On the Back Burner: My Story of How Cultural Views of Trans People *gasp* Actually Affect Trans People

So today I want to talk about a personal story. Well, maybe more of a personal issue. I guess like a personal issue that is a part of my personal story. There we go. To get to that though, I’m gonna need to give you some backstory to this personal issue that is a part of my personal story. And I guess the place to start is by saying this: I’m transgender. Officially I’m gender-fluid, moving between Agender, Supragender (which is a term I made up to fit an idea of being outside and above gender in a cosmic sort of way that I resonate with sometimes), Feminine, and Woman. If that was too much for you: I’m gender-fluid and I usually am on the feminine side of things. If THAT was too much for you: I’m transgender. When asked about when I plan to transition, or if I’ve thought about taking hormones yet, or how “completely” I plan on transitioning, or told that it’s important for me to start transitioning because it’s going to make me so much happier, I usually laugh uncomfortably and side step the issue as best I can. Why? Well I guess that’s where the backstory starts.

Because I didn’t always know I was gender-fluid. Not that that makes a huge difference, but we’ll start there. Once upon a time, almost five years ago, I was a freshman in college in Northern Louisiana wrestling with my gender identity. I was just learning what transgender meant (despite growing up near Portland, OR), and looking at my life and feelings I was having, I resonated with the idea of not having my gender being bound to what junk I had the first time a doctor saw me. At the same time that it was freeing to consider the idea that I might actually be able to have a body type and presentation that I was realizing I had always yearned for, it was utterly and completely terrifying for several reasons: while I had come to terms with not being straight about four years prior, and was no longer a part of the church I grew up in, nor did I hold really any of the conservative beliefs I was raised with, I still felt a massive amount of shame. I felt that it was okay for others to be transgender, but for me it was a disgusting perversion. Essentially, I felt how most Republican legislators wanted me to feel (that was a joke so feel free to laugh haha otherwise this is just awkward…).

But, shame or no shame, I decided that if this is who I am, then I was going to cherish that goddam identity embrace it instead of fighting it, even if my brain was all filled up with internalized transphobia. All things considered, I did this quite well. I started to focus on the issues of internalized transphobia in therapy instead of talking about my usual depression, anxiety, and suicidality. The more I embraced my identity as a transgender woman (oh yeah I guess I didn’t tell you that earlier, before I identified as gender-fluid, I identified as a woman) the comfortable I was telling people about the who I was underneath all masks and layers of wax that I’d always seen as my identity. I started buying clothing from the “women’s sections” (another thing I realized when I came out is that malls are probably the most aggressively gendered places on earth). Then, after I came out to my group of friends and the LGBTQ club as Hannah, my new name, I started dressing in a way that made me feel like I just realized I’d been trying to trudge around life towing a semi-truck which had just dislodged itself from me…

… that is until I stepped outside. I cannot emphasize enough the emotional difference between me, knowing that I did not pass as a woman even in my best outfit and my best make up, sitting in my apartment with my friends, and me, knowing those same facts, as I ventured into a highly conservative campus in the literal heart of the Bible Belt. Most times I was able to put on a confident face and tell myself “you know what fuck anyone who hates me, that’s their problem,” even if I didn’t quite feel that way one hundred percent. Essentially I faked it ‘til I made it. Only in this part of the story, I’m not quite sure I ever made it, but I sure as hell kept on faking it. And while the littlest complement from a stranger would give me courage for weeks, I couldn’t pretend like everyone at the campus coffee shop I frequented or one of the restaurants on campus calling me “sir” and furrowing their brow in confusion even if just for a second when I gave the name “Hannah” for my ticket didn’t deepen that wound that internalized transphobia I was talking about first inflicted. Every “sir” made me flinch; every stare as I passed by someone made me want to curl up in a ball. But this was my life. And yes, as I started hormones and began to see fairly rapid changes, in many ways I was so much better off living the truth despite all the pain it brought. But in a great many ways as well, all those nicks, cuts, and bruises that refused to heal, just amalgamating over time, made me yearn for the lie I’d lived for 18 years.

