Introduction

Playlist: Kae’s Gender Journey

A narrative playlist and liner notes exploring a personal history and struggle with trans gender, self-discovery, and self-ownership.

Playlist: Kae’s Gender Journey

This is a playlist I’ve been working on to process my gender feelings. The first few songs were added to help me process and see myself as transmasc. Most were added after I decided to transition as a way of exploring my history with gender. Both for personal revelations and to use with a new therapist to capture more than my own words can easily say. It’s also a way for me to mark the point between fully reconciling with my gender, and pursuing medical transition. I have an appointment to hopefully start HRT next week.

Think of it like a mixtape dedicated to showing myself that I love him and he’s seen. It’s basically structured like a character playlist, but I’m the character I’m trying to get in the head of. Describing the meaning of each song on a blog was inspired by Critical Role’s character playlists. That’s been an invaluable way to understand their characters, and it’s been invaluable to understand myself.

It’s broken up in chapters because 32 songs and 2h 20m is an awful lot of playlist to commit to listening to in one go, so these are natural pauses. It can also be broken up into Act 1: chapter 1, Act 2: chapters 2 to 4, Act 3: chapters 5 to 7. Act 4: chapters 8 to 9. I also wanted to give some additional structure to the ideas being explored. You may also notice from the outro that it’s structured like the lament and release of a post-rock piece.

Ch. 1: Childhood

1. John Cage 4’33” Autotuned – Matthew Reid

4’33” is about queer silence to me, and the anticipatory tension of it. Silencing yourself inside and silencing yourself to other people. Something is supposed to be there, but it is not played. You sit staring at the keys and imagine so many melodies you could make, but you play silence. It’s about how the baffled novice floundering at reading the sheet music or remembering the tune and the master musician hearing the music of everyone but their self are indistinguishable in performing from the closet. How can I even want a voice when it always sounds wrong to me?

4’33” in its pure and original silent form can’t really be appreciated on a sound recording only. This version felt like it captures 95% of the full idea in this medium.

2. When I Was A Boy – Dar Williams

I listened to this song endlessly as a kid and it profoundly shaped my experience trying to be cisgender. The song is about gender norms, but I’ve heard from a few trans guys this was also literal for them. This was the first song on the playlist, long before I started actively building it.

For me, this is about the euphoria of getting to be one of the boys as a kid. Nerdy guys who gave me solidarity in being bullied and outcast. But there were always things like overnight LAN parties and physical horsing around that parents never allowed me to be part of because I was always a girl to them and a risk to their sons.

It’s also about the dysphoria of losing touch with that masculine identity as I aged and put it aside as an embarrassing childish thing. How much I internalized from society that what I wanted was wrong. Both from conservative bigots and liberal feminists who wanted me to deconstruct why I thought gender mattered and being a man was better. I’ve spent a long time trying to reconcile that even if gender is a cultural construct we can deconstruct and deprioritize, it’s still something I feel deeply, intrinsically, and as an essential part of myself. I’ve literally become debilitatingly disabled with chronic pain and sick by trying to suppress it.

3. Dreams of Cannibalism – Typhoon

I’ve always felt certain criminality to my gender. Being bullied for not conforming, and simply not fitting into society in any coherent way. I kept trying to run from my own life in a lot of ways, but of course, it always followed me. I’m trying to undo these feelings now, but it’s not easy. How can I liberate others from toxic societal norms if I can’t liberate myself? But ultimately, I only have one short life. Best to make the most of it.

Also gotta give love to our disabled Portland musicians. Typhoon’s music has meant so much to me. I learned about them because they opened for Explosions In The Sky at Music Fest Northwest back in 2011. A truly magical and formative concert.

4. D&D + Asexuality – Skull Puppies

Sexuality and gender are so intertwined that I need a nod to my asexuality. At this point, I have no idea how much it’s related to dysphoria and not wanting to experience my body. But minds are just always going to be more inherently sexy to me than bodies.

It got harder and harder to be around guys when I always had to question if part of them was sexualizing me in a straight way. Or when I pushed myself to see men I emotionally connect with sexually because that’s how these things work, right? Maybe if I kept trying I would finally find the right person and stop feeling so deeply broken and incapable of loving people right. I feel selfish in my scant relationships because I have to choose between what I want or what they want. I just want to talk about comics and literature and movies and shows and Critical Role and board games, and D&D. I have no idea if any person’s body is hot, but I get to know their beautiful complex mind and that is so hot.

