“I am moved by the geography in this piece. Not just the geography of a landscape — also the geography of body, of gender, of family. The speaker enters with high stakes and manages to traverse the entire narrative with the stakes remaining high, emotional, and at times painful. “When I’m pressed, I go with boy: a category that can’t last forever” is the line that sat on my skin well after my reading of this piece was done. A firm and nuanced consideration of boyhood, manhood, mothers, and the bright and complicated intersection of all those things.” — Nonfiction judge Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
The Best Lighting for My Body
Was at the White Horse Inn and Bar, Oakland, California
Tony Wei Ling
from BWR 44.2
It takes an act of imagination to see my body as a man’s body. The mirror shows me something that convention makes feminine: breasts between broad shoulders, nothing hanging between my legs. I jump to watch my body fat bounce, square my shoulders. In a harsher light, like that of a public bathroom, my features cast sharper shadows and become, supernaturally, that of a man’s. Good superpower. I have a thick and protruding brow, like a handsome caveman, or his mother; it becomes pronounced under overhead lights. But in my own apartment, with the morning coming in soft through the fogged window, my fat glows warm and feminine, baby-like.
A change in lighting changes my body and the ways I can reach it. Is there a natural voice, a natural pitch or accent? My voice shifts with the people I’m talking to, as my body shifts when people address it. When I address it, kindly or unkindly, in the bathroom mirror. There are both fake and authentic ways to do change one’s voice; you might take on the accent of your family while you’re talking to them, or remove an accent entirely for professional opportunity.
My body changes pitch when it changes rooms or changes company. In the bathroom of the White Horse, I felt my body as a looser grip. My loved ones sang the greatest hits of the Nineties and through the thin walls, alone, I recognized the rarity of that.
My body feels tight and unfitting when I am around people who read it strictly and carelessly as a woman’s. This means my family. This means a public that feels dangerous. If my body is a text, it’s one I want to be able to write fan theories about, but the intimacy of sharing such a silly truth like that means that my body’s best interpretations are ones I can only share with someone willing to indulge me.
“Would you allow a person to cut off their arm?” my mother asked years ago, rhetorically. The argument went that trans women were like those sick people who wanted to cut off their own limbs. The argument didn’t mention me. By that token, I wondered, would bottom surgery towards a dick be like getting a third arm? That kind of body modification scares my mother like it scares most parents, but a cock is more symbolically grounding to identity than a clit.
My mother is not willing to indulge me, even to play devil’s advocate with me as devil. She’s not hard-headed exactly, in the sense that she’ll get worn down by my arguing and seem to acknowledge a point, then surge back a moment later with a cliche about childbirth, menstruation. “And why,” she asks, “Why do you want to be a man?“
I have never wanted to be a man, and I still don’t. Masculinity is a feeling. Maleness is a reading. And manhood is something else altogether, a fraught and gross adulthood. When I’m pressed, I go with boy: a category that can’t last forever, given that I’ll eventually get wrinkled and jowled, but that feels more vibrant for that reason. I am entering the golden age of a second puberty. But that’s not what she’s asking–she’s asking why I feel the need to make explicit what I feel in the bathroom, or at a pool party, or anytime someone calls me “she.”
If a person’s sex is a collection of internal and external features, then their gender is a collection of moments. And a gender identity is an attempt to account for the disparities of those moments, the differences, the discomforts. I say: I feel like a boy. I am asking that others, and myself, take that feeling seriously—a feeling that plenty of people across the US and the world consider frivolous, as well as delusional. A feeling that sometimes feels frivolous if not delusional to myself.
In the middle of a heat wave, a few summers ago, myself and two trans beloveds ran a cool bath and crammed ourselves in together. It was just a regular sized tub, and fitting all of us in meant contorting and sliding around ridiculously. I don’t remember what the three of us talked about; none of it was important, or heavy, or even explicitly tender, I don’t think. So it was a good evening, spent hanging our legs outside the tub or stretching them over the length of it, clowning around over each other’s bodies. The porcelain surface got velvet-soft with the skin we scrubbed off, which stuck to the sides, settled to the bottom, and made a yellow line at the level of lapping gray water.
Everything that should have been nasty, or embarrassing, wasn’t. That collection of atomized skin. My pubic hair sticking to someone’s thigh. My belly, my breasts, squelching in the dirty water.
As for boyhood, I think mine started here. I can’t describe that bath as either cleansing or dirtying, as either constrained by or free of gender attributions. No moment in which you’re aware of your body is ever totally scrubbed of gender, and no moment is ever muddled enough to destroy it. But the fluorescent tube lights of that apartment bathroom, unflattering, yellowing, still made us beautiful, and the way we looked at each other is the way I’d like to be able to look at myself.
Since starting testosterone three months ago, not much about me has wholly changed. My gender is “fluid,” as people used to say, but this rarely means that my gender is gentle with me.
That said, there is plenty to take joy in. Coming up on my twenty-third birthday, having been on a light testosterone prescription for just the length of this summer, I’m enjoying the gentle application method of the clear gel under my arms each morning. It dries and dissolves into me, but if I wet my hands again, they become sticky.
This time around, I am enjoying the childishness and awkwardness of a changing body the way no one can the first time. This time puberty is funny to me and no one else. I take in every strange and subtle change to my body with paranoid delight — were my shoulders always this broad? I love them. Were my pits always this lush with hair? I love them, too. I’ve reversed time; I’m re-doing adolescence; I’m languishing there. I want to stay in its light, like I wanted to stay in the dim light of the White Horse bathroom.
Some academic, I forget who, wrote that close reading is itself a performance, a way of showing off how well you can take a passage apart and see its components in their dissonance. Magician revealing the rabbit in the hat. A close reading of my body is me showing off how close I can be to my body.
Franz Fanon ended his book with a prayer: Oh, my body, make of me always a man who questions!If I take any man’s prayer, I’ll take his, the man who knows how it is to fall apart at another’s stare.
“What’s up with _____?” My aunt asked after me, in my absence. She related this to me later, on a tourist trek across the Golden Gate.
“Oh, ______. That’s a long story,” said my father. I imagine his face tight and uncomfortable, his body tight and uncomfortable. Even though I haven’t spoken to him in years, I know what his embarrassed expression looks like, because he wears it most times we come face-to-face at family events. It’s red, expressionless, and funny. He’s easily embarrassed by references to me, and his embarrassment is sometimes expressed as anger.
My mother could have asked me: Why don’t you want to be a man? I wish she had asked me that, so that I could have pointed to my answer on her finger.
Tony Wei Ling is a fanfiction enthusiast living with his partners in Los Angeles. He studies contemporary literature, new media, and comics at UCLA, and is a fiction editor at Nat.Brut.