This is the blog post that I never wanted to write, but I owe it to all genderqueer and trans* writers and readers out there. I’m hoping that my experience may serve to make the “community” a safe place for us – others like me. At present, I don’t know if the aftermath of this – action, reaction, consequence, if I understand correctly – will allow my Muse to survive. After this, I frankly don’t know if I’ll have the strength to go on writing using this name and this identity. This Self.
I’ve taken most of this from an email I sent a prominent blogger. I’ve changed names to protect the innocent and the guilty both.
I could quite literally write a book about my experiences and my thoughts on the matter. If something almost kills you, it's bound to provoke some Heavy Thinking. So apologies as this is going to be long.
I did not want to get involved in this at all. I've been "outed" several times on the internet. A former co-writer of mine who's seen me in RL has repeatedly outed me. I have been referred to on the internet as "one vicious tranny". A gay guy I've met in my London-based writing group has only recently outed me to a violently hateful group, then added smugly that he was now going home to "have real gay sex".
These experiences are rather typical, I'm afraid. It's why I only meet people in person as a writer who I trust to not go out there and tell the world who I "really" am (as we can see, my judgment is less than perfect - friends can turn to enemies rather more quickly than I like, especially when writers are involved).
Refusal to Heed the Call
This is not to accuse. I feel awful for first trying to stay invisible and secondly trying to ignore it, while my trans* friends were/are suffering because they are "out" about their status, while I was busy telling myself "I'm a writer, not a human rights activist".
Yeah, I guess Ezra Pound was just a poet, too.
The loss of "safe space" thanks to the rabid hate mob is probably at the core of the issue why I've put my stuff on hold. I originally bought into the myth how "tolerant" and "accepting" "our" "community" is. Well, it is, if you're gay and physically, born, genetic male. There's a worship of the cock going on I find a little disturbing.
Regardless - one thing I believe is incredibly important in this debate is to drive home - in some minds at least - the difference between "coming out" and "passing".
Crossing the First Threshold
For sexualities other than straight, "coming out" is a traumatic, cathartic rite of passage, that, yes, creates that "gay identity", which from then on is visible. I was very relieved when I realized, actually, I'm bisexual, and it’s OK to be that. I can love a person rather than a set of genitals. Being bi is, obviously, being under a "general suspicion" of cheating and being generally not trustworthy. Many lesbians tell a bisexual woman she's not "real" because she got her rocks off - even once - with a guy. Many gays call a bisexual man a "gay in denial". I do believe I never deceived anybody about my sexuality. I've gotten my rocks off with trans* people, with men and women, and it was fun every time. I'm not ashamed.
But yeah, "coming out" usually means that the enormous pressure that non-straight people live with is lifted. Wow, suddenly you float. The thing that made you consider suicide? Gone. People actually still smile at you. Some even call you brave - what a boost after you've spent most of your life cringing away and hoping that people will leave you the fuck alone, or at least not look into your head.
Now, "passing" is different. Trans* people live with this enormous pressure, but it never leaves. It's a miracle I'm alive. Between 16 and 21, I was constantly considering suicide. Then my mother died a painful, drawn-out death from cancer. And I thought "okay, throwing away a healthy, functional body is a waste and who are you to end your life when others are desperate to draw even one more breath and don't have that choice?"
Every time I considered suicide, I would remember my mother's face, just wisps of her gorgeous rich mahogany hair left, the skull visible as a herald of impending death, as she was weighing only 80 or 90 pounds. Who am I to kill myself when I'm healthy and not physically suffering?
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Then the internet. Online communities. I chose a neutral name (vashtan) and realized there's freedom in that. I've kept vashtan's gender neutral - I did not want to "deceive" anybody. Ever.
My first publications. Getting AlexANDER W. added into my German passport? HUGE rush. Unspeakable relief. The front was still lying, but the back - oh, the glorious back, the bit under "Pseudonym or Religious Name" - it finally spoke the truth. I'd become, legally, in a small part, black-on-green, Alexander W., ridding me in one fell swoop of a last name I've inherited from a wife-beating rapist father AND the wrong gender.
