In November of 2007, I made an agonising decision. I cut my long, wavy, beautifully colored red hair. I let my ear piercings close up. I put on slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie... and a mask I hadn't worn for a year, and then I stepped on a plane bound for Seoul, South Korea.
At this point I had been living full-time as a woman, first in Texas, and then in Atlanta, Georgia since around January or February, I cannot recall when I was actually hired to my job. Coming from a background of possessing male privilege, provisional or incomplete as it had been, I had paid a heavy price for the decision to start transitioning. I had never been safe, but I had always been safer in comparison to my women friends, classmates, colleagues. It did not prevent my sexual assault a couple of years before at the hands of those whom I should have been able to trust most; my fellow midshipmen. However, for the first time, more in Atlanta than in Texas, I discovered I wasn't safe because I was a woman. I came face to face with Schrodinger's Rapist.
Combined with a terrible ending to a long term romantic relationship, my decision to resign my appointment to midshipman and leave rather than admit what had happened even to myself meant that I lacked direction and purpose. After a short stint in Atlanta politics which included very positive experiences with the LGBT community in that city, I decided to finally do something about the gender identity disorder I'd been diagnosed with in 2003 (the diagnoses came mere months after my appointment was authorised). Perhaps conflict with the Navy was inevitable, but I had been very careful in my on-duty interactions, there was no intention to transition while I still wore the uniform. Once my experiences, and specifically those of abuse, meant that I could no longer continue to wear that uniform, I latched onto my transition as a goal. As a purpose. Something which made my life have meaning.
And then, I ran out of money. I was $30K in the hole due to a combination of loans my last calendar year of undergraduate. My parents had cut me off, not knowing the background of my terrible third year (they know now), horrible grades and vis a vis the appointment to midshipman. I have a lot of class privilege, but I was on my own. How could I tell them? I couldn't even tell myself. Neither my political positions, nor my department store position, could possibly make ends meet. I was drowning. The economy crashed in November 2007. I had applied for some positions with Georgia Tech, across from which my apartment was located. They kept in touch; I was still in consideration, but I was out of time.
I did get a lucky break, I had a friend at the DNC. She had, after college, but before working in activist politics, put in two years teaching English (my actual degree and background!) in Korea. And she could give me some contacts if I was willing to take the plunge. But there was a catch. Korea is very conservative, she told me. If I wanted the job, transition was impossible. But most people only did a year or two, I could put myself into the black, or at least a much lighter shade of red. Out of time. Out of options. And so I did.
Korea itself is hardly much more than a blur now. I was only there six months. My bosses were thieves, tax evaders, and jerks. But my friend was right. Because of the economic crash, I settled with my creditors for less than half what I owed them. And then I set about figuring out what to do next, because although I had agreed to a year, my employers had essentially nullified the contract in my eyes by their boorish behavior. I found a position in Japan, and I went.
I didn't terribly think much about my gender identity once I was in Japan. I found that no matter what I did, it was just being the silly foreigner, so for a good long time, I think I actually became less self aware. If possible, I may have even become less activist. Certainly less feminist, although I'm unsure I would have called myself that at the time. That changed as Japan's newness wore off for me... and my newness wore off for my community. My Japanese language skills became better, my understanding of Japanese tone indicators and nonverbal communication, like facial expressions or gestures, became more complete. And then, slowly, I began to see the cracks.
At first it was just the microaggressions leveled at me for being foreign that I noticed. How many times I would be asked how soon I would be returning "home," asked if I could use chopsticks or told I used them just so, so well (despite the fact I have been using chopsticks since at least the age of eleven or twelve, maybe younger), and constant refrains (which is still constant) about my physical appearance. But then... as I peered closer, I started seeing the microaggressions directed at other foreigners, and then within foreigner groups, in many cases, the treatment of women. And then I noticed how Japanese women were being treated.
My mental honeymoon with Japan came to a screeching halt. I loved Japan, and I didn't stop loving it, but I discarded the ridiculous notion that the problems I had worked against at home did not also exist in their unique incarnations here in Japan. And my discomfort with my gender identity began to grow. And I looked, again, perhaps even more than I ever had before, for tools to deconstruct my experiences and the observed experiences of others.
I'm not sure how I found Jezebel. I don't remember what article. I don't remember if it was just the button and the tag line at the bottom of Gizmodo, which I began to read when I made the switch from PC to Mac, but I suspect this is probably the case. I do know; it was exactly that for which I was looking. The issues and concepts discussed were couched in humor and written in an accessible style about actual examples of those concepts. My feminism was out of date, dusty, even moulding, I had not seriously engaged in it since, maybe, 2004. I needed a refresher course before diving into Steinem, Butler, and hooks.
