Sunday, March 28, 2010

Am I Still Made of Velveteen?

UPDATE: In this piece, I discuss "passing" a lot in terms of a chapter in The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, by S. Bear Bergman, entitled "The Velveteen Tranny." Well, I should've kept reading before posting in a flurry of super-inspiration. If you read further in Bergman's book, he makes a really excellent distinction between using the word "passing" and "being read by." In passing (usually framed in terms of passing as male or female), the onus is on the sex-and-or-gender-"variant" individual to conform properly, and smacks of the age-old stereotype of transgender = deceptive, since they are "really" just disguising themselves or play-acting to "pass," and therefore penetrate a world to which they really don't belong. They're getting away with something. In being read by others, and not passing as male or female in front of them, however, there is no connotation of deceptivness. The onus is now not on an individual to be sneaky and wily enough to be deceive viewers into thinking they're men or women (or something else). This is simply framed as the gender "impression" made on a looker-on. Any spontaneous gender assignment is made BY ANOTHER PERSON, and not the result of a person to assimilate in a (devious) way that is culturally expected of them.

This distinction isn't a small one, and something worth considering. In the future, I'm not going to frame the above scenarios in terms of "passing." However, I'm going to leave the text below in their unaltered state, simply because I think that people are used to the concept of "passing." It might, then, be easier to read this post as is, without the extra mental burden of, "What this 'being read' stuff? Oh, yeah!" I don't want to write to confuse, after all. After reading, if you'd like to go back to a few sentences and substitie "read" for "pass," then go for it! In future posts, you'll get enough of "read," anyway.

Thanks for reading this technical note! Enjoy! :)

~ Claud

Or am I a REAL intersex-genderqueer-lady-queer yet?

I have kindly been loaned the book The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, by S. Bear Bergman. (Thanks C and E!) This book is fantastic for tons of reasons, but one essay that has already emblazoned itself into my mind is one entitiled, "The Velveteen Tranny."

"Ha," I thought. "Quippy title. Wonder what this'll be about?"

Well, I'm not entirely certain I actually read the entire story of The Velveteen Rabbit, so his fantastic insights were a bit lost on me at first. For those of you who might not've been exposed to this book (or perhaps, like me, just never got around to reading it), here's the synopsis, via Wikipedia. The basic gist, though, is that this stuffed rabbit toy, made of velveteen (hence the moniker) isn't a real rabbit. The only way the toy can become a real rabbit is if his owner loves him. Well, the child gets scarlet fever and pretty much everything the rabbit's owner touched recently needs to be burned, including the poor rabbit. (Ouch!) But, before the rabbit can be burned, the rabbit cries actual tears, and then a Nursery Magic Fairy (...just go with it) tells the rabbit that the owner loves him, so he's actually a real rabbit. The rabbit then hops off into the woods, knowing his owner really loved him, even though he can't be his owner's toy ever again.

What we learn from this, broadly, is that your identity is only as good and "real" as it is to those that encounter you. If they "love" you, and accept your identity as "real," then your identity will be real. If your identity isn't accepted as real, then your identity cannot be what you claim it is.

In short, OTHER PEOPLE DEFINE WHO YOU ARE BY WHETHER OR NOT YOU "PASS" AS YOUR IDENTITY. When we think about this in gender-variant terms, things get really interesting, and this is actually an excellent analogy to use as a framework to think about "passing."

Passing is a subject that is oft-talked about in gender-"variant" communities. Passing is important to talk about, for me, because not all gender-variant individuals choose to pass at all. It's just not a goal. Sure, individuals may alter their bodies, behaviors, voice timbres, clothing, accessories, makeup use, etc., at least in part, in order to "pass" as something - commonly talked about in terms of passing as male or female. But not all individuals want to "pass" as anything. Individuals whose gender identities blur or lie outside the gender binary very, very often make these changes to more closely approximate the person they are, with no goals of passing as anything in particular to others. Sometimes various presentations and performances are assumed for the sake of genderfucking to publicly challenge gender norms (e.g., think an individual with a beard, wearing a skirt, with a biker jacket, a large hair bow, heavy-duty work boots, and bright lipstick), with which a genderfucking individual may or may not identify with as their own gender identity. Or perhaps they do, at least sometimes, while they are presenting and performing in that way. (I say sometimes because often the outfit I was feeling when I woke up is completely ill-fitting to my gender identity that afternoon, later that morning, or 5 minutes after I walk out the door. *Sigh* Should I just start wearing full layers of separate outfits under one another and peel things off and mix-and-match as appropriate? That could get kind of fun, actually!) Individuals may also only want to pass sometimes - whether out in public, in going to a queer event, drag show, etc., so it is just an occasional goal. Others want to pass all the time, either because it is important to their identity, for SAFETY REASONS (not to be taken lightly in any form for gender-variant individuals), to keep their job (even though it's highly illegal to fire someone for this, but it still happens), keep not-understanding friends or lovers, for their childrens' sake, or a host of other reasons that may completely be their choice or they are forced into to prevent certain elements of their lives from changing. Others are not really sure what they want to do - just a valid reason as any. Passing is really complicated in general.

