The Boy with the Crooked Smile

Crooked Smile

My fellow patients on the psychiatric unit are certainly an interesting cast of characters. Of course I wonder about their stories, I wonder what combinations of pain and circumstance and bad luck (and maybe good luck too?) have brought them here. And for all of them, I harbor a detached empathy, an impersonal hope that they can find their way back to their lives. Even so, I try as much as possible to avoid interacting with the other patients. Most of the time I lack the energy for superficial conversations. And I lack the imagination required to use small talk as a shield from the reality of our situation, the fact that we’re all here on the psych ward, that the locked unit doors are under video surveillance, that we’re all under the influence of the many multicolored pills we swallow every morning. My personal rainbow is red, white, and yellow.

I avoid the other patients too because many of them seem to have lost appropriate social inhibitions along the way, often spewing rude and abusive comments that I get so tired of deflecting and increasingly less willing to tolerate. I also get so tired of other patients asking my name, mispronouncing it, mispronouncing it again when I correct them, and eventually just inventing their own bastardized version of my three easy syllables because my name is too much effort for them. And finally, I avoid the other patients out of a desperate instinct of self-preservation – it takes all my strength to remain focused on my own therapeutic goals, and I just can’t afford to be distracted by caring too much about anyone else on the unit. They are here for their problems, I am here for mine – I can’t forget that.

Though I intentionally maintain this safe detachment from the other patients, I cannot help but watch them all with involuntary interest. There’s The Watchman, always lurking at the end of the hall where the lights are dimmest, his dark restless eyes seeming always to be fixed on me, the hood of his black sweater drawn up around his face like the cowl of a vigilant monk. And old Abraham Lincoln – the resemblance really is uncanny – who never seems to leave the spindly chair by the courtyard windows, his lanky body folded up like an oversized praying mantis. Sleeping Beauty, who emerges from her room only rarely and wears her hospital gown like an elegant cascading dress, floating through the hallways with a radiant self-absorption and a distended pregnant belly preceding her quiet footsteps. Eyebrows, whose bushy black brows dominate his placid face and create an expression of perpetual confusion, his eyebrows dancing up and down to punctuate each spoken word, each sideways glance, each bite of food. Santa Claws, with his leering eyes and scraggly food-littered beard, his leather Harley Davidson jacket and fingers decked out with silver skulls, hands so grotesquely swollen that the rings are nearly buried by the bulging flesh, his long and fungally discolored toenails scraping the floor like ugly claws. Serene, with coiffed gray hair and deep grooves running down from the corners of her mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy, who complains endlessly about the smell of dust, who marches back and forth across the same few feet of floor holding her diaper in place with both hands, often shouting at nobody in particular, “I just want peace of mind! You have peace of mind! Why can’t I have peace of mind? I used to be a spiritualist, you know. I used to be able to enter the spirt world but I can’t anymore. I just want peace of mind!” (We all ignore her outbursts, no-one here has peace of mind). And there’s The Howler, heard but never seen beyond one brief glimpse of a bare torso twisted across a mattress on the floor of the high-obs room, his chillingly inhuman screams filtering through the corridors at all hours of the day and night.

All of these patients I regard with a carefully cultivated detachment. Except for Cody.* I am drawn to him with a startling and shattering compassion that slices through my cautious distance and makes my heart ache. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is his physical resemblance to my brother – same endearingly disheveled hair, same ice-blue eyes, same roguish youthful handsomeness, same lingering hint of unwashed masculine musk. Perhaps it is my own selfish desire to inhabit such an effortlessly narrow-hipped, broad-chested body, the masculine alignment of his bones and muscles so achingly appealing to my girl-trapped brain.

Or perhaps it is that Cody’s demons are more outwardly obvious than most other patients on the ward. He cannot hide his battles with monsters I can’t even imagine. His blue eyes rarely register the real world around him, focused instead on high invisible shelves that he stretches up to reach, invisible barriers on the floor that he probes carefully with dirty bare feet, invisible companions sitting in the empty chairs beside him. All of his movements are slow and tense and deliberate, coherent only in a separate world the rest of us can’t see. And all these movements are narrated by his ceaseless whispering, too quiet to hear the words themselves, just a soft susurration like butterfly wingbeats. Occasionally he is interrupted from these explorations of his invisible world – quite suddenly his entire body stiffens, his head snaps to the side, his mouth stretches in a soundless scream, and a series of tremors rattle through his rigid slender body until – just as suddenly – his body stills, he blinks, looks around dazedly, and resumes whispering.

