Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dysphoria is in the Water: Transgender and the Environment

"Splash, play and learn in this sensory based program 
all about water. We’ll even hike to the pond 
and check out what lives in water!"

The Morton Arboretum
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Life at the Arboretum

Turning off of the express way, around a narrow curve, suburbia disappeared behind a high hedge as I pulled into work at a local Arboretum. The sun hadn't risen yet and only one gate was open, where a sleepy-eyed guard waved me by. Cutting across the parking-lot, which would soon be filled to capacity with families and summer-camps, I parked next to the loading dock and dumpsters that served as the headquarters of this private park system. Punching in with my time card, I waved at the few cooks and other service staff tasked with getting the cafeteria ready for the day. Walking into the service area, I tucked in my uniform and joined another young woman and guy already counting the registers. While some folks disliked having to wear a uniform, I didn't mind it so much. For one, there are much worse uniforms to wear. A green shirt and black slacks were not very flattering on many of us (although some seemed to look beatific regardless) but nonetheless they were at least designed with some intention for aesthetics. But the main reason I liked the uniforms were the same reason many didn't like uniforms of any kind: it made us all look alike. Over the years working at this job, I was coming out as my authentic gender. This meant that during these years, there were times when I was effectively in drag, wearing clothing associated to the gender I had mistakenly been assigned. These prescribed clothes divided me from my gender tribes and lumped me among a gender with which I didn't identify. Yet at work, some of these distinctions, if not went away, were diminished. True, the women looked more like the men but so too the men looked more like the women. For a transitioning transgender woman, I appreciated the company and flexibility of shared androgyny. Although, despite uniforms, gender still asserted itself.

Once the doors opened, morning light streamed in (we had missed the sunrise) and so did the day's first customers. Mostly the initial guests were all staff looking for coffee or a quick meal before going off to dig, guide, guard, or administrate. They bought their food with minimal but politely familiar communication. Most Arboretum staff knew the value of keeping the people managing your food happy. The next wave was the avid nature people, bird watchers and the like. Then came the families and baby-sitters looking to fill a school-free summer day at a location covered by a pre-paid season pass. This is when things got interesting. On any given day, once things get busy, most guests are distracted. They fumble for credit cards while trying to locate one child while yelling at another to put the $5 cookie sandwich down. At this point, if they said thanks or good bye (or some other acknowledgement that it wasn't a machine taking their money), usually some form of gendering would begin. As stated, because of the androgyny of the uniforms we all kind of look alike (which some workers overcame with overt markers of gender, including keeping their pants as low as they could get away with, showing off boxers, or done up with large earrings and as much make-up as they could get away with). And in my case, at this point in my transition I looked especially androgynous. Put me in a dress and I was an obvious girl. Put me in a suit and tie and you'd likely call me a guy. In this uniform, however, it really was all in the eye of the beholder how they saw my gender. I would get, "thanks miss." I would also get, "thanks sir." Or even, "thanks miss... I mean sir." In the last case, some people would get really embarrassed and apologized profusely for gendering me as a girl. I would then have to try to calm them down, saying, "it's okay." Sometimes I would be more emphatic, "no, it's REALLY okay."

Cashiering was not terrible, as I would find ways of exercising my mind by making lists or creating stories in my head, but the constant human interactions and misgenderings would wear on me. That is why whenever the supervisor would ask who would be willing (they never said "want to") go out and clean tables, I would volunteer. The management and my co-workers admitted this confused them. The job of cleaning tables was generally despised. Often it would go to the one with lowest seniority. For a while they hired people specifically to clear tables because everyone else would avoid it. But for me it was a sweet relief. Now, I'm as disgusted as anyone by how many people (especially but not always children) leave their tables. That part I could overcome, however, not through force of will but by turning off the part of my brain that keeps my mild OCD in check. In Chicago, where the population of Eastern European Catholics is greater, I could simply say, "I'm just embracing my Polish heritage." My grandfather cleaned. So did much of my extended family and other Polish ancestors who came to the United States fleeing the World Wars and needed jobs. But more than anything, what I liked about cleaning tables was that I was able to escape my body. More to the point, I was able to escape how others regarded and gendered my body. Now, I was not invisible while I cleared trays and wiped surfaces, but I was usually ignored. Folks would bump into me and jump, as if I had just materialized out of thin air. In a sense, I had. While I worked in the dining room, my body was not man or woman. My body was a part of the machinery of the space. On the whole, this tendency dehumanizes service staff and is to be trained out of ourselves, our friends, and our children. But at this time I took advantage of their lack of regard of my body as a way to escape my body. I let my body become-machine. It would operate, clean, and order without having to be engaged by others or even myself. My mind and soul was free to wander. While at the cash-register my body had a debated gender, in the dining room I was free (to an extent) from gender and a body.


