I used not to be able to imagine myself in the future. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just imagined the then-tiny version of myself in a tiny costume of a fireman or being a small version of a tree.When I grew older, and the concept of the future became clearer, I realized I still found it hard to visualize. I could see others in it, imagine my mother growing older, or lovers at the time ageing, yet when I pictured myself I still could not see anything. I’d often copy and paste whatever I looked like in that moment on to the idea of myself when I was fifty or sixty. So, if I was talking about having kids when I was forty, I would picture the current version of myself with children around me.
I remember one time I was in bed with a partner, one of the ones who asked me what I wanted to call my ______, and our hearts were beating in that tempo often found after sex: slow but charged, vulnerable yet playful. They asked me, ‘What do you want to look like when you are older? I think you will have Gillian Anderson energy.’ I reminded them I am Black, and that Gillian Anderson is sexy but very much white-woman vibes. But then I paused. I realized I could not picture myself. I couldn’t see a version of myself ageing.
It has always bothered me, not being able to visualize what I may look like in the future. Knowing I so desperately want to be there, but not knowing how I want to be physically. Hoping that by then we have found a way to evaporate into genderless blobs of our energy, talking to each other without ever being perceived. Sometimes I make jokes to my friends, when we talk about the future. I say, ‘Oh well, by then I’ll have my titties,’ and we all nod and smile. Excited at my visions for myself. Yet I have been saying that joke for four years now, and I still feel exactly the same lack of excitement at the prospect of making that vision a reality. I could do it, sure, but it is not a vision that moves me.
Other times, I try and imagine myself forty years old, a beard around my face and a suit on. I’ve started working out loads and I’ve found a gay man who likes me for my fun and free personality but has stayed for the muscles and just-acceptable femininity. We are both campy gays who are proud faggots behind closed doors, and we met on Tinder, where you can’t hear the femininity in my voice anyway. Any time a sprinkle of my gender expression comes through, all my partner has to do is look at my physique, and he is reminded that we are safe enough to settle down. He looks happy; I can’t tell if I do. Because I cannot really see myself in the image. I cannot really imagine that image with all of my limbs still intact, or my voice still speaking. I feel I would have to run away somewhere new, start afresh, cut off contact with anyone that knew me, so no one could say, ‘We know this is not you, we know you are not happy’ — but at least then I would have safety. Some security. A break from harassment. Yet I am not sure any of that matters if I also do not have my voice.
My favourite daydream of myself in the future is when I see myself as Pete Burns, walking to get a can of Coke from the shops. I do not mean that I look like a version of Pete Burns, I mean that I literally am him. Pete Burns, may he rest in perfect peace, was an androgynous icon to me, yet to many his face was confusing. Heavy amounts of plastic surgery, razor-sharp eyebrows, and a still-harsh deep accent. Often, he said, ‘I’m just Pete,’ when asked questions about himself, as well as saying he was a man. Yet in my imagination, it is the ‘just Pete’ that sticks, in a way that our imagination sometimes wants to make things simpler for our own benefit. My version of him has him walking to the shops just screaming, ‘I’m Pete!’ to anyone who dares to challenge him.
I think it is the ‘just Pete’ of him that makes me daydream of being him. The way in which, through surgeries, cosmetic procedures and glam, he almost avoided the need to gender, instead forming another category within his body. The kind of image that makes saying, ‘You look like an alien,’ the largest compliment possible. I find it an admirable daydream. The perseverance, time and strength it takes to have work done to your body is not lost on me — even more so now that I spend most hours of the day thinking about it — and to land in a space where others do not know where to place you, yet in an intentional extreme of that, feels liberating. I daydream of having so much plastic surgery done to my face that none of my phones can recognize me. That all the laughs and heckles I received in the past on leaving the house would at least now make sense. It does not feel sad. Rather I hear myself saying, ‘Before you treated me like I was not human because I was gender non-conforming, well now look: I have spent all this money to appear like I am not from this planet — laugh all you want, because maybe now I am in on the joke.’ Something about it feels intentional. I imagine Pete Burns walking to the shop to get a can of Coke, and there is something in the image that feels like he has taken back control.
I just wish I could see my face in that imagination too. Or that I could stop imagining what I may look like in the future, and instead work to create it. To move out of this stagnant space that the gender binary and its violent consequences have left me in. To stop thinking and instead to feel. I have a feeling it is a product of sitting inside for almost a year, that when you are outside and living fully you do not have this much time to pathologize yourself— instead you are too busy doing. You have no time to wonder how something may be viewed, because you are too busy fighting for your right to do it.
Well, maybe that is it. I need to remember the doing within my transness. How, in my opinion, I was only trans when the world and you started doing things in reaction to me. That my transness was a choice I made so I could live more honestly, and like that movement and power, I now have the choice to do what I wish. I cannot control what others may read me as, nor can I control how others may treat me, but I do have control over what I do. And I can make the choices that will leave me feeling like I can find a version of myself within them. So that my face is not a pixelated vision.
The way the world punishes gender non-conformity is one of our greatest losses. If the gender binary was not so painfully dictated to us, and we allowed people to own their gender more freely, we would have so much more life. It is impossible to navigate this world as visibly gender non-conforming and not to carry scars, for the weight of all the memories of things said and done to you not to stick to your skin. Impossible not to feel how your body has been given to gender violence and the fight you undertake to claim it back. But when I think of my friend saying, ‘This is for us,’ despite all the knowledge of how the world strips us of our agency, it reminds me that it will all be in vain if I also let them take my choice. If in all of this, I allow them to strip me of my declaration of self.
I do not know what I will look like in ten years. Even if I decided now what I wanted to do with my body, I still would not know. Surgery and hormones are not magic wands, they are unpredictable and changeable. What I do know is that I do not want to be led by fear, or by sacrifice, or by others’ projections on to me. I want to be led by my desire, my choices, and my ability to carve my own rules. Powered by seeing so many others create destinations on their bodies that are not dictated by them, I want to remain committed to forming myself in the way I wish—no matter the consequences.
I will not know the answer, because to know an answer about something as illogical as gender is an impossible task, but I do promise to do it for us, for myself, and not for them. ◊
Extract from None of the Above, published by Canongate in August 2022.