On November 9, you wake up to confirm the election results. Donald Trump, the uniquely unqualified pulse of weaponized toxic masculinity, has won the presidency and will be bringing with him into the White House Mike Pence, a gargoyle so terribly unnerved by queer people that he has advocated for the electroshock of children to straighten them out. Synapses fire so quickly they paralyze you. The tears come flooding and your legs fall out. You stumble your way into the shower. This is not a sympathetic flailing of emotion, but a personal one. A fear that cuts through the knotted, attenuated understanding of what you are. Before, there was a tightly wound, but deeply considered understanding of yourself as non-binary, agender, without category. After, there is only an unspooling of the psyche, an unraveling of clarity as the water of the shower attempts to still your quaking body. Living in a world in which Donald Trump is the logical conclusion of dominant masculinity is what revealed you do not belong in it. The deeper urge they carry to erase what is strange to them pushes you further into the outside. For the first time, you wonder are you a woman and the urge to refute falls flat. The question lingers.
Your existence is reframed, requiring reexamination, needing a needle threading patches into a sensible narrative. The story so many tell is I always knew, and so, you search for places you may have, could have, should have known. You return to fifth grade when you asked a teacher why the test form did not have a bubble to fill out for intersex people and the word you used was hermaphrodite. You did not believe her when she said you were too young for that. You revisit high school when a classmate started wearing pink cardigans and refused to answer to masculine pronouns and you could not fathom why anyone took issue. You find yourself in Mary’s English class where you wrote an essay distinguishing men from monsters, not yet having the vocabulary to name toxicity as a symptom of patriarchy. You return to college where you tried to rally friends to go dancing in drag and no one would join you, so you didn’t go, and you never bought the dress. You recall the moment when you first heard gender described as a spectrum and how you connected this to the pH scale, feeling yourself rushing towards the middle, becoming water. You can’t remember how long you’ve been following fashion bloggers, the first time you googled burgundy skirt or mustard jumper just to look at images of suede or cotton, forgetting that fabric is made to form to bodies, embracing the artifice in a void and feeling comfort.
What you don’t find is an always, or a certainty. What you don’t find is the torture that dominates the trans narratives in popular media. You can’t find a pain that says your need to change your body is greater than your need to avoid pain. You don’t find an affinity for make-up, or Barbie dolls, for pink, theater, gymnastics, the things they section off for girls and shame boys for being curious about. Instead, you find memories of video games and skateboarding and punk shows with the bodies in leather or denim—the androgynous faces and haggard haircuts in the crowds. You remember always having crushes on the pretty girls, even before you understood what affection was. What you don’t find is a center to hold tight to that says one way or another you are a woman or you are without category? When placed into a box, can you still be boundless?
You tell Ashley, your ex, about your newfound discovery and her response is I’m not surprised, but I’m not not surprised. This tracks for her, given what she knows of you. Does she know you better than you know yourself, or does she not understand you at all? Why is her sound conclusion your non-sequitur? You take an online quiz Am I Transgender? and the results are murky. You google Am I trans if I like my boy body? and the results are all about weight loss.
A bearded stranger at a party, with no prompting, asks you, a fellow bearded stranger, your thoughts on gender identity and gender construction. You tell him more about yourself than you know, discovering peculiarities as they fall from your mouth. He asks you what pronoun you prefer, the first time this question has been posed to you, and you try on. She, and it feels like well-worn denim. You tell him the name you don’t tell other people, the one it was so easy to fall on, and he refers to you by your female name and you feel visible.
You tell Ashley that you still don’t know where you are in this journey, but that you know what name you will choose if you transition. She reminds you that she has never questioned her own gender and that this must mean something. That you chose a name so easily that feels so comfortable must mean something. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.
You wake up every morning uncertain of many things. Always the heaviness of existential wondering, what is a person? Are you your body, or some subsection thereof, i.e. brain, i.e. subsection of brain, i.e. intermingling of lightning and chemistry, or, is there another component, the intangible aspect of being, the soul, the spirit, the externality giving force to matter? Often, this is a distinction without a difference, and yet, questions regarding the essential features of humanness have vexed thinkers since there have been thinkers. Possibly before.
