A friend turned me on to The Believer magazine, which is now my bus and train reading. In the February issue, there’s a fascinating series of essays by transgender author T Cooper on different aspects of his transformation from female to male: unsent letters he wrote to his parents explaining his decision, personality changes he has gone through since his transformation, elements of womanhood that one would think he’d understand considering his past but doesn’t. But one essay, on the subject of his frustration at the “slip-ups” people still make regarding his gender such as accidentally referring to him as a “she,” suggests his frustration at not having his identity acknowledged and respected has surpassed his empathy for human error. It’s ironically the one closed-minded part of an otherwise illuminating, and entertaining, treatise.
Of course, his frustration is understandable, and so is his pain. But I’m not sure his impatience with people who slip-up, and his dismissal of them as somehow lazy or dismissive themselves, is fair. It got me thinking about how I “group” people in my mind, what the most basic thing about them I remember and associate with them is. What are the characteristics that, no matter how the signals they deliberately send change over time, identify them to me?
This analogy might not immediately be apparent, but the essay reminded me of the way I think of words: how I group them, how I remember them, how they affect me. Sometimes when I’m trying and failing to remember a word that is “on the tip of my tongue,” the closest attributes of the word itself that I can remember might be the number of syllables, or the rhythm of it, or perhaps whether it was Germanic, Latin or Greek in origin. If I remember speaking it aloud to myself, randomly throwing in a few rough breathing marks for fun and imitating a recording I once listened to of The Iliad recited in a dialect believed to be similar to Old Ionic, I know the word was Greek. If I recall intentionally mispronouncing it in an Italian accent, I’ll know it is from Latin. If it sounds sexy or romantic, I’ll know it’s Frenchified Latin. If it’s phlegmy and uncouth, it must be German.
But more palpable than my memories of the attributes of the word itself, are my memories of how I felt when I first encountered the word. I can remember whether I was happy or sad, in love, depressed, feeling accomplished and smug, or put-upon and useless. I can remember if I was eating at the moment, and if so, whether it was sweet or savory, and how I felt as I was eating, if I was just grazing or eating until I was full, or ate too much and felt sick. Or maybe I was just having a coffee and felt the acid tenderize my stomach as I first read or heard that word.
That’s another thing I can remember even if I can’t remember the word itself: I know if I heard the word on TV or read it in a book. If it was from the television I can remember whether it was on a news or commentary show or in a movie or serial. If it was news and commentary, I can remember if I agreed with the person who used the word, and if it was a serial, whether I had a crush on the character who used it. If it was in a book, I can remember if it was fiction or non-fiction, and if fiction, which voice spoke the word aloud in my mind’s ear: if the narrator was female, regardless of the cultural origin of the book, it was my own, as I pride myself on being good with dialects. If male, the voice belonged to Jeremy Irons, naturally. If it was non-fiction I can remember whether it was British or American, or a translation. I can remember if I learned the word in conversation, and whether that conversation was in America or Europe, and if in America, on what coast, and if on the west coast, whether it was with a friend from high school, the theatre, or the opera, and if in New York, at Saks or some other job, over drinks or lunch or shouted at a noisy party. I can remember my status relative to the person who used the word, if it was a boss or a teacher, or a colleague, or a nuisance—did I feel intimidated, worried, delighted, or annoyed when I heard this word? Do I associate the word with satisfaction (words I learn while happy) or frustration (words I learn while trying to distract myself from unhappiness)? I can remember that, if not the word.
The clues are ghosts, and ghosts of ghosts, not of the thing itself, but of who I was at the moment of reception. It’s why, whenever I hear or read the word “assuage” I recall myself, if ever so faintly, as an 18 year old crushing on a teacher, or why “parameter” triggers a surge of disdain: I remember my father, in our Oldsmobile some time in the ‘80’s, complaining about the clichés of the day, the trendy words he was so tired of hearing, such as people droning on about the “parameters” of something when they just wanted a fancy word for “limit.” “Diminute” makes me think of London, Shakespeare, a Kensal Rise flat filled with books and art, good friends, Turkish rugs, grass and red wine. This is because, having heard my teacher Ben use the word several times in class, I asked him one night at his home, where I spent my best English evenings, why he didn’t just say “diminish” (the answer is that “diminish” is a reflexive verb, and “diminute,” an obscure active one, or less obscure adjective). With “pervasive” I’m back in Santa Fe on a warm dry autumn night under a sky the color of rust, reading my classmate Chris’s freshmen biology essay, astonished at the brilliant 16 year-old’s ability to interpret the sodden innards of our dissected cat, and wondering if I’d ever be able to hold my own with such scholars. The sentence itself wasn’t too spectacular, something about how the arterial system of the cat was “not quite pervasive,” but I recall that mix of admiration and apprehension perfectly, for it revisits me every time I use, hear, or read that word. “Abstruse” places me back as a breathless stagehand over ten years ago, working a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in which the word appears), always over-sugared, over-caffeinated, and hungry from eating dinner too early before the marathon play. The fricative “s” escapes the plosive “b,” breaks the tab “t” and gushes out through “ru” and suddenly the coca-cola is spumy in my empty stomach, its sugars caustic on my teeth.
These peripheral experiences that I recall with every word, or instead of the word, if it eludes me, only mean that more than the literal or technical definition of a word, I remember how I felt at my initial encounter with it.
