There are phrases, ideas, that you learn trans people use before you ever learn how to express yourself as a trans person. “Trapped in the wrong body” is one of them – perhaps the most potent. “I was born in the wrong body” is a shibboleth of understanding between my world and that of people who are, supposedly, unified within their own skin. Even my language now, here, alludes to it – as though there is a self within me, a skin under my skin, disguised and hiding, contained and repressed. A doubleness that is extraordinary and in need of correction.
It’s a phrase I hear often as someone who is publicly, legibly trans – sometimes professionally so. It stuck in my head last year, when I was sketching notes for a performance piece, a meditation on Miro’s 1927 work Painting.
I love that work: its boldness, the spareness of line and content, a blue that makes my mouth water before I can form a cogent response. Most of all it is the sense of dissolution of form, a denial of object permanence, that calls to my own unstable sense of place and time, and my body bound between those axes. I was meant to be responding to this work ‘as’ a trans person – as someone who could mediate my response to this piece to a mixed audience who would want to hear explained, or echoed, what it is to be trans, to be a trans artist, to be a trans person viewed through the lens of Western art practice/s. And so that phrase came back to me, in a way in which it hadn’t before.
I had never really liked the idea of being trapped in the wrong body, although I have used the words many times. It had particular appeal as a teenager, when I couldn’t understand why I felt like clawing myself apart in desperation, with the feeling that something essential would emerge – and in the last few weeks before surgery, when the claustrophobia got so bad I would have panic attacks that would stop me from sleeping. I liked it because it expressed so vividly the alienation and violence of dysphoria – but it left me uneasy. There was no space in that framing for what is right and loved about me. It tells me that my genitals, my secondary sexual characteristics, are more myself than my ability to hear, my sense of taste, the puckering of my skin. There is no acceptance of the positive presence of that dysphoria, that wrongess, in the construction of my self, the self which is trapped, but also shaped and responding. It implies a binary of mind and body beyond a binary of sex and gender, and leaves no allowance for a blurring of any of those categories. And, in looking at the Miro, noting my physical, emotional, response, it felt as though that phrase took my body and my sense thereof – fragmented, unstable, imagined, corporeal and non-corporeal both – and it stripped it from me, or I from it.
With that phrase I am placed into a narrative not of my choosing, in which my physical entry into the world becomes a placeholder for a story I do not wish to tell.
What is unique, contradictory and transitional becomes lost, to be replaced by a script determined by Otherness and acquiescence.
In that framing, my transness is not normal, and my body has failed. Its failure invites gendering, judgment, constant appraisal. This is the everyday carving up and labelling by colleagues, strangers, doctors, friends, family – meaning enforced upon something lacking and in need of interpretation.
This is how I’m not trans enough. This is how I’ll never be masculine enough. Here is where I could be masculine enough, if I tried harder, if I sacrificed more. This part does not match this part, which is at odds with this. You can never change this. This will always mean woman, mean female. This is what you should hide if you want to be seen. This is how I see through what you are trying to hide.
It takes the private grief of my dysphoria and institutionalises it – figuratively and literally. My legal documents show a reading of my body that I did not consent to, and do not agree with. To change them, I need to apply to be read by other strangers, and to pass their standards of interpretation. I cannot pass those readings, and so cannot submit to be read.
Our insistence on categorising the physical embodiment of others by our own measures does more than trap me in the wrong gender, the wrong sex, and the wrong reading. It denies me the fullness and universality of my embodied life. My body becomes a battleground of meaning, suppression, cruelty and disbelief and, most of all, is no longer my own to understand.
My actual body suffocates under the weight of the body imposed upon it.
This is not an intellectual exercise, although it might read that way – when you are told you are in the wrong body, you can take comfort in hoping that your mind, at least, is right.
It is trying to explain that the totality of who I am is more than the framework I was given to explain it with and by.
It is saying that it may or may not be because I am ‘trans’ that my bodily self is a dynamic entity: transitional, dreamlike, comforting, nightmarish, expanding, fragmentary – but that if your understanding of what trans means excludes that, then you cannot reach me as a trans person. Imposing a view and seeing a person are two different things.
It is an assertion of my right to be the storyteller, and not the character. My body, right and wrong and changing. My body, aware enough to direct the changes needed within itself, and for my own integrity and unity.
And it is your choice – to ask me what I see, and to look with me – or to cut yourself off from me by looking, and trapping yourself a false, flat image of a body that doesn’t house me at all.