By Chloe Schwenke. Red Hen Press, 2018. 260 pages. $17.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
At Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Women’s Retreat two years ago, I had the privilege of leading a writing workshop about exploring our womanhood in all the forms it takes. I was teaching creative writing at University of Maryland that year, and I brought my experiences from those classes to my Women’s Retreat workshop—including asking Friends to share their preferred pronouns when they shared their names.
This practice got varied responses. Most people said, “she/her.” Some said, “I use women’s pronouns.” And one Friend said, “Just smile and point at me.”
I thought this Friend seemed uncomfortable, and asked later if I was correct in my impression that the question didn’t speak to her. The response was one of concern: “The grand scale of this discussion about gender identity strikes me as self-absorbed. . . . I worry that if we become too obsessed with our personal identities we might miss the chance to care for others.”
I did not know what to say then. Today, I would hand that Friend, and any Friends with the same question, SELF-ish by Chloe Schwenke.
Schwenke has lived and worked on at least four continents that I counted in my reading. She has worked as an architect, a policy expert, an ethics advisor, a professor, and was the senior advisor on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance in Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development under the Obama Administration. Her feminism and fierce social justice advocacy for LGBTQ people around the world are informed by her training, work, her Quaker faith, and her experiences as a transgender woman.
Schwenke’s memoir of transitioning genders gracefully balances an academic exploration of gender—summarizing Judith Butler’s theory of performative acts, discussing the distinctions between sexuality and gender identity, and unpacking popular culture portrayals of trans folks—with personal anecdotes. And it examines exactly the question that arose for the Friend I was with at Women’s Retreat: “Are we morally permitted to be self-ish when our identity itself is on the line?”
SELF-ish tells the story of how the author found and nurtured Chloe—a self who was for childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood buried deep under gender-assigned-at-birth—and tells of a life that is not defined by self-absorption, but spoke to me of a woman whose Light burns so fiercely that it fuels work dedicated to the good of others. Schwenke points to the differences in the ways she worked with international communities before and after her transition: the transition from international architect, planner, and developer to human rights advocate.
“Kenya offered me an adventuresome young gentleman’s dream,” Schwenke recalls in the chapter “Singing Messenger, Dancing Advocate—In Africa!” of her trip there at age 28, when she was known to the world as Stephen. “If I had any feminine inclinations or subconscious awareness of Chloe, they (and she) were pushed down to an inaccessible part of my psyche. . . . I was living large, living male, but not listening to my life at all.”
Schwenke’s transition from living a misgendered life, one in which she went unacknowledged as a woman, to living openly as herself was one that allowed her to live other parts of her life differently as well. It led to a life of advocacy and thought.
Thinking back to my Friend’s question about whether preoccupation with the self might preclude us from thinking about others, I see a distinction between the words “selfish,” as in self-absorption, and “self-ish” in the way Schwenke uses it. The latter means devoting oneself to living authentically. To be selfish is to be thoughtless; to be self-ish is to be intentional, to be aware, to be fully present with oneself. It is this meaning that Schwenke embraces.
In the chapter “Stereotypes,” Schwenke tells of a gathering of transgender women from around the United States that she attended while midway through her own transition. In this chapter, she makes, apologetically, an incredible confession: a fear that she wouldn’t be able to “pass” as a woman, that she would “be the embodiment of one of the worst transgender stereotypes: the man in a dress. . . . I simply wanted to be Chloe, a woman, and not Chloe, a transgender woman.”
The fear—and the nonsensical injustice!—of being viewed by others as “inauthentic” in her presentation of herself is a clear theme of the memoir. Later in that same chapter, she goes on to write of herself and of other trans folks: “we simply—but emphatically—claim ourselves as whole persons, and no one is better qualified to know us.” For me, that is the core message of Schwenke’s memoir.
Gender is so fundamental to ourselves that it’s hard to see it as its own subject, out of context of the rest of our lives. It is so pervasive, so present in so many aspects of our lives that it’s hard to understand it as anything but essentially linked to the physical body. SELF-ish asks cisgendered readers like me—readers who identify with the genders assigned to them at birth—to pause and imagine how disconcerting, how painful it is to be told that what you know to be fundamentally true about yourself is wrong, that you do not know the truth about your own body, mind, and way of being in the world.
Asserting one’s selfhood, over and over, in the face of being constantly misgendered, discriminated against, and physically endangered requires strength and faith. It requires a person to be “self-ish.”
My query for Friends who do not see all the facets of gender—who may wonder why we leave space for preferred pronouns on name tags, or feel uncomfortable when they see a person whose gender isn’t immediately made obvious by outward expression through clothing, hairstyle, accessories—is this: how can we be fully present and attuned to our community, families, friends if we are spending energy tamping down that of God within us? Shouldn’t we live in whatever way lets us feel more authentic, more ourselves, more true to the Spirit?
Quaker faith challenges us to “align our light with our faith and values.” After reading SELF-ish, I can say this: not only is self-ishness okay, it is necessary to a life of true integrity.