Some of these cuts and bruises hurt more and left a more lasting impact than others. My social anxiety coupled with my downright exhaustion with trying to live life in a way that made me feel happy and whole, led to me not being able to approach certain teachers and ask them if they could use the name “Hannah” instead of my birthname, further leading to the pain of being called by my birthname in class (a very distinctively male name) when I was clearly dressed in women’s clothing, as well as having to navigate that disparity with classmates during group projects. Those were cuts. My paralyzing fear of using public restrooms because we had no gender neutral restrooms and I knew damn well that the worst case scenarios were likely either being attacked and humiliated, or having the police called on me. That was like a heavy object directly hitting your unprotected shin… every time you needed to pee. Being at a football game and having a shit-for-brains frat douche yell “shemale” at the top of his lungs when I passed by. That was a stab in the stomach. And of course having the Mississippi State Police pull my trans friend and I over for “passing a checkpoint” (despite the fact that was what all the cars ahead of us did and it was not a clear checkpoint) only to have us get out of the car, give our IDs to them, and then be called shemales to our faces. That one… that one was like something you can’t see causing you pain in every millimeter of your body. That one left a scar so big the only reason you wouldn’t be able to see it is because it covers the whole body. But it wasn’t the worst.

No, the worst was the worst based largely on the fact that it came at the exact time that my tolerance for emotional pain refused to get any higher, but the level of emotional pain itself kept climbing and climbing. The worst came at a time when I was barely holding on to this life, this life that I still cherished and wanted so badly, this life of originality and authenticity, when I was only holding onto it because I was scared if I let it go I would never get it back. It was at that point that I went into work as usual, a few hours in got up to use the ladies restroom as usual, and encountered my boss’ boss on the way out. It was possibly one of the most terrifying moments of my life. My boss and her boss had told me it was fine for me to dress how I wanted and they had started calling me Hannah at my request, but somehow we had never discussed bathroom usage. Well. We did now. All it took was a frightened look and a “honey… you need to be using the male restroom.” To clarify that policy. The discussion, if you can call it that, took no more than ten seconds, but it was the last domino finally falling on my already unstable life.

Fast forward a few years. Honestly I don’t know exactly how many. I now dress in clothing I buy from the “men’s section,” and go by the name Phoenix where I can. The name change is just a result of me coming to a fuller realization of my gender. The change in wardrobe is because I’m still terrified from the mountain of incidents that became a volcano in the way I live my life. Every now and then I’ll wear a skirt with leggings. It, of course, feels better. But every time I put something like that on, every time I walk out into the public wearing it, even though I’m in a completely different part of the country now and in a pretty accepting area, I can’t help but remember those moments, that span of time that was so heavily rooted in fear that I can’t associate transitioning with anything else anymore. So as I’ve spent almost the entirety of the last year in psychiatric treatment facilities for unrelated mental health issues, when my psychiatrist or therapist talks about how important it would be for me to take steps to transition and be myself, all I can really do is nervously laugh and change the subject. I tell them that I’m putting those issues on the back burner for now, as I address my mental health issues and the also strenuous transition into adult life, working and paying bills, as well as trying to establish myself in a new area, over a thousand miles from all of my closest friends.

It’s enough to convince myself for a moment that it’s the logical decision to put transitioning on the back burner. But I’m a fairly intelligent individual, and I have basic knowledge of Psychology both from being a patient for nearly a decade and from majoring in it in my undergraduate career. So once that moment passes, I know damn well all these things I’m talking about are directly interconnected for me. I know that the dysphoria I experience when I’m not being true to my gender identity does not allow for me focus completely on my mental health unless I’m also focusing on my issues around transitioning. And of course most of all, I know I’m trying to trick myself. Because right now, keeping that box shut allows me to pretend that fear isn’t ruling my life, it allows me to avoid approaching the subject because even writing this is feeling the old pain as if it’s happening now, and I know that when I choose to deal with that it will be so much worse. So I put it on the back burner.

In closing, I want to make something clear if it wasn’t clear to you reading this and that is this: the cost of culturally accepted and propagated doesn’t just lie in the ridiculous amount of trans lives that are cut short each year. And it doesn’t just lie in the again ridiculous amount of trans people that are attacked, humiliated, or sexually assaulted each year. These things are the culmination of a transphobic society; they should illustrate to us is graphic form the worst of what people are capable of when you fill them with hate. But a problem we have in this society with combatting multiple forms of prejudice and hate is thinking that only horrific and violent acts like those constitute the entirety of the cost of transphobia in our society, and, even more insidious, that acts like those are the only “real” form of transphobia or any other type of bigotry in our society. Part of the reason I wanted to share this, and I realized it halfway through writing it, is to provide an example of how the general presence of transphobia in our society, how seemingly simple and maybe even harmless acts like misgendgering someone or outright questioning their right to identify with a particular gender or maybe even not educating the people you know who say transphobic things, can take a terrible toll on trans people as well. And by far I am not the only example, and the type of thing I am experiencing is not the only way it happens, but if you take away anything from this, let it be that the mere presence of transphobia anywhere in our society in any form, is having a devastating effect on trans people everywhere in ways you might not even be able to imagine.

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