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  • Writer's pictureMetta

Trans Ancestors

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

One of the things I have to highlight when talking about ancestors, is my trans ancestors. And my gender variant and gender non-conforming ancestors. Intersex ancestors. We have existed as long as there have been humans. It’s a gender galaxy, a vast gender galaxy. The construct of the binary is another piece of the systems of domination we are existing in right now, creating rigid lines and definitions of what is possible as a human.

I’ve been watching as politicians are vilifying and attacking trans people and non-gender-conforming individuals and this includes drag performers. It’s been horrific. It brings back very real tragedy and pain around the aloneness I had as a teenager. And the thing I’ve needed to remind myself of as some very old parts of me get activated and start expressing the pain they experienced - is that my trans ancestors are here with me. My non-gender-conforming ancestors are here with me. And they LIVED and were vibrant. They have been spiritual leaders, like in the tradition of Māhū for the Hawaiian people. People like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera and Stormé De Laverie. The list goes on and on in history, of our existence and contribution, including Joan of Arc. Stories of triumph, and of struggle, and of EXISTING and thriving.

There was very little access for me to gender-variant culture while I was growing up. I’d say the major way I could access it was MTV. There was not much in terms of movies or other media or books. (Note to those trying to censor queer and trans media: it doesn’t stop us from becoming who we are, it just makes life more miserable and isolated for those of us becoming who we really are - it’s not the books or media that make us, we EXIST) I can think of some movies where gender there were variant people, they were very often cast in some way as villains - and in this respect horrifically the focus was mostly on femme transgender people. There is a powerful documentary Disclosure that really goes into this in detail The few notable movie exceptions for me that stick in my mind are a movie where a cis-gendered female high schooler dressed as a cis-gendered guy to go undercover, a Disney movie with a cis-gendered girl who travels around dressed as a boy, Labyrinth with David Bowie being the Elf King (and might I add, resplendent and dazzling), Yentl, and Victor Victoria. But even in the movies that were giving me some clues to what was going on inside myself, there were still narratives that were forced into these movies to make sure that there was no mistake. To make sure that overall norms around gender and sexuality were upheld. Although, as a side note, I have to say, as a kid, Victor Victoria showed me that there was something out there called cabaret and that gay people were out there, even though I didn’t really understand what it meant at the time. It was another clue. But even in Victor Victoria there are these strange points where they draw it back, to make sure the main narratives uphold the status quo.

In contrast, in MTV-land there was no need to fix the narrative. They weren’t making sure that when the video was over, I would know that baseline norms around gender and sexuality were upheld. Annie Lennox in a pinstripe suit. Prince in heels and a lace cravat. Freddie Mercury, just being Freddie Mercury. Something about the energy of David Bowie, even though he was not in the Ziggie Stardust stage by the time of MTV videos - there was still just something THERE that I couldn’t put my finger on but fascinated me and spoke to me. Like it was so close, what the voices inside were trying to say, and I just couldn’t quite reach it. It was nearby though, tantalizingly nearby, when I saw some those artists in videos, and also on album covers.

There was not much else as I grew up. Occasionally I would stumble across an article about someone who had lived their life as a man, and they were not discovered until they had died. The articles were cruel. Deadnaming, using the wrong gender pronouns. The story of Brandon Teena came out while I was still pretty young and I remember crumbling inside, the story was devastating and it scared something within me. It was more than just being devastated by the harm that had come to him. I remember later when a movie was made about Brandon’s life, and straight friends of mine going off to see the movie and it just felt wrong. The dramatization of someone’s life, by cis-gendered straight people. It didn’t feel like it was about waking people up to anything, or promoting understanding. It just seemed voyeuristic. It was more of the pile of stories I knew of trauma for trans people. Mostly it just sent more parts of me into hiding. A couple of years ago I did some mourning for Brandon Teena, finally processing and allowing feelings to flow around what happened, and calling them in as one of my ancestors.

In college, I saw Paris is Burning. The movie mesmerized me. It was speaking to me about gender variance, and transgender lives. Again there was something more. It was still tough for me, I was confused. I wasn’t a transgender woman. I wasn’t Black and/or Latinx living in New York City and a part of the ballroom scene. There was no house for me. But I saw something there - again it was this tug, this pull, this energy inside that got louder than a whisper. From the range of gender expression I saw, to people living in ferocious truth, to the first talk I had heard of hormones and gender-affirming surgery, to how trans and gender non-conforming people support each other and become family. I did continue on with more lost years beyond seeing that movie - but the movie did continue to really push at the emotional boulders within and it has stuck with me since then. And I revere these ancestors as many of those in the film moved on to the ancestor realm. I give funds to organizations supporting Black trans-femmes, including organizations that help get folks out of dangerous incarceration - because it’s not enough to only revere the importance of Black trans-femme existence.

A few years ago I had gotten to a place in my life where I realized I was shutting down more and more of it. I had watched Queer Eye and there was something about the people they were helping, the way that many of those people had shut down. My life had plenty of trappings that made it seem like that wasn’t happening, that somehow I was still growing, but I knew inside it was happening. My world was getting smaller and smaller so I could contain it. And I also saw Jonathan Van Ness (JVN), and I was floored. Senses inside went off again that this was important in a way I could not articulate, something about JVN’s gender expression. (Side note - I also fell in love with Tan France, because wow). My therapist at the time could tell I was struggling and couldn’t really explain it either - she said there was something that was just stuck, unmovable. And I agreed. And yet I couldn’t figure it out.

