Illustration: Jade Lönnqvist

August Joensalo is a Finland based film director, writer and photographer. Their practice focuses on uplifting trans and queer narratives through storytelling in visual and textual mediums. They are interested in dreams and utopian thinking, as well as time and memories. They find joy in figuring out ways of narrating outside of the binaries of languages, bodies and identities.

I am going to share with you my gender feelings. Mostly words that I use to my benefit, against the world. Although, this first part is a bit about words used against me, too. Let’s get it done and over with, and then we can talk about words that make me a home, that I am, that are me.

Two years ago, I told my friend that I could go into Transpoli to observe the structure of violence and destroy the system. (If you haven’t yet noticed, I tend to be a tad idealistic.) I would look at it through my camera, utterly unaffected by it; I would expose it. I would film myself re-enacting the meetings with nurses and doctors. This way, they wouldn’t be real, and I wouldn’t feel violated and humiliated. I’d simply be there, one, as an artist making art and two, as a character featured in my film. But, in a peculiar turn of events, I discovered this wasn’t possible. Why? One, because I am human, and two, I have feelings, so what if it has taken me 28 years to locate and find words for them?

What makes Transpoli faintly bearable for me is that I can observe an August (28) going through this process as I am going through the process myself. August (28) is a character about whom I’ve written so many times in grant applications that they already feel like a separate being from myself. August reluctantly answers the nurse’s questions about their sex life and disassociates. August mourns their lost boyhood and imagines what kind of an elder they might become if the world allows them to grow old. August is a trans time traveller, going back in memories and travelling to the future in their imagination.

August is trying to prove that their gender experience is stable. Because:

NURSE
BUT what if you regret the
transition later on?

The nurse doesn’t know that a trans body is malleable: capable of holding much more than the assignations given to it. The nurse doesn’t know that August’s body is a vessel of limitless energy and endless possibilities.

So, the concern “What if?” only works this way;

AUGUST
BUT what if I don’t get to unleash
and experience the endless possible
states of my trans body and mind?

NURSE
???

I wish the nurses, doctors, therapists, and psychologists in Transpoli would see all the art Finland’s trans community produces. Would it make them drop their blinders and see us beyond their questionnaire? As deep-sea creatures? As the deep time-travelling bodies? As the air seeping through the saxophone player’s lips? As the space, that is quite a lot of things and can become even more.

But this is not of interest to them. What enthuses them is how we hate ourselves and the world, how we despise our bodies, how we loathe the words assigned to us, and how we think of our genitals when we have sex. So, how would it be of any interest to them how having a gender feels to me?

Gender feels like expansion. 
                                      Stretching. 
                                                           Growing.
                                                                              Infinite.

Paradoxically, only the process of transitioning has taught me how my gender feels. Starting HRT opened up so many things in me; the most important is the feeling of endless opportunities and the futures that might just exist. Something I might constantly become now present in my life as forms yet to be taken. Yes, maybe like a caterpillar. Yes, maybe like an octopus. Yes, maybe like a leafy seadragon. It’s a real animal; look it up.

Do you know how it feels to have a gender? Do you sense how gender feels inside of you? Would you be able to describe your gender experience to a lover or a stranger? I recognize it’s a complicated question, but I’m just curious. I can leave you with it, and we can come back to it later, in the end.

Paradoxically, only the process of transitioning has taught me how my gender feels. Starting HRT opened up so many things in me; the most important is the feeling of endless opportunities and the futures that might just exist. Something I might constantly become now present in my life as forms yet to be taken. Yes, maybe like a caterpillar. Yes, maybe like an octopus. Yes, maybe like a leafy seadragon. It’s a real animal; look it up.

Before HRT, on a beautiful fall day two years ago:

AUGUST Inside of me is just emptiness.
Darkness. Space.

FRIEND
Space is quite a lot of things, though.

I’ve looked into this space that is quite a lot of things, and I’ve started to discover all the things that it is. This space is constantly growing and becoming new, and it’s exciting to experience all these feelings. They are like tiny sparks. Clues to all the possible things I may become.

Gender feels like these sparks.

Gender feels like muscle pain.

Gender feels like expansion.

Gender feels like being shirtless amongst queers and feeling euphoric.

Gender feels like two cis men being impressed by my strength when carrying a tori.fi table from the 6th floor down to my Dyke Mobile.

Gender feels like having microdosed on Testosterone another trans person gave you because they didn’t need it anymore. And gender feels like being so desperate for more when you run out that you’d drink it off of another person’s sweat, yet you are too paralyzed to go through the process of acquiring it illegally. Gender feels like because of your childhood trauma related to needles, probably being too scared to inject the T even if you did manage to acquire it.

Gender feels like waiting several years in line and being examined by Transpoli instead.

NURSE
What will your manhood look like?

