The Time I Outed Someone to Herself
Trans people often say something along the lines of “If only I could have dealt with this sooner, I was such an idiot!”, but can that process of self discovery be hurried along? Some people advise against trying to help someone along in such deeply personal matters, for example, the Straight Person’s Guide to Gay Etiquette says:
First Rule: Never out someone to him/herself.
You may not think this is possible, but it is. Many persons walk about daily giving off more queer vibes than an entire roomful of RuPaul clones, and yet continue to identify as heterosexual. This is because the human capacity for denial and rationalization is unmatched by any other mental phenomenon in the known universe. Ask Spock if you don’t believe me. Your pal Bill may have just spent half an hour talking about how beautiful Jaye Davidson is and how he watched Stargate on slow motion, he may have pierced ears, tattoos, graceful and fluttering hand gestures and a fondness for hot dogs that you are sure has to be Freudian, he may just have ended his third brief and unhappy marriage, but if you sit Bill down and say, “Three strikes and you’re out, Bill, I think you need to start looking for love in quite different places,” he will be shocked, appalled, horrified, and more than a little angry. If Bill were ready or able to confront this possibility, it would have happened by now, and your well-meaning intervention will only alienate him and perhaps drive him further into the depths of repression. You must wait for Bill to get his own clue. And when he does come out to you, don’t forget to feign surprise.
This might be reasonable advice for clueless straight people dealing with potentially gay-but-in-denial people. It’s hard to imagine Bill saying “Duh, I guess I should date men!” in response to the clumsy approach above. But it would be ridiculous to think that no one can ever help another person gain some perspective in their process of self discovery; after all, that’s pretty much the raison d’être for therapy (and friendship too)—nonjudgmental questions from someone else can help someone in drawing meaningful and useful conclusions about their lives.
Context matters, too. Would we have the same advice in the (mythical) Gay Person’s Guide to Gay Etiquette? Suppose, for example, we switch the scenario around and have Bill waking up next to Paul after a night of passionate sex. If Bill says to Paul, “I’m not doing anything gay because you went down on me and I was never penetrated! And anyway, it’s just sex, it doesn’t mean anything!” maybe it’s okay for Paul to say, “WTF!? Do you think that if anyone opened the door on us while we were fucking, they’d make the distinction? Most ‘totally straight’ guys don’t screw dudes the moment their wives go out of town. And if you think it doesn’t mean anything, why do you want to get together with me more and more often?” If you do gay stuff around gay people and say it’s not gay, maybe they can tell you that you’re full of crap.
So, context, who is trying to help, and how they do it all matter and contribute to the reasonableness of trying to help someone in their process of self discovery. Of course there are some risks — our attempts to help someone could backfire — but, on the other hand, any help that speeds up the process of self discovery has rewards, both for that person themselves and for those around them. In the example above, if Bill leaves three women wondering about their ability to be attractive to and satisfy men, that has costs and risks, too. And if Bill’s own denial-based claims (e.g., “Gay sex doesn’t count; you’re not gay if you’re married!”) confuses other people about their sexuality and path, that’s a bad thing, too. For trans people, all these issues apply, but there is another: their biological clock is ticking — some aspects of transition are easier the younger you are.
So I would argue that if you you could help someone see their path of self discovery a little better, it could help, and maybe someday they’d thank you for it. Two years ago, I got a slightly unusual opportunity to try.
In this case, my attempt to help wasn’t an in-person conversation. Here, I was writing to internet personality ZJemptv/rmuser (hereafter, ZJ), who had founded both the LGBT subreddit on reddit.com and had a popular YouTube presence with thousands of subscribers and millions of views. Looking back, I’m not sure quite why I wrote, but I think it was mostly that in reading material ZJ had put online, I’d found that ZJ seemed to be playing some kind of game with gender and identity, but there was some mystery as to what exactly this game was. Someone was being fooled in it, but it wasn’t clear who, why, or what the stakes were—they might very well be someone’s life. It was a puzzle, and as I looked at it, I saw ambiguities, contradictions, and parallels. I wanted to tell someone about them, and it seemed rude to tell the whole world, so I wrote directly to ZJ.
