How Society and my Family Surprised Me.
Last year I ventured back to my roots (NW Pennsylvania) for the purpose of attending my Grandfather’s memorial service. Those who have followed my journey may remember that I wrote about the trip and my final thoughts in two posts; Home, and Decompression. When I made this trip, I felt it could have been the last time I would ever return to Pennsylvania. Because of this I chose to visit my father for the first time since I transitioned.
Unfortunately my father had suffered brain damage as the result of contracting encephalitis in the mid 80’s. I didn’t think he would understand my transition, and that visit put those suspicions to rest. He didn’t understand my new name, he did not acknowledge my gender, and when I told him I was a girl, he chuckled a little and said I couldn’t be a girl. I know it was unfair to be wounded by someone who had no idea they were hurting me, but it hurt more than you’d think. I knew then that I would never get the closure that I wanted from him, and I hardened myself to the idea of never returning in the future.
On Sunday July 14, 2019 my father passed away. The news hit me harder than I expected, but as soon as I heard it I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t make this trip. My opportunity to get the closure I desired from my father was gone, but as funerals bring families together, I felt this would be an opportunity to get closure from all those other members who never knew or met the real me.
Unfortunately someone fraudulently used the only credit card we have (just one week prior) which then created added difficulty in establishing reservations using a debit card. By the time it was all said and done, nearly our entire savings was liquidated for the purpose of ensuring that I could make the journey. There wasn’t enough for my wife to come; this trip was all me.
I often feel like my experiences with social acceptance were like living in a bubble, and that if I dared venture outside my usual safe spaces, I would eventually encounter the pushback that so many other folks deal with on the daily. So I decided that this trip was a prime opportunity for me to see how poor humanity can be to visibly trans people; I made a conscious decision to be as flamboyant about my gender identity as I could. I would make both legs of the trip wearing my “This is What Trans Looks Like” t-shirt, as well as my Trans Pride custom Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. For added measure I also wore my Pride colored 0-gauge plugs (not that I think anyone was looking that closely). I wanted to see if being so unabashed about who I was while traversing the country would expose me to the horrible experiences that so many of my friends have come to experience. I set the bar low, and expected the worst; what happened surprised me.
This is my account of that trip.
Now, one might not think that wearing apparel that advertises your gender identity would have any benefits, but when it comes to dealing with the TSA, it appears to have helped a lot. Upon my first screening in the Provision body scanner at Will Rogers Airport, I was specifically asked what my pronouns were. Stepping out of the machine yielded a minor pat-down to check my hot-spots; none of which felt personally intrusive.
My TSA experience on the return trip was nearly identical. I entered the machine, the agent asked me how I wanted to be scanned (as male or female). Of course, I was anticipating the pronoun question instead which lead me to blurting out “she, her, hers” like a total goober. She understood anyway, and scanned me as female then proceeded with a brief non-invasive pat-down. Honestly, this was even an easier TSA experience than the previous year when the metal in my wig and the bling on my jeans tripped up their scanners.
As much as I hate to suggest that anyone “out” themselves in the same fashion as I did, it really felt like it worked to my benefit. One could probably just lean towards whomever is operating the machine and ask to be scanned under whatever setting will result in the least offensive pat-down. I get that the experience can be triggering, and different agents may go about this differently, so these are just suggestions for passing through these checkpoints. You do you!
It needs to be stated that throughout my travels — and especially while I was wearing my Trans identifying T-shirt — absolutely NO ONE misgendered or confronted me. I utilized restrooms in all the airports I visited (Will Rogers, Dallas International, Pittsburgh International, and Denver International) completely without incident. Often times, the restrooms were packed with lines forming inside to access the next available stall. In one instance at the Denver airport, a woman even chatted me up about my tattoo while waiting for a stall.
As I flew from Dallas to Pittsburgh I was seated next to a very nice woman who chatted with me pretty much the entire flight. She took no issue with my gender identity, and we even discussed it over the course of the flight. When we landed we gave one another a hug and continued on with our travels.
