Getting through the Gates: Travel and Transphobia

January 26

Les,

After reading much of Trans Liberation today, I’m thinking about travel, transphobia, and colonialism. I’m lingering on your love of/yearning for travel but inability to actually engage in international travel the way many non-trans individuals can. I wanted to also talk about colonialism and the ways in which tourism (mostly by more affluent individuals from wealthier countries) can be its own form of imperialism, but I’ll limit my focus to airports today.

During your address to the Texas “T” (transgender) Party in 1997, you talked about your struggles with M-or-F boxes on document applications, sharing:

I would like to live in a world in which I would be described as “Les Feinberg.” But I live in a society in which I will never fit either of the little stick figures on public bathrooms signs, and I cannot shoehorn myself into either the “M” or “F” box on document applications.

…So I – and millions like me – are caught in a social contradiction. It’s legally accurate to check off the “F” on my driver’s license permit. But imagine if a state trooper stops me for a taillight violation. He (they have always been he in my experience) sees on “F” on my license but when he shines his flashlight on my face he sees an “M.” Now I’m in the middle of a nightmare over a traffic infraction. So I marked down “M” on my driver’s license application for my own safety. I can be fined and jailed for that simple checkmark with my pen.

I am someone who loves to travel. There isn’t a single spot on this planet I don’t long to see and explore. But the M-or-F boxes on passport applications kept me under virtual “house arrest” in this country for most of my life. (20)

You ended up ordering a short-form birth certificate without a gender box which enabled you to apply for a passport as a “M” with your gender ambiguous birth name. In that moment, you became a felon. But, you declared,

I’m not afraid. If I am arrested at any time because of my identification papers, I’ll let our communities everywhere know. We are all vulnerable where our identification documents are concerned. I think we could make a hell of a fight out of such an arrest by demanding the M-or-F boxes be removed from documents like passports and driver’s licenses. (21)

I have many privileges, Les, including past experiences traveling overseas. As a child, I studied Japanese in an immersion program in Portland* Public Schools. With the help of years-long fundraising efforts, my classmates and I were able to travel to Japan twice. Once at the end of fifth grade, and once in eight grade for a short research residency. I turned 11 during the first trip. I was 13 during the second.

During both trips my gender confounded many. With my short hair, I was regularly mistaken for a boy. In one Fukuno elementary school classroom, I realized my US peers’ name tags were colorcoded by gender when the teacher tried changing mine to blue. Because I didn’t yet know I could be something other than a girl or boy, I simply defended my gender, repeating 男の子じゃない!私は、女の子です!— “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl!”

My color changed a couple times.

As someone who enjoyed confusing others (I realize now it was a relief for someone to not be so certain I was a girl), this was a funny experience. But I understand how these experiences can quickly become old and/or demoralizing, especially after passing out of childhood when people are cut more slack for looking androgynous.

It would be humiliating to answer invasive questions about gender and genitalia, and endure pat downs, strip searches, and X-ray scans by people who have no business touching our bodies, especially with so much ignorance or revulsion. The system does not need to be like this. Our gender, nor a tiny box, should not influence our ability to get through a gate.

It is not my desire to be read as a woman but as an assigned female at birth (AFAB) person usually misgendered as woman, and white, I can comfortably wade through security and customs. Any gendered address from an airport employee would bother me, but I do not enter airports expecting my appearance or ID to set off alarms. I make it through just fine. My middle-class upbringing may play a big part in this, Les; I move with confidence that I deserve to be there as much as anyone else, and I speak fluent standard English. Far more privileges than I will ever realize cushion me in this life.

What are some places you would have visited, Les? If your passport didn’t involve committing a felony? Even if it did?

Will I ever be read as someone not female or male in a respectful way by non-trans folks? What is trans enough? What do others see when they look at me and why? What have they been taught not to see?

To anyone else who may find these scraps of words, what are your experiences navigating airports? Traveling domestically or internationally as a trans person? What do you think holds you up? What allows you to pass through gates?