I was Alexander. I couldn't wait to tell everybody. The bloom rounded, tightened, seams began to appear. It was ready to burst.
I read everything about the issue. MTFs, FTMs, Intersex, intergender, trans*, genderqueer... suddenly I had words for that deep-seated unease that told me my very BONES were all wrong. Suddenly the "wow, YOU are a real man." Suddenly, all my games as a child - always the knight serving the lady, always the fighter, the bodyguard, the protector of the weak - suddenly made sense. Why even as a small child I bristled when somebody called me a "pretty girl". I wasn't. I was a boy. Imagine the heartbreak when boys at some point told me I couldn't play with them because I had long hair. I liked my long hair. I wasn't ready to give it up so I could play with the other boys. Non-conformist to the end, I guess. Boys had short hair, I refused to fit in, hence I was ousted.
Thus expelled from the boys, I tried to join the girls for company. They told me I was a boy - wild, physical, competitive. I also didn't give a toss about the current crush on some boy band. I just wanted to belong somewhere.
I didn't. I found, in the end, a bunch of outsiders who'd hang around me, because I had cool ideas and made up fun games. We were still the outsiders on the playground, but we were at least damned well entertained.
When my body developed, I prayed for it all to go away. I think the reason why I'm still here is largely because of one of the most powerful characters I've ever had. Silvio basically told me I was being a dumb asshole for staring at the pills in my hand and that my vertigo should at least keep me jumping from that bridge. Through all that, I've had friends (who had no idea - as far as they were concerned, I was just a bit of a tomboy), but as we've seen through things like Trevor and It Gets Better, friends sometimes aren't enough. I was a firm believer in reincarnation, but something always held me back from "trying again", as I called it back then. Reload. What's your return policy, universe?
For whatever reason, the male persona I built (or, arguably, that I am) helped me cope with the increasing pressure. Somebody calling me "Mr. Voinov" (which is just a translation of "Herr W.") takes the pressure off. It makes me smile, but there's always a tang of pain in it, too. Calling me "sir" is like if somebody tells you you're gorgeous and actually means it.
I'm coming back to "passing" now. To a trans* person, "passing" as his/her real gender is - unspeakably liberating. Suddenly, the pressure around you eases. You can BREATHE. You can even be yourself. I can't count how often I've been told I write "masculine", or even "hyper-masculine". I was told, when I started out, to write under a male pseudonym, as "the female style" is different - and women prefer books written by women, especially historicals. Or: "What woman cares about war, soldiers, or politics? They want woman issues." (Which, presumably, is about courtship, het sex, child-rearing and covering their husband's flank.) This drove me away from trying to make it in the historical mainstream - I never managed to get my head around "woman issues" - talk about biographical blocks.
Reward/Seizing the Sword
Fast forward a few years. Passing for male has quite literally enabled me to be a productive, positive member of human society. Give what I have to give - mentor, teach, give and write. I can give these because the pressure was off, the pressure keeping me contained, pressuring me into something I am emphatically NOT. If you expend all your energy fighting other people's perceptions, you have no energy left to do the important stuff, the constructive stuff.
Under such considerations, things like "I'll sell five more books if people believe I have a flesh dick dangling between my legs" aren't just laughably trivial - they don't even register. I've heard people say that they prefer women-written books to mine because "Voinov is clearly a male writer - like all of them, it's all heartless sex and violence, he just doesn't "get" romance." Some way of "passing", that! (But, hell, I take it.)
The thing is, tearing our protection away - negating our "passing" - is as traumatic as if a jeering mob out on the street were ripping your clothes off to laugh at the shape of your breasts or labia or dick and balls. I can't possibly express the amount of distress that my trans* writer friends have felt over the mob's desire to rip their clothes off. As far as I'm concerned, I have bigger balls and a bigger dick than a huge amount of born and bred males.
My sense of honour and personal integrity made me step up in defense of my trans* friends, most of whom have been bullied into submission and are scared of being made a target next. We'll all been there before. Most gay guys consider us women (I've heard some of the most vile, trans* phobic comments from gay men) – most women consider us women and do everything in their power to help society re-assert the gender binary. (Those are generalizations - I've encountered a lot of extremely supportive women of all stripes.)
