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So, I’ve been doing this interview. They’re about ready to post it so, understandably enough, the interviewer asks for a head shot. Cue the panic.

I… I’m not so good with pictures. I love taking them, love seeing pictures of other folks, but when I’m in front of the lens… it’s not good times. I often tell folks, only half-joking, that I believe cameras steal souls. Not the whole thing at once, of course. (Of course!) Just slivers and shards, which grow back in time, or chips and chunks, which maybe don’t. When you tell it right, people don’t pry for details, don’t get upset and bully you into the shot, don’t tease with that dagger in your ribs all “friends” here, don’t chastise for ruining their fun; they know it’s a joke (they know it’s not a joke). But only when you tell it right.

But they do. Steal souls, I mean. If you’re ever in doubt, just hold a camera up to my face. Watch the eyes dull, the jaw slacken, rosy cheeks go sallow, the breathing still— not stop, stopping is abrupt, rupture is resistance, and resistance is a lifewell. Just still like an unused balloon discarded on the floor, no impending movement, no impeding movement. Deflated ragdoll corpse. Might as well take the fucking picture now. The soul has already gone. You better get what I paid for.

For the longest time I never quite knew why I hated pictures. By which I mean: I knew. In that way the body knows what the mind can’t admit.

There’s the family gatherings, the unending demand for circus performance. Stand up tall next to angry father! Show your smile with abusive mother! Oh you can stand closer than that! Ooh, ooh, hug your rapist! Yeah, like that, let’s see an embrace! Now for the group shot! And the solo shots! Did we get the pairs? Let’s do another set, why not! Now with Aunt Judy’s camera! Wait no, we forgot the hallway shots, gotta do them all over again! A soulless enumeration of all possible positions, like much of Marquis de Sade. Rolls and rolls of film, back when film was a thing. Like cellulose can replace the real family with something else. The day the first in our family bought a digital camera I cursed their invention, cursed the ever-hungry void of their unending memory. But no, that’s not where it started. That’s just the acid in an already raw wound.

I’d always supposed it started with mental illness. Danielle Vintschger talks about mental illness as becoming invisible, symptoms as a way of demanding to be seen. Her article resonates strongly within me, though I find her own in/visibility skewed at queer angles to mine. Growing up in that family, the last thing you want is to be visible. Being visible means being a target. The only way to survive an abusive childhood is by learning to become invisible. Pictures are dangerous. Pictures get you noticed. Pictures risk letting out the demon of truth you hide inside your flesh. Pictures risk showing something real. The most dangerous thing in a toxic environment is to expose anything real. The real is where you keep what’s sacred to you; and anything you value is a vector of attack. You must remain phlegmatically disinterested in all things. As soon as someone guesses what’s important to you they’ll break it. They will destroy it piece by piece, in front of you to make sure you watch, to make sure whenever you think of that shredded joy you think of them and their victory over you. But not just joy, any weakness any illness you must also hide. Muffle your tears into a pillow. Cut where it can’t be seen. When you have to break down, dissociate, divorce from reality, do it somewhere else, somewhere you can leave the body safe in your absence, somewhere noone can see those disquiet moments when you leave and when you return. Never leave pictures, pictures are evidence, and all evidence will be used against you.

There’s something else too besides visibility, something evil in pictures, some contagion that leaks out and seeps in through your eyes. Muslims know this. Or perhaps the evil is already inside you, and the image merely beckons it to surface. Wherever it is, you instinctually know you must not look. But you can’t keep others from looking, so the evil gets in them. It wasn’t until a couple years ago I began to question. Maybe my problem with pictures wasn’t only from mental illness. I only began to question because I began to look.

