LENNY

Cambridge, MA

What’s your name?

My name is Lenny. Lenny ShNEER is how you pronounce it. It sounds like “schmear” like a bagel – the joke among my parents’ friends was like, “If it’s a girl you’ve gotta name it “Anna” because then it’s “bagel ana schnier” which is hilarious. So after I found that out, I adopted “Bagel Anna Schmear” as one of my other names that I use for myself.

What are your pronouns?

"They/them," but I also respond favorably to "she/her" and "hers." I don’t respond favorably to "he/him," etc.

 

Where do you work?

I work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

I’m an artist, and I make art. It’s not a hobby, but it’s what takes up all of my time. It’s like Passion Project meets Other Work meets Thing I Do or Thing I Studied. I like going to museums and looking at art, and reading about art, and reading about gender theory… Watching television as well, I love lots of different programs but I also hate lots of programs. I’m pretty opinionated.

What do you do for fun?

I like being outside, so I’m always happier when the weather is better. I have friends who are extremely near and dear to my heart and I spend time with them often. I like to dance. I like to see live music, though I hate crowds, so that’s challenging. I smoke weed. I also really like to cook. I come home from work and it’s like, “Okay now it’s time to de-stress,” and I have it in my head like, “Okay you’re gonna make art now,” and then what ends up happening is – I cook, for like an hour and a half or two hours. And I’m very satisfied with it, I get into a zone that’s very relaxing and calming. So I tend to de-stress by cooking dinner.

I love clothing, and fashion, but not like in an “oh look at this designer” sort of way, it’s like an “oh my god, this fabric is incredible” or “oh my god, this thing is so hideous that I must try it on at least” and most of my clothing shopping is done in thrift stores. I’m guilty of occasionally buying things new but I try not to because I’m not up to speed on the business practices of a lot of clothing manufacturers and I would rather not support unsafe practices, so I try not to buy new. Books are super important to me, as physical objects, also. I like having books.

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

I’d be really curious to hear what other folks say. I feel like specifically with pronouns it’s hard. Like if I’m explicitly asked, “What are your pronouns?” I will tell you, “My pronouns are they/them/their.” One time I was at a hair salon and the person who owned the hair salon was getting really excited talking about my hair, and it was very nice, they were complimenting it. She ended up wanting to make a reference to how I looked like someone, and it was supposed to be a grand compliment, because this other person is gorgeous and has beautiful hair, blah blah blah, and she paused right before she said this and was like, “What are you? Are you a boy, a girl…?” I said, “I use gender neutral pronouns, like they/them,” and it was very interesting to watch her process that information and then immediately put it into practice, which she struggled with, but I think that she recovered. She paused when she went back to the sentence to talk about me, like what she wanted to say was “He looks just like –,” or “She looks just like –,” so she said, “What do I call you?” and I said, “They,” and she thought she was being savvy and said, “Lenny looks just like – “ and that works too, that’s fine. Even though I told her what pronouns to use and even though to say, “They look just like –,” is something that you would say had you not known who the person was at all, it’s very common to use as a singular pronoun, but some people have a lot of pushback against “they” as a singular pronoun for ridiculous reasons. That was an interesting experience.

I’m still used to going to the men’s restroom in public and I’m shifting towards using the women’s restroom in public spaces now, because of a couple of instances where I’ve entered men’s rooms – and like, I just need to pee and have as little discomfort as possible – and I’m finding that maybe the men’s room is no longer the right space. Because I’m assuming that I’m being gendered as male always, or seen as “man,” and I’m not sometimes. And it surprises me, but it’s also what I want, so it gets confusing. I’ve been in men’s bathrooms and men have been like, “Oh my god, do you know you’re in the men’s room?” Or, “Ma’am, you know you’re in the men’s room?” One time I was washing my hands, and someone asked [that] and I said, “Yeah, I do.” Why does that matter? And there was this other time in an airport when I was walking into a stall and I heard behind me, “Ma’am! Ma’am! This is the men’s room!” and I just ran into the stall and assumed that by the time I got out this person would be gone.