Ch. 2: Dysmorphia

5. Body Terror Song – AJJ

Being stuck in a disabled trans body that’s constantly uncomfortable is a really terrible experience. Would not recommend. Bodies are a scam. My condolences to everyone who feels trapped in a flesh mech that always feels wrong.

6. God Must Hate Me – Catie Turner

This is the epitome of body dysmorphia to me. Everything just feels like a mistake. Bodies are horrible. Especially mine. I’ve spent decades just trying to will myself to not feel this way and be happy with what I already have. While the stress made my body more and more unlivable and horrifically painful in objectively measurable ways. I’ve had 7 years of feeling like a human experiment as we tried so many medical treatments to bring my pain levels down to still-constant by livable levels. All of it failed because I never let myself understand what was really wrong.

7. Creep – Brandi Carlile covering Radiohead

The ultimate early 90’s outcast song. Internalized transphobia always makes me feel like a creep and a freak, never belonging anywhere. One of the early songs I added because I needed to reflect on the self-hatred as much as hopes for the euphoria that I couldn’t feel even a few weeks ago.

I want a perfect body and perfect soul but they feel so out of reach. Everyone else feels special, but I don’t. Even when people tell me I am. It always feels like something they’re mistaken about or a sweet white lie to cheer me up. But I know the truth.

Gender was always something I just wanted to run from. A horrible performance art done for other people’s happiness, and I always felt like I was forgetting my lines.

Ch. 3: Anxiety

8. Fire at Static Valley – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

This song to me is pure anxiety. Wallowing in muddy reverberating distress and always seeming like it’s building to something that never comes. A mounting tension without release. I resonate with this tortured ending so much.

Godspeed is my favorite band. The two times I’ve seen them were two of the best nights of my life. much like this playlist, they start their concerts with a rumbling near-silence in the dark played through the speakers. Like 4’33” all the conventions of performance are there except for the players and the playing. Slowly they trickle onto the stage one by one to take up their opening piece. They don’t say a word the entire concert, not even to introduce themselves. The interpretation of their performance speaks for them, as it does so often in our lives.

As the lights come on, so do their projections. Short video clips mostly in monotones (this year they had red fire and green plants at key points, instead of all black and white). They juxtapose things like skyscraper construction with stock tickers that glitch with factories billowing smoke with the destruction of bombed-out buildings and raging wildfires. Their music laments and rages and hopes over the top. In the end, it is the most intense and meaningful political speech you’ve ever witnessed. The cries of the damned who will not stay damned. And in that sacred space, there is so much release.

This year I made the hard decision to go to a concert I paid for long ago when I had hope the pandemic would end. I made another decision to force myself to reconcile with my gender before I went because I didn’t want my own baggage in the way of my experience. I wanted the space to explore and confront those feelings among “a joyous, difficult noise that acknowledged the current predicament but dismissed it at the same time. A music about all of us together or not at all.” (Godspeed You! Black Emperor – the full transcript by Maddy Costa interviewing GY!BE, 2012) And I did. I could feel so much stress physically bubble up through me and be released. My chronic pain significantly lessened since. That’s the good shit.

9. Rorschach – Typhoon

I go over my life, over and over, trying to make sense of the pain. “What happened to the life that got lost in the living?” Trying to make sense of myself and my decisions. All the ways I just couldn’t or wouldn’t be normal. My whole life feels like a fiction I’m making up on the spot and my dice always end up rolling low. I feel like a lie I just keep doubling down on even though I know everyone else sees the falsehood. Just when I think I might start flying I crash again. I’m only doing okay at other people’s mercy keeping me afloat. But on my own, I just sink. All the good memories fade while even the smallest bad ones feel crystal clear. How do I learn to hold onto the good? Ultimately it will all be temporary anyway. One day only other people’s memories will remain.

10. Mostly – Vian Izak, Juniper Vale

I’m a terrified anxious mess all the time, constantly losing my sense of self, and full of self-destruction. How do I do this? How do I human? The waves of everything come crashing down on me.

Ch. 4: Suicidality

11. Redecorate – Twenty One Pilots

My apocalypse began in the spring of 2015 when I started getting debilitating migraines. In the process of trying to treat that, a careless doctor tried to treat me for depression without looking for bipolar disorder and it was medically disastrous. Within a few months, I was forced out of my job for disability. Another medication gave me an eating disorder. By winter I tried to take my life. Very unsuccessfully. Which I resented at the time and am thankful for now. I mostly got a scar and a cool tattoo out of that.