And ooh boy did my comments reflect it. I've gone back and found, with certain keywords, some of my comments from 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. On some topics, all I get is snapshots. The earlier the comments, the less I recognise my voice in them. In some cases, especially on issues of rape culture and sexual harassment, it seems as if I had not even experienced 2007, for if I had, and of course I actually did, why would I say such absurd things? I think there are a few reasons for this. When I first arrived at Jezebel:
1) I was steeped in recovered male privilege, too far from my own experiences of living every minute of every day as a woman. The mask I had so agonised about putting back on had grafted itself to my face, blinders and all.
2) I hadn't dealt with my own personal pain, about my gender identity, about my assault, about my "gaijinness."
3) I had no idea what intersectionality was, the only way I could speak about oppression was in regards to my own. Therefore many of my earlier comments were very #itsnotaboutyou.
4) I did not recognise my privileges (or the privileges of others in many cases) outside of very abstract monolithic notions like "white privilege." And even for those I was aware of, they were general, generic. Not expressed in lived experiences.
5) I was terrified of how Jezzies would react to my identity as a trans woman given many of the things I had heard about "feminists."
And so just on the subject of self-identification alone, I can see a movement. I go from qualifying every statement with, "AND I'M A MAN" to "I'm a feminine male" to "I'm gender non-conforming" to "...ah fuck it, you people are cool, you think transphobia is terrible, and I'm actually a trans woman, I was never a man, I was just scared." It seems inconceivable to me now that I ever thought I had to say otherwise in order to be taken seriously. It's a bigger wonder that it seems to have taken so damn long. It's incredibly jarring to read. "I was terrified of these people? But these people are fucking awesome."
One of the series of comments I have noticed shows a drastic change across articles addressing the topic of women's educational institutions. I go from a vocal critic prior to my own experience or just starting my own experience of attending a women's college which is technically co-ed but has a very low percentage of male attendance to now, with me being a staunch defender of women's educational institutions, as long as they are trans inclusive. I commented on enough articles that I can literally see little changes from "Never!" to "Well, maybe in specific circumstances" to "okay, so maybe you have some good points" to "well, let's have ALL THE OPTIONS" to "women's educational institutions are awesome, I would never trade my experiences at my own for anything, and as long as these institutions are open to trans women, I think they are important and necessary." Quite the change for a mere four years.
This is hardly the only topic for which I've seen significant movement. I see it on reproductive rights. I see it on the wage gap. I see it on sexual assault and rape culture. My positions were not always terrible, or even bad, some were... "moderate" when viewed through a non-feminist lens. But a non-feminist lens is a patriarchal lens, and you might say I have a better prescription now. I call myself an intersectional feminist. Four years ago, I probably would have looked at my current positions, and intersectional isn't the word I would have used. I would have probably used "radical" instead. And it would have been somewhat negative. Well, intersectional feminism is radical.
It's the radical idea that lived experiences matter. It's the radical idea that privileges exist both in terms of the group and in terms of the individual. That these privileges, and the lack of privileges, intersect to produce the lived experiences which do matter so much when considering oppression. It's the very, very radical idea that we can acknowledge our oppression, but more crucially, we can acknowledge the oppression of others. This is not a zero-sum game. It is the extremely radical notion that we are not just women, or persons of color, or trans folks, or the disabled, or gay, or men but that we are people. Our groups are still important for drawing the lines, but our individual narratives color in the resulting shapes.
And where did I learn this? Right here. Not because anyone lectured me. Not because someone decided to sit me down and throw Intersectionality 101 at me. But because of the shared personal narratives, in the articles, in the posts, and in the comments. On the main page, and increasingly from pre-Kinja on in Groupthink. And when I restarted my transition, you listened to me. I didn't lecture. I didn't throw Trans 101 at anyone. I just... told my story. Day to day. Experience to experience. I was able to do that deconstruction. I was able to explore with you how that dude who hit on me in the monorail made me feel unsafe and why it was problematic. Or why I am frustrated with people who tell me point blank the patriarchy doesn't exist. Or why trans exclusive feminists make me feel like less of a person. Or why, yeah, sometimes I'm not too happy with feminism. And you have explored with me your issues, so I have better understood them. Not as some huge monolithic academic conceptualisations, but as really terrible shit happening to really good people.
And I am a better feminist, and indeed a better person for having been here.
This was originally written on July 18th, 2013 and not shared outside of Groupthink. I feel it may now be shared.