“A Prisoner In My Own Vessel”

I’ve been thinking a lot about a line I wrote in a poem called “Desolate Lands” where I explained that sometimes I view myself as “a prisoner in my own vessel.” I wanted to deconstruct what emotions and thoughts I was processing in that moment. I was struggling with feelings about dysphoria and discomfort with my biological existence, though before I delve into the nuance of trans issues and the relationships we have with our bodies, I want to explain more about the methods I use when I write poetry. To me, the creation of authentic and visceral emotion in my writing requires me to allow my various thoughts to travel through me and my writing instrument to fill the page untethered with doubt for what I’m feeling in that precise moment. This means that I will often return to something I have written in the past and learn that my thoughts and feelings on the topic have dramatically changed. This is the reason that writing is so cathartic for me, because it helps me learn about who I am as a person, deconstruct complicated thoughts, and is as a catalyst for me to process emotion and trauma. Writing is a healing activity that allows me to move forward and understand my experiences.

I think we’ve all heard it before, the overtly common and limited narrative that suggests all trans people feel trapped in their own bodies, or as “prisoners in their own vessels” as I described in “Desolate Lands” no more than a day ago. I understand that there are many trans people who might feel this way about their bodies and that’s valid and real. In fact, I know that this is a feeling I sometimes have about my own body that comes from dysphoria, hence the inclusion of the line in my recent poem, and I’m not here to debate the reality of those experiences, quite the opposite. However, I do really want to emphasize that I don’t always feel this way about my body and that many trans people feel comfortable in their own bodies, and that doesn’t make them any less authentic.

There is a quote from Alok Vaid-Menon who explains that “[they were not] born in the wrong body, [they were] born in the wrong world.” This quote has always resonated with me as I’ve tried to come to understand my feelings towards my body. Alok draws attention to a toxic gender status quo and encourages us to move beyond a “Western colonial system that’s invested in categorizing everything about us.” I’ve realized since writing “Desolate Lands” that I don’t necessarily feel like a “prisoner in my own vessel” but rather lost in an ocean of stereotypes and false assumptions about my body and how this supposedly defines who I am or how I traverse the world. There is no monolithic trans narrative, and we all have unique relationships with our bodies. I agree with Janet Mock when she explains that the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative can inevitably function to “place [us] in the role of victim, and to those who take mainstream media depictions as truth [we are] seen as a human to be pitied because [we are] someone who needs to be saved, rather than a self-determined [human] with agency and choice and the ability to define who [we are] in this society and who [we] will become in spite of it.”

Gender is Both a Galaxy and a Prison

Most people don’t even realize that the violence experienced by trans and gender-variant people begins as early as the moment someone becomes aware of our existence. From the hopes and desires of parents, to gender reveal parties and baby showers, our lives are decided for us without any consideration for our own desires. Often before we are even born we are treated more as objects whose function is to provide familial satisfaction – to feed into the limited and stereotypical heteronormative nuclear family – and to fulfill the wants, dreams, and aspirations of our parents and those who raise us. People develop these grand ideas about raising their children, and often impose their own ideologies, desires, and stereotypes on their children based on nothing more than the results of an ultrasound, their desires as parents, and their assumptions about their child’s gender.

This violence continues through to our birth, and as I mentioned in a previous article, a doctor took one look at me in the hospital and decided that it was appropriate to coercively assign me an identity before I could even comprehend what that would mean for me in the future. In that moment, as a vulnerable and unaware infant, I was dependent on others to make decisions for me. I never could have imagined that someone would make the decision to imprison me with a label meant to regulate how I traverse the world. Most wouldn’t consider this an act of violence, especially because assigning a gender to children at birth has become such a central aspect within our culture; a supposed way to know how we should celebrate and prepare for the child’s arrival, but is our society not aware that we are removing our children’s self-determination?

A phrase that I repeat often within conversation is that gender is both a galaxy and a prison. As infants, we know nothing about gender and our potential for self-discovery is as limitless and expansive as the cosmos. However, the moment we assign a gender to a child at birth, we immediately imprison them within a concrete and immovable set of expectations and stereotypes. Perhaps the child has been assigned male at birth? From this imposed identity parents might develop ideas about raising the child to become a doctor, engineer, or similar STEM related professional. Or perhaps the child is assigned female at birth, and the parents develop these ideas about the supposed beauty of their child and their capacity to bear children and nurture a family in the future. In other words, there is an inherent assumption about the activities, desires, interests and behaviors of that child that comes directly from this imposed gender identity.

These assumptions are reinforced in the various ways parents raise their children. It can be seen in the clothes they choose for their child, or the toys and entertainment they provide the child, and even right down to the basic treatment and care of the child. In essence, if you were assigned male at birth, then parents are far more likely to enroll you in sports and hands-on activities, whereas a child assigned female at birth might have less access to those activities due to their parents assumptions about what it means to be a little girl. Another example of this is the fact that our society associates action figures and toy cars with little boys, and dresses, dolls, and tea sets with little girls. Doesn’t that sound absurd? Why can’t any child enjoy dolls and action figures, toy cars and dresses, sports and tea sets? Why do we have to imprison children within a binary framework and limit their potential for self-exploration; their opportunity for discovery and growth?

