August 17, 2015
Flight of the Ruler
A transwoman in exile.
Frank Benson, Juliana, 2014-2025. 3D printed rapid prototype for bronze casting, polyurethane acrylic paint, Corian base. Edition of 4 + 1 A/P. Copyright of the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Sadie Coles HQ, London.
A few months before I came out as a transgender woman, I found myself for perhaps the last time on the island of my childhood, the island I would soon feel unable to return to safely. My mother and I were driving down a winding mountain road in our Pathfinder, edging along a precipice flecked with mango trees and clusters of green bamboos that shuddered like bones, to watch a performance of our great Dominican playwright Alwin Bully’s The Ruler. A close adaptation of a Vincentian novel by G. C. H. Thomas, Ruler in Hiroona, Bully’s play was first performed in 1976 by the People’s Action Theatre, four years after the book’s publication. Now, decades later, it was being staged again, this time in Dominica’s Arawak House of Culture, as part of the annual Nature Island Literary Festival. The play, I knew, would chronicle the rise and fall of a corrupt politician, the leader of the mythical island, Hiroona. Yet what was on my mind that night were other politics, a very different rise and fall: my own. My head began to throb. The girl I had suppressed for over twenty years wanted out. I wondered for a moment if I could make it through the play without losing my mind.
The dark street outside the theater was humming with voices, bodies dim floating shapes under the orange of the streetlights and the indigo of the approaching night. A cock strutted down the uneven sidewalk, glancing at me before disappearing into the gutter behind a car’s wheel. There was excitement in the air, many of the attendees doubtless curious to see if the play would satirize our prime minister, a ruler embroiled in controversy. Through the chatter of the crowd, I chanted to myself like a witch: You are not an abomination, you can live on and Shut up, fool, you know you cannot be a woman here. On an island that, like so many other former British colonies, had inherited a legacy by which male homosexual activity is criminalized and transgenderism often swept under the rug of “biblical abomination,” I felt a sense of deep divide. Was it worth it to live as my true self even if it meant losing familial support, the privilege of leaving and returning to my home easily?
I knew, as the crowd rose to acknowledge the entrance of the president and his guards, that standing atop a mountain and shouting into the wind, I am transgender, I am a woman, I am not an abomination, I want to be accepted here, as I am, would be a cry that would fall on so many deaf ears. A cry that, when the wind carried it from village to village and house to home, would be answered with ridicule and abandonment at best and with fists and cutlasses and broken glass at worst.
Just months earlier, in Jamaica, a group of men fatally beat, stabbed, and ran over sixteen-year-old Dwayne Jones after discovering Jones, the beautiful girl they had been dancing with, was not a cisgender woman. Dominica has a better record than Jamaica on LGBTQIA violence, but only a fool would think it was much safer. In 2012, the minister of education announced a fortunately short-lived plan to create a task force against “deviance and homosexuality” in schools. In 2013, our prime minister said he would not repeal the buggery law that criminalized same-sex activity, and the next year said he would “never allow for the state to recognize same-sex marriage” as long as his government is in office.
I knew, as the theater’s lights dimmed, that I would look down from that mountain upon which I wished to shout, deep into the open arms of the fern-dappled drop, and jump off. To acknowledge who and what you are is to take a leap into the winds—and to hope you will not fall.
* * *
Half a year later, in the United States, I would think of flight. I would dream again of the mountain, the land unsafe to revisit as a transwoman stretched before me, and remember the women punished for their ability to fly in Edwidge Danticat’s “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” a story in Krik? Krak!. In it, the mother of Josephine, the protagonist, has been imprisoned for allegations that she is a lougarou or soucouyant, a woman who sheds her skin at night and flies into the air as a ball of fire, often in search of blood. Targeted because of her Otherness, this woman’s humanity is stripped from her like the skin she is accused of shedding. It is an open question throughout the story, whether or not she can fly in the literal sense. But she does, of course: she has fled the Parsley Massacre that was ordered by General Trujillo, and she was pregnant with Josephine as she leapt over the red waters of Massacre River. We do not need wings to take flight.
