How to Become Ugly, or Cis People are Trans People Too!
Asher White (BFA SC 2022)
Asher White (BFA SC 2022)
“For me, transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren't fighting against each other and struggling to survive. On this earth, it's that you can get closer to how you feel your true essence is without the societal pressures of having to fulfill certain traditional roles based on gender. It means you're not a mother or a father—you're an individual who's looking at the world and feeling the world. And it's somehow more human and universal, I feel.”
— SOPHIE (Sep. 17, 1986 - Jan. 30, 2021)
Towards the beginning of last year, a friend and I had conceived of a new viral dare à la The Cinnamon Challenge. Our proposed dare, like its trend-setting ancestors, was designed as a test of physical and emotional endurance called “The Dreaming Challenge,” in which participants would attempt to listen to Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming in its entirety and in one sitting. Given that Bush’s 1985 follow-up album The Hounds of Love—an incredibly accessible, highly listenable magnum opus—is one of the most beloved albums of the 1980s, listening to its predecessor all the way through doesn’t immediately seem like a particularly daunting task. Within its first 30 seconds, however, The Dreaming proves to be a formidable enemy: pounding drums, erratic time signatures, fake trumpets, labyrinthine song structures. It launches itself right out of the gate and does not cease its 10-song attack for 43 minutes. It’s impenetrably dense, and probably one of the decade’s most disorienting, freewheeling albums recorded under the guise of pop. Bush’s voice has always been notoriously divisive; here especially she makes no compromises, either shrieking over the trenches of warfare (“The Dreaming”) or softly cooing from a silken bed (“All the Love”). She does an Australian accent at one point. Even when the album is comparatively mellow (“Night of the Swallow”), its sustained intensity begs the question: who has the emotional stamina to keep up with this? The Dreaming contains scenes of such unreasonably high drama it seems almost preposterous to think people could reliably connect with them (“I love life!” she inexplicably screams in agony as helicopters descend around her at the end of “Pull Out The Pin”). The stakes are set biblically high and remain that way for the record’s entirety. The level of theatricality brings to mind musical theatre, or even opera, where angst or joy is amplified to fill an arena, and like opera, if you’re not 100% up for it, it can be torture. The scale of Bush’s performances on the album is outrageous, transcendent, and singular.
The Dreaming is fascinating to me for the same reasons it can be so repellent: it asks a lot from the listener, and it asks to be taken on its own terms. This very quality—its stubborn, self-possessed specificity—is what makes the album (along with Bush’s other work) so susceptible to think-piece politicization. Like most iconic female artists, Kate Bush’s legacy is subject to ritual “women in music” moralizing, and much has been written of Kate Bush the Female Producer, Kate Bush the Feminist, Kate Bush the Girlboss. But The Dreaming doesn’t really make any claims to these titles. Its vision of femininity seems legible mainly to people who died centuries ago. In actuality, The Dreaming is not really about gender. It’s not about being a woman. It’s about weapons and warmongering and Houdini and Vietnam and ecstasy and snakes and ghosts (and Australia, for some reason). It probably passes the Bechdel test. In its insistence on being unapologetically itself, it serves as a platform for an artist who is transcending the politics of their personal identity. On The Dreaming, Bush’s manic, obsessive jaunt through different realms, characters, fascinations suggests that nothing is off-limits for her. It exhibits a certainty in the fluidity of her identity that I had always dreamed of embodying growing up. It is campy, flamboyant, queer, but also incredibly earnest. It’s of the same type of exploratory confidence that, growing up, I would occasionally watch the women around me perform effortlessly.
The truth is that cis people have and always have had a more complex relationship with gender than any trans person. Cis people weave constantly and continuously in and out of their assigned and performed gender: they eschew, warp, push, pull, and upend their own identity on a daily basis. They are masters of gender; they are able to use it selectively and cunningly, drop it, heighten it, transform it when they need to. Cis people are simply people who have, for whatever reason, reached a level of expertise in the way they reconcile their gender with their individual identity. They’re people who have found a way to justify to themselves why people call them girl or boy. They say, “yes, I am a girl, but this type of girl” or “yes, I am a boy, but I am a unique type of boy.” In other words, they are gendered, but firstly, they are themselves.
Ironically, the more cis you are, the wider your margin of error is for your gender. You have a stable enough foundation to take creative liberty and “be yourself.” The pain I see articulated by a lot of trans people is from the fear that this comfort with the self is off-limits. For example, that for trans women, the accessorizing, ambiguity, and masculinity cis women are afforded to employ at will is out of reach— out of the question as long as our gender is in question. That while being cis awards your gender an elasticity, being trans makes it brittle, fragile, or rigid.
