There was one requirement for being an out transperson when I first emerged in the 1980s.
This was still a time when normative was seen as normal and those who violated expectations were easily written down as dangerous perverts, a time when gay rights were just being to be asserted as we began to face the horror of AIDS by coming out of a closet world to demand attention, funding and compassion.
In this area, there was a group, started by a married couple in the late 1950s, which held silent events that allowed transvestites — that was the term of the time — to get together. Second Saturdays were the meeting time, at a bar tucked between empty business offices offering a deserted side street to climb out race up and enter the light and warmth.
Everyone who came into that venue shared one thing, the one attribute we needed to dress against convention and open the door to bigger dreams.
Each and every one of us there was ornery.
We had to be tough enough, disconnected enough to follow the deep desires of our heart, desires most of us had known since early childhood, to break every damn rule to show our nature on the outside by walking in the world. We had tried exploring in secret and we knew there were many who still did that, but there, we were the ones with the gumption, the orneriness to break through, break out and enter a wider world.
Sure, our first steps were just into a bigger closet, but even that was huge. For the first time we were around others who also had also struggled with hiding their own nature, who had tried to act like others expected while our hearts cried out for something bigger, for a life of being seen, understood and valued for who we really are from the inside.
Each of us had come to our own self knowledge and expression in a powerfully unique way. We didn’t come out to find others like us to have sexual relationships, didn’t have any rules about how we should be, about what choices would make us attractive to others.
We weren’t there to partner. We were there to personally claim, to reveal, to revel, to release.
Some of us would go on to work at shifting gender, striving to assimilate and disappear across that no-man’s/no-woman’s land, while others just needed to let off steam, going back to playing our assigned role as husband, father, man until we had another future moment to play.
On that day, I had a somewhat different goal. I wanted to find balance and integration in my life, to get to somewhere where I could express all of me with much less of the trans curse of having to always conceal this or that as I tried to squeeze into a very binary system of gender.
My exploration was simple: I had to take my own ornery self and interact with all these other ornery people gathered, working to find what connected us and where we were different. I soon found that the key to our differences was in how we built survival structures that allowed us to protect our tender trans spirits while also being effective in the wider world.
That safe space we shared was safe not because it was conflict free but because with respect for the ornery nature each one of us had to have to stand up, we could explore the challenges, choices, trade-offs, the pain and the loss we had to handle to be trans in a world where an either/or gender system erased the truth we had always held in our hearts.
After all, no matter how tender our souls were, we knew one thing: to survive, we had to be ornery. Our choice was between ornery and abject; in that space we had chosen ornery.
Today, when trans representations are in the media, when professors want to tell us the right way to be trans, when many want to demand specific treatment, it is easy to forget something I knew the moment I walked into that bar on that Saturday night thirty-five year ago: The space for trans emergence was broken open by the fierce, by the iconoclasts, by the driven, by the individuals who were ornery enough to claim their truth in a world that was hell-bent on erasing them.
I watch trans gatherings and see many young and newly emerged transpeople who have learned the rules of identity politics, but I rarely see what I saw in that bar on that long ago Saturday night: a hugely diverse gathering of ornery transpeople asserting their powerful and beautiful individuality.
For me, the most powerful safe space I ever entered was the space that didn’t just tolerate my bristly nature but a space that respected and revered the ornery strength I had to nurture to move beyond family, peer, social and institutional pressures to keep my battered heart alive and beating. Every transperson there understood that struggle, understood that in the same way we didn’t want to be told the right and the wrong way to be ourselves, in the way we had to give others the space to express their truth, or at least their current state of understanding about it.
That struggle left many of us raw, hurting, angry and even sometimes a bit controlling & vindictive, but it also left each one of us gasping for the breath of freedom, for the warmth of understanding and for the light of possibilities.
Over the past decades I have written many, many words about the challenges that I and those I cared about faced, but if there is one word that gets to the point of what I learned to value it is this: Ornery.
Be ornery. Claim yourself. Respect ornery. Help others trust the will to leap. Ornery isn’t something to be erased, ornery is something to be valued.
Without my ornery nature, and the ornery nature of many transpeople who came before and after me, I never would have found the safe space which allowed me to come to understanding, actualization, integration and peace within myself.
Oh, yes. Ornery.