“Other people might think differently about this…”

Content: Joke is trans* and P.’s foster dad. P. now knows quite a lot of things about trans*, some of which he learned from Joke, others he learned elsewhere. Sometimes Joke and P. talk about trans*. Some of these conversations are pleasant, others less so. In this text, Joke tells us what he_ thinks about these conversations.

“Other people might think differently about this…”
A contribution by Joke Janssen
Translation by femmateurin

In the beginning, I was trans* and my new flatmate was seven years old. Then society interfered. Now, I’m 34 and P. is perhaps culturally queer; or something like that. Wandering thoughts on trans* and being a parent.

Recently, P. told me during dinner: “Joel and Kubilay have figured you out by the way.” Even though I was clear about what they had “figured out”, I still asked him what he meant by that. “They have noticed that you’re actually a girl.”

Talking about trans*
I’ve always felt conflicted about the conversations resulting from anecdotes like this. P. has been a part of our family [1] for five years and has known the word trans* [2] since he was seven years old. And just as my being trans* is not a completed or finished project for me, it is not one for him. So for almost five years, we have every once in a while talked about trans*, and with P. becoming older, our conversations are changing and becoming deeper. I feel that this is right and important; trans* for me is shifting, transforming, woven with threads of my ever-changing life, thus talking about it also changes, adapts, and is being renegotiated.
At the same time, these conversations are unpleasant for me because they are not (if they have ever been, which I doubt) a child’s innocently curious questions about the new and the unknown which occurs in life every once in a while. Our conversations are situated in a space made up of conflicting ideas about the world. P.’s questions, his commentary and statements sometimes speak of a subcultural, queer [3], and trans* knowledge. But of course, he also lives a life elsewhere and at other times the hetero-normative, gender-binary-normative outlook on trans* pierces his words. Just as in the example at the beginning, which is no better than every “Can I ask you a personal question?” at work or the expression of pride in the other person’s eyes when they think they have worked out my alleged gender, assigned at birth. At work and between adults, however, I can make use of unfriendly curtness [4] (which is very effective) or from a sociological perspective observe how many times my conversational partner can put their foot in it within a mere two sentences. The situation between me, an adult trans* person, and the eleven year old for whom I have taken responsibility is an entirely different one, however.
When talking with P., I feel like I have to respond more to these statements on the margins, even though it can be annoying sometimes because it means leaving my comfort zone. But when we decided to foster a child, this crossing of boundaries was probably part of the deal. The alternative, telling him less, is not an alternative at all: I participate in P.’s life just like he participates in mine. This familial process of learning together, with one another, and about one another frequently crosses boundaries in any case; we are too close, we have too much time and not enough space to leave these complicated matters unspoken. And that’s okay because we are probably going to spend some more time [5] together. Our home [6] is supposed to be a place where we can negotiate matters together and these matters can be talked about. That also means talking about trans*. Partly, my life with P. means, therefore, re_phrasing trans*, time and time again and suitable to his age, and making it accessible as far as that is possible.

Putting trans* into words?
The task of expressing trans* and making it graspable in a hetero-normative, gender binary society with a language structured along those lines [note by the translator: German assigns a grammatical gender to nouns, thus expressing and reinforcing the gender binary. “Der Mensch”, human, for example is grammatically male, while “die Sonne”, the sun, is grammatically female.] is one which neither P. nor me can master at the moment. P. certainly has a much more differentiated view on trans* than many people who think they are more mature than him. Nevertheless, stories like the one I mentioned at the beginning indicate the trenches separating my own understanding of trans*, what I have been able to articulate so far, from the dominant knowledge about trans*. When I talk to P. about his story, we only touch upon a fraction of this set of issues; at the same time, I experience a mental chain reaction. I might tell him perhaps why I think the choice of the words “figuring out” is a bit unfortunate and why I, why my body and my gender cannot be “figured out”. I might refer to the dominant understanding that trans* folk hide their real gender, hoodwink the other, deceive them, and play a game of charade of false genders [7]. The notion that trans* folk can be “figured out” has eventually made its way to P., in the first place bestowing upon him and friends the supposed knowledge that I’m hiding something. What P. is learning in this instance, is that there are signs of a truth about gender which will reveal themselves to you if only you look long and hard enough. At this point, he becomes an arbiter of a hegemonic discourse [8] about trans* which attempts to put to order, to oppress, and to refute as wrong and misguided the alternative knowledge circulating in our family. I’m also forced to intervene if I do not want my own experience to be presented as wrong. “Other people might think differently about this…” So it does not seem like it is just P. who disturbs the peace of our otherwise so subcultural family: Each and every one of us at times carries fragments of this discourse which make it difficult to articulate matters differently, sub-culturally. P.’s story is merely very graphic; moreover, he finds himself in a very particular position, which I’m going to talk about in more detail at a later point.
I’ve said that conversations about trans* are very exhausting for me. At the same time, I feel it is crucial to be responsive to his points of view in conversation. On the one hand, there are, after all, my own years of experience with trans*, giving me a wealth of ways in which to bring about normative clashes. On the other hand, P. offers his very own perspective, one which I might not have even considered yet. To be precise, I should be glad that P. still turns to me. My job as a parent at this point is to have very specific conversations with him which he might not have with many other people.

