Sunday, February 28, 2016

Losing Home: the Rape of Transgender Lives in Exile & Pride


"My body became an empty house, one to which I seldom returned. I lived in exile"

Exile and Pride
Eli Clare
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The Place of the Hermit

Growing up in Port Orford, Oregon, near Route 101, Eli Clare felt at home with the land but alienated from the society that defined the place and those who lived there. A coastal town, it is located near Siskiyou National Forest that provided logging jobs for Clare's family and many in the area. As he walked home along a road following the Elk River, Clare would watch logs gloat down the waters and fisherman dipping in their lines. These walks through the woods or up mountains were among the moments where Clare felt most at home in the place where he was being raised. Yet among the community of the logging town, the young transgender youth often felt like an outsider. "I watched and listened to the girls in my school talk about boys, go behind the equipment shed to kiss them, later in algebra class about fucking them," recounts Clare of his school days, describing his emotions as like a metaphorical wall between himself and the the girls of the town, "I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood aloneness, part impossible assumptions I could not shape my body around" (124). Although he lived in the same forests as his schoolmates, he was unable to feel welcome in the space because of the cisgender and heterosexual norms of girlhood that organized the lives in the town. Clare puts these feelings into metaphors drawn from around him. Walls, especially made of stone, were all around him. They defined the physical place. Yet it was his  social place, being raised as a girl, and his work to relate to his body and his environments in ways that his body resisted. As a result, he felt alone and without a place in Port Orford. 

The effect of these stone walls was to turn this small Oregon town into a kind of machine that produced and housed proper cisgender heterosexual girls. Despite feeling alienated in his social environment, Clare recounts trying to survive in the town by allowing himself, to degrees, to submit to its production of straight feminine girls. "I pull out an old photo of myself from the night of my high school graduation," Clare recalls looking at on old album of his childhood home, "I wear a white dress, flowers embroidered on the front panel, the plainest, simplest dress my mother would let me buy. I look painfully uncomfortable, as if I have no idea what to do with my body, hands clasped awkwardly behind me, shoulders caved inward, immobilized, almost fearful beneath my smile. I am in clumsy, unconsenting drag. This is one of the last times I wore a dress" (136). While the physical space of Oregon make no special demands of femininity on Clare, the place he lives is defined by such rules imposed on bodies it marks are female. Once described as a wall, the physical and metaphorical boundaries that Port Orford places on Clare's body become as close to him as an flowery dress. The wall metaphor placed Clare on the outside but the dress makes him feel alienated from his surroundings within an encircling embroidered garment. Inside the linen walls that wrap him in girlhood, Clare feels like a foreigner in his own body. Often transgender experiences are compared to drag. Usually this is a conflation of a trans person's post-transitioned inability to pass and a Drag performer's intentional performative gender that emphasizes its own points of failure to create a sense of shock. Yet Clare turns this around and suggests that the transgender person does not point to the artificiality and failure of their gender after transition but before transition, to reveal the socially constructed walls placed around them.

Being put in the place of a girl, Clare began to feel his body was taken away from him. Port Orford did not feel like a home to him and in time neither did his body. "I do understand how certain clothes make me feel inside my body," explains Clare (135). Certain clothes marked Clare as automated as a girl, as though Clare was not resident, at home, or in control of his body. Meanwhile, other clothes marked his body as in his control, free to move and dress as he will; but these were the clothes marked for men. "For me, Vogue and Glamour held none of the appeal that Walt Maya did, dressed in his checkered shirt, cowboy boots, and wide-brimmed hat," explains Clare (136). "I joined the boys in their emulation. I knew early on the feel of boots and denim, knew I would never learn to walk in a skirt." Just as Clare could watch girls from the other side of a figurative wall, so too he could watch boys from the other side of a  paneled dress. He was trapped in the place, the physical clothing and the cultural associations of girls while he watched boys living the life he wanted on the other side of a gender divide. Had the strict cisgender mechanisms that produced girls and boys had more lubrication, allowed for parts to move more freely, then perhaps Clare could have had an easier time moving from one social position to another. As it is, he experienced a lot of friction as he tried to transition and became marked as a failed girl rather than as a trans man. "I tried to wear skirts my mother sewed for me... I failed," admits Clare. "I loved my work boots and overalls long after the other girls had discovered pantyhose and mini-skirts. But failing left a hole in my heart; I wanted to belong somewhere." (124). Rather than be allowed to move from one place, one gender designation, to another, he became marked as defective and felt as though he lost his body, his home, and his place in the world
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Losing Home