Perhaps I am drawn to Cody by a powerful but unfamiliar protective instinct – a parental sort of protectiveness, perhaps, although in my case neither maternal nor paternal – an irrational hope that if I could just fold him in my arms and shield him from the world (real and invisible) then I could somehow absorb his pain and leave him whole. Even if it killed me. I wonder if this is how my parents feel when they watch my struggle with depression. I wonder if I underestimate how hard this might be for them, how strong the instinct to protect and shelter, if this boy I barely know can draw such fierce protectiveness from my cautious heart.

But I think, more than anything, I am drawn by Cody’s smile. I have seen it only once, walking past him in the hallway. He was engaged in a repetitive pulling motion, as though he were dragging something heavy up towards his chest, his whispers seemingly directed at the evidently irksome object. As I walked closer, his hands stilled and his whispers faded and his bright blue eyes met mine – and I could see the crystal clarity suddenly alive behind the blue. The ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth – a tiny crooked smile climbing up and crinkling the corners of his eyes as his head dipped in a respectful nod of recognition. A thready filament of connection hovered between us for a moment – the flash of recognition in his eyes heartbreaking and unmistakable – until suddenly the thread snapped, his eyes dropped downwards, his whispering resumed, and just like that – with all the finality of a guillotine blade – his moment of awareness was abruptly severed.

So now whenever his path crosses mine, I find myself searching his face for that crooked smile, that awareness, that flash of recognition, searching with a desperate selfish reckless caring that takes my breath away. I see you, Cody. I’m here. I know you’re there too. But he remains lost in his world of whispered things.

But he left me one more smile. After breakfast one morning, he shuffled into the dining room two hours late but I’d asked the nurse to save his tray. He attempted to eat at first but quickly lost track of his fork, his gaze drifting off, his whispering more fervent, and began lifting invisible items up off the floor. As he leaned down, the bunching of the muscles in his back was visible through the gap of his hospital gown – hard knobs of vertebrae protruding between the trailing strings he didn’t finish tying – that gap in his gown a green-rimmed sliver of heart-wrenching vulnerability. Then his attention shifted to his paper menu and, slowing picking up a nearby pencil, he began writing. Eventually he abandoned his writing and drifted away – whispering and shuffling – and I could see the scrap of paper he’d left behind. It was a list of names, I’m not sure who they are, scrawled in the overlarge and messy handwriting of a child. Near the bottom, the “r” in Tyler – with unexpected whimsy – was drawn as a stick figure with arms outstretched. Below the names, he wrote two statements: “walking sucks run” and “40 like steves as you say” – not quite nonsense, not quite sense – followed by a pencilled crooked smile. I see you, Cody. I know you’re there too.

*Not his real name.

A perfect smile is more appealing but it’s funny how
My shit is crooked, look at how far I done got without it
I keep my twisted grill, just to show them kids it’s real
We ain’t picture perfect but we worth the picture still
– J Cole (Crooked Smile, 2013)

Magnetic Resonance

This is my brain. You’ll have to take my word for that though – it looks so ordinary, doesn’t it? Just an ordinary brain – a vast and beautiful ecosystem of interconnectivity. The extraordinary complexity of it is somehow diminished by the flatness of the image, the deceptive simplicity of the gently undulating sulci and gyri.

A nurse leads me from the psychiatric unit down through the guts of the hospital to the MRI room. Scrub-clad staff shuffle softly past us, diligent and busy, unnoticed aboveground but vital to the round-the-clock function of this teeming facility. We pass the steamy laundry room, the fragrant kitchen, several silent storage vaults. The hallways are cast in pale fluorescent light with an occasional dull orange flash from the elevator displays. A stripe of faded blue tape splits the corridor in half, faint dusty footprints crisscrossing back and forth across the dividing line. We have entered an entirely different world down here – a dim basement fairy-tale world of medical equipment and quiet footsteps.

