2012 in Review: To Remember Everything

To my shame, I’ve really got lazy in writing these blog posts. Partially because, perhaps, it’s difficult for me to see the point and imagine my audience — other than future me, of course.

Back in the day, moving to DW was a clean break from my past. My primary target audience, for any post I wrote in my old blog, was my future self. It gave me material for introspection and tracing changes in my personality over the years — which are shocking to me, still. While most of my core beliefs are still intact, many of my former beliefs and actions make me uncomfortable.

Now, perhaps, it is time to give my past a rest. Not “burn the evidence” — this is not my intent, especially not in this day and age, when caches remember everything. But close that chapter in my life.

The journey from Matvey to Maia, which started in late 2008 and continues to this day, has been slow and often rocky. 2009 was marked by apathy and depression, stemming from unemployment and the need to hide everything from everyone. After that, things have been consistently getting better. 2010 saw me getting my second and current job, 2011 a home of my own, away from my parents, though that year was scarred by two failed relationships; and 2012 may just have been the best year of my life so far.

Looking back, I can now, with certainty, name the event that dragged me out of my apartment and onto the streets: the sham “elections” of December 2011 and the political fallout that followed. The explosion of political activity from ordinary citizens that followed was unprecedented by Russian standards, and I, too, without prompting, got engaged in the rallies. I felt I had no moral right to stand aside anymore.

Inspired, I decided to get engaged in political activity relevant specifically to me — and thus, I applied as a volunteer to the Russian LGBT Network, something that, in hindsight, I should have done at least a year before that. A reply followed soon; I was invited to the local LGBT social club, Pulsar, for a two-day brainstorming seminar on political activities in 2012. This was the turning point. It changed everything.

For the first visit, I didn’t really have any women’s clothes to wear to speak of, other than T-shirts, so I showed up in a women’s T-shirt and men’s jeans. It was a relief for me, nevertheless, to be able to call myself Maia in a company of like-minded people and feel accepted as a girl, even without passing. For the second visit, the following day, I bought a dress, which made me feel less awkward — and more appropriate.

After that, weekly visits to the club every Sunday became a routine, although a highly welcome one; usually I spent the week waiting for Sunday, when I could go downtown and meet my LGBT friends in a safe space, that basement insulated from the homophobic streets. It was just a social club, where politics only occasionally intruded, usually in discussions of news about new stupid homophobic laws.

It felt good.

I made new friends — replacing those I lost years ago. Some of the revelations were surprising: it turned out that two transwomen from the club lived very close to me on the outskirts of the city, far away from the club, and they were a couple! I did more for my new life in mere months than I did in three preceding years, assembling a wardrobe, skills, connections, advice — though the others were puzzled by my habit of changing clothes when arriving and leaving. At that point, I thought, I couldn’t risk being detected. What if someone who knew my parents would see me on the street? What would they think?

Even more than that, I was afraid of being recognized as trans by passers-by. It took me a while to overcome that worry.

There is a definite pattern here. For the first half of the year, I have been breaking myself — deliberately moving myself outside my zone of comfort and adjusting to this new, unfamiliar life, and overcoming self-doubt. As a friend of mine said: “What really gives you away is your nervous search for things that give you away.”

This turned out to be more right than I thought. The secret to passing was, banal as it sounds, that there was no secret.

Sure, fellow transpeople recognized me — but that was because they knew where to look. Otherwise, once I started going en femme in public — first cautiously and in a few select environments, then openly — I learned that “normal”, ordinary people have no reason to suspect anything in the first place. What surprised me were times when I was called “girl” by passers-by when not actively trying to pass — for example, when I wasn’t perfectly shaved, or wasn’t wearing a padded bra to hide my flat chest. The most awkward experiences have been the looks on the faces of shopkeepers and security guards when I handed them my male identity documents. “Whose are these? What? Yours?!”

So much for those depressed “I’ll never pass!” fears from three to four years ago.

