Mutable

“Sometimes I feel like ‘male’ is an island I’m clinging to after being lost at sea.”

This is hard for me to write about.

It has been a year since I started working in a place where everyone (who didn’t already know I am trans) perceives me to be a cis man. I have spent a lot of time freaking out about this, and trying to understand and control my feelings about it.

I began taking testosterone because I finally learned how to listen to my body. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, the tightness in my chest, and the clenched muscles in my shoulders that my body needed to change, and that testosterone was going to bring my body and self into greater alignment. This continues to be true for me.

Since coming out and beginning transition in this way, I have been able to come alive in ways I didn’t even know were possible.

Once it became clear to me that I was not female, despite what I had been assigned at birth, and despite what I and others had believed and imposed on me my whole life, anything that put me back into that box was incredibly painful. My body braced against being referred to as ‘she’, ‘ma’am’, and ‘miss’, and uses of my previous name. My body held all of that pain. I dreamed of not having to deal with this, of finally being perceived as male, of not constantly bracing for misgendering and for constantly being put back into the ‘female’ box. I imagined a sense of liberation coming with this. I imagined it would mean I was finally going to be fully seen.

And then, after enough time on testosterone, people finally began to perceive me as male, and generally stopped referring to me as ‘she’, ‘ma’am’, or ‘miss’. My reactions were not quite what I had expected.

I remember the first weeks working in my new lab space, my body with a little extra concealment under a blue lab coat was braced for any interaction with new coworkers. Were they going to receive me and accept me as male? Could they tell my chest was bound? Could they tell that I don’t know (cis) male social norms? Would they suddenly start misgendering me if they found out I was trans?

Even though all signs pointed to their perception of me as male, I felt raw and vulnerable. I felt awkward. I felt a visceral fear of being returned to the time of constant misgendering, and a need for safety from that in order to heal.

I remember one of the first times a new coworker of mine who did not know that I was trans referred to me with ‘he/him’ pronouns. Instead of feeling seen, I was surprised to find that I still felt lost. These were the right pronouns used for the wrong reasons – the reason being that this coworker perceived me as male based on my appearance, not based on knowing who I am or truly being able to see me. This coworker used those pronouns because they placed me in a binary, cisnormative world, where their perception of my body = my gender = my pronouns, and came with a big presumption that I, like everyone else, was cisgender.

It made me think back to the very short time ago when people incorrectly used ‘she/her’ pronouns to refer to me for the exact same reasons. It made me think of dear friends whose appearances will almost always be misinterpreted in this way.

I learned that finally being perceived as male meant also being perceived as cis.

This is not liberation. I remain invisible, just in a different way.

[Side note: I want to take a moment here to acknowledge that being perceived as cis is something that a great many trans folks aspire to, for a variety of reasons, and that not all trans people are able to change their appearance enough to be consistently be perceived as cis. In many situations, being perceived as cis brings enormous safety and opportunity. It comes with privilege, which is a responsibility that I take very seriously.

As a white man commonly perceived as cisgender, even if I were 100% out as transgender, I will still have greater employment opportunities and a significantly lower chance of being assaulted, murdered, or generally disrespected than if I were not perceived as cis, than if I were transfeminine instead of transmasculine, than if I were a person of color, or of a different class background. I aspire one day to be able to be 100% out in my work environments, in part because I have the privilege of this requiring less risk while potentially being able to bring greater visibility and advocacy. Also, click here to see some ways everyone can support trans people who do not ‘pass’ as cis.]

This experience has brought up a lot of questions for me, like this little one: What does it even mean to be ‘male’ in this society?

In a recent email to a friend, I found myself writing the following:

“I still have some doubt about my gender. I do not, however, have any doubt about what I’ve done and still need to do for my body. I cannot imagine stopping T, or giving up on the idea of top surgery. For me, it’s visceral. But sometimes I feel like ‘male’ is an island I’m clinging to after being lost at sea, and I’m not sure if I’m just clinging to it because it’s the most solid thing I’ve been able to find, or if it’s actually the right place for me. … For now, for me, it feels safe, and more right than where I was before, and I’m trying to just be ok with not knowing for sure.”

