I won’t lie to you, kids. There have been times in my life when I’ve questioned whether transition will kill me before it saves me.
I suppose that requires a little explanation, doesn’t it?
When I decided to come out as trans, there was a rather protracted period where I had to struggle with various government bodies in order to establish my new identity. Many of the people I met were cool and awesome and supportive. Some were not. I will not bore you with the minutiae involved in the name change and Social Security administration nonsense and the endless need to present my legal name change again and again for every single quarter during my time at Antioch because the Federal Government still couldn’t seem to recognize that I was who I said I was. I will simply say that every day of my life, there is usually some small, niggling inconvenience that makes manifest the myriad ways in which the world is determined (it would seem) to deny me my identity.
This sounds rather like the sort of thing Mel Gibson would’ve been spouting in the 80s (“Lethal Weapon 5: We’re Just Making Shit Up Now”), but in many ways it is the granular bits of resistance that wear me down far more than the larger obstacles to transition (surgeries of various sorts, resuming hormones, finishing Laser Facery). These granular bits – the casual bigotry, the incivility, the efforts to deny through actions subtle and overt my personhood – are blessedly canceled out by the love and awesomeness of the good and wonderful people in my life (people I am honored to call friends and family), but blowing sand will wear away even the tallest mountain eventually.
Which brings me to the BMV.
Like many people, I do not enjoy visiting the BMV (for those of you outside of Ohio, we have a Bureau, rather than Department, of Motor Vehicles). I firmly believe there is a paramilitary camp in the sub-basement of a government compound where they train BMV Bureaucrats in the arts of Incivility, Flat-eyed Rudeness and Apathy (Master Course). Yet, as many of you know, dealing with the BMV is especially onerous for transpeople, because people who work at the BMV seem to really, really dislike us.
In my case, nobody sent me a letter. Nobody suggested I was going to Hell (well, not at the BMV, anyway). Nobody leapt atop their workspace and cried, “Justice for the cisgendered folk!” and tried to stab me.
Like I said, it’s the little things. Pounding away, grinding at the surface of my soul and sanity.
The guy who helped me (let’s call him “Derpy McHerp”) was an older dude. He was sporting thin, spiky grey hair and an attitude that indicated he’d either had original career plans as a Robert De Niro impersonator or recently been fed an entire pallet of lemons. He had the sort of mustache that says, “my nieces are uncomfortable with the length of my hugs.” When he saw me, he did “The Thing.”
What is “The Thing,” you may ask?
There is a thing that certain people do when they meet a transperson and are unable to be either open or vocal with their bigotry. I call it “The Thing,” because it reminds me of the monster from the Carpenter film of the same title. Bob or Susie will be hard at work or play, practically overflowing with bonhomie and good cheer, when they look up and see a transperson with whom they must engage. Immediately, a transformation comes over them. They grow still, as if the transperson is about to attack and might have amphibian, motion-based vision DNA that will keep us from seeing them if they freeze. Because, as everyone knows, transpeople and genetically-reconstructed Tyranosaurs are practically the same thing.
A careful observer can detect a shift in their body language as The Thing comes to the surface. If they absolutely MUST deal with the transperson in front of them, then by God they are going to do it as quickly and as efficiently as possible, just like they would if they had to kill a spider or stand in an elevator with a minority. They can always go wash their hands and pray later. Their behavior becomes stiff and overly-formal; the casual jokes and smiling face are replaced by motions that look like the outtake reel from Heartbeeps.
Oh, that’s right. I’ll invoke a terrible, terrible Andy Kaufman robot movie. You just watch me.
But I digress.
Once The Thing has taken over, it is nearly impossible to escape its malevolence unscathed. Inside the affected individual, it watches with reptilian malice for its opportunity to strike. And strike it did.
Derpy McHerp was very helpful. He answered all my questions, processed my request, and took my check very…efficiently. We had both accomplished our goals (or so I thought), and I thanked him and wished him a good day with something of a relieved smile. Our business complete, I grabbed my purse and was preparing to go when Derpy McHerp raised his voice and said, “Thank you, SIR. Have a nice day, SIR.”
It really is the little things.
I looked back for a moment and our eyes met. I’m no mind reader, but what was written in those nicotine-stained orbs was clear enough. Ole Derpy was striking a blow. He was making sure the uppity freak, who by luck and laws that somehow insisted people who aren’t old white males be treated like human beings thought she could get away with being such a freak, didn’t get too far above herself. He knew the score, and he was going to make sure I knew he knew.