I re-established my contacts with the local Linux User Group, which I previously avoided out of reluctance to come to them in male capacity. I discovered, together with my new friends, many interesting places in the city center, while I previously was reluctant to show myself in public. Gone were the days when I hadn’t cared about my body, to the point of not washing for weeks.

Yet it has all come at the cost of having to lie to my family, and I still do. Even though we no longer live together, they live close by and are suspicious of my every step. During summer, it got especially unbearable. Every time I headed downtown, I had to wear men’s clothes when walking out of home and bring a bag with women’s clothes to change into once I arrived — all out of fear of being recognized in my neighborhood.

The culmination to these efforts came in August, when, after several delays, I went on a trip to the country of my dreams — the Netherlands. Both to see the country itself, and to see someone dear to me. It was the first time in my life when I traveled somewhere alone, without my family, and my first trip to Europe. It felt relieving and empowering. I took off male clothes immediately after checking into the hotel and almost never put them back on before arriving back in the airport for departure.

It was a medium-sized hotel in the center of The Hague, right next to the Centraal Station. The Hague was, in many ways, the opposite of the stereotypes about Amsterdam (and the real Amsterdam, as I found out after visiting it): quiet, clean, almost idyllic with its parks and forests, often right next to busy city streets. The more time I spent there, the more fond I grew of this small, yet proud country.

The last two days of my vacation were spent in Cologne, around Gamescom in the city center, staying in a hotel in a suburb. In comparison to the Netherlands, Germany didn’t have such an effect, though it may be because I visited it second. It felt too ordinary, too familiar — like Russia, but better; what Russia should have been.

My companion went to Gamescom — the very reason of our arrival there — while I quickly realized that I had nothing to do there. Not really being a gamer, and unable to socialize there, I wandered aimlessly for about an hour, depressed, before walking out. I settled for seeing the city itself instead before it was my time to leave the next morning, specifically the Cathedral and a boat trip along the Rhine.

I didn’t want to go back to Russia.

I really didn’t.

My stay in Europe was the high point of the whole year. I would have stayed there forever, if I could. The trip only confirmed the preconceptions I heard before leaving: that I had more in common with the European mindset than Russian, that Russia did everything backwards, mindlessly borrowing pieces of European culture in letter only, without understanding the spirit, the history and reason behind them.

I don’t really hate Russia, but I don’t consider myself Russian anymore. And after coming back, I sank back into apathy, even submerging myself in WoW and isolating myself from the life outside. Only in the last month I recovered somewhat, partially thanks to my friends from the club.

I enter 2013 with mixed thoughts.

On one hand, I feel more alive and confident in myself than I ever was in my whole life.

On the other hand, I’m full of doubt in everything else. Doubt in my ability to successfully complete my transition, to fully embrace my new identity, legally. Doubt in my ability to completely break away from my parents. To find a new life outside Russia, as it is falling down its pit of insanity, before life here gets completely unbearable for everyone with a shred of rational thought.

Can I do that? I don’t know. These things ahead of me lie so far outside my comfort zone I don’t even know where to begin, or in what order to approach them. And this is how I enter the new year: with fear, uncertainty and doubt… but also hope. If not for the country (I almost don’t care about it anymore), then at least for myself…

Two Kinds of Tolerance

Today I got linked this article on #geekfeminism. (Trigger warning for extreme transphobia.)

What’s upsetting is not the article itself, but the number of positive comments. Are bigoted, misguided points of view like that what most people actually believe? Is this what they secretly want to say, but are restrained by social pressure “not to be offensive”, and are only waiting for someone with a strong voice to speak it out loud before jumping on the bandwagon with relief?

From my experience, what we call “tolerance” actually refers to two distinct and mutually exclusive beliefs:

  1. “I believe that group X genuinely deserves respect.”
  2. “I believe that group X is a blight upon humanity, but there could be repercussions if I said that out loud, so I better stay silent and pretend I don’t mind them.”

Are most people claiming to be tolerant in fact stuck in mode #2? Maybe I’d be better off not finding out. Wait, I can’t afford to say that. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.

