A Queer Fairytale: How Trans People Taught Me to Be Free

Prologue:

The night I scrawled a hurried I might not be a woman in my journal for the first time, it felt like I was clawing back a truth that would free me and break me all at once. I scribbled it so fast I could barely read it later — a spell to make me appear whole for the first time, a spell as faint as the ink against the page. I knew, instinctively, to tuck the words away and try to forget about the reckoning waiting for me in the next few lines. If I wrote anymore, I knew I might collapse the world I’d been living inside. Writing more would be dangerous: as much an invitation to discovery as to more scrutiny and surviving. Still, I had managed a few wobbly letters, enough to pull the truth of my body and mind out into candlelight.

I have since experienced dozens of revelatory moments just like this one: each an act of defiance, of throwing all my weight against thick gendered walls resistant to cracking open. The more I challenge the transphobia that keeps me from myself, the more I recognize how mow deeply I’ve been cursed to live as someone else. The more times I glimpse a better world, the more clearly I see the shape of self-hatred holding me in stasis. When I’m brave enough to examine it up close, I see the edges of something unoriginal, too predictable to be triumphant: a tower designed to keep me away from the people who could teach me how to be free.

Over the years, I’ve seen more of us carve up these walls at night and throw bricks at the structures still standing in our way. I still remember the first time I saw one of us take a pickaxe to the lies we’d believed about ourselves. I still remember the first time I heard someone whisper themself into existence. I still remember the day I was welcomed into a community that’s found ways to live out in the sun.

I The Tower

As a gentle night breeze drops in through my apartment window, I exhale for the first time since breakfast. I feel a warm tug in my chest, a reminder of what I’ve been pushing away. I don’t know what it is about the sunset that gives me permission to explore the things I normally stiff-arm in the day. It’s something about how other eyes can’t find me in the dark. It’s something about how I can listen more in the quiet, to the voice that’s normally overrun by the dozens of others making demands. When the sun goes down, I flip up my laptop to click open a page lined with gender bending bodies. The bright white screen puts a spotlight on my insecurities: all of the models look purposeful, like they’ve already made the choice I’ve been avoiding. Each is rocking a chest binder with a surety that feels so far out of reach. I click away, back to twitter and to the pretending to not need this so much. I click back over, back toward the future I’m still afraid of: What if I try on a binder and discover a kind of euphoria I don’t want to come back from? What if I realize I need even more things the world has kept me from?

Somewhere in the anxious dance between striving and forgetting, I let myself imagine it for the first time: a binder resting in my hands. I stare at it in excitement as the purple fabric slides out of the slick, gray packaging. Putting it on still feels like a step too far, until I think about how much time I’ve already lost in the betrayal of bras and hourglasses. I decide I’m tired of waiting to be free. I decide I would rather be free and terrified.

I stare at myself, entranced by the relief of not having to reimagine my body. I take in the euphoria and watch as it dissolves the tension suspended in my ribcage. On a whim, I slip on my own version of a technicolor dream coat — really a rainbow flannel I bought at a second hand store. I smile in way that stretches toward possibility. It feels like the perpetual sunrise Carol promises Terese, a dream that’s outrun the world conspiring against it. I try to linger here, in the expansiveness, but it’s hard to breathe and I know I’ve trusted the joy too soon. The binder I ordered is one size too small. I feel a familiar grief take over and get pulled into a dizzy spell I don’t know how to stop.

I see myself at fifteen one morning before dawn, leaning my weight onto one hip in the mirror. I slip on a wrinkled white Tee lying on the counter, but can’t bring myself to hoist up a pair of bootleg jeans crumpled on the floor. As my left hip juts out into the air, I feel my palm iron up and down the cellulite. The markings disappear momentarily before re-asserting themselves, a landmark of womanhood I never asked for. I repeat the motion over and over until the sting of tears snaps me out of it. I flee from the rage I can’t name. I don’t have words like “trans” or “dysphoria” so I take the whispers of cis women as gospel: it’s normal to hate the way you look at this age. Everyone wants to be thinner sometimes. There’s this diet called Weight Watchers you should try.