* * *
I grew up on the edge of a mountain, on the outskirts of the village of Giraudel, and the relative isolation of our home, as well as the fact that I was an only child, meant that I was often alone. I grew accustomed to walking on our lawn under the fireflies and royal palms and gazing at the stars. Once, I dreamed I switched bodies with a woman on a distant space station. It was exhilarating to miraculously inhabit the body I had always wanted, and, when I awoke, I was glum.
I didn’t even know the word “transgender” until I went to college in the United States.
But I didn’t believe I could be a woman, really. I wanted to belong at the all-boys primary and secondary schools my parents had chosen for me. I tried to fit in with my many cousins, some of whom were famed “bad boys” and “shottas” in our capital city. I never told anyone how much it hurt to go to family parties because I wanted to be one of the girls there, or how joyous I felt the day a boy from a higher form told me, as an insult, that I looked like a girl. I told no one how I cherished the nights my parents went out, leaving me alone to sneak into the palace of my mother’s closet and try on her clothes and makeup and take silly photos of myself, imagining different universes in which I had been born as the sad-exultant woman in the stills. To admit these things would have been to lose the few friends I felt I had, to be beaten up and stigmatized as gay. I didn’t even know the word “transgender” until I went to college in the United States.
I tried to suppress my feelings and to imitate the American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall cultures that so influenced codes of young masculinity on our island. But I couldn’t hush the girl knocking against the bars of my bones—and while in graduate school in Florida, when I began planning to drink poison, I knew the ruse had to end. I had tried, and failed, to live in denial, and I had to make a decision.
I decided to fly off the mountaintop, not down into the trees or stones that would shatter bones, but toward the sea. And I hoped I would be able to fly back—not as a comic disgrace, like the ruler of Hiroona, but as a woman who had shed her fear.
* * *
What does it mean to be a woman, Elinor Burkett recently asked in an essay in the New York Times, if one is socialized as a man and does not experience menstruation or the pains of childbirth? What are we—the essay, and many like it, considers—to make of the international media sensation of Caitlyn Jenner’s debut on the cover of Vanity Fair, where her body is glamorized, modelesque, on display for the sexualizing gaze? Does Jenner’s appearance on the magazine in this way, and particularly at her age, not constitute reducing women to their bodies, Burkett wondered, and would this spectacle not be ridiculed if she were cisgender? How can transwomen know the terror of being sexually harassed, or the “sisterhood” of femininity, since they—we—have had access to male privilege all their—our—lives?
I have grave issues with almost everything in Burkett’s piece. It presents little new argumentation about the politics of gender identity, but rather uses stale trans-exclusionary radical feminist rhetoric to discuss contemporary examples, like Jenner. It is logically incoherent and circular: women should not be reduced to their bodies, but transwomen are to be excluded because of their bodies, and ciswomen who have not experienced sexual harassment are still women because of their bodies, it is implied, and women are women because of their bodily functions, like menstruation and childbirth. Burkett’s assertions demonstrate the ways that conservative and reductive views of what womanhood and manhood entail can be packaged and picked up by liberals, as if such ideas were, in fact, liberal. They go against what neuroscience suggests—that the brain patterns of transmen and transwomen often correspond more, in certain aspects, with those of the gender they identify with. Most of all, they represent a failure of empathy.
I am not appropriating a space of womanhood while conveniently avoiding the pains.
Many transwomen, myself included, have been so repressed in how we present ourselves to the world that when we finally get the opportunity, we want to glam ourselves up. It’s like entering a second puberty. The idea that a woman is “more than” nail polish and breasts is obvious—but what is wrong if one chooses to wear nail polish or flaunt one’s breasts? I love wearing makeup and looking a certain way; this is my choice, and I will not have that right undermined by a crotchety notion that all women must look like slobs or else are pandering to a heteronormative sexualized gaze. Jenner’s cover does not represent transfeminity broadly; it represents an individual free to appear however she wishes to.