It is terrifying to admit that I might have doubts about my gender. So often, any doubt expressed by a trans person is immediately interpreted as their being insincere, wrong, attention-seeking, or really anything but trustworthy, anything but actually trans. Any indication of doubt is used as an excuse to deny life-saving medical care, and to openly disrespect that person’s humanity, and to suggest that being trans isn’t a real thing. Uncertainty like this exposes trans people to violence.

I feel that risk even as I write and plan to publish this.

At the same time, I believe it is important to live my truth, and if my truth involves a little bit of doubt and uncertainty, then so be it. I do not want to pretend that I have it all figured out. I do not want to pretend that it is easy.

Right now, when I tell you that I am male, it means that that’s the best interpretation of who I am that I can articulate right now, and it is essential that you continue to respect that. I may have more certainty tomorrow, or less. Even as I continue to feel certain that I am not female, I may someday come to understand that there is a better way to articulate my gender that does not include ‘male’. It is also possible that I may grow more certain over time that ‘male’ is correct. If this makes you uncomfortable, know that it makes me even more uncomfortable than it does you.

Also know that that discomfort comes in part from oppressive ideas that we’ve all been taught our whole lives: that gender is supposed to be immutable, that trans people are only to believed if they have a consistent, doubtless story about their gender that fits into the binary.

Uncertainty is terrifying for me. The risk of being dismissed and disrespected for expressing any doubt only compounds the issue. But it is a reality, not only for me, but for countless other trans folks who are trying to find their way to wholeness and safety in a world that often makes wholeness and safety mutually exclusive goals.

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You Are Not Here Because You Belong Here

You belong here because you are here.

Recently, a tech company had a female employee depicted in one of the advertisements for their company. There was sexist backlash, folks suggesting that the woman in the ad must have been an actress or part of some kind of ploy, because she didn’t look like an engineer.

What does an engineer look like then, if not like all of the people who are engineers?

Rightfully, there has been a fantastic twitter response, with lots of women who are engineers posting photos of themselves with the hashtag #ilooklikeanengineer.

They are not engineers because they look like engineers.

They look like engineers because they are engineers.

Still, for those of us who are less represented in a field or community, it can be easy to internalize that idea – that we are alone and therefore don’t belong.

I have spent a lot of time feeling out of place and somehow wrong as a queer and trans person in science. I look around and feel surrounded by straight cis people in a world that suggests that I should be straight and cis, and I feel like I don’t belong. I don’t fit the profile, and what am I even doing here?

But that calculation is backwards. If the people who make up an environment are the ones who define that environment, and I am one of the people here, then I am part of the definition of that environment, no matter what anyone else says.

I have a science background. I spend most of my days reading and doing science. I am a scientist. I am queer and trans, and I am what a scientist looks like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t fit the profile, or if other people think I shouldn’t exist. I do exist, and I am here.

This mindset has made a huge difference for me. Instead of feeling like I don’t really belong anywhere in this world that tells me I shouldn’t, I can take a deep breath in and remember that no one can tell me I don’t belong, because I am here.

No one can tell you that you don’t belong, either, because you are also here. Or there, wherever you are. You are part of the very definition of the communities you participate in, no matter how different or ‘other’ you feel.

Believe it.

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Breathing In Anger

I have been feeling really angry this week.

I have been feeling really angry, and part of me is relieved.

I have been holding my breath and trying to survive an extraordinary sea of change in my life. I have been trying to make sense of the senselessness of for the first time being perceived as a straight cis man after a year of painful misgendering, and the relief of being referred to correctly was overrun with the knowledge that I just got lucky is all, that it doesn’t mean anything is actually better. I am still not fully seen.

I have been holding my breath as I got lost in a world of high pressure science, a new field, a new group of coworkers, and the same culture of anxiety that gave me the idea that maybe I should skip going on a trip that would be life-affirming for me, because two more regular work days in the lab is probably more important – because maybe my ability to be productive, in our capitalist society, is more important than my well being, than my humanity.

