Houston International Airport, Texas. I’m standing between the men’s bathroom and the women’s, frozen.
Several of my trans friends (and even a few cis ones) have taken to using the room opposite of their gender in a simple but effective act of political defiance.
I accidentally walked into a men’s room a few years ago, while focused on my phone, and I suspect the reaction now would be the same as then: “Miss, this is the men’s room!” As I stand in the bustling airport, I map out what I would say in response. “Then tell your legislators to vote against SB6 so I don’t have to be in here!” I don’t know what would come next. I do know that as a feminine white woman who is rarely read as trans, it’s very unlikely I’d encounter violence as much as confusion or concern. But there’s an image in my mind I can’t shake.
Allow me to first digress and invite you on a little imaginative journey. It’s an easy one, because all you have to do is imagine yourself, exactly as you are, in your life as it is. Take yourself through an average week. No big incidents or transformative experiences, just the steady flow of little moments that add up to a life.
I’ll take you through a bit of mine:
You wake up and your dog is already wagging her tail. She knows that as soon as you stir, it’s playtime. She bites at your hands under the covers until you get up and throw on some pants and a sweatshirt. You let her out back and eat an orange.
It’s then a cup of tea and your daily journalling, which you never miss, before whatever various work, meetings, and travel fill up the pockets of the week. Maybe you hit the local cafe for some late morning caffeine. There you chat with the barista, and other regulars, about the weather, the popular movie, maybe a little light politics.
You reach out to friends, checking on one’s new job, another’s new relationship. Another calls you to gossip. “Did you hear about…?” “Oh my god, yes!” Maybe you chat with your mom, ask about her health, assure her you’re hopeful about work, the money will come. She worries, you know.
You recently met with your minister and talked about community and spiritual practices. Your doctor said you’re healthier than ever. Your therapist decides you can cut down to one visit a month. You flirt back with cute person giving you eyes at the newsstand and enjoy the little flutter of butterflies in your stomach.
Your work is satisfying. It doesn’t pay well, but it’s worth it knowing that you’re doing your little part to make the world a little better. You take long walks and smile a lot. You’re still struggling to pay the rent, and yeah you’ve been single for, like, forever, but things are basically good. For the most part your life is ordinary, full of positive, healthy interactions, obstacles and hopes, and you’re proud that you give back more than you take.
But then you go online, or read the news, and see yourself painted as mentally ill, a pervert, a threat to humanity. You’re an “Other.”
And not just random trolls on Twitter, but your elected representatives, published writers, passionate locals at school board hearings. Even prominent and otherwise progressive cultural leaders and intellectuals decide you are a step too far.
People who have never met you are 100% convinced, with seemingly no room for change of mind, that you’re sick, and dangerous, and need to be publicly condemned, or at the very least reduced to an oddity, an other.
There is this massive gulf between your ordinary life and public perception, one you cannot make sense of, much less bridge. Moment by moment you move between being part of a world you adore, and then defending your right to exist in it. You move between being enjoyed and loved by all those who know and interact with you, and being feared and loathed by those who don’t. You are both unremarkable, and a monster.
This is what it’s felt like lately for me as a trans woman.
Can you imagine that? Many of you can. Countless immigrants, refugees, Muslims, people of color, sex workers, and others, intimately know this irreconcilable tension.
My transition made me a happier, healthier person, a better friend, sister, and daughter. Without the crippling anxiety of gender dysphoria I was able to contribute more to my community. And what did it cost the world? A change of name and pronouns. A handful of vowels and consonants is all I asked. That’s all anyone else had to do.
Yet to others I’m somehow invading privacy, endangering children, violating nature.
It’s traumatizing to be caught in this brutal ricochet. The banality I’ve worked hard to earn is violently jerked away by the politicization I never consented to. And the anger, defensiveness, and above all else, grief, that accompany my fight inevitably bleed over and stain my daily interactions.
For the last five years I’ve been reading every report of the murder of a trans person. They’re often excessively violent, as if the intensity of hate and disgust must be made visible. Not a single month of my life as a trans woman hasn’t been accompanied by the news of a black, Latina, API, or Indigenous trans woman slain. Every year breaks the record that the previous year set for homicides. Many of my friends have survived assault. I have too.
But as I stand outside that airport restroom, what I can’t shake is the memory of the few stills I saw from the recent video of Brazilian trans woman Dandara Dos Santos, being beaten to death by a cheering crowd, as she pleads for her life. Simply for being trans.
I do not understand this chasm between the desire of trans people to simply live their lives, and hatred so intense it’s willing to take those lives.
I go into the women’s room.
For the moment, my mere existence is the only act of defiance I can muster.