Ask Me Whether or Not I’m Trans
Like “Ranma ½,” my gender euphoria transcends the limits of masculine and feminine
This essay, by Addie Tsai, is the first in Electric Literature’s new limited essay series, Both/And, which centers the voices of trans and gender nonconforming writers of color. For the next fifteen weeks, on Thursday, EL will publish an installment of Both/And, with the series running through spring and into Pride Month. At a time when my community (the trans community) is a political target for the far-right, I am incredibly proud to have the opportunity to elevate the voices of those most marginalized—and most often silenced—in our community so that we can tell our own stories. Both/And is the first series of its kind, and you’re in for a treat: stories of invisibility and hypervisibility, sexy stories, dreams and love and grief. But what ties them together is the fearlessness and honesty with which they are told. And the volume—because when it comes to our lives, it’s time our voices be the loudest in the conversation.
—Denne Michele Norris, Editor-in-Chief
If you asked me whether or not I’m trans, I wouldn’t know how to answer. On certain days, I wake up, and feel, with absolute certainty, that I’m a trans-masculine person who also defies gender. I will say it aloud to myself, while rocking back and forth on the porch swing in front of my house. But then, I will feel a little twinkling whisper in my chest, that says, but wait, what am I, really? and I will stow that certainty away, until the next time.
Let’s start with my earliest understanding of gender.
My earliest understanding of gender was not the gender I was assigned at birth. It was not male. It was, as the joke goes, an indefinable third thing, a thing most don’t consider because the nature of my birth is only interesting to those who weren’t born similarly as a trope, a gag, a joke, a nightmare, a fantasy.
My earliest understanding of gender was twin.
I’ve said before, elsewhere, on multiple occasions, that my first queer relationship wasn’t romantic, but it was one which will always signify more strongly than any other relationship, that started before consciousness, before speech. Because when you are twinned, the very way you move through the world is always already impacted by being born as two. This next point is even more important: it doesn’t matter whether the viewer, you, perceive me as born twinned or not. It is the physical fact and condition of my birth that irrevocably impacts that navigation. And even though, thanks to therapy, I have finally achieved a healthy sense of individuation, and even though I do not share anything resembling the fantasy image of enmeshment that so many actual twins experience, I am always us and me, all at once. (The us being primary is the point, the shadow trailing behind me).
But it’s not only the physical fact of our twinhood that results in this deeply held identity. It is also the particular way that twins, especially in America, especially those assigned female at birth, are socialized to be seen and consumed as an amorphous two-bodied thing. We are fetishized. We are sexualized. We are mocked. We are watched. We are appropriated. We are feared. We are enfolded into fantasies. We are made object, which is slightly different but also not dissimilar from being objectified.
From the time that I was eight years old, it was clear that both my gender and sexual identity were perceived as twinned. In seventh grade biology, our classmate asked us if we had the same number of hairs “down there.” As teens, our father dressed us in identical dresses—dresses he kept in his closet and trotted out for us when it was time to be put on display like paper dolls. He would sit us on the sofa to be fetishized by his friends, whose language we did not speak. Mandarin swam in the waters around us as men stroked our arms and caressed our cheeks. As women cooed at us they requested, in English, that we sing songs whose words we could only parrot out of our mouths like the imitations of each other we were.
I suppose, in one way, something productive happened out of that gender assignment. The socialization of gender as twin was far more ideologically impactful than that of my assigned gender. And I always understood that the clothes we wore were a costume, and the gender ascribed to that costume clearly a performance. You could call it drag, but it was not very fun.
But, let’s go back. Because, of course, as we all are, I was also gendered from birth.
I came of age in a small suburb south of Houston in the late 1990s. Before YouTube and TikTok, Twitter and Facebook. Before AOL chat rooms. If people who lived in bodies outside of cishet gender norms did not exist in your proximity, and they did not dress their bodies in ways that announced their defiance of those norms, they did not exist. And if you were raised in an abusively strict and restrictive home by a single immigrant father, like I was, then your frame of reference was relegated to high school, the roller rink, your father’s friends’ children, and the television. And if the people you found on television, even the inaccessible celebrities, included Ellen Degeneres and characters depicted in The Birdcage, then you would also deduce that people like you—Asian, biracial, queer, and non-binary—either did not exist, or it was too dangerous to even try.
I wouldn’t fully come to terms with all of me, by which I mean my queerness, my non-binary-ness, my masc-of-center-ness, until exactly ten years ago. I learned of myself in stages. And, like many of us queer, genderfluid, weirdos (especially of color), especially those born between the cultural time periods of Gen X and Millennial, I would encourage my brain to travel back to the early days, before I knew anything, lingering on the moments that would reveal to me that I was always here.