When I don’t breathe, I am numb. This anger is a cracking open.

This week I am reading too many opinions from cis people about what it means to be a woman, cis women searching publicly for ways to reconcile their identities – or not – with Caitlyn Jenner, as if she represents all trans women and all trans people, or is somehow trying to represent all women, or anyone but herself. It is especially painful coming from cis queer women, as if trans women haven’t been around for a long time, as if trans women weren’t an essential part of the Stonewall riots that launched the gay rights movement before they were discarded from the movement, as if they don’t get shit on for trying to be whole, too. It feels as if cis people believe they have some right to weigh and assess the validity of trans identities, and dissect us as if we’re dead specimens in a lab and then discard us when we become too inconvenient. When we cry out, we’re told that we’re being unreasonable 0r impatient.

What did you expect? we’re told. It’s hard for us to understand, we’re told. This is just how it’s always been, we’re told. My life has been hard too, get over it, we’re told.

I am flinging every well-written article by trans women about Caitlyn Jenner that I can find out on social media, just in case it might make a dent in the knowledge of my majority cis community of friends, just in case this extra education will somehow protect me or other trans folks from this poisonous bullshit in the future. I am frantic for the antidote, and to bring it to everyone I possibly can. I am beginning to sense my own desperation.

Sometimes, I educate to advocate.

Sometimes, I educate because it feels like the only way I can protect myself.

Sometimes, I educate because I am desperate to be seen.

Education is my tool of survival.

I went to the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference last week, a life-affirming experience for me to be in a trans-centered space. I felt a mix of relieved and vulnerable being in a place where I could actually be read as a trans man, rather than misread as cis man or woman. It was even a little uncomfortable, like a bandaid being ripped off. But even PTHC isn’t safe for everyone. Attendees are predominantly transmasculine, predominantly white. We are not immune to the systems that oppress us. We internalize them and throw them back at ourselves and each other. We are all infected.

My anger, painful as it is, is a breath of life. It is a reminder that my wholeness, everyone’s wholeness, is still worth fighting for.

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Navigating Anxiety

Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table, feeling a vague sense of dread. There is no one particular thing on the horizon causing this, it’s just constant. In fact, dread is only part of it. I think of all the things that I need to do – sort out travel logistics for rapidly upcoming trips, find a new primary care doctor, add the last two utility bills to splitwise, plan events that are part of upcoming travels, science (data analysis, more brainstorming), dishes I need to wash, the clutter I’ve left in my room and common spaces, emails and wedding invitations I need to respond to, and on and on – so many things that I should have been doing all along, or should have done long ago. They all sit in the back of my mind, pressing on me, demanding attention, and rather than set about doing them one by one, my brain shuts down, and I do everything I can to shut them out for just a little longer.

This is anxiety.

Or part of it, anyway. I feel so easily overwhelmed by a list of totally do-able tasks not because there are so many things I need to do, but because each item left undone feels like part of a grand indictment of my failure as a human being. Rather than seeing each item as a task to be completed, each is a referendum on my ability to control my life and be perfect – and I am haunted by the belief that if I am not perfect, I do not deserve love or connection.

Probably the worst thing you could tell me right now is that I am being overdramatic.

Anxiety does not respond to logic. For me, anxiety is a sense that I should be able to control things that are beyond my control, and my inability to control these actually uncontrollable things means I don’t deserve love. I can sit here and know intellectually that this does not make any sense, but my emotions, my fight/flight/freeze response system, do not respond to intellectual arguments or rationality.

Something else that doesn’t help? Suggesting that I just do the things already! If it were that easy, trust me, I would have done them by now. Below is a great comic that illustrates this:

(Click the image for the source and a larger version.)

It takes a long time, sometimes, for me to realize that I am responding from an anxious place, semi-frantically avoiding as many things as possible. I am so accustomed to this vague sense of dread, a subtle feeling that deserved doom is lurking around every corner, that I don’t always notice it.

