P. Carl, the spring Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton University, is a theater producer and dramaturg, the founder of the online journal HowlRound, and has published work in the New York Times Magazine. Recently the Boston-based writer published his first book, “Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” (Simon & Schuster). The book is the story of his personal journey from his life as a girl to the man he longed to be.
P. Carl’s scheduled talk at Labyrinth Books was canceled along with numerous other coronavirus-related cancellations and closures. Therefore we are providing him the space to share some of his thoughts in the following excerpt:
Trans people who have chosen to change sexes often describe the desire as “an irresistible longing” or “an irrepressible drive” to live and be seen as the other sex. I see this drive in trans-masculine men on social media. Though my guess is many identify as queer, and they are definitely out as trans, they go into funks of deadly depression when misgendered. Why does their queerness, my queerness, need the certainty of language, of specific pronouns, to feel seen?
(My wife) and I were out to dinner to celebrate her birthday just a few weeks before I would no longer be misgendered. I had a wispy beard and mustache. A lesbian couple next to us struck up a conversation, “Have you ladies been here before? What do you recommend?” They talk and talked. I sat quietly, frozen at “ladies.” “Can we exchange information? We need more lesbian friends!” On the way out of the restaurant we ran into someone I know professionally who called me by my old name and then as we were walking to our car, bundled in winter gear, a man passed us, saying “You ladies have fun tonight!” By the time I was behind the steering wheel, I didn’t want to keep living, and my wife was pissed that her birthday was ruined by my gender trouble.
What is the language for this felt sense of always knowing the pronoun “she” was wrong? Why, as someone who knows in every part of my overeducated brain that gender is not a binary, that we all contain various levels of masculinity and femininity in both our biology and our expression, could I never acculturate to the feeling of being a woman, a butch, a masculine woman, agender, fluid, nonbinary? I saw an image of a hyperfeminized woman on Twitter exclaim, “I’m fluid as fuck.” I believed her. It’s not visible in her photo, but I believe what she says she feels. But why could I never say the word lesbian to describe my relationship? Why could I not allow a thread of women’s clothing to touch my skin for the last 25 years, until I felt old enough to say “No more”? Why could this body not roll with anything the culture had to offer until it rolled into manhood without a stutter or a stumble? What is this experience called? Is a felt sense of knowing spiritual? Or do we not yet understand enough about how bodies and gender and identity work?
“Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” by P. Carl. Published by Simon & Schuster, $26. Visit Labyrinth Books at www.labyrinthbooks.com or call 609-497-1600. The store is offering free shipping on orders within the continental U.S.