Last night I officially decided that upon my return to Chicago I will enroll myself in self-defense classes. I have grown sick with worry and fear, walking down the street, waiting to be attacked, with my only potential retaliation being my longish nails and a hefty scream.
While traveling, even in places that are probably (or definitely) safer than the not-so-safe Chicago, I nevertheless get disproportionately terrified. There's a lot to be said for speaking the native language and having a general sense of public transportation.
And now, as I plan a three-week trip through four countries, I find myself second-guessing the decision (and incredibly difficult process, lest we forget) to change the gender marker on my passport. After all, when it comes to unfamiliar cultures, I will be safer falsely presenting myself as a man so as not to incur unwanted attention. When it comes to crossing the borders into these countries, however, I will be safer wearing a bra and makeup so that I more match my passport. So each time I hop on a bus or train I'll get all dolled up, only to duck into a bathroom (but which one?) once I cross over and revert back to masculinity. And what will happen when I buy my next ticket? Or check into a hostel? It's a strange game of gender roulette that us Gender Secret Agents must play.
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In order to get through my day without inducing an ulcer, I realized this week that there's a certain amount of letting go I need to do. Since societies and all major institutions use gender as a foundational piece of information about a person, deriving bodily and behavioral expectations, those of us who have shifted from our original positions are left to face a world that systematically misunderstands, denies, and rejects us. And although the part of me who made PowerPoints in high school in which all corresponding text had to be of identical fonts and font sizes would like to manage (let's be honest, control) my movements and my opportunities, there is enough adversity out there to keep me from doing so.
It is a paradoxical aspiration: how do I minimize risks but still accept the possibility that something could happen, that someone could do something out of my control at any moment, that when (and how I wish I could say "if") the time comes that I must fight or flee or bite or scream, I will simply have to do my best and pray for survival?
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The research I'm conducting here in Berlin, to remind you, considers trans people's sense of body image over the course of their lifetimes, specifically in relation to coming out, any medical transformations they have enacted, and a recent change to a law that has enabled people to legally change their gender without genital reassignment surgery or sterilization. Fittingly, I have lately been framing the fight for transgender rights as the fight to feel beautiful. Issues that trans people face are clearly infinite and infinitely more complicated than this one vector, but when you think about it, however we identify, whether we are dysphoric or not, whether we are even trans or not, we all want to be in a body that makes us feel beautiful. And when you look at the myriad of ways that trans people succeed in doing so, it quickly becomes apparent that the body is not so fixed in gender and in shape as societies and all major institutions would have us believe. It's too bad I can't feel beautiful while traveling through some of the most beautiful places in the world, but such is saving my life.
It is with this in mind that I respectfully require (no, not request) all of you to not look twice at someone who looks different than what you are used to seeing. Whether they are of a different gender, race, class, age, ability, whatever—they are just as human and fragile as you are. And if they look so different that you are now so drawn to glance back at them a second, third, fourth time, with unbridled curiosity or poorly concealed disdain, they are probably already aware of their difference. It probably took them a great deal of courage to step outside their front door this morning. You are probably not the first person to want to look at them more than once today, this hour, on this train car. There is probably someone who they loved who could not accept them as they were. They probably cry just at the sheer injustice of it all sometimes, when they are just brushing their teeth or making their bed. They probably have their keys or a canister of pepper spray clutched inside their pocket just in case tonight is the long-awaited night. There are probably days in which they couldn't muster the courage to step outside their front door that morning. Do not make it more difficult for them than what already is. This is a requirement.
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As for me, I try to breathe. I pray. I sing songs that make me feel strong or maybe even at peace. I remind myself that no one is thinking about how different I look more than I am in this moment. I remember all the older trans people I have only recently met, in their fifties, sixties, seventies, who have already made it this far in life without getting killed and I ask myself why can't I be one of them. I send a selfie to my friends because even on this darkened street, on this enclosed underground train with nowhere to escape, I've never looked more beautiful.