The day following my father’s funeral I had plans to meet an old friend who I hadn’t seen in 15 years; I would also get to meet her husband for the first time as well. We met up for dinner at the Olive Garden on Peach Street in Erie. The place was crowded, but there was immediate seating available in the bar area; we opted for that instead of waiting. During the course of dinner, a waitress who wasn’t even serving us came by several times. Initially the chatter was about the pain of my tattoo, when she returned the second time it was to declare that I was her new BFF; the third time she came back she continued to dote on my tattoo and referred to me as a “Warrior Princess.” Before leaving she offered me a hug; I gladly accepted.
On the Sunday that I was scheduled to fly home, I made my way to the breakfast area at my hotel. My usual morning routine would consist of catching up on social media and reading news while I eat breakfast. So I’m there doing just that; it’s early, the place isn’t too busy, and there are plenty of open tables. As I am minding my own business, a man who was probably in his mid-late 50’s came to my table and asked to sit with me. I agreed; if for no reason other than pure curiosity. I figured the conversation would move in one of two directions; either my tattoo or the context of the t-shirt. I couldn’t help but want to know where this was headed.
The man introduced himself as Joey. He said he likes to hear about people’s journeys, and that as he looked around the room he figured I was the most interesting person there. Of course he said in the same breath that no one asks about his journey, and I proceeded to do just that. He was 30+ years in recovery from alcohol and drugs, and he worked with youth who were struggling with addiction. I don’t know what had brought him to Erie, but I know he lived in Pittsburgh, and was a bricklayer by profession. He shared a tragic and inspiring story about his son who was able to make significant strides after suffering a traumatic brain injury. He also told me how happy he was to be a grandfather even though his daughter had gotten pregnant under less than ideal circumstances. I saw this man embrace the tragedy and triumphs of his life and really see nothing but the good in the entirety of the experience.
Joey did his share while exalting Jesus at the same time, but I think we were on the same page. I told him the only parts of the Bible I could ever relate to were the bits printed in red (‘Living Bibles’ are printed with Jesus’ words in red); he agreed. He said he couldn’t quote a single verse from the Bible, but sincerely believed in Christ’s words.
As it was, he’d sought me to hear my story, and so I indulged him. I could tell he was oblivious to the difficulties of being Trans. I spoke to him about hormone replacement, Trans athletes, the abhorrent suicide statistics, and how some people fall on addictions to cope with their gender identity. The latter of which was something we could both definitely relate to (addictions that is). The conversation was good, I think we both took something away from it. We wished each other well, and went on about our lives.
When I had gotten to my gate on Sunday my plane was still about 45 minutes from take-off and boarding hadn’t begun. I went to a bar next to the gate and ordered a “Stacy’s Mom IPA”. Just seconds after placing that order a man comes up the the bar; has some quick chatter about my tattoo, then he quickly places an order for a double shot of whiskey and a beer. In the same breath, he told the bartender that my beer was on him. He said his name is Tom, but all this friends called him Tommy. I told him my name, and we exchange “nice-to meet yas”. Of course I said “nice to meet you Tommy” and he responded, “you called me Tommy, that means we’re friends!”
Tommy and I bantered for a bit, more tattoo talk, and I indulged him in taking a photo (or 3). As it turns out, he’s on the same flight to Denver as me. He’s 6'5" tall, and is bucking for an exit row because he needs the leg room. I am a lower number in our boarding group, and he asks me to grab the exit row for him. Ironically that wasn’t really necessary, since he was right behind me going on the plane. But we both made our way to the exit row, and enjoyed the extra 4 inches of leg room — WOOT! We didn’t talk much on the plane but when we landed, Tommy wished me well and we went our separate ways.
Once I’d gotten to Denver, I had several hours to kill. By now my breakfast had worn off and I was starting to get a bit hangry. I take a stroll up and down the concourse looking at my options for eats. After about 20 minutes I go into a restaurant and bar called The Great Divide. The place is packed, and the only place for me is on the far side of the bar right next to the kitchen. It’s a weird seating because it’s a half table that’s mounted on the bar. The bartender is a fella named Christopher who is probably in his 30’s. I order a “Titan IPA” and a burger, then jump back to all the social media and news that my conversation with Joey had kept me from this morning. Eventually I have a second Titan.
In between helping other customers, Christopher engages me in small talk. I overhear that they’re about out of CO2 and that no one has bothered to call AirGas for a delivery. This will surely make their customers a bit irritable. I quip about how it must be a pain in the ass to make a delivery at an airport. I tell Christopher that I occasionally have to make a delivery to an Air Force base, and that has taught me that security can be a real time-suck.