And besides, it’s not just a to do list for me. It’s a fog of negative thoughts about myself: My undone dishes and clutter represent my inability to be a responsible adult who is doomed to be lonely forever because how could anyone truly appreciate and love me if I’m a slob? Yet-to-be-made travel plans, dealing with utility bills – again, I must be irresponsible and therefore worthy only of rejection and disconnection. Science: why haven’t I made more progress? How will I ever succeed and be lovable if I can’t accomplish anything significant or control people’s impressions of me as a competent scientist? How can I ever  possibly measure up to the brilliant people around me? If I don’t respond to emails in a timely fashion, then I’m disappointing people, and how will I ever be lovable if I’m a constant disappointment. Finding a doctor – how can I find a doctor and completely avoid hearing anything invalidating about my gender or body from anyone in the medical profession that will only further confirm all the awful things I’ve internalized about myself from mainstream society and am already constantly fighting against?

What if I can’t do all of the things perfectly – what if it’s too late to do any of them perfectly? The more emotional baggage attached, the harder it is to bring myself to do it.

I usually don’t even realize I am feeling this way. Instead, I experience tension in my shoulders, clenching of my stomach, I hold my breath, and part of my brain says NO NO NO SHUT IT OUT and before I can even ask myself ‘Shut what out?’ I turn to Netflix, a podcast, music, endless internet surfing, anything, anything to avoid this awful sense of my constant failing. I can put it off for another episode, another night, another day, another week – and then another, and then another, and each time, it gets harder.

All of this, even the procrastinating, takes energy – a lot of energy – and I only have so much energy at a time. All of this, too, feels incredibly isolating. I feel alone with my seemingly-reasonable-looking to do list of terrors. Anyone else would have done this better – OR, even if they hadn’t done it better, they would just still be lovable simply because they’re someone else, and it’s ok for other people to be imperfect. Just not for me.

I should mention that it’s not just to do lists. That thing I said the other day – or ten years ago – that was probably an awful thing to have said (but maybe not) and I can’t let it go. I failed to read someone’s mind about something and did or said the wrong thing – or I am currently doing something upsetting but no one has told me yet because it should be obvious. I don’t talk to my friends enough, or I am trying to talk to them too much. That thing someone said or did recently – what did it mean? They could have done it for [X] reason, or [Y] reason, and what do either of those possible reasons say about whether or not I deserve to be cared about? I live with a never ending parade of hypothetical scenarios about mostly bad things that might happen in the near future that I would deserve because I am clearly unlovable.

Ok, before anyone starts to worry about me too much, let me say a few things:

1 – I know that I am a lovable, worthy human being. I just don’t always believe it.

2 – I have gotten way, way better at navigating my anxiety over the years. None of this is new. I am not in crisis.

3 – It’s all a matter of degrees – sometimes these feelings are really intense. Sometimes they’re background noise. I’m still a very functional human being and I actually do accomplish many things on a daily basis, whether or not I am always able to recognize that.

4 – The fact that I am sharing this at all is a good sign, if it means nothing else, because it is a step toward breaking the cycle of isolation.

What I also want to share here, because I do know that I am not alone with these kinds of feelings, are things that help me deal with anxiety once I’m able to identify that I am feeling anxious:

– Name it: I am feeling anxious. Anxiety is a feeling, like other feelings, and my fears are not actually true, even if I believe they are right now. It is ok that I am feeling anxious. I cannot change my feelings or what I believe about myself from moment to moment, but I can acknowledge that my negative thoughts are not true. Usually, doing this has a delayed effect – a few hours or days later, I feel better.

– Unqualified mantras: It is ok if I am imperfect. Repeat. It is ok if I am imperfect.

– Writing it out: Sometimes I write stream of consciousness emails to a good friend, both to gain some perspective, and to break the isolation a little.

-Bringing myself back to the present: There is not actually a bear in the room. These anxious feelings are part of fight/flight/freeze, which is usually a survival instinct in the face of mortal harm. Sometimes reminding myself of this, and that my life is not actually in immanent danger, helps me to calm down. Looking around the room I am in and identifying objects can help – I am sitting in a chair in the kitchen. There’s a water bottle on the table, the window is cracked open, the sun is starting to go down. I am here, now, and I am ok. I will be ok tomorrow, too, and the next day, and the next.

