Transgender in Community
The following article was written by Calliope, a new member at Twin Oaks Community.
Trans in Community
by Calliope Kurtz
As a feminist culture, at Twin Oaks we tend to disregard traditional gender roles and behavior. Women and men choose their roles in the community based on their interests, strengths, and passions, not on anyone else's preconceived notions. Women and men operate chainsaws and drive tractors, and men and women cook and care for children. We all wear clothing we find comfortable - pants for working in, skirts for coolness or festivity, heedless of mainstream ideas of "acceptable" fashion choices. Our commitment to fostering a supportive and joyful environment for all people - women, men, lesbians, gays, and children - is an integral part of Twin Oaks Community.
Those were the words, more than any others on the Twin Oaks website, that offered me hope.
I just completed a full year en femme - what is known in transgender parlance as the Real Life Test, even acquiring a California state ID labeling my sex as "F" - and although I was living in the ultraliberal San Francisco area, my trans life was anything but a cakewalk. Whether it was my age (almost 50), my scant resume (10 years as a middleclass housewife) or my biological "destiny" (a woman cursed with male hormones), the job market was anything but liberal. Please, oh please, I pleaded with fate, don't let me turn 50 behind a cash register.
Who would take a chance on an old tranny recently pinkslipped from an increasingly untenable marriage?
How about "utopia"? I figured an egalitarian community proclaiming feminist ideals would offer me a shot at a new, perhaps happy, life.
I was fatigued by the daily discipline to "pass" (as female) everyday - a full hour shaving body hair, another hour applying lotions and makeup, topped off by 30 minutes putting together an outfit and polishing my nails. And, however presentable I became, it was back to a vampire's crypt 12 hours later. The expense of the upkeep was staggering, especially in trendy Silicon Valley where $200 designer jeans are considered mere Starbucks attire. And what for? Just to hear "thank you ma'am" at Victoria's Secret? For 90-minute increments of "affection" from randy trannychasers?
Perhaps Twin Oaks was a place I could be fem without the artifice, I surmised. After all, however overcompensating my presentation (skirts, stockings, dangly earrings - a necessity for survival in the transphobic mainstream), I'm no Barbie bimbo. I'm down with scorched-earth feminists like Andrea Dworkin, I'm inspired by gender liberationists like Riki Wilchins, I dance to Yoko Ono records and I know Anita Hill did the right thing. My Marxist heart isn't exactly seduced by the trans "community" where the weary old class system is reconfigured in the terms "non-op" and "post-op."
"Utopia" wasn't, at least immediately, a cakewalk, either. I visited (for the three-week membership application process) in August '07, confident I found my freedom to be pink but, to my mortification, I was informed the community was not especially impressed by the me they met. Twin Oaks suggested I visit again. Sensitive (as all transgendered people are) to prejudice, I read "between the lines" when perusing my input, focusing bitterly on one woman's stated concerns of my having "body image issues." Lady, I thought, if your chest sprouted hairs like a werewolf, you'd probably have a few "issues," too.
Trans isn't all I am. I am not (necessarily) my body. I'm actually looking to find a world where I can put less energy into "being" trans. As I so often tell other transgendered women (cooing over heels, swooning over corsets), it's not how you look, it's what you do. Fashion, I believe, is narcissistic; femininity, as I see it, is caring about others. Philosophers and feminists have said, correctly I think, the feminine impulse is towards social connection; family, friends - in a word, community. It seemed intuitive for me to seek the caring, income-sharing feminist culture of Twin Oaks. I wanted to get out of myself - and into something wider, deeper, more enduring. Like, gardening.
So, back for a second visit I went - attempting to tone down my pink presentation (although - it's universally acknowledged - trannies emphasize gender clichÃ©s under duress). Although I can only offer conjecture, I believe some resistance to my membership arose from precedent; apparently the only transwoman who lived at Twin Oaks (before me) was described to me as a classic wolf in sheep's clothing - a perfumed, swishing male chauvinist pig. Determined to overcome the unwanted association, I worked harder, listened more carefully and preened less frequently. Community, I kept reminding myself, is contributing selflessly, acting with empathetic compassion - and staying mellow.
