Three months after I begin my first course of testosterone for hormone replacement therapy, I bleed and wonder if the rust between my legs is supposed to be a lesson. I get my first-ever yeast infection, and I smile to myself, wry and drawn: I didn’t think my first would be like this.
At the health clinic, my primary care physician spreads my legs and I tell her about the opaque, roped cells that expel from inside me. She tells me that everything is hormones, that this is how a body changes. The bleeding isn’t necessarily common, but it isn’t necessarily rare.
Bleeding happens: that’s what transmasculine people like me and women of all kinds grow up knowing. Sometimes it’s from the places we’re taught to hide for our own safety — the places that were, from the very beginning, supposed to give us the most joy. (For trans women, it might not be from the same kind of places, but when it comes to blood brought by hatred, they are all too familiar.)
For two more weeks, I attempt to stuff and push and catch the things my body demands to let go, to rid itself from. From the outside, some might call it something like a phoenix in the aftermath of an impervious fire, or a snake tearing out from its own skin. But in reality, it’s nothing like that. The banality of bleeding is almost laughable. I’ve been doing it for more than two decades, after all. It’s a joke.
And then after two weeks, the bleeding stops. For now.
I don’t like to write about my body. To describe it is to make it a target for others — that’s what writing and life have taught me. The vulgar gag is that if I wanted, I’d never have to write about my body: plenty of others are willing to do it for me, and almost all of them get it entirely wrong.
When you’re trans — in my case, a transmasculine nonbinary person — the idea of your body as one that’s up for debate never goes away, it just gets louder. The echoes never change, only their inflection.
There’s the time I still live in Brooklyn, less than a year after I come out as transmasc, more than three years before I write this, after first kissing a girl I briefly date. We wait for a cashier to appear behind a plexiglass bodega window, to pay for our six-pack and pita chips. It’s August in New York, the apotheosis of summer. She’s in a summer dress, holding my hand. She is the second girl I have kissed who knows who I am. In the orange-pooled night, a man in the bodega says: Is that a boy or is that a girl? It’s not a question, it’s an alarm. There’s someone next to him. They look at me without seeing my face. It’s an it. That’s what it is. An it. They laugh. We leave.
There’s the time I get held at knifepoint. There’s the time I’m at a party and the host, who I’ve only met an hour or so before, tells everyone in the room to quiet down before asking dramatically what kind of genitals I have, pointing theatrically at my pants — it’s fun, you see, this question. There’s the time I get called it by my neighbors when they think I can’t hear — that one happened just a few weeks ago. There’s the time that — well, you know. There are so many other times.
More than six months before I get my first period — over two decades ago — the first girl I’m in love with is having a sleepover in our finished basement and asks me if I’ve ever heard of a boy named Harry Potter. Her name is Batya and she’s the daughter of my father’s colleague, and her parents are staying at my house for something involving academia.
She’s reading a book, and the boy in the title is named Harry Potter. We’ve been lying on the foam pull-out couch in the basement where my parents, or — to be fair — my father, send us to when they tire of children. The minute before, Batya compares her left leg to my right leg. The hair on hers is sporadic but thick; the hair on mine less so. She’s slightly younger than me, if only by a few months, but she assures me with this particular sentiment, one I articulate as dread: It’ll happen, it happens to all of us.
I start to read the book. It’s about a boy named Harry who bleeds from his head when he’s less than a year old. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs, doesn’t yet know the words for how he’s different than the world around him, and at the zoo suddenly discerns a language so few can understand. There’s an ache that trembles and quickens in my rib cage, technically, but it feels like it resides in a place deeper than anything my body knows. I’ve never heard of someone without the words to describe who they are, and it’s something I didn’t know I felt too, until now. Not having the words to say why I feel so different, not even knowing I could have them in the first place. I’ll find them, years later, but the point is this: I’ll be lucky enough to know them at all.
I fall asleep hours after Batya, and when we both wake, she pulls down the covers and there’s a patch of something corrugated and flaking that starts somewhere between her legs, something oxidized and slightly brown and so swift in the way it both brushes off and stays. She’s calm. It happens to all of us.
