CJ

New York City, NY

What are your pronouns?

I use basically any pronouns.

Where do you work and/or go to school?

I go to school at Barnard College, and I live in New York City. I’m an intern for the Poetry Society of New York and the Visible Poetry Project. The Poetry Society of New York was my first internship. I’ve been working there as an intern for over a year now. It’s a really cool organization. It’s really focused on disseminating and cultivating and prioritizing the works of people of color and lesser-known voices in the world of poetry. For example, the Poetry Society of New York also has a couple of subsidiary organizations within it, namely the Typewriter Project and the Poetry Brothel. The latter is really cool, it’s like the name suggests, basically like a brothel-style party, except instead of sex they sell poetry. So you can buy a poetry lap dance where people will be in burlesque and read poetry at you. It’s really interesting and really cool, and it’s a great way to get people to interact with the medium, because I think people have this notion of poetry being this totally inaccessible antiquated thing.

And then on that same token the Visible Poetry Project kind of has a similar goal. [They partner] filmmakers and poets, and every April for every single day of the month, which is National Poetry Month, they release a visual poem. Usually what that entails is, the partnerships, people will come together, they’ll read the poem, they’ll establish a vision for it, and then they will bring the poems to life. So you could hypothetically watch the poems with the sound off, and it’s in itself just a beautiful movie. With the sound on you get the poem being read aloud. It’s a really interesting concept, and likewise it’s really important to our organization that we focus on more marginalized voices. People of color, transgender individuals, queer individuals, because I think that these voices are less represented in the industry and in the medium altogether. So I’m really really grateful to have a place with both of those organizations.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests? What do you do for fun?

I think that the main thing I do for fun is cooking and baking probably. I guess by profession I’m a writer, and I do derive a great deal of joy from writing. Especially if I get to do it on my own terms and not for an assignment. But when I want to unwind at the end of the day, or even in the middle of the day, or even for breakfast, I find that cooking is really really cathartic. I love feeding people, I love cooking with friends. I’m a very tactile person. I love doing things with my hands. I feel like I’m always moving. So cooking is a really good way to satisfy my need for motion, and also you get to eat something delicious. And I think that’s really just the best of both worlds. I’m a vegan, so I really just enjoy experimenting with fruits and vegetables in interesting ways. I really just enjoy eating and food. I bake a lot of cakes, I bake a lot of cookies. In the winter I like to make a lot of stew.

How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?

So I have the privilege of going to a really progressive, liberal, open-minded school, and I sometimes feel like I’m in a bit of a bubble when I’m here. You know, I’ll tell people I’ll use any pronouns and I don’t get any batting of the eyes. People just accept it. I try to take mis-gendering and people not learning as quickly as I would like for them to learn – I try to take it with a grain of salt, I guess. Because I think for a lot of people pronouns and gender presentation, being transgender in general, is a relatively new issue. My parents – I mean I came out as trans to them probably over a year ago, maybe two years ago, and they’re still working on it, you know. They don’t always gender me or use my chosen name, and I think it depends a lot on the context. I’m really fortunate, I’m really grateful that I have not had to contend with people purposefully mis-gendering me, people purposefully dead naming me. I think particularly in New York City, it’s a relatively, I guess, safe place to be transgender. I don’t have to worry about going into a bathroom and being kicked out. I think that as a society we do have a really long way to go. I do try my best to be the voice of reason. It’s so much ground to cover, the whole world of being transgender and all the terminology, that it often does get frustrating to encounter someone who is not so apprised of every facet of the identity. But I try most often to give people the benefit of the doubt.

I’m also really privileged to be more of a masc-of-center but also still cis-passing transgender person, and I’m of course extremely privileged to be a white trans person. More often than not I get gendered as female, which is of course not an issue for me, because I consider my gender to be a fluid really nondescript thing, so I think that given my particular identity, I’m less privy to being discriminated against or harassed. I know it’s much more difficult and much more dangerous to be a trans person of color, particularly a trans woman, in New York City, regardless of where you go. So I tend to keep that in mind. I’m very grateful to be in my position.

Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?

Yeah. So my legal name is still my dead name, and I would say in my life it’s about 50/50 of people who know me as CJ and then people who know me as the name I was assigned at birth. Same with my gender presentation. I actually was on testosterone for about two weeks, during which time I was identifying exclusively as a man, using only “he/him” pronouns. This was around this time last year. And I found that during that time, when I was trying much harder to be a binary trans person, I had trouble for example picking up my mail at school if it was addressed to my chosen name as opposed to my dead name. So small logistic and practical things. It’s about 50/50 with my family gendering me and using my name, but as time has gone on and I’ve sort of come into my own as an openly transgender person, it has taken on less urgency. I would say that probably to 99.9% of the world I still come across as a butch lesbian, and I think that affords me some degree of visibility and a large degree of privilege that enables me to not have to experience more mis-gendering and more dead naming and more discrimination and harassment.

For a long time I though [going on testosterone] was my truth. I really struggled with the decision, and ultimately I did decide that it wasn’t right for me. It felt like, for a long time, an extremely urgent thing. It felt like the “be all end all” thing for me. And I’m glad I had the experience of taking it. I was on a very low dose, so I did not experience significant change, and I was on it for such a short period of time. I’m happy to have had that chapter of my life that I was able to try it, and I’m also happy that I was able to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t right for me.

What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?

So, I used to be really anal about identifying as non-binary or identifying as a transgender individual or genderfluid, and more and more these days I just consider myself me. CJ. I would say that I’m a writer. I’m a student. I’m wary of referring to myself as an activist – I think that for many transgender people, it seems pertinent to adopt that identity, but I wouldn’t consider myself an activist [so much as] someone who just really desires to elucidate the truth, and to promote knowledge. I would say that I’m a Jewish-American, I’m a white person, I’m neurodivergent, I’m from Long Island, I’m butch. I would say that I’m fluid. I consider myself a faggot, queer; I like to reclaim those terms. But at the end of the day I really see myself as just me.

Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?

I used to be very guilty, I would say, of being very flamboyant in a way that I’ve since realized is an appropriation of cultures that do not belong to me. I used to be very much the hands flailing, and the “yas queen,” and I’m fortunate to have had learning experiences which have indicated to me that this is not my language, even as a queer person. So I express my identity mostly in the way that I dress. I’m really grateful that I can have my facial piercings, and I can do my hair in whatever way seems comfortable to me, and I can mostly wear the clothing that feels comfortable to me. Especially because I’m a thin white person, most clothing does conform to my needs. I don’t, I would say, go out of the box too much. I think like a lot of New Yorkers I really wear mostly black.

Aesthetically I would say probably my feature to which I would ascribe the most importance is my hair. I’m a huge “if my hair is in disarray then my life is in disarray” kind of person. I have my barbershop that I go to down near Stonewall, and if I’m not there at least once every 3 months I start to have a mental breakdown. I just am one of those people, I’ve tried to grow my hair out so many times, and tried to be more femme, and I don’t have the patience for it I think. Honestly, I have so much respect for femmes who grow their hair out – anyone who grows their hair out, femme or not – just because it’s so much maintenance, and I just don’t have the patience. I would say I’m a pretty stereotypical white butch. I have a lot of patterned colored shirts. I really wear the same few pairs of jeans. In the summer I wear men’s J-crew shorts and muscle shirts. I have at least one facial piercing. So I don’t think there’s anything particularly radical about my appearance, though it is after a lot of experimenting over the years. It feels right to me.

How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?

So I come from kind of a small conservative town where there was really no discussion of not being binary, or being transgender in any capacity. I don’t think I ever heard the term transgender until I got to college, at which point I was like, “Oh shit, that’s what that was?”

