When I came out as queer and transgender, I felt the euphoric wave of liberation and healing one might expect. It was May, just in time for Pride here in Portland, OR. I was out and proud, wearing Goodwill miniskirts and going to all the gay parties! I was FREE!
I went to a dance party during Pride Week. In a glittery crush of half-naked bodies, I sweated out my desires and hopes and joy. I finally belonged, and belonging was hot! A band with a lesbian singer performed a song that I instantly took on as an anthem of defiance against those who hate my very existence. Then a lyric came through loud and clear: “I don’t like dicks, ’cause I like CHICKS!”
I felt a twinge. A little sliver of shame working its way into my skin like an undetectable glass shard. I brushed the feeling away. “I know what she means,” I thought. “It’s just shorthand for ‘dudes.’ I’m sure she wouldn’t apply it to me.” I kept dancing.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Pride playlist I’d assembled on Spotify, and that song came up. That line hit me again. I scowled in disgust and deleted the song.
* * *
Shortly thereafter, I attended an event at a queer discussion space. A handpainted sign was sitting in a corner of the room, reading “L.A.B.I.A.: Lesbians Against Boys Invading Anything.” The event was a transgender discussion group.
Again, the twinge. At first, I laughed at the pun and thought, “Yeah, damn right. We don’t want boys invading!” Then, realization dawned. The sliver sent a fresh jolt through my body. I put two and two together. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the particular club I thought I had joined had drafted a charter to exclude me.
I squirmed in my seat for the rest of the evening. The discussion was pleasant enough, but I felt scrutinized under the glare of that sign. Afterward, I put it out of my mind. But I never went back to that venue.
* * *
I enrolled in a university acting course last fall, hoping it would help me become more comfortable in my skin as a trans woman. And I was right! It was fun. It was very empowering to play a handful of female roles throughout the term and to take ownership of my right to do so.
At the end of the term, I was chatting with a classmate who revealed she was also a trans woman (I hadn’t read her as trans), and in nearly the same breath, told me, “You confused me at first, because you present half masculine.” I was confused for an instant. What could possibly be “masculine” about my presentation? The mascara and lipstick I didn’t dare show my face in public without? The cute dresses and brightly colored tights and ridiculously impractical heels I favored? But no, I realized quickly what she meant: the five o’clock shadow I didn’t bother concealing with foundation, and the thick hair covering arms, legs and chest.
The sliver worked in deeper. Its toxin flooded my system. I felt deeply embarrassed that I had not put in the work to present truly “feminine.” Grooming my massive crop of body hair had just seemed so daunting that I had learned to live with it. While I managed to declare something about how I consider myself feminine no matter how hirsute I am, in that moment, I felt like the most wretched, disgusting thing. I still feared the razor, and it would be five months before I started a hair removal regimen, but I began to obsess over it in earnest.
The sliver was inching toward my heart.
* * *
The thing with microaggressions is that they are, by definition, too tiny to prove, almost too tiny to register at all. Their impact is cumulative and eventually deep, regardless of the intent of the perpetrator. Each “innocent” comment and “harmless” joke pushes the sliver closer and closer to the heart. When it reaches it, who knows what will happen? A breakdown, a lashing out, a lapse into depression? Perhaps even the ending of a life.
* * *
I dated a cisgender woman long distance for a few months, and she bent over backwards to affirm my femininity. She claimed that she saw womanhood in the lines of my face and body, even as I wondered whether she was looking at the same flesh I saw in the mirror. I still had not removed my body hair, and when I expressed my dysphoria around that to her, she supported my desire to shave or wax, but insisted that I had feminine curves even through the fuzz. I was almost starting to believe her.
We had a falling out while I was visiting her. At one point, I was accidentally locked out of our hotel room, searching frantically for an ATM in skimpy clothing in an unfamiliar city, and becoming increasingly terrified as strangers harassed and mocked me with transmisogynist remarks. When I told my now-ex-girlfriend about the incident, she dismissed my experience as trivial and told me it was what I should expect with my “ambiguous presentation.”
So much for my hairy body being feminine. I learned then just how conditional my womanhood is, even to those who insist on paying it lip service when convenient. When treating my body as a woman’s body is inconvenient, as in a tumultuous breakup, that validation is swiftly and sometimes brutally withdrawn.
* * *
Navigating the world as a trans woman was never going to be easy. This I knew. My body is foreign to this culture, and its antibodies will target me for removal at the slightest disturbance. But I didn’t realize what the worst part would be. Here in liberal, passive-aggressive Portland, my chances of encountering assault or sexual violence are relatively rare. I’ve been followed and catcalled, had my ass grabbed in a bar, had a woman on a bus tell me I should die. But those acts, if anything, make me more defiant, more determined to live my truth with my middle finger held high. It’s the tiny, well-meaning things that push the sliver in deep, that release the toxin. If anything will kill me, that will.
When people accuse trans women of being hypersensitive drama queens, they discount the immense resolve that it takes for us to assert our own validity. They don’t realize how much we let slide, how much hate and degradation we suffer with a smile. They fail to appreciate how truly radical the act of loving our bodies is. Being trans means waking up every damn day and deciding that yes, today I will be strong enough to be who I am. That we have to suffer through the minsicule lashings of supposed friends and allies only adds to the ordeal. To extend friendship and intimacy to cis people at all is an act of extreme emotional risk and vulnerability. And still we do it, because we would wither without human contact, and because we are so amazingly strong that we can and do shoulder the impossible even while poison courses through our veins.
The sliver is near the heart. Today I’m strong enough. I hope I’ll be strong enough tomorrow.[Headline image: The photograph shows a young woman with a sad expression. She has shoulder-length black hair, she is wearing a black shirt, and she is holding her hands against her forehead. ]