For just a moment, I felt an upswell of rage. I also felt the urge to burst into tears. But I knew that either of these things would simply satiate The Thing. It would feed on my hurt and my affronted dignity, and then it would slither back to the recess of Derpy’s brain and he would greet his next cisgendered customer with folksy charm and a comment about the weather. If I were in a different place in my life, and had not discovered what motivates such behavior, I might’ve shot back with something equally hurtful, giving a nice chunk of satisfaction to The Thing that no doubt lurks inside me. For a moment, I wanted to turn back, reach across that counter, and lift him bodily from his crappy government-issue chair by his hairy ears, screaming “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM, YOU BIGOTED ASS-FACE?”
Instead, I smiled at him as kindly as I could, and then turned around and walked out.
It was a sad little smile.
When I was young, long before I had the bravery to insist on being myself, I was a frequent target for bullies and the sort of guy who feels the only way to protect and assert his masculinity is to call everyone who isn’t Chuck Norris a faggot before punching them somewhere especially painful. I used to cry myself to sleep after these incidents, trying to understand why anyone would want to make another human being suffer. I wanted to know why my mere presence, or my voice, or my walk, made some people want to hit me with a pipe wrench or shove me down the stairs.
Then one day it came to me – fear.
The unknown is a scary thing. Humans are hardwired to be suspicious of it, because in the wild the unknown often has a stinger or big sharp teeth or the ability to swallow a human and digest it over the course of several weeks, like a python or Rick Santorum. We’re suspicious of variation because it might mean we have to adapt our own behavior to survive, and humans are also hardwired to find change pretty unappealing. We are paradoxically the most adaptable and change-resistant species ever to stomp around this blue mudball.
So. What makes a Derpy McHerp do the things he does? Why lash out at me, and regard me with fear and suspicion, when I’m about as threatening as a Justin Bieber cover of “Moon River?”
OK, actually, that might be pretty scary. You leave Mr. Mancini alone, you baby-faced monster.
Anyway, it’s fear. Men in particular have a hard time with accepting the idea that someone’s gender might not match their sex, because it makes them ask themselves some uncomfortable questions. Because they treasure their own gender/sex congruity and the male privilege it extends (if you’ll pardon a small pun), they literally cannot imagine someone willingly abandoning it in favor of what they see as a lesser status. Their empathy extends only far enough to imagine what would be, to them, a horrible fate. They do not continue down the path to the thought, “God, how painful and horrible it must be to face this struggle to be one’s true self.”
Their thoughts stop at “Holy hell, why would I want to be a chick? That’s gay, dude. YOU’RE gay. I’d better punch you and then read Popular Mechanics.”
I may not have the specifics right. Then again, I’M NOT A DUDE.
But I again digress.
Derpy McHerp wanted his equilibrium back. He wanted to be able to tell himself that his masculinity and ideas about the world remained unchallenged, even in the face of someone who patently rejected his paradigm for (ahem: Loaded Term alert) “normality” on several levels. Constrained by both laws and the social contract, he could not simply lob a stapler at me and yell, “SHOO!” or deny me service. So he worked within his constraints and did what he needed to do in order to salvage his pride and his precious masculinity. The scary transperson had come close to him, but with his mighty show of force he chased her off and restored normality.
Because, really, what could I do? Until I have what is charmingly known as “bottom surgery” or can magically afford a therapist who will sign off, I cannot legally change my sex on my license. Ole Derpy was within his legal bounds (the bounds of basic fucking decency being immaterial to men of his ilk) to call me “Sir,” because of the thrice-damned “M” on my license.
Oh, those little things. How they vex me. How they rend and tear and wound!
So I did what I had to do as well. I extended the empathy I could only hope he would give to me. I asked myself what it must be like to be an older white dude in a world that seems to be slipping from the iron grip of that esteemed group of gentlemen. I asked myself whether it was likely that he’d ever been friends with a transperson, or even a gay or lesbian person, or if he had only the hateful disinformation of the media and the religious wingnuts to go on when forming his opinions and adjusting his behavior. I forced myself to wonder if he might be lonely, or scared, or see in me something that awoke The Thing not out of hate but jealousy or arousal or curiosity.
And when I was finished asking myself these questions, Derpy didn’t seem so scary or hurtful anymore. He was just a man, a human like me. A person with fears and loves and secret wishes in his hidden heart. He wasn’t a thing (or even A Thing). That didn’t mean he wasn’t a right bastard, of course, but it DID mean that I could safely acknowledge that his hangups, like his creepy thinning doll’s hair, were his problem, not mine.
The Thing went hungry yesterday, and I have to admit that I don’t feel one bit bad about denying it sustenance.