Transwomen are sometimes stigmatized—considered “not really” transgender—if they do not present indicators of femininity, so it’s a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. What’s more, many of us wear makeup in the beginning stages of transition not because we necessarily want to, but because we need it to hide or modify signs that could get us “read” as transgender, like a bluish beard shadow or an overtly masculine facial structure. I have an androgynous, if not feminine, face, but when I began, prior to coming out, to leave my house in secret, dressed in the women’s clothing and makeup I had purchased by pretending they were for my sister, I was so often terrified of being read as transgender because of all the makeup, even as I felt too scared to venture into the world without it. That is no longer as great a fear, thanks to laser hair removal and hormone therapy. But an everyday trip to the grocery store can be traumatic if you feel the need to put on an entire face of makeup to avoid overt discrimination, if not violence. This is not equating womanhood with clothes or makeup; it is a survival mechanism.
And it is extraordinary to me to be told by Burkett that I am exercising “male privilege” by being a transgender woman, and that I cannot relinquish such privilege. That I am unaware of what it feels like to be sexually harassed or fearful for my life when followed by a strange man at night. I live entirely as a woman; I never present myself as male. My name has been legally changed to an unambiguous female one. I do not use the men’s restroom. I am frequently harassed by male strangers when I am alone, and they treat me as they would a ciswoman because I look, for all intents and purposes, like any other ciswoman. I have been sexually propositioned by security guards in art museums in DC and by hotel doormen in Manhattan, have had construction workers whistle and call out to me as if I were a dog, have had numerous men speak to me as though I were beneath them for being a woman. And I’ve felt panic knowing that if I attempt to seek justice for a wrong I might be constrained not only because I am a woman of color but also, possibly, rejected or laughed at because I am a transwoman of color. I know the feeling of my heart beating like a hummingbird’s wings. Hormone-replacement therapy reduces muscle mass, and I was never that physically strong to begin with, so I have become acutely aware of my compromised ability to defend myself. I did not have these fears when I lived as male. They have now been etched into my everyday.
If I could experience the pain of menstruation and of childbirth, by all the gods, I would. I yearn to. But I am no less of a woman because I cannot. Not all ciswomen can menstruate or give birth—or, as Margaret Atwood puts it in “The Female Body,” “The Reproductive System is optional, and can be removed.” I am not appropriating a feminine space while conveniently avoiding the pains. And I have no desire to force my way into situations I cannot contribute to meaningfully, like meetings about the experiential realities of pregnancy. This is a space, in the wide world of womanhood, that is not part of my experience. But I can speak with those women about so much: harassment, diminished employment opportunities, societal expectations of our bodies, and on and on. There are many constellations in the star field of womanhood, and I represent one of them. Often, we converge.
It hurts to be kicked out of that patch of the night sky you belong to, to have your wings torn off, because of how you were born. It hurts to fall to the ground, to be told you should return, with the grace of Icarus, to the world you tried to flee from.
There are many reasons why so many of us consider ending our lives, letting our bodies drop too far down to the ground. This—the idea that we will never belong, that we are caricatures if we embrace a certain femininity, fakes if we do not, true Captain Nemos of a new sea, Captain No-Bodies, of a lonely Nowhere-Place many leagues beneath where other people comfortably live—is one of them.
* * *
Discussions of transgender identity are still somewhat rare in Caribbean critical and creative works relative to depictions of gay and lesbian sexual identities. In Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, the Martinican theorist Frantz Fanon famously declared that homosexuality did not exist in Martinique due to the absence of an Oedipal complex on the island but that Martinicans in France sometimes became passive homosexuals. Fanon did, however, admit the existence of Ma Commère, which he defined as men who dress in women’s clothing. The trouble with this definition is that it both lumps together and separates homosexuality from a kind of broad transgenderism: Fanon identifies the “men” wearing women’s clothing as “men,” without questioning their psychological experience of gender, and suggests that they lead “normal” sexual lives, implying that their female presentation is a superficial addition to what is otherwise cisgender heterosexuality.