Stating that gender and sexism is in the environment can bring subtle aspects to the forefront, such as clothing, but this does not discount personal agents in the ecology of household that persons in their place (or disrupting a place's sense of comfort) can directly and violently control a life. Indeed, in naming what gave Clare the deepest feeling of "losing home," he names the rape and sexual abuse he received from his father. "I could start with the ways my body has been stolen from me," writes Clare. "Start slowly, reluctantly, with my parents. My father who raised me, his eldest daughter, as an almost son. My father who started raping me so young I can't remember when he first forced his penis into me." (125). In the grim details of his father's rape of his body, Clare marks a point in which the loss of a sense of home moved from a distant wall, to intimate apparel, and through the threshold of his body as his father violently penetrated him. The father who gave him a place to live, and room to explore his masculinity, chose instead the most direct and penetrative way to vacate Clare's power from his body. In each way, the rape demonstrates itself as an assertion of ownership and power. "I could start with the brutal, intimate details of my father's thievery, of his hands clamping around my neck, tearing into me, claiming my body as his own" (128). However he allowed Clare to wander towards masculinity in his public presentation, in privacy he put Clare in the place of a girl; a girlhood defined by sexual violence and submission. To be put in the place of a girl, in the Clare house, was to have one's body taken.

Although the theft of his body is direct and personal, Clare nonetheless views the rape as a part of the wider environments sexist system of taking control over bodies. In these details, Clare fears the mechanisms of such power can be forgotten. "I lose the bigger picture," worries Clare, "forget that woven through and around the private and intimate is always the public and political" (128). By examining the rape not as isolated incidents of an unusually violent man, Clare opens up his story to wider questions of gender and sexuality. "How did my father's violence, his brutal taking of me over and over again, help shape and damage my body, my sexuality, my gender identity?" asks Clare (126). This process worries him because such discourses around the relation between rape and queer gender or sexuality usually take the perfunctory form of cause and effect. "Will my words be used against me, twisted to bolster the belief that sexual abuse causes homosexuality, contorted to provide evidence that transgressive gender identity is linked directly  to neglect?" (125).  Rape is taken as the cause of a girl fleeing femininity to live as a man or else to be sexually engaged with only women. This conclusion however depends on an arrangement of the facts only in a particular flow of causation. This is the "twisting" that Clare fears. Such a twisting begins by assuming cisgender and heterosexuality is the natural starting position and transgender and queerness as the artificial, rather than normative manhood and girlhood as one the the chief products of such highly gendered structures of power. Indeed, this irony is evidence by the contradicting supposition of cause and effect. Non-normative gender and sexuality is supposed to come from too much (even violent) impositions of gender, concluding it as a kind of failure or overcompensation. Yet transgender and queerness is also supposed to come from neglect, as though they are the natural state that has not been properly imposed out of the life by such over-acting parents.

Yet by allowing such questions, asserting there is a relation between sexist environments and rape, Clare can ask other questions as well. "How did his non-abusive treatment of me as an almost son interact with the ways in which his fists and penis and knives told me in no uncertain terms that I was a girl?" (126). Opening up the conversation, Clare is able to turn the tables on sexist assumptions about queerness and rape. Rather than assume that rape causes non-normative genders and sexualities, Clare asks the necessary question if rape is intended to form or fix straight men and women. The masculine behavior came before and around the rape, it was during the rape that Clare was put in a humbled female position. By admitting these questions, Clare points to the lack of easy answers and thus the evident lack of stable genders in the environment where he lived. "How did his gendered abuse - and in this culture vaginal rape is certainly gendered - reinforce my sense of not being a girl?" adds Clare. "How did watching him sexually abuse other children - both boys and girls - complicate what I knew of being a girl, being a boy?" (126). Rape is a performance and an act which speaks of power dynamics in the environment. Fort Orford was not simple a place for cisgender heterosexual boys and girls, nor simply the place where they were made into normative men and women, but a place where gender was always already unstable and unraveling. The need to put Clare in the place of a girl, emphasized how he was not at home in that place. Taking away Clare's power revealed that he had power to take. Likewise, it teaches the lessons that straight, cisgender male supremacy needs to take power from others in order to maintain its dominance. It needs to police the borders of gender because those who live in the space are not naturally bound by the sexist social laws of place and position. 