Descartes believed that animals were effectively robots, automaton lacking internal motion for lack of spirit. Humans, by contrast, were the spirit, the willful and unseen aspect hovering in nothingness, and distinguished by their connection to a human shaped body. I think, therefore I am , meaning, you are a thing independent of body. Descartes could not prove the existence of bodies without invoking divine providence, and accordingly, had to conclude that we are, at least in part, made of things that are not matter, not physical. It is easy to accept that people are not made of matter when the explanation is a benevolent god. You do not accept divine providence of a benevolent god as a suitable explanation. Without divine providence, you are stuck at solipsism, the inability to prove that anything exists outside of your own perceptions—before bodies, in the emptiness, a thought.
Leibniz knew there was a problem with the existence of bodies: the problem being that they exist. For what is a body if not a thing made of material? If a thing is made of material, it can, by necessity, be separated into components. Matter is made of smaller matter, ad infinitum. Infinitum is an issue. Either it is matter all the way down, i.e. infinite causal chain, i.e. no beginning, i.e. a series of parts made of parts made of shadows, a house of cards; or else atomism remains, i.e. unmoved mover, i.e. material not made of matter, i.e. an impenetrable alchemical center purporting to turn nothing into everything. When a thing merely exists without explanation, this is known as a brute fact. Human knowledge is premised on things being explainable. Brute facts undermine the process of knowing.
Plato attempted to define the things in existence by reference to metaphysical constructs, the Forms. The Form of a thing is the essential nature by which such things are things, the rules being written, blueprinting existence, by an unknown or unreal architect. A man is a man only insofar as he exhibits the features of the Form of Man. The specific features exhibited through the Forms are not explained. Plato cared only for categorization, not specificity. Not nuance.
While solipsism cannot be defeated, you, like all who have considered the issue, reject non-existence, despite the impossibility of evidence to the contrary. This leaves you at body, matter, subset thereof. Your body is a brute fact. You are an electrical current connecting brain stem and heart, and the affected chemical compounds between them. You do not know, and will never know, when you do or do not exhibit the essential features of Man or Woman. The Form of You is not to be found.
Your first published poems were in an issue of a magazine dedicated to women and non-binary writers. Your parents claim to have read these two poems specifically about discovering your non-binary nature, but have never asked you about what they mean. You know they see and read everything you post on Facebook. You know they saw you publicly coming out. When you tweet about body dysphoria and gender presentation, all your mother can do is send a text asking if you are alright, if you are having an identity crisis. You tell her always.
Visiting over Christmas, at dinner, your nephew asks what a Shirley Temple is and your father says it’s a girl version of a Roy Rogers. He actually says that the drink itself, a splash of grenadine and soda, is a girl. When you remind him that beverages don’t have genders, he shouts at you. How are you supposed to convince him you might not have a gender if he will shout about the femininity of a Shirley Temple? You remember him saying, once before the election, that he was concerned about men dressing as women to assault women in feminine spaces. He couldn’t be convinced that such a threat is only a specter. After the election, so many post-mortems blamed left politics for caring too much about transgender issues instead of jobs, even though there are twice as many trans Americans as there are coal miners. Your father told you he could understand having voted for Trump, for people who believed Trump was devoted to creating jobs. You can’t convince him that these are the same issue, that trans rights and women’s rights are workers’ rights. How are you supposed to tell him that his favorite son might be his youngest daughter?
Your parents understand something of the word queer when you use it, but not enough. You talk to them about your recent break-up, about how you’re not looking to date anyone. They say, things like whoever you end up with. They use the word partner rather than girlfriend. They imply, but do not say, that they would be comfortable with you dating a man. They’re paying attention, but not enough, remaining intentionally uninformed and egregiously dodgy, ignoring the larger piece of things. You can’t thank them for meeting you quarter way there. You can’t praise them for a compassion that ought to be a given. But you have no idea how to make them come further, to ask you a question instead of making assumptions and ignoring what they don’t understand.