Of course, the idea of transgender identity was still very new at the time of Fanon’s writing—only a few recorded male-to-female sex changes had occurred prior to the publication of his book, though it is notable that the story of Christine Jorgensen, who would become for years the world’s most famous transsexual woman, broke the same year Black Skin, White Masks appeared. And it is unclear if Fanon is actually talking about transvestism—which would not involve a shift in gender identity. But too commonly, in instances of gender-nonconformity that may or may not be instances of transgenderism, sex and gender are blurred, which can lead to the false assumption that transgender individuals are actually cross-dressers, erasing the crucial distinctions between the two.
A related notion appears in “Tales Told Under the San Fernando Hill,” a short story by the Trinidadian writer Lawrence Scott, when he refers to “boys” who dress like women. When they pass as women well enough, they are deemed—by the society in the story, even as Scott attempts to humanize them—deceptive sexual predators, males trying to trick other males into sex by “pretending” to be women—which is often how transwomen are portrayed. More favorably, the recent Bajan play Simone’s Place, written by Glenville Lovell and directed by Russell Watson, depicts Lady Simone, a transgender woman who performs pieces by Nina Simone and whose club serves as a hub for queer individuals to voice their feelings openly. And the Trinidadian-Canadian Shani Mootoo’s novel, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, chronicles the life of a Canadian man, Jonathan, trying to reconnect with his dying father, Sydney, who used to be Jonathan’s lesbian mother and who has decided to embrace his male gender identity and return to Trinidad to live out his last years. It is hard for Sydney’s final written words to his son not to resonate with so many of us who have fled or faced rejection from loved ones: “How do I explain it,” Sydney asks, “so that he doesn’t think I ran away, gave up, failed?”
* * *
Near the end of the play The Ruler, the protagonist Jerry Mole, the increasingly avaricious leader of the fictional island of Hiroona, finds himself standing in a bucket in the shack of an obeah woman, clutching dolls emblazoned with the names of his political opponents and chanting a mantra he believes will help him win the next election. The people have largely turned on him, as the election-rigging and fraud he’s perpetrated have become known across the island, and Mole decides he must resort to magic. As we in the audience laughed, I wondered whether I would become such a spectacle if someone on the island were to discover my desire to be a woman. My laughter felt false. I knew the play was a distraction from the dark, a way to try to forget.
I started to cry, then quickly wiped my face. I tried to focus on the extraordinary resonances between this work from the 1970s and recent political events in Dominica. I tried to focus—but I couldn’t see properly anymore. I couldn’t laugh. I wanted to scream.
I cried so many nights—and still do—at the pain of knowing I could not just return home anymore, that simple words like “family” and “past” and “home” had fractured.
The play came to an end.
As I left the theater with my mother, I looked at the young men filtering back into the street, some of whom I had known growing up. They suddenly seemed like strangers to me, and I couldn’t speak to them. I didn’t want to be male to them; I wanted to be any other woman leaving the theater. But I was constrained by my body, my voice, the manacles of my history. I looked away from them, wanting to disappear into the night, to set off and live alone, like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, on some distant asteroid, or just sink into the deep-space dark, the princess of a black hole. To feel that you cannot be the gender you have always wanted to be is so often to wish you were not.
Months later, I would remember this play when I decided I would break free. I would learn quickly about the frightening weight of male harassment. I would consider how the body that now made me so much happier was the very thing that might prevent me from returning home safely. Comments on an article about Caitlyn Jenner republished by the Jamaica Observer would echo in my mind: Jenner was “so sickening,” an “unholy deception and abomination to God’s will,” and America “the Devil’s sewer.” And I would think of the lonely transgirl on the island somewhere, denying who she was, terrified not only of rejection or attack at home, but that even in the US, the nation she might dream of escaping to, she could never belong as a woman. I would cherish the joy that hit me like a waterfall when some of the students I’d taught since coming out told me I had helped them to see the world in a richer, more nuanced way.