While most gay men laugh us off as "not real men" (like I have to assert my masculinity to every gay man out there - even those I don't want to sleep with!), many women are truly vicious - "how dare she!"
I've always held the belief that the female hostility to trans* people is really a loathing of the traditional female role. Tearing our clothes off in public is a way to act against the "unlawful claiming of a more liberated gender". Men ARE more powerful in this society, and trans* men are seen as those refusing the female gender (while, in actuality, we're not refusing anything - it's not what we are and most of us feel an extreme disconnect to any perceived female role). We're damaged, freaks, deficient. Worse, we're cheaters, liars, impostors. We're claiming the "male privilege" not to be belittled, and maybe we even end up wielding power and authority and have respect. Yeah, how DARE we.
Some of us shrink away under the onslaught of hostility and pressure, cringing. So at war with ourselves, few of us are strong enough to fight against ourselves AND against the rest of the world. ONE of those battles is plenty.
Every time a specific prominent blogger attempts to out the most high-profile male-representing author in our genre, I want to rip her head off. Has nobody ever considered that this writer is actually who he says he is? Or would the fact that he's a prominent, visible, highly successful - and much-loved - writer in the genre have anything to do with it? The message to us trans* writers is, very much: Don't stick your head out, or we'll chop it off. Beyond a certain level of success, people are envious enough to jump on anything that makes a person vulnerable.
The Road Back
Frankly, I knew that launching Riptide would potentially "blow my cover". Who on earth is interested in trans* literature but a trans* person - and who at Riptide is clearly NOT a female? The fact that I'm being represented by an avatar, the fact that I'm not answering questions about my gender (and many tried asking them, which tells me it's something people feel they have a right to know about in detail) or what I think about women writing gay sex, or whether I get turned on when writing sex (yeah, sweetheart, want the number of inches too?) - all that immediately sparks suspicion.
The more visible I am - the more interviews I've given - the more that old pressure has come back. I've been told I'm too "soft", or "too gentle", or "too understanding", (or "too nice/generous") that a specific turn of phrase is feminine - up to my use of emoticons. People are scrutinizing everything I do - on Twitter, Facebook, there were people even re-posting blog entries from LJ that I've locked away to be only seen by friends. The pressure was mounting. Clearly, being anything but female draws suspicion, but I refused to be driven into neurosis by it. I am who I am, who I say I am.
The whole debate never considered the trans* issue. Just look at the words used: It was always "women parading as men", "women appropriating gay identities for gain and profit" or "women lying/cheating because they are sociopathic liars". It's like you're walking out in the streets, and suddenly, everybody's clothes are being ripped off and the crowd inspects us, naked, whether we pass. The border controls in the US are so intrusive that many US-based trans* people have stopped travelling. *I* am not going to fly to the US because I don't want some guy give me a body cavity search. The trans* body is more delicate, more complicated and a hell of a lot more fragile, even if you're built like an American Football player.
But while the debate went that way, us trans* writers were incapable of stopping it. Everybody speaking out on behalf of trans* writers knew that they would have their identity questioned. I was incredibly reluctant, because not only did I do a good job of "passing", but because I never saw myself as an activist for anything (I believe most of society's ills would go away if people were holding themselves to higher moral standards and realize that serving others means serving yourself).
Basically, I didn't want to open myself up to the trans* phobia out there - I didn't want my gay friends to suddenly consider me as a "transman", which always means "not real man" (talk about worship of the cock) - always. Once that "trans* is attached, it conjures up images of a more or less believably mutilated female body, a more or less healthy mind inhabiting it. By being "trans", we're "less". Less strong, less healthy, less male or female. From "male" or "female", we turn into "not quite" and "less" in society’s perception.
I also didn't want to speak on behalf of trans* writers. We're still all individuals, and while I know at least, off the top of my head, 7-8 genderqueer/trans* writers – and boy, their talent, how much they have to give this community that hounds them so! - I'd never claim any kind of leadership here.