I turn my brilliant mind into a dieting archive. I collect and collate dozens of articles about the calories in different breads and cereals. I learn to see the BMI scale as the ultimate arbiter of reality, believe its judgment to be final and righteous. I anxiously hop on the scale at the end of every week, eating just enough not to be constantly hungry. I stop thinking the point of eating is to enjoy the taste of meals or to revel in the company of people you love. I grow into a womanhood that feels as empty as the one my arc angels promised.

I clutch the edge of the sink to steady the leftover swaying in my knees and rush to yank the purple fabric over my head. Tears spill out of their own accord and fall onto my neck. When the dizziness clears a few minutes later, I open my eyes and stare down the parts of womanhood I can’t seem to release. I’m suddenly flooded with a rage that’s 15 years old: Why did the world deny me the right words and the right care, and leave me broken angels in their place? Why does it always ask me to cobble together self-understanding alone, in a bathroom mirror?

II The Window

Some part of me — both angry and terrified — strikes back with changes I can control. I wear pants that obscure the history underneath; I cut off more and more of my hair, until all remembrances of Rapunzel are banished. Still unable to celebrate in daylight, I look for portals to self-discovery in all the wrong places: I go to a barbershop where a cis man with clippers and a tight fade says he can tell I’m one of the cool girls. He also recommends I keep at least one side of my hair long because of how well it complements my eyes. I insist on the undercut with gritted teeth. He hacks up the back of my head so badly I spend months trying to shape the chaos back into something recognizable.

A few salons later, I stumble into the chair of a woman who gives me a bit of hope. She seems genuinely lovely: talks about nights out with her queer roommates, name checks her best friends, who are all gay. Something in me relaxes enough to say that I want to go short on both sides. I want a fade, I say. She nods, seeming to appreciate the seriousness underneath the words. She starts to chop and chop, yet somehow at the end of the appointment, I’m stuck with an asymmetrical bob that looks, well, straight.

I pay her too much and slink back to my car, deflated. I don’t know how to do to this: I don’t know how to become someone I can’t even imagine being. How I am supposed to walk into a place and just announce what I need? How am I supposed to forge myself in the shadows? In part of the imagination most people avoid or destroy? My heads falls against the steering wheel and tears drip down onto the soft seat below. I try to breathe, but my chest is full of words that haven’t found the right place to be spoken yet.

Words that haven’t found the right place to be spoken yet. The loneliness in this thought feels familiar, reminds me of something I’ve heard before. It’s an anecdote Andrea Gibson tells, about what life felt like after they first came out as queer. Having grown up in a tiny Southern town, they’d make their way to the only gay space in miles, a café lined with older couples. I remember Andrea said that they’d go to this café all the time, but that they’d stand outside the windows, nose planted against the glass, frozen and unable to go in. I realize, all at once, that I still haven’t even made it to the café door. I need to find the place where I can stare into the window of what it means to be trans for as long as I need until I can work up the courage to go in.

***

I find them online: a small, trans inclusive salon located downtown. After weeks of looking at pictures of their front door, I find the courage to make an appointment with one of their stylists. When I park my car and start to walk over, I feel a new set of questions swirl to the surface: What if this place feels like home? What if this place feels like home but they turn me away? What if I fall in love with the people inside and they don’t love me back?

Everything is a blur of apprehension, relief, and discovery: I see my buzzed head for the first time and feel like I’ve crossed over into a world I’m not sure I’m ready for.

III The Escape

I’m standing in front of the mirror in a dark navy dress. It’s corseted perfectly to my waist, rounding out an hourglass of hips and breasts. I see her, the woman I’ve been asked to be for as long as I’ve been alive. I feel a slight thrill at the achievement and then repulsed by the desire to fulfill other people’s dreams at my own expense.

My sister would love this dress. Immediately, I know she can never see it. She’ll smile so big at how well I fit into her fantasy-come-true that I’ll swallow the parts of me that stick out so her joy can fill up the room. If for some reason I hesitate, if for some reason I decide my self isn’t worth sacrificing, she will implore and cajole until I retreat back into her, the protagonist who gives me a stomachache and a burgeoning despair.