Before I came out, my parents warned me about the danger and ridicule I would face if I tried to live as a woman, as well as the danger and ridicule they would face on my behalf. I could not go back to Dominica. Do not breathe a word of this to anyone on the island, anyone in our family, anyone you grew up with, they told me. Even on the day I publicly came out in an essay I shared on social media, I attempted to “hide” it from every Dominican, every old friend and family member. I felt exultant to finally begin living every day in the United States as myself. But I cried so many nights—and still do—at the pain of knowing I could not just return home anymore, that simple words like “family” and “past” and “home” had fractured.
“Break a vase,” poet and playwright Derek Walcott said in his Nobel Lecture, “and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” It is strange, that love and exile can feel so deeply, sharply connected, as if one is the shadow of the other.
* * *
I want to believe that acceptance for transgender individuals is coming to our islands, that people who do not yet know how to deal with the difficult reality that human experience is messy and mystifying in its breadth will someday learn. I want to believe that a new ruler is coming.
“We must be the change,” the St. Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien said in a newspaper interview earlier this year. Speaking about human rights and an evolving Caribbean society, he mentioned homosexuality as something he could speak about with increasing ease, especially now that he has begun to firmly establish a place in our literature. “Who could come,” Lucien said, “in my friends’ circle, and say anything positive about homosexuality? But now I say it to them…. Just like everything else, if you have something happening in a submerged form, when you start to address it is when you can really have a conversation about it.” Those who are in positions of privilege, he argued, must speak on behalf of those who lack such privilege, including those of us who are queer: “I’m not saying we have to rely on the person in power all the time—but it helps! That’s one of the ways you can help your society move forward, if you are part of a privileged group. You can come and speak on the part of the people.”
I want to believe in such optimism. Queerness is a part of Caribbean literature and identity, if a submerged one, and our archipelago is not uniformly unaccepting. But too much of the landscape is still manifestly dangerous. Another transgirl I spoke with online from Martinique, who would not reveal her identity for fear of stones and crushed bones, told me that she, too, felt she needed to leave her island to transition. The brave gay Belizean, Caleb Orozco, who made the first challenge to a Caribbean anti-sodomy law five years ago, yet to be decided by the courts, now must live largely in a world of terror, garrisoning his house with padlocks and broken glass. It is difficult work for societies to accept that the past and present may not reveal the future. But as the characters in Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance eventually learn, the world one comes to think of as fixed is full of people changing identities, taking on new tasks, rather than dancing the same dance year in and year out.
There is also the powerful case of the hairdresser turned politician and activist Jowelle de Souza, the first Trinidadian to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. De Souza, who also won a landmark transgender discrimination case in the Caribbean, recently became the first openly transgender individual to enter the island’s political sphere. While she has faced some religious opposition to her run, she has also received a fair amount of support—and this, to me, is a bright spot in the star fields, a sign that a new day may be coming to Trinidad, and hopefully the wider Caribbean. Jowelle is also a Junoesque woman, able, unlike many transwomen, to pass perfectly well. This, no doubt, has helped smooth her transition; it is still easier for many people to accept a transgender woman who looks like a highly attractive cisgender woman. But her story alerts me to the sound of wind.
I write and shout into sea and sky because I want to believe a new ruler in our many Hiroonas is possible—a day when those of us who are queer feel safe returning to our beautiful and mad and calm homes. A day when we don’t feel compelled to escape, as Marlon James wrote, in a coffin or in a plane. A day when we do not, like the Bajan transwoman Alexa Strauss-Hoffmann, face abandonment from our families. A day when womanhood is understood as a place with many rooms, many views, and where we, women of all kinds, can exist in unison. A day when we can simply be, because we are.
Gabrielle Bellot, who has also written under J. Bellot, holds an MFA from Florida State University, where she is currently a PhD Candidate in fiction. She has contributed work to Prairie Schooner, The Missouri Review, Small Axe’s sx salon, The SouthEast Review, and other journals. She grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where she has worked as a member of a committee for the Nature Island Literary Festival. She is working on her first novel.
To contact Guernica or Gabrielle Bellot, please write here.