The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Skinning the Wildcat

By

My son was not born my son.

My son was born my daughter.

For the past dozen or so years, we—his mother and brother and I, and by extension the wider world—had labored under the misapprehension that he was my daughter. A natural enough misapprehension, given the genitals he arrived with. For the longest time, his mother and brother and I, and by extension the wider world, did not know that these factory-issue genitals, and the ensuing implications and assumptions that follow gender, were not correct. These were a cruel biological trick, a lifelong hoax, a mean genomic flimflam, played upon him.

Being a child, he had no language to tell us of this trick. Or the cognitive capacity to even identify the galling, fractured sense of having been thrust into the wrong self, or of having had the wrong self somehow foisted upon him. We did not know, and he could not say, that our son was consigned to the wrong body, that the wrong vessel had been conveying him through the world for over a decade, now. It is not that we wished to be complicit in this hoax, it is that we are finite, and prey to accepting the simplest explanation for things, and to acceding to precedent and custom, whether or not it is apt or pertinent or helpful.

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We are stoutly secular political left-leaners, my wife and I, and never looked askance at our son’s lifelong insistence never to wear a dress, ever; or his resolute disdain for toys in any shade of pink; or his contempt for any of a hundred gender-normative games and costumes and trinkets. We simply placed him in the tomboy box, opting to spare him and ourselves from any of the ragged and confounding uncertainty that plagues us all. This amounted to a defensive posture that encouraged us to cleave to the simple, even well past the point where the simple is revealed to be plainly untrue.

Over the past year, my son who was not born my son has pursued with courage and purpose what will prove to be a long and arduous transition. There are medical interventions, there is psychiatry and therapy, there is finding and forging bonds with a new tribe of the kindred—other kids similarly in the thrall of a biological hoax. For us, his brother, and mother, and me—and by extension the wider world—there is the ongoing need to reintroduce and recalibrate our conception of, and vocabulary about him. Language, it turns out, is treacherous as a sleeping pit of vipers: a wrong step reveals its limitations and biases, its ability to trigger and do harm.

Like sexuality, there are those who claim gender identity is a choice. That, having received their factory-issue genitals, and all the cultural flotsam they drag in their wake, there exists a minority among us who consciously reject the role that has been assigned them at birth. Take a moment to imagine such a person—a person who would cast aside the Occam’s razor of simple, received definitions to trudge a path of punishing societal, psychological, and medical difficulty. This would be a person of such sustained and towering masochism that it’s impossible to imagine them making such a “choice” about their gender, especially at the young age most of them do. Is there a seductive glamour in the transgressive? Of course there is. But to succumb to it, you must be fully aware of what it is, you must be equipped to read the map of the forbidden—something no kid, however sophisticated, is able to do. So, no. It’s not a choice.

My son who was not born my son, has from his earliest days been a supremely self-contained person, a person who has known himself, a person of seriousness and substance. For him, there has been nothing whimsical or capricious about the unfolding realization of who he is. It has been fraught, long in coming, and at moments harrowing. It has cost him many tears, a freefall into dangerous depression, transferring out of a school where he no longer felt safe, periodic spikes of debilitating anxiety. To be felled by pain like this, to lay curled in bed, limp and busted-looking as a stricken, panting fawn; to be sapped of all initiative and joy, immobilized by the enormity of what you’re currently enduring and the long, bleak road that lies ahead—to fall into the clutches of such a state is not anything anyone chooses for themselves. To be reduced to the helplessness of the bystander while he is ripped apart from within is parental misery.

Cisgendered people—whether allies to trans people, or their opponents—claim to know nothing of the experience of being trans. We do, though, or we can, with the tiniest leap of empathic imagination. There are scores of stories that portray for us exactly the kind of discontinuous and ruptured reality trans people face. In school, we all read macabre stories about being bricked up inside walls, of being lowered into the ground and buried while still alive. We’ve all seen movies of pod people displacing us in the world, of creatures laying their eggs inside us to hatch and rip their way out of our ribcages—of having our selves stealthily or violently replaced. Scenarios like this are how I imagine it has been for my son who was not born my son.