It seemed initially like I had wasted my energy. Not, perhaps, unexpected when you write to someone who gets a ton of unsolicited mail from random strangers on the Internet. What had I been thinking? But, three days later, ZJ posted a video Clearing up a few misconceptions which I initially hoped might be some sort of response, but the only purported clarification was “I’m not trans! I’m just not!”, which seemed profoundly unsatisfying given everything I’d said in my message. Still apparently with too much time on my hands, I made a video response, raising some of the questions I’d put in the email message, but it didn’t seem to help much.
I never knew if that email message had ever been read until a few days ago, when I got my thanks for it, if that’s the right word. Zinna Jones had rediscovered my message as she trailed through some old mailboxes after legally changing her name. She has now transitioned, presents full time as female, and is loving the experience of finally growing her own breasts. She’s happier, and I’m happy for her. My message now strikes her as eerily prescient, so much so that it’s almost the moral of equivalent of sending herself a message back through time saying, “Hey, get a clue! You’re a trans woman! Transition already! You know you want to!” and, as such, it provides proof that sending a message back through time doesn’t work, because there are no cheat codes to short circuit the process of self discovery.
Actually though, I never told ZJ to transition, and didn’t expect ZJ to skip any steps in self discovery. I was simply drawing ZJ’s attention to things I’d seen and asking some probing questions. I also wanted to illuminate some of ZJ’s options, so that ZJ’s choices could be informed ones. Today Zinnia says that some of what I said scared her, hitting her in the spot where she was most vulnerable, intensifying her feelings of gender dysphoria. Honestly, I’m unrepentant. Yes, that experience was stressful, and painful, but I still think it helped her in knowing herself and her feelings better.
She says she wouldn’t do what I did, but it’s hard to know. Probably there won’t be another high-profile personality on YouTube doing quite what she did any time soon. But I do know that she likes calling people out when they’re putting stuff out there on the ‘Net that’s blatantly wrong—will she be able to resist? Now perhaps, but in ten or twenty years?
We’ll see, I guess. I can wait.
This is the message I sent, lightly edited to fix a few typos and remove some personal information about ZJ.
I’ve enjoyed your videos, blog posts, etc. over the years—I haven’t seen or read every one, but they do tend to strike a chord with me in various ways. I never quite imagined that they’d precipitate a message quite this long (over 3000 words, albeit many of them yours), but there we go…
Let me introduce myself, I’m “sugarandslugs” on reddit—I’m sure you and I have both sometimes commented on the same anti-gay or transphobic threads (on the same side). I also write a very sporadically updated blog at sugarandslugs.wordpress.com, which has about six readers, rather than the two million you have. If you’re ever suitably bored, or bizarrely desperate to figure out what my deal is, you’re more than welcome to check it out.
We have at least one other thing in common: In my past, I freaked people the fuck out because they couldn’t figure out what gender I was, and I took a certain pleasure in it (at least for a while). We’re no doubt plenty different, but I hope that at least I don’t sound like a hater, a spammer, or, for that matter, a stalker. I probably will sound like someone with too much time on their hands, but hey, it’s a weekend, right?
This message was actually inspired by one comment you made on reddit about how you’ve changed over the past few years (i.e., this comment in the thread about physical transformations). I commented there, but somehow it sent me falling down a bit of an Internet rabbit hole, with threads to unpick and leads to follow. Writing this message is my way of extricating myself from said hole. Maybe.
One of the interesting recurring themes in your YouTube channel and your blog is the whole “ZJ vs gender” theme. As you well know, that mostly consists of your having to deal with people who can’t deal with androgyny, genderfuck, etc., and your telling them that you couldn’t really give a shit what some random stranger on the Internet perceives, since that person (usually a guy) is never going to meet you, and if you did meet, your gender ought to be largely irrelevant.
Cool. I feel the same way about sexual orientation. The issue of my sexual preferences are really only relevant if I’m looking for a date, which, as someone in a committed relationship, I most certainly am not.
