Feature image by Sessi Blanchard.
I mourn the fact that I grew into a girl with no mother. Well, to be clear, I do have a mom. She popped me out during Virgo season and loved me and all my faggotry. My nightly letters to the tooth fairy were greeted, for years, with an illegible cursive hand that coincidentally matched the one scribbled on my brown-bag lunches. Binge-watching was innovated in the age of VHS by me and my BMFF (Best Mom Friend Forever), cuddling on the couch for hours at a time with Will & Grace lighting up our faces adorned with the makeup I insisted I paint on.
But she didn’t teach me how to be a woman in the way that mothers of young cisgender girls do. For most of our relationship, I was a boy. Curling Barbie’s hair was a phase and all that sparkle-crusted nail polish on my nails was an expression of artistic imagination, right? My girlhood was dreamed from within a boyhood. I grieve the impossible memories of a mother and daughter.
But a little societal and parental misrecognition could not evaporate all the sissies and femininities that I bathed in, even if the door was locked, bolted and barricaded. I DIYed my way into my womanhood: mining the internet, stumbling through makeup tutorials, painfully attempting to tuck, mouthing the bitter irony of Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy,” searching Backpage, now deceased, just to know that other girls like me were out there.
I’m privileged to have had a caring mother who was always at the ready to demonstrate a backstitch, a relationship that so many girls like me do not know. But the melancholy remains. The dreams I have of S.T.A.R House and kicking it with Sylvia and Marsha and their crew. The desire I have for trans elder wisdom that only comes with age — some boy advice wrapped in a ribbon unfamiliar to cis women. My mother reminds me that men consistently fail to appreciate women for our minds and emotions. Mama, I know that I am a smart cookie and that I have emotional complexity. I need to hear that my body is and can be desirable, an affirmation that is sweeter from a woman who has weathered the storms of dating while trans. I just want to be told that I am fuckable, take-to-dinner dateable, raise-a-succulent-garden-together lovable. Many of us never experience that flavor of love. I want a trans elder who reminds me that such a mythological hue can rise on a trans girl’s horizon.
“I just want to be told that I am fuckable, take-to-dinner dateable, raise-a-succulent-garden-together lovable. Many of us never experience that flavor of love. I want a trans elder who reminds me that such a mythological hue can rise on a trans girl’s horizon.”
These are the objects that I carry but have not found. Loss is the only name I have for this. Loss of a community that I perhaps romanticize. But it’s a community where sisterhood is what hooks you up with estrogen, not the endocrinologist who leaves his hand on your estro-tit for longer than medically necessary. The sisterhood that holds you after a guy tells you he can’t be seen in public with you, not the therapist with the glazed-over dollar-sign eyes.
With Time’s 2015 “Transgender Tipping Point” and the acceleration of mainstream representation, the self-reliant networks, skills and ways of living that trans women have relied on to survive in a transmisogynistic culture are increasingly assimilated and absorbed by institutions for profit. Voguing and ballroom culture, an underground scene developed by queer and trans folks of color in Harlem in the 80s, carved space for those marginalized and oppressed by the capitalist economy and white supremacist culture to build intimate kinships and explore transgressive modes of embodiment — queer lines, shapes and movements — that are discouraged by a hetero-patriarchal white supremacist commercial culture.
For instance, cultural elites and luxury companies have appropriated voguing and the ballroom, exemplified by Vanessa Hudgens’s comment on Rupaul’s Drag Race (itself a commercialization of Black and Brown drag culture): “I’m so into voguing right now so that gave me life.” Appropriation of voguing by the bourgeoisie, inaugurated by Madonna’s 1990 song “Vogue,” reinscribes class domination; the artistic labor of poor queer and trans folks of color can be extracted by commercial musicians and corporate publications who, embedded in capitalism, refuse to compensate the cultural workers who produce the styles from which they profit. What was once primarily an art form for survival and communing with other queers and trans girls of color is now subject to capitalist logics, where voguing can be a LinkedIn profession, sucked dry of intimacy and injected with a steroidal energy that demands optimized efficiency, broader audience appeal and, in turn, less transgression and disruption.
