To continue our remembrance of Leslie Feinberg, who passed away earlier this week, we put together a short list of recommended books—essential reading by some of the most unique and beloved voices from the transgender community, including Les hirself, to help to raise awareness of transgender issues and perspectives.
Those who were fortunate enough to hear Leslie Feinberg speak in person know how powerful and inspiring s/he was. Trans Liberation gathers a collection of Feinberg’s speeches on trans liberation and its essential connection to the liberation of all people. This wonderfully immediate, impassioned, and stirring book is for anyone who cares about civil rights and creating a just and equitable society.
Transgender Warriorsis a fascinating, personal journey through history. Leslie Feinberg uncovers persuasive evidence that there have always been people who crossed the cultural boundaries of gender. This is is an eye-opening jaunt through the history of gender expression and a powerful testament to the rebellious spirit.
A native of New York, Nick Krieger realized at the age of twenty-one that he’d been born on the wrong coast, a malady he corrected by transitioning to San Francisco. His writing has earned several travel-writing awards and has been published in multiple travel guides. He is the author of Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender.
Enter to win a copy of Nina Here Nor There or one of Beacon's other LGBT titles in our Pride Month Giveaway. For more information, visit beacon.org/queervoices.
About five months ago, I quit my day job as a web writer, put my possessions in storage, and took off for Asia. I’d just finished promoting my memoir, Nina Here Nor There, exploring the land between man and woman. During the four years it took to complete the book, I also changed physically, growing comfortable in my body, now commonly perceived to be male.
My great intention for this trip was to put my memoir down and leave my transition behind me, to clear some space for the next phase of my life.
I eased into Bali in luxury, at a closed yoga retreat with my teacher and a few friends from San Francisco. In heteronormative settings with swimming pools, I’m used to fielding questions about my chest scars. Sometimes I’ll tell people they’re shark bites. At first, at least. Then I’ll disclose the truth. “I’m transgender,” I always say, occasionally adding something explicit despite my discomfort, like “had breasts,” “born female,” just to be clear.
I wrote a memoir, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I find outing myself powerful. The ensuing conversation is my opportunity to educate, dismantle stereotypes, and make my queer, gender-hybrid identity visible. As a speaker on trans issues, I’ve trained myself to handle unintentional insensitivity and ignorance, but even after a record-breaking number of questions, one particularly tactless person in Baliset me off.
Internally fuming, I went to the edge of the jungle and hurled rocks into the black night. All the old words -- disfigured, abnormal, glaring, different – came alive again. I threw wildly, venting my frustration and anger, until I accidentally pegged a nearby tree. The rock bounced back and almost nailed me. I started to laugh. Which made me laugh even harder, joggling something loose deeper inside.
I wondered what it would be like to really leave it all behind, not just the story I’d crafted between two covers, nor the hormones, surgery, name change, family and workplace challenges, but the pain I still held on to and all that I’d built around it -- the drama that defined who and what I was.
After the retreat, I embarked on my own solo journey through Bali and then Nepal. I learned to say, “I had surgery, I’m totally fine, but I’d prefer not to talk about it.” Even with my shirt on, I faced challenging questions about my writing. I told people my memoir was about “alternative genders.” Of course, this was confusing. If pressed, I’d cop to my evasiveness, write down the title, and suggest they look it up later, like when we were in different countries. (I received a couple of kind emails later.)
Without presenting myself as a queer person and writer, the most amazing thing happened. I made friends, lots of them, of all ages and nationalities. Underneath the tags I’d adhered to myself, and beyond the stories that had solidified like foundation, I rediscovered a sense of myself that existed outside of identities and narratives, expressed in my smile, my laughter, and the way I carried myself.
The longer I spent on the road, the fewer and fewer people I told about being trans. I shrugged off comments about my “women’s fit” backpack, and my atypical traits for a man-- my small size, youthful face, and robust hairline – all prior triggers for me to mention my past.
During my last month, I outed myself to only one person, my new best friend, a Dutch woman I’d met during my stay at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. After our course, we trekked for two weeks in the Himalayas, talking about everything in the way that you do when you eat, sleep, and walk side by side.
“Could you ever live here?” she asked as we crossed a suspension bridge over a glacial river.
“No,” I said without hesitation. Throughout my twenties, I’d traveled to dozens of countries, spent many months backpacking alone, always wondering if and when I’d arrive somewhere that could become home. Eventually, I started to believe that I’d never find in Nepal, in Bali, in Laos -- in the places that I loved the most -- something I’d always need, the freedom to be queer.
