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Becoming Laura, installment four: 'Life in the roundabout'

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
"You don’t need to know. You never did. You’ve got your own body to obsess over. Get over mine." [Photo: L. Shepherd]
"You don’t need to know. You never did. You’ve got your own body to obsess over. Get over mine." [Photo: L. Shepherd]

By Laura Shepherd

I live about 300 metres from a roundabout – a small traffic circle. I can usually tell, crossing the pedestrian walk through the circle in the morning, what kind of day I’m going to have. My response to traffic generally tells me my mood and I know from experience how that is likely to impact my day.

Some days, I simply cross the traffic lane in the Zebra walk, and I’m on my way. Other days, I will catch the random, passing glimpse of an automobile passenger, and hear myself mutter bitterly, “Take a picture – it will last longer”. Sometimes, a driver or passenger really is staring at me. I’m likely to wave no matter my mood. Only on my best days do I use multiple fingers.

A daily challenge for me, navigating Halifax as a visibly-trans, middle-aged woman, is managing my projections – what I assume about others I encounter in the course of a day, especially what I imagine them to be imagining about me. The instinct to engage in this guessing game of reflections and projections comes out of the experience of being noticeably different and being treated differently for it. It is my particular manifestation of what is called “minority stress”.

I would never have really appreciated what minority stress is, had I not experienced it from the inside-out, as I do now. I say that knowing that I am still the recipient of enormous privilege simply for being white, no matter the unorthodoxy of my gender. I’m also literate, educated, and at least theoretically, experienced and employable. I still have a lot of competitive advantages in markets like employment, housing, and the like.

This doesn’t make what minority stress I do experience any easier to deal with. It can’t be ignored, because if you don’t counter it with some message of affirmation, it can be soul-destroying. I don’t want that to happen to me, and it is up to me to prevent that.

I don’t want to become an angry and embittered trans woman –that’s the full truth. The “angry trans woman” is reputed to be a thing. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I can easily see where it would come from if it is. I can see the potential in myself. I didn’t live through all it’s taken to transition in order to be bitter and resentful about it.

It takes its toll, though, being different. I’m all over Instagram. When I first lived in the city as Laura, I made a number of changes at once – gender presentation, name and pronoun, singlehood, a shared apartment with strangers, new employment with much lower pay, others I’ve forgotten or dismissed. I wasn’t all that competent at being Laura and it showed more than it does now. So, I got my picture taken more brazenly, notably on transit buses. Now, it’s passers-by who snap my photo on the sidewalk. About once a week, I will pass a smartphone extended too far to read text, then surreptitiously pocketed if I happen to make eye contact with the owner. My usual strategy is to glance pointedly at the phone. I don’t bother to turn around anymore to see if they pause, presumably to post the photo to social media. Why torture myself? I’m pretty sure they’re not taking my picture because they think I’m a babe.

Most adult men try to ignore me in public. I see them shift lines at the coffee shop, glancing surreptitiously to see their escape is secure. Most give clipped one word answers, if they speak at all when I address them, as if the less they say, the less likely their manhood will bear the scar of the interaction. I can perform consumer transactions with men without hassle, but it’s not often a banter-filled exchange. The best call me nothing at all. Most call me dude or guy or buddy or some other of those repulsive terms of false familiarity men have for each other and use with abandon. On the street, only panhandlers call me “ma’am”.

Occasionally, a stranger - invariably male, frequently drunk - will ask about my body, typically inquiring into the “realness’ (their word) of my breasts or the geometry of my genitals. They use the verb, need. “I need to know…” they always begin, before asking me questions to which they could well live forever without needing answers. In response, I ask loudly about their foreskin or its potential circumcision, sometimes asking if they pull it back regularly to perform personal hygiene. I make an effort to be graphically crass in wording the questions. If they are open-shirted in the evening chill, I might ask why their nipples are erect if their breasts aren’t real, too. I can give as good as I get. Still, the questions rankle me, especially the assertion that others need to know about my body, simply because it is trans. You don’t need to know. You never did. You’ve got your own body to obsess over. Get over mine.

What I typically notice about adult women, in contrast, is that they smile at me, make eye contact, and often, as is typical in the Maritimes, speak.

University students, with which Halifax is overrun like lemmings, are for the most part accepting and acknowledging. Those I might be inclined to classify as either “frat boys” or “jocks” are the ones likely to mock me, but I know from my exposure to men like them that they do that for their own place in the group – it doesn’t really have anything to do with me.

Adolescent girls, themselves grappling with identity, often call me out when they see me. The only issues I’ve ever had in washrooms have occurred when there were adolescents present. I’ve learned to avoid them, if I can. They can be cruel and humiliating, and in any event, I’m quite capable of outing myself, I don’t need a teenager's help.

Not that anybody’s prejudice has, ultimately, anything to do with me. I’m just one of its recipients.