*I’m always hesitant to mention Portland by name because it’s rapidly gentrifying.  Non-trans and trans folks alike are moving here in droves and outside developers are in some cases drastically changing neighborhoods. While there are of course some pleasurable changes, Portland is the most gentrified U.S. city of the 21st century and it hurts to see so many communities pushed to the city’s fringes, if not out entirely, including Black Portlanders. Raised in what was not so long ago a far more working class neighborhood, I don’t see how I’ll be able to remain in my own neighborhood let alone area of town after moving out of my family home.

After the Memorial Service

September 20

Dear Leslie,

Two days ago, I attended a memorial service for someone my age for the first time. I am twenty-three so I have at least twenty-three reasons I am fortunate. I’ve known people my age who have died, including a 9th grade P.E. classmate who was shot dead the night before my first day of college—a death with considerable impact on my heart despite the limited nature of our interactions. But while my brain anxiously scans archives out of fear there are faces I have forgotten–peers I might have already said bye to at the grave then let their memories recede like their bones into earth–I cannot think of anyone else I shared childhood years with  before they flew from life.

It was Jane who died.

Unexpectedly, my first reaction upon receiving my sister’s text that Jane had died earlier that day was excitement. I was so pleased to read Jane’s name and think about what it would be like to catch up with her that I couldn’t process her not being alive. My mind looped between joy and confusion, settling closer and closer towards grief like a maple’s double-samara fluttering toward pavement. Neither my sister nor I had been close to Jane, but she had been an important part of my childhood as a player on a sister Mt. Tabor soccer team, and we had greeted each other in the halls at Mt. Tabor Middle School. She had teased me on the size of my backpack.

Whereas I was a small child with shoulder blades like wings, often likened to a pixie, Jane was a giant. She was tall, muscular, and vibrant with confidence.

Jane was alive.

How did you enter rooms, Leslie? How did you leave? Did you dress your heart in kevlar for all new faces, or did you manage to maintain some kind of open heart policy? As a human, as a white butch lesbian, as a transgender warrior, did you greet people with optimism, or did you, regardless of your outward demeanor, expect and plan for the worst? My best times are when I walk beaming into a room, enthusiastically shake hands with new-to-me souls, or casually joke and converse with folks, but this is not my everyday. I think I’ve always carried some fear and insecurity with me—false or prophetic certainty that I am inferior to others and will be rejected. I tiptoe in my own life and don’t ask many favors because I’m certain I’m asking too much.

Every person who spoke at Jane’s funeral shared how warm, gregarious, and sincere she was. She also invited herself into people’s houses and helped herself to what was in the fridge! She was shamelessly herself. The auditorium overflowed with individuals from her childhood neighborhood, Nordstrom, elementary school, middle school, high school, sports teams, and even Alaska. They walked easily or carefully with canes, or rolled wheelchairs. I recognized some faces and wondered which chapters we shared.

 Her service taught me many lessons.

I still believe that one of these days we will have a soccer reunion and we will crack up with laughter on Upper Clinton while shooting goals. The ground will be cracked with grass straining upwards or a hive of holes in mud from cleats and showers. Dirt will fleck our knees as it did when we were kids. Our shorts and jerseys will stain as we laugh breathless, our muscles tightening from exertion of our kicks and the joy of still being kids after all this time. Jane reminds me of what it is to love and be loved. And what it is to live.

Rest in peace, Jane. Rest in peace, Leslie. The world keeps spinning, but I think a great many of us are richer in life and braver than we would have been had you not once been here.

I began this letter on September 20. I will keep the date for that reason.

balancing act

October 2, 2015

Dear Leslie,

I haven’t forgotten about you. On the contrary, I’ve started and stopped multiple letters—some of them lengthy. But I haven’t been sure what to post, or even what is appropriate. A childhood friend, or rather, someone who was undoubtedly stitched onto the same quilt as I, another patch, on a greater design, died last month. She crashed her car in southeast Portland two miles from my house and died after three days in the hospital. I wanted to write about her. I did scribble in my journal and on the floral paper at her memorial service. I wanted to write about this person who was just so ALIVE I couldn’t fathom her being gone. She was so alive, it’s almost difficult to mourn. I know that if there is any afterlife, I will see her again. But I was just a childhood acquaintance friend. We played on sister soccer teams. We passed each other in the hall in middle school. Who am I to say these things? Life is fleeting. Her sudden death reminds me of this. Perhaps I will write more later. Maybe not. Jane, if you are out there listening, know that you are so loved and missed.