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, a technique developed in the 1970s that uses magnetic fields and radio-frequency waves to create cross-sectional images of organs and tissues. I am getting an MRI of my brain as part of the work-up for chronic depression, to rule out possible organic causes such as inflammatory disorders, cerebrovascular anomalies, or brain tumors. All of these are very unlikely, but because my depression has been unusually severe, prolonged, and resistant to conventional treatments, my in-patient psychiatrist wants to explore the possibility of rare underlying causes.

So the nurse rolls my body into the machine and I lay as still as death – movement artifact can interfere with image quality – wth my head in a plastic cage, cranium cushioned by foam pads on either side. The loud mechanical clunking from the machine becomes a visceral thudding din that seems to penetrate right down to my bone marrow. I can force my body into stillness, but I cannot quell the restless activity in my mind as it dredges up fragments of conversations from what feels like a thousand lifetimes: who I was and who I am, things I’ve lost and things I’ve locked away, wise voices echoing in a chamber of despair.

“She is probably the best student I have worked with over the past 15 years I have been in academia.”

“People with great abilities naturally have great successes and great failures.”

“You expect people to behave in logical and predictable ways. But they don’t. Not everything is logical. And that expectation creates a lot of frustration and disappointment for you.”

“You wear your emotions on your sleeve, McMurray. You can’t hide your anger and frustration, even when it’s directed at yourself. That much emotional intensity is intimidating.”

“You are a solution that’s just waiting for a problem.”

“Remember we once talked about finding your way out of the darkness of a great forest?”

“That’s not how it works here, princess…”

Today my psychiatrist tells me that the MRI showed no abnormalities. I ask to see the images – not because I don’t believe him, but because I want to see this brain of mine. On the screen it looks so… grey and calm and normal. I had expected, at least, that the machine would have somehow captured the racing chaos of my thoughts, like headlight streaks in a long-exposure photo of a busy city during rush hour. Or I thought perhaps the image might show a rim of necrotic blackness devouring the grey matter, some kind of visible sign of the darkness in my mind. Or I even half-expected to see a nest of snarling demons ensconced in their cerebral lair, ghoulish grins like candid mugshots of the pain that grips my brain.

Staring at my brain on the screen, this restless mind once more starts sifting through the debris of recent conversations. The technician who said, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a psychiatric unit?” The nurse who asked me about my suicidal intentions and then, after I described my list of lethal methods and the pros and cons ascribed to each, said, “You look really good right now. You seem calm and coherent.” The friends who have expressed their confusion and disbelief when I describe the severity of this depression, “But you sound so normal! You seem like your usual self!” Even my out-psychiatrist who admitted that I seem so composed and articulate during appointments that he initially questioned why we were considering readmission to hospital. My outward composure – sometimes the hard-won result of energy I can barely muster, sometimes simply the only way I know how to be – seems to mask the intensity of my internal pain. And this MRI image feels the same way: it looks perfectly ordinary, composed and coherent, while the agony remains entirely invisible.

“Forgetting pain is convenient, remembering it: agonizing. But recovering the truth is worth the suffering…”
– The Cheshire Cat (Alice: Madness Returns, 2011)

Not Applicable

Not Applicable

A friend sent me that photo of an intake form for a youth program. The list of check-box options in the gender section is highlighted, and the form also provides space for chosen name and preferred pronouns. Compared to so many of the forms and surveys that I fill out on a regular basis, the form in that photo shows an impressive list of gender options – far more inclusive than the standard “M” or “F”, and much more specific in the options offered than even the more ambitious forms that provide “other” in addition to the lonely M and and rigid F.

Some online arenas offer even more inclusive gender options, Facebook for example. Users were originally offered four gender options: male, female, private, or < no answer >. In February 2014, Facebook added a “custom” gender option for users in the United States, which included at least 58 different pre-populated gender options. This update also allowed users to choose their preferred pronouns. Facebook’s decision to expand their list of gender options was highly praised by the trans and genderqueer communities as a milestone of recognition and a beacon of hope. When this change was implemented for users in the United Kingdom in June 2014, the list of gender options had grown to more than 70. In August 2014, Facebook added gender-neutral options to describe family members. In February 2015, Facebook broadened their gender horizons once more, allowing an essentially infinite number of gender identity descriptors by providing a free-form field for users to fill in the blank.

