Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Chip on My Shoulder: A Trans Girl's Lessons in Pain & Power

"Mourn the dead
fight like hell for the living"

Mother Jones

Bruises: A Roadmap to My Girlhood

"Look at her arms," my mother instructed the Principal of my elementary school. I was asked to roll up my sleeves to show the room full of adults the welts and bruises that dotted my wrists, forearms, and shoulders. The school officials looked down their noses with studied expressions of concern and weariness. They each briefly glanced at the assorted damage then turned back to the my mother. "This is really unfortunate, Mrs. Bychowski," they said earnestly but slowly, giving the sense that their sympathy had a comma or a semi-colon at the end. "However, there is not much more that we can do," finished the Principal, "since we have sat Gabby down with the other student..." My mother interrupted, "students. It's not just the one." The Principal nodded, recognizing but not condoning the interruption. "Yes, the other students," she amended, "and the teacher is well aware of what has been going on throughout the year. However, without directly seeing the incident there is really not much that we can do." The other school official, someone I didn't know in the meeting, clarified, "it becomes a he said, she said situation." My mother sat back in her seat with an audible breath. "Do the other kids have these bruises?" my mother asked, gesturing to my arms again, which I had since covered again with my sleeve. The Principal and the other woman looked at each other with a since of practiced helplessness. "To be honest, Mrs. Bychowski," the Principal said in a quieter more confidential tone, "there is not just much that we can do in this situation. This is one of those things that the kids will just have to resolve themselves." The Principal gave my mother a look heavy with some meaning that I could not decipher but which set my mom off. "So," my mother said at last, "if Gabby were to punch back and they ended up in this office with bruises, you also wouldn't do anything?" The school officials raised their hand with a more deliberate helplessness. "I see," she said. Finally I saw as well. I began to see what this whole meeting had been circling.

On the drive home, my mother was livid. "That school," she huffed, "that school just doesn't want to piss off that boys family. They are far too important to the whole school system. They have more powerful friends than us. They would rather deal with our anger than theirs. Cowards." I looked over at her, nervous from the rage rippling through my mom. For a small quiet and chirpy Polish woman, her rage was not something I was accustomed to seeing. Usually a little went a long way in our conflict avoidant family. After my lack of response, she looked over at me. "Im sorry, Gabby. I really am." "I know mom," I said looking out the window. The rest of the drive home occurred in silence. We didn't have far to go because we lived so close to the school. But on the way, we passed the boy's house. He lived on our block. That is what first put me on his radar; him and his friends. We walked home along the same route. Him and the guys. Me and my sister. Early in the semester, they had even invited me over a couple times. But it was evident from early on that we were very different sorts of children. He was the leader of the school football team, tall and muscled for a fifth grader, a charismatic boy who laughed loudly and played rough. He was the type of boy that other boys circled around because he had traveled the furtherest down the road of a certain type of masculinity which all of them were expected to venture. It was a road of boyhood that despite my best efforts, most everyone expected me to travel. But I held back, yearning openly for a different road. Until two years prior, I had a set of girl friends with whom I would walk home and surround myself. Together we had played with nail polish, easy-bake ovens, and read young reader crime novels. Then we moved away for a year to Wellesley, Massachusetts, so my father could try his hand at a new job venture which ended up being discontinued before we had even arrived on the East Coast. We came back as soon as we could but soon found that much had changed between 3rd grade and the entering of 5th grade. All my old girl friends no longer wanted to get together to play. Without coming out and saying it, their parents had communicated that at this age girls and boys just didn't play together like that anymore. I was told to make friends with the boys. Over and over again, I was sent over to their houses and pointed in the direction of their games at recess. That is how I found myself time and again on the radar of the boy down the street.