“The things I care about,” I said, “The subjects I write about, the lifestyle I lead, sex and love, I can’t find that here.” I’m pretty sure my friend had no idea what I was talking about, but I continued, rambling about GLBTQ progress and trans/queer struggles, spurred on by the resurgence of a passion that had lain dormant for the past few months, “I cannot be my full self here.”
Reminded of the split I used to feel between my traveler identity and my queer identity, I thought of a long train ride I once took from Amsterdam to Slovenia. Re-reading Michelle Tea’s “Valencia” cover to cover, I got lost in the sexually-charged dyke world of San Francisco. Toward the very end, I looked up to find myself surrounded by the mountains of Austria, an apple-strudel setting straight out of the “The Sound of Music.”
I felt unmoored, disconnected from both my home culture in the States and the new landscape I was exploring in Europe. Both were flashing before my eyes, in the pages and out the window. Unable to situate myself, the whole notion of identity started to seem relative, something created in connection to my surroundings. On a train, my background in constant motion, for a brief moment, my sense of a solid self crumbled.
I think that’s when I fell in love with traveling. Since that journey, I’ve disappeared from San Francisco for a few months every now and then, changing the backdrop and watching my own self-definitions fade just a little.
By the time I returned from this trip, my queer/trans badge had fallen to the very bottom of my backpack. Culture shock, or reverse culture shock (always more my issue) refers to the disorientation that results from jumping across continents, and even after a month back, I’m experiencing it big time. Some days, I think it’s getting worse.
Pride weekend just ended. It was my 13th Pride here, and over the past few years, it’s become an effort for me to engage in the festivities – the crowds, the boozing, the out-of-towners, the chaotic energy – I find it slightly painful.
Instead of going to the Trans March, I attended my regular yoga class wearing my tacky rainbow wristband. In my heart, I was with my people in Dolores Park, united in pride – for surviving, for being, for fighting for rights and equality.
I knew I was in the right place, there on my mat, even as the waves of guilt, and sadness, and fear passed through me. What if I blended in with the straight guy next to me who had no idea it was Pride weekend? What if I could no longer summon that hurt, angry boy chucking rocks into the night? What if my activism, my writing, and my passions change?
From afar, I couldn’t see that in creating the space that I now have, the first thing to show itself would be uncertainty, and that to dwell here would require patience and faith. As I readjust ever so slowly, I try to keep the traveler in me alive – not in terms of revisiting trip highlights, but in the ways my sphere of caring expanded, my sensitivity to all sorts of people increased, and the world outside my own trans narrative got a little bigger.
A few days ago, I spoke to the gender-neutral housing floor at an Ivy League college about my new transgender memoir. Before introducing me, the faculty advisor wanted to discuss the students’ responses to the recent vandalism (a “fag” slur) on their dorm, and a film they watched, the trans movie Gun Hill Road, which this advisor only brought to campus after ensuring that the trans character is not killed.
I keep returning to this act of homophobic harassment and the resistance to promoting the historically dominant, tragic trans narrative as I reflect on the approaching Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday.
This is the 13th year the growing community of transgender people and allies commemorates those killed due to anti-transgender hatred and prejudice. The history of this day dates back to 1998, when Rita Hester was brutally murdered in her home, and her friend, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, launched the Remembering Our Dead web project. The following year, a candlelight vigil for Hester was held, and would become the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.
TDOR persists to raise awareness of hate crimes against trans folk, and to publicly mourn those who might otherwise be forgotten. Over 100 international events are listed on the website, along with the names (and occasionally) pictures of those we are memorializing.
In the past couple of years, some activists have brought up concerns over the grave tone and depressing theme. TDOR is the most well known acknowledgement of trans people, and as a trans-questioning person five years ago, the fact that our “special day” focused on violence and murder did little to put me at ease with myself. Almost every trans story I came across focused on pain, tragedy, loss, and suffering. I had to wonder: Is it possible to be a happy, healthy, successful trans person?
While I kept my own process of internal investigation to myself, I observed my transsexual, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming acquaintances in San Francisco from a distance. Over time, I watched them grow into themselves. I witnessed them find peace, joy, and expressions of their own unique beauty. These people inspired me to come out, and when I sat down to write my own trans narrative, I consciously decided to highlight the positive aspects of my experience, to focus on empowerment, and to find the humor wherever possible.
Now that I am a happy, healthy, successful trans person (or at least a person working on self-affirmations) invited to speak at a handful of universities as part of their Transgender Awareness Weeks leading up to TDOR, I aim to strike a balance between the somber and the celebratory, to engender hope while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.
Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice. A groundbreaking report released earlier this year, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, revealed the extreme challenges that trans people still face.
The statistics are alarming: 63% of participants experienced a serious act of discrimination (i.e., lost job, eviction, physical or sexual assault, bullying, homelessness, denial of medical services), and 23% faced a “catastrophic level of discrimination” —defined as being impacted by at least three major life-disrupting events. Across the board, trans people of color fared worse than the white participants.