But this essay has made me think about passing with fresh eyes. I have always thought about passing in terms of, "I have passed as female in the presence of all of these people. Yes! Or, ugh." The focus on passing was certainly how others identified me. But that is a very different sentiment than focusing on passing as how others ALLOW YOU TO BE REAL OR NOT. Check out this excerpt, as follows:

The truth is that I might not mind as much if I didn't understand so well what was going on. I might be willing to believe that there was some sort of innocent educational journey at work every single one of those times [being interrogated about one's sex and gender], if I hadn't already answered those questions over and over only to discover that each of my questioners was using the information to decide whether or not I was real. I say that my name is Bear, and when I am asked if I have changed my first name to Bear, I say no, it's my middle name. Not real enough. When people learn that my grandmothers still call me Sharon, it's further proof: not the real deal. These judgments are made about surgeries, about hormones, about sexual orientation, and people who ask them - the same people who moments before claimed the need for my tender educational mercies - are not the gender judge and jury.


It's tempting to make the comparison to the Velveteen Rabbit, and tidy as well - and you know essayists; we love to wrap up a good metaphor with a pithy ending. Here I just say that I know that I'm real, that I believe in it fully, and if I can become real to just one person it's enough to sustain me. But unlike the Velveteen Rabbit, who was redeemed from death through love but never allowed to be near his love again, it takes more than one person believing in my realness. It takes cultural change. And so this essay doesn't really end as much as it stops. I'll let you know if I ever get more real.

This is really interesting, because it means, to an extent, that whether or not we're trying to pass, or not trying to pass, many, many other people are still trying to shoehorn us into one of several categories - often just two, or maybe more if they're slightly more aware/kind. But ultimately others do not believe we have the autonomy of saying, "This is who I am." They do not think that we are the experts on who we are - that they know more about who we are than we do, who we have been living with all our lives, based on a few physical or behavioral features they just happen to notice in-passing. Others should not be allowed to define us. They don't have a right to our identities any more than they have a right to our bodies. But they think that we do. That because we are different, because we are minorities, that this means that, by default, we are for public consumption. That it is justifiable to pick apart our identities and challenge us, and ask us stigmatizing and triggering questions because we are the weird ones, and they can't be expected to POSSIBLY make any sense of our Non-Sensical Crazy, and so we must educate them about it. We must answer their awful questions. We must engage with them in discourse as equals, as though they potentially know as much about our "confused" states as we do, and maybe their unsolicited advice on how to be "normal" is just all we need in order to bounce back to "reality."


This is a really different way of thinking about passing than I have been thinking about it previously, and in context, people's "inquiries" (i.e., harassment) makes much more sense to me within this framework. This framework is obviously applicable to people that are trans-identified, androgynous, or gender-variant in some way. How does this relate to intersex?

Not all forms of intersex come with a suite of external morphological characteristics (i.e., shape and form of the whole body or various body parts) that look anything unlike people's typical constructions of "male" or "female." With my own variation, CAIS, I look very female. I have never been mistaken for a male. Not once. Not even that time I received a hideous bowl-cut from an inept hairdresser that looked utterly like the mushroom cut all my elementary school male peers were wearing. (I only identify as female sometimes, most of the time identifying as gender-neutral or gender-less, and never identify as male. So, even though I "pass" as female because I meet stereotypical preconceptions of what female-bodied individuals look like because of my form of intersex, I often feel a lot of anxiety because I don't always know if how I'm acting or wish to act conforms with behaviors typical of stereotypical female-gendered individuals. I look the part, but I don't always feel like I'm PLAYING it correctly. Can't a new actor be hired to play female Claudia, instead? Also, this would give me less time to work at my job, and more time to engage in activism! Yesssssss!)

Individuals with other types of intersex conditions may possess suites of body parts that, together, don't match other peoples' conceptions about what male or female bodies should look like. Check out the Intersex Society of North America's "Intersex conditions" page. (To start, check out congenital adrenal hypoplasia (CAH), Klinefelter's, and XXY. I'm not going to talk about each one in-depth because I know my own form of intersex far better than other intersex individuals', and I can't speak for all intersex individuals, whether they have my own form of intersex - CAIS, level 7 - or not. People need to be given the forum to describe their own bodies and lived experiences, in ways that I - though, yes, intersex - am still, however, an outsider into their particular lived experiences. Only they can describe the nuances they experience. Also note that not all individiuals with atypical sex anatomy, such as Turner's, Klienfelter's, etc., consider themselves to be intersex, as we've discussed in previous posts. There's nothing simple or clear-cut about identity! Now if only we all accepted that...) These individuals very likely are harassed by outsiders, who have absolutely no business to do so. A lot of people likely think it IS their business, though, because they are threatened if others stray outside the sex-and-gender binaries, or if they are attracted to - *GASP* - "some freak," something else Bergman addresses in his essay. The difference is that intersex individuals may not be gender-variant in any way, nor identify as queer - none of it. So, intersex individuals that are not a part of the queer community may be interrogated and discriminated against by virtue of "looking funny" to others' oh-so-idealized paragons of male and female bodies. {*insert choir of angels here*} This kind of "passing" for intersex individuals outside the queer community shares many of the same elements, trials, inequities, and frustrations of many queer individuals' experiences in "passing." The difference is, I'm very, very unconvinced that intersex individuals think about passing, share tips for passing, etc. in the ways that many queer individuals do. Instead, there may just be isolation and frustration and body-hate and a host of other things. How can we have a greater discourse on passing for intersex individuals whose bodies don't conform to culturally-defined expectations of male or female forms, who may or may not also be part of the queer community where some of these concepts may have been encountered already?

