The mirror is a familiar object in mainstream representations of transgender women. Documentaries focusing on trans women often show them painstakingly applying makeup in front of bathroom mirrors, allowing the audience to observe the creation of a feminine appearance. This trope is so recognizable as to practically be a requirement in such depictions, and it serves the purpose of portraying femininity — especially on bodies that are routinely denied the status of “female” — as constructed and artificial. The bathroom scene is the “truth” of these representations of trans women, drawing upon a well-established cultural narrative about trans womanhood as facade, as imitation, and, at worst, as trickery. This narrative tells us that regardless of the efforts trans women make to be understood as women, they will never be “real.” Not makeup or clothing can ultimately hide the truth underneath. In the most extreme versions of this narrative, not even hormone replacement – the reduction of androgen levels and introduction of estrogen – can make a woman, merely an “estrogenated man.”
Taken in front of my bathroom mirror, Ritual is a series of twelve photographs that depicts the daily sequence of events involved in hormone replacement therapy. In the first row of images, I place a 100 mg spironolactone tablet into my mouth. In the second, I drink from a glass of water, assisting the swallowing of the relatively large pill. Finally, in the third, I place a 2 mg estradiol tablet under my tongue and wait for it to dissolve. This process of waiting is necessary to avoid the potentially adverse effects on the liver that can come from the “second pass” of absorption inherent in swallowing the tablet.
I learned to take estradiol in this way from other trans women, and for me, this process of waiting provides an opportunity to reflect on my relationships to others, my relationship to my body, and ultimately, my existence as a trans person. In ways, the experience of being trans is the experience of waiting: waiting for access to medical interventions; waiting for an estradiol pill to dissolve under the tongue; waiting for one’s body to change.
Trans existence is sometimes held up as the ultimate expression of the individualistic conception of the self under neoliberalism. These arguments, of course, focus on trans body practices as distinct from other mundane forms of body modification, which are seen as somehow less important or involved. Yet arguments that trans existence is necessarily individualistic, often conflated with the charge that individual trans people are self-obsessed, miss the fact that transness actually makes apparent the networks of interdependency in which we are all enmeshed. In waiting, we are always waiting for.
We wait for medical gatekeepers and insurance companies to grant us access to the procedures and drugs we seek. We wait for a pill of synthetic estrogen to break apart under the wet warmth of our tongues, to dissolve into our bloodstreams. We wait for the chemicals we have introduced into our bodies to affect us — to look in the mirror and notice a slight thinning of body hair, an imperceptible softening of the skin, the shadow of breasts. Waiting implicates us in relationships with objects, bodies, and people.
Hormone replacement is a ritual that simultaneously connects me to my body and to the medical-pharmaceutical-psychological networks in which I participate in order to fulfill my needs. It locates my trans existence not within the mind, soul, or genes, but as a distributed property of a network of things. This relational, contextual work done by other people and things is obscured in the sentence “I am a transgender person”, which makes sense to me only as a culmination of these processes. No one relationship, be it to hormones, to another person, or to an institution, is sufficient to produce this reality — only their myriad interactions do that.
And here we return to the trope of trans falsity and artificiality. Am I to be understood as claiming that trans existence is not “real?” That it is not a deeply personal experience, but rather externally imposed? Is this a return to the notion of trans people as the “dupes” of gender? Not at all. I make no claims about etiology, about the origins of trans identity or experience. Instead, I want to make the point that the social reality of my existence as a trans person at this place, in this time, is created through interactions between and within networks. My participation in these networks does not render me their dupe, nor does it constitute me as a representative figure depicting the extremes of individualistic identity projects. Instead, my participation — crystallized in the ritual of hormone replacement – forces me to confront the fact of my social existence, and indeed of all existences, as relational and networked.