M.W. Bychowski while working in food service

Dysphoria is in the Environment

The flight from people may be diagnosed as "introversion" and may in some ways reflect a certain discomfort I have around humans (especially in large groups) but was for me a trained response to the dysphoria I feel in social environments. Even years later, when I feel much more at home in my skin and present more unequivocally female, the constant interrogation of my gender enacted by others' stares, comments, or behavior is enough to exhaust me still. Indeed, what evidences how much dysphoria is in the society is the degree to which I am at home in my body and my body is at home in my home. In the privacy of my home, among family and friends, my gender is not under question. I am a woman and am regarded as a woman. I am not confused by my gender. Dysphoria lowers to a barely audible hum when I'm in my office grading or writing. Where gender confusion happens is when I am out in public. The confusion and dysphoria in the world is not my own and does not live in my body but cuts across my body, lashes at my body, stings my body and deposits its poison so that I will go home and itch and itch; it may leave a rash or scar if I do not apply some balm at night. Some places are better than others. However, in restaurants when I am out with my family, where folks at the next table won't stop staring or pointing, the dysphoria gets so loud I can almost not hear. "Say that again," I will tell my partner, when her words get drowned out by the open-mouthed gawking of a man a few tables down. The hum will make it hard to read the menu when the waiter asks, "and what will you have, sir?" There is dysphoria that lives in my skin but I live with it like a room-mate that has learned not to eat my food and listen to loud movies with head-phones. But the dysphoria that lives in the environment can be so exhausting, rattling walls and knocking pictures from the studs, that I can feel when I begin the flight out of my body. My mind and soul wanders, like it did in the dining room at the Arboretum, until the noise quiets down and I can again occupy my body.

The affects of the environment's dysphoria are noticeable by those who are close to me and have become attuned to its frequencies. My partner notices, sometimes before I am consciously aware, of when my spirit begins to vacate the location. She will take my hand with a pulsing squeeze that conveys, "the pain you feel is real and we can share the burden." Or with a look in eye as if to say, "they may only see a fantasy or fetish projected on your body, but I see you. I." Sometimes this is enough to pull me back into my body. Other times the best I can do is angle my mouth into an acknowledging smile, like a ghost pulling the strings of my face muscles from far away to show that some connection remains. If she can, my partner will address the immediate source of the dysphoria. She will correct the wait-staff's pronouns or stare back at the offending table until they get the message that their rudeness is registered and not accepted. But when the dysphoria gets bad enough that I have begun to fall (not into myself but out of myself) it is not just because of one small mix up or odd glance, it is because of a general widespread tone that makes it clear that such staring, anti-trans behavior, or misgendering is not an individual rudeness but an environmental standard. This is how places (restaurants, classrooms, workplaces, churches, etc.) articulate and enforce a standard that I am not welcome here. This message is not written on signs by in the eyes, mouths, and touch of its human occupants. As a result, the message is usually not received until I am deep in the environment. I may taste the dysphoria in the water but by that point I am already waist deep and have drunk enough for its toxicity to affect my body. No matter how quickly I spit out the poison and leave the space, by the time I walk out the gate, my mind and soul is long ahead of my clambering, dysphoria drenched flesh.

Increasingly, in my work and in my life I have been able to articulate dysphoria not as something that lives in the body, or rather only in the body, but is a thing that lives in the environment. I do not know what dysphoria tastes like to cisgender people. I cannot even say for sure how other trans, intersex, and non-binary folk register its diverse flavors and affects. What I can guess is that most cis people, and some trans people, don't notice the dysphoria in their water supply; or only notice it too late when someone has gotten ill or died. That dysphoria has gotten into the ground water all over our country and world seems evident. Some places seem worse than others certainly. "How did the dysphoria get into the water," is a question that a growing number of scholars, parents, and social justice movements are daily mapping and historicizing. The number of questioners grow but there is not many or many enough of us to give widespread answers. This is in part because there are those who do not want to know that there is dysphoria in their water. They do no want their wells tested and do not want to be told the results. Still others like the taste of the water, dysphoria and all. For some, dysphoria may have a sweet taste. The sweetness may come from the fact that the dysphoria does not seem to affect them but others cannot handle it. They call those who ask for dysphoria-free drinks or even dysphoria-free restaurants, "delicate snowflakes" or "liberal snobs." They drink dysphoria like hard liquor, to show their strength and to get drunk on it. If the intoxication leads them to lash out verbally or physically, well, "boys will be boys." In the end, as much as I abstain or find other establishments to eat and drink, all it takes is for some knowing or unknowing person to come in soaking with dysphoria for the poisoning of the well to begin. No environment is a closed system, water and dysphoria flow through the world ecology, creating "introverts" who stay at home and drink only from filtered-faucets as it passes down stream.


View from the Arboretum cafe without customers

"Why is that Boy a Girl?"

