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.

taptaptaptaptap

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.

Jab
Crack

Jab
Crack
Cross
Crack

Breath
Shuffle back
One two
Rear hook
Crack

Breath
Head flicks
Sweat flies

Jab
Crack
Cross
Crack
Jab
Crack
Uppercut

Breath
Shuffle forward
Breath
Sweat drips
Breath

Lean in
Leap back
Duck
Jab
Crack
Jab
Crack
Jab
Crack
Cross
Crack

Breath
Breath
Breath

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.

I Doubt It

I Doubt It Shower (1)

I had been dealing with depression for several years before I started exploring gender transition options. Of course, the distressing incongruity between my female body and my brain’s non-female body map had been extreme and persistent since puberty, but I tried so hard for so long to suppress those feelings, to attribute them to the body image disturbances that characterize anorexia nervosa or dismiss them as an unusual form of gender-centered vanity. So it was not until more recently – thanks in large part to perceptive suggestions from an observant friend – that I learned about gender dysphoria and started considering transition in a personal context.

When I first became aware of these options, I felt an immediate and expansive euphoria, an ebullient optimism that inflated me with such promising possibility. I believed that I had finally found The Answer to so many of my life’s uncertainties. I believed that transitioning – in a straightforward black-and-white line, from ugly A to perfect B, from female to male (whatever I thought those words meant then) – was The Solution that would fix all of my problems.

Buoyed by this excitement I began researching transition options, poring obsessively over online trans forums and frantically downloading research papers from PubMed. Very quickly I encountered cautionary statements – in scientific studies and trans peoples’ own stories – urging those of us considering transition to have realistic expectations about how transition may affect our life and reminding us that transitioning will not solve every problem.

“Overall, participants’ evaluation of the treatment process for sex reassignment and its effectiveness in reducing gender dysphoria was positive. It was described as a ‘‘challenge’’ or a ‘‘long and difficult road’’ that was worth taking because of its positive implications on future life, at the end of which not everything was different or better without limitations.” (Rupin 2015)

“Don’t expect transitioning to solve all of your problems. Transitioning is not a panacea – it won’t solve all of your problems. If you were prone to anxiety before coming out, you’ll probably still have to deal with it afterwards. At some point in my transition, I came to terms with the fact that living as my true gender wouldn’t magically fix everything. And it felt really good to let go of that impossible expectation.” – Annika

So I started to examine my own expectations about transitioning. This process began very gradually, my original optimism tempered but preserved. But as I delved ever deeper into myself, as I came to recognize – with a terrifying emptiness – that I do not have any cognitive sense of gender identity (just the physical distress associated with female anatomy), and as my long-standing depression spiralled ever further out of control, I started asking myself with a haunting and repetitive urgency: how much does gender dysphoria contribute to my depression? How much can I expect transitioning to alleviate this complex distress? These questions quickly gathered a frightening momentum, eliminating one by one every hopeful expectation I had about transition, culminating in a crushing avalanche of doubt about whether my gender dysphoria was even worthy of continued acknowledgment.

So often I would reach the end of the day and reflect on the past 16 hours, wondering what would have been better if I had lived the day inside a male body. Usually the answer that I gave myself was that very little would have changed, perhaps a few accidental mirror glimpses – always that initial flash of confusion as my brain works to reconcile reality with expectation – those mirror glimpses might have been less unpleasant, sure, but nothing else would have been any better. So why bother with transition then? Why bother with all this gender nonsense at all?

But in the moments when depression loosens – ever so slightly – its death-grip on my mind, in the moments when I feel a lucid clarity open up like a window to the world, I wonder if perhaps I underestimate how deep this dysphoria extends, if I underestimate how extensively the brain numbs itself to daily pain after a lifetime of unabated agony. And in these moments I can relive the day with more precision, sailing through the same sequence of events, but this time in a masculine vessel. It seems a lot would have been better.

On the squash court –
The squeak and shriek of sneakers on shiny varnished floor –
I could have worn shorts without feeling so self-conscious of my girl hips, I would not have been so painfully aware of my small shoulders dwarfed by the broad backs of male opponents, I would not have felt such desperate pressure to overcompensate with wins to prove that I deserve to play among men.

Standing outside in the summer sun –
The far-off chirp of cheerful birds and the low buzz buzz of busy bees –
I could have escaped my sweat-sticky sweater, an all-season mask concealing the feminine swell of my chest, and I could have instead felt the sun kiss the skin on my bare arms, I could have let my eyes wander as they wished without so consciously averting my gaze from the girl-shaped shadow on the ground.

In the shower –
Warm rivulets of water draining down over all the parts that I pretend do not exist –
I would not have had to cloak myself in darkness, I could have soaped my bristly legs without thinking automatically that I should shave them, and stepping out afterwards I could have wrapped the towel around my waist and seen my face and my bare chest in the mirror and not had to look away.

Driving in my car –
My hand on the shift stick and wind breezing in through the open window –
I would not have had to angle the rearview mirror just so to avoid that quarter-slice of girl-face when I glanced upwards, I would not have had to tug my jacket down low enough to hide the width of my hips in the seat, and I could have sung along more freely with the radio with a deeper voice vibrating through the lines of my jaw.

Pulling on my pants in the morning –
The rustling of fabric and the brisk zip of the fly in chilly pre-dawn dimness –
The flatness of the crotch would not have been such a mocking emptiness, the snugness of the pants over my hips and thighs would not have been such an excruciating reminder, and when I looked down I would have seen a man in jeans instead of a girl in men’s jeans.

Sitting typing like I am now –
Quiet clickety clack, clickety clack, rat a tat tat –
I would not have to feel the tight X of bra straps across my back, I would not have to notice how my wrists and fingers on the keyboard seem so slight and feminine, and I would not have to be afraid of seeing my face reflected back at me in the laptop screen.

With all of that, how is it possible that I still doubt whether I should transition? Such doubt this is! It only seems to multiply as my mind paces the same well-worn path through the same worn-out questions. This doubt is an aggressive beast that feasts on self-reflection.

“Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
– Tweedledee (Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)

————

References

Ruppin U, Pfäfflin F. Long-term follow-up of adults with gender identity disorder. 2015. Archives of Sexual Behavior 44(5):1321–1329.