I clutch at the side of the ruched neckline, desperate to unsnag the zipper. I tug and tug, but it doesn’t budge. I give in for minute, drop my hands down onto my hips to steady myself and breathe. After a few heartbeats, I hear bits of something soothing ring through my mind, but it’s hard to make out over the pounding in my ears. I concentrate harder, until I realize it’s from a book I read years ago, by Janet Mock. Something about this moment — me staring at the woman I’ve been forced to embody — lets me understand her words for the first time: “Self-definition has been a responsibility I’ve wholeheartedly taken on as mine. It’s never a duty one should outsource. Of this responsibility, writer and poet Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

I know this moment could break me if I let it. I decide to heed Audre’s warning. I decide to take care of the person I’m becoming. I struggle with the zipper until it gives way. I discard the dress that will make my sister happy and resolve to tell her that if she wants me in the wedding, I can only go as me, in a suit.

I call her a few days later and say all the hard things. No, I can’t go in a jump suit. Yes, I’d be more comfortable wearing what the groomsmen are. No, I’m not trying to disrupt your vision of the day you’ve always wanted. Yes, I have to go in a suit or I can’t stand next to you as your maid (person) of honor. She isn’t used to me being so decisive. She’s accustomed to me trailing off into question marks, instead of punctuating every certainty. It takes months and months for her to see that I can’t be the woman she’s always pictured in the photo album. She decides to rewrite the script just enough for me to squeeze onto the margins.

By some miracle, we find a rose colored suit that matches the bridesmaid dresses perfectly. I try it on and feel like the soft boi I’ve been striving for. No one says anything transphobic when they see me walk down the aisle. One of my biggest loves finds me after the ceremony and we dance. With her around, I can be anyone. I decide to be someone who’s proud of their progress, who gives a boisterous toast full of jokes of in a white dress shirt and glittery purple suspenders. The queer photographer finds me after and thanks me — his eyes say he’s seen what the mostly straight attendees have missed. I tell myself I’ll try harder to live this like, to live inside the word non-binary, instead of just fleeing from femininity. I promise myself that I’ll try to stop calling this night a miracle. I will bring bits of its magic into the bathroom every morning when I decide who I need to let out into the sun.

IV Still Cursed

After the wedding, I spend months trying to recreate that suspension of dysphoria. Everyday I try to work out the mechanics: what allowed me to sit in my body properly and feel above the world’s judgments? I realize, too slowly, that while I got to be myself for one night in the middle of someone else’s fantasy, I still hadn’t found a way to inhabit my own, everyday dreams. At the wedding, everyone was too distracted by the recognizable plot playing out perfectly to notice the queer storyline etching its way in. The problem is that when the magic wears off, when the drinks are empty and the dance floor is silent, everyone falls back into the rules of daylight. And for trans people, the harshness of daylight can be unbearable.

When every room you walk into is full of people who misread who you are, who are often unwilling to let you correct their misperceptions, daylight means being scrutinized in ways the night never demands. Daylight means men staring and cocking their head to one side like I might be a caged animal worth inspecting. Daylight means watching a mom pull her child away from me, like transness is a disease you can catch. Daylight means looking into a rolling sea of eyes with question marks that make me reconsider my own certainty.

In this endless parade of broken mirrors, I get stuck in the same dilemma over and over: How am I supposed to hold onto a truth that the people around me aren’t poised to affirm? Slowly, without knowing it, I contort myself to match the funhouse images reflected back at me. In the name of progress, I approximate what they understand to be masculine: stiff hips and a rigid backbone, black and blues only, a façade of invulnerability.

I give up the galaxy nail polish I love, afraid it will tether me to a womanhood already superimposed onto my body. I swap out my soft lavender canteen for hard silver. I feel stabs of jealousy when I walk behind a set of tattooed arms that swing with certainty. I search for clothing that might mimic the feeling of being definitively one thing.

I spot them out of the corner of my eye in the men’s section of a target: army green cargo pants small enough to fit my frame. Once I’ve wrangled them on, I can see they’re at least a half size too big, but I see straight legs in the mirror for the first time and cry. I don’t care that the pants will fall without a belt, or that the inseam is too long. I cling to them, like their shape will make my masculinity, and me, undeniable.