All of these are examples of how the gendered system is so ridiculous, and is founded in people’s perceptions in a way that if we didn’t have these perceptions and expectations, it would be a less awkward situation and more comfortable for everyone because it wouldn’t matter. Why does this matter so much? And I can keep talking about how gender isn’t real, and is stupid, but gender is also very real, and it matters a lot, because it’s a system of oppression that does exist. And all of these experiences that I’m talking about, I’m very fortunate to have them be small experiences. They haven’t caused me harm, but for some people they are harmful. There’s the concept that’s called “passing,” which I’ve heard Janet Mock reference to; she says (rough quote), “I really don’t like using the term ‘passing,’ because it means that someone else is failing.” And yeah, that’s true, that is implied there. “Passing” is a really dangerous concept because it’s this idea that you are achieving a certain standard of being, whatever that is – and mostly it’s visual – that then deems you to be one thing or another. It also conflates your physical makeup with your gender presentation and blurs them into one…mushball in a way that is challenging. You have things such as, “beard means man” and “boobs mean woman” etc. and neither of those things actually mean anything. Everybody’s body is really different. Like the sex categories for “male” and “female” – those are also constructed. These are not my original ideas, I’ve just read a lot and am spitting back the information that I’ve absorbed and that I use. So for me, theoretical thinking about gender was extremely important for me to understand my gender. I needed to have lots of different words to put to it. 

I’m really interested in how people gender me, because gender itself is not real. Gender shouldn’t have rules. It exists, but it has no foundation in anything besides how it’s been created. So I find myself often thinking about how I am gendered by other people, because it lends itself to a ton of other things, one big one being my safety. When I say “gendered by other people,” I mean mostly in public spaces with people I don’t necessarily know, but also within intimate spaces as well. It’s been fascinating to see people I know interact with me as my gender presentation shifts into – whatever space you want to call it; more androgynous, or presenting as more feminine. Honestly, I’m not even sure what others would classify my presentation as. 

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

I like genderqueer. I think it’s fun. I like using the word queer to describe myself. And I like the way genderqueer sounds. I think transgender for me and for a lot of other people – as far as I understand – is used as kind of an umbrella term for a gender that’s not in line with the one in which you were assigned at birth. This goes back to “passing” as well – it’s up to the person to tell you. I feel like a transwoman is capable of saying, “I’m a trans woman,” or “I’m a woman,” and both are valid. There is no difference. There is a difference between a cis woman and a trans woman, but it’s in the external way that society has labeled them. One of them was assigned female at birth and one of them was probably not, but they’re both women.

I just hate gender. The administrative violence of gender is terrifying. It’s awful. And it’s really hard for folks who are non-binary, or not interested, or not able to make legal changes to their gender. It’s a legal part of you – what the fuck? Let’s talk about what your driver’s license says. It lists your hair color, your weight, your eye color, your gender, your date of birth, and your name. So okay, let’s say I dye my hair blonde. Do I have to change my driver’s license? Do I have to fill out a form? No. I don’t understand what the real reason any of this is on that identification material anyway. And it’s from state to state, and country to country. It’s on other people how you get to define yourself in that way, and that’s ridiculous.

So there are people who are trans, and they identify within the binary. So that would mean that they are assigned one gender at birth, male or female, and they come to identify as transgender, a trans man or trans woman, and they don’t even have to use those words. They can be non-binary and binary at the same time. Because you can do whatever the fuck you want. I kind of think of myself in some ways as both binary and non-binary. Because binary is so much a thing that exists – it’s not impossible to exist without it, but it’s very hard to. And let’s be real, in my day to day life, I’m not going to consistently encounter people who are aware of a non-binary experience, or person, so I’m going to constantly be gendered one way or the other. So I’ve come to understand that I need to transition into a space farther away from being gendered as a man, because being a man is definitely not what I want. And also, I can do whatever the fuck I want with my body. I think that idea, and that ability – my self-agency – is something really cool that I really want to explore. But these are all me, and I’m talking about me, and I’m not talking about what it’s like for other people beyond what I’ve read or been told, because I can’t speak for other people.

Oh, and I really like transfemme. I’m definitely a femme person. I like feminine and masculine as spectrum play as well. Feminine and masculine are also culturally constructed; in one culture it means one thing and in another it means something else. I was born in the United States, I grew up in the United States. Western culture is my entire existence. A lot of what I talk about and think about is through the Western lens, and I’m aware of other cultures that interact with gender in different ways. But I’m not going to appropriate that necessarily – I’ve got to work with what I’ve got.

Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how easy or difficult it was for you to draw conclusions about your identity?

For this question I was immediately like, “Yeah. Absolutely. Totally. Yes.” But, I want to be cautious about that. I was born in New York City, and I grew up in a suburb of [it]. So I was minutes away from one of the biggest metropolises in the U.S. and the world. And it comes with a lot of preconceived notions. You understand the greater metro New York area to be a certain way, and you expect it to be different from a rural location. But let’s not vilify rural communities or Southern communities in the U.S. or other countries because of ways in which they are perceived to feel about certain things. That generalizes populations of people. Your environment influences you, but let’s not generalize and disparage certain locations and communities because of ways that they may trend to think or behave.

