FTM: Arriving, No Arrivals

by Sawyer Kemp and Alicia Andrzejewski

“Should I have made a mathematical instrument for [their] face / that [they] might not laugh out of compass.”—John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (1614)

“The [Department of Health and Human Services] argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’”—from Erica L. Green, Katie Benner, and Robert Pear’s New York Times article, “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration” (2018)

In The Duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand expresses a violent desire—to control his widowed sister’s face, her joy, her laughter. The Duchess pays no heed and continues to seek her own pleasure: she laughs, marries, and gets heavily pregnant, over and over again, “out of compass.” She pays for these transgressions with her life.

In the second epigraph, taken from the New York Times, a memo written by the Trump Administration was exposed that expressed a desire similar to Ferdinand’s—to determine, regulate, and control gender identity based on illusory definitions of biological sex, revoking the basic rights that living requires for trans and gender non-conforming people, in addition to the right to being, to joy and pleasure and laughter. (For more on these illusions, and the violence they incite, see Diana Rose Newby’s “Intersex Erasure & the Myth of the ‘One True Sex.”)

In this piece, we address our own experiences living “out of compass,” like the Duchess, like every individual that does not meet the aforementioned memo’s rigid and inaccurate definition of gender. The ways in which our bodies “militate against the obvious and understood” as FTMs are, admittedly, distinct (Menon 9). FTM is an internet acronym that people use to identify themselves as someone who has transitioned, or is transitioning, from female to male, as well as someone who has transitioned, or is transitioning, into a first-time mom. FTM is an identity but it is also a hashtag: a sorting tool that creates a digital community, a grouping mechanism. When the #FemaleToMale and #FirstTimeMom tags collide, an accidental abbreviation of experience is turned into a digital community, and the hashtag becomes an intersection.

The personal narratives we articulate below are meant to explore this intersection, to spill over the circles certain mathematical instruments draw for transgender and gender non-conforming people and mothers. In the spirit of this accidental overlap, we attempt to “reckon fully with the ambiguities of our being” (Rich xxxiv), and to model a back-and-forth exchange in which both parties have agency.

Female/First

Sawyer

I started growing a beard before I ever started testosterone. It wasn’t a full beard connected to the sideburns; more of your classic billy goat’s gruff patch of bristles right along the chin and jawline. My partner would pluck them out for me. We would lie on the bed with my head in her lap, angled toward the light while she quickly yanked each dark mark away. Every hair came free with a tiny, white-hot flash that made my eyes water and left my skin raw. Later, I bought an epilator—a loud, whirring beauty product that rips hairs out on a rotating cylinder. This hurt even worse but works more quickly. The epilator was made of pink-and-purple plastic, colors that let you know it was a product for women, even though it was designed for women who were failing at signaling the proper arrangement of chromosomes and hormone levels, failing the inscrutable biochemical arithmetic of Female.  

One in fourteen women can grow facial hair. It’s not a majority, but it’s not zero.

Our desire to see sex and gender as two stable and separate categories has left us limited, unable to understand the complex interactions of hormones, chromosomes, and independent signifiers of the body.  The drive for greater than two drives a lot of transgender rhetoric. As Leslie Feinberg writes in Transgender Liberation:

Simply answering whether I was born female or male will not solve the conundrum. Before I can even begin to respond to the question of my own birth sex, I feel it’s important to challenge the assumption that the answer is always as simple as either-or. […] The human anatomical spectrum can’t be understood, let alone appreciated, as long as female or male are considered to be all that exists. (7)

Like Feinberg and many others, I felt, and still feel, dedicated to the work of opening up what is allowed within and between the social and scientific categories of “male” and “female.” It took me three years (or twenty-six, depending on how you measure) to decide to start hormones because I couldn’t decide if it was a betrayal of women to stop being one.

Alicia

When I go out in public with my child, I’m often asked, “Is she your first?” I wonder what gives me away, what betrays me. My body, my perceived youth, maybe the way I am holding her—some demonstration of inexperience.