I would remember that day in 7th grade dance P.E. class, during which we watched a film on the television/VCR on the AV cart that was wheeled into our classroom that introduced me to Mikhail Baryshnikov for the first time—a dream in white tights and ballet slippers, who pushed off the ground into a double tour and floated in the air for what seemed both finite and an eternity, a prince and a lion all rolled into one. I wanted to be what he embodied—both strength and grace, barrel turns that felt masculine but softened with delicate edges like my favorite blue twirling dress I received for my birthday one year that I loved spinning in just to see its silky bottom puff out like a bell and undulate like water ripples.
I would remember that sleepy Saturday as a teenager when I sat with my (white) elusive sparkling mother in a bedroom somewhere while she cleaned out her closet. I never got enough of her, because she almost never stopped long enough to spend time with us. While my brother and twin used the reprieve away from my father to join their friends, I sat in a dimly lit room with my mother and played with her silk scarves. She taught me how to tie them into neckties around my neck. Although she was confident that I was just playing with knots and silk, I felt a twinkling in my body that was something different, and something I would never truly reveal to her.
I would remember, also, the time I fell in love with my father’s briefcase, and foolishly believed I could play with it without his watchful eye discovering it. In the end, I became so infatuated with the sparkling gold coils of the locks that I jammed the combination. I knew he would discover it, quickly, and I knew that I would meet a punishment I couldn’t escape. I hid in the bathroom, making my body small enough to fit between the toilet and the under-the-sink cabinets, but I wouldn’t make my body small enough that day to free myself of his piercing voice, or his sharp hand colliding against my fragile skin. Would I have come to understand myself sooner if my father hadn’t corrected my gender euphoria? What would my story have become?
But what I remember most was a television character I interpreted as both doubled and living outside of the binary, someone who was both boy and girl, and somehow they were not only accepted and safe, but they were an Asian weirdo, just like me.
What I remember most is Ranma ½.
Written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi, Ranma ½ was initially serialized from 1987 to 1996. It centers on Ranma Saotome, a teenage boy trained in martial arts who, as a result of an accident in a cursed river during a training journey with his father, is “cursed” to become a girl when splashed with cold water.
What I remember most about Ranma was that they were not, as I had already experienced of being a twin, a trope or a gag, an object of mockery. We saw, in the body of one character, both boy and girl, and although Ranma’s friends and family would laugh as Ranma embodied their feminine form, hair wet and bust heaving against their tight shirt (anime, amiright?), a comically deflated expression on their dripping face, it was not the fact of their gender that was the gag.
It remains, even now, one of the closest parallels I can chart for a representation of both my style and my gender—the dualities of the masculine and feminine, in both dress and body, from the masculine martial arts gi with the long ponytail to the occasional female dress.
I didn’t always know what Ranma had done for me as a child with no community or understanding of queerness within my own limited environment. It became a part of me and I moved on, towards continuing to attempt to match what I was supposed to be. I wore heels and form-fitting dresses, garnering attention that made me feel squeamish, but I didn’t know why. I was supposed to feel honored that boys whistled, catcalled, told me that I’d be prettier if I smiled. I was supposed to like it when men salivated over my thick hourglass figure and curvy bottom. I was supposed to thank my lucky stars that I had a bottom most girls dreamt of. At the same time, I didn’t know how to explain to other trans, queer, and non-binary folks that I secretly loved my curves, as long as they didn’t have to mean what they meant for cis women. That it didn’t make me cis. As long as I got to choose who threw my body what attention. I smiled awkwardly while a burning sensation filled my chest when older women called my hips the ideal body type for child-rearing, or when gay men admired my perky nipples. Where was the water to turn me back to whatever it was I was supposed to be? Where was the cursed lake for me to throw myself into and pretend it was an accident so I could be the boy/girl I’d dreamed of?
We no longer live in a world where we’re relegated to the queer selves that are “obvious,” or the one or two pieces of media that show us who aren’t cis white gays who we could really be. We have the recent manga Boys Run the Riot, centering trans boys who start their own clothing brand. We have Fire Island, written by and starring Joel Kim Booster, centering Asian queer men. We have Conrad Ricamora. We have Leo Sheng. We have Bilal Baig. We have Hayley Kiyoko. In terms of queer Asian popular cultural representation, we still have a long way to go, but it’s a far cry from the 90s desert I navigated as a young person. Ranma 1/2, however, remains a magical text for me, in how it represents a character I connect to not only as a nonbinary and bigender Asian, but as one of the only characters in popular media I can think of that expresses the duality I navigate as both twin and individual, masculine and feminine. Ranma was the first to show me it would be okay not to pick one gender, but to embrace being all the genders, and just as Asian as me.
It would take almost two decades after my Ranma phase to understand and embody the lessons it taught me. Two decades to find my queer self, my non-binary selves, but most importantly, all the queer Black, Asian, and other POC loves that would cradle me as I slowly began to develop an outward aesthetic to match my twinned interior. My necktie with my ruffles. My skirt adorned with children’s drawings in primary colors, my Reading Rainbow t-shirt. My patterned bowtie and neon eyeliner. My denim jacket bedazzled with a hundred pins. My white renaissance ruff with my lace mesh confetti blouse with matching frilly cuffs.