2013 February 9
I rode light rail into downtown to catch a bus to roller derby. As we pulled into Westlake, I stood at the doors and caught a reflection of myself. I was dressed pretty casually: a zipped top which plunged in a cleavage-flattering way, slim purple jeans, and navy blue faux-sneakers. There was also a thin black leather jacket which gave me a nondescript, Nordstrom-advert, clone look that would make Stacy and Clinton proud.
Upon seeing myself–and after thinking how casually sporty fab I looked–my first thought was about how I looked like some advertisers’ target focus group of: Casually Chic White Urban Woman. I can abide by that… probably because I am each one of those. Apparently, I can dress up my usual thrift-store chic into other other forms of chic.
This moment of reflection (ha!) reminded me of the evolution of my internal sense of self, my perception of my own reflection, and my outwardly legible projection along my daily light rail rides back before transition. Outside of downtown, Link is a surface line. At one place, however, it enters a tunnel to get to the other side of Beacon Hill. Naturally, in the tunnel the glass turns into a mirror. I remember back to 2009, catching glimpses of myself reflected in the glass when I first started laser beard eradication.1
It was important for me to get rid of my visible beard before completely stepping out2 last year. I was one who had 5 o’clock shadow by lunchtime; it was by far the largest visual impediment to my breaking through the wall. Poetically, that which caused me so much angst and doubt in the past, my dark and coarse whiskers contrasted against my pasty Polish complexion, turned out to be the winning combination for its removal. So, the gradually emerging image of a smooth face was a wonderful evolution to behold.
Increasingly, I noticed the reflection staring back at me was that of a woman: at times a chic professional urbanite woman, at times an older and more confident version of the crazy dresser of my youth, at times an academic woman making keen observations of the city and formulating smart thoughts from a moving train car. At all times, more and more, it seemed that She was in transit to kick ass somewhere.
Coupled with these changes in visual perception, there was a mental recalibration. More and more, my self-interrogation turned from, “can I really do this?” to “wow, I think I can do this” to “oh fuck yeah we’re doing this!” Eventually, it mattered less to me how the outside world might read my image. Instead, what was important was the way I was reading my own image and thinking about myself. My own thinking had changed from fretting about external scrutiny directed at me to realizing that my internal projection of myself blazed brighter and brighter outward.
My friends and colleagues know of my academic and political interest in graffiti–its content, sure, but, more importantly, its motivations, processes, methods, and actions. Metaphorically, I was tagging the world with my new mark, wheat pasting my new image into people’s brains. It boggles my mind to hear people say they barely remember me with thick facial hair, as it was such a huge part of my dysphoria. In truth, even I am starting to forget both the look and feel of it. Finally, I would eventually slap tag my new name over my official documents. When I declared myself socially, it no longer mattered what was legal or official. I was making my appearance in the public, social space among friends, colleagues, and family. I figured the legal, official, and medical stuff would eventually fall in line; I knew it would have to.3,4
Days after somewhat impulsively deciding the time Is NOW!, or as I call it “pressing the turbo button” in April 2012, I had flown to Chicago for a long Easter weekend to visit my mom as well as my dearest and closest friends. While riding the Orange Line from Midway, I was looking over the streets of my city (it’ll always be my city), thinking about where I’ve been and relishing in the uncertainty and delirious inevitability of my future.
Somewhere around Roosevelt, a group a loud young dudes got on the L. Now, groups of young dudes have always tripped my threat assessment sensor because, historically, they have been most likely to make shitty comments toward me and about my appearance. These dudes caused no trouble, but I took a minute to challenge myself on this question: in the face of possible new kinds of street-harassment thrown my way, could I actually really truly handle negotiating this world as a perceived woman? as a perceived trans woman?
In what now I think happened in a split-second, I thought of my women friends who have lived this all their lives. I thought of all the trans women before me who took this on. The names of recently assaulted trans women of color flashed across my mental field of vision. In the end, though, I knew there was no reason for anything to hold me back. There was, in fact, no turning back as everything had already started rolling forward full speed.
Moreover, I felt a swelling wave building in my mind. I can really only describe it as some sort of… Chicago something, related to that feeling of brash self-assuredness that always kicks in when I’m in my home town. It was a sass… a Chicago sass… a trans sass. It was me, Amy. She had arrived and she was not leaving.
“Oh Fuck Yeah we can do this! We’re doing this now. Right now.”
I got up and gathered my things, leaving any remaining bits of self-doubt tossed crumpled on the seat. I walked specifically to the door nearest the loud dudes and stepped out to transfer lines. I have this melodramatic act that I perform after significant events which I performed then: I stopped in the night air, closed my eyes, and inhaled a deep breathe of freedom.
I’ve never looked back.
1. I use the word eradication deliberately. We speak of laser hair removal as if it were some modern, care-free, clinical, technological magic. In many respects it is: we are just using light energy to diminish physical follicles. But I want to acknowledge a more ceremonially violent aspect of this “removal” that is important to me. It’s a line of thought that dramatically expanded this footnote into the subject of a separate post, I hope.
Suffice it to say for now that lot of transition narratives are filled with rightfully uplifting verbiage of emerging or flourishing or blossoming. But I want to explore the other side–some of the ritualistic, symbolic violence of my work “to pull up by the roots” and run into the new land. I want to underline the fact that, although my timeline continues unbroken, certain aspects and attributes of mine have been uprooted rather forcefully while others have decidedly been unkindly put to rest.
2. I’d say “coming out” but, given my visible genderqueerness beforehand and the fact that hardly any of my friends were that surprised when I announced my transition, it hardly feels like the jarring experience that “coming out” is for many others. Again, I’m extremely fortunate. In my case, it was almost a slowly unfolding evolution of sorts (like Canada breaking off from Britain!) that eventually gathered speed logarithmically.
3. Transition has been incredibly illustrative of the extent to which my white, able-bodied, and economic privilege operates. Not a day goes by that I am not aware of the immense advantages and resources I had at my disposal when dealing with courts, doctors, and bureaucracies.
4. In an effort to be helpful, I have written down the necessary information to change name and sex on U.S. passports.