This poem, written and performed by a Stanford student, makes use of the word “transnational” in an unexpected way. The poet presents a multifaceted exploration of identity through his own experience as a young transgender man of color. He describes the process of becoming a man as a dual struggle. There has been debate in the trans community (as mentioned in last week’s New York Times Magazine piece about Wellesley College) about whether or not trans men—especially white trans men—can contribute to patriarchy. This question, and the white man’s historical role as a colonizer and oppressor, makes him consider whether coming to terms with his identity alienates him from women in his community and from his own culture.

He argues that becoming a man does not necessarily entail aligning oneself with the group that has always held the balance of power: “There are ways of being a man that do not involve being a white man.” He also describes the classic second-generation difficulty of taking advantage of a modern, permissive American culture while maintaining a connection to the nation of his mother and grandmother. He comes to the conclusion that it is possible to unite the two, and that the most important thing is that he is honest with himself and does not lose touch with the feminine values with which he was raised.

I found this to be a touching and topical piece: while the world is becoming more open to a spectrum of gender identities, trans people still spend their lives being told they are not “real” men/women, and white members of the LGBTQ+ community are often accused of ignoring or drowning out the voices of their POC counterparts. I’d be interested to hear others’ perspectives on the transnational concepts that are at work in this poem.

Sophie Downes

(The text of the poem is below.)

When I tell my mother
how long I’ve been sitting
in the shiftiness of a female body,
she cries
a million different kinds of monsoon tears.
She tells me about
the white men who colonized her country,
her nightmares.
her mother’s sari soaked in saltwater,
the traumas she screams about
this is what I remember
when I talk to white trans men
and witness the million different ways
they take up space
in my community,
and speak for trans women of color,
and treat femmes as arm candy,
and do not own their position as white men.

what I mean is
did you think the M in FTM stood for misogyny?
What I mean is
what about your female socialization
do you think affords you a free pass to patriarchy?
What I mean is
I understand your bodies have not always been yours
but they have always been beautiful,
you have always had words for them.

My testosterone is made by Israel’s largest company.
There is colonization running through my bloodstream
Every time I take a shot
my muscles feel out of place for several days.
But there is some perverse satisfaction in this,
that even in my body
masculinity takes up too much space.

Mom, you’re right.
this is a painful process.
It is violence.
It is scarring.

But I’m trying to believe in something greater:
that there are ways of being a man
that do not involve being a white man.

When I tell my grandmother
that I’m ready to be honest with my body,
she says,
ok, make sure to call me more often,
and I’m sending you a drum set.
For days I have no idea what she means
but then I realize
in India only boys ever play the drums,
and what my grandmother means is
there are ways of being a man
that do not involve being an American man,
that you can still play your music with us,
that I do not have words for this process of your becoming
but I will work around it with art and love.

Grandmother, mom,
there is a way to do this ethically.
I will build some other, new-old kind of masculinity.
I will not worry about the words for it in English.
I will honor the mothers in my history,
the goddess in my name,
I will play the drums for you.

One thought on “trans/national”

  1. Wow. This is amazing. I find so much of this poem powerful, especially the lines:
    that there are ways of being a man
    that do not involve being a white man.

    I’ve never really thought about the ways that national identity and gender identity feed into and play into one another, but it makes sense. Gender identity is not a “white” concept but there are certainly white concepts of what it means to be a man or a woman. I can only imagine the struggle of trying to reconcile being a trans man in a white community without trying to be a white man.


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