This is a valid anxiety. As I’ve tried to stretch the limits of my own womanness by incorporating a less obvious femininity, I’ve found these fears largely confirmed. I’ve kept my hair relatively short over the past 5 years and wear mostly t-shirts and jeans, and I often get the sense that while people are respectful of my preferred pronouns, they don’t really “buy it.” People usually don’t know I’m a woman until I tell them (or a panicked friend corrects them). Of course, there’s nothing necessarily provocative in my version of womanhood—it’s the same version you see cis women perform in Netflix Originals and Forever 21 catalogs. But it’s hard for trans women to get away with. Ultimately, my gender passing is precarious precisely because I’ve attempted to move beyond the pursuit of passing altogether. I’ve tried to commit squarely to dressing the way cis women dress in 2021, acting the way cis women act in 2021— that is, in pursuit of themselves and not their gender.
And it’s been a nightmare. If I am not actively upholding a meticulously crafted theater of femininity, my actions are perceived as the actions of a boy. There are forbidden territories: it would be unthinkable for me engage in bro-y conversations the way my cis women friends do. And it has been disheartening to play the same social games alongside these friends and find that I’m held to male standards.
Kate Bush makes it seem so easy on The Dreaming: it seems that sheer conviction alone will grant you access to any identity. She darts proudly between the nerdy, the grotesque, the embarrassing, embodying soldiers, scholars, and explorers without jeopardizing the integrity of her womanhood. It’s always been mesmerizing to me: how do women obtain the privilege of being ugly and weird and embarrassing?
Case study: the “trans bathroom issue” as seen in recent US politics extends far beyond whether trans people should be allowed in the restroom of their gender; in the coming years as this becomes more commonplace, trans women nationwide will discover a whole new set of challenges and double standards in etiquette. Namely, that the only people with tacit permission to shit in the designated Women's Room are legibly sexy cis women. No one else has the audacity. Legibly sexy cis women have nothing to prove and their claim to desirable femininity is never in jeopardy. It seems their inalienable right to occupy the women's restroom and behave in a stall as heinously as they like. Trans women, on the other hand, recognize that our welcome in that room is, at best, precarious, and any minor fumble could topple it all. We’ve already campaigned so desperately just to pass through the door, we wouldn’t in a million years be so bold as to actually let loose. So even if granted entry, we are for the time being effectively prohibited from shitting in a women's restroom due to the tenuousness of our presence.
Unless, of course, we grow to understand that pooping shamelessly is, in the arena of the women’s bathroom, an assertion of femininity; in the way that we once commended men for wearing crop tops, women pooping is a provocative declaration of gender-confidence (“I shit therefore I am”). A more progressive future recognizes that shitting is the great equalizer, the site where cis women are forced to momentarily set aside their womanhood and become undeniably themselves; that pooping is the ultimate queer moment where the performance and upkeep of gender is ceremoniously dropped in order to pursue a necessarily human and honest action.
It’s a similar process to the one hetero couples in healthy relationships have been encouraged to experience. In recent years, romance columns and self-help books have promoted a total transparency and vulnerability between couples. Gone, hopefully, are the days when husbands dismiss entire swaths of their wives’ personalities as “woman things” and vice-versa. Modern couples strive to know each other thoroughly and completely, to eliminate the illusory strata of the “unknown” generated by gender and propagated by Freud's insistence on female hysteria. Ideally, couples know their partner as their partner, as the essential qualities of them beyond their category. If you’re having sex with someone you love, you don’t think of their body as a woman’s or a man’s, but as the body of the person you love, as them; the validation you seek from them isn’t male attention or female attention but their attention.
This suggests that once you get past gender, you can see others and yourself more completely. You can begin to self-actualize. You can fine-tune the contours of your identity. You can be weird and ugly and embarrassing. You can start writing songs about Australian ethnography or v.1 pieces about literally anything else.
Gender isn’t a mass that totalizes your identity, anyway. It’s a raw slab of material you chisel away at, refine and augment. Most women find power in calling ourselves women because it draws attention to all of the ways we stray from it. Does “she/her” adequately describe the whole of my personality? Of course not, but it provides a helpful starting point from which I can then augment and develop1. Kate Bush, for example, uses the imposed “pop chanteuse” label strategically as part of her dramatic rejection of it.