Edit: Danni also makes a distinction between people who genuinely embrace diversity and those who are “okay with weirdoes as long as it’s clear that they’re weird” (where “weirdoes” are often arbitrarily defined under the True Scotsman definition of “people who don’t act like I do”). Insightful, I think.

Toilet Practices, Redux

I’ve written about this before. What prompted this entry was Mackenzie’s welcome news about a switch to unisex rooms.

Some things have changed since my earlier post. For one, I’ve actually used ladies’ rooms a few times now – covertly, taking care not to be seen. Really, I didn’t notice much difference, except that the one at my current workplace has more hygiene products and some funny messages on walls about not clogging it with food residue and used paper. Well, that, and I always sit down. Strictly speaking, I don’t have to, but “when in Rome…”

What particularly bugs me about the Russian toilet segregation practices is that in many buildings, especially Soviet legacy ones, not only are the two rooms completely identical, but also, each is designed for a single occupant. In our local shopping center, both rooms are overseen by an old lady who sits by a table in front of them charging for use. Simply removing the gender labels would lose absolutely nothing – it wouldn’t even introduce the danger of being seen or inappropriately touched – but would increase throughput.

What’s. The. Point?

Sheer power of tradition, maybe? The dentist clinic here only has one small room, with a single toilet. Yet there are still “male” and “female” pointer signs on the wall, except they both point to that single room. Convenience? Inertia? I don’t get it.

The Self-Reinforcing Binary

The late 20th – early 21st century have been rich with various concepts beginning with “post-“. Postindustrial society, postmodernism, post-theism, postgenderism, posthumanism… The opinions on these, as well as the larger trends behind them all, are of course divided, but if anything, this only illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

I think that what happened is that as the barriers of communication fell down, as we learned more about different cultures and lifestyles, so did we realize that many social concepts formerly thought of as absolute and rigid actually weren’t. It will take another generation, or perhaps more than one, just to process this very idea to its fullest. We have come to realize that concepts and ideas, real or fictional, live in the historical and cultural context of their creators, and can only be fully understood in a relative rather than absolute way. No matter how many times literary critics say “death of the author”, you can’t abstract away from the fact that George Orwell had the political trends of early-to-mid-20th century in mind when he wrote 1984, or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs influenced the cosmology and tone of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, “it has always been that way”, is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to “God decrees so”. Even if the God you believe in tells you that someone will go to Hell for the terrible, terrible moral crime of enjoying sex without the intent of procreation, it’s not your business to try and “save” them. Just act yourself the way your beliefs dictate. Hence the “post-“: not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of outgrowing. A post-theistic society is not an atheistic society, but merely one that got over theism, a society where religion is a matter of personal choice rather than a shaping force in politics.

And yes, I realize that my own writing is influenced by my atheist bias, conscious and unconscious. While I cannot fully abstract from them, I can be made aware of them; let the unconscious become conscious.

So how does it all relate to the gender binary? Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes. A good example to illustrate the problem is the origin of the Russian word for bear, “medved'”. It literally meant “honey eater” in Old Slavic and was originally created as a euphemism, because the real name of the animal was taboo. However, over time, this fact was forgotten and “medved'” became the only known name, and thus itself considered something to be avoided by superstitious hunters.

Religious fundamentalists take the words of their prophets and saints dropped here and there throughout their lives, often out of context, and declare them absolute, immutable truth. Proponents of the gender binary take emergent prejudices that shaped themselves due to a combination of circumstances, sometimes mind-bogglingly arbitrary, and declare them gospel. In any case, we are faced with codification, with social expectations and taboos shaped by minutae.

It’s like if a fictional character had their complexity stripped away and become defined by a single trait based on something they vaguely did in that one episode. Oh wait.

What originally prompted this post was a paragraph I saw while reading Andrew Rilstone commentary on some common themes and tropes in fiction, namely, the points made by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (itself subjected to gospelization: while Campbell himself was only writing about common themes in a distinct kind of stories, some of his followers went so far as to claim that the structure he pointed out was inherent in every story ever written). After a series of posts making logical arguments, the latest of which contrasted stories where the hero returned home with a boon from the travels with stories where the hero reached their destination and stayed there, when I kept going “Yes, yes, that’s exactly it!”, I suddenly stumbled upon this non sequitur.

