…but aren’t all public speaking engagements? And to be frank, the past few weeks haven’t been much better in terms of the crap I’ve been going through re: I’m transgender and most people don’t even think about how what they say or do might make me feel.
Last night I wasn’t speaking to a large crowd. It was to a board of directors for an organization that manages a gay men’s choir. And I know that doesn’t sound intimidating — but it was. In large part because I was there to explain why, after one of the numbers (the second one, actually) in one of their group’s recent performances, I wound up crying in the theatre bathroom for half an hour while waiting for Arr to come and take my wife and I home. (We had carpooled to the event with a friend.)
The long and the short of it is that the ‘punchline’ of the second song was that it was being sung by a ‘dude in a dress.’ And it was intended to be: he came out in pumps and sparkly thigh highs, wearing some sort of white negligee, with flowers woven into his beard and a garland in his hair. The audience loved it. Everyone was laughing, and laughing more the more he hammed it up. The song… I don’t remember much of it now, but the refrain was something like ~you need to treat me like a lady, even when I’m acting crazy~ (which has its very own misogynistic overtones) was catchy and energetic. But what I couldn’t deal with was the fact that this place, which I had come to expecting to be an LGBTQIA+ inclusive and safe space, suddenly wasn’t — because everyone around me except my wife was suddenly laughing at a trope that has been thrown in my face to point out how ridiculous my being trans was, how I’d never be accepted as a woman and shouldn’t try; a trope that is, frankly a fairly significant factor in why I took as long as I did to come out.
Because who wants to open themselves up to that kind of ridicule? Especially when it is clearly socially acceptable because… Well, just look at society. Punch line of Ace Ventura? The villainess is actually a man! (Cue extended barfing scenes.) The Boxtrolls? The villain moonlights as a cross dresser that everyone mistakes for a woman until the ‘lie’ is exposed, making them all “feel so dirty.” Love Actually? Well, the best man and his groom can both agree that the brazillian prostitutes at the bachelor party had been a mistake — although it might’ve gone better if they hadn’t “actually been men.” Miss Doubtfire? Hahaha, Robin Williams has to disguise himself as a grandma. If you need more examples, go ahead and check TVTropes.
Anyway, the performance made for a very rough night. We sat through the song because I knew it wasn’t intentionally hurtful (in a way, the fact that it never occurred to them that it could be harmful was worse, since it showed how very, very little the trans experience mattered in this space) and I had no desire to cause a scene. I was going to just hide in a restroom and write. That was the plan I told myself, anyway. Once I was out of the auditorium I wound up having a full on breakdown, and I am extremely grateful that my wife was there to comfort me and that she had insisted on calling Arr to come pick us up.
When I had pulled myself back together we went out of the theater to wait on Arr to pick us up. Intermission let out just moments after I got on my feet again, so it started to get crowded and I needed to get away from those people — because I didn’t know anything about any of them except that they had laughed at something that was only separated by the hateful caricatures used to tear down trans women by the ignorance that prevented it from being intentional.. So I went for a walk, just down the block. When I found myself looking at the intersection and wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to just keep walking into traffic rather than keep on going through life never knowing when I would have people laugh at me for failing to pass, or accuse me of being a liar because I did pass, or generally just belittling my existence — and probably accusing me of being ‘too sensitive’ if I tried to make a statement about how their actions made me feel… Well, at that point I turned around and walked back. (I have been seriously suicidal in the past. I have had lots of thoughts since then about whether or not living is worth it; if the good times balance out the sheer misery of others. Interesting fact? Transgender suicide rates are horrifically high. The most recent statistic I’ve seen is that 4 out of 10 transgender people will attempt suicide — not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they’ve been suffering under discrimination, internal and external transphobia, rejection by friends and family, and so on. And that’s, you know, the statistic based on people that are out as trans, willing to admit to suicidal action, and so on. It doesn’t include people who’ve never come out, or who succeeded in escaping to oblivion before being identified as trans, or whatever else. I’ve never attempted suicide, but at my lowest point of depression I was thinking about it constantly and had planned out how I’d go about it. And that is terrifying knowledge to have.)
