Living life on the fringe is not a new thing for me. Even as a kid, the mothers at school often told me,
“You march to your own drumbeat.”
And I had a father that let me. Or rather, was relatively absent, wrapped up in work, emotionally unavailable — your typical blue-collar man. Of course, years later I’d discover that my “own drumbeat” was really “running around town like a savage” when those mothers talked amongst themselves.
I grew up knowing I was different. Or had the sense I was. It was That Something that brewed beneath my skin. That Something — that made me long, ache to be physically close to women. That Something — the boy and the girl swirling around in my head and body, warring against each other in the shame that I felt. Shame for the way my body reacted when my girlfriends would hug me. Shame upon hearing the riff at the beginning of each Catholic school day, “I pledge allegiance to the flag, Michael Jackson is a f*g…” It was the shame that eventually led me to That Place.
High school was better, you know, for a while. I’d transferred to the High School for the Arts in L.A. for my junior year. A stark, colorful contrast against the white bread, suburbia high school I’d left behind, I suddenly found myself surrounded by artists and actors, musicians and dancers, and gay kids everywhere. But my shame remained, planted itself inside of me, and grew into blue, into Fear. The self always my most cunning of foes, I sunk. I was into my last semester there when I stopped going to school. Lost in my routine, I’d go to bed each night, reciting the same speech to myself as I did the night before,
“Okay. So. Tomorrow. You’re going to get up. You’re going to take your shower. And instead of getting back into bed. You’re going to fucking go to school. This is your chance. Don’t blow it.
I did, though. But not before asking my father for help,
“I think I need to see a shrink, Dad.”
“No. You don’t. You’re just lazy.”
I never graduated.
I came out at nineteen with my best friend, Marc. One-on-one with my family and friends. It was 1992, the height of The Plague. Our brothers and sisters were dying, our community panicked and scrambling, screaming for help while the rest of the country went about their lives, most not shy about letting us know it was our own fault, anyway — god’s very just punishment for our “sins.” But I was out. Free from the shame and That Place, but That Something still brewed beneath my skin.
The realization came slowly, as these things are wont to do. At first just the feeling of always being out of place in my lesbian crowd. I wasn’t femme, but I wasn’t butch, either. Among my friends, discussing their straps, I was always defensive, uncomfortable, still trapped in the binary, but beginning to know. And then there are the things that I heard, things that I saw — snide remarks about trans folx at Pride, they always on the outside, seen as other even among the others. I began to suspect that That Something that was still brewing inside of me was a part of that.
Years of baby steps followed. But it was moving away from L.A., to Berkeley, that changed everything for me. I felt a weight lift from my shoulders driving out of the city that day and it was then that I realized how much I needed to leave. It was in Berkeley where I felt I had the room to explore. To try to be me. I had always been androgynous, sometimes leaning femme, sometimes butch. Here, though, I embraced it, my femme and my butch concurrently. For the first time in my life, I started seeing the beauty in myself. Slim and boyish, narrow hips, the way my clothes fit my frame, the looks I’d get from girls on the street. Immersed in theory and intellectual camaraderie, I talked my shit out with my friends, inching closer and closer. It was in Berkeley, too, where I first tried on my name. But I wasn’t out yet. That Something still very much there, The Fear.
I found out on Twitter, my timeline blowing up with the news the following night. She had queued her letter to post after her death. Ohio this time, yet another young trans person taking their life. I read it. And I wept. And then I wrote.
It’s a beautiful feeling, sailing on the pink cloud of outness. Finally expressing my true self after not being for so long. I was excited to explore myself, my gender, in solitude, in friendships, and with lovers. I was becoming. I’ve had it easier than most, I know. More often than not I’m shown love. Online or real life, in my friendships and in the smiles of folx that I pass on my solitary walks. I’m grateful for that. It’s hard to keep that in mind sometimes, though —
- Passing a straight man on the street and hearing him ask his bro, “What is THAT?” in reference to me.
- Former coworkers, gay men who insisted on calling me “Pam” — after explaining my gender, no matter how many times I corrected them, always patiently.
- Being questioned, directly, by a straight man, about the body I was born with, if I’d had surgery, and if I was planning to.
- Sexualized as a woman and a lesbian by a former friend, someone I considered a brother, a man I’d confided in as I began and continued this journey.
- And the creeping realization that, more often than not, the people that claim to love me the most either cannot or will not understand what any of these things feel like for me. Or for any of us.
On their own, insignificant. Taken together, I felt myself slipping. That Something, That Place, and The Fear whispering quiet in my ear,
“pan. pan. pan. pan. pan. come to me. pan. pan. pan. pan. pan. pan.”
I held it at bay for a while. And then the last joe job.
I worked with the same woman every day and liked her. She was funny. She made me laugh when she wasn’t being outright hostile or meting out the silent treatment to me while she made a big show of her camaraderie with and warm affection for our other coworkers. I tried sticking it out, giving myself the speech again every day before work,
“Fuck her. Everyone else likes you. Don’t let her ruin this for you.”
It worked for a while, you know. Until she’d heard me wax poetic on gender, mine, and the politics of Caitlyn with a Berkeley professor, one of our regular customers. Then the comments started. Always outwardly subtle, of course. Inwardly, though, her gestures, her remarks turned the whispering into screaming — YOU. ARE NOT WELCOME HERE, PAN. YOU DO NOT BELONG. YOU NEVER WILL.
And then, that Saturday. Two children, in with their dad. A girl around three years old, her hair cut short; her brother, seven or eight, with beautiful, brown locks reaching down to his waist. And then my coworker, to a customer,
“I guess I’m old-fashioned. Confusing those kids like that. Boys should have short hair and girls should have long hair. That’s what gets them all mixed up. That’s why there’s all of this craziness now. I’m sorry, but a boy is a boy and a girl is a girl. ”
My heart sunk and my chest tightened as my cheeks flushed, heat flowing in flashes through my body. I was backed into a corner and knew it. Felt it. Forced. To choose. Between my livelihood. And me. Alone, with no one to help. No father. No family. I went back and forth the rest of that Saturday, all day Sunday. I decided to risk it. I chose me.
I’d hustled another after a couple of weeks. At the end of the interview,
“Would you be able to start your training tonight?”
Rolled into my shift,
“Please call me “pan,” like frying or Peter.”
I kicked ass, a fucking relief until the end of the evening when my “training” suddenly became a “working interview,” the owner informing me he’d get back to me after my competition came in for theirs. I knew what was coming. And it did.
It was the culmination of the past year — the ostracism, continual misgendering, the deadnaming and cisheterosexism — a cycle that felt as though it would never end, that I would always be trapped in no matter how hard I tried to be the kind and patient teacher to others. The whispering again, itching to get me.
“pan. pan. pan. pan. pan. pan”
I wept for days sitting here, feeling all of this, alone, my dogs sensing something amiss and keeping close. Until That place and The Fear sent me to Google for the dose I would need. An old Vicodin prescription in my medicine cabinet, it wouldn’t be the opiate, it’d be the high dose of acetaminophen that would send me into liver failure and do me in. I could disappear and no one would know.
My concern turned then to my dogs and my cats. And that’s where I stopped. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the heart to find them new homes. Not because of the pain I was certain I’d feel, but because of theirs — the looks of confusion I knew I would see on their faces as they left here with someone else.
I am back from the brink. But make no mistake — this is no “woe is me” story.
Know. That these will not be the last battles I face.
Know. That I will always draw my dagger and fight back, for myself and my trans fam.
Know. That these bruises and scars only serve to transform me into something more beautiful and powerful than you will ever imagine.
Know. This story isn’t for you. It’s for us.