Surat Shaan Knan

Portrait pic of Surat Credit: AJAMU

“You can’t measure manhood with a tape line around his biceps.”

― Billy Sunday

Transgender identity is so much more complex and diverse than ‘being born in the wrong body’ argues Surat Shaan Knan in the seventh instalment of The Ponderings of a Transgender Jew.

Surat Shaan Knan is a female-to-male (ftm) transgender person on a transitioning journey. Click here for previous instalments 

Last week Surat-Shaan told us what is was like to get his Gender Recognition Certificate, this week the saga goes on at his friends’ house when joining a mystical Buddhist smoke ritual.

In the evening, I hook up with one of my best friends and her partner.

To celebrate this very special occasion, they have prepared a Buddhist smoke ritual for me. This ancient Tibetan ceremony marks renewal and transformation. Afterwards, we sit together and have some cleansing tea spiked with a weird potion called ‘dutzi’ . As I learn, it is a mystic concoction of herbs, spices and holy ephemera, including – apparently – monk’s socks (no kidding!). Monk’s apparel aside, although I’m not a Buddhist, this felt a lot more authentic to me than signing court papers. I could sense a shift within myself. A true rite of passage. 

It made me think that I do want some sort of a Jewish transitioning ritual. And I would want it in my community, at a synagogue, and with a rabbi. There may be loads of stuff available for trans* Jews in the US or Canada, but there’s no such thing as transitioning ritual here in the UK. Me thinks, it’s time to step up and provide religious services and rituals for everyone, including transgender Jews.

My friend intercepts my train of thought: ‘So, how does it feel as a man now?’

‘Good question. I actually don’t really feel I’m a man. Whatever that may mean.’

My friend smirks; her partner cries out ‘So is it because you haven’t had the operation?’

Dutsi (1)

Dutsi (A Tibetan smoke ritual)

THE operation, here we go again. Everyone wants to know about ‘the surgery’. As if surgery was the one and only thing that defines a transgender life. It certainly doesn’t for me. It surely helps, but there must be more to being trans* than changing the body. My doctors think that medical intervention is necessary.  I think it’s merely a bonus. A choice one should be able to make. What bugs me is that surgery implies a medical journey from one to the other sex. From and to. Day and night. One or the other. The end of the twilight. The ‘beyond’ is left out.

The thought of having to choose strictly between one and the other may appeal to some people, but it is definitely not my personal philosophy of life. (‘ strawberry or chocolate?’ – ‘Both, please.  And, double chocolate with cream on top’). I want both and more. Binaries bother me. 

On the other hand, I do recognise that having my body ‘masculinised’ with the help of hormones and surgery is necessary for my health and happiness. It surely helps ease my gender  dysphoria. But that’s not the point. My issue is the seemingly inevitable choice between one and the other. The totality of it. 

Another thing is that it’s really important for me to be out as transgender.  Passing is great, but I do want to be out and proud as trans. The annual Transgender Day of Visibility was celebrated just a couple of weeks ago.  It was fantastic to see so many trans* people flooding social media channels with out and proud pics and messages. Trans* with an asterix.

Despite standing by my decision to have my official docs changed to male, I always make it clear that I identify as non-binary: somewhere on the transmale  spectrum. I might prefer a masculine physical appearance, but my identity shifts beyond the male or female – it floats about in a grey zone of transmasculine, genderqueer, third  gender , two sprit and unspecified. I could probably tick most of those customised gender categories on Facebook. I think they let me choose five on my profile.

At this point my friend hollers excitedly: ‘Fifty shades of trans!’

‘So, if your gender identity is nonconforming, why did you decide to get your gender changed to male?’  She asks.

‘There weren’t many options.’  I explain ‘Just TWO really – male or female.  And staying female wasn’t an option.’ I had struggled for over 20 years with the fact that I was assigned female at birth. I had to endure all those years to be labelled and addressed as female. 

Well, I used to try to get people to address me in the neutral form ‘they/their’, but it just was too hard; it never really worked. Society’s way of thinking is just too binary. 

A two spirit person in Navajo

A two spirit person in Navajo (http://www.dancingtoeaglespiritsociety.org/twospirit.php)

I recall my first few sessions at the gender clinic, and the assessment period with psychiatrists and endocrinologists. One thing seems clear: our health system hasn’t cottoned on to the idea of a fluid gender identity. The theory is that transsexuality is solely a medical condition and needs to be treated. The treatment is a one-way track: male to female or female to male.

In the system, the reality is, if you do not get diagnosed as transsexual i.e. you feel you were born in the wrong body, you will not get medical help – no hormones, no counselling, no surgery. In other words, no support. Outing yourself as non-binary to medical professionals and authorities, will result in scrutiny and ultimately dismissal of your case. You probably won’t be able to change your personal documents either. You will be stuck with the ‘wrong’ gender title, and any medical intervention will be made impossible – unless you are super rich. You must proof that you are 100% sure you are one gender. Either or.

I do recall all those daunting hours at the gender clinic, being asked all sorts of really uncomfortable and at times rather ridiculous questions: ‘Do you fantasize about having a penis? A large one? Are you the dominant partner when having sex? Is it a problem for you that you are a short man? What kind of women do you feel attracted to? To me, such questions have actually not much to do with my dysphoria.  It’s actually interesting (and quite shocking) how heteronormative psychiatric assessments of trans* people are. Heterosexuality and gender-stereotypical behaviour patterns are presumed. Boxes are being ticked.

I answered all those questions knowing that boxes were being ticked. Hence, according to health services, I deep down want to be a sexually-dominant, alpha-male, heterosexual (cis) man.  Is it true?

My friend frowns. ‘I see. So, if you had other gender options, would you prefer that?’

‘I suppose. If a third gender – or more genders – were accepted in society and legally, I’d go for that. It would also spare me a lot of uncomfortable, and sometimes even dangerous situations: going to the GP, using changing rooms, toilets, travelling, going through security checks etc.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m comfortable with my increasing masculine physical appearance. And yes, my transitioning was and is the right thing to do. Yet, the choice between one or the other does not make any sense to me. It’s restricting my freedom of expression. And the way society keeps reinforcing the binary gender system of male and female just does not agree with me.’

There’s a lot to say about this. And I will. I keep pondering.

For now, let me reiterate: I’m transgender, trans male, transmasculine, male to female, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, third gender, two spirit, non-binary, agender, many genders and no gender. I am first and foremost human.

To be continued.

Lost in the alphabet soup? Here are some working definitions and examples of frequently used (and misused) gender expressions via GLAAD. http://www.twilightpeople.com/words/  & more: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/

Surat-Shaan Knan works for Liberal Judaism UK, and has founded the landmark projects Rainbow Jews and Twilight People. He serves as the community coordinator of Ritual Reconstructed.

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