When I slip them on a few nights later, I do the same bad boy impression I’ve been trying to pull off for weeks. I straighten my spine so it has no real joy and shift my weight onto the back foot. I pull over a dark blue hoodie and a jean jacket with cut off sleeves. I slip into Gene, a guy you’d meet in a small, Midwestern dinner who speaks mostly through silence and steady looks.

I walk as him for a few blocks and at first, I feel relieved: grateful cis men won’t assume this projection is theirs to digest and discard; grateful cis women won’t assume were the same. There is a brief, fleeting freedom is refusing to embody a classic femininity I never chose for myself. And yet, almost immediately, I know something has gone terribly wrong. I know Gene is really just a cardboard cutout of a man who only seems three-dimensional from a far. Up close, he’s just a painfully flat rendition, a man I’ve only ever seen from the outside.

As I walk down the street, I still have hips that swish naturally and a tendency to smile at strangers I inherited, but don’t all together hate. My mannerisms make Gene read more like JT and I don’t think that’s wrong, exactly. I realize, slowly, I traded in the flexible, fluid masculinity I’d found at the wedding for the elusive safety of Gene, a safety that isn’t real or mine. I want to keep walking farther as JT: a soft (sometimes hard) butch with grace in their walk and kindness in their eyes. I want the toughness of plaid paired with the softness of love letters. I want strong biceps tattooed with sunflowers and a spine lined with every word that’s ever made me feel something.

I never should have surrendered my starry blue nails or bouncing hips just to sit inside another box where I can barely breathe. It turns out that somewhere inside me there’s a corner that feminism hasn’t won back yet: here, I still believe masculinity is a threshold to be crossed: If I stand firm, push away any part of me that’s still tender and growing, I’ll granted passage. The problem is that the people who built that doorway also crafted the fairytale constraints I’ve been trying to escape. It turns out that both these structures were forged from the same mythology and if I’m going to live, really live, I have to find another set of doors to walk through, a new mythology to believe in.

IV A Spell for Sunlight

The salon isn’t easy to spot at first. Tucked away in the corner of Chinatown, the storefront blends into the shops around it, with its weathered doorframe and red awning. I think about the parade of people who walk by it everyday: a slightly stressed mom handing off a taro smoothie her to six year old, praying he doesn’t drop it, grandparents walking a bit behind them, holding hands. Two aunties chatting on their way to the market — a family of five peering around them at the corner, trying to see if the walk sign has turned green. A big, vibrant community bobs and weaves past the salon everyday, letting it be separate, but part of the whole. Some folks who pass by might miss the rainbow logo crowned with black and brown stripes hanging between the salon’s two glass doors, while others are likely grateful for its presence. There’s something comforting about this — about a place that’s only visible when it’s approached with intention. It’s like every doorway in the best stories — invisible to the uninitiated, clear as neon lights to those who need it most.

Today isn’t particularly special. There isn’t a wedding to get ready for or even a new boo to impress. I’m just headed to the salon for my usual appointment with C, now a fairly regular part of my routine. Still, when I approach the storefront and wipe my shoes over the welcome mat, my shoulders release a little and I remember how tense I usually feel in the world outside. The bell above me twinkles, as the glass door swings open.

The salon is fairly small, with just a few stations near the entrance, sinks in the back, a doorway to the office popping out of the center of the room and a communal space outfitted with a glass table on the right. There’s usually someone at the front who says hello and gets you set up with a chair, but it’s early in the morning so I imagine only the stylists are here. “Hey C, are you in the back?” I hear a muffled reply from behind the door: “yeah, just got here. Go grab and seat.” I head over to C’s station and swivel around in the chair to face the back wall. Whenever I’m here, I try to take in more of the art that fills the space. A trans flag hangs center stage near the doorway. It’s flanked by flags you normally only see at pride events: one with yellow, white, purple and black stripes for non-binary folks, one with blue, purple and pink for bisexuals. In the far right corner across from me hangs a dry erase calendar full of community events, including times when queer and trans youth of color get their haircut for free.

I swivel back toward the salon entrance and face C’s station. I see a black motorcycle jacket and matching helmet hanging on a hook they mounted. Just to the right sits a sizable dresser topped with a black-rimmed mirror. It’s edges are lined with gifts from clients: a colorful needle point of Frida Kahlo, delicate animal figurines, and a monochrome sticker that reads “Homoriot” with two masked men kissing underneath.