Basically, I was “passing” and working behind the scenes. Every trans* writer out there knows my status. I've encouraged writers to write and share their stories (rather than lock them away for fear of BEING VISIBLE and hence VULNERABLE), telling them the community was "safe"; people were "different here". Oh hell, was I wrong, and as the lynch mob of the M/M Goodreads Group and a number of bloggers and HUNDREDS of bigoted commentators descended upon us, my heart bled for my friends who went out there and fought or hid under the same old stone of crushing guilt and self-doubt.
It's not that we don't want to be "out" - I admire both Danny Juris and Bryl Tyne for the way they go out there and represent. My choice was different. I worked behind the scenes, working subtly, helping trans* people (you start to recognize them after a while, it's like gaydar, also, I'm really good at reading people), supporting my brothers and sisters, while still "passing" as male to a society and community I simply didn't trust to "get" it. Get me (yeah, and tell me I was wrong… I was not).
I simply refused to write emails or blog posts like this one I'm writing right now to every person out there emailing me who’d doubted what I told them. Doubted my integrity over the use of a pronoun – a use that has kept me sane and productive. This is stuff I almost killed myself over – I don't believe somebody paying 3-7 bucks for any given story I've written deserves to know all this or has a right to it, let alone a moral right in the interest of "customer transparency", as the moderators of the M/M Goodreads Group have claimed, to wild cheering and shows of support.
I believe that the exact geography of my genitals is my – very personal - privacy issue. Once you tell people you're trans*, the next question is about when you'll have the operation. My body then suddenly turns into the gore-encrusted battlefield of somebody else's gender perceptions, like it’s not my body at all, like I no longer have any power over it, and can’t be trusted to shape it when and how I want.
At the end of the day, a trans* person is only seen as valid once their bodies conform to what cisgendered people consider acceptably male or female. If you're not having the operation (because the attempt to make a dick always results in something that most trans* men consider laughably inadequate, let alone somewhat gross-looking) - you're not valid. At the very least, people want to know whether I've started testosterone yet. Which is a question like "do you still beat your wife" - once you step onto that battlefield, you can only lose.
I chose to act as I did not to deceive anybody. I did it to find a way to live in dignity. To not spend most of my time and energy fighting a battle I cannot win. You know, because every hour I spend begging for acceptance - from very often bigoted assholes - is an hour I don't spend writing.
I chose to live as a man over explaining - for the rest of my life - why people should please, please PLEASE "allow" me to be a man, if you please, if it's not too much of an imposition, if that's OK with you, sorry to disturb your ideas of male and female a little, there. There, there, let me be invisible instead so nobody gets their assumptions challenged.
I'm a proud man, I've fought and worked extremely hard for what I have achieved. I'm not used to asking anybody for their leave to be what I am. I try to act as an ethical person, supporting my male, female, trans* and queer friends, writers or not. My mother taught me to live my life in a way that I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning, every morning. Whether I look in that mirror while shaving should be irrelevant.
I'm not ashamed of myself, or my friends. I don't believe I owe anybody anything. No born and bred male - or what I call "genetic male" - has to explain why he's a man. And no woman has to explain why she's female. It's just us who are questioned, exposed and harassed the moment we show one weakness, and people react shocked and have the BALLS to be OUTRAGED when we, like a hermit crab, desperately scamper to protect our soft bellies?
I've received so many emails - before I made the blog post – about "who or what are you really"? My policy has always been, if somebody asks me, personally, in private, what I am, I do the "bees and flowers" talk. Not because I don't want to lie, but because I believe people that are actually asking might actually want to know. And I have the hope that once everybody knows at least one trans* person, they will stop harassing the others.
Maybe it's time for the T in the alphabet soup to fight for our rights, but maybe it's clearer now why we don't. It's tearing away our passing, it questions the identity we fought so hard - often against physical violence, harassment, bullying, depression, addiction and all-round derision from men and women both - to build and maintain, as we have to, to have even a shot at sanity and happiness.