I’ve realized, however, that out of all this mnemonic detritus my experience attaches to a word the most basic thing I project onto it is gender. I can remember if it was a male or female who spoke it or wrote it when I noticed it. If it was a man, I remember which category I had placed him in: guide and mentor, friend and equal, romantic interest, romantic interest and friend and equal, romantic interest and mentor, or pest. If the speaker of the word was female, I remember if she was a mentor, a friend and equal, or if I felt threatened by her or confident that I threatened her, or if she was a friend I felt threatened by or towards whom I was careful not to act threateningly. But ridding the word of my collateral experience, it remains, to me, male or female. “Atavistic,” “frisson,” and “palimpsest” are all male, because I encountered them reading Martin Amis, A. A. Gill, and Will Self respectively. Female words are “Effulgence” (Wharton), “tautology” (another great Gill, my former classmate Karina), and “limn” (Fuck You, Michiko Kakutani). “Droll” is female (mother) and “subsume” is male (Michael Schneider). “Judicious” is female, and “histrionic” is male. The gender I associate with a word has only to do with the gender of the person from whom I first learned the word, however long ago, regardless of the actual definition, etymology, connotations, or the gender, if any, with which the word is usually associated. “Histrionic” is a word I usually hear used, justly or unjustly, in connection to femaleness (or to me specifically, totally without basis). But my first hit of it came from a male drama teacher, so male it stays.
Of course I’m not really talking about words, I’m talking about myself, and the associations I make that make no sense of anything but my own experience. However disparate my experience is from the truth about something, it provides a deeper meaning for me than the objective truth about that thing. And gender, somehow, is the most basic element of that experience. I wonder if it is so for other people as well. If I’m alone in a room, and my back is turned to the door and someone else walks in, I can tell if that person is a man or woman. And it’s not from some obvious “signal” like the sound of high heels on floorboard or the smell of perfume. It’s visceral and I can’t justify with evidence, but I’m almost always right.
Cooper analogizes the slip-ups people make regarding his gender with a slip-up no sane or sensitive person would make in two hypothetical examples, of the whoring buddy now settled and the basketball partner now paralyzed. But the activities one enjoys with a person, however regularly, and for however long, are not nearly as identifying as that person’s gender. The two examples Cooper uses are a false equivalency because it is much more natural to dissociate a person from the hobbies you shared with them than it is to suddenly start thinking of them in a whole different gender. Yes, one should acknowledge dresses and cherry lipstick as signals of how a person prefers to be regarded, but in the moment of a “slip-up,” one is guided by something deeper than the part of one’s brain that acknowledges and interprets signals, before that part of the brain can catch the mistake and correct it. I had a friend while living in Europe, a male who had made the transition to female long before I ever knew her. She did not tell me of the change she had made at all. I heard about it from a mutual friend but didn’t think much of it, since I’m from San Francisco and don’t find such stories to be too exotic. I would have known anyway, as her past maleness was unmistakable--again, not because of any signal I can put words to—I’ve known women who were taller, broader-shouldered, slimmer-hipped, deeper-voiced, had more, er, manly facial features, and wore less makeup on them. No, there was just something “male” about her, and, months into our friendship I slipped up once while ordering in a restaurant and referred to her as a “he.” I was mortified, of course, and hope I did not make her feel like shit, as T Cooper describes such gaffs as affecting him. But I also can’t quite agree that this slip-up is on the level of accidentally inviting a man in a wheelchair to play basketball. Hobbies and the accidents we suffer do not occupy space in the same atavistic chamber of our psyches as gender. I can understand “how abnegating it would be to have the world decide that you are something you are not” but a slip-up is not a decision, and cannot be resented in the same way.
Cooper and other people who have undergone gender transformation say they did it to honor what they know to be the truth about themselves. “…to be trans is to feel the truth so acutely you can’t fake it. It is to be so consumed with the truth of who you are that you are willing to risk everything to inhabit it.” But it is unreasonable to expect the world you live in not only to acknowledge that truth (that is indeed reasonable) but feel that truth as acutely, as unmistakably as you do, and to be offended when the signals you labor to exhibit are no match for what millions of years have hardwired into us. I read a study recently that told me I am likely to behave more protectively of myself around men when I am ovulating than when I am in the less fertile phase of my cycle; I will avoid sketchy areas, I will dress less provocatively, I will subconsciously regard men as potential rapists and try not to act as if I’m “asking for it,” in a biological mechanism designed to cope with my greater attractiveness during that time. My body wants to be impregnated and so subtly enhances the signals of my fertility, but it also wants to minimize the chances of the “wrong” male taking advantage (i.e. it wants a baby-daddy and not a rapist). Of course this is offensive. As a level-headed woman I prefer to think that I gauge my safety from situation to situation rationally, based on observations and crime statistics and the like. I also resent the implication that the hormones sloshing around in me will soak my deductive powers so thoroughly that on some primordial level I think any dweeb on the street is a threat to me in my fecundity. Who knows if the study itself will stick, but it says something about people and gender. Our reactions to maleness and femaleness are beyond what our conscious selves can grasp. It is what makes people like T Cooper know, in their deepest selves, what they are, despite all the contrary signals with which nature has assembled them. But it is also why (I suspect) it is unlikely that trans people will ever feel understood and acknowledged as totally as they understand and acknowledge the truth about themselves, whatever level of enlightenment our culture achieves. Not everyone ascribes a gender to words as I do (but, ahem, many cultures do), but everyone comprehends and reacts to gender, in ways that may be partly societal, but primarily evolutionary. Millions of years have taught us to recognize and react to gender. It is asking a lot of people that they not only reject, but forget.