– Letting go: Sometimes, actively sorting out what I can and cannot actually, reasonably control can help. For example, I cannot read other people’s minds, nor can they read mine, and this means nothing about how much we care about each other. If I am worried that I might be doing something that is upsetting to someone else and they just haven’t told me yet (a common worry for me), I remind myself that it is their responsibility to tell me about their feelings, not my responsibility to guess, because it is impossible for me to guess.

Things that other people can do to help:

– Listen to me without judgement when I need to vent about all of the things I feel like I should be doing.

– Be clear and upfront about your feelings, particularly if I am doing something annoying or upsetting. I feel way, way better if I can trust that someone will tell me when something’s up, because it’ll be easier for me to stop overanalyzing everything and trying to guess.

– Remind me that it’s ok to be imperfect, particularly if you notice me trying to be perfect at something. Be patient when I am unable to hear you tell me this.

– Accept that my anxiety is illogical and don’t try to reason with me about it. Trust me.

I am interested in hearing about how others cope with anxiety. How do you get through? What helps? What doesn’t?

(Note: I am not asking for advice on how to deal with mine. Please do not try to give me any suggestions.)

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‘It’s complicated’

I am constantly trying to find a place for my story, my life, in this world that regularly denies the existence of trans folks, both actively and tacitly.

Until I was 26, I had picked up on very few clues that my gender was anything other than that of a cis woman. I worked hard to be proud of my gender. I worked hard to break out of rigid expectations placed on women, real pressures that I felt – and still have internalized. I experienced both subtle and overt sexism as someone perceived as a woman.

So, even though it turns out that I am a man, is it fair to say that I know what it’s like to be a woman? What does such a statement even mean? What, then, of the fact that I feel like I’m only just beginning to learn about what it’s like to be a man? What does that even mean?

Welcome to my brain.

Part of the issue with these questions is that they are incomplete. For example, it turns out that for me, since I’ve come to understand that I’ve always been male regardless of whether or not I knew it consciously, I’m not actually just now learning how to be a man. I’ve been a man my whole life. All I have to do to be man is to continue existing. What I am actually learning about is what it’s like to be perceived as a cis man in our patriarchal, gender-role-obsessed society.

I don’t actually know what it’s like to be a cis woman, but I do have some firsthand experience as someone perceived as a cis woman, and treated accordingly, for better or for worse.

The truest statement is this: I know what it’s like to be a trans man. Actually, even more true: I know what it’s like to be me, as a trans man, both before and after realizing it.

There are no universal ways to be any gender, or to be cis or trans or something else entirely. I do not know, for example, what it’s like to be some other trans man.

There are some awful ways that some trans folks, particularly trans women, are excluded from spaces based on distorted ideas about whether or not they ‘know what it’s like to be [a particular gender]’. For example, many trans women are excluded from women only spaces because cis women have decided that because trans women lived any part of their lives perceived as male, that they do not know what it’s like to be a woman. What kind of woman is it, that they’re holding as some kind of universal standard? A cis woman. An impossible standard. Also, there are no, true universal standards of gender.

Just as I, a trans man, am a man no matter my socialization, so too are trans women. Cisnormative society makes no space for our experiences, and tells us we have to squeeze our lives into cis narratives. This is why I catch myself asking these questions, such as ‘do I know what it’s like to be a woman?’ – I am trying to squeeze my life into a cis narrative. It’s actually utterly exhausting.

I have internalized cisnormativity. To me, being a man and having gone to a women’s college are incongruous, and don’t make sense in a cisnormative framework. I am confronted with this regularly, as I find myself reluctantly concealing where I went to undergrad from colleagues who (probably) don’t know that I’m trans. I worry about situations where I will have to disclose – on a resume, or if asked point blank where I went with no easy way to avoid answering the question. I pretty frequently imagine how people might respond, and what I might be able to say in response:

Me: I went to Wellesley

Coworker or acquaintance: …Isn’t that a women’s college?