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The World of the Exile

"I wanted to be a hermit," declares Clare on recalling his overall feeling during his childhood, "to live alone with my stones and trees, neither boy nor a girl." (124). For all the difficulty that his physical body and environment posed for him, it is his social body and environment that made him feel alienated and not at home in either. The matter of his body remained relatively the same but their meaning for him was continually being defined for him by his father and the patriarchy. "My father raped me for many reasons," analyzes Clare, "and inside his acts of violence I learned about what it meant to be female, to be a child, to live in my particular body, and those lessons served the larger power structure and hierarchy as well" (129). The woodlands and the flesh are spaces where many different sort of lives could have been explored by Clare but in the toxic social environment of Port Orford life was continually being put in its place. Indeed, Clare lived a life full of of contradiction, as both boy and girl, but overall was the command that whatever or whoever he is that he learns his place under the power of men. In the end, the rape did not assert for Clare was not the stability of masculinity or femininity, heterosexuality or homosexuality, but the lack of stability and security in his body and his home. "I lived by splitting body from mind, body from consciousness, body from physical sensation, body from emotion," writes Clare (131). "My body became an empty house, one to which I seldom returned. I lived in exile." In the end, the gender dysphoria Clare felt, the alienation from his body, in some ways points to the violence and instability of gender in the place where he grew. To be clear, it is not Clare's masculinity or attraction to women that came from this toxic environment but rather the suffering that walled off his transition to these places and yet also painfully made sure he never felt at home in femininity or attraction to men. The suffering did not put him in the place of a man or a girl but took from him the power to feel at home in any place. It made him an exile. 

If the imposition of walls, coverings, and bindings are the tools that cause the loss of a sense of place, what then are such exiles and hermits left to imagine the world? Upon considering the lessons of force and repression, Clare decides that putting up such blocks in the discourse of his own body and environment will likewise fail to describe his experiences. Clare writes, "this strategy of denial, rejecting any possibility of connection between abuse and gender identity, abused and sexuality, slams a door on the messy reality of how our bodies are stolen" (125). Theft does not mean the annihilation of the valued objects, be they bodies, land, or power. Rather the loss of home is a rearrangement and cordoning off of objects in the space. Certain bodies are not allowed to interact with other bodies, such as women sexually with other women or trans men with boots and overalls. Instead, they become jealously guarded by certain bodies from other bodies, such as the violent force of such men to claim sexual access to these young girls or to the right to wear such masculine trappings in public. The logic of claiming or stealing a place is not about creating or destroying lives but about controlling them. "We live in a time of epidemic child abuse, in a world where sexual and physical violence against children isn't only a personal tragedy and symptom of power run amok," concludes Clare, "but also a form of social control"(128-129). Putting up walls, around land, a community, a person, or a story, does not fundamentally change what is being contained or excluded, rather it attempts to control them by making them submit to personal possession. Such a possessor sets the manner and possibility of how people and the world relate to one another. For Clare's father, it seemed less important whether Clare was a boy or a girl, but rather that he could determine when he could claim himself as a boy and when Clare's father could violently claim him as his girl.

There is nothing in the woods or the water that make Port Orford a place for straight cisgender girls and men, but not queer transgender youth. Nor is it simply that things, like social progress, move slower there by nature. Often when such places are shrugged off by urban queers or defended by locals as obviously conservative, what is meant is that these are places where violent male supremacy, the isolation of gay men and lesbians, and the hatred of trans persons dominate. Such places exist because they are occupied territories and the people living there are subject to patriarchal control. The rejection from female community and the occupation of Clare's body by his father evidence how these places are defined by such power dynamics. "What a better way to maintain a power structure," asks Clare, "than to drill the lessons of who is dominant and who is subordinate into the bodies of children." (129). Such overt acts of violence may or may not rare, Clare was subject and witness to many of them, but the lessons of them serve more than personal ends. Rape or the fear of rape, exclusion or the fear of exclusion, are one of the chief weapons that keep men and women, boys and girls in their place in Port Orford. Those who step out of line become targets for abuse. "And here is the answer to my fear: Child abuse is not the cause of but rather a response to - among other things - transgressive gender identity and/or sexuality" (129). Clare lived as a boy before he was put in the place of a girl by his mother's dresses or his father's rape. His transgressive gender and sexuality did not come from abuse. Although Clare admits, "I feel safer, somewhat buffered from men's violence against women, walking the streets after dark, knowing my night time outline and stride are frequently read as male." (127). Rather, for young Clare, the abuse came in response to his gender transgression. The abuse may have come regardless. Walls are not only put up for those who would climb over them but to make a statement not to try. This is how any why hatred inscribes itself in the environment and the bodies of a place like Port Orford.
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More on Eli Clare:
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