For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by body modification. “Fascinated” isn’t even close to strong enough of a word. I’ve been utterly transfixed by it. Bodies changing, or being changed, has always felt profound and almost spiritual to me. Even when I was 3 or 4 years old, I knew that feeling was special and something to be cherished, and I also knew it was too hard to explain to other people. So I instinctively kept it secret and enjoyed it privately.
The first memory I have of that feeling was one time when my parents set up a small tent in our living room for me to play in. I sat inside with the door zipped shut and I put on my dad’s green hoodie. I put my legs through the sleeves and my feet stuck out the cuffs. I pulled the hood up over my head and zipped the front closed and I sat there for a long time looking down at myself and imagining I didn’t have arms. It was wonderful in that intense, special way and I didn’t want anyone to know. After a while, my mom came and unzipped the tent door to check on me. I felt “caught” and I was nervous about how she would react, but she just smiled and told me I was adorable and I looked like a little green alien. I relaxed because I realized she didn’t understand what was happening. She had seen me, but she hadn’t seen the feeling. I was happy to pretend to be playing “alien” if it meant I didn’t have to explain that I was having a deep emotional/spiritual experience over the thought of not having arms. (Not that I could have explained that at that age, anyway.)
As I got older, I had the same feeling in other situations. I remember one time I played mermaids with the girl next door. I don’t remember the story we made up, just the feeling of pretending to be half human and half fish. I spent such a long time just thinking about that – being half fish. I was captivated by the thought.
I also remember one time I had the feeling when I was reading a comic book. I wasn’t really that into comics and I don’t remember anything at all about that one except for this one amazing page. On that page there was a man in a space suit working outside of his ship. His glove got punctured and air started leaking out. His suit automatically reacted by closing a metal iris at his wrist, cutting off his hand and sealing the leak so he wouldn’t suffocate. I was shocked and delighted. I couldn’t believe the author had been so bold and found such a plausible way to “sneak” that sort of taboo and wonderful thing into the story.
I was also obsessed with cyborgs as a kid. My mom took me to the library regularly. She would find a good book and sit and read and I would wander off and to find my own. One time, when I was probably 6 or 7 years old, I found a book on cyborgs. It was the first time I’d ever heard of them and I was caught in the intense feeling that I’d discovered a secret, private emotional gold-mine. I never would check that book out because I didn’t want anyone to know I was reading it, but every time we went back to the library I would go find it and hide in a corner and read more.
When I was 8, a terrible movie called “Eliminators” came out. There was a cyborg character in it called “The Mandroid” and he looked sort of like a centaur, except with the horse part replaced by a tank bottom:
As soon as I saw the trailer, I desperately wanted to see the movie but I couldn’t figure out how to ask without “blowing my cover”. I wasn’t the type to urgently want to go to the theater and I felt like I had to play it cool. Luckily my parents came up with the idea of taking me to the movies for my birthday, so I picked that one. I was so fascinated by the Mandroid. I remember imagining being him, my body being able to change into another thing. When we were in the car on the way home, I thought to myself that it wasn’t actually a very good movie but I didn’t mind everybody thinking I’d liked it. At least that way they didn’t know that what I’d really loved so much was all the new material for my fantasies about being a cyborg.
The first time I ever had the feeling about a real-life person was in 5th grade. There was a girl in my class who had a prosthetic leg. I was mesmerized by her. I’m sure I acted a bit like a deer in headlights and I just froze whenever she was around. I wanted to talk to her so badly and ask her questions about her leg but I was too shy. She was also pretty shy and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, so I just never said anything. I remember one day, though, we were both walking down the hall and she was about 20 feet ahead of me. Nobody else was around and she wasn’t looking at me so I was free to stare. I paid such close attention to how she walked that I almost forgot how to walk myself. Eventually she turned a corner and went a different way and the spell broke. It took a me a little while to come down from the high feeling of that experience.
After that I started to get into the idea of having wings. My 6th grade English teacher told us each to find a short story we liked and read it and come back and tell the class about it. I found one about a girl born with ridges down her back. Her parents thought it was just a deformity, but eventually the skin on her back broke and the ridges started to grow into wings. Her parents were afraid her wings would make people hate her, so they made her keep them hidden under a heavy coat. Eventually everyone found out though, and she was free and she flew. I loved that story. I felt like her. I understood keeping something strange and wonderful secret because people wouldn’t understand. And I wished so bad that I had wings. I still do.
Later, in high school, I read a science fiction booked called “Dawn” by Octavia Butler. The book was about an alien race, the Oankali, that had three genders: male, female and ooloi. During sex, the ooloi would take genetic material from the male and the female into its own body and combine it into a sequence to create a child. The ooloi were also able to combine their DNA with the DNA of other species, so the Oankali tended to have 4-somes with all three of their sexes and a human, to produce hybrid children. The ooloi were highly respected in Oankali society. They tended to be wise and serene and they were brilliant genetic engineers. I loved them so much. I loved that something which wasn’t male or female could be necessary, could have a place in sex, family, and society, and be respected and revered. I also loved that an ooloi’s purpose was to build new kinds of bodies and to mutate species using the DNA of its sexual partners. I wished I could be ooloi.
Still today, I feel like if I could be anything at all, I would be part angel and part ooloi. I would be powerful, beautiful, and serene, and I would be kind, strong, and intelligent. I wouldn’t be a man or a woman*, but people would still know how to understand me, respect me, and love me. A close friend of mine gave me a necklace to symbolize that feeling. The pendant on it is a cross between an alien and angel. That idea, “alien/angel,” is the closest thing I know of to convey how I feel about my gender. It’s hard to say that to people, though. It feels sort of like it did when I was a kid and I didn’t want to let people know I was reading the cyborg book. I feel nervous that people won’t understand, that they’ll just think I’m just ridiculous or that I’m too bizzarre and unlike anyone they’ve heard of to properly fall into the category of “transgender”. I get nervous that people will think I’m “not trans enough” to go through a gender transition. This is seems to be common fear among genderqueer people and it’s one that my friend, Micah, describes eloquently on his blog.
I think that fear is also part of why I never really answer people when they ask what pronoun I prefer. I always defer and leave it up to them. The truth though is that I often secretly wish people would use “it” to refer to me. I wish they would use it with the same sort of gentle, loving kindness that the people in the book used “it” to refer to the ooloi. But I feel shy and strange and I don’t want to make people uncomfortable or ask for ridiculous things. And I also don’t know how to explain my gender identity (or how a weird pronoun like “it” might relate to it) in less than five thousand words. (Speaking of which, I should probably talk about the model of gender that I’ve used to help me make some sense of my complex gender identity. I’ll do that in a couple of posts, but first I want to finish this body modification story and talk about how I started to need to change my body and what that felt like for me. So stay tuned for that next time!) :-)
* It occurs to me that this is a good place to point out that I’m happy about the idea of becoming female and when I say here that “I wouldn’t be a man or a woman,” what I mean by “woman” is a bit different from what I mean by “female”. If you’re confused, don’t worry. I’ll explain this sort of gender theory stuff in an upcoming post soon.