Me: Yes

Coworker or acquaintance: …But you’re…

Me: Option A: It’s complicated. [Attempted subject change and subsequent anxiety.] Option B: Well, I thought I was a woman at the time. Option C: I’m transgender. [Further, reluctant clarifications.] Option D: Yes. [Attempted subject change, subsequent anxiety.]

I shouldn’t have to clarify. I shouldn’t have to squeeze my life into a constructed framework that I will never fit into. Did I mention that even just worrying about all of this is exhausting? It takes up energy that I could be devoting to other work or play that would bring me more much-needed fulfillment.

Being perceive as a cis man is still very new and raw for me. I am working toward not worrying so much about these things, but it’s hard not to when I’m confronted with it in one way or another every day, just by trying to exist as who I am.

I dream of a world where not everyone is perceived to be cisgender all the time; where no gender or gender expression is privileged over any other. I know, it’s a pipe dream, but we’ll never get there if we don’t take any steps toward it.

Oh, what fortunate timing: I just heard this come through my earbuds: “If Jim can’t take his eyes off it, just imagine her reaction.” As I am wrapping up this post, a commercial just came on from the site I’m streaming music from. It’s about jewelry, possibly an engagement ring. Just pause for a moment and let all of the assumptions in that statement sink in: All women like jewelry more then men. Men should buy jewelry for women. Jewelry is only for women. Men should propose to women. Only straight people care about jewelry. No one other than straight, gender-conforming people exist/are worth marketing to. It would be one thing if this was only one of many jewelry commercials out there, with different types of folks being givers and receivers of jewelry in a variety of scenarios, but it’s not. If a commercial like this featured a gay couple, it would make the news. This is how queer and gender non-conforming people are erased every day. EVERY DAY. The ripple effects can and do build to violent tsunamis for some of the most vulnerable among us.

Just some things to think about.

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(Not) Fitting In

Maybe they won't notice I'm a rainbow. I'm just going to keep pretending I'm not.

(I just had to use this image.)

The other day, I was in lab chatting with a couple of my coworkers, when I thought I heard them mispronoun me. That is, I thought I heard one of them – and then the other – accidentally refer to me as ‘she’ or ‘her’ and then quickly correct themselves. While this is something I still expect from folks who knew me before from time to time, these coworkers did not know me before.  As far as I know, they do not know that I am trans.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that this is what happened. They were speaking quickly and were turned away from me, and I was in the midst of half-focusing on something else as we chatted, but it was enough to spike my anxiety. What if that is what happened? Why would that have happened? I immediately imagined the following scenario:

They  had somehow figured out that I am or might be trans – either someone who knew me before told them, or they put it together after realizing that I went to a women’s college, or maybe it’s somehow obvious and I’m fooling myself – and had been talking about it shortly before I came into that lab space, and now had completely altered perceptions of me (no longer saw me as male, or completely male) that led them to struggle with my pronouns all of a sudden.

In all likelihood, they didn’t actually mispronoun me. It is also not unlikely that they did, but that it had nothing to do with my gender or their perception of me, and instead had to do with something unrelated that they might have been talking about before that had them in a brief mindset of using ‘she/her’ pronouns – this happens sometimes.

But I don’t want to talk here about what did or did not actually happen. I want to take a moment to talk about the anxiety that I felt in that moment. When I imagined the scenario I described above, it was upsetting not just because it removed my dignity, but because I believed I would have deserved that treatment.

I still have the oppressive narrative I’ve been taught my whole life running in my head: What would you have expected? You’re weird, and they don’t understand – and why would they? You can’t expect people to care about this weirdness about you, they have their own things to worry about. It’s clearly your fault you’re this way anyway, you can’t put it on other people, you liberal freak.

I have been taught to believe that I deserve ridicule and mistreatment, and that I should just swallow it. It takes active work, active retraining, for me to begin to believe otherwise, and when I haven’t been spending time working on my own retraining, I’m vulnerable. And in the last two months, I’ve been swamped with other things.

