September 15, 2014

Commentary | January 20, 2014
Presence as defiance
Tattooing, transition, and gender (non-)conformity
Written by | Visual by Alice Shen

One night, almost a year ago, I dreamt of tattooing myself. In the dream, it was a simple black band around my left wrist, painstakingly inked dot by dot by dot. Over the next few days I felt strangely compelled by the dream, eventually culminating in the purchase of a box of 50 tattoo needles and black tattoo ink, and a first few nervous pinpricks.

To me, my (now numerous) tattoos are strong bits of defiance embedded permanently and visibly on my body. The first time I took a tattoo needle to my skin, I felt incredibly empowered with the ability to change the course of my body’s future. “What if you regret it?” my mother probes with every new tattoo. “That’s awfully… visible,” says a friend when tattoos show up on my knuckles.

Any person with obvious tattoos is familiar with the judgemental questions disguised as gentle concern from family and friends. “Are you sure you want that forever?” or “Will you still like it when you’re older?” It takes a certain amount of learned confidence to shrug off the overbearing intrusions. For me to be the one responsible for both the pain and the resulting art carries an even greater sense of bodily autonomy. To reclaim my own skin in this way is as much a personal, political act as it is an aesthetic one.

The application of a layer of nail polish or makeup, or wearing one’s favourite clothes, carries the same weight for some, especially when these acts are out of the ordinary. A certain haircut can be as much about comfort as it is about defiance. Sometimes it’s not only relatives or friends – sometimes it feels like the whole world is sneering behind your back, and this is when something so small as drawing a stroke of eyeliner feels like the bravest thing in the world.

Doing what is right for your body often sounds like a straightforward rule out of a self-help book. Invasions of privacy dog trans* people who pursue surgical, hormonal, sartorial, or any other avenues to change their body’s appearance. As they fail to make the expected overnight switch from one socially condoned gender prescription to another, this becomes inevitable.

Sometimes it’s not only relatives or friends – sometimes it feels like the whole world is sneering behind your back, and this is when something so small as drawing a stroke of eyeliner feels like the bravest thing in the world.

‘Transitioning’ is, in the first place, a bit of a misnomer. The term implies, whether directly or indirectly, that a trans* person is not their gender until they pass a sufficient number of societal ‘tests’ that proves them such. A trans woman is not ‘a man who became a woman,’ as people are wont to believe. She is a woman.

For years, I settled uncomfortably into identifying myself as a butch, straight woman. I have since come to understand that I am a non-binary person – neither male nor female – with fairly few restrictions on my sexuality. Yet I did not ‘become’ a non-binary person. I was always a non-binary person. After years of confusion and anxiety, I was finally able to recognize the feeling that weighed on me for much of my life, and understand the steps I could take to change it.

‘Just be yourself’ is a phrase with an ugly irony. When trans* people are ‘just being themselves,’ they risk ridicule, hate, prejudice, and violence.

It isn’t easy to defy the immense societal pressure to be cis and fall in line with whatever gender has been assigned to your body. It isn’t easy to come out to friends and family, who, for all you know, may turn against you with vitriol. It isn’t easy to ‘just be yourself’ when you are asked to prove that you deserve to occupy space, let alone earn a living wage, attend school, or go so far as to settle down and start a family.

Like the questions that follow every tattooed person, every trans* person is asked whether they have really thought things through. If they’re really sure this is what they want forever; if this surgery or that outfit or those friends are really right. Why anyone would decide to undergo my surgery and biweekly self-injected hormone regimen on a whim is frankly beyond my comprehension.

And once the initial decision to ‘transition’ has been grudgingly accepted, the accusations of not trying ‘hard enough’ start to pour in. “If you’re really a woman, why are you wearing those pants?” “If you’re really a man, why would you wear nail polish?” The flip-flopping between “Why are you doing it?” and “Why aren’t you doing it enough?” is a perpetual double standard enacted at every stage of the so-called transition – not only by people in day-to-day life, but also by the gatekeepers of the institutional power that many must access in order to survive.

It should be a default expectation that any person – trans* or not – is able to do whatever they please with the way they look without fearing danger from strangers on the street or lovers in the bedroom. But that is not the case.

The pervasive conception of ‘transition’ is that it’s an abrupt process by which a man ‘becomes’ a woman, or vice versa. This culminates as the supposed ‘sex change,’ in which a trans* person apparently goes under the knife and walks out with an all-new set of genitals and secondary sex characteristics. Nearly every trans* person has had someone ask if they’ve had “the surgery,” often uttered in a reverent and fearful whisper.

 In reality, ‘transitioning’ is a long, complex process of conforming one’s body or social image to fit their actual gender, and it differs for every trans* person. I know a significant number of trans* people who have not, and do not intend to, pursue hormone replacement therapy, and similarly the types of surgery that people need is variable.

The only way a trans* person can expect to feel safe around the average crowd of cis people is to appear to be a cis person, meaning that they appear to either be strictly male or female – whether that means being read as their birth gender, or blending in flawlessly as the ‘opposite’ gender binary through some combination of good genetic luck, hard work, time, and money.

In an ideal world, safety would not be one of the top concerns in a trans* person’s mind when they decide to pursue any avenues of making their bodies conform to their needs. It should be a default expectation that any person – trans* or not – is able to do whatever they please with the way they look without fearing danger from strangers on the street or lovers in the bedroom. But that is not the case.

Trans* people are often left balancing what makes them feel right and what makes other people uncomfortable. We try to organize ourselves and our behaviours around what makes us stop wanting to crawl out of our own skins, and what could get the shit beaten out of us. And in this world, as much as petitioning and speaking at workshops is important work, survival itself can be a form of activism. The search for a comfortable existence is its own form of resistance for people who are seen as ‘abnormal’ enough to have the worth of their lives be questioned by everyone, from peers to entire governments.


Wong Kar Tsai is a pseudonym. To contact the writer, email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.

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