Well done, Facebook. Here’s a round of virtual applause. Compared to paper forms, online forms have more versatility because they are not restricted by physical space. Given the physical restrictions that apply to paper documents, I very much respect the inclusive efforts made by the authors of the form pictured above. They also deserve a round of virtual applause.

Gender: check all that apply. Okay. Reading all the options listed on the intake form, I tried to imagine which ones I would check if I were filling out the form myself. I quickly became confused and frustrated. Every single one of those check-boxes could, perhaps – if stretched a little here and shrunk a little there – apply to me. And yet every single box feels as awkward and ill-fitting as an outgrown T-shirt. Nor was there any combination of boxes that could approximate a more accurate answer. After much fuming and deliberation, I eventually decided that I would check only one box: “other”. And then, on that inviting blank line, I would write “not applicable”.

Not applicable. These words are a defiant slogan for so much of the uncertainty in my life. Not applicable. These words are my defensive withdrawal from the identities it seems that other people understand and claim so easily. Not applicable. These words are a burden of crushing doubt and a window to a world of limitless possibility.

Gender: check all that apply. Gender: fill in the blank. Gender: why is it even included on so many forms? Asking for a person’s gender on a form, seems, in many ways, as irrelevant as asking for their favorite color. Color and gender are both vast supersets that include an infinite number of items, making it impossible – even ridiculous! – to attempt to define the answer within a finite series of boxes or on a single blank line.  Like favorite color, gender is constant and permanent in some people and fluid and changeable in others. Like favorite color, gender means quite a lot to some people and very little to others. And, like knowing someone’s favorite color, knowing someone’s gender tells you nothing about who they really are and merely conjures up in your own mind your perception of the label they chose. Some might argue that gender is directly relevant on forms related to medical or reproductive issues. I argue that even in a medical context, gender isn’t relevant – what IS relevant is the presence or absence of certain organs and the concentration of certain hormones in the bloodstream – haven’t feminists and LGBT advocates been fighting so hard for so long to challenge rigid binary assumptions that tie gender to biology? I would like to see Facebook’s increasingly inclusive effort taken one step further to remove gender entirely from the available fields on a user profile.

It has taken me a long time to develop this provisional (dis?)comfort with the words “not applicable”. And here’s a difficult confession: I don’t understand what gender identity is, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, and I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t even have a gender identity. The chronic physical distress associated with the female features of my body remains the only indicator of gender dysphoria. When I first started exploring gender and considering transition to a more masculine body, I felt so confused and alienated by statements that surfaced so incessantly from famous trans people:

My brain is much more female than I am male. That’s what my soul is.” Caitlyn Jenner

I didn’t have to learn how to act like a man because in my head I’d always been one.” Chaz Bono

“I knew in my heart and my soul and my spirit that I was a girl.” Laverne Cox

“When I was four and began asserting myself as the girl I knew myself to be…” Janet Mock

Similar sentiments echoed from many FTM and MTF blogs. So often it seemed that even in trans discourse, the definitions of “man” and “woman” and “male” and “female” hinged on outdated stereotypes regarding socialized preferences and behaviors. I was left more bewildered than ever, wondering if I even deserved shelter under the trans umbrella given my lack of gender identity. This statement finally resonated with my own aching and unlabeled nonidentity:

“That really begs the question: what is a man? And what is a woman? And how much of that is societal bullshit anyway? None of the labels fit me. None.” iO Tillet Wright

Then I thought that reading about the experiences of people who identify as agender, bigender, genderfluid, genderqueer, and various other non-binary terms might feel more comfortable. But still I felt so estranged from those perspectives. I could not understand what often seemed like such an aggressive gender neutrality:

“I tend to paint my nails if I feel like I am going to be particularly expected to behave like a man. It creates a dissonance with expectations that I enjoy… I shop in the men’s and women’s sections, cobbling together a look that could confound the most attuned gender-assignment identifier from a few feet away.” Rae Spoon