I managed to push to look for a bipolar diagnosis after, which was accurate and got me to the right meds. I’ve been able to keep those thoughts more in check since. They’re still there, they’re hanging around today, but I’m better at ignoring them now. They get louder the more transphobia I’m exposed to. I don’t want to be a burden everyone else has to deal with.

12. 1-800-273-8255 – Logic

This is another song exploring the helpless feelings of suicidality. Stuck in a life I desperately don’t want. Always a lonely outsider. Partly because I hate myself too much to let people connect to me unless they’re persistent.

But then there’s the call to action of others and some part of myself wanting me to keep trying to be alive and find something better.

I also think about Brian W. Foster’s interview with Logic on Between The Sheets when I hear this, as well as the 1-800-273-8255 music video about the gay kid facing discrimination by his family. My own family is great, but I was bullied terribly in school.

13. That Funny Feeling – Bo Burnham

And then Covid came. The world spins more and more out of control. Society is a tragic parody of itself. A joke I always feel like I’m about to die from in a bad way. And between that, a funny feeling I can’t shake. My personal apocalypse crescendos with the external one. As the pandemic settles in and becomes more and more horrific, that feeling gets harder to fight.

I don’t want to be in my life. I’m afraid of the outside, and I’m afraid of the inside. Dissociation is the only thing keeping me tethered here. I absorb more and more of other people’s lives online so I can justify not thinking about my own. Living my life isn’t as important as being a witness to others’ suffering in this terrible time. I only remember the bad things, and someone needs to remember all this.

This comedy special took over my brain when it came out and for months afterward. I’ve probably seen the whole thing twenty times. Listened to parts of it a hundred, and I’ve lost could of how many times I’ve left the album on repeat. Bo Burnham gets me. I applaud his bravery in putting himself into a fishbowl to explain his existential breakdown. He shows how much personal growth hurts and is its own apocalypse. One many people are going through right now.

Ch. 5: Breakthrough

14. You’re Aging Well – Dar Williams

Another song off that first Dar Williams CD I listened to endlessly, and early on the playlist.

I have always tried to be defacing the signs. Wanting to be male has felt so much like giving in to the signs saying masculinity is the societal ideal. I’ve tried to be the Woman of Voices to others. But I needed my own Folks of Voices to inspire, me, too. Especially my friends that helped me better understand gender and my relationship to it. Thanks to Cayden, Rachel, Rebecca, and Kea especially.

I started puberty around 11. By 15 it was particularly bad, and everything I wanted felt like it was over. My boobs felt like they would never stop growing and every inch was a greater torture physically and psychologically. My periods were painful and awful and the female hormonal surge made everything feel more wrong. I could feel my little refuge of childhood masculinity being ripped away from me. It felt alien. I felt like I had no idea how to get it back, and there was no use mourning something that would never return.

Intellectually I can see the path on a map now. Emotionally it’s still hard to see it on the ground. I hope transition will help me age well.

15. Wig In A Box – Stephen Task from Hedwig And The Angry Inch

This is about playing with identity and presentation until you can feel yourself. This was D&D for me in a lot of ways. This was one of the first songs on the playlist. I put it on loop pushed myself to experiment with transmasc makeup. It was a call to action for me. A promise I could keep trying, and even if I went back to myself later, one day I’d see a new true self and never go back. Make Up A Guy until I succeed in making myself.

It’s also a nod to Critical Role. Taliesin Jaffe put it on his Percy de Rollo 2017 playlist to talk about how our presentation and how the way we front helps us shape the ways we see ourselves. The complex explorations of non-toxic masculine gender in Critical Role have profoundly shaped my renewed desire to explore this part of myself again. Both what they model through their characters, and what they model through themselves.

The full musical is also an important warning to make sure you’re shaping your identity around who you want to be, not who other people want. Especially when you make big changes. It’s absurd that transphobes think we don’t have these conversations. This musical has been formative for a lot of trans people since it debuted in 1998.

16. A Beginning Song – The Decemberists

Coming out to yourself and others is a new beginning. There’s a wide world out there to see. Trying to walk the road my Folks of Voices showed. I’m going to find myself out there. I’m sick of waiting and wanting. I’m trying now to explore my body to kick apart everything I thought I knew about it and find my heart within.

I just think boys… What a concept! What a gender when it’s done well full of the softness and emotions and freedom guys deserve.

Another Portland band. Also a nod to Liam O’Brien and his Critical Role characters. This song was used on Liam’s Orym ExU playlist. He always has The Decemberists on his playlists and I wanted to continue the tradition… twice. They’re just such a perfect band for character playlists. Caleb and Essek’s complicated relationship and Orym’s everything have been so important to me in my gender and sexuality journey.