In replying to your post on reddit, I dug up a video you’d made in July 2010 for International Drag Day and in the latter half, you talked about yourself, describing what you do as drag. You said (transcribed, whee)
Of course, not all drag is so conspicuous. Sometimes it takes a more subdued form incorporating the more commonplace elements of everyday feminine style. If it’s subtle enough, nobody will even notice because there’s nothing that would clue them in. In contrast to the usual drag styles, this can actually be more transgressive of gender roles. It confounds people’s abilities to even recognize that you’re in drag and that you aren’t the gender you’re presenting as.
I’ve actually noticed this happening over the last couple of years. At first people would tell me I looked like a girl. Obviously they thought I wasn’t, or they’d call me a fag, under the assumption that I was a guy. So I decided to change things up a bit. It started out very gradually: putting on makeup, trying on jewelry, new clothes, better hair. And eventually, piece by piece, it evolved into a whole new style. And while I did come up with some looks that are more conventionally glamourous, there was always a more basic fashion underneath, something simple, casual. Surprisingly, this ended up being closer to a genuine feminine style than the excesses of drag. I can tell how effective it’s been because now when people want to insult me they call me a dyke, or call me a man under the assumption that I’m not. Even the haters don’t know for sure any more.
Not to ignore all the positive feedback, of course. There have been plenty of people who say I’m attractive, and they seem to be using the feminine standard of beauty. And it’s really interesting because this seems to be even more of a disassembly of gender roles than the most extravagant varieties of drag. This isn’t just consciously crossing traditional boundaries, it’s almost dissolving those boundaries to the point that people can’t reliably place your gender any more. It’s not utilizing the extremes of gender expression, only the more average elements—the actual feminine styles that are in common use. And in doing so it works to subvert the concept of gender itself, rather than reenforcing it.
And I think this is just another dimension of drag, a different kind of style that’s often overlooked in favor of the more flashy and glamourous varieties. Although, if nobody notices, I suppose that’s kind of the point.
All in all, it’s important to realize that drag isn’t limited to just one form—there’s plenty of ways to do it, including the more understated look. And one of the advantages of this is how accessible it is to the average person. It really doesn’t take a lot of work. If I can do it, almost anyone can. So maybe more people should try doing drag, in their own unique style. You might be surprised at how easy it is. And fun, too!
“Go for it ZJ”, I used to think—you mess with people, subvert the concept of gender itself.
In writing this email message, I dug up a few more self descriptions you’d written, in particular one two months later (September 2010) that matched up pretty well with my perception:
rmuser (aka ZJ or Zinnia Jones) “runs” #lgbtreddit, but doesn’t really do all that much. Moderates /r/lgbt. Most well known for being a gay/genderqueer crossdresser who makes videos about religion and gay rights. Age 21, resides around Chicago, and enjoys activism, making people think, rationality, transhumanism, writing, cooking and pet rats. Aspires to achieve some degree of recognition in life. Gender is a constant source of puzzlement for all who see him. Or is it her?
Cool. You weren’t using the word drag, but it’s the same basic story.
But with your post on reddit about physical transformations, I couldn’t help seeing that you seemed to be on some kind of forward progression. With those photos you admitted to feeling more like yourself as your presentation has changed (to look more feminine). I couldn’t help feeling like I could see a trajectory of self discovery and transformation, and one that is far from over.
And then I found your video from October 2010, “You treat women like that?”—here’s a transcript of the whole thing:
When people think you’re a woman, they’ll treat you like one. And from what I’ve experienced, the way some people treat women is fucking disgraceful. Seriously. It seems like any time a woman dares to be outspoken about anything, there’s always someone there to call her a bitch.
Why? No reason, just because.
You don’t like what she’s saying? She’s a bitch.
You don’t like the fact that she’s saying anything? Call her a bitch.
Who does she think she is, talking about things like that? What a bitch!
Oh, I’m sorry, should we just pipe down and let you do the talking? Should we have let you speak for us instead? I don’t think so. Really, what a great way to never have to listen to someone. Just because they’re a woman.
It’s too easy. Oh, pardon me, I was just being a cunt for a moment there? No, go ahead, let’s hear what you have to say… What’s that? I’m ugly? And you think I’m a dyke? Who gives a fuck! As if there’s anything wrong with that!