It has never been my intent or my desire to deceive anyone with my androgyny. I also could not relate to the conviction that seemed to characterize many non-binary genders:

My gender is not all that unique or special. My gender is not all that queer or all that different. My gender is not rebellious. My gender is not something you should be jealous of… My gender is not about hating binaries. Really, the binaries are hating my gender. My gender is not about how limiting the binary is, and it’s not about liberating myself or anyone else from any binary… My identity is not about men or women. It’s about me, about how I understand myself, how I live my life, how others understand me, and what makes sense.” Kae

That statement sounds so enviously confident. But I don’t know what any of it means. It became more and more apparent for me that existing labels were, as ever, not applicable.

The comments about gender that have most accurately captured my own confusing experience come not from the trans or genderqueer community, but from insightful people on the autism spectrum. (Jack 2012)

“I was sailing blind through a world full of gender signals.” – Jane Meyerding

“I’ve never seen any purpose for genders. They don’t reflect anything real, since they take “this sex is likely to do this” and turn it into a set of rules, making “likely” into “has to”… and I don’t identify as either because of that. It’s arbitrary and doesn’t fit anything about me.” – BlackjackGabbiani

“i don’t consider myself to have any sort of “internal” gender identity whatsoever – it always feels like “gender” is simply not a valid category in which to place myself. When i see “gender” as a tick-box category on a form, i feel similarly to if, on a form asking for details of a vehicle, it asked for “miles per gallon” when my vehicle was powered by something completely different (and that can’t be measured in gallons), like say solar electricity – i just don’t really consider myself to belong to the category of beings that have gender.” – Shiva

The absence of gender identity, the utter inapplicability of gender as a concept for me, is so eloquently described in those comments. The article also describes how disorienting and painful this experience can be.

“For some autistic people, gender does not easily serve as an available resource for identity… for some individuals, gender disorientation can be emotionally painful and having a term to describe oneself can be tremendously important… the malign persuasion in question here might be the fact that lacking a term or word with which to identify might persuade people that they do not fit, that they are anomalous.” (Jack 2012)

“I’m upset because I feel like there’s no word to describe my gender expression. It’s probably silly to be upset about not having a word for something, but because I don’t feel represented in either straight or queer communities, I do have a desire to articulate what it is that I am.” – Amanda Forrest Vivian

However, even those statements do not incorporate the intense and distressing incongruence between my female body and my brain’s resistance to that body. This physical discomfort combined with the absence of any cognitive gender identity feels impossibly bewildering.

For me, “not applicable” extends even beyond gender to other areas that serve as important aspects of identity for most people. Most standard forms don’t ask respondents to classify their sexual orientation, but those that do almost universally fail to include “asexual” as an option. For example, one study described the survey used to gather data on a large population: “Sexual orientation was assessed with the question: “Which of the following best describes your feelings? (1) completely heterosexual (attracted to persons of the opposite sex), (2) mostly heterosexual, (3) bisexual (equally attracted to men and women), (4) mostly homosexual, (5) completely homosexual (gay/lesbian, attracted to persons of the same sex), or (6) unsure. Respondents were categorized according to their orientation identity as reported in that question.” (Roberts 2012) Had I filled out that questionnaire, I suppose I could have chosen “unsure”, but, in this context, unsure implies not an absence of sexual attraction but simply indecision regarding the other available options. In fact, only 3 out of 8968 respondents chose “unsure”, a mere 0.03%.

A different study specifically investigating the prevalence of various sexual orientations in the British population did include a category to represent asexuality. “The measure of sexual attraction was introduced as follows: “I have felt sexually attracted to…” Six options followed: (a) only females, never to males; (b) more often to females, and at least once to a male; (c) about equally often to males and females; (d) more often to males, and at least once to a female; (e) only males, never to females; and (f) I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” (Bogaert 2004) The results of the study showed that 1.05% of 18 876 respondents reported being asexual (“I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all”). The authors explain, “This rate [of asexuality] is very similar to the rate of same-sex attraction (both exclusive same-sex and bisexuality combined: 1.11%). However, binomial tests indicated that there were more gay and bisexual men than asexual men, and more asexual women than lesbian and bisexual women.” (Bogaert 2004)