17. Lavender Country – Lavender Country

From 1973 off the first explicitly queer country album, titling both the album and the band. Fierce as hell. An anthem of embracing queerness and genderfuckery. A reminder that we should go back and listen to our elders because they have so much wisdom for us. We can’t forge our futures if we don’t remember our past. Queer people (both trans and cis) were fighting for the right to dismantle gender long before many of us were born. Fight for the radical spaces where people can safely experiment with gender, whether in play or self-realization.

Lavender Country faded back into obscurity after this album, but they just released a new one called Blackberry Rose and y’all should check it out. Just as fiery as ever. “The Return of Lavender Country, Queer Country Pioneers” by Barry Walters for Bandcamp is also well worth a read to understand the full context of the band and their work, especially primary singer and songwriter Patrick Haggerty. “Lavender Country” is a song of defiant joy, but most on the albums are about the bitter pain of oppression. We need to remember both aspects to fight the uptick of oppression now.

Miss Vera’s Cross Gender Fun For All by Dr. Veronica Vera is another great exploration of genderfuckery in this vein. She founded Miss Vera’s Finishing School For Boys Who Want To Be Girls in 1992. It was the first finishing school for trans women and anyone curious about messing with the gender binary.

Ch. 6: Be Kind

All the songs in this chapter are by trans and nonbinary artists.

18. From Neverland – Alexander James Adams

Another Peter Pan metaphor. There’s a genderlessness to childhood that can be so freeing. And yet bullies of peers and adults make life hell for not fitting in. Going through the wrong puberty is a poison. It can trap you even more into cisheterorormativity. It’s the wise ones who free you and help you grow from there into the adult you were meant to be. I’ve struggled with seeing my gender feelings as childish, but the truth is that embracing them and living authentically is the most adult thing I can do.

19. Be Kind – Anne Dorko

Falling in love with yourself is the hardest love of all. Trying to dream my true self into existence after pushing him away for so long. It’s so scary to try, and scary to imagine the mistakes I could make and how much I could get myself hurt.

20. Sweaters in Summer – She/Her/hers

Dysphoria fucking sucks. It’s so isolating in so many ways. I don’t want to know me. Why would anyone else? But recognizing that is also the first step to doing something about it. Hopefully the first step to happiness. Maybe I can start listening to the people who want to know me.

21. Daughterson – Joe Stevens

Transition upends everything. Suddenly I become AWARE of every detail of everything. None of it’s easy. But other trans people promise it’s worth it. I like the ring of daughter-son, especially if “son” by itself still feels strange to my parents for now.

With clothing, the great thing about men’s pants is they’re constructed in a way that’s super easy to alter, for those of us that find waistbands too big for the rest of the fit and inseams too long.

Ch. 7: What’s Gender?

22. IDK If I’m a Boy – Blue Foster

There’s a particular kind of gender doubt to being nonbinary. Extra susceptible to wondering if I’m faking. Trying to sort it all out is a mess.

Even though I’m identifying more strongly as transmasc these days, that’s still transmasc nonbinary for me, not a binary trans man. If gender can be imagined as cities and their outlying territories (as I wrote in 2018), I’m still living in the suburbs of man-town now. I never want to feel totally bound by gender binaries.

I’m getting more comfortable having self-ownership over being a reject and a loser, finding others to unite with who’ve felt the same. We aren’t that to each other. I’m breathing better these days being me.

23. Body – The Spook School

Trying to develop a new relationship with my body is hard, even when it’s also a defiant reclamation. I’m hoping body modification through hormones and surgery will help me love it more. My body is my house and it needs a remodel desperately. Things get better, but the bad feelings are still here, too.

24. I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme) – John Rzeznik from Treasure Planet

I’ll never have all the answers for myself, but that’s okay. Hearing Harvey Fierstein open up about his nebulous gender recently in People Magazine really helped me take the next steps. I’m still here, definitely a guy in my way, and trying to own it. I want to feel a grounded realness I haven’t experienced before.

Ch. 8: Why We Fight

25. How Far We’ve Come – Matchbox Twenty

My favorite movie genre is where the main character dies or nearly dies at the start, usually by suicide, and the rest of the movie is about the personal apocalypse of life after death. But the story is really about learning to live again as a new person. Transition is that kind of death of the old self to refind a new self. The old coming apart at the seams, burning to the ground. Looking back on everything as you move on.