The troubling part is, I cannot with any assurance tell you that what I’m telling you is real. I could just be imagining that these things are happening. It’s not like I’m getting each passerby to fill out a questionnaire on what they were thinking and what expressions they made. I only see what I see.

At the beginning of each day, my crossing the roundabout clues me to my outlook. Some days, everyone is staring, mocking, derisive in their view. Other days, no one is. Then there are the days I am not clouded by my own cycle of shadow or light, confidence or apprehension, energy or fatigue. Those are the days I can’t really tell, I can only think I can tell. Those days are typical for me.

It’s like the hackneyed cliché, “Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

I am paranoid, a little, and I resent that I’ve become so. I don’t like spending time in a feedback loop of reacting, or not, to actions I can discern to be neither real nor imagined.

When I’m at my best, attitudinally, I really don’t give a shit what you think or what impact my presence or appearance has on your neurology, as you blink and twitch and elbow your friend. Some days, I rather enjoy the taser-like impact of my presence on those who are presumably insecure themselves. Not that any of us aren’t, in the madness of the society we live in.

But I can’t always contain and control my attitude. And even when I can, open mockery can return me to a cycle of suspicion and projection. Perspective is everything. It hits me when I don’t expect it. Some mornings, I’m choking back tears just walking to the roundabout. Those are the days I tell my friends I’m okay, so long as nobody asks me how I’m doing. If they do, I’ll generally lose it in tears of exhaustion and pain.

We gain our resilience in large measure through the affirmation of others. It’s hard to convey how isolating it is to be trans. I don’t know if it is more isolating for trans women than for others who are not cisgender, but the majority of the trans women I know are more or less going it alone.

Most of us have no job, and hence, no financial flexibility, including the disposable income to participate socially in what is otherwise a vibrant queer and trans community, for our size, in this reluctant little city by the sea. The standard reckoning, from pioneering data collection projects like Ontario’s TransPULSE, is that at least 75% of us are unemployed, it doesn’t matter which city or province or country or continent you’re looking at. In a world where so much social activity takes place in workplaces and with coworkers, nobody without a job really feels included.

I am also isolated, in a largely youth-oriented milieu, by my age. In over two and half years in Halifax, having left a lifetime of friendships largely behind, I have been able to cultivate a wide range of acquaintances. I could be missing fingers, though, and still count on one hand those I know well enough to confide in, and I’m not exactly a wallflower.

Even when we are included as members of a larger community, like the queer community, our inclusion tends to end at the bedsheets or the underwear, a place trans activist Drew DeVeaux termed “the cotton ceiling”. I get propositioned on OKCupid with such charming overtures as, “I’ve always wanted to have a tranny.” But I don’t get asked out by people I know. I’ve never been on a date (though I got asked out to dinner once and wondered the whole night if it was supposed to be a date). I’ve never been kissed. And my experience is anything but unusual.

I carry my isolation with me, it’s part of the package. I try to keep it over my shoulder, but sometimes it sits atop it, like a chip. Other times, it slips across my face and forms a lens that distorts my image of everything I see in the world. Those are the days I will mistake someone’s creativity and wit for cruelty. Those are the days I will alienate my friends and allies. I will try to excuse myself with a joke about looking at the world “through shit-coloured glasses”. We turn minority stress inwards at times, to corrosive effect on us and collateral damage to others. Then we have to pick up the pieces and repair things. Action or inaction, influence or reaction – it’s always our responsibility. The onus is on us to assert our space, or there isn’t any for us.

The general readiness to resist is, itself, exhausting and depleting, like being in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’. I like watching birds, schlepping around outside in wonder, camping and canoeing. I don’t really like rallies and street protests and long, carefully spoken meetings with the various authorities and gatekeepers in my life, each of whom can obliterate my identity with a pen stroke. Why can’t I just live a normal life?

Because society says I’m not normal, that’s why.

Bearing minority stress in isolation takes resilience, a quality research projects, like TransPULSE and others, are finding trans people possess in degrees well beyond what is found, typically, in the population at large. Such mental and emotional flexibility, however advantageous and admirable, doesn’t even show on the radar screen when a prospective employer considers our intangible qualities. All they can see is how different we look. Hence, 75% + unemployment. It’s small consolation to say it’s their loss, when they are the ones who get to eat, today.

We cope alone, for the most part. That gives our range of coping skills a wide variety and a peculiar, particular, personal variation. In training medical practitioners in awareness of trans patients, the phrase “highly idiosyncratic coping skills” comes up, again and again. It informs and impacts everything we do, all our fidgets and twitches and uneasy perching on the edge of our chairs. Living with the constant potential of exclusion causes me to act as though my designation as an “other” is valid. It’s the range of threats and aggressions we contend with in the course of a day, juggling them in the air to keep them from touching us, that wears us down, far more than their execution, which simply restores us to the state of isolation in which we are immersed, to begin with.

This is the fourth installment of 'Becoming Laura'.

If you've missed earlier installments, check them out here, here and here.

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