What am I, your wallpaper? I am supposed to be your fucking eye candy or something? I don’t remember signing up for that. Since when is it my job to look nice for you? You really think I’m trying to be attractive to you? To you? Who the fuck are you?!? And what makes you think you’re that important? Get a fucking grip.
And thank you for letting me know I have no boobs—I really hadn’t noticed. But since when are they any of your business? I’m sorry, I guess nobody informed me that I have to be a fucking supermodel for you listen to what I’m saying. I’ll get right on that.
Really, do you have any idea how disgusting it is to treat half the world’s population like this? As if all they’re good for is looking pretty for you and if they can’t do that they can just fuck off? Like they only exist for your pleasure rather than as people in their own right?
Did it never occur to you that they might have something more to offer than that? Or do you just not care? It’s honestly terrible to imagine that this is how people might treat your sister, your mother, your grandmother, your friends, and all the women you know. That’s fucking shameful. Really, who the hell do you think you are? People who do this have no goddamn right to look down on women. And how dare you act like you’re fucking better than them. Why is it so hard to treat people like people? Is it too much to ask for a little human decency? Is that really so difficult?
Try showing some respect for a change. Stop acting like the only thing that matters is if we look nice. Stop assuming our only conceivable worth lies in our sexual availability. And don’t you think for a second that we’re only here to make you happy. Women are people. And even if you treat us that badly, it’s people like you that make me want to be a woman — I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be you!
First, I love this rant. I could have made it. I probably have, in some variations over the years.
But what really struck me weren’t the feminism themes, or the cesspool of inane and ignorant comments that got made in response, but what the video revealed about your evolving identity—how you see yourself. You talk about women, and some of the time you say “they”, but other times you say “we” and “us”, including yourself. When I heard that I pointed at my screen and exclaimed “Ha! I knew it!!” (well, honestly, I probably didn’t do either, but I’m telling the story and it makes a better mental image, so let’s go with it).
And at the end, you actually admit that being a woman is actually something that you want to be, albeit offset with the claim that it’s something you’re almost goaded into feeling that way by haters. And maybe I’m projecting, but the anger about the boobs comments seemed, well, telling.
Of course, that’s just one video…
And there’s the fact that you’re increasingly active on trans issues, posting on transsexualism-related threads on reddit and video blogging about gender identity. Of course, that can absolutely explained away, given that you are an activist and a general LGBTQ ally (in fact, in my real life, my own trans activism is explained away exactly thus). Plausible deniability is great, isn’t it?
But if your official line on your identity wasn’t capturing the full story, wouldn’t there be evidence earlier, if we looked for it. I’d say there is. Let’s go back to one of your earliest video blogs, “Ain’t I a woman? Well, no.”, where you say
I’ve only been posting on YouTube for a couple of weeks now. [...] I really like how easy it’s been to start doing this, and it’s honestly surprising how friendly and welcoming everyone is.
Yes, even the person who felt it was necessary to ask if I’m a boy or a girl. I have a question for them: Are you blind, or just stupid? I don’t mean to be a bitch about this, it’s just I’ve never actually been asked “What gender are you?”
But I honestly can’t say it’s unexpected. This has actually come up before, believe it or not. A lot of the time when telemarketers call, they address me as Ma’am — that’s been going on for as long as I can remember. [...]
And yes, a couple of times, people on the Internet have said I look like a woman. But still, nobody has ever actually had to ask. And seriously, if you really think I look like a woman, you should be aware that there are some guys out there who actually do look like women — attractive women even. Believe me, I am not one of them.
But honestly, I’m not bothered about being mistaken for a woman. If the worst thing somebody can say about me is that I look like a woman, I figure I’m doing pretty well, overall. But I am bothered by the implication that this is somehow a bad thing, because it’s not. Women are decent people. Most of them have better hair than I do—I would love it if my hair was like that. You know Ada Lovelace? She was writing programs before computers even existed (in the 1800s) — how awesome is that? Admiral Grace Hopper? She wrote the first compiler for programming languages. You know, women are good people. There is nothing bad about being mistaken for a woman.
But anyway, am I a boy or a girl? The answer is, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me, and it shouldn’t matter to you.