Gender feels like wanting to be hot for the first time. It feels like a colossal desire to be a hot boy. Not that I’m a boy, or that I’d want to be one, but because the energy is accessible for me for the first time because of T.

Gender feels like water & sweat & moss.

My gaze directed at myself is different – it’s led by curiosity rather than speculative categorization. Being in touch with how I experience my gender, I see myself through the novelty of the future possibilities (or possible states?). I completely forget that people don’t see me that way, and it’s more and more surprising every time everyday misgendering, and assertive categorizations happen.

Gender feels like the light blonde moustache that T helped me grow, a moustache that is only visible if you look very closely in a particular light coming from above. Most bathrooms seem to work quite well. I can admire this tiny moustache whenever I wash my hands, brush my teeth, or cut my hair.

Gender feels like this: I saw a photo of me taken at an event. I’m sitting on the stage, holding flowers, smiling goofily, stretching my neck. In another photo taken seconds after this, I’m keeping my hand towards the camera. These photos show me something society hasn’t mirrored back to me; I’ve changed a lot. I am moving and shifting and becoming something I’m working so hard on being—a person. My thinking, physical work, and stolen hormones are queering my body. This makes me euphoric! The neck looks a bit thicker, the arms look a bit bigger, the way my long hair doesn’t make me look like a girl but a prince.

Yet, maybe my thinking has changed the most since I’m still constantly being gendered wrong. My gaze directed at myself is different – it’s led by curiosity rather than speculative categorization. Being in touch with how I experience my gender, I see myself through the novelty of the future possibilities (or possible states?). I completely forget that people don’t see me that way, and it’s more and more surprising every time everyday misgendering, and assertive categorizations happen.

Gender feels like this: My voice is pleasant and maybe a bit raspy, and sometimes when I’m excited but nervous (which is quite often) about what I have to say, it shakes and sometimes cracks. I imagine the leftovers of testosterone swirling in my body and throat that make it crack—still changing me, and someday I’ll figure out how to use the changes to my benefit. Yeah, so I crack away, but it’s somewhat hot also, I think.

Gender feels like having a pronoun that is mine. I feel it in my body. My body? Saying these two words next to each other makes me stutter. I don’t know, really; they don’t fit next to each other in the same sentence yet. Maybe someday they are one (me), me and my body.

In Swedish, there are two gender-neutral pronouns. One of them, “den”, is mine because I feel it viscerally. It has a very distinct earthy feeling. Like grounded, earth, dirt, creature, mud, crumbling, messy, dripping, searching. The other pronoun, “hen”, feels airy to me. It is heavenly, intellectual, beautiful, and a clear breath of air. It’s there, easy, and it fits some people excellently. It’s so interesting how we can feel so strongly about words, how well they can hold, and how much harm they can do if they don’t.

Gender feels like when somebody else says: “My gender feels like jellyfish”. Because what languages do we use to feel? Metaphors, touch, film, desire, performance, bodies, poems, movement, paintings, sex, essays, music, looking, listening, hearing, and understanding. Maybe I would’ve felt gender before HRT if I had had a language to think about or speak it with.

How beautiful is it that somebody feels their gender in their toes, that it can burn, it can flow like water, it can be as vast as space, it can come up when feeling connected to nature, it can grow as slowly as moss on a tree trunk? These are all ways my friends have expressed feelings about their gender, and I genuinely admire their abilities to put their experiences into words.

For me, gender is energy felt inside. An energy that will take my body to all of its forms. It’s an energy that this performance stems from. It’s limitless and beautiful and dark matter.

Butler2 defines gender as a “kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed” that “one is always ‘doing’ with or for another”. They argue that gender is something that becomes in daily life; it is learned and performed based on cultural norms of femininity and masculinity. It is created through repetition and performing these acts that constitute the ideas of “man” or “woman”. When I look back at some of the gender feelings I’ve brought up during this essay, I notice that many have to do with performance and are, therefore, about other people or my trans community. However, there are so many that are internal and embodied. They are mine and ours, and I feel them in our bodies. I’m a humble transgender being who has transgender feelings, interacting in a transgender community. And I think that looking at gender simply as a performance without immersing oneself in the research of what births is not enough. I am entranced by this search as my practice circles around it.

Another challenge is to think and speak about gender in masculine and feminine terms. Their limitations immediately become apparent when one’s gender falls outside the two binary categories. So why should it still be defined in relation to them? If we keep doing that, we will never understand the variety of expressions and feelings of gendered beings. For me, gender is energy felt inside. An energy that will take my body to all of its forms. It’s an energy that this performance stems from. It’s limitless and beautiful and dark matter.

Do you yet know how you experience your gender? Maybe you do, perhaps you don’t. In the last two years, I’ve asked my audiences this question after seeing four trans people describe theirs in the short film, and I’ve yet to meet a person who can answer directly. Let’s all think about it and practice, yeah?

AUGUST
And remember to proceed with curiosity.

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