As a trans person of many privileges (class, race, and education) talking to other (mostly) privileged college students this week, I find it important to acknowledge the disparities in what my mind links together: a homophobic act of vandalism and the intention to shift away from the tragic trans narrative at an elite university, and the unabated hate-crimes, violence, and discrimination against trans folk, most of whom lack social privileges.
I link these here intentionally, believing our struggles are all linked. While we may separate ourselves under our various social justice causes, our groups and acronyms must join together in the space of our hearts. We all must fight for equality and human rights – like the right to live – by backing, recognizing, and honoring each other.
On Sunday, we commemorate the loss of our trans folk. I call to everyone in the GLBTQIQA — buy a vowel, add a letter, become an ally — to visit the Transgender Day of Remembrance websiteand review some names and pictures. If you are so inclined, attend a vigil in your area, or simply light a candle in your house. Please take a small moment, even if it is right now, in memory of those in our community, this great big community of humanity, who have been killed in the past year for being themselves.
Then, take a breath and move forward, continue your activism by living honestly and authentically. In honoring our own lives, we remember the dead, something we will continue to do annually until our collective tragic trans narrative is obsolete.
Nick Krieger is the author of Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender. You can read more of Nick's blog posts at ninaherenorthere.com
I might have made a huge mistake. A cardinal trans sin, really. The equivalent to tattooing my birth name on my forehead. And then shoving my forehead into the faces of friends, strangers, the whole world. I decided to use my birth name in the title of my memoir, Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender.
It started with a friend, an idea offered in the kitchen, a funny play on words, a title for my new blog back when “Nina” was still my name. Then three-and-a-half years later, this phrase ended up on the cover of my book, and I now have a friend who holds out her hand for royalties, or at least a hundred-dollar-bill bookmark, every time I see her.
Sometimes it seems like the book title just sorta happened, but I made decisions along the way, specifically the decision to let my old name linger while I adapted to my chosen name. Had I published my memoir two years ago, when “Nick” was brand new, I could not have handled “Nina” staring back at me everywhere. Shit, I couldn’t even utter the word at that time. It wasn’t so much that I disliked my old name. I was just using dog training, or maybe dolphin training, strategies. If I wanted people to call me “Nick,” it had to be all “Nick” all the time. Perpetual constant reinforcement, not only for others but for myself.
As I broke in “Nick,” the sound shaped itself to me, conformed around me, and soon it fit as comfortably as a pair of worn slippers. Once I became more physically, emotionally, and mentally at ease with myself, I was less frustrated when certain friends would mention my old name, less controlling of it. While I occasionally told them it wasn’t theirs to speak, I also understood that they were revisiting a scrapbook, a memory, and to my surprise, I found that I too wanted to hold on to my past, keep it as it was without revision. Occasionally, I even wanted to share it, whisper my old name into a lover’s ear, an offering of the most intimate piece of myself.
Now, part of me is proud to render “Nina” indelible, to have it serve as a tattoo, maybe not on my forehead but on the underside of my wrist, so I can turn it up and share the singular word that was closest to me for thirty years. To watch such a word unexpectedly change shape, morph from name into title, transform into something new, come to mean something new, seems as beautiful and wondrous as a gender transition itself. For me, seeing both “Nina” and “Nick” in the same place at the same time is symbolic of my gender, the unification of the woman and man in me.
Whether others will allow me both, to live my present while loving my past, is yet to be seen. There is implicit risk to blasting my old name into the world, to giving others access to something that has been used again and again in ignorance and fear to hurt trans people. I am still recovering from the slip-ups, mistakes, and careless cruelties, and my heart still tingles with raw sensitivity in the presence of my mother, who, despite good intentions, reverts to a “Nina”-spewing machine around me.
Which is why it seems crucial to let it all go, to reclaim my old name as mine, to own the power and let it stand for something other than pain. I also believe there is change going on around us. Trans folk and allies have fought for visibility, rights, and respect, paving the way so that I can live happily and joyfully without the weight of heavy armor and without needing to maintain a constant state of self-defense. I aspire to continue the fight, and for me that means believing in the change, not allowing cisgender (non-trans) people who have fucked up in the past to prevent me from trusting those with the potential to see and embrace me in my totality. I am making a leap of faith, hoping that my old name will be respected, as a character in a book and part of a title, not as some “real” “truth” that makes the Nick of here and now invisible.