Dominant speaking – what we are dealing with
What I can read from P.’s story and what at the same time marks off the space in which P. has to make sense of his subcultural knowledge, is the hetero-normative search for the real gender of trans* folk. In a society which knows only men and women, people search for the “gender assigned at birth”, the “original”, the “biological”. For all the, rather dubious, love for trans* folk (I was asked about Conchita Wurst after my last talk.), the fact still remains that trans* cannot be understood, cannot even be thought. The dominant discourse about gender has to sort every individual into either one of two ideas. This is still about the power of genes, hormones, about reproductive organs, or whatever else is beneficial to the logic of a gender binary at this point in time. Our alleged gender, assigned at birth, can determine how we see the world, how we articulate ourselves, how we look, and what we can achieve. This is especially true for trans* or inter folk, who have lost their respective ways at some point and who have to be brutally bent into shape in one way or another, who have to be cut down to size, who have to normalised.
The notion of trans* which is reflected in P.’s story and to which I would like to offer an alternative thinks about trans* bodies as bodies on their way from one point_gender to another. Trans* bodies are bodies in transit, so to speak, merely presenting a passage from male to female or female to male [9]. The binary logic cannot accept any deviant interpretations of body. In the dominant narrative, after all, gender is two-dimensional, a temporary connection between male and female at best, an either-or, always in transition. Multi-dimensional notions of trans*, trans* bodies as facts, with a sense of self and a reality of self, not on a journey from a to b, merely on a journey, are nearly impossible to articulate in our linguistic reality. Especially not between chocolate ice cream and toothbrushes while keeping the cat from sneaking into P.’s wardrobe. And how could they be when my own attempts of articulating, of lifting my body out of a logic of binarisation, are like walking on sand – leaving painstaking traces, gone with the next wave. My imparting knowledge and experience to P., and myself, is fragmented narration, our thinking about trans* is always thinking in the making.

Cultural queerness
My attempts to convey a different kind of thinking, of thinking trans*, are accompanied by a whole different type of responsibility: P. is growing up in a family thinking and acting critically_queer and he is developing a world knowledge which means he can be called “culturally queer” (Garner 2005: 198). Abigail Garner draws on Stefan Lynch’s terminology and applies it mainly to adult, heterosexual children of lesbian or gay parents [10]. Cultural queerness describes those who have been socialised in non-heterosexual family groups and who in hetero-normative settings have to perform complex translations and adaptations in order to be understood. As children coming from gay and lesbian families are wandering between worlds, so to speak, Garner also refers to them as bicultural (ibd.). I adopt the term cultural queerness and expand it critically to include the concept of queer used in this article to make it applicable to contexts outside of identitarian politics. Cultural queerness, in my opinion, grasps very well the conflict which P. faces already when telling me his story.
P. himself is culturally queer because in five years of living with us he has been considerably influenced by our critical_queer views on matters. And that is not because we send him to queer school from dusk to dawn but results simply from our living together. We share a certain way of making sense of things which would be nearly unintelligible outside our family. That is the case in most families; in our family, however, our domestic knowledge refers to a subcultural archive. Thinking queer and trans* in some instances is P.’s bread and butter. Even more, our family context relies in a fundamental way on the idea that another way of thinking and acting is possible in the first place.
P.’s cultural queerness, however, time and time again positions him as other in a hetero-normative, gender-binary society. In these moments, when the dominant and the subcultural knowledge clash, and there is an abundance of those moments, P. is required to quickly calculate and adopt his position. He can foreground either the one or the other knowledge while doing so. And indeed, P. is then also faced with anti-trans* and anti-queer hostilities, even though he does not himself identify as trans* or queer. The dominant knowledge on a regular basis invalidates the other truth of his family context, declares it to be less valuable, to be deviant_sick_twisted_crazy. In the example mentioned above, it is possible for P. to be caught in a conflict between foster parents and friends for which no good solution can be found, simply because he feels he is required to defend me. For P., like for other children, his key carers, which includes us, are of existential importance because the quality of his life essentially depends on us. And P., like other children, therefore, at times feels it is on him to defend us, even if adults do not like to think about this structural dependence [12] very much and_or even trivialise it. In any case, P. is consistently required to defend a queer and trans* family context in the face of a hetero-normative, gender-binary world, mainly in situations in which none of us are there to come to his aid. The anti-trans* and anti-queer hostilities directed at P. specifically, frequently overlooked by adults, call into question his family context, his world knowledge, and his home.
When P. tells me his trans* anecdotes, it is, therefore, my task not only to reflect how these experiences affect me and how I can distance myself from them; with my long years of trans* experience, I, as a parent of a culturally queer child, am required to work with P. on the right tools with which he can encounter anti-trans* and anti-queer hostilities directed at him. In this short conversation at the dinner table we work on a complex system of alternative knowledge which can consolidate P.’s cultural queerness as well as sharpen my queer and trans* perception of the prevailing conditions. And our archive of knowledge is a work in progress, solidifying with every new experience and discussion. Luckily, all these experiences with his friends, do not mean that P.’s queer knowledge becomes set in stone as normative, something we dreaded when he started living with us. On the contrary, rather: By discussing experiences, both of us are continuously moving, changing directions again and again.

