interior banner image

I Am Not Not Me: Unmaking and Remaking the Language of the Self

I Am Not Not Me: Unmaking and Remaking the Language of the Self

Author: Joy Ladin

December 28, 2014

I am not not me. When I lived as a man, I was not me. My “I”–the leafless tree of my public pronoun–referred to a man I knew I wasn’t. Since I stopped living as a man, my “I” refers to me, myself as I know myself to be. 

Even now, though, my “I” and “me” never exactly coincide. Identity is not a noun, an unchanging essence: it’s an ongoing process of selection, substitution, analogy, and negotiation. I am not saying identity is performance. Identity is not only something we do for and with others; we “do” identity for and with ourselves, creating a sense of self, a sense that all that we have felt and done, and all the versions of ourselves we have been, are expressions of a single self.

But even if my identity is a process rather than an essence, surely, thanks to my gender transition, I can affirm that whatever I am at any given moment, I am not not me.

But that’s not true: I am not me. I use language to define  my sense of self, to reflect on my ongoing flux of feeling and experience to understand who I am. Language is what enables me to recognize a certain feeling as “female gender identity,” and to interpret that feeling as not only defining me to myself, but as relating my identity to others who identify as female. But this self-defining language is “not me”: I learn it from others and share it with others, and as this shared language changes, so does the way I name and understand myself.

In short, I am, and am not, not me. That’s the scandal and glory of identity: our sense of self is not ours alone, it represents the interpretation of individual feeling, experience, memory and perception through shared, socially negotiated, self-defining language.

Nothing I’ve said about identity is specific to trans people. These are conditions of humanness. But these conditions are particularly difficult for those who don’t identify within the gender binary–the set identity–defining terms and conventions based on the assumption that all human beings are either male or female. Though the terms of gender vary from culture to culture, in every culture, gender is one of the fundamental modes through which human beings understand and express identity. Whether a given culture’s terms for gender are binary, or include a third gender, and whatever roles and characteristics are associated with different genders, gender terms are always limited and limiting compared to the richness and messiness of the individuals who use them. That’s the nature of identity-defining language: the very generality that makes it so powerful means that it always misrepresents us.

Though, as Facebook recently acknowledged, there are dozens of terms for non-binary relations to gender, these terms are not yet widely used or understood; even within what we call “the trans community,” there is no established language for trans identity. For example, for most of my life, I thought of myself as “transsexual.” That’s the term I used most often in Through the Door of Life, my memoir of gender transition, and it is still the term that most accurately describes my relationship to gender. But by the time my memoir was published in 2012, “transsexual,” though still widely used, was considered old-fashioned by many, and even, by some, demeaning, thanks to the associations of “sexual” with erotic desire and genitalia. The preferred term, I was told, was now “transgender,” an umbrella category including many non-binary relationships to gender. I wasn’t crazy about referring to myself as “transgender” after a lifetime of thinking of myself as transsexual, but I dutifully adopted “transgender” as my go-to term in talks about trans identity, though I still say “male-to-female transsexual” to specify my place beneath the transgender umbrella. However, the language for trans identity continues to change. A few months after I became comfortable referring to myself as “transgender,” I became aware of a movement to replace that term with “trans,” with or without an unpronounceable asterisk. I prefer “trans” to “transgender,” but I suspect it is only a matter of months before “trans” is also considered dated.

Sometimes I experience the lack of an established language for trans identity as liberating, as though my gender identity were an undomesticated wilderness, a realm of unspeakable freedom. Sometimes I experience it as isolating, marginalizing, an involuntary exile from the warmth and intelligibility of human community. Sometimes I feel unintelligible even to myself. Without language, I don’t understand how the discordant facts of my body, gender and life add up to a coherent “I” or “me.”

The lack of established language makes trans identity an ideal site for exploring the mysterious intersection between language and identity, the ways in which we simultaneously create and are created by the language we use to understand and express ourselves.