My radio silence is also embarrassing because I should probably be able to balance multiple projects as a writer, but I’ve instead been tied up with a Fulbright application. Which requires multiple pieces of writing! I found a grant for a master’s in creative writing and have been working around the clock to complete solid applications for both the university and Fulbright. Because I want to be admitted to this program so badly, I’m hesitant to share more.

Also, I read the first pages of Transgender Warriors. Once again, your words ensnared me. Thank you for that beautiful preface.

Thank You

IMG_1980

I bookmarked pages upon pages last week

as summer waned into early autumn, Leslie.

I huddled with your words

on the floor of my bedroom, on the couch,

outside, and in my therapist’s lobby

but didn’t know what else to say

during or after the reading besides this:

Thank You.

Questions

August 25

Dear Leslie,

Curves and dots is one way to say question marks. I have sentences punctuated by curves and dots for you; little trees stoop over the shade of their creation for you. Perhaps I am the bothersome student who asks questions without listening; you may have already shared your truths in pages and orations I have yet to explore. Here are some questions I ask now.

When walking alone in the dark, did you walk tall or swagger as a man? No matter where you were in your identity, did you do this to dissuade strangers who might attack if they knew what body you were born into?

What spaces did you feel most comfortable in? Did you ever feel so joyous and present you grinned at the sky, equal parts certainty and disbelief, feeling as though you were part of a complicated 3-D jigsaw puzzle with all pieces finally present and being put together?

Throughout your life, did you care about the gender expressions of your lovers? Did you with your butch and transgender identities ever experience attraction to other butch, transgender, &/or nonbinary individuals?

Because you were butch, did you want your loves to be feminine?

How did you feel pressed up against someone sweet, strong, flowery, and gutsy who shied away from being called “woman” or “girl”? Did you respect their preferences?

Were you ever attracted to cis-gendered men? And did it scare you, gazing at a man, knowing you were an anomaly breaking all rules of attraction? Scaring even other butches?

Were you ever so fed up with the binary and heteronormativity you became pure stone or glacier? Did you throw parkas to the wind for strangers to catch when you were an ice age?

Did you ever feel alien? Did you question if you were an amnesiac astronaut from another solar system, squinting around wondering what was up with “He” and “She” differentiating nearly identical beings? And the purpose of waxing salons?

If you had the opportunity to scrub gender from the earth, would you take it?

You said, “Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.” What new languages do you want babies to learn?

How did you sustain your fire?

I’m not real good with questions today and I apologize if these questions were too personal. But I do have more to ask eventually. I sit in the shade of those which remain with me.

August 22

Dear Leslie,

I’m not butch. I guess I have to share that. No one catching me scampering would ever mistake me for butch. No one who sees me joyously twirling or shaking my shoulders in a silly shimmy. I’ve been called a pixie and fairy more times than I can count. All my life, whether I welcome it or not. If someone did call me butch, my friends would raise their eyebrows or laugh if I told them. I know from experience. Luckily, I don’t claim butch identity for myself, although I’ve been wistful at times. But I do know stone* and I know the blues.

Just to put it out there, I don’t mean to presume my interpretation of and lived experience with stoniness is the same as Jess’ or yours. I need to respect that we have different stone experiences, Leslie. I have the fortune of never having been being sexually assaulted (yet/hopefully ever). Yet even without those kinds of oppressions, I feel myself as stone. I rarely welcome touch. It seems I have forgotten how to melt into hugs even with those I love, afraid of getting too close and afraid of sharing too much. And I’m just skeptical of contact. I bristle at being mistaken for soft sometimes, afraid someone will confuse that joy or warmth for weakness. Like a peach, at the core I am a stone. Maybe not all the time, and of course pits grow into trees if the circumstances are ripe, but I do often shut down and lie dormant in wait for rain or simply dormant, forgetting rain ever existed.

