You know what the worst torture implement might be for me?
A neck brace. You know, just one of those regular orthopedic neck braces that people wear to keep their head up and supported, to keep their neck long and aligned.
When I walk in the world as a transwoman, I tend to keep my head down, looking for ways to stay in the shadows, avoid confrontations, to be invisible and hopefully unthreatening.
That’s not good. It’s not good for people around me, who wonder what I am hiding, and it’s not good for me, because I stay in shame and not in pride.
This has been my pattern for a long, long time. I hid under tractor caps, pulled the lever to lower my chair, anything to play smaller so people won’t be threatened by my energy. I remember one of the first times I was out as trans and I almost ran through the Champion Outlet Store, baffling my two born female companions. One of them could almost hear my heart pound.
I was recounting an incident to TBB.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “You had to remember to smile? You had to remember? Don’t you just do that?”
No, honey, I don’t just simply smile. Social graces weren’t high on the list in this family of introverts, all attending the challenges of our parents. I had so many reasons to stay closed, defended and close to the ground.
I wrote this in June 1994 for Jennifer, who had asked for a poem. She wanted to know why I didn’t write about myself, but wrote about her. Oy.
“You’re the only one,” she says,
“That ever fought this harder than me,”
her eyes a glimmer
that shows the humor
and that shows the pain
of spiritual rebirth.
She acts so strong
full of noise & bluster
the shell around her heart
the split between girls and boys
Bright and caring
and very funny.
So much to give, so much to shelter
“You let your hair down,” she recounts
“and they step on it.
“You learn to be more careful the next time.”
Years of playacting, of carefully crafting a self
tough and strong, the first to draw
a shell for survival
a shell to protect
the sensitive gal who cries inside.
And now that it’s time
to break open the egg
emerge naked and anew.
The baby inside shivers in fear
of remembered pain.
So the ego protects
and tries to serve
the job of a shell
keeping out the pain
keeping out the love.
Leaving a beauty
alone in her shell
for the pain of a child
learning to smile
all over again.
Head up, now, as if it was held aloft by a balloon on a string. Throw your shoulders back, keep your chest high, walking with assurance and elegance.
Make eye contact and smile, expressing the confidence of an attractive and powerful woman.
Bright and beautiful, walk in the world. Calm, centered, confident and graceful.
Easier said than done, at least for me. A lifetime of being taught to keep my head down, well, it tells. My family nickname was “Stupid” until I was 13, and then for a while it became “StupidOhTheShrinkToldUsNotToCallYouThat.” That kind of attention doesn’t teach calm confidence.
Neither does walking in the family, in society as a transperson. They broke us for our own good, or so they told us, even if the good was really not bringing shame and derision onto the family. People felt free to pound us with that same shame and derision.
Heck, I even say a comment on a college paper site yesterday that said trannys had failed parents who didn’t teach there were only two possibilities, and if college had to teach that, so be it. That student felt entitled, empowered and even ennobled in breaking trannys to their reality that anything outside M or F, M or W, was just sick delusion that needs to be corrected.
Stigma is self defining. Stigmatize someone and they won’t walk with pride & authority. See someone walking without pride & authority and think they have something they need to hide. Find out that thing, and it looks like something that deserves stigma.
That’s why Gay Pride has been around for so many decades now. But transpeople, now, so many of us still trying to “cure” or hide the way we were born, so many of us feeling flawed & broken, yearning to be normative, well, pride is something we don’t easily enable in each other.
But pride is the only thing that can keep our heads up, keep us open and connected, keep us standing up for ourselves and each other, keep us using our power in the world rather than trying to swallow it.
I know that unless I am going to walk in the world with pride and authority, not just skulking and hiding, then walking in the world with my trans expressed has no real power or growth. It’s not the clothes I need, rather it is the clothes and the confidence, the outfits and the assurance that being exposed I can connect with others in a positive and empowering way, for both me and the people I am around.
For so many of us, even those who own their own trans nature, this walking around with heads up, with grace and confidence is hard, hard stuff.
We have learned to exist on the fringes. It’s not hard to walk in the world as a powerless and unattractive person, avoiding and averting the gaze of others. As long as you don’t draw the attention of others, you can go anywhere.
But to be potent & powerful in the world, you not only have to tolerate that gaze, you have to invite it. You have to be willing to say “Look At Me!” have to be willing to ask people to listen to you, have to be willing to stand up, bold, brave and exposed.
To stand in the world passing may help you find some echo of normative power, if you are one whose body can be effectively femaled or maled. But to stand in the world passing requires you to deny your transformative power, the voice of someone who speaks for connection and change across our continuous common humanity.
Look them in the eye, smile and use your voice, honey.
I can walk anywhere, I really can.
But walking in the world, easily inviting gaze and being open to the connection which starts with eye contact, and continues with open conversation?
Harder. Harder. Hard.