26. Could Have Been Me – The Struts

This is the counter to 4’33”: Breaking through the silence to play with my whole heart. Embracing everything loudly because once you start you’re so aware of how short the song is. Waste nothing. Bombing it would be better than never trying. “I want to taste love and pain. I want to feel pride and shame. Don’t want to take my time. Don’t want to waste one line.” There’s a balance now between not being too hasty, but also acknowledging I’ve already held myself back and thought about all this for decades.

This playlist is proof of how long I’ve been thinking about gender. I’ve been listening to some of these songs since I was in elementary school and connecting. I don’t want to waste any more years. I want my parents to know I’ll be okay before I lose them one day.

Also a very Mollymauk Tealeaf song (also played by Taliesin Jaffe). The character that first pushed me to reconcile with my gender identity. Here’s to bullshit fandom drama helping you realize why you’re passionate about things.

27. Rejoice – AJJ

Everything is scary and sucks all the time, but rejoice because we’re alive and we’re all doing the best we can. There’s beauty in the ugliness. There’s joy amid the pain and in defiance of it. The sorrow and anger will never go away. We just learn how to carry it better.

I’ve developed a serious love of 20th-century queer media, especially plays and films. There was a defiance and quiet anger and a resistance to them that I think we’ve lost in our modern era. We convinced ourselves we no longer needed it. But surprise! Violent anti-queer bigotry and anti-queer legislation are back in fashion, baby! Time to look back on how our elders faced it and laughed with blood on their faces.

28. This Is Why We Fight – The Decemberists

Living out as queer inevitably makes you a conscripted soldier in the culture wars. Your whole being is made into a political struggle. But it’s also a cause I believe in and a chance to free others. We fight and fight and slowly gain ground in the war, even if we lose many battles. We’re losing ground right now, but there’s also an upwell in people standing with us and realizing our fight and our lives have value. “When we die, we will die with our arms unbound.”

Never forget the first Pride was a protest and that we have queer rights because trans women threw bricks at the police. Never forget that Berlin was one of the greatest centers of trans acceptance and research before the Nazis burned it all to the ground. This isn’t an intellectual and ideological struggle. This is for our very lives and the lives of those who come after us.

Ch. 9 Outro

29. Cliffs Gaze / cliffs’ gaze at empty waters’ rise / ASHES TO SEA or NEARER TO THEE – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Here we return to the dangerous roiling waters of anxiety threatening to suck me down. But this time there is a grizzled hope. This time I spread my wings like a sea bird and leap off the cliff, catching the updrafts and soaring among the clouds and salty air. This time I am free. Others leap with me, soar with me, call and respond to me. We are in this together.

The struggle is still there. It will always be there. The narrative structure of a playlist obfuscates the reality that life is on shuffle. But I’m holding onto the highs to get through the lows, and I have more faith they’ll return instead of everything slowly getting worse.

30. Postcard From 1952 – Explosions in the Sky

So many moments in my life are captured in time like slow-motion photographs in the album of my memory like the Postcard From 1952 music video shows. Trying to remember the past and recontextualize it with everything I was aiming my mental camera away from but caught anyway. Sometimes it’s quiet contemplation. Sometimes it feels like running as a kid full of energy. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming surge as every emotion I’ve held back bursts out.

The first time I saw Explosions in the Sky up in Portland at Music Fest Northwest was utterly magical (where Typhoon opened). EITS were conduits for the vibrations of the universe and the crowd stood in near-silent awe weeping. I remember one of the musicians arching up as the music swelled and falling to his knees as this universal thrumming traveled through him. Then just sitting on the stage curled and huddling around his guitar reckoning with everything. That’s when I fully fell in love with post-rock.

31. Kids Will Be Skeletons – Mogwai

Derrick Brown used this as the background music to his video reading “A Finger Two Dots Then Me,” one of my favorite poems. This piece of music feels like a prayer to the universal oneness of creation in all its messy overwhelming glory. Like Lau Tzu, Ginsberg, Corso, and others said before Brown: every single small and insignificant thing, every moment is holy. We are whole.

the design
in the stars
is the same
in our hearts
the design
in the stars
is the same
as our hearts

in the rebuilt machinery of our hearts.

So Love…

“A Finger Two Dots Then Me” by Derrick Brown

32. OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for D.H.) – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

This will not be a serenity of silence, but the calm of constant change bearing us away like the tides and we are well provisioned for the journey. What choice do we have but an adventure, and the hope that when we’re buried at sea it will be a good end?

FIN

Congratulations! You made it to the end of the playlist. I hope you found some music and some notes that resonate with you. Maybe I’ll put together another one next year to commemorate my genderversary. We’ll see.

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