I wanted to say that because one would expect for me, growing up in New York, that I was exposed to a ton of progressive thinking. Not the case. There were things I was allowed to do as a child that I could’ve not been allowed to, but I also don’t feel as if I had full expressive ability, and I also don’t feel that I grew up in a community that had a lot of exposure to trans people. I remember in high school, there was someone in my 9th grade class who presented themselves in a way that was a topic of conversation amongst peers. I have this horrific memory of being with a couple friends and someone’s older sibling who was like a mentor to the younger students who had just come in to the school, and having that older student confirm that they had looked at this person’s I.D. card, and I feel like the word “cross-dresser” or “transvestite” was what was being used.  That memory haunts me a bit, because I didn’t do anything, and I didn’t know how to do anything.

I read about someone who grew up in Texas, I think they identify as a gay, and they’ve said that they were never called a faggot until they came to Massachusetts. And for me, being able to remove myself from what was physically considered “home” space and develop my own space allowed me the comfort and space for me to create and understand my own identity in a way I was not really able to do when I was really close to what was “home.”

"Gender shouldn’t have rules. It exists, but it has no foundation in anything besides how it’s been created."

In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?

I would peruse the Internet for some blogs and websites that talk about these things. Everyday Feminism (http://everydayfeminism.com) is a pretty good one.

Whose voice should be providing these definitions? Because in one way it’s exhausting to have to rely on the transgender person to provide the answers to these questions that are pretty readily accessible by others, but it’s also nice to allow them the opportunity to discuss the topics in their own way that they see these topics.

[Speaking to the reader] So, I’m attracted to X, Y, and Z. I want you to think about what X, Y, and Z is. What are all the things I’m attracted to? What are the physical and emotional qualities I’m attracted to? And think about how they relate to gender of the other person, of yourself. It’s so funny how many people hold hard and fast to certain things, and often with only ever experiencing one thing sometimes.

If I were to define my own sexual orientation, the only word that I really can use is “queer.” I can tell you what my sexual history is like, but I feel like my future sexual interests and attractions are more important than my past ones.

So I would encourage one to think about that. And I think it’s more fun, more interesting. Get to know yourself! Instead of saying, “I’m attracted to men,” say, “I’m attracted to – “ and then list all those things. What is it that you’re attracted to? What turns you on? And then define your sexuality in your own way. But, please be cognizant of when you are possibly fetishizing or objectifying someone or some quality in someone. If you watch porn – think about what you’re seeing. What/who you’re not seeing. In your porn, in your sexual fantasies. I’m not shaming you, but I’m asking you to think about it. What does it mean to like something? I feel like it’s so important to have an understanding of the dynamics and power at play in these situations.

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

So, long story short, I am happy to see that trans people are being represented in the media, but there’s a huge dearth of highly visible trans representation by trans people. The media is mostly cis…and white. There are television programs out there like Transparent on Amazon where the majority of the crew are trans people, and that’s unheard of. Ultimately I don’t have a problem with [the fact that the main character is not played by a trans actor] because – what does that mean? That means that you have to look a certain way to be trans, you know? 

There’s an article by Julia Serano, she wrote a really good book called Whipping Girl that was really important for me and my “self-discovery.” She wrote an article about trans representation in the media that is much more eloquent than what I’m about to say, but she talks about how trans actors should be able to play cis roles. Yeah, of course. The book discusses a term/concept called transmisogyny, which is the way in which misogyny specifically affects trans women, or transfeminine people. Misogyny is constantly policing the appearance of women. That’s part of how it functions. And when we police the appearance of trans people too, especially for ways they are able to be women, so to speak, is like, “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

I think that trans representation in the media is cool, I’m glad that it’s happening. I think it’s important for anyone who absorbs the media. Especially young folks. When I was young I didn’t have lots of trans people in the media. Some of [the trans people in the media] are really fantastic. Some of them are really awesome people. Laverne Cox, Janet Mock – they’re fantastic to have there. But they are part of the binary. Not that that’s a bad thing. But everyone is so different, there’s so much diversity among people, and our media needs to represent that. Both in the visual things that you see and in the ways that the stories and experiences are being shared. I know of quite a few genderqueer and non-binary pseudo-celebrities, but I don’t know how many folks who need to see them do. And we need to understand the limitations of our language when it is used by groups with power (cis media) to talk about groups without power (trans subjects). For example, I’m not interested in watching a CNN special talk about a trans person, it’s going to upset me. Because it’s cis people creating a story about a trans person. I saw one segment on a special about a trans swimmer, and they were talking about how he performed. He would win races when competing in women’s races, and now that he’s competing in men’s races, he was no longer winning. Like – what the fuck? Why is that the story? There’s an obsession with the transition, and the before and after.