Imagine identity as a sentence, a sentence that begins “I am…”

It should be easy to say “I am,” but for me, as for many trans people, it isn’t. Before transition, when I said “I am” to others, I knew that they would think my “I” referred to the male persona I presented, not to me as I knew myself. Even now that I am living my gender identity, I am not sure what it means when I say “I am.” If I “pass” as a woman, my “I” is being misread as referring to someone  born and raised female; if I don’t “pass,” I am read as someone whose gender expression belies rather than expresses my sense of who I am.

The problem is not lack of terminology. I easily use binary gender terms to say “I am,” to say, for example, “I am someone with a female gender identity who was born and raised male and lived as man until in, in 2007, I began living as a woman.” These terms accurately name aspects of my identity, but this sentence doesn’t explain how these aspects relate to one another or constitute a single, coherent self. I face a similar problem when I use non-binary gender terms, as in the sentence “I am a male-to-female transsexual.” The term “male-to-female transsexual” names the disparities between my body, my gender identification and my male persona, but doesn’t make sense of the relationship between them.

The gender binary is not simply a collection of terms for identity; it is a syntax of identity. That syntax is what makes it easy to understand how the different terms in the statement “I was born female, raised as a girl, and am now a woman” relate to another and add up to a coherent, intelligible self. But there is as yet no established syntax for non-binary (trans) gender identities that would relate the disparate aspects of my body, life history and gender identity and make sense of them as expressions of a single self.

I suspect the lack of syntax for trans identity is one reason for what Trace Peterson, in a forthcoming essay in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, identifies as a “shared interest in (un)intelligibility” among pioneering trans poets kari edwards, Max Wolf Valerio and Samuel Ace, and, more generally, for the striking number of poems that challenge intelligibility-conferring linguistic conventions in Troubling the Line, the ground-breaking anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry co-edited by Peterson and TC Tolbert. Trans poets will have to be interested in “(un)intelligibility” as long as there is no syntax that renders trans identity intelligible.

There is, of course, one generally recognized syntax for trans identity– the syntax of the old-fashioned but still widely used formulation, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” (For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stick with the male-to-female transsexual version in this analysis, though the syntax of “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” is identical.)

“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” translates the term “transsexual” into a sentence that names aspects of trans identity in familiar binary gender terms–“man” and “woman”– and synthesizes those terms into a non-binary concept of identity. Let’s give a close-read to this sentence to see how this syntax works.

“I am a woman” is the simplest form of gender identity syntax, identifying the individual speaker, “I,” with a binary gender category, “woman.” Because gender binary terms fuse, and confuse, gender identification, physical sex, and social gender role, saying “I am a woman” defines “I” physically, socially, and in terms of gender identification, as a mature female.

The verb “trapped” further defines “I”’s identity, specifying that “I” is not just any woman, but a trapped woman. “Trapped” also implies the possibility of release: “I” is a trapped woman now, but someday “I” may not be trapped, may not be defined by involuntary confinement, may be a woman who is free. The preposition “in” locates “I” within the “trap,” defining “I” as separate from, “in” but not part of, the imprisoning circumstance, and preparing us to learn what that circumstance is.

Thus far, nothing in this sentence has challenged the binary gender assumptions associated with the term “woman.” But by specifying “I”’s trap as “a man’s body,” the sentence uses the syntax of the gender binary, the way the gender binary relates “man” and “woman,” to undermine many binary assumptions.

Unlike new-fangled non-binary terms, gender binary terms are defined in relation to one another, embedded in a yin-yang syntax that defines maleness and femaleness as symmetrical, complementary opposites. Thanks to that binary syntax, the assertion “I am a woman” not only defines who “I” is, but who “I” is not:  to say “I am a woman” implies that “I” is not anything suggested by the complementary term “man.” The phrase “in a man’s body” short-circuits this syntax in several ways. First, it shatters the symmetry of maleness and femaleness; while “woman” is presented as an identity-defining noun, an essence, “man” is presented as an adjective, demoted to a quality that defines “a body” rather than an identity. Indeed, the “body” in this sentence is explicitly dissociated from “I”’s identity – it is “a” body, not “my” body, a body imprisons rather than defines “I.” The dissociation of “I”’s identity from “I”’s body dissolves another gender binary assumption – the assumption that physical sex, gender identification and social role are so closely correlated that if one aspect of self is male or female, all must be.