This whole process of assigning a gender to our children at birth echoes throughout their entire lives and throughout our society as a whole. Gender, as a social construct, is something that we learn, and the issue is that the dichotomy of male and female as a limited binary framework is so embedded in our societal imagination that we often can’t see past our own assumptions about gender in order to give our children the freedom to discover who they are on their own terms. This creates a perpetual issue where harmful stereotypes about gender are further embedded and supported within our society. Issues like toxic masculinity and the assumption that the feminine is always subordinate to the masculine are things that we learn from birth, all because our parents and society as a whole failed to mention that we are limitless, and that our experiences are more diverse and beautiful than could ever be described by an imprisoning and rigid dichotomy.

 

Masturbation as a Transgender Person

This can be an uncomfortable conversation topic, because masturbation and any sexual experience is considered taboo to discuss, but I’m all about smashing social norms, so let’s talk about it. Masturbation and sexual release are topics that I have had difficulty navigating as a transgender person, because the dominant discourse is that all transgender people hate their bodies and therefore avoid sexual stimulation and arousal. I want to emphasize that such a perspective is not accurate for many transgender people, and personally I do not experience any dysphoria in relation to sexual stimulation.

This has been strange for me to understand because I have fed into a discourse that says it’s impossible for me to enjoy sexuality with my current biological existence. I believed that it was inappropriate for me to enjoy masturbation and sexual release because of this ridiculous notion that all transgender people supposedly hate their bodies, and therefore I should feel shame about not hating mine. I had this absurd sense of guilt that was founded in nothing more than internalized cissexism and biological essentialism.

I realized how ridiculous that is, especially when one considers that many transgender people don’t feel any dysphoria towards their bodies at all, and have no desire to seek medical transition. I feel as though I had this inappropriate association of masculinity attached to my genitalia (see internalized cissexism above) which made it difficult for me to accept that it’s normal for me to enjoy masturbation and sexual release. Now that I’ve come to realize these issues, I want to emphasize that enjoying sexual release without dysphoria and regardless of our biological realities doesn’t make us any less valid as transgender people, and our experiences with arousal and pleasure are authentic.

Memoirs of a Gender-Fucked Social Failure

Who am I?

This question has torn at my soul for most of my life. As early as I can remember understanding the notions of gender expression, identity and sexual orientation, I have been plagued with confusion about where I belong in the world. It’s important to note here that my confusion was not of my own making. I have never felt as though my experiences as a queer and trans person have ever been supported or validated within our society. Instead, upon birth a doctor assigned me with a very specific identity based on nothing more than the appearance of my genitals; an assumption that was intended to enforce strict gender stereotypes before I was ever cognizant enough to decide these things for myself. In essence, I was coercively labelled a man before I was even able to comprehend the definition of the term man and how it would define my life experiences.

I want to emphasize that I have never quite made it past the confusion imposed on me through society’s limited expectations and gender norms. Herein lies the reason for the title of this article, because I’ve constantly lived with the inner turmoil of being unable to adhere to the unrealistic standards of a limited gender binary of man and woman. As such, I have considered myself a social failure; a disappointment to society and my relationships. There is a common narrative about queer and transgender communities which claims that we all supposedly hate our bodies and experiences, and while this is inaccurate for many within our communities, there are some of us who struggle to find self-acceptance. In many ways, I still view myself as a social failure; as someone whose existence is considered an insult to what people see as the social norm, the status quo, and a threat to the dominant expectations of gender, expression and sexuality. I’ve been forced to seriously question my identity at every single turn in my life, all because some doctor decided that I would have to meet specific criteria based on nothing more than the fact that I was born with a penis and testes, and that this somehow says anything about who I want to be in life or how I want to define my experiences in this world.

So according to society I am a gender-fucked social failure. I was told who I was supposed to be, and not only did I fail to meet that criteria, I rejected these expectations with every fiber of my being. Do I sound bitter? Does reading this make you feel uncomfortable, as though everything that you were taught about gender and sexuality was a lie? Welcome to my reality in a world that labels me as false and would shackle me within a prison of limited gender stereotypes. I am beyond bitter because I was never given a chance to define my own experiences. I was never given the opportunity to discover my own identity and develop my own language to most accurately describe who I am. So who am I? Since I am a social failure, then what is my place in the world? Well, let me introduce myself. My name is Ashe, and I would describe myself as a transfeminine queerdo. See what I did there? How I combined queer and weirdo? Well, that’s how I see myself.

This might all sound self-deprecating and that is kind of the entire point of this article; to explore and understand my own struggles with self-acceptance in a world that denies the existence of my identity and experiences, and labels me as false. We live in a society that enforces rigid and imprisoning ideologies regarding a dichotomy of two limited identities; men and women. We conflate gender, sex, and sexuality as one and the same while upholding rigid ideologies regarding what it means to be a true man or woman; the expectation that everyone desires a heteronormative and procreative monogamous long-term relationship. Anyone that falls short of these rigid expectations is labelled perverse and deviant; a failure that deserves punishment. But the reality is that non-binary identities and experiences exist, and some people have polyamorous and queer sexual desires. I am one of those people. I don’t fit society’s expectations, and I doubt I ever will. So I take empowerment in the fact that I am a gender-fucked social failure.

I am proud to be me.