The evil lives not just in photographs but also in mirrors. It started slowly, unintentionally, out of the corner of my eye a glimpse. You can go thirty years without looking in a mirror. Shaving, brushing your teeth or hair, you never need the mirror. At most you only ever need parts not whole, like a masseuse uncovering singular limbs to avoid seeing the body. You notice the reflection because you can’t remember the last time you saw one. Did you know bathrooms contain mirrors? The first few glimpses you turn away, pretend not to see. But it’s startling, this other person in that tiny room with you. They seem to be ignoring you too, so that’s good. In time you make peace with your bathroom double. Some days you sit with them, both not looking, becoming used to the presence. Other days it’s easier: you each go about your business, not talking but knowing how to stay out of the other’s way. Until one day you forget the rules, you turn to talk and see… someone else. She’s a girl, your bathroom double. Kinda cute, you never expected that. How strange. You could’ve sworn she’d have a different face. Something more masculine, something more hideous. As if on cue her face begins to droop and swirl, bits melting into other bits, all come undone. You look away before it’s too late. The next few days she isn’t there. You kinda feel lonely, but also kinda feel relief. Eventually she comes back, in furtive glimpses. When she seems calmer, you sit silent with her, apologizing without words. The second time, you ask before you look. Over years —and it does take years— you build a tentative trust. You can look at her now. You’re not sure where the evil went, but you no longer need to hide from mirrors. You’re not sure anything requiring such powerful trust can ever be called “safe”, but maybe safe is something you can build.

It all makes sense now. Of course my hatred of photos is all tied up in dysphoria. (Of course!) But as I said: the body knows how to hide the things your mind can’t admit. Like it hid all those mirrors I never noticed.

Yes, I came to terms with being trans years upon years ago. But acceptance does not cure dysphoria. The longer I accepted being trans the deeper my dysphoria got, until the day I started correcting the hormone imbalance destroying my body and mind. The dysthymia and depression lifted immediately, but the longer-term psychological damage takes more time to recover. I was on HRT a year and a half, or so, before I started catching those first mirror glimpses. At three, I can look without the image going all melty. Sometimes, (sometimes,) I can look at photographs and not see the hideous thing I grew up with. Sometimes, (sometimes,) I think maybe pictures don’t always have to lie.

It is a mental illness this dysmorphia, this problem with reflections, this inability to see the self as others see it. It’s a hallmark of schizophrenia, the fear of portals consuming souls, the fear of what dangerous things lie beyond the looking glass. But it’s not just the schizoid, it also shows up in anxiety. My wife sometimes has problems with windows at night, they reflect you see. But it also shows up with eating disorders. But it also shows up with so many things. Which is why I cite Islam. The justification for the interdiction against images of humans is avoidance of idolatry, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s some other reason, something more they know. Islam also requires the immediate disposal of hair and fingernail trimmings; things which are uncanny, things which disturb and disgust when encountered unexpectedly.

The dysmorphia goes beyond dysphoria; which is to say, it’s not just being trans. I follow plenty of trans ladies who post the most gorgeous selfies. And while I do not know their minds, many post without comment so I can’t help but to think they do not suffer the same demons. But then, many others do post with comment. Selfies can be a form of radical self-love, an act of reclaiming the body that has been denied us so long, an act of resistance against the perpetual bombardment of messages telling us we’re ugly, telling us we’re not good enough, telling us we don’t have the right kind of shape. This need for self-love is not just for trans women, but also black women, but also disabled women, but also all women.

Sometimes I think, “I want this love. I deserve this love.” Then the world reminds me: pictures are dangerous. Living as a woman online is dangerous; especially as an outspoken woman, a difficult woman, a challenging woman. Clades like GG and 4chan seek out women like me for destruction. Pictures are evidence and all evidence will be used against you. I’ve spent my whole life trying to break away from my family, from the invisibility they instilled in me, from the perpetual need to annihilate the self. I need this love, but I know not where to find it. Taking pictures at all is hard enough, the idea of sharing them fills me with terror. I’ve spent my whole life breaking away from how others see my body. My whole life breaking away from the pain that body caused my mind. I know not how to love the body. Know not how to see the body as more than mere possession, how to see the body as the very self. Growing up I was taught the greatest sin is the love of self. And though I’ve discarded Christianity, it’s much harder to discard their commandment to hate thyself.

Sometimes I think, “I need this love.” But how does one overcome the terror?

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Got depressed for a week or so just recently. Doing better now. No reason motivating the episode, just came out of nowhere— like the last time, a couple months back. Having lived with depression my whole life, there’s usually a reason; I mean, not an actual reason necessarily, but my mind will always find something to fixate on and call the reason. So the fact that it hasn’t these last couple times is strange in the extreme. As is the fact that the episodes have ended just as abruptly as they began. The first time around I was thinking the differences may be because of transitioning; depression is biochemical and changes as we age, so of course things’ll be different after upending your hormones.