Everyone it seemed was getting their kids ready for middle school and becoming teenagers, meaning that the girls were being sent down one road and boys were being directed down another road. Then there was me: a child continually put in the company of those all too eager to prove themselves as boys becoming men yet also a child who shared no such interests and made little efforts at hiding my alternative longings. This meant two dangerous things for me. First, it meant that I was alone except for the company of my sister. Despite being younger than me, my sister had already become very protective and defensive of me. But in the politics of the school yard and the long walk home, there was little a 3rd grader could be expected to do to protect her older trans sister either from the societal disdain for children like me or from the older peers whose bullying enforced this disdain so the parents didn't have to address the situation themselves. Not all the adults were as oblivious or helpless as they pretended to be. But many of them seemed to think that eventually the bruising and belittling would push me to mimic the desired masculinity. Or else they regarded my effeminacy and disdain for the normal boy things as a nerdy intellectual egoism that made me deserving of being knocked down a few pegs. That is one reason why the more articulate I was about what was going on, the more I looked school officials and parents in the eye and explained to them that I understood the gender politics at play, the more many saw me as an effete sissy who needed to learn lessons in what sort of people really have the power in this world. And so I read the books about astronomy I brought home to keep me company on the long lonely weekends, preparing for the week that summer in which I could go to Space Camp and the day beyond that in which I could literally leave this world behind. But I also digested the lessons from the school, the parents, and the other kids. I learned where I ranked in the hierarchy of boys all too ready to prove their boyhood, all too ready to travel down that road, and who did so by demonstrating that power on those lower on the scale of masculinity. Each bruise was like homework which I carried home in my body, reminding me even when I wasn't at school that in this world of boys, the trans girl was just a powerless body on which they would prove to the world their manhood.



Divisions of Pain

"Look at my arm," I told the teacher in charge of monitoring recess, "I can't move it and I don't think it is supposed to hang that way." I was standing on the black top, having run some distance from the crowd of boys that stared after me. The teacher's face went pale looking at my mangled side. Oddly enough, I didn't quite feel the pain yet. My pain and the paleness would come in just a few minutes. Instead, I was full of adrenaline that carried me faster than I had ever run out of the hands of those who had just been on top of me. Walking me, at a pace that increasingly felt way too slow, to the nurses office, I hadn't had time to even process what had happened. Yet as one teacher became two and two adults became three, I was forced to recollect into narrative the last few minutes. I had been standing on the side of the field when the shove had come. The boys had been playing tag foot-ball. I was told to go with them. Not interested in the sport or in being around the boys who daily made me their bitch, I mostly watched from a position at the edge of out of bounds. Then suddenly, the ball had gone wild, almost out. It landed at my feet. The boy behind me shoved me, telling me to pick it up and run. Well, running was really the only physical activity that I knew how to do well and felt very natural at this moment when suddenly the whole crowd of boys turned on me. I took the ball and ran wildly, as fast as I could (but sadly not as fast as I did a moment later to the teacher) towards the other end of the field where the goal was supposed to be. I hadn't gotten far at the shove, however, when suddenly I felt somebody on top of me shoving me to the ground with the force of a loud snap. It wasn't until he rolled off of me and ran off with the ball that I realized that the snap sound was not just the sound of him hitting me but the sound of something inside me breaking. Getting to my feet, my shoulder was bent at an odd angle and my arm hung in a way that I never could get it to go if I had tried; not without rearranging my skeleton, which is what had just happened. By the time I had gotten to the nurse, the adults had agreed that it was my shoulder bone and not my arm that had been snapped. As I lay down on the nurses couch, I finally felt the pain coursing through me like my muscles were on fire.

In the center of the fire that burned inside me, I lost awareness of most of what was happening around me. Someone was on the phone with my mom, recalling the events. "No, no it wasn't a game of touch football," the teacher on call explained, "there shouldn't have been any tackling." At this point, my left side didn't feel like it belonged on a human body but seemed to me like the shattered metal of a car crash, with a sharp electric smell and bits of glass churning around my abdomen. "Yes," the teacher on the phone confirmed, "the kids say it was that boy. Yes. Yes. Well it happened so fast no one had time to prevent it." During this time in which time itself seemed bent, there seemed to be multiple selves present inside my body. Or rather, I could perceive one of my selves in and as the body, broken and moaning on the couch in a whirlwind of internal fire. Then there was another self, slightly outside my body, perhaps above and to the right, which looked down on the body-self with pity and grave concern. For her who stood just outside, the pain-body-self was a thing that could be observed and with some work, managed. I don't recall any words passing between my selves in this moment but seeing how the flames on my left side were collapsing the body-self around that point, the slightly-outside self directed some of the fire to move down to the other side and into my right leg. A conduit was created by which I learned I could redirect an amount of the unbearable pain in my left shoulder somewhere else. And so my right leg began thrashing as it filled with the incoming pain, confusion, and anger. The nurse and the teacher on the phone came over to see if my leg was also hurt. "No," was all I was able to choke out. Such communication was a sign that the redirection was working because for however long I had been on the couch before this I had been unable to communicate and barely able to register what was being said to me or about me. Although the sharing of pain between my shoulder and right leg meant that more of my body now felt out of control, a part of me (the part of me which was slowly coming back in line with my body) knew that I had regained a form of control. I could cut off the pain from my right leg, I knew, but I decided I did not want that. Because my right leg was strong and healthy. It was helping bear the weight of suffering from my left side which was too broken to contain it. At this point I became aware of my mother in the room speaking to the nurse, commenting on my leg, my arm, and how pale I seemed. Maintaining the distribution of pain between parts of my body, I was able (with help) to get up off the couch and into a wheelchair. Only then did I realize that the Principal was present. She took the handles of the wheelchair as my mother went to go bring the car around, then silently, without a word to me, she wheeled me down to the circle drive.