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I imagine—because I cannot fully know—that this sense of your personhood being subsumed inside some arbitrary container of meat and bone must be galling and exhausting, especially where crucial parts of the meat that encases you are wrong. Whatever my uneasy feelings about my own body—that it is blubbery and ungainly, or that, as a writer, it is essentially just a wheelbarrow meant to carry this precious, precious head—I have never been afflicted, as my son has been, with the pervading sense that the body I am in is the wrong one, that it does not reconcile with who I know myself to be. To be so afflicted is to be in a state always of disquiet, to feel trapped in a mask and costume you cannot claw off, because it is made of your own flesh.

Imagine going through your day in a giant mascot costume—a garish wildcat, say, that you could not remove. Imagine yourself—your real self—inside a ridiculous and bulbous-headed wildcat, every day, all the time.

Teenage life under any circumstances is tough; the brain-boiling consciousness of this time is a curse. So imagine the cloying horror, at precisely the time when you wish to remain most fully inconspicuous, of being made to wear that stifling wildcat costume all day every day—a costume of matted Muppet fur designed by committee thousands of years ago, a costume inadequate to reflect the world’s complexities. Imagine how hot and itchy and smelly it is inside there all the goddamn time. Trapped in the dark with the encroaching smell of your own putrification, the burbling sound of your own brains going rancid, and how—as you try obsessively to resign yourself to this unendurable discomfort, other people—strangers, even, or strangers especially—feel like they can pepper you with intrusive questions and shitty advice, people who peer, unbidden, into your eyeholes to chirp at you.

“I had a cousin who thought she was a human. But she prayed on it, and she was able to live as the mascot God made her.”

Or how you walk down the aisles of a store, a store made to human scale, and you paw, with bulbous foam hands the size of toaster ovens, at merchandise that does not fit you, because it was not made with you in mind. Or how your too-human bladder, locked away inside your furbearing jumpsuit, urges you toward relief, and you do a cross-legged pee dance before the two doors labeled “Human” and “Muppet Thing,” knowing your inner self to be the former, defined from without as the latter.

And this meddling advice and these intrusive questions and these demeaning experiences just make everything worse. Because however goodhearted people think themselves to be, these questioners all operate on the assumption that it is the costume that is real, that because they can see your costume, and because they cannot hear your muted screams from inside it, that you should probably go ahead and keep wearing this giant falsehood, this fraud of fur and foam, no matter how hot and itchy and oppressive it feels to you. They’d be much more comfortable, these questioners, if you’d just shut up and continue to suffer and sweat inside there, since to do so would reinforce for them what they think they already know.

I have seen the stung, caved-in face of my son when we run into a distant acquaintance at Target, and they refer innocently enough to him as a girl—or when he is depleted and tender, and we his family call him by his birth name, and, seeing that face, I feel stung and caved in myself. It is a bigoted world, a world unaccommodating to mystery.

And, while I have the irrational hope that my children will know a life free from pain and imposition, I must say: If a future filled with that kind of bigoted bullshit was the worst my son had to face, then I might not mind so much. He would grow tough, he would grow resilient, which are things we need to be no matter what skin we find ourselves wearing. Much of parenting consists of acting as spectator—doing what you can to create a promising context, then watching as the seeds of your children’s selves split and the fronds of who they’ll become unfurl. You patrol the sidelines of their lives, wringing your hands, face frozen in what you hope is an auspicious and encouraging expression, but which likely as not betrays nothing so much as your own panic and fury.

So if bigoted bullshit was the extent of it, then fine. Well, not fine, obviously, but, at least surmountable. You can develop routines, there are strategies. So, if the bigoted bullshit, which is in ready supply, was the worst of it, then, no matter, really. But it very much is not the worst of it.