Keep in mind here: I wasn’t actually ridiculed or mistreated! The anxiety alone is part of the oppression. Just existing in the micro-culture of this particular daily lab environment, in which I have never experienced the acknowledgement that trans people, or even gay people, exist is an oppressive experience in an of itself, even without any microaggressions.

Right now, I appear to fit in, because (as far as I’m aware) everyone perceives me to be male and presumes I’m cisgender. People probably also presume I’m straight. Because this is what we all presume about other people: Unless there are huge, obvious signs to the contrary, most people presume everyone is straight and cisgender.

I am invisible, and feel a huge pressure to maintain that invisibility, to continue to conform. There are no non-awkward ways to point out that I am trans. There is no context for my existence. If I were dating a man, I could mention that and pretty easily out myself as queer, but I’m not right now. And even that would feel like a risk in an environment where no one is out as queer, nor has anyone mentioned other queer people, or anything queer-related in the news.

When your identity is understood by society to be ‘other’, then any environment that does not regularly, actively engage in acknowledging the existence of your identity defaults to the oppressive norm in which your identity is negligible and unimportant at best. In a sense, a fundamental part of who you are is not just erased, but feels shameful. It is a huge and exhausting burden to carry.

I’m not going to claim that no one else in my lab environment is queer or trans, or has queer friends, or has never brought any of that up in conversation in lab. It’s that I haven’t seen or heard anything about this myself. As far as I know, I am completely alone, not just as a queer and trans person, but as someone who even thinks about these things.

This is the other piece of all this: I feel alone. I have no advocates to take any of this on with me. (Sure, there are some folks who knew me before who use the right name and pronouns, and who (I presume, hopefully) haven’t outed me to anyone, but that’s not advocacy.)

No environment is perfect. In my Quaker communities, for example, not everyone gets it. There are still a huge number of Friends who are resistant to anti-oppression work of various flavors, for whom thinking about gender is largely uncomfortable and to be avoided. But the difference is that I know that I am not alone. There is a critical mass of Friends around me who do think about these things, who are regularly, actively acknowledging the existence of trans and queer folks. In fact, many Friends in my immediate Quaker community are doing more than just acknowledging the existence of various identities – they are taking steps to challenge the assumptions we make about each other. The Quaker meeting I go to, for example, has recently begun inviting folks to share their pronouns along with their names during introductions, and has also implemented a new hearing assistance system for folks of various hearing abilities. These are active steps that challenge the default assumptions we make about each other that can be extremely harmful.

We still live in and are influenced by the oppressive teachings of mainstream society, but I know I am not alone among Friends, and I see us making progress together. This makes an enormous difference for me personally, and I know it has been making a difference for others, too.

Being the only queer/trans person I know and see in my daily work life is exhausting, whether or not I am out. Being invisible is exhausting – and I’m not sure that coming out would necessarily change my sense of invisibility, because it would likely be filed away as a random fact about me and not considered much further by most, unless I continue to bring it up myself.

Here is another important piece of all of this to consider: When I spend 8-12 hours for five or more days a week in an environment like the one I work in, that doesn’t (regularly if ever) acknowledge the existence of queer and trans folks, it tacitly reinforces all of the messages I am working to dismantle in myself. I feel more acutely the enormous pressure to conform, to go along with the perception that I am cisgender and avoid challenging it, lest I cause others discomfort or bring deserved ridicule upon myself. It leads to these moments of anxiety, this fear of being found out, which reinforces the idea that my body and who I am are shameful. Fitting in has never felt so uncomfortable. Probably because I actually still don’t fit in at all, even if not everyone can see that.

apples and orangeI hope someday, for my own sake if for nothing else, that I will find a way to be more open and out not just in this particular environment, but all future environments like this one – that I will find a way to make a context for myself. Right now, I don’t know how to even work toward that, and I’m low on spare energy.

Of course, my own lack of acknowledgement of these things in conversation contributes to the omission, but the stakes are higher for me. It’s more personal, and I need to build more strength to prepare myself first.