Amidst all of the chaos, the part that I recall as oddest was the sound of the doctor popping my shoulder back into place when I arrived at the hospital. Whereas the shock, pain, and adrenaline had knocked the events of the break out of order and consciousness, the setting of the bone back into place occurred with too great consciousness. I faintly remember a smell that went along with the sound of crushed plastic water bottles which was the repositioning of my collar-bone. The smell was something of sour milk. The sound was a sound I had never heard my body make before this day. It was a different sort of sound and different sort of hearing because it reverberated through my skeleton in a disconcerting wave frequency. It was the sound of my bones speaking in bone language to the other bones. What my bones were saying to one another I can't say because the consciousness that I had regained upon arriving at the hospital was fluttering away as the snap made me feel dizzy and far away. A nurse handed my mother a wet rag to put on my forehead, commenting how pale I seemed. The rest was again a blur. I was x-rayed. I was moved around the hospital. I was given pills. I was told to wait. All this occurred without me doing much on my own. I was a body being passed around between people used to managing bodies. For a while at the hospital and afterwards, I was content to merely let them manage this body-self. People would sometimes say things to my body and say a lot about it but I wasn't listening much. I'm not sure where I was but I wasn't there. I wasn't on the school yard either. I briefly remember tears running down my face when my mom was answering a question that I had apparently asked about whether or not I could still attend space camp in a few weeks. The next moment I distinctly remember being fully present was when the doctor was sitting in front of my mother and me. He positioned himself directly in front of me and was the first person to really speak directly to me, waiting however long was necessary until I responded. Maybe it was this or maybe it was something else but I finally was able to hear and really listen to what was being said. "You see Gabby," he was telling me, "you will make a full recovery but even then you will never be quite the same. There will always be a little chip, a little bump, where the break happened. It won't be noticeable to anyone except maybe you. I need you to be prepared for that. Things will feel different."



Shouldering the Weight

People looked at me differently the next day when I showed up to school in a sling. I was told that I didn't have to go. But I felt that if I didn't show up to the last day of 5th grade, the last day of elementary school, I would be admitting defeat somehow. It was strange however, the way that all the boys kept a far distance from me. A few tried to come up and explain how the boy down the street hadn't intended to hurt me like that. But when I didn't respond they would just wander away with looks of uncertainty. The strangest looks came from the teachers and the Principal who made a point to say farewell to me and good luck in Middle School next year. Everyone looked at me like I was broken. Granted, I felt pain and burning still in my arm but this was a different kind of brokenness. This brokenness had something to do with them. The look had multiple parts. It seemed to begin by looking at me. Then the look would shift and they would seem to be looking at something inside their own heads. Then they would finish their look at me by seeing all of me as something else. What this something else was I couldn't read or express at the time. Whatever it was, the thing they saw seemed to make them uncomfortable, made them antsy, and perhaps, made them afraid. Not long later, I would see these looks again. I saw it the next time I would have one of my bones broken by a boy when his fist hit my jaw. I saw it again with other bruises and injuries. Perhaps I got that look at other times too. Eventually, I learned to stop looking. Another reason I saw the looking less, was that when such meetings between myself, my mother, and the school system happened, they would go much faster. I could feel the looks on me but I no longer raised my gaze up to meet them. In elementary school, I had paid more attention at these looks because I had hoped to see something in them: recognition, shared pain, resolve. What I had seen instead was fear, discomfort, disgust, curiosity and a kind of power which performed as powerlessness but which really the most common expression of power I've yet to witness. It was a look of power that marked me as dangerous but which was powerless to help me. It was the look of people who are waiting for the worst to happen but unwilling to prevent the worst from happening.

