Eventually I had to Plead Mercy

This post was originally published on Pretty Queer September 3rd 2011

See it here

I never thought I would be that girl, you know the one – crying on the train alone.  Holding my bike unsteadily while a blond hipster, who had already perched next to me hesitantly, now in West Oakland is scanning nearby seats trying to figure out how to slide into one unnoticed.

I was not crying because my ipod shuffled onto a break up song, or because someone I knew had recently died.  The reason tears were dripping off my face and onto my fanny pack was because of an old man sitting on the other side of the train door.   He looked mid 70’s.  He was wearing a Wranglers shirt.  Clean, worn jeans over shined up riding boots.  A Cowboy hat on his head.  His stomach was soft in the middle, less of a beer belly than a hammock.  Jowls that quivered as he dozed off, his hands politely resting in his lap.  I imagined that he looked how my dad would have looked to a stranger, if he came to visit.  An old ranch hand, lost in the bay area amongst punk kids with studs sticking out of their jackets, teenage boys wearing pants slouching around their thighs.

I know it’s not cool to write about loneliness.  Writing about sex or culture or transition, you are writing about belonging to a people, or at least one person.  Writing about your parents having cut ties with you is about being alone.  There is no identity in it, you aren’t an orphan – they still exist – there is no action, no back and forth fighting or loving or anything.  Just remoteness.

The last time I saw my dad was 2 ½ years ago. I had started taking hormones three months prior. I remember the days leading up to us meeting, feeling sick and in a constant debate with myself about how to present myself.  Should I wear a binder, a sports bra or nothing?  Should I shave off my slight facial hair?   I knew that my body wasn’t going to get any more feminine so should I just try to ease them into it, or  backpedal with some kind of futch-esque look?

At the family BBQ, I sat with the women and talked work, while the men and children played baseball.   I definitely was cast back into teenagerdom.  I had forgotten that, in the suburbs, no one over the age of 18 wears black.  I had thought it would make me look sophisticated in my soccer mom/cowboy/chola family.  But instead I was the elephant in the room.  I’d excused my vocal range by talking about a throat infection, but my jawline and musculature made everything about me loud and awkward.  Ugly Duckling.   During family photo time my dad grabbed my bicep and looked at me sternly.  I didn’t say anything.

The next time I see him is in the airport for his return flight.  I show up late, he grabs me by the arm and marches me to a private crevice to ‘ask some questions’.  Are you on steroids?  No, well are you on testosterone?  Why are you on it?  Then: I knew you would say that you were trans. 

We talked about it for fifteen minutes.  He said he was disappointed but still loved me.  Couldn’t understand how this could be happening.  When I was a kid I had thrown a fit when I got cast as a boy in the school play.  Had hated the single father style, short haircuts he gave me until he remarried.    To him I was jumping off a cliff because my friends were.  That because my main friends in high school were boys 10 years my senior who fingerbanged me in the youth center bathroom, that I’d gotten to the state of desperation for company where I’d decided cutting off my tits was my only option for community.

The trans script about gender and how it’s different than sexuality, or masculinity or femininity, doesn’t do shit all when you are talking to the people who raised you.  My dad wanted to know why I was trans, and I didn’t have the answer.  Transition kind of happened to me.  Like one day I was working at a strip club happily perusing underwear catalogues, then two years later I woke up with short hair, bad skin and rapidly diminishing options in prostitution.  But I was happier.  Or at least I felt like the owner of my body, rather than a tweaker tenant barely making rent.

In our conversation we moved on to talking about New Mexico and irrigation ditches.  Then we hugged and he walked through security.  Afterwards I was high from excitement – I never thought it would go that well, our family dynamic had always been tense and distant.  But his departure was followed by a shit storm of emails between my stepmother and me.  Eventually I had to plead mercy.  A couple weeks later I called for his birthday and they hung up on me.  But not in that BANG, FUCK YOU way, just in that way where the phone clicks dead in the middle of a sentence and you keep calling again because you think maybe the phone line died, but no one picks up.

Since then it’s pretty much been infrequent, coldly disengaged emails.  No reply to my request for their new phone number or home address.

So why am I writing about this on a snarky queer website?  I’m not looking for a pity party.  I know I’m a fairly privileged person – I pass as white, I pass as male, and I am mostly socially rewarded for being trans.  Apart from the sorrow of not getting plowed by men who can’t deal with vag, most of the current transphobia that I experience is internalized.   Much of my internalized transphobia is rooted solidly in my history and relationship with my parents.

After reading Ties that Bind by Sarah Schulmann, I thought about what the process of being shunned by your family does to you and how that shapes community development.  Not all queer and trans people have broken relationships with their families – but most of them do – or at least have at some point.  Queer and trans people have a lot of gifts in terms of creating relationships with each other – creative uses of language, an understanding of the differences that exist in humanity, the de-escalation skills that come from nonprofit jobs and seeing your ex’s at every queer dance party.

However, we are also working with the big burden of social dissipated homophobia and transphobia.  I can only speak for myself but I know that sometimes I act (and react) hella shady, in part because I got told that the way I live my life must be a result of mental illness,.  That eventually I “will be alone in 10 or 20 years when [I] have grown out of this rubbish and the realities of being alive are hitting [me] in the face full on [I] will have really cut yourself off from everyone except perhaps these weird fringe dwellers [I] want to hang out with.”

Because of these thoughts cycling through my brain, I can be very defensive and shut down against other peoples ideas.  And I see those characteristics in a lot of queers.  Particularly (surprise!) on the internet.  As an example:  I’ve been seeing requests/demands/pleading by trans women asking that trans men not use the word ‘tranny’, especially to refer to themselves, for around 4 years.  It’s a simple and rational request, not asking for any major sacrifices.  But it is still a huge debate, is still met with a lot of resistance, and it is a flagship of the infighting that happens between trans individuals born with one set of genitals vs another.

So why?  Why can’t trans men (and queer cis people) just let.it.go? Is it because we have a collective consciousness of defensiveness?  Trans men experience a different sort of external transphobia than trans women.  I know that the experiences of all trans people vary based on passability and other identities, however I feel safe in the statement that, in general, trans men experience less social examination, violence, and public degradation.  This doesn’t mean that trans men move through the world without experiencing rejection or violence because they are trans, it just is of a different sort.  The word ‘tranny’ historically has meanings that are about the trans woman experience, and that should be respected as a word that is theirs to reclaim or throw away.

However, when told that, the reaction often is ‘don’t tell me I don’t experience oppression’ or ‘don’t tell me what I can and cannot identify as’.  These are, I feel, reactions that come from a collective background of familial transphobia.   An inability to separate out the voices of our own community from those of people who have hurt us.  I understand it, but cannot accept it.

The stories that your parents tell you can become self-fulfilling when you don’t respect others.   Their punishment of cutting ties to force their kin to obey, can lead to queers and trans people to not listen to each other openly.  Rejection by family can lead people to become vacuums of space and privilege in more welcoming spaces.  But all these behaviors are self-defeating.  I know I went from sob story to cornball moralizing, and I’m not saying I expect us all to play nice with each other or have homogenous politics.  I am, after all, the snidest call out queen of them all (dearchillmascbro.tumblr.com)

However, I do know that ultimately we need to recognize that familial trauma is part of the queer/trans experience and be aware in how it reproduces itself around us. If we can be honest with ourselves about what our emotions and limits are linked to, we will create a much healthier community. One we can be proud of, whether our parents think we should be or not.

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