On the lovely show “A Chef’s Life,” Vivian Howard is often under pressure, away from her own kitchen and struggling to make things work.
In those moments, she will turn to her partner Ben Knight and vent.
“You are in the way, you are on my nerves, you are getting in the way!”
Ben, being a patient husband, says the sensible thing.
‘OK, I’ll leave,” Ben offers
Vivian quickly stops that idea. “No! Don’t do that!” she implores.
As stressed as Chef Vivian is in the moment, as much as she is feeling emotional and letting it out, having her man there is better than not having him there.
Straight women know when they are feeling safe, and part of that seems to be a primitive, mammalian awareness that someone they are bonded to is right there, at the ready if anything goes wrong.
These cues are tricky for transpeople, are tricky for me. I know, for example, why the dog barks at me and none of the other women in the room, even if the owner is baffled. And I am sure that my sister responds deeply & unconsciously to the scent of me, calming her down and making her feel safe.
Where, though, is the scent of safety for me? When do I feel protected and loved?
David DeSteno notes that humans use similarity to decide who they should help, who they should trust, who they should offer compassion. Dale Carnegie suggests that means we should act as much like other people as possible to win their friendship and influence them.
My mission statement for over two decades is about similarity, but not in the way most people expect. “In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous, common humanity.”
Trying to explain to people that the easy separations they use to decide who is like them is a task that runs up against what they would call their “common sense,” and which I would call their normative assumptions & prejudices.
That moment when my gender shifts in their eyes, the moment of the “third gotcha,” is just one of the times their emotions want to see me as separate and different. My erudition, my experience with caretaking and Aspergers, my need to engage death and rebirth, well, they all can seem to set me apart.
My body was never androgynous in the way that Bowie was, slim and pretty. My only shot at androgyny came the way Divine found their androgyny, in the rolls of flesh at the other end of the spectrum, and that’s not something I wanted to shoot for.
I am visibly trans and what that means to me deep in my reptilian brain is that finding a place of safety is very, very hard. I don’t have the experience of feeling safe in my family, knowing that they would be there if a problem occurred.
I knocked the wind out of my father when I was eight and from that time on he stayed away from me, scared I could defeat him. His Aspergers made him less than coordinated, never good at sports, not connected to a sense of touch, as my mother often complained. In his last year, especially after he became a paraplegic, as his primary caretaker we did end up touching a lot and it was different, but very little, very late, very sad.
My mother stayed in a chair, and other than my teenage years when she would let her robe fall open because she wasn’t getting what she needed from my father, trying to surrogate spouse me, she never even thought about touch.
I don’t have the sense that if I am unsafe anyone will be there for me. Men don’t see me as female bodied, which makes them keep a distance or even see me as perverted and women can easily see me as not one of them, an interloper rather than a sister.
All this means that I feel very, very exposed and vulnerable when my trans nature is visible in the world. I don’t have anyone who can help me relax just by their presence, by the scent of their skin.
Without the experience of being mirrored in the world, having our own expression seen, experience and affirmed, we don’t have the permission to trust our own feelings, our own knowledge and our own choices. We feel unsafe asserting who we are.
Who has my back, can tell me when a label is showing or when I need to just let loose more, trust myself and go for it? Who is my safety officer with eyes that check. confirm and encourage?
This feeling of being exposed and unsafe is profound in every transwoman, which is why the myth that transpeople are killed in exceptionally high numbers is so resonant with us. We have always felt alone with no pack to run with, no place to hide, no one to watch our back, to work with us for protection. We know people see us as queer, different, unique, know that means they may see us as living in the margins and expendable.
Without the sense of safety we can easily choose to walk through the world in armour, that internal stick held tight, only presenting what we feel is defensible rather than opening our heart and sharing with the world around us.
Our true defence may be in our connection with community, but when you have been taught that you are a phobogenic object, the subject of fears which others hold you responsible for causing and negotiating, it’s hard to walk in safety & grace. There is no place of retreat, of healing, of safety, for your experience is that anyone can act out against you with others easily finding their fear to be reasonable because we brought this on ourselves with no choices.
The drumbeat in the media which brands us as too dangerous to even use public facilities seems to give permission for fringe elements to try and cleanse our presence by any means necessary. It feels like hunting season has been declared, and while there are those who stand with us, we can never know who is on our side and who is lying in wait, feeling blessed by their religion to attack us.
I know many transwomen who have negotiated this gauntlet and found a place for themselves in the world, found allies and friends who do offer compassion and safety. Logic says that the world is not as dangerous for us as we fear that it is, that fear needs to be replaced by love.
That reptilian brain, though, programmed for fight, flight or freeze, well, it wants to be countered by the mammalian signals of protection, by the scent of safety.
And that scent, well, it doesn’t feel available to me.