But what gives me away as a mother at all?

When I became pregnant, my body transitioned into “being singular plural,” to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s phrase—literalized it. My body co-existed with another body that never asked to be brought into this world, and neither of us had arrived yet—to motherhood, to the first breath of being here.

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34 weeks pregnant (2017)

The public decided I was a mother when my pregnancy became visible, however. When I started showing, I began to receive the up-down look that wasn’t a conversation. My body was in-between imagined identities—maid and mom? person and mom? girl and mom?—and made people uncomfortable. Because they couldn’t place me quite yet, my bulging belly was either ignored or overemphasized as already mother. My body at least promised the child to be, most evident on Mother’s Day when I was heavily pregnant and countless strangers took great delight in saying “Happy Mother’s Day” to me.

Many pregnancies do disturb the current frameworks through which the pregnant body is imagined and understood, as I have discussed elsewhere. My pregnancy, however, was inherently heteronormative because it confirmed the conflation of femininity and pregnancy—and thus maternity—in the public eye. My pregnancy enacted conformity when people looked me up and down and saw a FTM in the making, saw a woman that privileged “the Child as futurity’s emblem” (Edelman 31).

As a professor who introduced me to queer theory, to resisting reproductive futurity, said, looking me up and down when I was heavily pregnant at an academic conference—“I’m so disappointed in you. You didn’t listen to anything I taught you. I’m so disappointed.” (For an up-to-date list of peer-reviewed studies on gender bias in academia, see Danica Savonick and Cathy N. Davidson’s “Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies.”)

As I attempted to be in-between in the public eye, the aesthetics of my expansion invited comments, concerns, and—yes—disgust based on the assumption “I” should already be, or at least be acting like, a mother. My first discovery as an FTM was that there was little room for becoming, as well as whoever I was before.

To/Time

Sawyer

In California, when you decide to begin hormone replacement therapy, you sign a five page consent form. The form has twenty four individual signature lines to sign. Your initials indicate that you have been informed of the effects of treatment. This includes the ostensibly desirable effects (deepened voice, hair growth); potentially negative ones (male pattern balding, kidney failure); and some that are unexpected. Migraines were one of them. I ask my Doctor, “Migraines?” She explains that some of the items on the list are health trends known to affect men at a higher rate than women, but some are common ailments that happened to be observed during the study.

“So. I’m acknowledging that I’ll be mortal, even though I become a man?”

She laughs. “Basically.”

At times, in the list, it’s difficult to tell which side effects are hormonal factors or social ones. On the Mayo Clinic’s “Health Concerns for Transgender People,” they warn of the negative effects of minority stress. One bullet point lists, “Negative social attitudes and disapproval (social stigma) toward transgender people.” A health concern: other people may hate you. Please initial here.

After my first injection, a friend who had been on testosterone for some time told me, “It goes faster than you realize. You’ll want to keep some kind of record. Take photos,” which is also what people say to new parents. There’s a fleetingness to becoming, to arriving.  Perhaps this drives the obsessive self-documentation. Pictures of growth (hair, muscle, belly) are pictures of the self-arriving. The desire to document incremental change is one of anticipation, joy, and frustration.

A genre of photo is the blurry closeup of a jawline. Hairs may or may not be apparent to the viewer. A genre of photo is the first picture taken with a new chest binder, which the packing insert tells you shouldn’t be worn for more than ten hours a day, but which everyone wears as long as they can stand. A genre of photo is the side-by-side comparison. 1 day vs 2 weeks. 3 weeks vs 6 months. 1 year vs 3 years. Post-T, post-surgery, post-hysto. The gradations between M and F, the T (T for Trans, for Testosterone, for To, T for Tea)—is arriving.

FTMs find each other in the tag because they need a road map. They need to see and be seen. We sign a five page consent form that says nobody knows what will happen to your body, so we make our own centers of knowledge, our own archives of arriving. The space in-between creates excitement and praise in the sympathetic audience, but shame in an unsympathetic one. When I open the grid of FTM selfies, eyes peering out—some smiling but as many angled away from the viewer, cast down, or looking away —I cannot help hearing Silvan Tomkins, “The self lives in the face and within the face the self burns brightest in the eyes.”

