To Be Women

by Loan Tran

I am six years old. My hair is cut into a short bob and I am wearing a white t shirt and striped shorts in a peach orchard. I lean back and smile at the camera before climbing the tree with my leather strapped sandals. The women all around me are laughing under the shade with small peeling knives in their hands; separating skin from fruit. For a moment their hands are soft, peach fuzz smoothing at their callouses from days and years of piecing together fabric at their sewing machines. They enjoy each other. I reach for my own peaches and later I stand in the back of my family’s green pick-up truck waiting for someone to weigh our baskets filled to the brim. I hold my hands behind my back, small and shy, watching a woman shift and re-arrange the crates. I am awkward and can’t stop staring. She smiles back only at me. 

I am eight and spend most of my days after school with my dad at the billiards hall where he plays cards and jokes in the backroom with his friends. I make my own friends with the domino sets, the wobbly coffee tables, and the woman who works there. She has long black hair, just like mine, though kept much better. One afternoon she tucks me gently into her arms as we sit on the hood of an old Cadillac. Everything bright: the car, her pants, her smile. I am small and still shy, hair longer, and with the reasonable fashion sense of an eight-year-old; pink leggings sticking out from under my khaki uniform pants, matching my pink shirt. I am wearing sneakers and she, a pair of black stilettos. She cares for me in absence of everyone else and I never feel like a burden.

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I am lucky that from a young age, the women around me, if I paid enough attention, allowed me a life to claim, to call my own. They offered a recognition that I mean something. I’ve learned that women make a conscious choice to love—not in a reductive way; not in the, we are ok extracting feminized labor kind of way. But in a way where time and time again, I have seen the women in my life deprived of respect in a world hellbent on their punishment for not being man, or white, or able-bodied, or straight, or cisgender still root in dignity and regard for other human beings. I am lucky for the persistence and clarity of women’s regard. 

 “Woman”—with its complexities, contradictions, and its constant dance against/with/for colonization, white supremacy, patriarchy and transphobia, and capitalism—is not a matter of biology. It’s instead the active choosing of the relationships, connections, desires, acts of care and love we are trained to cast away and make invisible. 

Women’s regard is what makes me the dyke gender non-conforming person I am. It is what gives me the conviction to be on testosterone and feel confident that I can be a woman of a different kind. 

 The women who make me woman are the women who have clearly defied all odds to be their own, in a terrifying and heart wrenching world which takes from them everything: their bodies, their joy, their love, and their care. The ones who have been called failed women, because of their skin, desire, shape and size of their body, or ability of their body. The ones who have strapped guns to their backs to harvest the field and have written poems at wartime; whose strongest political directive, whose clearest tactical skill comes from a place of deep knowing that the care we have for each other allows care for ourselves, and that is what gives everything in this fleeting lifetime meaning. 

To be women, in the morning: 

I wake up and question the width of my own hips or contest the shape of my chest, wondering if it is meant to look this way. I wonder where else this body could have hair and why don’t I have it there. I argue with myself in the mirror; on today’s menu of misogyny, do I want to be seen first as a man and then a woman or a be seen first as a woman and then a man? I try to accept that when I leave the mirror, my want won’t matter. I clean my skin with an alcohol pad and inject testosterone into my body. This is one year and not much has changed. I cringe at being called “sir” for my voice and mustache as much as I cringe at being called “ma’am” for my hips and breasts. I am anxious that what I believe lovers love about me is different than what they may actually love about me. I am worried about love. I wait still for the moment of “discovery”; for when someone claims I have lied about myself and that somehow that is more offensive than lying to myself to comfort them. I get good at redirecting the self-negating thoughts. This body hollows out on command when I am misnamed. I get ready. 

And in the same morning: 

I wake up and feel desire and heat in my bones for a woman. I imagine the skin of my arm touching my face to be the skin of another woman. I find tenderness with a certain name I can press my tongue into, so softly, without hesitation, as if that name were my own. I smile to myself imagining the full depth and gravity of the lives of the women around me. I read these women. Adrienne Rich writes: without tenderness, we are in hell. And Toni Morrison said: It is more interesting, more complicated, more intellectually demanding and more morally demanding to love somebody, to take care of somebody, to make one other person feel good. And my body eases in the middle of a world on fire. I remember to keep caring, to smooth the callouses, to enjoy the fruit. I get back to the ground, to the earth, to my own body that women make possible; whether with piss your pants laughter, unashamed crying in public, or the caring nudge of a plate of food in my face: eat, you have to eat. So then I look in the mirror at myself and think: oh, there she is. There’s the woman I’ve been looking for. There’s the woman I am choosing to be. 

The most significant relationships in my life have been with (other) women, somewhere on their journey – whether across borders, lifetimes, bodies, or binaries. We bear a kind of witness for each other that tells me that I can’t separate my gender and my desires. Who I am is who I want is who I want to be. No more flattening, no more making the parameters of this life small, the possibility of this life small—when our lives deserve to be big, complex, ever-changing, bursting at the seams with the invitation to constantly become what we are seeking of and in each other. 

For a long time I have seen this body as nothing more than a failed project. This body: Viet, survivor, migrant, gay, gender non-conforming, girl, weirdo, woman, freak. I learned early that my body would not be my own unless I fight for it. I have been fighting for it for a very long time. And I love it just a little better now, having given myself permission to belong to this body and to remember womanhood is something ever expansive. 

I choose woman for myself because I want to honor my own pain and misery and heartache and joy and pleasure; because I want to be like those women in my life who have a steady generosity to stand witness for the pain and misery and heartache and joy and pleasure of others—as friends, family, and lovers. 

I am ten years old and the only way I am speaking to the world is through a composition notebook drowning with badly written and very sad poems. My dad has gone to jail and I feel utterly alone. In my yearbook, my English teacher, Mrs. Roberts wrote: keep writing, you’re good at it. So, this is for me, for the women to whom I owe my life and belonging. For the women who have given me the chance to choose and to be. And to be of them.

Loan Tran (they/them) is a Durham, NC-based writer and organizer, who has the honor of being a southerner by way of Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Loan has spent over a decade building social movements for the freedom of all people. As a writer, they have been featured in Black Girl Dangerous, Waging Non-Violence, NYTimes, Gendered Lives, Young{ist} Magazine, Workers World, and more. A dyke of the U.S. and global South, they are obsessed with, committed to, and fortified by telling the truth of our beautiful, complex, and worthy lives. You can follow them on IG: @beaverfuzz or Twitter: @ntranloan