Despite this data suggesting that asexuality is not only relatively common (1%) but actually more common than homosexuality and bisexuality among women, asexuality remains largely ignored as a legitimate sexual orientation. I am still hesitant and uncertain about claiming an asexual and aromantic identity, but these words seem like the best available descriptors for my experience. A big part of my difficulty in accepting an asexual or aromantic orientation with any confidence is that there is so much lingering uncertainty: how do you definitively confirm the absence of sexual and romantic attraction without really knowing what those things feel like? An asexual blogger eloquently described this distressing uncertainty:

“Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that, to some degree, asexuality is a provisional identity. Unlike other sexual orientations, which at least have a frame of reference for what sexual attraction feels like, asexual people must rely on guesswork. When other people figure out their orientations, they can look at specific incidents of attraction and behavior. But asexual people have to look for a void – how do you find a void? How can you know sexual attraction isn’t present, if you have no frame of reference for distinguishing it? You have to compare yourself to other people and make your best guess.”  – Anagnori

The authors of the first study that did not include asexuality in the survey (Roberts 2012) note that in their study, “People “unsure” of their feelings were excluded.” Somehow I feel like that exclusion of people who are uncertain about their sexual identity extends beyond the parameters of that particular study and applies broadly to the world at large. Sexual orientation: check all that apply. Sexual orientation: fill in the blank. Sexual orientation: not applicable.

Our culture emphasizes romantic love as a central pillar of happiness and the foundation of family structure. Our culture considers sexual attraction one of the most fundamental traits of being human – indeed, of being animal. Our culture pathologizes the absence of sexual attraction as a medical or psychological disorder. Our culture, while it has become somewhat more inclusive and more accepting of gender diversity, remains doggedly adherent to indefinable and irrelevant distinctions between “men” and “women”. Our culture insists that, while gender can sometimes bend the rules, it can never disappear. When these core beliefs and assumptions comprise the infrastructure of our society, being agender, asexual, and aromantic – imperfect descriptors for me but no better words exist – is an experience of profound invisibility. In most of the categories that my world deems important, I remain: not applicable.

“It’s exactly like a riddle with no answer!”
– Alice (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)



Bogaert AF. Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. 2004. The Journal of Sex Research 41(3):279-287.

Jack J. Gender copia: feminist rhetorical perspectives on an autistic concept of sex/gender. 2012. Women’s Studies in Communication 35:1-17.

Roberts AL, Rosario M, Corliss HL, et al. Childhood gender nonconformity: a risk indicator for childhood abuse and posttraumatic stress in youth. 2012. Paediatrics 129(3):410-41


This post was awarded Tiffany’s Gender-Bender Award for May 2016.

Gender Bender Award Graphic

Proximity and Power

Boxing (1)

I begin by skipping rope.

tap     tap     tap     tap     tap

The rope taps briskly against the floor, slow at first as I warm up, calf muscles clenching and protesting before they ease into the rhythm. I count to 200.

tap   tap   tap   tap   tap

Faster now. 400.

tap  tap  tap  tap  tap

Faster still. 600.

tap tap tap tap tap

The rope just a blur. 800.


Until, breathless, I stop and toss the rope aside. 1000.

I roll my shoulders, loosen up. Start shadow boxing at the darkened studio window, my reflection jabbing back at me with the familiar unfamiliarity that haunts my mirror image. But this time I don’t try to fit those female fragments into a coherent structure – I ignore the body and watch the motion, each movement detached and isolated, mechanical and yet alive with a deceptive hidden power. And I can feel the gratitude snaking through those fluid lines of chest and shoulder, gratitude for this gift of graceful motion.

I pause to wrap my wrists and knuckles. Slip my hands into well-worn gloves, bite down on the velcro strap, jerk my head back to tighten the cuff – the sweaty synthetic taste of it somehow grounding. I turn my back to the window. Now it’s just me, my body, and the bag.

The bag is old and tattered. Several layers of tape mend tears in the fabric. Formerly cylindrical, the sides have been flattened by a decade of heavy beating. I have gained precision in my aim and timing, trying to land my punches on the flat faces as the bag rocks and rotates.

