(this piece is written from my experience as a white, middle-class trans* person in Northampton, MA. I can only speak for my experience—which is an incredibly privileged one. For the most part, I am physically safe, financially safe, and am not subject to the violence of rampant racism, transphobia specific to trans-feminine folks, classism, or able-ism, on top of the transphobia that I will write about below. Even though I am beginning to understand how much opposition I am going to face in my life as an openly trans person, I directly benefit from my whiteness and middle-class status each and every day.)
Here’s what I have lost so far for being trans. The caving in of three mentor figure relationships in a 6-month period—all following this basic pattern:
--Important and trusted role model
--Worked with and alongside for significant period of time
--I earn this person’s respect and appreciation; we have an easy, casual relationship
--Sudden and inexplicable distance occurs
--Intense and inappropriate verbal confrontations from two former mentors, confusing distance from the third; explanation for blow-outs and distance do not line up with reality; all blame for difficulties in relationships placed squarely on me
--No follow-up afterwards; all my attempts at conversation, follow-up, processing, slam against an invisible wall
--I am left utterly confused and heartbroken
--I give up because I have no cards left to play, and former mentor is giving no room for repairing our relationship; seems to just want me to get out of their line of vision as soon as possible; virtually no further contact
--Moves from a trusted role model relationship to one of mutually trying to avoid all interactions, despite all my unrequited effort
As these important mentor relationships in my life have collapsed, one after another, I have been left grasping in the dark for answers, wondering what I have been doing wrong. It had to have been me, you see, because this pattern and these interactions were so similar and the shocked, helpless, and confused feeling that I had in each was something that I had never felt before.
Never before have I been dropped so quickly and cleanly, and without warning, as I have been dropped by these people (a mark of the privilege with which I have lived my life)—all within a 6-month period (I have been out as trans for about 8 months). I have had confrontations for sure; I have absolutely messed up in relationships in ways that have caused distance between me and a person I was close to—countless times; but I know what that feels like. I feel like shit and I feel guilty, and I know what I did (or at least, after some soul searching and some therapy sessions, I can figure it out). I have a conversation with them that is hard to have, and we get somewhere, we move on (not always forward, but we move).
These drops did not feel like this. These were quick, without warning, with seemingly no provocation that I can figure out. In each, things felt a little “off,” but nothing insurmountable, and then all of a sudden, it is as if a plexi-glass shield has been thrown up in between us, triggered by I don’t know what. Now, I am no longer funny, I am no longer thoughtful, I am no longer a hard worker. They are “worried about me,” they look at me with expressions that do not see me, they are completely unaffected by anything that I say; they are completely unreachable. Some are angry. Shut down. One thing has been made clear to me by their actions and inactions: these folks would like me to get out of their line of sight as soon as possible.
Thankfully, before these interactions became totally internalized into my sense of self and self worth, I brought them up with my gender therapist (a note on how crazy lucky and privileged I am to have a therapist that specializes in gender, sex, sexuality, and trans* stuff. Maybe 1% of all gender variant and trans folks have that?? If that??). I unloaded how rough this year has been in terms of (especially) professional relationships and mentor figures—she shook her head sadly and said:
“I wish I could say that this was something isolated to this place and this experience, isolated to you. But the fact is, that I have heard this same story from countless trans* folks.”
In a seemingly out of the blue way, folks drop out of many trans folks’ lives. The attitude being, “You are taking up too much space in a way that makes me very uncomfortable and is destabilizing my sense of order. I do not have the words to understand why you make me so uncomfortable, so I will put all these feelings generated by your destabilizing presence onto whatever problem you might be bringing to me.” (For me, this was little things, little things—like being grumpy in the morning several mornings in a row; not helping to pick up items that spilled off a shelf because I was occupied with another task; filling out a feedback form honestly and constructively. Seriously. These are the events that I can locate as the “instigators”).
At first, when my therapist suggested that these interactions might have something to do with transphobia, I wasn’t totally on board—everything that happened was so subtle that I really couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t like folks were running around calling me a faggot or tranny. It was just the way people look at me, and talk to me, and what they talk to me about, now that I am out as trans.
For example, I have talked with the administration at my school several times about the struggles I have had as a trans graduate student. Folks have all agreed to meet with me, have listened to what I have brought to meetings—all good stuff! But I leave completely unsatisfied and hollow. It isn’t until later that I realize how messed up these meetings have been. Essentially, the response has been, “We are so sorry, what can we do??” (very little action, very little talk, just sad eyes and literal asks for forgiveness).
Another example of the subtleties of these transphobic micro-aggressions: At one point, an administrator pulled me into their office during my lesson planning time to read to me the email they were going to send to the staff about an upcoming event on trans* issues (the email, of course, already written and ready to press send—so clearly actual collaboration was not desired and the only answer there was space for was “sounds good!”). At first, my response was, I mean, bad timing, and that made me feel like shit, but I guess it was nice for them to check in? And then I thought about a similar situation in a racialized context—if that same administrator had pulled one of the only Black staff members into their office while they were on their way to lesson plan to read at them an email for MLK day. Of course, these kinds of micro-aggressions happen ALL THE TIME for folks of color, are so messed up, and are a direct product of our white supremacist patriarchal system.
Trans* folks are told in so many ways to take up as little space as possible with their identities, with their “otherness,” with their variance. My reality—my life in this trans* body of mine—it’s too much for a lot of people to handle. I don’t even have to open my mouth—just my body and my voice undermines and destabilizes the gendered structures in ways that are too much. People implode (or explode) and really just want me to go away.
And if I hadn’t had this conversation with my therapist, I would never have been able to decode what has been happening in my life and in these relationships. Maybe twenty years from now, but not before it was internalized in me that there is something about me that is not work-with-able, love-able, respect-able. And almost no one who needs this trans-specific care that I have gotten has access to it!!!!! I suppose that is why I am taking the space writing this piece as the trans* person that I am slowly understanding myself to be:
(1) for self-validation of this tip of the iceberg of the losses that I will experience in my life as an out trans* person—and (2) for those trans* allies out there (and of course allies to folks of color, trans folks of color, disabled folks, poor folks, incarcerated/formerly incarcerated folks, undocumented folks, the list goes on and on, but I can only speak personally from a white trans-masculine perspective), to SUPPORT YOUR TRANS* FRIENDS/LOVED ONES!!!! Encourage them to talk to you about subtly weird shit that is going on in their lives, tell them that they are not alone in this and that it is happening to other people, and most importantly, remind them over and over again—you are validated, you are loveable, I see you, I love you, I laugh with you, I value you, I will not drop away.
Three mentors in 6 months. That is what I have lost so far because I am trans.
p.s. please feel free to write to me, share this piece with folks that you think will be interested, etc etc etc.