I grew up a tomboy, you know, very standard boyish girl, and I would say that around the time I started puberty I felt off, but not in a way that I could articulate. It sort of came to me as, I wish I had been born a boy. I didn’t really have the vocabulary to explore my gender beyond those means, and I was always so terrified of being any more different than I already was. I grew up very mentally ill, and I think that that alienated me to a high degree. So any time I did have what I now recognize as dysphoria, and any time even the question of “Am I gay?” came to me I always really tamped it down, because I didn’t want to put any more pressure on myself. And then it wasn’t until I was in college that I allowed myself to explore that aspect of my identity, and really admit to myself that I am a queer person.

Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?

Yeah. I think that if I had grown up maybe in a bigger town, in a more liberal town, I probably would’ve come to the conclusion that I was queer a lot sooner. I’m really grateful that my parents are super open-minded, but I still felt this mental block. I never asked them about sexuality growing up in any capacity. I never really asked them about boys. It just didn’t feel like a priority, and also it wasn’t something that we learned about in school. It’s pretty fuzzy these days, but I don’t remember there being any kind of gay sex education back when I was in 6th grade getting sex ed. It just wasn’t on my radar. I’ve dated people and I have friends who are from San Francisco, and they’re from more progressive part of the country, and they realized they were gay in middle school and came out in middle school, and I think that’s really awesome, and I think we’re moving towards that in other parts of the country. Even where I’m from, you know, I go back and people are presenting so much differently than they were when I was in high school and middle school. And I think that’s a wonderful thing. Occasionally I do regret that I wasn’t able to explore that part of myself when I was younger, but I’m also really grateful for where I am now, and especially being at Barnard and in New York City where I’ve had the space and the opportunities to do it.

Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?

I think that people who are not so familiar with the transgender community often see even trans identity as a binary, and I think it’s so important to acknowledge the shades of gray. Transgender women do not all have to have long blonde hair and wear makeup and dresses. Same with transgender men, [they] don’t have to have beards and be super muscular. Trans people come in all shapes and sizes. I think in the media particularly there are a token few really visible trans people, and that’s a wonderful thing, but it isn’t necessarily true to the experience of being trans. I think also it’s useful to use terminology such as non-binary or gender non-conforming or genderqueer, but the lived reality of being trans and appearing as trans is so much more nuanced and so impossible to pin down more than putting a word to it.

In your own words, how would you explain the differences and/or similarities between gender identity and sexual orientation? How are they different, how might they be related?

So I see gender identity and sexual orientation as completely distinct entities. For example I had more qualms with my gender identity before I even acknowledged that I might be gay. That came to me first. And I think there is some overlap. I think that, you know, there’s this archetype of a butch lesbian or a really effeminate gay man. But it’s also totally constructed, and so I don’t think there’s really one way to be queer. There’s no one way to present as your gender that is more valid or more correct than another. I see why people get it mixed up, but I also think it’s really important to make that distinction.

"I think that people who are not so familiar with the transgender community often see even trans identity as a binary, and I think it’s so important to acknowledge the shades of gray. Transgender women do not all have to have long blonde hair and wear makeup and dresses. Same with transgender men, [they] don’t have to have beards and be super muscular. Trans people come in all shapes and sizes."

How do you feel represented in media and society at large?

I think as a white person, as a conventionally attractive, thin, pretty bland-looking person, I’m pretty well-represented in the media. More and more I see people who look like me on TV, and in film, and in magazines, and I’m really grateful for that. I think if I weren’t white and all the other ways that I’ve exemplified my identity it would be a lot harder to find myself. I find that in the transmasculine community, there’s a little less variance. A lot of the well-known transgender male “influencers” I think tend to be tall, pretty muscular, very masculine guys. And there are fewer kind of andro [androgynous] “towing the line” trans people in the media, but we’re moving toward a point that I think that’s changing. But I do recognize that it’s an aspect of me being white, and looking how I do that affords me this visibility.

What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?

I think that fat phobia is still really rampant in the queer community and the trans community. I would love to see more fat trans people represented in the media. I would love to see more non-conventionally attractive queer and trans people represented in the media. I think that for a lot of cis and straight people it’s still so much more accessible and still so much more understandable to see a queer person who they can kind of project their fantasy onto. And just like straight and cis people are allowed to be ugly and they’re allowed to be whatever weight – more so for men, not for women, that’s a different issue – I guess in a nutshell I would like to see more diversity in body type. I would like to see more trans people of color represented in the media. Issues along that line.

Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

A couple of months ago, I want to say it was last November, here in this suite at school, I hosted a drag brunch. I had a couple of performers, including myself, all of which were my friends, all of which were trans people, and I want to say maybe 20 to 30 people came. And we all just did drag, and we had a potluck buffet, and it was just a really fun, super positive, super welcoming queer space that felt so good to cultivate and be a part of, and made me really excited for the future, made me feel really safe. Made me feel really happy about the identity I’ve come into. So that was pretty recent in my life, it was only a few months ago, but I think that’s probably a function I’m never going to forget, and I’m going to be definitely chasing the feeling of that day for probably my whole life.

Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

I would say my decision to start and then stop testosterone. I felt – not entirely supported by my family during that time. My parents were not actively trying to stop me, but they were really not happy about my decision. They warned me it didn’t seem like it was right for me, and I felt so desperate for it at that time to love myself and to accept myself, and so desperate for any sort of change that it felt like the only solution. In recent memory that’s probably the toughest thing I’ve gone through. Overall throughout my life, I’ve struggled with anorexia, I’ve struggled with bulimia, and that’s an ongoing issue. More so when I was younger, and I think that that was an early function of my gender dysphoria. But I think that just overall dealing with that was really difficult, and informed who I am today.

Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?

I think at this point in my life I really trust and depend on my parents. I really love them. They’ve made mistakes, and I’ve made mistakes, in a lot of ways, but I’m really grateful for the relationship that we’ve developed over the years. I’m 22 now, and that’s a lot of time to get to know two people and for them to get to know me. There’s been a lot of struggle, there’s been a lot of heartache, but there’s also been so much love, and there’s been, more and more in recent memory, support. I feel like at the end of the day, they’ll always defend me and they’ll always love me. And I’m really, really, really grateful, and really privileged to have that sort of relationship with my parents.

How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?

I would say my last girlfriend, it was really difficult. It was after I had decided to stop testosterone, but I was still experiencing immense dysphoria. And it came across mostly through self-hatred and a lot of self-doubt. It was really tumultuous, it really put a strain on our relationship, and ultimately she was like, “You hate yourself so much, you have so many qualms with yourself, how am I supposed to love you? How am I supposed to support you when you don’t know who you are, you can’t love yourself,” etcetera. So I would say that really opened my eyes, and it was kind of really the jumpstart to my engine that I needed to see that I can’t just wallow in dysphoria, I can’t just wallow in the cards that I was dealt as a queer person, as a trans person. There is a better life that I could be living, and I’m really grateful to have had that experience, even though it was extremely painful, because it enabled me to look inward and to really examine the ways in which I was self-loathing. It also enabled me to become more comfortable with the language to describe myself. I was really reluctant in that relationship to call myself a lesbian. I still very much saw it as a binary. I think I was still harboring tremendous internalized transphobia, and at this point in my life I see that language is just something that we made up. Identity is just something that we made up. I’m a lot more comfortable calling myself a lesbian, I’m comfortable calling myself gay, queer, using all the language across the whole spectrum whenever I see fit. So transitioning, de-transitioning, being queer, has had its ups and downs for sure, but I would say that it has been more positive than negative in the long run.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

I would say yes, and I think that’s another facet of living in New York City and going to the institution that I attend. Barnard is pretty good with transgender issues. It is historically a “women’s” college, but I feel like my identity is respected when I go to the doctor. Likewise there are LGBT clinics in the city, such as Callen-Lorde, such as Apicha, where I’ve been able to seek help and have my particular issues addressed. But I do think that is specific to being in New York. I worry that probably if I lived elsewhere it would not be so easy, so I’m really privileged to have the options that I do. If I don’t stay in New York I cannot see myself going anywhere that the demographic is much different. It is a question of money, you know, I guess as a career writer, what are my options? All of my family basically is in New York state, at least, so to stay here makes sense in that regard. In an ideal world, I would probably go to San Francisco, the only place I can think of in the continental U.S. that’s gayer than New York.

