RIBS LIKE STARFISH.
2. When my six-year-old comes out to me as transgender, it is the simplicity of the wish that cuts the deepest, and then the empathy: "Mommy, I want to be Olive. I know Oliver is a good name, but I want to be Olive." She doesn't have the language to call herself transgender, but she knows she wants to be a girl. She has been contemplating it long enough to have decided on a more suitable name. And she acknowledges the attachment I might have to the name I chose for her, even as she insists that we let it go. This complicated, life-altering transformation compacted into two syllables: Olive.
As the weeks pass and we undertake the work of social transition, I am struck by how little she has actually changed. There are new clothes and new pronouns, conversations with teachers about reintroducing her to the class as Olive, conversations with friends and family about how to support and respect this perspicacious, self-aware child. But for the most part, changing her gender does not open the floodgates to other changes. She remains her rough and tumble self, a child happiest playing in the dirt and exchanging video game strategies with friends, none of whom seem the least bit fazed by her becoming a girl. When my mother tells Olive she's not sure what to get her for Christmas because she's changed so much, Olive responds, "Grammy, Pokemon!" exasperated that her grandmother has seemingly forgotten the trading cards that have been her singular obsession for the last year and a half.
At a parent-teacher conference, Olive's teacher tells me how she has thrived since transitioning at school. She is more patient and less easily frustrated. She listens to instructions and seems more present in general. I run into Elijah, now my ex. He remarks that while Olive has always been a silly, joyful kid, she looks positively jubilant in the pictures I've posted recently on social media.
She is exactly the same. She is entirely different. She is more (of) herself than she ever was before.
3. In her moving essay "Lessons from a Starfish," Eva Hayward (2008) makes the persuasive case that the Antony and the Johnsons (2000) song "Cripple and the Starfish" is a treatise on trans embodiment. (1) She devotes special attention to imagery that, on her reading, evokes surgical transition:
Mr. Muscle forcing bursting Stingy thingy into little me, me, me... There's no rhyme or reason I'm changing like the seasons Watch, I'll even cut off my finger It'll grow back like a starfish
A propos of this simile, Hayward asks, "Is transsexual transformation also re-generative?...In being transsexual, am I also becoming 'like a starfish' as the song suggests?" (255).
For Hayward and, she speculates, for the singer-songwriter, the removal of a finger (which she reads as a substitute for the transfeminine penis) represents not an ending but a beginning. Since gender affirming surgeries form new genitalia out of existing tissues, the surgeon's "cut is possibility.. My cut is of my body, not the absence of parts of my body" (182). The (trans) body grows back, heals itself, but, like a starfish, some species of which do indeed have the capacity to regenerate limbs and even to regenerate whole bodies from a detached limb, that which grows back is not the original thing. The original is gone in form but not in sub-stance.
4. The day after she tells me she wants to be a girl, Olive sets about changing her name on her backpack, lunchbox, jacket, coat hook, transforming the r in each Oliver into an off-kilter heart. Oliver is gone in form but not in substance. The r is cut off, and yet it regenerates. A heart. Something new out of that which was there all along.
5. For me, being the mother of a trans girl means reawakening daily to the banal mechanisms of misogyny through my daughter's eyes. Becoming a girl has sharpened her senses to the ways in which girls and women are rendered different from boys and men. This difference is like water to a starfish, unremarkable and omnipresent, easy to take for granted until it is poisoning you.
"Why do girl underpants come up so high on your legs?" "Why are girl shirts tighter than boy shirts?" "Why do only girl cartoon characters have eyelashes?' 'Why are girl costumes more colorful than boy costumes?" "Why do girls like music class better than PE?"
"I don't know, baby," I say, hoping to stem the tide of her questions. But I do know. I am a professor of gender and sexuality studies, and it is quite literally my job to know. The answer is patriarchy. The answer is, "You are being trained for a lifetime of sexualization." The answer is, "Femininity is always marked while masculinity is the default." The answer is, "Your body is learning to be beautiful but not strong."