When it comes to the trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) movement in the UK, trans women are typically the ones most stricken by its prejudicial views. Trans men and transmasculine nonbinary people like me are looked upon with a sort of pity, rather than rage. We’re seen as failed women who are incapable of autonomy, who have some yet-to-be-pinpointed sickness, a brainwashed sprawl who are victims of the patriarchy, not survivors of that and more.
Much of the TERF movement in the UK stems from the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which, as renowned trans journalist Katelyn Burns puts it, “defines the legal process for trans people to change their legal sex on their birth certificates, which currently involves an expensive and highly intrusive investigation by an anonymous government board that has the final say over a trans person’s legal sex.” A 2017 inquiry introduced a reform in which transgender individuals would be able to self-identify their gender, rather than having a body politic use an arbitrary rubric to grant a sense of humanity to some but not others.
The battle to reform the GRA invigorated a movement founded in fearmongering and age-old transphobic tropes. It leaves people — people like me — bereft of the recognition that we’ve spent many more years than others figuring out our bodies, our minds, our souls. Or it punishes us for the self-same thoughtfulness. It does not allow for progress. It does not allow for people, for anyone, to bleed.
It’s funny, or maybe a different word than funny, when J.K. Rowling proclaims to her millions of acolytes years after writing the last Harry Potter book that, say, Albus Dumbledore was queer the whole time, or that of course there was a Jewish student at Hogwarts, even if his name is only mentioned briefly and we know hardly anything else about him. It’s claiming praise for work that never existed. It demands laurels and medals of gold without putting a foot on the track. Or better yet: It’s standing in the last row of the race, looking on at the people fleeting and chimeric, who extend and break themselves for the strange pleasure of others.
It’s none of the work and all of the mouth. It’s skipping over lanes and lines for the sake of one’s own simple comfort. It’s the inverse of humanity: It’s a sentiment based on the selfish.
My father, the son of Holocaust survivors, was born six years before and 112 miles apart from J.K. Rowling. She comes from a family of engineers and science technicians; my father comes from teenage domestic workers and cobblers who escaped Treblinka and Chelmno and other far more unnameable places, who reside in untraceable graves. My father and Rowling both grappled with poverty. They both grew up under the same queen. They were, and are, two people who fought so hard to just be seen as people.
One sees me as a person, and one does not.
It’s funny when Rowling says time and time again that as a trans person, I don’t exist. The author who helped make me a person would prefer I didn’t exist after all. There is no room for questions in a place like that. There is no room for grace.
It might be a futile thing to do, but I can’t help but ask it. I bleed and I exist — why would you prefer me not to?
When I think of blood as a Jewish person, it’s hard not to think of Shylock, blood libels, or tribunals of a majority of others demanding it. We all know Shylock’s famous line: If you prick us, do we not bleed? Shylock says it in front of a court comprised of those who think otherwise. He says it after an itemization of a kind, destined to be futile: Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
When the Pittsburgh synagogue I grew up in became the site of the largest mass shooting against Jewish Americans in U.S. history, these questions kept recurring: When will we finally prove it to you? When will it be enough? How much more blood needs to be shed? Decades after my father’s parents seemed to escape these questions, here I still am, asking them.
In three weeks, I’ll mark my one-year anniversary for HRT. I joke to my girlfriend Zoe that instead of my B-day, it will be my T-day. I had ambitions to throw an English tea party (get it?) in our front yard, complete with watercress sandwiches and lox and capers. I would have bet on how many of my friends would use the occasion to wear their best bowties, but coronavirus has — among so many more important things than American queers sipping Earl Grey out of solo cups — halted those plans.
Today — after almost a year of weekly injections that prick and slide through muscle with an ease that’s also a sort of sickening resistance, after learning how to avoid making small slices into my face when I shave, after watching my subcutaneous fat reconfigure my jawline, after seeing so many changes happen so slowly it feels like none at all — I feel those familiar, pain-sparked rumblings cradling in my pelvis, blunt-bladed axes rutting somewhere far inside me, a four-or-more-ibuprofen kind of ache, the familiar harbinger of what’s to come. Somewhere in between gender, here it is, once again: the ritual of bleeding, of letting go. It’s a life I live and a life so easily dismissed. Names better known than mine don’t need to remind me.
If I bleed and I exist, why would you prefer me not to?
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