For the most part, the members of Twin Oaks helped me feel right at home.
I heard more encouraging words ("thanks for keeping the kitchen so clean"; "I appreciate you doing so many hammock setups"; even, "groovy outfit there") during my six weeks of visiting Twin Oaks than I heard during my 10 year marriage! Although there were a few holdouts, the overwhelming majority of communitarians addressed me by my preferred pronoun. (Considering I abandoned shaving my arms and wearing makeup, that showed real courtesy.) With the exception of a couple of feminists (perhaps still ideologically swayed by the notion of a "transsexual empire"), the queers of Twin Oaks especially rolled out the pink carpet for my membership bid.
Like Hillary, I had some opposition to surmount, nevertheless.
I was crestfallen to receive a "gift" of Barbie merchandise from a feminist woman I particularly admired (I returned the gesture by giving her a Yoko Ono Imagine Peace button). I heard "it said" that one person could never consider anyone with a "five o'clock shadow" to be a "real" woman (would I ever say hairy armpits made her a "man"?). Sometimes a comment on my appearance ("well, aren't you looking bright today!") was phrased in the italics of the sly putdown. More discouraging was the evening I returned to the communal laundry room and my freshly-washed (and labeled) pink outfits were mischievously dumped on the floor and hidden. Sigh.
Still - that's a far cry from Boys Don't Cry! Hell, it was nothing compared to the indignities I endured during my 10 year marriage ("We're not going out with you in that skirt!"). Compared to the multitudes of smiles and hugs I received during my visits, the little barbs were a drop in the bucket. I was up for it, determined to warm, at least in good time, all skeptical hearts. Imagine my delight when, finally accepted as a provisional member, I arrived, suitcase in tow, to hear the words "Welcome home" repeated sweetly to me throughout that dramatic first day. Significantly, a member who voted against my membership simply - but sincerely - said to me, "Good morning."
It sure felt like home.
I couldn't believe my ears the day I overheard another member, K shifting with me and a visitor, say "Ask, Calliope, she knows how to do that." My confidence was in rapid ascent. Soon enough, I was "muscling in" on Commie Clothes, sorting through blouses and shirts, and stringing up holiday lights to make it look like a fab boutique. Unlike my marriage, where meals were prepared, served and cleaned up without audible recognition, in community there's always someone with a positive comment responding to however humble or tentative an endeavor. It makes me reach higher. Like Helen Reddy sang, "I come back even stronger, not a novice any longer, 'cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul."
Twin Oaks is a busy little "town." The sight of "some ugly broad" in a pink miniskirt doesn't carry shock value for very long. Gender drama is transitory. There's hammocks to make, dinners to prepare, commercial tofu to process, weeds to yank out of the garden. Here's a real Real Life Test, everyday. Soon enough I transcend my trans, content that in a short time I have gone from Hedwig to ... comrade. In becoming - day by day - just another communard I am permitted the luxury to pass on "passing"; I can even "get in touch" with my masculine self (a rare option in the transgender "community" where hierarchies of gender presentation carry strict censures of behavior).
Would I recommend community to other transgendered folks? Of course I would say don't expect utopia - but don't anticipate transphobia, either. I believe it comes down to an individual-by-individual interaction with community. Versatility is probably the single most important quality anyone of any (or ambiguous) gender needs to thrive in community. Specifically exemplified, for the gurls, there's a place for stiletto heels (dance nights) - but keep those Big Chucks for garden shifts; for the bois, you can macho all you want lifting heavy things - but you get extra points for touchy-feely talk at the dinner table. "Both sides now" works well. Role playing doesn't go far in community; all too soon, you are you - and that's cool.
Twin Oaks' "disregard [for] traditional gender roles and behavior" has eased - and edified - my particular trans journey. Woman power! And I believe I've shown Twin Oaks that transgendered people are ... (just) people (infinitely arrayed). I'm very happy Twin Oaks and I overcame our nervous few first dates and are now working on a real relationship.
I offer a very warm thanks to Hawina for guiding me so conscientiously through the membership process(es).