With the appropriate hindsight, there seem like some glaring clues:
- In your real life, before you were a youtube sensation, and without really trying at all, there were times when you were perceived as female (although you find it nigh impossible to see how that could happen)
- You say “Believe me, I’m not [someone who looks like an attractive woman]”. You could insert “I wish I did” into that sentence and it wouldn’t be out of place. (If only you from back then could see you now… I bet you’d be pretty surprised at what you’re able to pull off.)
- In talking about how women are decent people (uh, thanks!), you draw on computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. I’ll take the leap and infer that you choose them because they’re role models. For you. I wouldn’t be surprised if give a chance to go on, you’d have mentioned Amelia Earhart or Mercy Otis Warren, more uppity subversive women.
- And finally, at the end, with a perfect opportunity do be direct and say that no, you’re a guy, you can’t quite bring yourself to do it. You end saying that gender doesn’t matter. I would claim you say that because that’s the line you can live with, that’s the position on gender that let’s you cope.
Maybe you’re thinking I’m wrong here. Overreaching. Fair enough. And maybe you’re wondering why I should care. Well, I’m not going to win a prize if I’m right about you and where you’re headed. No, it’s about you, and here’s why…
It doesn’t make a huge difference to me or countless others on the Internet where you are headed or how quickly you get there, just what transpires on your path of self discovery, and so forth, except in so far as you increase our enlightenment by explaining your take on things in your usual erudite and thought provoking ways. But all of that stuff really does make a big difference to you.
I don’t envy you the challenges that a process of self discovery can give you to deal with, but I do encourage you to address them than try to defer and hope that somehow that’ll make things better. It won’t.
Referring to passing as a woman, you said “If I can do this, anyone can”, but that’s not actually true. Most men can’t (and, of course, don’t care to either). Even some trans people seem to need to go to deportment lessons to fit in. You’re (un)lucky enough that its quite easy for you, but it’s not going to always be as easy for you as it is now.
You’re 21 now, and you may think that testosterone is done with you, but it’s only just getting started. If you really are a guy, I guess you’ll be cool with the ways your body is going to keep on changing, but if becoming more masculine doesn’t seem like fun times to you, maybe you ought do be doing something about it.
(For things to do, I recommend spironolactone. It’s a pretty safe testosterone-receptor blocker. If you like your progression into a more feminine appearance, it’ll do more great things by letting “the natural you” shine through. And if you like rationalizations, it’s absolutely not hormones—no, sir. Totally justifiable for any self-respecting living-in-the-middle genderqueer person. It’s generic, and cheap. And it’s easier to get a prescription for than full-blown hormones.)
You can tell yourself and the youtube hate machine that you’re messing with people’s preconceived notions, or that what you’re doing is part of a long tradition of drag in gay culture, but do you really believe that, deep down? Does it actually make sense? The number of actual gay guys who do drag where they dress to pass is vanishingly small. Generally speaking, when it comes right down to it, in the main, gay or straight, guys want to be perceived as guys. On the other hand, the number of trans people who told themselves that they were crossing gender lines, but that “it didn’t really mean anything;” well, I think that falls into the common trans themes category.
Staying with trans themes, another common one is “The writing was on the wall for so long, and yet I held back. WTF? Why did it take me so long before I gave in and accepted what was obvious.” It’s something to bear in mind.
Finally, if I am wrong about you, and you really are just a guy who is merely dressing up to break some gender rules, I think you should understand that doing so isn’t inconsequential. Gender presentation isn’t a shirt you put on, it’s part of the food your psyche eats, and we are what we eat. Simone de Beauvoir said “one is not born a woman; one becomes one”, and that is true for me and true for you. If womanhood is not something you want (or at least something you can live with), maybe it’s time to cut your hair and roll out Zarek Jones, fabulous gay man.
But I don’t think that’s true. In my life, I’ve met several people quite a lot like you, insofar as I know you at all. They tasted womanhood, liked it, and (modulo a few bursts of angst and denial along the way) never looked back. They might say to you, “If I can do it, almost anyone can. You might be surprised at how easy it is.”
No matter what, good luck. I’m rooting for you.