I have been living with my decision in somewhat of a vacuum, save for one trans friend who always seems a bit bothered by the choice I made. Whether it is my old name, his old name, or the larger cause that unsettles him, I do not know. But I do know I am only one person, with one voice, and I’d like to hear yours–I’d like everyone to hear yours. So please, whether you are trans or not, how do you feel about your name? If you changed your name, how would you feel about going public with your old one? Are we as a trans community as diverse in our decisions as I truly believe we are? Are we living in a time with more space for each of us to express our unique experiences?
And as long as we’re answering my questions, can someone please tell me how long it’s going to take for me to stop unconsciously doodling my old name in all of my notebooks?
I really wanted Chaz Bono to be a transgender hero. By sharing his transition in his film, “Becoming Chaz,” and in his memoir, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, he is offering gender-questioning people an intimate entry into his personal experience. With his fame, he is raising much-needed awareness about a marginalized population. But as I, a writer releasing my own transmasculine memoir on the same day as Bono, follow the coverage of his story, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion media train wreck.
The New York Times article, “The Reluctant Transgender Role Model,” by Cintra Wilson, is the latest troubling piece. Wilson, in what must be an attempt at humor, investigates Bono’s motivations with questions about celebrity damage, gender-bent Oedipal revenge, and reclaiming childhood attention. I imagine Wilson aims to connect with skeptical mainstream readers, but those types of questions push well past curious and cynical to downright ridiculous.
In a cultural climate that forces transgender people to explain themselves at every turn, I cannot be too surprised that Bono plays into another story of overcoming pain and suffering, of transition as the last resort of the suicidal. As a transgender person, I find this narrative exhausting and self-victimizing. Why do we, as trans people, need to keep proving how awful our lives are in order for people to accept us? What if we modified our bodies, not “amputated” parts of them as Wilson so crudely states, because we thought our lives were so beautiful that we wanted to experience them in a vehicle that allowed us our deepest comfort and truest self-expression?
Bono reiterates the standard transgender narrative of identifying as a male since childhood, using as evidence gender stereotypes like “playing sports” to reinforce his case. Once again, it’s hard to blame Bono. The criteria for Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders refers to gender stereotypes in its diagnosis. Although the article claims GID was only classified as a mental disorder until 1999, this is incorrect. (eds note: The article was corrected online after publication.) A diagnosis of GID is still required for many trans people seeking gender reassignment surgery, and reinforcing gender stereotypes is the necessary proof. While I cannot question Bono’s experience, I can challenge his facts and make it absolutely clear that his experience isn’t shared by all of us.
Bono says, “There’s a gender in your brain and a gender in your body. For 99 percent of people, those things are in alignment. For transgender people, they’re mismatched. That’s all it is. It’s not complicated, it’s not a neurosis. It’s a mix-up. It’s a birth defect, like a cleft palate.”
First I’d like to know where Bono confirmed the gender in your brain and gender in your body theory. Sure, researchers are looking for hard proof of transsexualism, but they are having about as much success as they are in finding a definitive “gay gene” or “gay brain” structure in homosexuals. The nature vs. nurture debate will continue in gay and lesbian research circles just like the essentialist vs. cultural construction debate will continue in gender research circles. To fall completely to one pole as Bono does with essentialism is to ignore the very complicated topic of gender presentations, expressions, embodiments, roles, and identities as lived in our culture. To Bono’s claim of mismatched alignment for transgender people, this is a gross misrepresentation of all of us.
“Transgender,” in its most common usage, is as an all-encompassing term and self-defined identity available to anyone who doesn’t fit into the man or woman boxes. Transsexuals (female-to-male/FTM like Bono; or male-to female/MTF) are the most well-known group under the transgender umbrella. But there are many trans people who live and identify outside of the stifling constraints of the gender binary. Some pursue hormones without surgery; some pursue surgery without hormones; some choose only to adopt a new name; some use the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir”; some use self-identifying words that encompass both man and woman, like genderqueer or gender fluid.
Therefore, the conclusion of Wilson’s article relating to diversity is correct, except that Bono actually reiterates the black and white of gender identification by wedding himself completely to the notion of a woman becoming a man. He may offer an alternative understanding of black and white, but as for ushering in a complete wheel of gender (not sexuality as Wilson mistakenly writes) into the mainstream, Technicolor Bono is not.
It’s time for an understanding of transgender experiences and identities to reach mainstream audiences. Bono is, with his celebrity bullhorn, an ideal candidate to be a transgender role model, but after I read that he once had a tolerance for women that he no longer has, he cannot be my hero. I do hope that his story is the starting point, an impetus to expand the conversation beyond sensationalism, gender stereotypes, and the Fashion & Style pages. But this poorly fact-checked article by Cinta Wilson makes me nervous that many will now claim to know about transgender people, and about me, because they read or saw something about Cher’s kid.