When I began thinking about hormonal transition—long after I had articulated a gender of in-betweenness to myself—it was in the middle of a long hot season, my first full summer in New York City.
That June, my short-shorts always stuck to the seat of my bike, and my black t-shirts were perma-steeped in sweat. I had started to write more seriously, publishing poems in a few journals and going on writing dates with friends and partners. And I couldn’t walk, or bike, or run through any park in the city without men—usually white, usually straight (reading)—bellowing at me. “Nice ass!” “I’ll suck your dick.” “Faggot.”
This was nothing new—even before I came out at all as trans, I was used to being an object of fixation/rage for men. As a femmey AMAB person, with long legs and blonde hair, my body never really felt my own. While I’d always leaned towards a slapdash androgyny—painted nails, turtleneck sweaters, tattered skinny jeans—I felt like any agency I could exact in my sartorial choices was crowded out by what other people did to my body, in public and in private, Men were constantly laying claims on it, or trying to: beating me up in middle school turned to grabbing my dick in high school turned to ____ even later on.
Articulating transness has always been tied to writing for me: both are about systems, owning my privileges and paying tribute to the host of dead I’ve rested on. Political identification with woman-ness, aesthetic identification with the in-between. But that summer, when I started thinking about hormones, it was about consent. It was about acting on my own body, as opposed to letting other people act on it. It was about finding a box for my body that she wanted as well, and about nothing else.
But that’s not true, because it was about finding home, too.
As a child, “Home” and consent bore similar meanings for me. Home was a small Southeast coastal town. It was muggy with mosquitoes and no-see-ums, clumped gnarls of cypress roots, and a thrush of displaced, aimless, angry men.
(Which isn’t to paper over my own whiteness.)
(Which isn’t to present myself as a victim of these men, or the only victim of these men.)
This was the environment I started experimenting with gender in: there were two enormous military bases nearby, one coffee shop, an HBCU, and the border of a massive swamp twisting down into the corners of the town. I’d lose myself in Spanish moss and wreckage, and made comic books about strange ghost girls, floating lights, hauntings. The most well-attended event in town for several years was a Halloween spirit walk, women in flowing Victorian dresses pretending to be other, dead women. I was over the moon at those moments of homage, sincere and creepy at the same time.
And this was where I became aware of violence, of control, of consent for the first time, too. Hurricanes tore down the town every several years, and the ruins would pile up, never removed. A close friend’s parent killed himself with a shotgun after I moved away. Female friends would tell me how scared they were of their fathers, their stepfathers, their uncles, their neighbors. Men (white, straight) shoved me across lockers, shoved fingers into my hair, my mouth, my eyes, (my ass). The town was haunted by a host of histories, and the violences alongside it.
When I took my first testosterone blocker, I was thinking about cypress knees.
I’m in love with the idea of gender as a thing that’s ghostly, swampy, sepulchral. In the spirit walks in Elizabeth City, so many women talked about being (raped and) murdered by jealous men, boyfriends, fathers, neighbors. Ghostliness is a way of responding to that violence, a transformation that’s internal rather than externally imposed. I could relate.
The history of transness I came into is one filled with life but also wraiths: traces of violence, shadowy stories. The erasure of trans women’s (especially Black and Latina trans women’s) narratives, buried histories of femme rage, systems of cultural domination, all are hauntings, present and not present at the same time. I try to do what I can: bear witness to these pasts in my writing and life, be present myself. I’m hopefully getting better at it.
Transition and writing are alike for me in that they’re both about consent with yourself and the world. I prioritize that how I’m able—when I moved away from the South (although I’m sure I’ll return) it was about consent. Likewise for my first pill, or shot, or patch of estradiol. My writing life has largely been about negotiating with this past and these different types of home, building sustainability. When I think about the body I’m shaping, I’m thinking about how my body’s been shaped already: the actions of men, the thrust of swamp roots, the distant howl of ghosts.
ZEF LISOWSKI is a trans femme writer and artist. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Wanderer, Vetch, and Perigee, among other journals; she’s a poetry reader for Apogee Journal, a MFA candidate in Poetry at Hunter College, and a total Pisces.
This piece is part of a series about the unique experiences in the literary world outside of the binary. As VIDA expands The VIDA Count to include marginalized genders that may not fit neatly into boxes, this series encourages writers to refuse to let our stories be left out as we fight against cispatriarchal discrimination and erasure and imagine what gender equity looks like for us.