Problems of Place: The Body of a Trans Anthropologist

On January 1, 2018, myself and other trans students and employees of UW Madison had transition-related surgery and hormones covered by our insurance. By the first of February of that same year, we no longer had that coverage. Now, after being sued by two incredible graduate students, the university is required to provide transition-related care for its employees. These events made it clear that this body, my body, is not quite mine. The people who decide what I can and cannot do with it hate who I am. They do not know me, but they do not want me to change and have the body I want. My dysphoria comes and goes gently, but it is not a mere lack of dysphoria I seek but euphoria. When the average life expectancy of trans people in the United States is approximately thirty five years old, we must see the structural problems that are hurting us.

Getting access to health care, even when it is available, requires a molding of the self to fit expectations. Although it is easier than it was ten years ago, the way is still not clear. For the past few years I have been working through the medical system trying to get a double mastectomy, known colloquially as top surgery. When the woman from the insurance company asked me if I was “transgendering into a man” all I could say was yes. My actual identity, my pronouns, my lived experience does not matter. Being “they,” being liminal, it is a strange place to be. I must perform the character of the proper trans person when I go to the doctor. No makeup, no skirts, no rings, I wear my button downs and a sports bra if not a binder. Whatever it takes for them to see me as accurate and valuable, someone worthy of medical care.

Image of a person wearing a chest binder. From Point of Pride, a charity that gives new or slightly used binders to trans people in need for free.

My medical transition might begin and end with top surgery, I am not yet sure. Through routine home injections of testosterone, I could have a deeper voice, grow facial hair, body hair, and if I followed in the footsteps of my father and brother, go bald. But even if I took testosterone, I would not stop wearing what I like to wear. With sideburns and a full skirt I would be unintelligible, genderless, and overly gendered. A threat to family values and a target for violence, my life expectancy would drop. My white skin would protect me, but people do not like it when someone exists in a way they do not understand.

This vision of a future self who is undecipherable is an idyllic hindrance both to a long life and to my possibilities as an anthropologist. My research revolves around Christian congregations and experiences of the environment. Fieldwork is about building relationships with people and being trans will put a strain on many of these relationships. My training and the history of ethnography have taught me that being myself will muddy the waters of fieldwork. With hormones it is possible I could be read as male consistently, but that is not who I am. When my Sunday morning routine becomes going to church and my afternoons are filled with conversations about God and about the environment, I will not be wearing what I wear to see my doctor. I will wear skirts and blouses and dresses and I will do my best not to look like a queer menace. This toned down femininity is not quite who I am, but it is not a lie either.

A rainbow pastor’s stole, a sign of increased acceptance of queer folks by some churches.

Molding one’s presentation to fit a situation is part of the ritual of becoming clothed, but for trans and non-binary people there is more to the act. When the fear of wearing the wrong thing is not fear of jokes but of death, a dress and shave could save my life. Dress is about being appropriately legible or illegible, trans enough or not trans at all. Clothing is easiest for trans people who were assigned female at birth, people like myself. People who are read as women but wear masculine or androgynous clothes are often seen as within the normal range of what being a woman can mean. There is danger in this, but it is less dangerous to be a trans man than it is to be a trans woman. The range of normal dress for people who are thought to be men is much more narrow.

Masculinity is too cautious to leave room for anything remotely feminine. We see this in the long history of violence towards queer men and trans women. Trans women of color face the greatest rates of murder among trans people within the United States, situated at the intersections of racism, misogyny, and transphobia, they are the most vulnerable minority within the trans community, an already vulnerable minority. Because presentation and identity are so integral to performing gender properly for men in the United States, and in much of the world, any variation in presentation is taken as destruction of the social order. The Sisyphean task of creating properly masculine men has long been understood as detrimental to men and women, both trans and cis, but few people bear the brunt of the boulder like trans women do.

My body is a trans body, an agender body, regardless of the barriers put in my way to shape it in my own image. My possibilities for transitioning are limited by my field choice, but being trans has allowed me to gain more information about different situations as well. Being a gender failure will allow me to get more information than I may otherwise have access to. I am safer than most trans people, but I still fear my viability as a person will be muddled if I am intelligibly transgender. The fight for the rights of trans people is not over, we are here. We will not go away. I am trans, no matter what anyone thinks they see.

An update since time of writing: After successfully filing an appeal, my top surgery will be covered by my insurance! This news has brought me tears of joy, and I hope that soon the process for getting transition related care will be easy for all who need it.