When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences — was dangerously “phallocentric”. But one does take the point that boys’ stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls’ stories like Middlemarch really don’t. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.

For a minute, I just blinked at the text in silence, trying to make any sense out of it. Wikipedia defines a truism as “a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical or literary device”. In other words, the author took this piece of essentialist drivel for granted so much that he assumed everyone else shared it.

Which made me think: what, exactly, causes people to assign concepts to genders in such an utterly arbitrary fashion? The answer, I believe, lies in the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the gender binary. The human society, we are taught from infancy, consists of men and women. We know – some of us, anyway – that it’s merely an approximation in the same sense that Newtonian physics are an approximation of relativistic physics and the real world, one that is valid for most everyday uses but fails when we broaden the horizons of our knowledge. But the idea is tempting. After all, ideas, as Christopher Nolan helpfully points out, are the most persistent kind of infection known to humanity.

And as such, when we encounter a new kind of idea (in this case, a binary), it is tempting to explain it in the concept of another binary we know, even if the analogy makes no sense. The actual mapping is often hard to explain rationally. Ancient paganists knew about the day/night binary and their corresponding celestial bodies. As such, in many mythologies over the world, the gods or personifications of the Sun and the Moon are of different genders, but it varies which is which. On one hand, we have Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis; on the other, Sól and Máni, who no doubt inflienced Tolkien’s Arien and Tilion.

Sometimes, it’s not random. The earliest known examples of gender roles in prehistoric tribes, and such basic dichotomies as hard/soft, strong/weak, big/small, outward/inward, are probably influenced by real physical differences. From there, it kept fracturing, expanding since then. Perhaps many concepts declared “masculine” or “feminine” were not assigned randomly, but based on associations with existing concepts already sorted into the binary. The gender binary was not static, but, as geekfeminism.org pointed out, a fractal with internalized sexism (for example, while science itself is considered a “masculine” career, there are individual sciences perceived as predominantly masculine or feminine, etc.; even feminism itself could have contributed to such perceptions, if the “hairy-legged man-hater” stereotype is any indication). And not just a static fractal, but an ever-expanding, path-dependent chain of associations that solidified over time; what might first have been a helpful rhetorical device became unquestionable taboo.

What can be done to break this pattern? Feminism contributes to the reverse process of conflation, of removing gender association stigma from logically unrelated concepts. But a true breakdown of the binary, I believe, will only happen when people en masse change their fundamental patterns of thought, and cast off or at least become aware of implicit assumptions underlying their arguments and actions. It is in the nature of the human mind to think in opposites, but the process of exposing the context can move the mental opposites from socially harmful areas and place more focus on, say, personal beliefs, ethics, and political ideologies – ideas that people choose to accept instead of being assigned to them by virtue of birth. And then, perhaps, we can outgrow the labeling of just about everything as masculine or feminine; in other words, walk into a post-binary world.

Land Ho!

Okay, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing here. Yet. Especially given that I already have a self-hosted blog. But I like it here. No wonder Dreamwidth has a “girly” reputation, with a color scheme like this.

This place is probably where I’m going to move gender-related posts, since I assume the general audience has no interest in them. If I even have an audience, that is.

Maybe — again, maybe — this is where my original fiction may appear. Haven’t decided yet where it would be appropriate.

Before deleting my LiveJournal account, in Russian, I quickly scanned through my old posts, from 2006 and earlier. Apart from an excited post over my first impressions with Ubuntu 5.10, there wasn’t really much worth keeping. I find it interesting that it was in late 2006 when I first posted a comment about hating my body. That feeling was always there, it intensified over time, and only two years after that post did I finally understand why.

By the way, the Dreamwidth favicon bears an uncanny resemblance to the Debian logo…