A letter to those who exclude nonbinary trans folk from your safe spaces:
I started living my truth as transgender and nonbinary almost a year ago. I’ve been out as queer for many years. And I’ve been in this feminine body my entire life. It’s been a complicated journey, especially for someone who grew up in the South wearing GRITS merch.
Having gone through the whole traumatic ordeal of “coming out” before, I thought I pretty much had the process down before I did it again. But what I didn’t realize before coming out as trans was that there’d be pushback from my own LGBTQ community. Especially as a nonbinary person, I’m constantly having to justify my existence to both cisgender and transgender people, across the board. It’s been a little successful and a lot exhausting.
I also experienced a profound loss that I wasn’t prepared for. When I finally spoke my truth, which is that I’m not a woman, I lost my unofficial “membership” to woman/lesbian spaces… the only spaces where I’d found support and safety when there was none anywhere else. I’m still trying to navigate the grief process with that – and I’d like you to hang in there while I explain why, because it’s important. Our community is important.
I was recently invited to an event whose description at the time read: “A monthly dance party for lesbians, trans girls, femmes, dykes, butches, homosexual womyn, and their queer friends.” As someone whose identity is constantly erased, or just plain not “believed in” by others, it’s really hard to go to an event that is aware of other identities but purposefully excludes nonbinary folk. For me, walking through that door is confirmation that it’s okay you don’t think I exist. It’s putting on an iron mask (yep that’s a Leo reference) for the night. It’s revisiting the trauma of inauthenticity when I’ve worked so hard to be real and honest and all of myself. And then, it’s doing all of that while experiencing body dysphoria and trying to dance through it. Let me tell you, it’s the worst.
But back to the point. In a beautiful fit of optimism and love, one of my close friends asked the event host if she’d consider adding “nonbinary” to the otherwise extensive list of folks who are welcomed there. The host denied her request, explaining that it wasn’t her job to create space for nonbinary folks and that the event was specifically anti-patriarchal, anti-male, and anti-masculine (she has since removed “dykes, butches and queer friends” from the list). While I understand and respect the need for safe spaces, and I’m certainly all about dismantling patriarchy, it’s really hard for me to wrap my brain around this particular exclusion. I don’t identify as male, and I’m never perceived to be male. How did I get lumped into that group? Where do I go then? Where can I be authentic but also welcomed and safe (or at least safer)?
Ya’ll, I’m not a writer. But I had to write my feels. What came out was exactly this:
A Lifetime of Violence Against my Feminine Body (So Far):
Age 5: On the playground at daycare, there’s a boy who always shows us his penis. We don’t want to see it, but he never gets in any real trouble for showing it. “He’s just a kid, he doesn’t know better, boys will be boys.” …Boys will be boys.
Age 6: My brother and I are playing outside with the water hose and almost spray one of the neighborhood boys on accident. He angrily walks past my brother and pushes me. He’s two years older, I’m very small. I’ve already learned that I’ll be picked on first and that I’ll have to stand up for myself.
Age 7: I’m in the shower. My cousin walks in and stares at me. I ask him to leave but he doesn’t. I tell him to leave and he still doesn’t. I, naked, have to get out of the shower and push him out of the bathroom. I don’t tell anyone because I feel ashamed of it. Did I do something wrong? I don’t understand.
Age 8: A boy in class asks to see my “boobies”. The other boys laugh. The girls sit silent. At age 8, we have already learned to be silent.
Age 9: It’s the day before Christmas Eve. Our house is burglarized; they came in through my bedroom window and left with my brother’s gifts. I am now scared of windows.
Age 10: After watching my brother hike and make boxcars and shoot arrows with the Boy Scouts, I finally get to join Girl Scouts! … But they give me a needle and thread. They give me a dress. I make puff paint t-shirts for a couple years before quitting.
Age 11: We go to church all the time now. I learn that men are the head of the family, I learn that women should be quiet and let the men speak for them. I’ve been told I’ll be a woman. I am quiet.
Age 12: I’m really excited about church camp! One night, we’re told to write letters to “Mr. Right” about how we’ve saved our bodies for him. We’re intended to keep the letter and give it to our husbands when we get married. I learn that my body is not mine. (I keep the letter for 10 years but will spend even longer than that reclaiming my body.)
More Radical Reads: On Loving a ‘Feminine’ Body as a Transmasculine Androgyne
Age 13: There’s a boy in my class whose mom let a man in her house to use the phone. He killed her. We live in a small, “safe” town. For the first time, I feel like no place is safe.
Age 14: Soccer is my favorite sport. Sometimes a group of older men come to watch us and say inappropriate things as we run by. Other adults see this happening but nothing is done. I learn that it’s just not worth it to say anything. It’s better to let it go than to create a conflict. I feel guilty for wanting to create conflict.
Age 15: We have internet now! But I quickly learn that men will use it to find me and harass me with their anonymity. I also realize that I’m not allowed to be good at online games or technology in this body. I realize I’ll have to pay for that.