As a transgender person who is currently still able to live in this world, I have found and maintained ways of surviving in places where dysphoria can be tasted in most interactions. Getting out, in mind if not in body is one tactic. When getting out is not possible, there are sometimes an oasis where the water is not so polluted or else there are folks who have adopted filters in their home kitchens and are now able to taste the difference when they go into public. At this point it is worth noting that I was fortunate in my coworkers and managers at the Arboretum. Not everyone was a treat but during my half-decade at that particular food-service, I found some company where I could hide out and who created an environment where I could come back into my body a bit more. Sometimes, they seemed more conscientious because they gave signs of having experienced enough sexism, racism, or homophobia themselves to make them aware that water and environments are never neutral, demanding some level of awareness and care for others in the ecology. Other times, they touched on dysphoria by way of some other education or interest, political, philosophical, or artistic. Of course, being oppressed or educated does not always guarantee that one will make the environment better for all (or any) others. Sometimes folks that maybe should have known better did worse and sometimes folks who seemed to have no particular reason to be doing better nonetheless did. In any case, I remain grateful to those with whom I could find safe haven. Even momentary breaks in the grind and noise of the day allowed me to come back to myself enough to push through the rest. While five years is a drop in the bucket compared to some, I wouldn't have gotten through it without some colleagues who made the environment a place where my life could take root and find nourishment.

Moving back down from the systematic scale, there were also funny, precious, accidental moments that would fill me up with goodness (or something closer to goodness) for the rest of the day. An occurrence that happened more than once was one instigated by curious children who were usually more aware than their parents or guardians. Take for instance the summer day when I was pulled back from the dining room into the cafe. I was there not because of a coffee rush but because it was the most visible location where ice-cream was sold. Families and other groups boasting children would come in sweating from a day walking around through the children's garden or among the trees. Like magnets to iron the kids would zone in on the ice-cream and come running over. Even without kids a line to the door would form on these hot summer days. During such rushes the cafe would be filled to capacity with workers taking orders, handing out ice-cream, and taking cash. On this day I was at the cash-register. By the time they had gotten to me, the parent were over-heated and over-whelmed by the ordering process. Most handed me cash without looking at me or much more than a grunt. Such was the case with one mom who was counting out cash for her kid's ice-cream bars. Yet while she thumbed through $20's for smaller bills, ignoring me, her young boy couldn't take his eyes off of me. At the time I had shortish hair, almost a pixy cut, pearl earrings and similar necklace in addition to my uniform. Some called me elfin or a fairy; fitting considering our arbor surroundings. The boy took it all in, took me in, and then grabbing his mom's arm (who was still double-fisting her purse), he asked, "Mom, why is that boy a girl?" To her credit and perhaps explaining the child's extraordinary awareness and articulation of gender ambiguity, she replied, "I don't know, why don't you ask them?" I beamed at the question (and not just the light from the outside which was beaming so hot I would leave work with a mild-tan). "That," I told the child, "is a good question!"

Over my time in the food service, I received many such questions, asked with varying degrees of interest, consideration, and meanness. Whatever the intent and affect towards me, my hope is that prompting such inquiries did something in moving more folk at the Arboretum to be a bit more aware of the dysphoria in the environment. Because while I went home with the dysphoria drenching my uniform worse than the sweat, for a moment or maybe longer guests and coworkers would become mildly unsure, curious, or disturbed about gender. Whether it tasted good, interesting, or revolting they would suddenly become aware that in our social ecology there was something in the water than was not neutral. I now call the often rude, sometimes dumbfounded, sometimes rejoicing tizzies racing across the faces of many of those who encounter me in such a way, "transgender moments." This is not to say that they will become more trans or that they even fully understand what I am or what is going on as "transgender" but that for a moment (if only a moment) they experience a degree of the dysphoria that I do. This is not a revenge fantasy. Unlike some, for good and bad, I do not get pleasure or even reassurance by other's discomfort, confusion, or pain. Usually I go out of my way to make things comfortable, clear, and even enjoyable for others. But if others taste the dysphoria in the environment, they may begin to be able to do something about it. No one wants someone else to drink contaminated water. But the more of us that can detect pollution, hopefully the sooner and better we may become at repairing the damage done to our world. 

The language of environmental crisis being used in this case is not accidental or merely metaphorical but deliberate and real. Just as our world is not only at risk but actively and rapidly accelerating into environmental crises at the level of climate, water, air, earth, heat, plants and animals, so too we are witnesses a crisis that sees the daily damaging and yearly deaths of an alarming number of trans, intersex, and non-binary persons. Those at the intersections of transgender and the marginalization of race, disability, class, and sexuality show signs of swifter population decline. This was a personal story but no environment is closed off from the wider ecology. The thing about water is that you must drink or die; even if the water is tainted; even if you die a little in order to live. The dysphoria in the water I drank at the Arboretum ran through the workers, the guest, the food, the trees, the local economy, the neighboring towns and schools, and went back to camp with the kids who asked questions and those who only stared. The toxin was in the environment before I got there and is there after I left. The problem is big but is made up of millions of tiny pieces and participants. So too the potential for change exists within and is compounded within each member of the ecology; each with a chance to drink the water and leave the water a bit better than they found it. It all turns on a taste, a question, a story which shifts the flow just a bit, just enough.


Taking our gender queer child out into the waters, literally and figuratively

Read more on transgender and the environment


Don't get me wrong, water can be fun. But it can be dangerous too!

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