Trans Heat Wave Diary

Dressing for distress

Pax Ahimsa Gethen
Jun 11 · 8 min read

“What do you think? Should I lose the hat?”

I am debating what to wear to a fundraising event for my chorus, the . For our concerts I would normally wear a long-sleeved black shirt and pants, tie, vest, and my signature black hat. But I am not performing at this event, and we are having a June heat wave, with 80 degree temperatures instead of the usual cool weather that accompanies late spring in San Francisco. We’ve been told to dress up for the occasion, but I don’t want to suffer a heatstroke.

I pull a shimmery white tank top from my drawer, purchased at a thrift store for possible use in an earlier performance, but never worn. It is very revealing, so I wear another tank top underneath to make my nipples less prominent (I refuse to wear a bra). Having visible breasts does not bother me, but I’m always concerned about others’ reactions to my combination of breasts and a beard. Even in queer-friendly San Francisco, I often feel like a freak.

While the distress that comes with my gender dysphoria is real, I am also concerned for the well-being of my trans and non-binary siblings who bind their chests in this heat. Binders can help alleviate dysphoria for transmasculine folks who don’t want or can’t access top surgery, and can be critically important for trans men who are stealth (not openly transgender); having a flat chest makes it easier to be read as male. But wearing a binder that is tight enough to flatten the chest can be very uncomfortable, and makes breathing more difficult; hot weather exacerbates these problems.

I do not bind, but I do layer. I find a fabulous purple wrap in the closet of my much more fashionable genderqueer spouse. I arrange it as best I can, considering my relative lack of fashion sense, and snap a selfie, which I send to a fellow non-binary friend. They don’t respond before I need to leave. I decide to lose the hat.

Despite the heat, I wear a jacket over my layered tank tops on my way to the GLBT History Museum for the fundraiser, the fancy wrap carefully folded and packed away in my backpack. By the time I arrive I am overheated and sweating, and I am also, as usual, too early; the doors are still locked.

I retreat to a nearby coffee shop to indulge in an iced chai tea latte. I spell out my name, Pax, and flash a peace sign, as I’ve found it’s often misheard as “Max” otherwise. “Cool”, says the barista, ringing up my purchase, with a 70 cent surcharge for milk that didn’t come from a cow.

Cool is what I want, and as I’m now in the Castro, I shed the jacket. There are fully naked men walking by as I sip my cold drink; if anyone has a problem with my combination of beard, breasts, pokey nipples, and male pattern baldness, they don’t belong in this neighborhood.

Returning to the museum, I don my purple wrap and help my fellow board members and volunteers set up for the fundraiser. One arrives already dressed in full drag. We commiserate about gender policing; they note that even here in the Castro, they got some side-eye and unfriendly remarks.

Queering it up in the Castro. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

After the successful fundraiser, I brace myself for an even hotter day. I need to head out in the late afternoon for a rehearsal with my other chorus, . This group is exclusively for trans, intersex, and genderqueer singers, so I have no worries about being harassed or misgendered once I arrive. But I need to travel through other neighborhoods on the way to our rehearsal space.

I choose shorts and a low-cut T-shirt that I wore frequently before my transition. Nothing underneath and no jacket; it is simply too hot, and my desire for physical comfort outweighs my concerns about stares or mockery from the public.

Hoping to avoid any questions or confrontations, I make eye contact with no one as I walk to a downtown BART station. While waiting for the train, I snap another selfie to send to my sympathetic friend. “Made it to BART without any callouts. Now I just need to make it to the Mission.”

I offboard at 16th and Mission and immediately head to a side street, again making eye contact with no one as I walk the remaining five blocks to our safe space. I recall that a trans woman I know was a few years ago. A year later, an agender teenager had by a fellow passenger on an AC Transit bus in the East Bay. And not longer after that, a trans woman was which my spouse was also riding at the time.