I've been tempted so often to tell those people "if you need to know the shape of my genitals, you are not my friend". Which is an, I believe, understandable response, but it's also really defensive.
I don't like hurting people like that. I *still* DON'T WANT TO HURT PEOPLE THAT HURT ME, can you imagine?
Sorry for the long, long, LONG diatribe - I want to make sure everybody understands where I'm coming from, my position, my experiences that obviously shape everything I am and how I respond to the threats to my identity. I've never seen myself as an activist or a figurehead.
I've received an email - from a gay guy - telling me "to come out and be done with it". He felt that my refusal to "come out" was the ONLY thing that drove me out of the genre and this way he wouldn’t be robbed of my stories. There it is - a gay guy who mistakes the roles and energies at work in "coming out" and "passing".
No, it's the prospect of being paraded naked in front of the jeering mob. No catharsis for me. No happy rainbow-flag waving gay family to welcome us. No gay identity to claim for us. All we can claim is visible, exposed, naked, soul-crushing Freakhood.
For me, "coming out" is the closest thing to destruction I've come in six years, after I stumbled, blind with tears (and I never cry), away from the London-based trans*men meeting, and considered whether I should just end it all under the Tube train on the way home. Boy, was that tempting.
I'm still not sure how I should - need to - respond to it all. Do we trans* writers NEED a figurehead? Do I owe anybody to come out as a deficient male? Do I have to turn myself into a martyr for the baying mob, just because I'm writing some sexy, plotty stories about how people survive adversity and find love and redemption?
Do I owe it? Do I want to read a hundred comments pouring down the hatred of me and my kind when Dear Author posts "Aleksandr Voinov Comes Out as Trans Writer" [Please, Dear Author people, don’t use the word “she” or “her” when you do. Just this, please?]; do I deserve to be counted among those who are “Faking It” to quote the title of a blog post on Jesse Wave’s m/m review blog? Do I?
I'm not a Trans Writer. I'm somebody who, barely, survived the journey to be male, with most of my dignity intact. I have toughened myself up enough to not flinch anymore at "vicious tranny". Like a young guy who hears "faggot" the first time, "tranny" makes me flinch. But if you keep hearing it, you stop flinching. The vicious thing about such words is that it takes a lot of flinching before you can embrace a word like that.
I don't want to fight. I don't want to spend the next years - or even the rest of my life - explaining over and over why I'm a man and not a defunct female, why I'm a man, not an impostor.
But there are kids in my community – in my true community, my true family. One little guy from Finland whose blog posts (I see them on LJ) are all about how he can't stop vomiting from the stress the community is under. Somebody who clawed his way back to sanity and has repeated told me I’m an “inspiration” and he loves me. Do I owe it to Oleg to "come out"? Should I take the barbs and arrows and poison? Should I, being strong and dignified and, as yet, unbroken, step forward BECAUSE I am strong? Do I owe people a chance to break me, in public, humiliate me and deride my writing as that of an impostor? How many emails will I get that express people's disappointment in my "deceit"? Do I stand even a remote chance to explain all this while keeping my honour and dignity intact?
Those are the main questions right now.
And now that I’ve done it on my blog, will I flinch at "vicious, deceitful tranny" comments or can I take it, chin held high?
And once it's over, can I still open a vein and WRITE FOR THOSE PEOPLE, keep telling that same story of hope and love triumphing over darkness? Can I? Am I strong enough?
And there I thought I could just write stories and entertain people. Tell them about hope, and love, and the amazing resilience of the human spirit. (And people are shocked I might tell those stories to an audience that will not tear me apart for what I am. Silly me, what am I thinking, withholding my only gift and talent from people spending a couple dollars while at the same time feeling entitled to know whether I have ovaries and what exactly I do in bed with my freak body.)
Bottom line - I hope the whole, sordid, undignified, toxic mess has at least led to some people questioning their assumptions about my tribe, my people, my friends and made the world on the whole less hostile for them. But me, I remain here, deeply conflicted. Is this worth the destruction of my identity?
And, will I ever reclaim enough of my dignity to write again with confidence and grace?