Boxing has been described as a romance of masculinity and as the most dramatically masculine sport. Certainly boxing can be an avenue of aggression and anger and violence. But this – right here, this moment – this has nothing to do with masculinity. This has nothing to do with anger. This has nothing to do with violence. It has everything to do with peace: finding peace in the strength and stamina of a beautiful body that my brain so often refuses to accept.

I am the only female-bodied person in the gym. I can hear loud groans and heavy grunts from the men lifting weights across from me, perhaps from genuine exertion but more likely from their sense of entitlement, their unquestioned privilege to demand attention and invade even the auditory space. But my space – my sweaty ring around the swaying bag – is silent up until the split second of contact.

The sound of each strike cracks the silence. The impact of each punch echoes through my body as I pull back to hit again. The lyrics of this music thrum through my mind and hum through my muscles.



Shuffle back
One two
Rear hook

Head flicks
Sweat flies


Shuffle forward
Sweat drips

Lean in
Leap back


The bag is swinging wildly now. I must have fallen just a little out of tempo. Thinking too much. My body knows what to do if my mind doesn’t interfere. I step forward, cradling the heavy bag in my arms, letting my body absorb its momentum, ushering it gently back to stillness. I hear a cranky metallic clank from the chain suspending the bag. I stay there for another second, my face pressed against the fabric, a rough seam digging into my cheek. Then I shuffle backwards, tap the bag with one curled glove – respect, dear friend – and begin again.

Boxing is not about masculinity.

Boxing is a dance.

Boxing is a dance
of proximity and power,
of precision and peace,
of silence and space,
of gratitude and grace.

Our lives
Are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss
The… dance…
– Garth Brooks (The Dance, 1989)

The Madam and the Gentleman

The Madam and the Gentleman (1)

I was inspired to write a Genderland version of The Walrus and the Carpenter (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871). 

The madam and the gentleman
Were walking through the trees.
Or were there two gentlemen?
Two madams, possibly?
So matched were they in character
And wit and empathy.

It was only where the leaves
Grew sparse that you could see
His breadth, her breasts, such superficial
Difference in anatomy.
But still their voices rose and fell
In lovely harmony.

Said he to her, “My dear, it’s grand
To have a friend at last.
I hate to let myself remember
Such a lonely past.”
Joining hands, they walked along,
Barefoot on the grass.

Said she to him, “It cost your rib
To make me as I am.
So to you, I give a name – I think
It should be Adam.”
They shared a smile, hand in hand,
The gentleman and madam.

The sun began a slow descent
A wind blew through the trees
Said he to her, and pulled her close,
“I shall call you Eve.”
Their arms around each other dulled
The coolness of the breeze.

Side by side they passed the night
And woke to beads of dew
Shining softly on their skin.
He said, “I dreamed of you.”
They stood and shook the dewdrops off.
She said to him, “Me too.”

“We are together when we dream
And also when we switch
To consciousness,” said she to him.
“I can’t tell which is which.
Both are paradise, it seems
I am pleasantly bewitched.”

Awake and warming in the sun
They wandered hungrily
Along a narrow winding path
And found an apple tree
With burdened branches stretching out
As far as they could see.

They marvelled at their fortune.
“What good luck,” he said.
He reached and plucked an apple
From just above her head.
It hung there, heavy in his hand,
Shiny, ripe, and red.

She reached too but pulled back, startled
By a toothy emerald grin.
Along the bough, a serpent slithered
Small and green and thin.
It said, “Go on and take a bite
One bite is not a sin.”

“But,” it hissed, “if you do bite
This is what I’ll do…”
Its restless tail twitched back and forth.
“I’ll make a list of rules
That will divide your perfect pair
Into a separate two.”

Said she to him, “I shall not bite
For us, I really daren’t.”
But he pressed the apple to his lips
His appetite inherent.
The serpent hissed in satisfaction,
Its victory apparent.

Hunger sated, horror dawned, he said
“What have I done, my dear?
I’ve consigned us to convention
For all the coming years.”
She sadly sighed and shook her head
And shed a bitter tear.

To him, the snake said, “You must always:
Defend your fragile pride.
All your affection and compassion
You will be forced to hide
Behind anger and aggression and
Your bulging muscle size.”