Kate Bornstein writes about the neutral space in-between genders in her play Hidden: A Gender. In the play, the characters briefly lose their identity and their markers in the script become “One” and “Another.” The script becomes abstract, Bornstein describes a kind of overlapping textual ballet and the characters try to outrun the eyes “looking at me, […] burning me” while they ponder “the significance of zero.” When I directed Hidden, my actors said they knew exactly what Bornstein meant. One told me, “When you’re in between genders, neutral zero, people either look at you with disgust, or they try not to look at you at all. You become invisible.”

In rehearsal, we trade stories about states of zero. Mine was on a metro taking me from an airport to a conference hotel. The car was packed with scholars talking about my field, but when I turned around and introduced myself, they became quiet. I felt their eyes scrolling over me: my face, my beard, my body, and then back up. That gaze Alicia notes above, that travels down and up—burning through me in silence on a metal tube hurtling through space.

Alicia

For pregnant people, the desire to document is also a rite of passage, monthly pictures taken to track the journey, the “to,” of the body expanding.  The emphasis, however, is on the belly growing larger and larger, the child becoming more and more real to those outside of the experience.

There is something about being read as already-mother, as female, that allows greater access, grants people permission, to your body—strangers, colleagues, and medical professionals. This is perhaps why I resisted pregnancy pictures at first. For medical professionals, especially—the child in my body became their responsibility to care for, which meant monitoring me, taking their own kinds of various pictures, making sure I privileged the child in my day-to-day life.

A particularly unsympathetic doctor, after a high blood pressure reading, informed me I would be induced early. When I asked if I had any say in the matter, he responded with, “If you’re willing to take that risk.” He then described me as “hysterical” in notes I glanced at in a later appointment. My doctors would slice open my body if need be, pump me with drugs to induce contractions, confine me to a hospital bed with wires and other technologies to make sure my traumatized body emerged from the hospital with a child. In other words, it was my doctor’s job to make sure I emerged as the mother my pregnancy promised.

After the child is born, the mother slowly disappears behind the camera, documenting the new life that has arrived. If she appears at all, it’s with her child. I know this because I’m desperate for more pictures of my own mother at my age. I know this because I scroll through the photos on my phone looking for a selfie of me, alone, after my child was born. I come up empty.

Male/Mom

Sawyer

Right now, it is legal for me to change my gender to { } in the state of California and I say { } because, although you can select a box for Nonbinary, we don’t yet know what letter will reflect this identification on the driver’s license. It’s an unknown. Some think it will be an X, but I hate the language of equation when people already spend so much time measuring and dividing and solving for X to find out what we “really” are.

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two months on T (2015)

Right now, according to the state of California, I’m an M although I do not identify as an M. FTM, the hashtag, is capaciousit has practical and elastic usage so that people who may identify with many gender variations can participate in a shared visual FTM desire to document. M, the symbol for a driver’s license, is not capacious. Until California’s nonbinary legislation passed, the form you took to the DMV required a doctor to confirm that your “demeanor” was appropriate. I took an M because { } wasn’t an option yet.

Right now, according to the government of the United States, I am a M but also I am not a Man. A month before the now infamous memo was written up in the New York Times, the federal government changed the language on the passport application page to read “sex” instead of “gender.” This proved to be the first in a wave of language that posits Sex against Gender, citing “science” and “biology” as monoliths but citing no scientists or biologists in particular, indeed, citing over the voices of neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, and sociologists whose work is “clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable” in its affirmation that gender is a system of greater than two.

I’m three years into hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I am told that I “pass” well, although sometimes in the same breath people tell me what parts of me don’t pass. I am arriving but I have not arrived. My voice, they say, or the expressiveness of my face. I experiment. I study. I get more practiced at keeping my eyebrows in place, my lips neutral, at moving my gaze in longer, slower, lateral scans.