How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?

I used to hate myself a lot. I really struggled with finding myself, accepting the person that I am, and it has taken a lot of tumult, it has taken a lot of heartbreak, it has taken a lot of deep self-reflection, to get to a place where I can look at myself comfortably. I used to be so fearful of being gay, and I would’ve been fearful of being trans I guess, if I had known what being trans was when I was younger. And I’m at the point where I’m proud of my identities. Being gay, being trans, being who I am. So it’s changed for the positive, whether that’s a symptom of time, or being where I am at school, the friendships that I’ve had, the relationships that I’ve had. I’m sure it’s a combination of all of those factors, but I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to learn to love myself and come from a place of deep self-loathing.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

It’s such a cliché, and definitely people said this to me when I was younger, and I ignored it, and I just wrote it off as trite, but it does get better. If you tell yourself it will get better, and you allow yourself the possibility for it to get better, whatever “it” is – it most likely will. Don’t give up. I think just allowing myself the time and the patience and the space to make mistakes and to keep growing is what enabled me to get to where I am today. And I would also say, take as many risks as healthily possible. Risk-taking, you know, for better or worse I think, has been a huge factor in me coming into my own and becoming who I am.

What are your concerns for the future?

In a broad sense, I’m pretty concerned about global warming. I worry about the world we are leaving for future generations. If there will be a world for them. I would say, the first thing my mind jumped to is I’m worried for kids being like me, and being afraid to identify and present their truth. 

What do you look forward to in the future?

I look forward to a more tolerant society. My generation, which I feel is a really confidently understanding generation, is going to raise the next one. And we’re the future parents of generations that are going to affect real change. And I’m really looking forward to that and seeing in this country and around the world what it’s like to be queer in 20 years. I think it’ll just be really cool to see queer kids being who they are, coming out in middle school and elementary school. I really look forward to that.

What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?

Realizing that transitioning medically wasn’t right for me was super frustrating. Because I hinged on it for such a long time being the “be all end all” thing that I needed, so to realize that it wasn’t the magic potion that was going to make me happy was really difficult. 

"There’s no one right way to be queer. If you call yourself queer, you’re queer in my eyes. There’s no one label for anything. If you allow yourself to be free, and you are gentle with yourself and you afford yourself patience, it’ll do wonders and it will change everything."

But I think it was also a success, and getting over that hump was what really enabled me to look inward and discover that I can live my truth in whatever manner seems fit, and it doesn’t have to be the token trans narrative of, “Oh I knew the whole time that I was trans, and I transitioned and now I’m happy, blah blah.” So I would say that it was also a success to overcome that, when it really felt for a long time like I had nowhere to go, and since that didn’t work, what else can I do, I’ve tried everything. So I feel really happy to have come out on the other side and be able to see it as a positive experience.

Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?

Fake it till you make it. Maybe it makes me disingenuous. I consider myself a great faker. I think I learned it from my dad to approach everything with the confidence of an old white man, you know. But it has worked, and if you do pretend like you’re able to do something for a long enough time, eventually you can do it, or at least you’ve fooled yourself, and what’s the difference between being able to do something or just pretending you can do it? At some point those two notions synthesize. I think it’s great for people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome. I know a lot of people at this university particularly really don’t feel like they deserve to be here. Any variation of that opinion. Just looking at yourself in the mirror and being like, “You can do this,” is so corny and so cliché, but it really does work.

Are there any other questions you would have liked me to ask, or anything else you would like to talk about?

I think a huge part of my narrative is that I tried medically transitioning and it wasn’t right for me, but I don’t think that makes me any less trans. I don’t think that makes me any less queer. The upshot being, there’s no one right way to be queer. If you call yourself queer, you’re queer in my eyes. There’s no one label for anything. If you allow yourself to be free, and you are gentle with yourself and you afford yourself patience, it’ll do wonders and it will change everything. And I think that’s really important to internalize.