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Because, for the sons who were born daughters, and the daughters born sons, and all the persons who exist on any point of the nonconforming gradient of gender, life—even under the very most favorable circumstances—is tough. And by “tough,” I don’t refer here to the expense or difficulty, the time and travail, the drugs and surgeons required for shedding your purple wildcat shell to become fully the person you know yourself to be. I do not refer here to the sting in your spirit when somebody you love calls you by your birth name or uses the wrong pronoun—you will forgive them, because you know habit is heavy, and it is slow to die. I do not refer here to the fretting and hassle of finding a bathroom that will admit you without incident.

I do not refer here to the thousand little indignities and unkindnesses; the incivility of living in a land where the law is not friendly to you, for you are a piece of a puzzle different from the one it is trying to solve; the fatigue of living in a wearying world where you must continually assert and reassert the sovereignty of your self.

I refer here to danger—needless, actual danger.

There is danger because we live in a country where men—and it is always men, usually white—will defend against threats to their certainties. This defense is not with rhetoric or reason, persuasion or parables, no. Defense of these flimsy certainties comes with beatings and bullets. We live in a country where my son who was not born my son lives under threat of being beaten comatose, of being truck-dragged, of getting gunned down. By strangers who feel the Jenga tower of their certainties starting to lean.

These men—and it is always men, usually white—so cherish their certainties—even where these certainties are demonstrably wrong, and where amending or altering or even softening them would cost nothing and would not diminish their power in this world, seek too readily to punish those who do not share them, or whose very existence is a rebuke to them.

So, while I celebrate him, while I support and cherish him, while I will do everything in my power to lift him up in this world, this son who was not born my son, I also fear for him. I fear that the wrong footfall will spring the trap, that the wrong word will trigger his fall into the pit. Or worse, that he will remain unfailingly discreet and careful—he will live in a city amenable to him, will live in a an unflamboyantly gendered way—but that threatened men will come hunting for him anyway.

Gloria Steinem wrote, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Over the decades we have—belatedly, begrudgingly—encouraged girls to play sports and be ambitious and assert themselves in this life, traits we typically associate with men. We have failed, though, to provide boys with a comparable degree of encouragement to be emotionally attuned and to have compassion and to be always somewhat worried about other people—traits we typically associate with women. I believe that if we devoted sufficient energy to raising our sons more like our daughters, we would not have to mop up so much blood spilled on street corners and theater aisles and church pews. I believe that if we devoted enough focus to raising our sons more like our daughters, we might not have lockdown drills in our schools, because the unimaginable—which has grown so calamitously routine—would remain, as it should, beyond our imagining.

If we could raise sons more like daughters, and our daughters like sons, we would have men who are more attentive and kindly; women with more agency and autonomy. This will take a long time. Because equal footing can only become real where sons and daughters are taught that it must become so, and that each of us bears a measure of responsibility for making it so.

If I have learned anything from my son who was not born my son, it is that so much of what we thought we knew is revealed to be a convincing falsehood, that our scriptures are written in smoke, what we took to be bedrock is quicksand. And that if we are to stem the flow of the damage we do to our children and the world, we must acknowledge falsity and uncertainty where we find it and stop attempting to bend the facts to our will, or to our yearning for simplicity. We must fold these complex new facts into the fabric of our reality. It is we who must bend, not the facts.

My son was not born my son. But he is my son, and I fear for him because I love him. I want him to go unhunted and unharmed.

My son was not born my son. But my wish for him is that he be granted safe passage through a lifelong gauntlet of other people’s sons whom I hope we have the good sense, and the courage, to raise like daughters.

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Original illustrations by Shane Belknap.


Ian Belknap is a Chicago writer and performer who founded the live lit series WRITE CLUB, and whose work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Crain's Chicago Business, and the Chicago Tribune's "Printers Row Journal." He is co-editor with Lindsay Muscato of Bare-Knuckled Lit: The Best of WRITE CLUB (Hope & Nonthings, 2014). More of his stuff is at ianbelknap.com. More from this author →