Most everyone makes these departures because few people want to be reduced solely to their assigned gender. In a 2005 text on the intersection of psychoanalysis and feminism, Jacqueline Rose describes “the failure of an individual’s gender” as “something endlessly repeated and relived moment by moment throughout our individual histories,” and that, fundamentally, “there is a resistance to identity at the very heart of psychic life.”2
The basis of this type of thinking can be found in Judith Butler’s 1986 reappraisal of the seminal 1949 feminist manifesto The Second Sex by Simone du Beauvoir, in which Butler expounds on the now-famous opening line: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
“Simone de Beauvior’s formulation … suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired,” writes Butler. She continues later on, “Gender must be understood as a modality of taking on or realizing possibilities.”3 When Butler declares that “all gender is, by definition, unnatural,” the operative word is all: to perform any gender—whether your parents chose it for you or you chose it yourself—is to participate in the theater of interpretation. Butler’s analysis was revolutionary, but that it uses a text written nearly half a century earlier is telling: for as long as critical feminism has existed, cis women have written of gender as something nonconsensually imposed and imposed on them.
Being assigned a gender at birth itself is a transgendering process that no one is exempt from, and “cis” is the term used to describe people who have surrendered to it or are dealing with it, while “trans” refers to people who are taking active agency against the transgendering process of gender. We’re just reclaiming our selfhood. I’ve felt for a while that what is stagnating most conversations around trans experience is the notion that trans people have a fundamentally different experience of gender than cis people, when in reality, that notion is held onto by cis people in order to prevent themselves from becoming trans.
But young trans kids are taught that they are essentially trans and bound to a trans identity, barred from further actualization. This is largely due to the lack of trans women being themselves in television and movies. Usually, trans characters are too busy being trans to have other characteristics or purposes; subsequently, real live trans kids are stunted in their ability to move beyond their struggles with gender—audiences don’t know what it looks like to see a trans person with autonomy beyond their transness. Every time a trans character has a talk with their father, a locker room confrontation, a meltdown, or a speech about resilience, some kid learns that being trans does not include the normalcy of being a person or having an acceptable personality. This leaves trans kids to get lost in the metrics of their chosen gender, to forget the reason they’re trans in the first place: the goal is not to be an avatar of your gender, but a rich, thorough, and uncompromising vision of yourself.
Perhaps Twin Peaks, oddly, came the closest to getting representation right in 1991, with Denise Bryson, a DEA agent who enters the show halfway through the second season as part of an investigation against agent Dale Cooper. Bryson's transness is a post-script to her profession and personality; she corrects people when she is misgendered but mostly just does her job. Watching her introduction to the series—and the speed and sensitivity with which Dale Cooper handles it—makes me want to cry tears of joy a little.
It has always been deeply troubling to me that there is so little representation to be found of trans women in cableknit sweaters and sneakers. The women I model myself after, the women I identify with, the women who taught me how to be a woman—are not the women “on the vanguard of gender.” They are not the women led through a series of triumphant, intersectional, politically reaffirming character arcs. They are not the women contorting under multicolored gel lights. They are more often the women who, in their cars, subtly pick their nose at stoplights, the women who unbutton their jeans when they are too full, the women who have dry scalps, the women who yell “dude!” when someone cuts them in line, the Kate Bushes who burp into Cockney accents, obsessed with Houdini and the Vietnam war. Essentially, they are cis women unburdened by the unending rat race of femininity, aware of but indifferent to the metrics of femininity. They are cis women who are more themselves than they are women. And why be anything if it prevents you from being yourself? (Why be a woman if you can’t even poop?) Be yourself before anything else, even if it means being confusing or inaccessible. People will get it eventually. I recently put The Dreaming on and listened through for the first time in a long time; it’s never sounded better.
1 It’s specifically hard to see a trans person more concerned with being trans than being themselves because it suggests they’ve forgotten the point of being trans in the first place: to transcend, to self-actualize, to become a more honest and multi-faceted version of yourself. The superpower that trans people hold is gained from having taken initiative over an aspect of selfhood that was supposedly off-limits. To renounce your assigned gender in favor of who you really could be is a massive infrastructural overhaul that is as risky as it is rewarding—what a shame, then, to get bogged down in the limitations of that gender. This is not to say the choice to “pass” is regressive, or condemnable, because it’s neither of those things—it is often necessary for safety, for comfort, for visibility, for validation. But we should remember that it is strategic: a utility in the arsenal of trans survival rather than the aspirational standard that it is often made out to be. Passing is not the finish line, but another point to start from.
2 Rose, Jacqueline. “Femininity and Its Discontents.” Sexuality in the Field of Vision, Brooklyn, New York, Verso, 2020, p. 91.
3 Butler, Judith. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.” Yale French Studies, vol. , no. 72, 1986, p. 35, 10.2307/2930225.
Asher White is a mezzo-soprano.