I had asked Jae to stay behind. She was explaining to our friends who had carpooled with us why I was upset and why we were leaving early, because I hadn’t wanted to be around anyone and I didn’t want to talk about it because I knew I’d start crying again. Anyway, when I got back I found that she was explaining — very irately — to a member of the board of directors why that trope was harmful, why I had left their show crying, why she was furious that this LGBTQIA+ space wasn’t cognizant of the T, and why crap like that — like the normalization of ridiculing trans women — is a large part of the reason we have to be afraid for me if I go out in public alone. Because if degrees of acceptance fall on anything like a bell curve (which most studies I’ve seen seem to indicate is true), then when the highest point — the point reflected by your average, decent citizen — is set at casual trans misogyny without even the awareness of what is wrong with it, then going a few steps over to active trans misogyny still yields a lot of people, and from there to violence of trans people doesn’t reduce the numbers by much — and then you look at the news and realize you have things like the ridiculously high rates of violence and murder against trans women that we have today.
So, last night we were asked to speak to the board of directors at their meeting about my experience and why it was distressing. And that, in and of itself, was distressing. I’ve very recently had someone that I really wanted to admire and get along with decide to tell me that I was oversensitive, that I took things personally that weren’t about me at all (and no: this wasn’t directed at me at all, I realize that. But about people like me? Having an effect on people like me? Yeah.) and basically that I needed to let go of my persecution complex and focus on how I was the same as other people rather than how I was different. A conversation that came about because I was trying to explain why certain terms made me, as a transgender person, uncomfortable to hear. That’s all. I just said that the use of a certain term made me uncomfortable, and tried to explain why, and I wound up being told I was wrong to feel that way, that I didn’t understand what I was hearing — that my emotions were invalid, my experiences misinterpreted, and that I needed to get into therapy.
Talking about my feelings and why I felt them would have been hard enough. But coming on the heels of that experience? Yeah, I was terrified. If I hadn’t had Jae at my side I never would have been able to make myself go. But then again, if Jae hadn’t been at my side none of them would have even realized there was a problem. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone in the moment — I don’t even know if I would’ve been able to leave the theater. I suspect I would’ve locked everything down until I was alone and then broken down twice as hard. Anyway, my thoughts last night were pretty much: if I’d gotten such a negative and hurtful response from someone I generally wanted to think well of over something as trivial as my discomfort over a term with unpleasant connotations… how much worse was it going to be when I tried to do the same explaining to an entire room of people over something that had actually torn away my sense of safety and fed my dysphoria until I was left in tears?
Fortunately, it went well. These people were genuinely distraught that they’d distressed a member of their audience. They listened to my perspective and didn’t try to debate me on it or tell me why I shouldn’t have been upset. They refunded us our tickets, which was nice but unexpected. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do going forward, but at least they’re aware that ‘punching down’ hurts people in the community who they aren’t thinking about. So, I’m hopeful for that — maybe in the future they’ll consider the impact of their humor on whatever group that it pokes fun of, and reconsider if it is punching down again. And (and this may make me a bad person) I’m also sort of hopeful that I never see any of them again. I mean, I expect that I will, and that I’ll see what comes of future performances and try to show my support there as well. But one bad experience is often all it takes to make me gun shy around people, places; groups. So even though I fully intend to fortify and not let this one event keep me from appreciating the good things they do or have done… I still sort of hope I don’t have to deal with pulling myself up enough to face them again anytime soon.
After I got home last night I really wanted to cry again. I didn’t, though. Too stressed? Not stressed enough? I felt like I was coming down from an anxiety overload because of having to say my peace in front of a bunch of people while feeling like I was “that troublemaking transwoman” — or “that obnoxious activist” who has a problem where no one had (or expressed, anyway) a problem before and ruins everything “fun.” But I got hugged by everyone when I got home, and spent a lot of time sandwiched between Ess and Jae being told that everything was going to be okay and that I had done the right thing in trying to educate some people as to my experiences. And I talked about it with my girlfriend, afterward, a little bit. (Fin: I know you read these sometimes. I love you to bits and you are probably the kindest and gentlest person I know. Thank you for always being someone I know I can approach with my feelings and be safe!)
As for whether or not I did the right thing, or have had any positive impact, or have just pissed off a bunch of people by making them have to deal with me? I honestly don’t know. I still feel fried, emotionally and mentally. That’s about it, right now. I am exhausted and still trying to recover from a few weeks worth of stress and stress-induced dysphoria (which causes more stress, which… well, it’s not a happy cycle). And that’s where I’m at, currently. I’m planning on giving myself a couple days to try and just recover and pull it all together again. And hopefully I won’t have another emotional shock smack me in the face this weekend.
Anyway, thanks for listening to me go on about all this unpleasantness. I hope all of you have been having better days than I have of late. 🙂 Be safe, happy and well.