But now I’m almost 100% certain it’s “because of transitioning” for a different reason. A while back I switched to a form of estradiol where you get a pellet implanted every few months (as opposed to taking pills twice a day or patches/injections every few days). You’ll notice this “couplefew months” bit sounds familiar… How long the pellets last varies per person, with a prior expectation of three months. The first time around I went that three months; and was depressed for a bit over a month at the end (which is absurdly short for my depressive spells). The second time around, this time around, I went 10 weeks; and was depressed for “two” weeks. I put the two in scarequotes because a week into it L suggested it may be hormonal, so I started taking some of my leftover pills. And began feeling profoundly better after a day or two. Got the new pellet today and can already feel its effect above and beyond the irregularities of pills. Next time I’m aiming for 8 weeks.

So, yeah. I’ve known T / lack of E is a major component of my depression. When I first started HRT I almost immediately started feeling happier than I’d ever been. I often joke how HRT is the best antidepressant I’ve ever tried. (Which is a lot funnier when talking to my psychiatrist, who knows how many I’ve tried and saw how quickly & effectively HRT worked.) But yeah, apparently it’s far more integral than I ever realized. The effects are just so immediate and drastic. They set in long before the hotflashes, headaches, and other symptoms of hormonal imbalance.

So for any other ladies out there on pellets —whether trans or on HRT for other reasons (and I’m sure this applies to men too)— if your depression returns in the vicinity of when you’re due for a new pellet, do be sure to consider that as a possible cause and adjust your schedule as appropriate.

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[Content warning: discussion of rape culture and child abuse]

Transitioning is a mindfuck. Doesn't matter how prepared you are, how sure you are, how long and deeply you've thought about gender/sexuality issues. Outside of transitioning1 we have no way of inhabiting more than one position in any given discourse. Sure, we can understand other positions on an intellectual level, we may even sympathize with them, but we cannot empathize with what we have not ourselves experienced, and even having experienced something in the past does not mean we can continue to empathize with it in the present. Julia Serano emphasizes this epistemic limit in her books. And it's no wonder that no matter how prepared you may be, completely uprooting your sense of self and reconfiguring the way the world sees, interprets, and interacts with you is going to fundamentally alter whatever notions you had going into it all.

Since transitioning none of the major details of my identity have changed. I'm still a woman. Still feminine. Still a flaming lesbo. Still kinky, poly, and childfree. Still attracted to the same sorts of people. Still into the same sorts of fashion (though now I can finally act on that). Still interested in all the same topics, authors, and academic pursuits. And yet, despite —or perhaps because of— all this consistency, transitioning is still a mindfuck.

Read more... )
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Someone asked recently whether it's bad to seek "signs" of being trans from the past, and why or why not. This question is one which deserves to be more widely circulated. Within trans circles a fair number of people have an understanding of the situation and it's complexity, but it's something I think non-trans circles should also be aware of— especially given the recent publicity surrounding trans lives.

The problems are twofold:

A lot of people look for signs because they're seeking some sort of validation. The problem here is that you end up misinterpreting and overanalyzing your own life in search of that validation. It's not that the past cannot provide validation for your present, it's just missing the point. What we want (more often than not) is acceptance of who we are now and recognition for our current experience. There's more to current identities, pains, and experiences than the past that gave rise to them, so validation can come from sources other than the past. Moreover, it's all too easy for people to "validate" your past while simultaneously invalidating your present, so validation from the past is not stable. Altogether, none of this is trans-specific: it's a general problem with seeking retrospective validation; and it also applies to people who've suffered abuse, experience mental illness, have changed careers, etc.

The second problem is that, in overanalyzing our pasts in search of validation, we all too often end up reinscribing "standard" trans narratives. If our pasts do not fit the "standard" narrative then we will not find the validation we seek, thus we will call our current understanding even further into question, and this sense of invalidation will only make us feel worse. If our pasts only partially fit the "standard" narrative then, in search of validation, we will highlight those memories and background the others; thus denying ourselves the full actualization of our personal history, and invalidating at least in part who we are. And if our pasts (somehow) completely fit the "standard" narrative then, in holding that history up as "proof" of our legitimacy, we end up marginalizing and invalidating everyone with different narratives. Again, this isn't a trans-specific problem (cf., "standard" narratives of gay lives or depression prior to, say, the 1970s.); though it's especially problematic for trans people because of the dearth of public awareness that our narrative tapestries are as rich and varied as cis narrative tapestries.