In the classroom, these answers burst forth from me with wry pragmatism: This is the water we swim in. Look at it. Feel it. Acknowledge that it's there and that it is killing us. Find a way to clean up the mess.
With Olive, I am a willing hypocrite. She points at the toxic source, and I tell her to look away. I want for her the freedom to float, blissfully unaware, just for a little while.
6. Periodically, I check in with Olive to make sure she's not being bullied at school. She is consistently confused about why I would even ask such a thing: She is land to all the kids in her class, so why would anyone be unkind to her? That her gender could make her a target for derision or violence mercifully does not even register.
And then one day she tells me about something that happened on the playground, her tone a hybrid of self-righteousness and gossip. A boy named Jonas from another first-grade class was pointing and staring at her in a way that suggested he was making fun of her dress. Olive confronted him, and he admitted that yes, he was indeed making fun of her because dresses are for girls.
"Well I am a girl," she retorted.
"No, you're not. You're a boy," he insisted.
"I used to be a boy, but now I'm a girl."
"You can't just be a boy and then be a girl."
"Anything can make you a boy or a girl, Jonas!" She concludes the story triumphantly. "And then I walked away."
In this moment, I am utterly in awe of my daughter, of the deep, embodied wisdom of this six-year-old child. She never wanted to float.
7. Lately I find myself thinking about Genesis. About birth and rebirth, reproduction and regeneration. About the meaning of Adam's rib.
And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2: 21-23)
I am less interested in the patriarchal implications of this passage than I am in its (trans)gender potential. What does it mean to be born from bone? What kinds of beings can emerge from rib? Are they the same kinds of beings that can emerge from a finger? Is Adam a man without a rib, or does the bone regenerate? In becoming Eve, does that rib become woman, or was the woman within the bone, within Adam all along?
8. Around the time that Olive first tells me she is a girl, I develop a persistent case of bronchitis. For weeks my body is wracked by a relentless cough until one night I sneeze and feel something snap inside my chest. The pain drops me to the floor. It convulses me like nothing I've ever felt, save birthing Olive. At the emergency room, the doctor gives me a prescription for Vicodin and sends me home. There's nothing you can do for a broken rib except wait for it to grow back together.
The only other bone I've broken is a finger, playing basketball in fifth grade. My mother, a woman not usually prone to emotional declarations or hyperbole, was strangely affected by this. In the doctor's waiting room, as I clamped my right hand around my left forefinger, she said, "I'm so sorry, honey. I would cut mine off if it would make yours feel better." Did she sense then her power to regenerate my flesh from her own?
Sometimes I wonder at the child who emerged from my body. The child who was part of my body until we were cut apart. It is too simple to say that she was born from me when my view of the world is reborn every day through her. She grows, and I grow with her. She becomes, and so do I. We regenerate--cells, bones, identities, knowledge. This child, a girl grown (back) from a boy grown out of a woman. She is of me, bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh, and I am no less of her. A starfish split and regenerated into two.
(1.) At the time of Hayward's writing, lead singer Anohni had yet to publicly disclose her trans identity, making Hayward's analysis all the more remarkable.
Antony and the Johnsons, 2000, "Cripple and the Starfish," MP3 audio. Track 2 on Antony and the Johnsons. Durtro.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. http://www.oxfordbib-licalstudies.com.ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/article/book/obso-9780192835253. Accessed October 14, 2018.
Hayward, Eva, 2008, "Lessons from a Starfish," in Myra J. Hird, Noreen Giffhey, eds., Queering the Non/Human, London: Ashgate, pp. 249-63.
This is a work of autobiography. Some details have been altered or fictionalized to protect the privacy of the individuals discussed herein.
I wish to thank all of the organizers of and participants in the 2018 Crosscurrents Research Colloquium for encouraging me to plumb both the academic value of my personal life and the personal value of my academic life. Special thanks to KJ Cerankowski and Eric Plemons for their feedback on a draft of this essay.
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|Title Annotation:||motherhood and gender freedom|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
|Next Article:||TOWARD A BLACK FEMME FUGITIVE POETICS.|