*In your 1996 interview with Julie Peters, you shared that stone means “very” in African-American vernacular. In the context of “stone butch,” it mean “very butch.” I never knew. You also wrote, “The second colloquial usage here in the states is that *stone butch* means a person who has been so wounded sexually that it is difficult to allow oneself to be touched. I chose to bring to life a *stone* character so that people could see how this particular form of oppression–like incest or rape–sometimes forces people to *shut down* sexually for a period of time, or for a long time. I don’t think of it as a strategy so much as a reflex.”

Why

August 20

Dear Leslie,

I will write you.

Why? Because my copy of Stone Butch Blues hasn’t even arrived yet, it’s still in Franklin, MA, but the first chapter I read online stilled my heart. For five minutes, I was completely engaged. Present in a way I’m normally not. I need the rest of the words and not from a book that has to return to the library. Although, you should know my library doesn’t even have a copy. One of the best library systems in the United States and no Stone Butch Blues. I imagine someone snuck it out just for the hope and validation its pages would provide or the comfort of having it on their shelves; copies aren’t easy to come by these days. I hope your loved ones are able to provide a PDF online (here, eventually) because I know what you have to say is important and it should be accessible to all those who want it.

I’m not just writing you because of your work as a transgender warrior, or because you were/are butch, transgender, lesbian, she/zie & her/hir, but because your activism wasn’t constrained by ignorance/apathy toward white privilege and supremacy. I’m not saying this very well, but you engaged in anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist work, and I admire that. Too often white LGBTQ+ activists are blinded to their white privilege(s) and are too proud to entertain the possibility(reality) they hurt people of color by not recognizing and addressing their privilege. I don’t wish to put you on a pedestal as perfect, Leslie, but you give me someone to look up to. I thank you for that. I wish I had explored your work sooner. I didn’t think it was relevant to me or I was simply deterred by “Blues,” but I’m making up for it now.

Stone Butch Blues will arrive shortly. I reserved Transgender Warriors at the library and I will soon read Drag King Dreams, too.

As I ponder gender, sexuality, race, class, and nation in my own life, I will learn more about you and your work.

Explanation

August 19

Dear Leslie,

A ladybug found itself trapped inside my room last night. Who decided to name the beetle “lady”? I hope it got out.

Perhaps I owe you an explanation for these letters. In future notes, I know I’ll explain more, offering a bit about who I am and what mud I’m leaping across or stomping in. Here’s a quick tidbit though:

I’m genderqueer, nonbinary, genderfluid, agender, or some other identity soup of not buying the gender binary of man and woman. I’m cool with it. Been doing my thing all my life just trying to be true to what feels right. I think I’m doing okay even if sometimes I’m left floating outside of everything as if I’m hungry and my head is light—too empty of gender roles and identities others use to remain grounded. But it’s starting to get to me.

I would like to see a therapist. A gender therapist, ideally. But in an effort to work through my lifelong fear of driving (heck yeah! optimism! can summon optimism! / I debated even telling you because my shame runs deep), I need to meet with someone who specializes in anxiety. I want to mold my driving-based fears into hopes and strengths. Rather than embark upon a likely arduous quest for a trans-affirming therapist who specializes in anxiety, I will focus on driving stuff in therapy.

Regarding gender and sexuality, I will write to you. I don’t need anyone to tell me I am not broken (I’m already down with me, Leslie). I just want to learn how to cope with feeling this alone in my not-woman-or-man-ness. I just want to learn how to better understand and navigate life as a genderqueer person. I know I’m not alone. Committing that knowledge to my heart and learning how to thaw remains on my to do list.

Things to learn:

How to [be] love[d]

&

How to be content,

while still

Fighting against all that which is inhumane.

Dear Leslie

August 19

I am going to write you. You, of course, are already gone. I know that you are dead—claimed far too soon from the bite(s) of ticks and even greater bites sustained from an “undeclared war.” If there is an afterlife, I don’t know that my words will reach you; I will leave any express lanes to you for your family of friends. Because wildfires are sparking, leaping, and wilding across Oregon, I will not burn this so that ashes may dance upwards in heat before nestling into the soil you are now part of. Instead, I will transfer words letter by letter with a tiny trowel to a screen, releasing word fireflies into the web.

You will never know me, nor I you. But I will write you. A queer to a queer, a stone to a stone, one human to another human, I write you.