Wednesday, March 26, 2014

on bobbea* pins and the politics of passing

"Have you started hormones?" he asks me, half an hour into our knowing each other.

I panic for a moment.  I have not told him that I am trans.  I don't even know his last name.  This is a pretty big assumption on his part.

I keep my cool.

"No," I say. "I won't be doing anything like that."

"Oh," he replies, his scissors ever clipping away at the reddish cloud floating over my face. "I was just asking because I know they make your hair grow like crazy."

* * *

The last time I seriously cut my hair was in July, just before leaving for Argentina.  I buzzed the sides and back of my head down to almost nothing, and left the top a little longer.  It looked kinda like it did that time when my good friend Nicole and me shared a bottle of Malbec at a peña folclórica in Buenos Aires in early August:

I didn't cut my hair once the entire five months + one day I was in South America, partially because I was too scared to navigate the specific terminology of telling a hairdresser my personal aesthetic in my second language and partially because I came out as transgender halfway through the trip, and decided that maybe I ought to give long hair a try.

Here are some highlights of the following months.

On October 19th, the day I published my official coming out letter (oh, to have a manageable pixie cut once more):

Over Thanksgiving weekend in Uruguay, with my plane buddy Anna and literally so much wax:

Finally back in Chicago, on Boxing Day with old friends (like Mimosa and Zoey):

(It had gotten quite poofy by then.)

* * *

A great debate ensues within the trans* community over the importance of passing versus not.  Passing refers to the phenomenon in which someone is consistently perceived as the gender opposite of that which they were assigned at birth.  For example, if I were to go to class not only in a dress but also wearing a bra underneath, people would be more likely to read me as a biological female.  Stated differently, I would be more likely to pass.

I personally agree with trans activist Sandy Stone when she talks about the necessity for creating new gender identities in our society and how passing inhibits that goal.  While passing can a positive thing in matters of physical safety (a transwoman has a much higher probability of encountering physical or sexual violence than a biological female does, so passing as a biological female can be a form of safety and self-care) or of emotional well-being (e.g. not having to constantly come out and remind people what pronouns with which they should refer to you), it also propagates the same, narrow-minded manners of thinking about the potential relationships between sex and gender that oppress transgender people in the first place.

Therefore, it is my practice to come out whenever possible, and to do the uncomfortable work of reminding people what pronouns with which they should refer to me whenever possible.  Of course, I fully recognize that I am in a privileged enough situation to be able to do this with relative safety, whereas many transgender people are not.  My overall ideology, thus, is to create new social spaces in which transgender people can safely live, as long as the creation of such spaces does not jeopardize transgender lives and livelihoods.  It is a slow battle.

* * *

My dear friend Guilla, a transwoman from Argentina who inspired much of what I now recognize as Truth, like me, has made no medical changes to her body, nor does she plan to do so in the future.  However, this does not mean that she presents herself any less femininely.  As a reflection of her gender identity, she has long and beautiful hair that she often ties up expertly with a hairstick in but a moment; long and luscious hair that cascades wondrously to her chest. It was for this reason principally that I decided to grow out my own.

Here she stands to my left, along with the rest of the CAPICÜA family:

In February, in fact, when I was performing as Betty/Edward in Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 and my hair was blossoming most monstrously, horribly unaided by the '70s style 'do (photo credit to the impeccable Justin Barbin), I learned a valuable lesson:

Bobby pins.

In addition to my old bandana methods, I began employing armies of my little metal friends at a time (and now hair ties too!) in order to tame the fiery forest atop my noggin.  Treading the line between intentionally not passing as a woman but still communicating that I am a "she" is difficult enough when you're not also in an awkward hair-limbo; you've got to use every product and accessory at your disposal.  And until my locks eventually reach an acceptable length, I shall continue to do just that.

O, what joy!

* * *

Today I visited my favorite hair place in Chicago, thinning out the bushiness and altering the proportions so that the top half could catch up to the bottom. Afterward, I felt airy and wonderful. For months now my hair has been longer than ever before, but such trims prevent my head from becoming an orange shrubbery.

My hairdresser, Joseph, with an ambiguous sexuality and an affinity for the androgynous, asks me if I have started hormones. The subconscious part of me—the one that has been trained over many long and tormented years to never stand out—panics. Is this how he sees me?  I remember all the times in my daily life that I have to (or should, but don’t) correct people on their misuse of pronouns.  I realize that of all the things as which someone might misread me, a pre-op transexual is a hell of a lot closer than a man. I am grateful that I have not passed.

"No," I say. "I won't be doing anything like that."

We spend the rest of the appointment discussing art and travel.  I know that I will ask for him again the next time I return to Barbara & Barbara.  He tells me it will only be a few more months until I'll have a proper bob.

I can't wait.

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