Never Quite Free: Everyday trans experiences as not seen on television.
Written by an anonymous member of our community.
(This piece is part of our series of writing from trans people for our Protegocampaign, which fights for trans rights and safe spaces. If you have a story or perspective you’d like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to support Protego, you can donate here.)
Content Warnings: Discussion of transphobia and specific transphobic incidents. This contains references to physical violence and descriptions of emotional violence. Topics mentioned or detailed are parental abuse, gender performance as humor, mentions of genitalia, dead naming, and emotional boundary crossing.
“There’s the part you’ve braced yourself against and then there’s the other part.”
These were the first lyrics I ever heard my favorite band sing live. And these are the words I’m finding again now, over five years later.
I’m transgender. I’m a genderqueer demigirl. I never quite know how to word this last part without being too vulgar or too clinical: I’m in a body with lots of testosterone? I’m in a body that can be described in the lyrics of an Against Me! Song (Shoulders too broad for a girl / No hips to shake)? Or the more vulgar — I’m in a body with a penis that has had a penis since birth, there’s hair everywhere, especially the face?
“Man’s body” is wrong, because, nah, it’s my body. Designated or assigned male at birth is wrong. “At birth” is wrong, I’ve been designated and assigned that every single one of my 9000+ days on this planet.
When you get plots about trans folks or even just mentions of trans folks in fiction, you get one of a few things:
1. You get the classic ‘90s-style sitcom joke, which is just mentioning someone who has transitioned and then pausing for the laugh track.
2. You get a kid who has somehow completed every stage of transitioning, but without their parents’ approval. Or without their friends’ approval. Or, like, anyone’s approval. They’re a lone wolf 14-year-old who has singlehandedly gone through surgeries, been on hormones, purchased an entire wardrobe.
3. You get someone whose entire plot focusses on the violence they’ve received from friends, strangers, enemies, or themselves. Their story centers on nothing but intentional, active violence.
What you don’t see — or, at least, what I never see — are the unintentional jokes about transgender folk, the active support with hidden disapproval, the passive violence. Of course, I haven’t seen everything that’s ever featured trans characters, but these are the things I have experienced most and yet have never seen reflected in the media. I want to fill some of those narrative holes with a little bit of my own life.
Unintentional Jokes about Transgender Folks
Barely anything about these stories is unintentional, the only unintended part is they were unintended to be said in front of a transgender me. Nothing about these is a joke.
So we’re sitting at the dinner table. That damn table that’s somehow served to highlight bad words coming from each and every family member who has sat there. It’s about October. It’s time for high school Homecoming. The leaves have started to turn. The weather probably has, too.
And with Homecoming, at least at my school, came this tradition where the five guys who were elected to the guy half of the court put on whatever dresses they could find and paraded around. This alone is an awful joke.
But we’re at a dinner table. My dad says to me, “So, did you hear there’s five of those trans people at the school now?” I know exactly what he’s referring to. I just say to him, “that’s good; I’m glad they’re able to come out.”
That was four years ago, a full two years before I’d even realized I was trans. I still remember it. It still haunts me.
Active Support with Hidden Disapproval
My friends are great. They’re really great. I’ve come out to them and they’ve welcomed me with open arms. There’s not a rational bone in my body that thinks any of them disapprove of anything I do to become my gender.
But oh no, there’s all those irrational bones. It’s the guy who got your name right last year, but reverted to your dead name this year. You rack your brain for reasons why and land on this: your presentation is much more femme. This is the only explanation.
There’s the girl who kinda shirks away from you when you test the waters and tell her how you react when people strangers glare at you in your dress. Did she even shirk away, though? Who knows? But that’s my point: it’s irrational. It’s made up.
And then of course there’s the internalized side of this. I actively support me. I actively always think of myself as a girlish being. I am my biggest supporter. But I’m not.
There’s bathrooms on the first and second floor of a con. They’re clearly labelled gender neutral. But they’re still binary bathrooms. There are ones with urinals and ones without. I use the ones with urinals. I privately note the internalized stuff going on as I walk into the bathroom. But I still walk in.
This is a big one. Like, there are so many occurences of this. I don’t want to lessen the actual violence people face, but also every time these things happen, I feel attacked. I feel beaten.
We’ll start with today: there’s this child, a child who was probably not even seven years old. This child sees me and yells at their mom: “MOM! THAT BOY HAS MAKEUP ON! BOYS CAN’T WEAR MAKEUP. THAT’S GROSS!” Obviously this small child doesn’t understand transgender issues or consider how their words will put down transgender people. But it still impacted me. That child may not be aware of their impact, but their words had to come from somewhere.
There’s the venue that clearly and explicitly marks bathrooms as gender neutral according to the band’s rider, but then blocks off access to those bathrooms as soon as the show ends. I’m wearing a dress with my wide shoulders, with my lack of hips to dance with at the show. I’ve had lots of water. But now if I want to use a bathroom, I have to choose between the venue’s binary gender bathrooms. I didn’t choose. I immediately downloaded Refuge Restrooms, an app that maps gender neutral bathrooms, to no results. I walked down to a nearby gas station and used their single stall men’s bathroom.
Then there’s the super well intentioned ones.
So I wear nail polish constantly. Like, I’ve been wearing it every day for a solid twenty-two months now. I’ve also recently started wearing makeup to work. Not anything major. I wear just a bit of eyeliner, and maybe some lip color if I feel up to the battle. I’m out in appearance. But I’m not out in words, the coming out that matters. People assume things, but they’re quiet about those things. Sometimes when people are not quiet, I get caught without my armor.
A regular customer, not particularly friendly, not particularly mean, just a customer. They ask me, “So how long have you known you’re a girl?” I get so flustered. My coworker who I’m not technically out to is in the store, possibly less than 50 feet away. I just sort of mutter, “Excuse me?” They say back to me, “You wear lipstick. How long have you known?” I finally sort of say “I’m not! I don’t know!” which is, like, the truest half truth.
This customer was trying to be nice, I assume. They were trying to show solidarity by asking me a question. They assumed I was open to questions, because I had lipstick on my face. But I wasn’t doing a press conference. I was working a 5 hour shift at the dollar store — a job that I can only assume would become harder if I ever tried to connect my gender to myself in any professional way. This customer assumed I was an open book and instead they punched at the one part of me I’ve been shielding more than anything.
When I was first learning about transgender issues and nonbinary genders, I started building a list in my head of things I would have to brace myself against, like losing family and friends, becoming the victim of violence, and struggling through medical transition. I’ve learned those things were just the beginning. These stories are some of the other parts.