The other day, in the stairwell where I work (where I was gone for 3 years and recently returned), I saw a research collaborator I worked with three years ago and haven’t spoken to since – not even to say that I’m back. I enjoyed working with them, and would have liked to stay in touch, but I haven’t spoken to them, because I’m trans. It would likely be totally fine, aside from some initial extra awkwardness, but dealing with this particular anxiety has not been a priority for me recently.
So, in the stairwell, when I saw this researcher walking down the stairs toward me, I did a double take, and the moment I made eye contact, I felt incredibly awkward and wished I hadn’t. I gave a half-hearted smile very briefly, and then sped away down the stairs as casually and quickly as possible. I then proceeded to feel bad about everything for the next half an hour.
There are a handful of folks like this around my workplace, who I knew on some acquaintance level three years ago, pre-transition, and whom I haven’t spoken to since. I just pretend I’m a completely different person and that I don’t know them. I have no idea if they recognize me at all. They probably do. My double-take and eye contact with this particular researcher in the stairwell broke that facade for a brief moment. It brought up a rush of hard feelings: the sense that I am being unprofessional and amateur by not saying hello to her (and other former colleague-acquaintances), and also the sense that saying hello would force us to confront the fact that I am trans, which would be awkward and uncomfortable, not to mention way too personal, and therefore unprofessional and inappropriate.
I have unwittingly bought into the message that my gender expression and trans-ness are unprofessional and inappropriate. As proud and outspoken as I may be on this blog, in social media, and among my friends, I am also still struggling with shame.
A not insignificant part of me completely believes the messages I have been fed from birth: That I am supposed to be female at all costs, no matter what. That my masculinity and trans-ness are inappropriate and childish. That trans people aren’t really the genders they say they are. That I am not and will never really be male. That other people’s discomfort about my gender is my fault, is my problem, and I deserve to be mistreated for daring to break with the norm.
I carry this every day, everywhere I go.
I haven’t come out to new coworkers who don’t already know I’m trans, because I don’t want to face my own internal projected feeling that they would not longer see me as male if I did, that they would notice my misshapen, bound chest and see that as clear evidence that my gender is other than what I know it to be. These new folks currently refer to me as ‘he’ and use the correct name for me – and I forget sometimes that they don’t know I ever had a different one. I do not want to have to carry the extra anxiety that would come with outing myself, but sometimes I wonder if it would really be worse than the anxiety I carry presuming that their acceptance of my gender is so provisional. It is generally not hard to avoid outing myself, because I don’t talk about my activism or outside life much in lab (and that’s a discussion for a whole other post), but I am always a single question away from having to: “Where did you do your undergrad?” (Refresher: I went to a women’s college.)
While it is validating on some level for folks (who don’t know I’m trans) to automatically refer to me as ‘he’ and ‘sir’, the effects of this are limited, as I alluded to above. I know that most folks are still making presumptions about my gender. It feels provisional. I only get addressed properly because my body and voice have changed enough on T to fit into the socially acceptable range of masculinity for ‘male’. This reinforces the idea that I will only be accepted as male if I conform well enough to dominant ideas of masculinity and maleness, which is not what transitioning and wholeness are about for me. It feels hollow.
This very sentiment contributes to a mix of dysphoria and shame that I feel about my chest. I have had to pause my pursuit of top surgery due to an unnecessarily complicated health insurance situation (which I am working on fixing for myself, but it’s taking a long time). In the meantime, it feels like my chest could and will negate this empty bubble of social acceptance of my gender at any time. My binder is constricting and uncomfortable, and a constant reminder that my body is wrong – wrong in two ways: wrong for me personally, on a level that has nothing to do with anyone else; and considered wrong by society for not conforming to any acceptable standard.
My binding doesn’t perfectly hide the mass on my chest. I feel constantly exposed. I am plagued by the belief that I will never be a real man until I’ve had top surgery, until there’s no trace of my past supposed ‘female-ness’ left in my body visible to strangers. This is impossible, by the way, and even if it weren’t, I hate this feeling. This is internalized transphobia. This is what society has taught me, and teaches all of us, all of the time, and as I mentioned above, I have to face it every single day.
I am working on resisting this message. I am working toward loving myself more as I am, toward disregarding society’s expectations. I call myself a man even if it still feels awkward to me, because I am carving out my own corner of maleness, and resisting the idea that the only acceptable way to be a man is to be as close to cisgender as possible, even as that idea invades my psyche every day. Coming out and beginning transition were huge acts of self care and resistance. But it will take so much more for me to move past all of the toxicity I am fed everyday.
When people show me that they believe me no matter how I appear, this helps. When my friends and family use the right name and pronouns for me, this helps. When I speak out openly about my experiences here and in my Quaker community and receive support and gratitude, this helps. When I speak up for my fellow trans* siblings, when I practice newly out friends’ new names and pronouns and hold their true genders up in my mind from time to time throughout my day (a strategy I recommend to all who are trying to learn someone’s new name and/or pronouns), this helps. When cis people stand up for trans* identities and trans rights, this helps. When I witness other trans* folks with uncommon bodies living their lives and loving themselves, this helps.
When people around me stop reinforcing dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity, and incorporate the idea that gender is not actually binary into their everyday language, this helps. When people listen to me when I say that anti-oppression work needs to be intersectional: When I say that feminism and gay rights need to bring trans* folks along with them now, not when people are supposedly ‘more ready’; when people say ‘What can I do to help?’ and then actually take action instead of saying ‘Your needs and dreams for inclusion are unrealistic” or “People aren’t ready for that” or “This is just how the world works”. When I am allowed to be angry, and express my frustration without someone telling me my anger will drive away supposed allies. When folks listen to me when I call them out instead of expressing defensiveness – and when folks are willing to call me out, too. This helps immensely.
What also helps is imagination. I am practicing playful imagination more in my daily life in a way that may not seem immediately connected. Just about everyday I imagine that my bicycle is a spaceship, and that the bicycle rack in the parking deck at work is a hangar, and my coat is a flight jacket. As I unlock my bike and prepare to depart, I imagine radio transmissions: Docking clamps released. Lights engaged. Flight equipment secure. Navigation systems coming online. Similarly, I am trying to come up with a playful way to think of my binder that will be less painful for me than reality, something not associated with violence (for example, I don’t want to think of it as a special bullet-proof vest). Special parachute vest? Some key piece of a flight uniform? Maybe I can imagine a whole group of space pilots of all sorts wearing the same thing for the same flight-related (not body-related) reasons. This kind of thing brightens my day, and that can go a long way.
As silly as some of this sounds, I believe imagination is an important muscle to exercise. Every day I imagine a world where there isn’t transphobia, racism, or any oppression at all, and I believe that it’s possible. Maybe it’s not possible everywhere today or tomorrow, but it’s possible in bits and pieces here and there, and it’s possible in a future that has yet to come. I firmly believe that, and it is my salvation.
I may be lifting my voice and speaking out more now than I ever have, but it’s not because I’ve got it all figured out. It’s because I don’t. It’s because speaking out is part of how I survive. I invite you to help me, and countless others, by joining in if you haven’t already. Every little bit, every voice, means the world to me, sometimes quite literally. The world I imagine is only possible if we imagine it together, and work together to build it.