In other words, the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” not only defines the speaker; its syntax redefines gender, destabilizing the binary symmetry between male and female, presenting physical sex and gender identification as independent variables that may be in opposition as well as alignment, and asserting that when these variables are in opposition, identity is primarily defined not by body but by gender identification.

When I was living as a man, this syntax of identity helped me make sense of the disparity between my physical sex, social persona and gender identity by defining my female gender identification as essential to my identity, and my “man’s body” and social persona as ancillary, imprisoning circumstances. This syntax also resonated on another level, expressing my lifelong fantasy that there was a fully formed female self – a woman – imprisoned inside my outward maleness, ready and waiting to be free.

For decades, that syntax of identity sustained me, but once I began living as a woman, it no longer made sense. For one thing, I found that there was no woman trapped inside my male body and persona. Despite my lifelong female gender identity, I had to grow into an adult female social role – to learn how to live as a woman, to discover who I was now that I was living rather than hiding my gender identity. I also found that even after I stopped living as a man, I couldn’t dissociate myself from the life I had built as a man – a life that included my relationships with my children as well as my professional career. Finally, I realized that I had never been “trapped in a man’s body,”; my body was mine, the only body I would ever have, and however I altered or clothed it, every cell of my body would always remain physically male.

Even though I was finally not not-me once I was living as a woman, I had no syntax to make sense of these disparate aspects of my identity.

The lack of syntax for trans identity made my transition much harder, but for trans writers, it represents tremendous opportunity, the chance to pioneer language that offers readers new modes of understanding ourselves and one another. That’s what Samuel Ace does in the opening phrases of the prose poem “I met a man”:

I met a man who was a woman who was a man who was a woman who was a man who met a woman who met her genes who tic’d the toe who was a man who x’d the x and xx’d the y… [1]

Like the gender terms in the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” Ace’s terms (“man,” “woman,” “her”) are drawn straight from the binary lexicon. But unlike “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” Ace’s open-ended syntax keeps redefining “man” and “woman,” combining them both with one another (“man who was a woman who was a man”) and with complicating predicates (“who x’d the x and xx’d the y”), generating a series of inconclusive phrases, in which the meanings of and relationship between “man” and “woman” shift like shards of color turning in a kaleidoscope.

Rather than synthesizing these terms into a single formulation of identity, as “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” does, Ace’s syntax forestalls the moment of closure when the identity of the “man who was a woman who was a man who was a woman who was a man,” and thus the relationship between “man” and “woman,” would be defined. This syntax presents trans identity not as a static relationship between gender identification, physical sex and social role, but as a vector of possibility, an omnivorous process that incorporates disparate terms without needing to resolve their disparities.

As Ace shows, literature can be a laboratory for trans identity not just through representation of trans characters and situations, but by offering syntax that models new modes of relating aspects of identity–syntax that individual readers can use to make sense of ourselves and our lives. Though I’m not sure I’ve ever “x’d the x” or “xx’d the y,” Ace’s syntax makes much more sense than that of “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” of the way I experienced identity during transition, when the terms “man” and “woman” whirled around and through one another, and my sense of self kept shifting like the meaning of Ace’s phrases.

One queer twentieth-century writer, E.M. Forster, praised another, Virginia Woolf, for “pushing the light of the English language a little further against the darkness.” That is the job confronting twenty-first century trans writers: we need to push language to illuminate non-binary realms of identity and experience. As we develop new syntax for trans identity, we will be developing new ways of understanding all identity, pushing the light of language against the darkness created when the mystery and richness of humanity can only be understood in terms of binary gender.

[1] Ace, Samuel. “I met a man.” Troubling the Line. Ed. Trace Peterson and TC Tolbert. 1st ed. New York: Nightboat Books, 2013. 431. Print.

Joy Ladin photo

About: Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, has published six books of poetry, including Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration; her seventh collection, Impersonation, is due out in 2015. Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life:  A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist,and she has also published a study of American poetry, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship.

Subscribe to our newsletter