Femme in Lewisham, a vignette
From God Emperors to Innocent Games
I am sitting in a café, in East London. Although it has the trappings of a Costa copycat, it is indistinguishably superior to the blander coffee chain: both in its proffered cups of coffee, and delightfully avo-focussed food. Lofi jazz plays, the beige wood tables are small but apportioned for me to sit with my former partner, and the community-minded atmosphere is maybe a little claustrophobic but still comfortable.
She is dressed in a stylish if somewhat concealing navy-blue coat, and a wide-brimmed also navy hat hides even her face, but a stunning crisscrossed barberry scarf falls down her coat and shows off her purchasing power. By contrast, I am fully if cheaply femmed, but nonetheless relaxed here. Even if my presence annoys any of the customers or staff, there is certainly no overt hint of it, and this area is, in general, tolerant, apathetic to my sartorial charms at worst, and admiringly curious at best.
This is where I am writing my blog, then. Testing a public showing of myself in short shorts and white tights, a patchwork thick purple shirt my table companion mock-affectionately calls my lesbian look. I am happy to be described in such a sapphic way. Even as a confirmed metrosexual pan dilettante who lacks the focussed puritanism of any monosexual.
I have been taking hormones for over a fortnight, now. It is exciting, but the changes are as yet too slight to be detectable. Mood alterations are admittedly subjective, and I am maybe not highly attuned to my own internal processes. (Presently, I am working my alchemy on dream-work, to foster the Delphic injunction.) If my boobs have grown, they have not done so sufficiently for me to judge. The same applies to dermatological changes, shifts in where my body holds its weight, etc.
The only changes I do feel sure of are that I am fatigued and hungry and that my libido has dramatically if frustratingly, soared. I have a medley of unfulfilled desires. Although whether this relates to HRT, I again cannot be certain. I was warned I would experience the reverse. A loss of impulse, even of ability, and while I cannot discount either possibility, I do not mind my retained fervour—so to speak.
As well as femming in attire and, at least in theory, hormones, I have also been practising vocal changes. This is the hardest thing, as it requires both a degree of performative courage and the sustaining of my ‘woman voice’ cannot be aided by anything. (There is a surgery, but I have no faith in it.) HRT for trans women does not alter our vocal range. Whereas testosterone—a blessing for half the trans spectrum—permanently deepens our register, only sustained effort can (with severe and painful limits) do anything to shift that deepening back to a lighter soprano.
I have also not sought out electrolysis, relying instead on methods of hair removal that require various degrees of repetition: shaving, creams, pulsing lights that perhaps do nothing, and HRT. The last of which will never prevent growth but can at least slow it and change the consistency of the hair. It is because of these changes that I have not opted yet for laser, as I want to hair to assume its stable form before I consult the expensive beauticians.
Dysphoria thus still finds various avenues to strike at me. Hair, voice, and body still cause internal dissonances. I am regularly misgendered, even by those who have no intention of causing offence or pain. (I am tolerant of accidental slips and rise above the microaggressions of intentional ones.)
In the meanwhile, being in public, femme, with a person I trust to be protective of my person, wearing my pronoun they/them badge, with the chill vibe of piano music backdropping my tap-tapping fingers, are all a joy. Maybe not a trans euphoria, as it is too every day, but in its ordinariness, such moments are even elevated.
(One day, on completing my transition, the banality of just being might well become a source of sadness, confusion, and a dissipation of certain life goals becoming the mere living of life. I look forward to even that with a powerful relish. To merely be me, gendered correctly, maybe still sipping a cup of cappuccino in this very place.)
Gender was never meant to consume every aspect of life. It was a game, a form of social play that enables a certain sorting out of people into their preferred—often temporary, partial—roles. The Green Man was not truly sacrificed to the harvest, the damsel was never consumed by the dragon, the crone as sociably motherly as the Madonna, and the whore as pure as the virgin. When we treat the poetry of all this myth too literally, it becomes an infliction, a limit to an autonomy it was meant only to enhance. This is as true for cis people as much as for those of us pushed out to gender’s outer margins, only for you the boundaries (further away from the who of you) are thus more obscured into the peripheries of the horizon.
When you truly sacrifice the Green Man rather than merely engage in the rites of the game, you end up with an undead King, who wields the necrotic power of the totem. What is the point of such impotent rulership, almost always symbolically granted to a living tyrant who can then wield power without accountability?
This is a horror inflicted on masculinity for the sake of subjugating the rest of us, a world with universal losers. This is the fantasy of the Soul King in the anime Bleach, the God Emperor of Mankind in the novel Dune and the wargame Warhammer 40,000. It has become the fantasy of the idles of the alt-right and other assorted fascists. But in this foolish paradise that dystopian fiction warns against, nobody benefits.
We don’t need to choose this grim dark future. Instead, we can return to the game. To the free flow of pretend. In The Crying Game IRA, soldier Fergus quotes a bible verse to the transgender woman he has sworn to protect, Dil. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” What if that was when we went wrong?
Certainly, the far more gender-egalitarian society of the BaMbuti pygmies in the Congo, as described by anthropologist Colin Turnbell, makes no such demand on those undergoing the vital process of maturation into adulthood:
And one day they find that the games they have been playing are not games any longer, but the real thing, for they have become adults. Their hunting is now real hunting; their tree climbing is in earnest search of inaccessible honey; their acrobatics on the swings are repeated almost daily, in other forms, in the pursuit of elusive game, or in avoiding the malicious forest buffalo. It happens so gradually that they hardly notice the change at first, for even when they are proud and famous hunters, their life is still full of fun and laughter.
Nor are the children of William Morris’s utopia ever instructed to ‘put away childish things’. Instead, as with the BaMbuti, they learn by play, as Guest (the traveller to utopia) discovers directly in the marketplace.
our children learn whether they go through a ‘system of teaching’ or not. Why you will not find one of these children about here, boy or girl, who cannot swim; and every one of them has been used to tumbling about the little forest ponies—there’s one of them now! They all of them know how to cook; the bigger lads can mow; many can thatch and do odd jobs at carpentering; or they know how to keep shop. I can tell you they know plenty of things […] Most children, seeing books lying about, manage to read by the time they are four years old; though I am told it has not always been so. As to writing, we do not encourage them to scrawl too early (though scrawl a little they will), because it gets them into a habit of ugly writing; and what’s the use of a lot of ugly writing being done, when rough printing can be done so easily.
Am I suggesting fascism and intolerance are a direct consequence of forgetting how to play without the consequences of a literalist (fundamentalist?) worldview? In part I am, but even in innocent play hidden dangers must lurk.
For the capacity to treat play as something literal must be present in the first act of childish make-believe if it is even to arise, fascism must have primordial roots in our harmless games. And therefore, only by reminding ourselves constantly to never take our games too seriously can the necrotic politics of dead kings be kept forever deferred from the realm of fantasy, from what Kant and later Engels once called the Kingdom of Ends.
If we can find our way back there, maybe we can, at last, fulfil the ancient utopian hope and put away adult things. And in so doing, maybe we can also finally be adults in a way that currently, trans people instinctively, poetically, know how to be. In such a state of post-history, we can fully occupy our metaphors without falling victim to them.
If you enjoyed my essay, you can become a Rowan Tree Editing patron for as little as £1.00 per month and receive essays five days early as well as other benefits.