After a few minutes, C walks in from the back and greets me in the usual way, with an expression that says, “why’d you wait so long to do something about that mess under your hat?” See, I’ve gotten into this habit of waiting too long to get cleaned up and after about eight weeks, an unfortunate shaggy quality settles above my earlobes and down the back of my neck. I look part middle-school boy, part Midwestern grandma. C suggests I come in at six weeks. I always nod, vigorously, and then come after nine or ten.

We fall into conversation easily. C pulls the beanie off and if there’s an “I knew it” on their lips, it doesn’t show. They look over the mess I’ve left, but there’s a softness in their expression that peaks out from under their jet-black hair. C is tall-ish, with a broad frame, but their punk aesthetic is usually paired with curious eyebrows and kind eyes. We fall into a rhythm of swapping stories about our families and mutual teenage moodiness. They describe their love affair with heavy metal and how it gave them some place to smash out the anger that lived in their body then. I retort that I had more of a depressed, writing-terrible-poems go of it — that I preferred crying in closets instead of throwing elbows in pits. It strikes me that our stories are as much a creation of our bodies and personality types, as the cultures they were formed inside.

C is Latinx, unapologetically brown and queer; they stand in their body like the larger world has crashed into their livelihood one too many times. They stand like they know how to create a center of gravity for themselves. I have a sense this steadiness is both hard won and different from the one I sit in.

I’ve been read as a white woman for as long as I can remember. For most of my early twenties, I tried to take the story I was given about myself and make a home inside it. That’s meant that the world has given me the kind of grace it only gives white heroines, even ones dressed in drag. That never made the costume of woman any less painful, but it did mean queerness wasn’t always woven into my body’s story.

C steps away from their station for a minute to grab some more pomade for styling. My gaze wanders a bit until I spot the cross stich of Frida Khalo perched in the center of the mirror. I’m mesmerized by the rainbow in her flower crown, transported to a sunset I watched once, one peaking out from behind the book in my hands. I’d been reading Refining Realness all night, propelled to find answers to questions I couldn’t articulate. At first, I told myself that I’d picked up the book to try and be a better ally to trans women, but after a few pages, I started carrying it with me everywhere I went. I felt better having it nearby — like I discovered the Bible I was meant to fall in love with.

This particular night, under a sky swimming with color, I reached the end of Janet’s story, the one about her finding ways to sit inside her full self: “I was steadily reaching in the dark across a chasm that separated who I was and who I thought I should be. Somewhere along the way, I grew weary of grasping at possible selves, just out of reach. So I put my arms down and wrapped them around me. I began healing by embracing myself through the foreboding darkness until the sunrise shone on my face.” I didn’t know it then, when I still searching, but Janet’s words gave me the same narrative permission to begin telling my own story. I didn’t know it then, but Janet would be the first in a long line of queer and trans people who would teach me how to be free.

I look up at the cross-stitch of Frida’s self-portrait and think about how she, like Janet, refused to surrender any aspect of her story. I think about how both of them rendered the parts of themselves the world had hurt, how both knew that a denial of pain would lead to nowhere. I think about how often oppression asks us to work through our suffering in silence and then punishes us when we dare to wish for a better world out loud.

I feel so grateful for their refusal to surrender their full selves that my chest sways a little, the way it always does with love. Queer and trans folks of color have always been rendering the world as it is and dreaming up new mythologies to live by. I feel indebted to their legacy, grateful to have glimpsed the worlds they’ve built for themselves.

C touches my shoulder gently and hands me a small mirror to check out the new fade, pomade freshly added. C spins the chair and catches my eye before crooning: “hey look, it’s you again.” I think about how it felt to discover Janet’s writing at twenty-four. I think of twenty seven year old me, scribbling a quiet revolt by candlelight, peering through the window of this salon, afraid to go in. I think of the rose-colored suit at twenty-eight and the promise I made to live in daylight. I hug C, in a way that says the future is an open sky, a perfect canvass to write in more of our lives. The door twinkles open and I say a quick goodbye over my shoulder, “See you in six weeks.” C shoots me a knowing look and I smile, letting my chin tip up toward the sun.

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