Trans women of color, especially Black trans women, remain on the margins of employment, cultural recognition and education. Trans women of color should not have to be confined to selling their skills in voguing to companies in order to survive. I don’t intend to suggest that voguing is singular (for example, as a means to build kinship) nor that those who capitalize on it are sellouts. TBH, if a trans girl can earn cash in a self-fulfilling way, more goddess-damn power to her! But when voguing is a skill to be sold in the commercial marketplace, its capacity to network disparate queer and trans folks of color is neutralized. It is a trendy commodity for white heterosexual, cisgender consumption.
Departing from the example of the voguing appropriation, the push for transgender inclusion and visibility benefits white trans women more than trans women of color. As a biracial college-educated trans woman, I undoubtedly speak from a place of privilege. I grew up in a relatively stable household, maintain positive relationships with my parents and have an undergraduate degree in the humanities. I am a living example of the ways that transgender women can slip into the heteronormative cisgender professional world. This position clarifies for me, though, the dangers of neoliberal diversity projects that seek to include the exceptional while exploiting and oppressing the many. Some girls like me can now ghost or mutter, “I don’t know her,” to communities of girls that may have sustained them under alternative circumstances. I find myself preemptively mourning the transgenerational communities and cliques and cults and clubs and covens of girls like me that could be and may not be.
But I know sisterhood is alive and well. I have trans gals in my life with whom I love and struggle, with whom I have grown breasts and discovered the impossibility of unrelentingly heterosexual men’s affection. Nicky, a friend and roommate from college, pops adorably teal estrogen tabs with me over cereal. Nicky beat my face with iridescent powders and glossy balms when my unlearned hands could not; Nicky curled her doll-sized body around my hefty form when boys would not; Nicky pulled up a YouTube vlogger displaying the fleshy transformation of her nether region when my curious, hesitant fingers could not.
“All the loudmouth, back-stabbing, spilling-the-beans marks on my body that I often loathe are transformed into Welcome Home, Girl mats, the icebreakers that thaw the winter of cisgender hell.”
And there are t-girls into whose orbit I momentarily spin.
On the eve of my transition, hospitalized for the unbearable loneliness of the closet, I found cosmic warmth from a fellow institutionalized trans woman, Hannah — thirty-something, tall like me with wire-framed lenses. Houseless, Hannah’s life between shelters, doorways and men’s wallets was something that only stepping into the path of a hurtling bus could seemingly solve. The facility offered no counseling. We held each other because no one else would. At the psychiatric institute, there was no LGBTQ Center, a cold institution up in drag as a comrade, like at my college. No, we were confined to rooms that were allergic to points and edges, subjected to the mercy of the doctor’s conception of a healthy mind, and abused by the cups filled with nameless pills.
Hannah momentarily mothered me out of suicide. Sitting me down on the rounded-edged couch, she taught me how to breathe. Unshaven legs crossed, hands draped wherever they may fall, gather air through your sniffly nose and release it through your tired mouth. In the void of your eyelids lounge all the women that you are and can be, she breathed. Within one of those sterile institutions, the ones that I have ranted about as vampirically extracting vitality from trans women’s sisterhood, I took flight in a fleeting intimacy with a girl like me.
Love becomes familiar in these liminal encounters. Like when a trans girl and I clock each other on the street. The black stubble that pebbles my chin, my tenor giggle, the apple that swells on the surface of my neck, my six foot, three inch architecture — in other words, all the loudmouth, back-stabbing, spilling-the-beans marks on my body that I often loathe are transformed into Welcome Home, Girl mats, the icebreakers that thaw the winter of cisgender hell. The flow of hostile pedestrian stares is paused by a Hey girl! How have you been? Old friends with no history bumping into each other. When I’m on the sidewalks of New York City, I find long lost aunts and cousins and grandmothers and sis’s, time-travelling girls who have initiated the Butterfly Effect. The cisgender patriarchal world that arrogantly constructs itself as the only possible future, the one that wants trans women dead, alone, or impossibly congruent with cis women, is undone in these Butterfly moments of encounter. That girl from Delancey Street? The one that I stopped and chatted with about the sunny weather and the lip gloss twinkling on her lips — she is absent from my past but hails from the immanent possibility of a sisterhood from the future.