If you read my column (which you should, although the fact that you are reading these words right now is somewhat indicative that you do), there is a small chance that you’ve thought to yourself “who is this mysterious womxn?” and “where else can I find their work?” This will likely have lead you to reading my bio and realizing (to your excitement/dismay) that I am a poet.
Something I don’t often talk about, mostly because it is pre-coming out and this feels to me like the life of a different person, is that I got my start in poetry doing slam. Now, that couldn’t be further from what I’m doing with my work, but then I was drawn in by the emotional intensity and spectacle slam offered.
Most of my idols when I first started were poets who used this platform to talk about social issues such as mental health, misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity. One of these poets whose work really stuck with me as a late teen was Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre. Particularly a well known piece of his “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up.’”
In the last few weeks, this piece has been on my mind a lot. The phrase itself has weighed on me, what it means to me, what it has meant to me, what it means for a body trapped in the divide between “biological man” and “biological woman.” These thoughts have all kind of tumbled through me back to the source, Guante’s poem. So maybe this is somewhere between thought exercise and exorcism, my ten responses to the phrase man up:
- I was born a boy. There are not enough quotation marks or italics to properly convey what these words mean to me. But when you are told that you are a boy and this feels wrong, man begins to look like an exit sign. “Man up” is the break in case of emergencies sign, but in this metaphor I am the glass.
- On a Skype call with my partner and their grandpa we are talking about the phrase “she’s got big balls.” How this is to say that a woman can only be strong if she is like a man. If she mans up. If metaphor makes her body not her own. I tell them that I’ve taken to saying “they’ve got ovaries.” Everyone laughs. After we hang up, I think about how this connects strength with parts of a body that I can never own.
- I spent my childhood mapping a way into adulthood, thinking I could fit this skin. One of the worst lessons I ever learned is that sex was a way of growing up. Now, I am too much of a coward to out the girl who raped me. The other day I saw her wedding dress on Facebook and said nothing. After she was done, she told me that I was a man now.
- My roommate teaches me a new meaning to the phrase. Man Up (v.) for a trans womxn or femme who was assigned male at birth to present themself as a man for the sake of survival. I am wearing a little black dress when a man tries to run me down with his van on the corner of East 3rd. I’d walked this street a hundred times before coming out, in a city I used to call safe.
- The last time I attempted suicide was one week before coming out as trans. I always use a picture taken that night when I show people the before and after of my transition. In the picture I am wearing a suit and sporting a shaggy beard.
- Once, as a child, when my parents were separated, my aunts painted my nails before going to my father’s for the weekend. He and his girlfriend scraped my nails clean. When he dropped me off, he accused my mother of “trying to turn his son into a faggot.” The last time I painted my nails was the night I was arrested, and thrown into solitary confinement in a men’s jail. They called it protective custody. Told me they didn’t want to deal with the bad press if another inmate beat me to death. To this day, I’m still afraid to paint my nails.
- There’s a special section set aside at the far end of my closet. Two shirts, two pairs of slacks, a pair of shoes, one blazer. All men’s. Just in case.
- Being a man means never crying, never showing emotion. After six months on hormones I sob into a friend’s arms for the first time in years.
- Was my father manning up when he scrubbed the polish from my nails? Was that stranger manning up when he tried to run me down in the street? Or another stranger when he followed me at night shouting slurs? When will masculinity stop carrying a body count?
torrin a. greathouse (they/them or she/her) is a genderqueer, cripple-punk from Southern California. They are the Editor-in-Chief of Black Napkin Press. Their poetry is published/forthcoming in Duende, Apogee, Frontier, Lunch Ticket, & Assaracus. She is a 2016 Best New Poets, Bettering American Poetry, and Pushcart Prize nominee, and semifinalist for the Adroit Poetry Prize. torrin’s first chapbook, Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm, is forthcoming from Damaged Goods Press in 2017.