That is how the chip on my shoulder taught me two things. I learned that systems - whether they are school systems or systems of gender - are not built to protect me although they might avenge me if I (or someone else) forces them to take responsibility. Never in all my schooling do I recall any acts done to create increased safety for me. Rather, when these systems acted, if they acted, they only created increased anxiety around me. Never were my boundaries between the boys who bullied and beat me honored, even by adults. I found myself again and again put into dangerous situations with them, from organized games, group projects, and locker rooms. Sometimes a word of warning would be given to the boys and young men involved but all this did was increase a sense of dread for when authorities were not watching: such as during organized games, group projects, and locker rooms. Likewise, my words of desire and affinity were not honored. I was made to feel like my craving for female friends was some sort of developing sexual drive. This kept former and potential girl friends at a distance. It also taught me to confuse the deep-seated need for female fellowship and mutual recognition with those feelings which had begun for a deeper sort of companionship and intimacy. By rejecting an affinity with women as a deviant form of desire for women, I learned to keep silent and desire my own isolation. Because showing people my raw truth and raw hurt made people give me that fatalistic look. I was taught to see myself with that look as well. I learned to see my raw self as a thing destined for the worst happenings. Each time something bad did happen, this only reignited the looks around me and reaffirmed the necropolitical despair which haunts so many trans youths and adults. I learned to see the violence and a violent end as pretexts which only required certain unpredictable contexts to become readable in the text of my body. Each time something violent happens, I register these looks on my body as a kind of expected but disappointing resolution to a story that long ago was written for me. People see this story as sad and upsetting but little will be done to change the story, the pretext, or the context; or at least it won't be done until the worst finally happens.

Growing up amidst the power of violence and the powerlessness of these looks, I learned to expect systems not to protect me but perhaps to avenge me. That is the buried power within my broken body, which came to the surface when I lay on the nurse's couch. That is the power and threat that I embodied which compelled the Principal to personally wheel me out to my mother's car. Only later did I realize how afraid the school was of me at that moment, or any of the subsequent moments in which visible damage had been done to my body. Because unlike the unseen damage to my psyche and soul, the misinformation and isolation that divided my self against my self, the physical signs of hurt could have been leveraged against the school system. Had my parents decided to sue the school system, they would have had pictures, meetings on the books, reports, and witnesses all attesting that the abuse had been documented as it escalated. We had physical and textual evidence that the school system had failed and even encouraged the violence in various ways. Had I been born among folk who knew how to fight these sorts of fights or if my parents had been given better consultation, we might have played those cards. As it was, there was too much ingrained shame and self-disgust to see my trans life as worth protecting beyond keeping the body, the shell of the cisgender persona, alive. As it was, my nerdy Catholic Eastern European family was trained for generations to suffer long in the face of injustices and violence. The central image of our Church, the crucifix, was an embodiment of what this world does to good people. Even today, knowing what we know as a lawyer, a scholar, and an activist who regularly engage in compelling social change, my siblings and I regularly get called stoic for our ability to suffer long violences without complaint. Yet this stoicism is not just culture and history. This quietude is the resignation of people who know that in the systems as they still exist today, there is little protection provided that would keep me safe from violence. Even recently as an adult I have been made to feel violence and also the threat of this violence as unavoidable. When I am out with my kids for a walk, I am reminded by a passersby and even police how I might be assaulted as a sort of threat to the community. When I leave campus after teaching, clothed in conservative retro teacher's garb, I am reminded that my body might be taken and used by people who regard trans women all as sex workers, traps, or attention seeking rape targets. I am reminded on public transit, in airports, on trains, in cars, and on planes. I reminded at conferences in medieval studies. I am reminded on vacation. I am reminded in churches at which my spouse has worked as Pastor. No matter who I am, what I am marks me as a target. No matter how well people regard my subjectivity, this is no protection from people who only think of my body. If I am to be killed, it will likely be by someone who does not know who I am and does not care. They may learn about the me that no longer exists in that body or who exists just outside that body, but only afterwards. I may be remembered and avenged after the story is over but have been given lessons in pain and power to expect little to be done to change that story. Who we are as trans people is no protection, so long as the pretext of necropolitics dictates that what we are marks us as objects of violence and death. 

That is not all of the story of me or my body but that is the story that lives in the little chip, the bump, the brokenness, the weight, the stoicism on my shoulder.



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