Transgender Travels through Gender, Time, and Space by J.M. Ellison

We trans people are time travelers. To a cisgender society, we pose a problem because of our gender identities, but also because of the ways we move through time and the ways that we have changed. Our embodiment of transformation and ongoing change is a threat to social stability. To survive, we must hide the ways we have changed ourselves and the ways that we may change in the future. We are the transformations that are meant to be forgotten. But I want to speak of my past, to claim my fractured and multiple self. This is the tale of my travels.

I am genderqueer, meaning my gender lies outside of the binary of “men” and “women.” I pull button-down shirts across my breasts and match my nail polish with the pattern of my tie. I have created a peace for myself through this gender expression, a sense of wholeness and stability. I am supposed to say that I have always felt this way, as though my gender can be tolerated only if it is innate and thus truly beyond my control. But I cannot say that I was “born this way,” because I was born this way and many others. I dare not argue that my gender is valid because is has always been this way, because I know that I will likely continue to transform in the future. So, I say this: growing up, I was queer at some times, a boy at others, and oftentimes a girl. Always, I did not know what I was becoming.

Throughout my childhood, I knew that I did not fit in. I experienced girlhood as something that was done to me. I did not want to be a boy, though I liked their company. I wanted to be something I couldn’t envision. The other children around me saw what I would become before I did. Only in retrospect, traveling back through my memories, did I understand the meaning of the harsh, staccato words they called me.

When I was a little girl, adults were forever rebuking me for showing my underwear. I wore dresses to school and every recess I would climb to the top of the girl’s monkey bars. I didn’t know why those monkey bars were for girls only, but I did know that at that height, I felt safe. I would gaze out over the playground, until a playground monitor would call me down to the ground, lean over me, and hiss, “we can see your underwear.” My teacher whispered the same words to me when I sat on the floor, knees drawn to my chest, a book balanced on my thighs. I never wanted to draw any attention to myself. I simply could never learn how to move like a good girl. Something about femininity eluded me. But I loved wearing dresses, especially the ones my grandma sewed for me. Then, when I was in third grade, my best friend pulled me aside, lowered her voice and told me, “we don’t wear dresses any more.” I stopped, taking my best friend at her word.   There were so many rules for being a girl and I was already used to being confused by them.

When I was a little boy, I taught the other boys on the playground how to play jacks. We sat in a circle as I explained the rules. Drop the ball, scoop up one jack, then catch the ball before it bounces again. Then pick up two jacks. Now three. After long hours practicing at home on the kitchen floor, I was an expert, ready to share the secrets of this feminine mystery. I was graceful while the boys were bumbling, and I was benevolent in my instruction. This is my only memory of feeling cool, of feeling comfortable with my peers, of having mastery over my body. That day, I carved a place for myself between masculinity and femininity. I loved that feeling, but it was fleeting.

When I turned 11, my body began to shift in strange ways. It seemed to pose as many questions as it answered. That year for Halloween, I dressed up as Captain Katheryn Janeway, the first female starship captain in the Star Trek television franchise, the only shows my parents and I watched together. I was in love with Star Trek, with its vision of a peaceful future of scientific exploration. I found comfort in the notion of a universe of expanding knowledge, where the alien is found, embraced, and accepted. On Halloween, I did my best to recreate Captain Janeway’s uniform and boldly wore it to school. Looking back now, it seems like there could be no more appropriate costume for me, a genderqueer pre-teen. The uniform was unisex and Janeway always insisted on being called “Captain” rather than “sir” or “ma’am.” Furthermore, Janeway was a frequent time traveler. She was often in trouble for interfering with the past, revealing the future, or crossing her own time line. As adult, I love Janeway’s travels through multiple realities and resonant with the depiction of a fractured self, possessed of dangerous knowledge. Perhaps as an 11-year-old, I grasped intuitively the parallels between Janeway’s time travel and my own life, but I can’t say that’s what I remember. I only remember wishing that my costume wasn’t so obviously homemade.

I am now a scholar of transgender history, or if I am not yet one, that is what I am becoming. I now know that in the not-too-distant past, doctors instructed trans people that upon medically transitioning, they must leave everyone they knew and start new lives in new places where their previous selves could never be discovered. They were told to disappear, never to speak of themselves as transgender, to bury their past. I think of these trans people often. I wonder what they missed from their pasts, who they longed for, what stories they would have told if it were safe to do so. But theirs is not the past that is buried the deepest. The deepest secret of these our United States is that it was founded at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race. To rule this country, Europeans imposed a system of gendered and racialized violence, parts of which can be described as “gendercide.” At Indian boarding schools, in prisons, on plantations, at the moment of first contact between colonizers and Native peoples, Europeans sought to wipe out those they understood as gender non-conforming, racial inferiors. This gendercide was a tool of a larger genocide and a means of colonization. If I had a time machine, I would travel to the past to witness this violence and how it was resisted and survived. I would travel into the future to see how this legacy will continue to shape our society. As a trans person, this knowledge is integral to my survival and my future.

If we trans people are to recall our pasts and forecast our futures, we must be time travelers. I want a vision of transgender that accounts for our pasts, personal and collective, that embraces the places where our selves are fractured, that allows for movement. We must become what is feared most – a journey, a struggle, change blown in on the winds. We travel through gender, space, and time. We embody the hidden past. We are building a future for each other. And we are coming for you. Do not be afraid.

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J.M. Ellison is a writer, teacher, scholar, and grassroots, community activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, Racialicious, and Electronic Intifada. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival.