abuse from socks and small accounts follows until the target loses patience and says something intemperate. The intemperate tweet is screenshotted and then… strangely… it appears on a big fish’s feed (not necessarily the same one) a little later as evidence of how unreasonable these crazy trannies are.
I have little desire to have that happen to me.
Of course, the pattern doesn’t play out that way every time. Quite the contrary, in fact. During my experience as an anonymous trans woman on twitter I didn’t see it happen all that often at all. Only a small minority of occasions produced that kind of brigading. But it did, and does, happen. So I guess I have to ask, for those colleagues of mine who can’t seem to see the fucking problem you’ve created for me … what probability of massive, co-ordinated harassment would you think is acceptable for your work colleagues to expose you to? How much shit does someone have to pour in your milkshake before you don’t want to drink it?
Today is January 26. Invasion Day. The tattoo is almost healed, but the weather is still fucking hot and my anger hasn’t cooled either. The only thing that has done anything to ameliorate it is reading articles written by Aboriginal people talking about their history, how the pattern of abuse they’ve experienced over the last two centuries has traumatised them as a culture. I don’t feel personally affected by this, though as a white person I feel complicit in how the First Peoples have been treated.
At a personal level though, I feel a debt of gratitude to Aboriginal twitter. I’ve been following a few of their conversations over the last year, and found that – while my situation as a white trans woman is not all that similar to theirs – the language they’ve developed to discuss their anger about White Australia, and what life in the colony feels like to them… well, quietly listening to their discussions have helped me articulate some aspects to my own situation, and I am so deeply grateful for what I’ve learned.
One of the big revelations for me has been understanding how selective the memories of people can be when it suits them. For example, White Australia loves to demand that we remember some parts of our history (look at these tall, pretty ships) but is equally insistent that we forget other parts (don’t look at all those massacres). Colonisation is, as First Nations folk from around the world remind us, a pretty severe form of gaslighting among other things. Indigenous peoples everywhere are told to ignore what they can see with their own eyes, to forget their own histories, to remember the past only in the ways that the colonists dictate. The fact that Aboriginal people do not forget, and have not forgiven us, strikes me as an amazing kind of resistance.
I can’t say I understand what it feels like to be Indigenous in this country, but there are days where I feel like “colonisation” is the right word to describe what has been done to my representation of myself; for much of my life I have felt like nothing so much as an alien in my own skin, forced to understand myself using language designed for the convenience of others.
Selective memory is very much in operation here. Cisgender people love to talk about how accepting they are of trans folks, but their memory seems terribly short to me. They pretend that they bear no responsibility for Rocky Horror Picture Show, Silence of the Lambs or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Often they fail even to see why I might be angry about these things. They want me to pretend that the trans woman serial killer in Pretty Little Liars isn’t just the character of Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense. They want me to pretend I didn’t have to hide my own rape because of what I am. My entire life has been filled with imagery of trans women as prostitutes, serial killers or abusers; with mockery and violence the moment I displayed any sign of femininity; with diagnostic categories like “gender identity disorder”, “transvestistic fetishism”, and scientific papers discussing “autogynephilia”; and yet cisgender people still wonder why I am so skittish and so angry around them? Somehow the fact that they finally removed gender identity disorder from the DSM in 2013 is “ancient history” now and all is forgiven? My, how quickly they forget.
Once the history is erased, the gaslighting can begin. Why is she so angry? Why can’t she talk calmly and reasonably with us? Must be that crazy tranny being crazy again, right? Yeah, well fuck you too.
A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to.
– Project Semicolon
The impulse to get a semicolon tattoo arrived unexpectedly. I was taking the train to yet another painful session of laser hair removal. It was an upper back appointment this time, not my favourite kind. When the laser burns into the space between my shoulder blades it is excruciatingly painful. Additionally, I knew that after that I’d have to brave a visit to Roads and Maritime Services to ask for a new licence; standing awkwardly and shamefully while a nice young man decides whether my gender transition is legally acceptable is not something I enjoy. It wasn’t going to be a particularly pleasant day, and I was already angry after being forced off of twitter, forced to watch in silence while other people discussed my life circumstances and my professional work without me.
The train was packed; and it was an older train so we were all sweltering. A young woman dressed in casual professional clothes was standing in front of me. Despite the heat she wore a long sleeved white blouse, and as she turned the cuff on her sleeve rode up her arm and I saw her own semicolon tattoo. In that instant I was filled with total admiration for her courage and almost burst into tears. I don’t know what had brought her to that point, and I never will, but I still remember how hard it is – how could I possibly forget? – to decide to live when you really want to die
I wanted her courage, so badly. My scars are still there, but they’re so faint now that no-one ever notices them and they don’t look like much more than oddly parallel scratches. I’ve reflexively hidden them whenever I realise they’re showing, but no-one ever really looks that closely – it turns out that keeping your history a secret is easy as long as you have the right motivation to lie. It’s being open about your vulnerabilities that is hard.
I’m still trying to tell those parts of my story, but the words don’t come easily, and it’s hard to perform in front of a hostile crowd. But as the ink bled into my skin, I thought to myself that – while I haven’t yet found my voice – the tattoo is one way in which I can refuse to forget, and to remind myself that I have not forgiven.
Stooped down and out, you got me beggin’ for thread
To sew this hole up that you ripped in my head
Stupidly think you had it under control
Strapped down to something that you don’t understand
Don’t know what you were getting yourself into
You should have known, secretly I think you knew
(Secretly I think you knew)
– BANKS, Beggin for Thread
Not that tenure did anything to stop the gross “mail order bride” incident, which still gives me the creeps months later, and yes, that kind of shit is the reason I won’t attend your fucking conference until you get your act together. You know who you are.↩