During the writing of my own transgender memoir, I sent in a submission to the anthology, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, edited by S. Bear Bergman and the original gender outlaw, Kate Bornstein.
Despite having a book deal in the transgender genre, I apparently was not a gender-fluid rebel, a gender-variant gunslinger, a hard-as-nails genderqueer. My personal essay was rejected. When I eventually found the book in the store, it was with a slightly bruised ego that I scanned the table of contents looking for a friendly fight. “What do ya got?” I challenged Shawna Virago as I turned to her story, “She-Male Rising.”
This was a dumb question since I’d seen Virago perform. A tough, tattooed musician with a folksy punk style, she’d captivated me with her stage presence. On the page, she turned out to be as badass, disarming, and wise. Her reflection on her outsider history is delivered with a detached distance, as if she’d learned to regulate her fire in order to be a sustainable activist. Remarkably, she seems to hold her middle-finger up to the world while also using it as her educational pointer. A songwriter, she is clearly an essayist, too. Her evocative language left me fired up, turned on, and cracking up. Leaning against the shelf, I nodded in respect to this fierce, self-proclaimed she-male who stood up proudly so that I could. Then I went to the counter and bought the book.
I made myself wait a couple months to really dig in. When I’m deep into my own writing, I’ve learned it’s best to stay away from other queer books. I find that I’m too easily influenced by the author’s point-of-view, and I end up reiterating it in fear of hurting “the cause,” or arguing directly with it in a manner that hijacks my original story, essay, or article. Sometimes I am overly intimidated by those (like Virago) who are so effective in their rallying, passion, and rhetoric that I start to believe my voice is too weak to make a difference.
And maybe that’s why I connected with “Imposter” from the opening line, “I live a queer life, though I forget sometimes.” In Quince Mountain’s simple but well-executed story, the narrator “Q” shares tea with his dominatrix friend. She’s looking for a roommate, but Q worries he’s too mainstream and boring to offer up a suggestion. He’s hanging out in a home-cum-dungeonette, not quite the poster setting for vanilla, and his concern comes across as ironic and irrational, but familiar to me. Surrounded by and aware of so many gender rebels, I, too, often feel like a conformist who doesn’t belong.
When Q returns to the street, a stranger brushes past him. “Freak,” the stranger says, “What the fuck are you?” It is a moment that jogs Q’s perspective and leads him to a conclusion that I’ve returned to several times: “No, I am not colorful enough, not queer enough, to reshape the world. It turns out, no one of us is.”
To live as an outsider or outlaw is a lonely endeavor, but a group of outsiders becomes a community. The power of an anthology on this subject is that with each unique piece, each diverse experience, the strength builds, snowballing into a formidable force; rather than a cause for ostracism, otherness collects into a solid, meaningful bond.
I read the whole book—essays, poems, a cartoon, even a recipe for vegan curry. I uncovered unknown heroes, bore witness to a public sex performance deconstructed through an intersection of identities, traveled to Spain, Africa, and Saudi Arabia, and discovered what j wallace refers to as, “The Manly Art of Pregnancy.” My favorite piece was “Seeworthy,“ by E.S. Weisbrot, for the way it shed light on the cultural construction and performative aspects of gender. A mesmerizing and near haunting short story, this is fiction at its best, a mirror held at just the right angle to illuminate that which theory, discourse, and journalism cannot.
In retrospect, my submission for the anthology wasn’t a good fit. I had written about my first sexual relationship with a transgender guy, exploring how my intimacy with his testosterone-altered body had allowed me to make peace with the prospect of my own queer body, ultimately dissolving my final fears about taking hormones. But my essay was a reflection of the transgender community, rather than an elevation of it—and that was what I found in those pages, the inspiration to bust out, pen slinging, into the future.