To her, the snake said, “Your rules are:
You cannot upstage him.
Be meek and mild and obliging
So you do not enrage him.
And above all, mark my words,
Your beauty must engage him.”

The serpent, sly and treacherous,
Alive for centuries,
Hissed and blinked its beady eyes
The better for to see
These two friends lose each other
In archaic binary.

Said she to him, “How can we now
Ever stand a chance?”
They felt the weight of expectation
Pushing them askance.
Resigned and rueful, their eyes met
In a final silent glance.

Now the madam and the gentleman
No longer hand in hand,
A sneaky snake that whispers lies
To a woman and a man,
And a poisoned apple tree are all
That’s left of Genderland.

Not A Simple Question


There are numerous articles and blog posts discussing the many ignorant, intrusive, and inappropriate questions that are all too often aimed at transgender people. These articles are on popular websites (Everyday Feminism, BuzzFeed, Astroglide, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, Autostraddle), as well as on personal blogs written by trans people (janitorqueer, American Trans Man, Matt Kailey’s Tranifesto). There are even artistic projects devoted to this issue (A Series of Questions). There are differences within the trans community regarding willingness or unwillingness to answer these types of questions, depending on their relationship with the asker, the context in which the questions are asked, their desire for privacy, and the extent to which they want to educate others. I will not rehash what has already been discussed so extensively on other sites.

But, from here in my small corner of the internet, I would like to add something to this ongoing conversation. This is a question that I have not seen mentioned in any of the existing articles, but one which I have heard multiple times and have always found difficult to deal with:

“Which is harder, coming out as gay or coming out as transgender and going through transition?”

In my more generous moments, I want to believe that people who ask this question are making an honest attempt to use an experience they think they understand (coming out as gay) to provide a frame of reference to help them understand an experience that seems more foreign (coming out as trans and going through transition). In a neutral frame of mind, I might view this question as the idle curiosity of an interested audience. But I cannot ignore the dismissive presumption inherent in that question, the way those words reflect a simplistic desire to neatly rank and categorize unfamiliar experiences along a linear scale of difficulty, the way those words erase the incredible diversity of individual experiences with the assumption that one person can speak for everyone who is gay and everyone who is trans.

So whenever someone asks me that question, I feel an odd mixture of anger and resentment conflicting with my effort to be tolerant and give them the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions. I could choose not to answer the question. But so far I have always chosen to answer, because my desire to be understood exceeds my desire to disengage.

“Which is harder, coming out as gay or coming out as transgender and going through transition?”

This is what I say to people who ask me this question: I think the question is irrelevant and impossible to answer. Each person’s situation is so different. The challenges each individual faces and the distress they experience are dependent on so many complicated factors: their social support system, their home and work environments, their personality, concurrent physical or mental illnesses, economic status, race, perceived gender, the list is long. And I think perhaps one of the most powerful factors influencing LGBT experiences is a person’s own acknowledgement and acceptance of their sexuality or gender identity. The internalized homophobia and transphobia generated by a lifetime of societal conditioning can create such deeply entrenched and overwhelming shame – shame like a slow-burning bonfire that eats away at the edges of your soul until you are entirely consumed by the raging heat.

Speaking only for myself: the constant physical dysphoria that comes from living in a female body with a brain that resists this body so intensely – this incongruence made so glaringly evident in every mirror, every motion, every moment – and the physical effects of the hormonal and surgical aspects of transition are a notable difference between my experience and the experiences I’ve heard gay friends describe. The physical aspects of gender dysphoria and my fears and uncertainties about the medical aspects of transition are more disturbing to me (though no less important) than my fears about the social repercussions of transitioning.

Speaking once more for myself: despite the physical distress that is so painful, my journey so far has allowed me to accept gender dysphoria, authentically and shamelessly, as part of who I am. My shame has stopped burning and now I sift through the ashes to reassemble the charred pieces of myself. And though my landscape still looks bleak and scorched, I get to decide where I go from here. This acceptance has given me an extraordinary freedom that many trans people and gay people have not yet achieved if they remain burdened with shame or denial. For this part of my experience, I have the utmost gratitude.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question.”
– The Gryphon (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)