Then I decide I don’t want to deaden my face.

Alicia

My pregnancy, unlike so many others, did end in the birth of a healthy child. I have yet to arrive, however, as the heteronormative, archetypal “Mom”—as inherently straight, chaste, selfless, sacrificing, loving, and always available. The person I used to be was not subsumed into the duties, terrors, and joys of being a mother. I do not feel like a mother much of the time.  Perhaps this relates to my inexperience, the fact I am still a FTM, but I often think of Lauren Berlant’s question of “whether ‘adding up to something’ is the best metaphor for justifying having labored” (5). I did labor and give birth, and I am now responsible for a child, but these experiences do not automatically “add up” to being a “Mom.”

The term “postpartum” as a state-of-being speaks more to me than the FTM hashtag, seventeen months later. It conjures a bodily afterwards in my imagination: the cutting of the umbilical cord, the expelled afterbirth, the rendering of intertwined bodies. My pregnancy lingers in my body; it altered my bones. My body expanded and broke open to carry someone. I still feel phantom kicks, fingers grazing my cervix. My body kept “the animal promise,” as Barbara Kingsolver describes it—and paid for it. The child who grew their bones in my body and shared my blood left, and will eventually leave my home and the spaces they inhabit now just as empty—leaving and becoming while I am still, somehow, always, their “Mom.”

I think of motherhood as characterized by parting, the unknown Sawyer conjures above—who am I to my child, her to I, at any given moment? I think of motherhood as the moment the nurse took my child off my chest to weigh and measure her, and I listened to her scream. I think of motherhood as the first time I left for a conference in another state, desperately trying to pump the same amount of milk she was drinking back home and then dumping it. I think of motherhood as the moment in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, when Mia touches her daughter’s back and thinks:

Parents learned to survive touching their children less and less…The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all. (249)

The pregnant person and child. The desperation, the consumption, the pressing, the fusing of bodies that extends into parenthood. I feel and know what it means to have this experience in my body, but what is expected of me as a mother from day to day is much harder to identify with, to manage, to even perform. I swallow a pit that stays lodged in my stomach until I pick my child up from daycare twice a week after writing without her chubby fingers poking at the laptop keys, her little mouth chewing the screen. I try to ignore it, the pit—it’s irrational, but it’s also heavy and sharp, a sediment of shame (created, in part, by the “unsympathetic audience” Sawyer describes above). It exists alongside relief.

The postpartum period gestures toward the body that housed the child even when this person is erased from pictures, from historical memory. In the cultural imagination, a FTM is supposed to emerge out of pregnancy and childbirth like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of whoever they were before, ascending “to” motherhood and maintaining this impossible ideal. I have given birth but have yet to rise. I am still ash, skin, bones, and breath—and many, many things—like my child who someday, I hope, will be able to continue imagining and then arriving at new identities, new spaces, and new freedoms, over and over again.

Conclusion

The cultural imagination defines both maleness and motherhood through normative understandings of sex and gender. FTM is an acronym that suggests, in both cases, that someone has arrived, or will arrive—as male, as mother. An acronym that suggests new people are coming into this world. But these gendered states of being and identifications are unruly. They are bodily; they are performed; and they are often dictated by a public and violent cultural imagination, by people with “mathematical instruments” and compasses that are impossible to satisfy. In writing these distinct and particular narratives, however, what we have discovered is that, to defy the current cultural imagination, we must—instead of what so many loud and vocal people think we should be—arrive over and over again at the many things we are.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2011.

Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw. Vintage Press, 2016.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004.

Menon, Madhavi. “Introduction.” Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Duke University Press, 2011.

Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come. World View Forum, 1992.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford University Press, 2000.

Ng, Celeste. Little Fires Everywhere. Penguin Press, 2017.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton, 1995.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Adam Frank. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Duke University Press, 1995.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. Brian Gibbons. Methuen Drama, 2014.

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