There's nothing wrong with seeking support for your current self from your past memories. Doing so is, imo, crucial in coming to understand, respect, and take pride in our selves. The problems of retrospection are all in the mindset with which it is pursued. We shouldn't rely on "born this way" narratives in order to justify the fact that, however we were born, we are here now and in virtue of our presence alone are worthy of respect and validation.

Fwiw, I do very much value my "signs", and often share them as amusing anecdotes— both to foster understanding, and to destabilize people's preconceived notions. But I do not seek validation in these signs; they're just collateral: symptoms of, not support for, who I am.

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When it comes to explaining the social categorization of people, I've been an advocate for performative theories since long before they became popular/mainstream. To be clear, I find the current mainstream notions of performativity deeply problematic because they overemphasize social constructivism and fail to highlight what I see to be the actual insight behind the original formulation of performativity. But all the same, I've long been a fan of (my understanding of) performativity.

However, in the tail end of chapter 8 of Whipping Girl, Julia Serano raises a major complaint against performative theories of sex/gender in particular— a complaint I agree with wholeheartedly, and which is not easily reconciled. Before getting into the problem she raises, I should probably explain what performativity is and why I've been such an advocate for it.

The Question

What does it mean to be human, or a woman, or an atheist, or a scientist? For any specific categorization the exact details will vary, of course. The question I'm asking is, once we abstract over the particular category, what does it mean to say that some person does or does not belong to that category? Many social categories are uninteresting in this regard. I am an IU student in virtue of the fact that I am registered here, pay tuition, attend classes, etc; there's a clear definition, and that definition is wholly uninteresting and uncontroversial. However, for many categories things aren't so cut and dried.

Read more... )
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There are three parts to this post. Everyone should read the first two sections, especially the second section. Haskellers should also be sure to read the third section.

The Announcement

If you don't yet know: I'm transgender. My sense of gender and self have never aligned with my physical appearance, and I’ve spent most of my life dealing with this fact. This is not an acquired condition nor a recent change; it is an intrinsic and life-long part of who I am. I began the process of transitioning half a year ago and, over the next six months or so, I will complete the transition to living as a woman full-time.

Many of my followers are already familiar with transgender issues, but since this is a public announcement I assume many of you are not. There are numerous resources online for learning more, but I find the PFLAG pamphlet to be a particularly good place to start. If you still have any questions after reading that, I can provide additional resources and am willing to answer questions.

How to respond

This is going to depend on how you know me.

If we interact predominantly online
This includes everyone in the Haskell community (both online and academically), as well as everyone from Reddit, Twitter, etc. Henceforth, please use feminine pronouns (she/her/hers) exclusively when referring to me. I understand this will take some getting used to, but it will soon become second nature.
If we interact predominantly in person
I'd prefer you use feminine pronouns (she/her/hers) when referring to me, especially when online and when mentioning me anonymously. But, for the time being, masculine pronouns (he/him/his) are still acceptable. Sometime in the spring I will send another announcement around letting you know when "T-day" is. After that date, I will be presenting as female full-time and will no longer tolerate masculine pronouns.

PSA for Haskellers

I shouldn't have to say this, but since there were some complaints about the "homosexual propaganda" in my recent posts, may I remind my readers of The Planet Haskell policies regarding political and religious content. I rarely post political content, but am well within the guidelines in doing so. The stated mission of Planet Haskell is to "show what is happening in the community, what people are thinking about or doing". I am an active and well-known member of the Haskell community, and the violence endured by trans people is something I've been thinking a lot about lately. When Chung-chieh Shan gave the 2013 Haskell Symposium program chair report, he made a specific point of highlighting the effects of sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia in driving people out of the Haskell community. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that these issues are pertinent, above and beyond my personal involvement with them.

That said, I do not intend to discuss trans issues at length on this blog. Nevertheless, on occasion, these issues will come up because I refuse to live in silence and shame for who I am.

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