Part of why I now take BART rather than a bus for this trip, despite the bus being a more direct route, is to have more room to get away from potentially dangerous people. But the onus should not be solely on me, or my transfeminine siblings who are even more likely to be assaulted, for our safety. Our cisgender allies need to educate their friends, colleagues, and children to show respect for gender diversity and stop this harassment and violence.

The Mission has one of the hottest micro-climates in the city, and by the time I arrive at my destination, my shirt is drenched with sweat. No one in the chorus seems to notice or care. During our rehearsal break I lie outside on a bench, exhausted. One of our singers prepares to leave early as they are feeling the effects of heat exhaustion. I listen with compassion as several others offer assistance. It is good to be in the company of a caring, understanding community.

By the time rehearsal ends, the sun is setting but it is still hot out. I am no longer even considering the consequences of not wearing a jacket over my revealing shirt; I just want to get home. I have to wait 15 minutes for the next BART train. I sit hunched over my phone, avoiding conversation with other passengers. I make it home without being harassed or misgendered. I strip off and breathe a sigh of relief to be out of the public eye.

Monday follows, with even more oppressive heat; the temperature climbs to a record-breaking 98 degrees. I need to go out in the heat to get my biweekly testosterone injection, at an office a bit under a mile away. I throw on a T-shirt, again with no jacket and nothing underneath. The shirt has a light-colored base with a busy pattern of dark leaves; I’d read in a blog written by and for transmasculine people that such patterns help hide the contours of breasts.

A shirt I bought to survive a trip to Vermont last July, which also turned out to be useful for our SF heat wave. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

I arrive to find that the lab, which previously opened at 8 a.m., is now not open until 10. I choose to wait 20 minutes in the air-conditioned office, grateful that I did not arrive even earlier, as I’d planned to do to beat the heat. Fortunately, I feel safe at my doctor’s office; they are very LGBTQ-friendly and trans-aware.

Unfortunately, the reason the lab is now opening later is that one of their two staff members, the one whose technique I preferred for my injections, has moved to another location. The remaining staff member who tells me this information is a perfectly nice woman, but invariably causes me pain. Intramuscular injections, when done skillfully, are normally painless and nearly bloodless. I used to do them myself, until mounting anxiety made this impossible.

This staff member also usually asks me if I’m headed to work afterward. This is a perfectly innocent and routine question, but one I really don’t like to hear or answer, as I haven’t been gainfully employed in many years; I am supported by my spouse’s income and insurance. I vary between answering that I “don’t have a day job right now” or that I “work from home”, both of which are true. I choose the latter answer this time, and wince as I endure the pain of the needle.

I walk to the coffee shop next door to the clinic to soothe my pain and beat the heat with another iced chai. Again I spell my name and flash the peace sign, but this time the print-out on my cup reads “Max”. I really don’t mind, though, as the service is rapid and polite despite the crowded, noisy store.

I paid cash for my purchase, but if I had used a credit card, it would have had my correct name on it. Many trans people don’t have that luxury, and risk outing themselves whenever they need to pay with a credit card or show a form of ID. I am fortunate that my legal name and gender change process went relatively smoothly, but there have still been some unexpected wrinkles to smooth out.

As I walk home, I ponder whether to follow my preferred lab technician to her new location, which is not much further from my apartment, or to keep going to my preferred location, where my doctor now works and where the front desk staff already know me on sight. I reflect on how fortunate I am to have these options. Many trans people are uninsured, and many do not have access to trans-friendly medical care. My life as a trans person could certainly be a lot more miserable given different circumstances.

And yet, I still resent having to conceal my breasts, having to worry about gender policing (which, of course, affects cis as well as trans people), and having to inject hormones to correct my estrogen-dominant body. The distress from this hot weather isn’t helping my mood. This heat wave should end soon; unfortunately, the end of cissexism and trans-antagonism are nowhere in sight. Can we speed that up a bit, please?

Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Written by

Queer agender trans male. Black vegan atheist, photographer, blogger. Pronouns: they/them/their.,