Eventually Christopher asked me where I’m going. I explain I’m on a return flight from my father’s funeral. He offers his condolences, and says his own dad passed a couple years prior. As I finish my meal, and ask for the check he asks if he can give me a beer. I opt to cut myself off, but he says he’s going to do something. When he hands me my check I can see he’s applied a 25% ‘airport employee discount.’ I am taken back by his generosity, but I pretty much gave it back — with more — in the form of a tip. I sign my ticket and leave. I hadn’t been out of the restaurant for more than a minute when Christopher caught up with me. He asked if he could offer me a hug. I happily accepted. Never in my life have I hugged a total stranger with such enthusiasm. I hope he knows what that small kindness meant to me, and it was the icing on the cake when it comes to proving that humanity can still be pretty friggin awesome!
I had a lot of apprehension about this trip, and a lot of it stems from connecting or reconnecting with a family I had significantly distanced myself from. I know where I am from, and I don’t often think of NW Pennsylvania as a bastion of LGBTQ tolerance; so I didn’t know what to expect. I simply prepared for the worst.
The last time I had gone to see my father, I was wearing a dress because I wanted to look nice for my Grandpa’s memorial. On this day, I wore a dress that had circumstances been different I would have been wearing that same dress to a friend’s wedding; but today I wore it for him. Dad deserved the best version of me.
So there I was walking into the funeral parlor owning my identity; I could feel the gazes. My brother and I took seats in the front row next to our two aunts (my father’s sisters). If there was judgement, it was internal. Several people greeted us and offered their condolences, no one seemed too phased by the 6"1' 260 lb, bald, tattooed woman. We carried on to the cemetery afterwards where my father was given a send-off by the military Honor Guard — a dignity he earned while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
We left the cemetery and met up with the family for a luncheon. Still very much overwhelmed by my own social anxiety, I couldn’t venture around the room to speak with anyone. They may have taken me as rude, but I am extremely introverted until I really know a person; and here I was in a room of family that for the most part I couldn’t pinpoint which branch they were on in our family tree. I was out of my element.
Eventually after everyone had eaten they began to come around and introduce themselves. Everyone was really nice, and I was happy to learn that I am not the only member of this family that’s in the LGBTQ community. I’d distanced myself because I thought I would be rejected for who I was, and what I came to realize was quite the opposite.
In a matter of coincidence there was a gathering on the other side of my family scheduled for Saturday. As I didn’t really see any likelihood of my return to Pennsylvania, I thought it best to attend. I had a good deal of trepidation about this get together, as it was going to be among the family members whom I’d heard took the most issue with my transition. More recently though, I’d heard that there had been some growth and understanding; since the invite was extended, I thought it best to see for myself.
Once again, my social anxiety got the better of me, and I was mostly mum. Part of me wishes I could have been asked about my transition, as I don’t like thinking that they don’t have all the facts. But no intrusive questions were levied, and I didn’t really offer because the occasion was to celebrate a graduation; it was not about me.
It was nice to return to the property once owned by my grandparents, to watch the sun disappear into twilight, revealing the calm of the country and the fireflies that I haven’t seen in two decades. There was a sense of peace I haven’t experienced in a long time; though ironically interupted by kids on bikes; just being rowdy kids.
That was me; just yesterday, or so it felt…
I took this trip overwhelmed with fear of what hostilities the world could throw at me, but I came away with something much different. I think the rampant negativity that I often read in the media has reinforced a belief that there’s a boogie-man waiting to pounce around every turn. I saw no evidence of this, even while traveling and practically begging for it to happen.
No one sought to hurt me, if anything my presence seemed to envibe people with a desire to be more open and kind to me. Perhaps there is a lesson there about how NOT ‘passing’ can be just as amazing AS ‘passing’. Having never gotten a sense that my father understood what I had gone through, I am left feeling more alive knowing that his family was accepting. Since he was not of sound mind, I take their acceptance of me as his; that was a piece of my father that I have wanted since long before I outed myself. We weren’t the tightest family, but this trip taught me that family is always family.
I finally have peace and closure. Goodbye Dad, I love you…
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