In a lot of ways, we've definitely got tons of queers, not (just?) wearing velveteen but MADE of velveteen, if we are to go along with Bergman's deft analogy. If passing is something that is desired, for queers, queer-identified intersex individuals, and non-queer-identified intersex individuals, what can be done if the power to be real does not lie within our own capacity, according to many others? It is simple to say, "Just ignore it. Go along with your business. YOU TRULY define your OWN identity!" Well, yes, this is the way it should be, but that doesn't meant that's actually how it plays out. Stigmatizing questions do wound one's pride. Constant challenging does sometimes lead to crazy-making. We SHOULD have control over our own identities (for fuck's sake, we should at LEAST have the autonomy to define who we ARE! ARRRGH!), but unless we want to be a constant walking font of education and decide to inform ignorant individuals when we feel like it, or simply ignore them, or get angry and lash out, none of these options may ultimately feel satisfying, depending on the situation. You still want to be taken as REAL, without having to prove yourself. Questions are one thing. Attempted identity homicide via non-acceptance of one's identity is another.

There are, of course, lots of creative ways to raise awareness about gender variance, trans issues, intersex issues (whether with or without overlap with the queer community) when interrogated, but that deserves its own blog post, and I'm starting to fade. (Note to self: Don't try to think about meangingful stuff before eating. Ever. Just don't.) The ultimate rub, though, comes from not being taken at face value, maybe because our faces don't line up with your expectations. My face, my body outline, my muscles, my skeletal structure, my hormone levels, my chromosomes, my external genitals, my internal sex organs, my body hair distribution, my voice timbre, my clothing choices, my behaviors, my likes and dislikes, my work and hobbies - NONE of that gives anyone the right to decide who you ARE based on that. We can try to fight this system of interrogation and verdict of whether one's "real" or not, but the fact is that majority folks have an unearned privelege of choosing to do this, whether or not they exercise this privelege or not. Like Bergman said, what really needs to change is our cultural values regarding this.

Only then can we define who we REAL-ly are, without a fight.


  1. I just wanted to say that this is a well-written and fascinating piece.


  2. Then you should see this essay and learn why it's very dangerous for trans to claim intersex.

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  4. Timothy: Thank you so much! I really appreciate it. :)

    Nicky: I can't believe you linked to this. I found this piece on Caitlyn Petrakis Child's website, and in lieu of this past post, wanted to discuss it soon. You're reading my mind! O.o

  5. Well you should Write about it because I wrote a glowing review of that essay and I agreed with what the writer has to say about trans people trying to claim intersex and how he feels that it is very dangerous, wrong and unethical for them

  6. Hey sorry I disappeared for a while there, life gets in the way sometimes. I wanted to speak a bit more about intersexuality. You say that you identify as gender neutral. I like this idea a lot. And personally I am attracted to androgynous people. Unfortunately I am physically very feminine though in my mind not as much. My husband (who is also bi, and never slept with a girl before me) and I often switch gender roles for fun, though I'm not sure I could "pass" as male in public, unless I tape down my boobs.

    As for my son he was born with a micropenis and no gonadotropins (sex hormones) he is unable to produce them on his own. The doctor prescribed testorone for him to make his penis grow, but my husband and I have decided not to give it to him. We will give him the option when he is a teenager if he wants to be a boy or a girl. And as a child it's his choice if he wants to dress/act/whatever as a boy, a girl, both, neither, whatever makes him happy. I'm not willing to force anyone to make a choice that they have to live with that may be the wrong choice for them.

    We have a friend at our church (Unitarian Universalist so basically a church of all faiths, and people who believe in the rights of all people) who is transgendered. He was born with Klinefelters, and was raised as a male but felt completely wrong. He found out he was intersex later in life and realized why he felt so wrong as a male. She is now a gorgeous woman who feels much better about her self identity.

    I knew before meeting her that I wanted to let my son choose his own gender, but speaking with her confirmed everything I had felt all along. She told me that it was amazing to meet parents so open-minded. She said she wished she had had the choice when she was growing up as she feels that she missed out on her childhood. She was unable to wear the clothes she wanted, or identify the way she wanted to, basically she grew up miserable. I won't let that happen to my child.

    I want to thank you again for having the courage to post about these topics and to identify yourself as intersex, it's hard to find others out there who are intersex and open about it.

  7. Nicky: I'll get on this. Thanks for the suggestion! :)

    Britt: Once again, it makes me so incredibly happy to hear that parents are allowing their children to be who they are and choose what body parts to keep or hormones to pump in his body. We need more of you out there! And thank you for your kind words; people with all sorts of lived experiences can both help and heal by putting their voices out there. I love it.