I invite any cis folks out there reading this to consider your daily environments. What do you usually talk about with coworkers and acquaintances whom you see regularly? Are you tacitly, unintentionally presuming everyone is straight and cis, or even non-disabled, or a US citizen, or of a certain financial background? How might this impact folks in your environment – or you, yourself? Are there ways you can bring up the existence of trans folks or queer folks that you otherwise wouldn’t think of – things in the news, for example? Just think about it, if nothing else.

I also invite you to think about how this isn’t just oppressive for those with marginalized identities – it’s oppressive for everyone. More on that in a future post.

Finally, I can’t write a post like this without also acknowledging that it is a privilege to be able to blend in the way that I do, and that many trans people dream of being able to do this and/or would be so much safer where they are if they could. I also want to say that we shouldn’t have to blend in in order to be respected and safe, or to feel worthy and whole.

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I-93

As a transgender person, my body is a living, breathing, walking protest. My body inconveniences other people, makes ‘regular folks’ angry, is declared unnecessary, inappropriate, and disruptive. My body is asked to accommodate other people’s schedules, is told what shape it should hold – a shape impossible for it to hold, and is given no solutions, no alternatives, and no empathy. Yet I give my body the shape it needs to hold as best I can despite all of this, because I have to, because I demand dignity, equality, and justice. I am boldly declaring my right to exist.

I was caught off guard by my reaction to the backlash from the recent I-93 protest in Boston. Two small groups of dedicated protestors completely blocked inbound traffic on I-93 during morning rush hour, placing their bodies in the way of traffic, and chaining themselves together with heavy cement barrels. Working with Black Lives Matter Boston, the protestors were all non-black, but did include queer and trans folks, and people of color.

Instinctively, I knew that this was incredible feat, and a deeply important act of solidarity with black people in the US. Yet I was thrown by the reactions of liberal white people, some whom I know personally, many others I do not, who were angry, who called these protestors ‘stupid’, who said things like ‘I agree that something needs to be done, but this was a terrible idea and will only set things back’ while offering no alternatives, and little empathy. I am highly sensitive to what I perceive to be rejection. Doubt crept in, and shame. My social training kicked in, training that taught me to be docile, and that I am probably wrong most of the time as a woman (even though I am not a woman, but I thought I was at the time). Was I wrong to feel supportive of the protest? Naive? What if they were just making people angry? What would I know, anyway? These feelings were troubling.

I turned to the words of friends whom I trust and respect, and found their words of support for the protest, unshaken in their convictions. But still, I had to get to the bottom of my instinct for support to return to my own unshakable stance. I went to the 4 Mile March in Boston today, heart heavy, seeking answers, and also compelled to continue to use my body to show solidarity with black bodies, as the I-93 protestors had used theirs. I read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he defends direct action, and found great validation and encouragement in his words. I once again located my convictions.

Of course a protest that involves significantly blocking rush hour traffic will make people angry! There’s absolutely no way that it won’t. And that’s not the point. There will also be at least a handful of productive, awakening conversations had in its wake, seeds of justice will be sowed among individuals. But this is also not the point. I found part of the larger purpose in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

The anger of liberal – or moderate – white people is part of this tension. The media attention on such a significant disruption keeps the conversation going in our collective psyches, and prevents the more complacent among us from so quickly forgetting what’s going on here, even if their anger is directed at the protestors rather than the systemic oppression.

But it’s also about even more than the cultivation of tension. It’s the declaration of the worth and dignity of black people. It’s facing rejection and anger and living to see the other side. If a group of people blocked traffic to declare that trans lives matter, I might cry from the sense of validation that could bring me.

Direct action is about so much more than each individual action and its corresponding backlash (and there will always be backlash). Many people turn out to protests and participate in direct action because they feel that they must. I often feel compelled to go myself, just as I am compelled to live my life as my true gender, to live, breath and walk in my own daily, bodily protest. I am called to be whole, to honor my own worth and dignity as a full human being, and in doing so, I am also called to shepherd society to recognize the wholeness and worth of all human beings.

We have to use our bodies, and we have to get in the way, sometimes just to exist at all.

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