I was spending more time around trans folx, through a LGBTIQ+ meditation group I was in. I started seeing people physically transition. I heard their stories. I realized it was a way more varied and nuanced landscape than very few documentaries on trans-people I had seen since Paris is Burning. I started learning about ways of physically transitioning, and also how being transgender was what was inside. Physical transitioning was about affirmation, about becoming more yourself, not about meeting societal norms (unless that is what you are being called to do, in what would be affirming) - and that some sort of physical transition wasn’t even necessary to be trans.

And there are folks younger than me that I call my “forward” ancestors. That have shown me what is possible for myself in my gender expression. That have been really open about gender affirming care, and what that can look like. Open about what possibilities exist.

I started watching Drag Race. I don’t remember exactly why I started, other than enjoying Drag performances. But it was the behind-the-scenes moments, the discussions between queens as well as interviews, that were so critical for me. All of the myriad of ways contestants discussed their varying gender identities. The ways they had lost and gained community and family. The way they SPARKLED and glowed even with whatever they had experienced. The things they had wanted to much, craved, growing up that many of them didn’t have access to because of gender-rules. Intersectionality was there too across performers. I watched episode after episode. And still, when I’m struggling I can watch those shows and feel healing. It’s not that things are all perfect, that these shows get it all “right”, there can be missteps on many fronts. But the important thing is I have this regular way to see and experience gorgeous humans living their truth and enjoying themselves and shining. It’s like they are my “right now” ancestors. I am able to see global expressions of gender variance, and consistently it can move things within me that are stuck in my ungoing unfolding as a trans person.

When I was in high school the cis-gendered boys were really into the band Queen. They were obsessed with it. I didn’t know at the time, but Freddie Mercury was MY people. Not theirs. His music is of course for anyone who wants to enjoy it. But they didn’t get to have MY iocn. I have reclaimed my icon. Those cis-gendered guys were violent, had all the power, could pretty much behave any way they wanted. I had no protection in that environment. But I can reclaim my people, my very real history, my ancestry of gender non-conformting people. I am a part of my people. (By the way, the plot of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody is garbage, Freddie Mercury lived a fulfilled pride and joy and sex-filled life, they changed all sorts of facts, and Freddie said pretty much near his death “I’ve had a great life”).

Not long ago I was watching Drag Race, watching a performer, and I heard the beginning of a song. There is a way that song starts down low, and then begins to dramatically lift off. It is classic Queen with incredible musical theatrics - drama pouring out as the song begins. And then the lyric begins, with Freddie’s incredible voice… “I want to break free”. Even writing these words, they don’t do it justice, the way he sings those words with incredible power. “I want to break free”. Each word clear and powerful. And the drag performer, she stood up and was in such a posture of power. She was all the genders in her performance.

First I saw this performance on Drag Race. And then I got to see her perform this live at the club Oasis in San Francisco. Every time I think of the performance it gives me chills. It digs deep into some really hurt parts of me and screams for freedom, and sends healing in.

I’ve seen other incredible world-renowned drag performers at Oasis - and I have deeply appreciated the performers AND every time they have helped continue to move along the parts of me that have been very slowly going through this process. Continuing to whisper messages of joy, power, resistance, flourishing, resplendence, and creativity.

I’ve watched all 15 seasons of Drag Race, as well as all of the other global Drag Race shows and spinoffs across the world. No wonder some people see it at a threat. The freedom, the drag families, the transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, queerness of it all is incredible. It’s like it talks to parts of me that are really shut down and still hurting all the time, I see stories I understand. It tells me over and over I’m not alone. It tells me over and over that this is real, all of these things I experienced were really really real and my gender is real. It’s stepping away from the gaslighting I experienced, the continual attack on what I KNOW. My own knowing. While I now have many many ways to access community, connection, affirmation, of who I am, when I’m having my hardest time, Drag culture saves me. Drag culture drops me a lifeline, pulls me out of the deep end. Talks to parts of me deep inside that still struggle. Connects me with all of my trans and gender non-conforming ancestors, and to our thriving right now.

No wonder there are those that want to stop this content, want to remove it from any opportunity to experience it. There are lots of deeper analyses important here that I’m not delving into. Because this writing here is the story of me finding my trans history, ancestors, and people. But I see how there are others that want to erase that. Who also want to erase truth and history about the United States, especially the impact on the lives of Black and Indigenous folks. And this isn’t even bringing in intersectionality, and the deep resounding impact of multiple oppressions.

I’m becoming more and more aware of transgender history, not just over the past 100 years, the transgender history in which we have ALWAYS existed. Across the Earth. Transgender, gender non-conforming, two-spirit, non-binary, and every other possible facet of the gender-galaxy, we have always existed. We have often had important parts of culture, in spiritual and other kinds of leadership, such as the role of Māhū in Hawaiian culture. Threads in the fabric of everything. And my trans ancestors don't want me to just survive, they want me to thrive.

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