Once on his blog, your brother posted vaguely, implying that he is trans, implying that she is your sister. You double tapped the post, watched the heart light up your phone screen and waited for something more to come. She or he has yet to mention anything to you about it. She or he has never commented on or otherwise reacted to anything you’ve posted on the internet about your gender identity. You don’t text him or her about it and she or he doesn’t text you either. The blog has been abandoned. You don’t know how to bait them anymore without outing yourself completely. Why can’t you make a move?
The woman at work, old enough to be your mother, tells you, almost at random, about her experience with trans people. Her daughter’s best friend is transitioning, and she remembers him as a little girl. She finds it difficult to reconcile her memories of this person with who this person is. At the same time, her new neighbor is a trans woman, and she has no struggle addressing her neighbor appropriately. Why do the connections between us make it so difficult to change? To understand? A rewriting of history as betrayal, but to whom? Who are you afraid of betraying?
You never know how to present yourself. Identity is not the same as presentation and while well-meaning and well-informed people understand this conceptually, they still question your motives and behavior. They pose to you: but you have a beard, but you wear men’s clothes, but you present masculine, but you date women, but you don’t look non-binary, but you don’t look feminine. What they don’t understand is that this is a journey, and they do not understand this because for most, it is only a destination. What they don’t understand is that the only aspect of masculinity you enjoy is the fashion.
You wear men’s clothes because you love them, the polished leather, merino wool, swatches of ink-stained corduroy, pale chambray, and raw denim. You spend more money on scarves and jackets than most spend on car repairs. You cultivate this aesthetic, this grunge-dandy, this baby-butch look, because it is the most sincere and most comfortable you can be. You want to soften your features with accessories, be noted for meticulousness. You’d like to be a question for others to ponder, if even just once, if even from a distance. You wear a beard because you know it looks good, draws eyes, and if you can’t find recognition, you can settle for attention. The same reason you lost forty pounds, vanity, a desire to be more desirable to anyone who will look, attempt to see you. You wonder if your weight loss is related to your gender, recalling how every woman you’ve ever slept with had issues with her weight ranging from generalized low self-esteem to full-on eating disorders, how Ashley would not let you keep a scale in the apartment, how she is concerned at the speed with which your body shrinks. You recall a conversation, once after your band played a show, while everyone else had gone and a friend told you that your guitar player triggered her eating disorder without realizing it by mentioning how good she looked on days when he didn’t know she hadn’t eaten. You’ve always known to not mention people’s bodies unless specifically asked, and you only slip up during sex. You just want people paying attention to what you are doing with your body, even as you are indifferent to how other people use their own.
You know the shape of your body. Your shoulders broad, your jawline masculine, your hair knotted and unmanageable when long. You search for means to distance yourself from these characteristics, but when you ask questions like how do I look more androgynous? every guide you find is designed for people who want to become ambiguous through embracing masculinity, and not the other way around. Sure, there are hormones, which might soften your jaw, plump up your ass, but also, over time, grow breasts, or make your dick non-functional. You don’t want breasts. You want a sinewy body, a lithe thing that takes up no space. You don’t know if you want to keep having a penis, but as long as you have one, you want it to work.
You find yourself following the blogs of women in transition and trying not to fetishize their bodies, but you cannot always tell when your attraction is healthy and when it is obsessive. You want to know that if you decide to transition at 26, at 30, at 35, that you can be beautiful. You don’t know why this matters to you, but you know that it does.
You don’t know how to discover the next step, how best to explore what your identity means. You ask trans women about their experiences and their stories range from hyper-masculine masks to a need to embrace the feminine so strongly that they were always willing to put their bodies at risk, their lives in danger, to exhibit truth. There is no perfect map for you in any of their stories. You don’t know what an answer might look like, because you don’t know the right questions to ask. You don’t know if you are standing still because you’re comfortable or because you’re terrified. You don’t know how to reconcile being both at once.
JD HEGARTY is between names, between genders, and between good night's sleep. They are a lawyer by day, a poet by night, an essayist by twilight, and a dungeon master on Tuesdays. JD’s work can be found in White Stag and in On Passing, their first chapbook, published by Red Bird Chapbooks, where they are a poetry editor. They live in haunted Saint Paul with two loud grey cats.