[1] I define family here as a group of people who have decided to take responsibility for one another in some way and call themselves a family. Children do not necessarily have to be in the picture.
[2] My article focusses on a particular notion of trans*, namely the one that fits me. My notion of trans* entails questioning femininity and masculinity where they are considered to be natural, as well as male and female as biologically determined categories. For me, this is the only way to position myself beyond merely two categories, to create a space for something different, and to explore this. I’m explicitly speaking for myself, therefore, but I hope that my text makes it possible to create a space for connection.
[3] queer: When talking about queer in this article, I do not refer to an identity, a different term for gay or lesbian, an abbreviation such as LGBT. I consider queer here to be an anti-identitarian way of political and critical action, critical thinking and acting in opposition to what allegedly is normal, to what has-always-been-this-way, to the unquestionedly unambiguous, to the dichotomous categories. I’m thinking of a notion of queer which refuses to collaborate with mechanisms of oppression and instead challenges habitual power imbalances, especially amongst ourselves. I’m fully aware that this is not (yet) what queer practically entails. At the same time, I know that queer for many (and for myself) is a welcome and liberating self-designation. The contradiction remains and I hope to not neglect it.
[4] unfriendly curtness: Not altogether that effective. At work I find myself in a sales person-customer dynamic and I am forced to be friendly and accommodating, even when the interaction shifts away from the goods I’m selling. Which it generally does very quickly. While the connection between trans*, physical “ambiguity”, my position as a sales person in the adult entertainment business, and a hetero-normative drive to explore is exciting for the customer, it does not really have any connection to what I’m talking about here and will have to be discussed in a different text at a different time.
[5] some more time: The perspective of living together in foster families is painted by insecurity. We cannot say how many years P. is going to stay with us. In this, foster families are only different at first glance from families based on “blood ties” or adoption. A family setting is insecure in most cases and it’s impossible to predict when a child (or any other person) is going to leave the family group. This fact is frequently swept under the rug in non-foster families, while in many foster families it makes up a constantly present background noise.
[6] home: My home is exactly the place where I can negotiate. Home is only in some cases – in my case very much so – demarcated by a front door; it also grows in a meta-space in conversations, friendships, and mutual trust.
[7] charade of false genders: You only have to look at how dominant language refers to trans* folk: We only appear or seem to be x (because actually we are y). We are frequently depicted while doing particularly masculine things (working out!) or particularly feminine things (going to the hair dressers!) because we try so hard. And if it weren’t for the confusingly small hands, the unusual broad shoulders, or being especially emotional, you’d never have thought what we really are. But you have to hand it to us: Well done! (Well done! was an actual compliment a customer once paid me because she almost! did not realise what I actually am. Another full article, I guess…)
[8] Hegemonic discourse refers to a society’s prevailing knowledge on a subject matter. The discourse determines what we can know and sets the discursive boundaries of what can be said within which we can and have to move about more or less unharmed. Discourses are created by human beings but at the same time go beyond the individual and cannot easily be shifted by a single person. It is easy for us to go along with the discourse and considerably more arduous to go against it. Different knowledge works in subcultures but is penalised by the majority, for example, by declaring proponents of subcultural knowledge to be insane_sick or because their words are no longer understood.
[9] Male to female / female to male: The diverse and at the same time limiting ways in which it is possible to talk about trans* also reflect the notion of a transition from one gender to another: FtM, MzF [note by the translator: the z here stands for the German “zu”, “to”], trans man, woman with a transsexual past.
[10] Garner writes about “gay parents”. What she means is LGBT family groups, which she also researches, while at the same time limiting her analysis to children with gay or lesbian parents.
[11] Garner talks about families in which the parents are not or cannot be read as heterosexual (cf. Garner 2005, 122ff). The parents of those who participate in her studies were all gay, lesbian, bi, or trans*. Garner concerned herself, therefore, mainly with sexual identities and forms of desire. Possible hetero-normative attitudes, which do not have to be tied to heterosexuality after all (but rather affect us all), are not discussed in Garner’s work, at least not under the label of hetero-normativity. It is possible, however, to draw this information from the family descriptions in her writing.
[12] The dynamics of dependency of children towards their key carers are far-reaching and are frequently abused. For those interested in power imbalances between adults and children, see Ritz (no year).

Garner, Abigail (2005): Families Like Mine. Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It is, New York.

Ritz, MichaEla (no year): Kindsein ist kein Kinderspiel. Adultismus – (un)bekanntes Phänomen.
http://amyna.de/amyna-medien/dokumente/Kind-sein_ist_kein_Kinderspiel.pdf (last accessed: August 2014)

Joke Janssen lives*loves*works in Hamburg, at the intersections between arts|politics|theory, which go very well together. His_ favourite activities in addition to everyday life at the moment are ballroom dancing, queer(?) childrens‘ books, and old computer games. At the moment he_ also writes on www.laufmoos.de and can be contacted by email: joke@riseup.net.

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