Age 16: I’m using the computer at night, my back is to the window. The next morning, the word “SEXY” is written on the window in semen. The police come and take samples. I’m even more scared of windows now. And at a “sheltered” 16 I’m still not entirely sure yet what “sexy” means, but I have never felt less sexy.
Age 17: I’m confused about what I call my “side butt” but is actually hips. I start wearing mostly hoodies and baggy clothing, but men still stare at me. How can they even see me still? What are they looking at? I have no control over my new hips or the men who stare at them.
Age 18: My coach’s daughter is stalked and violently murdered by someone who has killed several times before, all women who look a lot like me. I learn that it’s a danger to exist.
Age 19: I’m in college now, I go to a foam party. I get shoved under the foam. Nobody can see me, a guy grabs me, it’s hard to see or get away. I know who it is but I still doubt myself. It’s not a big enough deal to say anything. I feel gross every time I see him for the next 2 years.
Age 20: We have friends over to our apartment and one of them jokes about kissing me. I ignore him. But he walks over, puts his arm around my waist, and forcefully kisses me. It doesn’t feel like a joke. I go to my room and don’t come out for days.
Age 21: I’ve had a boyfriend for almost two years. He’s a great guy, he’s a preacher, he volunteers. But he also yells at me. And if I don’t look at him when he’s angry, he’ll physically force me to. He pins me down; it’s the first time I feel trapped and almost animalistic in my need to escape – it’s a feeling I wish I didn’t know existed. I kick him off and this happens repeatedly for over a year. I tell myself that I shouldn’t kick him, I’m better than this. I never tell anyone because I’m ashamed. It’ll take me years to figure out I was abused, but even then I’ll still carry the shame from feeling weak and the guilt from being strong.
Age 22: I’ve recently started dressing more masculine. I’m at a club with my friends, a guy pushes me and won’t let me walk by. What used to be staring has turned into pushing.
Age 23: My brother bought me a knife that I carry everywhere I go. Later, I’ll get a gun for my home. Having it gives me nightmares, but I’ve seen so much hatred and I know I have to be ready to defend myself and the queer, femme folks around me.
Age 24: I’m arguing with my girlfriend; she innocuously stands between me and the door. But I panic, I’m trapped again, I push her, I feel terrible. I don’t even try to explain how my ex-boyfriend still controls me. I’m embarrassed for being human and guilty for hurting her. Even safe spaces aren’t safe if you carry the bad with you.
Age 25: My new boss screams and curses at everyone, my male coworkers just curse back at him. I file a complaint but nothing is done. I shouldn’t have said anything.
Age 26: I bring a voice recorder to work now in case something happens. My boss punches things when he’s angry. I finally decide to speak to him directly, but he tells me that “maybe this isn’t the right place for a woman”. I hang in there for another year before quitting.
Age 27: I’m finally starting to put words around gender – I am trans. I am nonbinary. I look into top surgery but find that I need permission from a doctor and a therapist. My body is still not mine.
Age 28: At a party two queer men joke about having sex with me. They pin me down and pretend to hump me on the bed. They’re good people but I wonder if anyone has ever done that to them, or if they feel sexual violence and consent like I do. I hate it but laugh anyway. I’ve learned to laugh.
Age 29: I see a documentary about a trans woman who was murdered, dismembered, and her body parts found all over different parts of the city. Some were never found. They say that, through history, the scattering of body parts has been used to deliver a message. We get the message. I’ve gotten the message.
Age 30: I send one tweet about Trans Month of Awareness, the first time I have ever tweeted about anything trans. I get angry replies from strangers: I’m mentally ill. I’m disgusting. I should kill myself with cyanide.
It’s not about one exclusive dance event. It’s about the fact that exclusion and erasure happens repeatedly, every day, in many different forms, and often from the people I love the most. It’s not about me wanting to take women’s spaces, it’s about people like me having no space anywhere. It’s about nearly the entire world feeling exclusive and the lack of binary LGBTQ folks who realize that. A week after I wrote the above history, I was harassed in the bathroom by a cis-man who thought I shouldn’t be there. My history of violence isn’t over. There is no safe party, no welcoming party for people like me who are perceived as a woman but identify as nothing and everything.
So maybe this is a plea to the women who I’ve considered my sisters and my community for my entire life.
In a world where trans people are murdered at an alarming rate, and where they are committing suicide at an even more alarming rate, please don’t push us out of your spaces.
Many of us have nowhere else to go.
We experience profound violence against our bodies too. We need safety too.
We need community too, and you are an important part of it.
You always have been.
If you are trans and need someone to talk to, you can talk to the wonderful folks at Trans Lifeline 24/7. They run a hotline staffed by trans people for trans people. Their numbers are (877)565-8860 in the US, or (877)330-6366 in Canada. You are not alone.
[Feature Image by Laura Huerta Castro: Photo of a person standing outside with their back to the camera, looking into the distance. They have short brown hair and are wearing a black tshirt, backpack, and jeans.]