Well, we made our annual pilgrimage to St. Louis for Thanksgiving this year. I was more anxious than usual because of being on testosterone and not knowing what, if anything, Emily’s family members might notice. Now, I say more anxious than usual because while America may run on Dunkin’, I run on anxiety. And while my anxiety has substantially decreased since starting testosterone, that much anxiety doesn’t simply disappear overnight. I still have a fair amount of anxious energy coursing through me most of the time. Add to that the nervousness that comes with traveling (heightened by being transgender) and the pressure of traveling at the absolute most traveled time of the year in America, and my increased apprehension is not at all surprising.
As per usual, Emily traveled early with the “littles” as we like to refer to the younger children in our family, since missing school or daycare is no big deal for them. Joita and I travel fast and furious (sort of) at the last possible second, ensuring the absolute least amount of school missed and enough rest and calm before basketball tryouts guaranteed on the return trip home. It’s interesting to note that I actually feel less self-conscious traveling with Jo. If she isn’t using her wheelchair (which she avoids like the plague actually), she’s using her forearm crutches to get around. Since both of her hands are otherwise occupied, I am responsible for helping her navigate the crowds and carrying our luggage. In general, people (those that are not staring stupidly at her) are more solicitous of Joita because she has a visible disability and she’s freaking adorable (said with no ironic parental bias). And because, in general, most people are not assholes. The bottom line is that we are all more focused on Joita and not on me.
It’s always a small shit-show getting her through TSA screenings (except that one time when Emily took care of things and called the airport to get us pre-screened and have TSA ready for Jo – but I’m clearly not that organized). Joita can’t stand without crutches, never mind with her arms over her head. The crutches need to be wiped down with special cloths and tested for chemicals (the year Emily was undergoing cancer treatment, when we all traveled together, there were traces of chemo on Jo’s crutches and that set off all kinds of alarms and we very nearly missed our flight) and her braces need to be removed and treated similarly. She requires a “female assist” – a female TSA agent to give her a pat-down. We’re all so focused on helping Joita through all of this with as little embarrassment and as much dignity as possible, there is little room left for me to worry about myself being odd.
As always we got to the airport super early (Jo isn’t exactly Speedy Gonzales) and we got through the crowd to the terminal relatively smoothly. Until I stepped through the scanner at the TSA checkpoint and said, “Have a nice holiday” to the screening agent. He looked momentarily alarmed and then his face turned red. While his face was undergoing this metamorphosis it registered with me that he’d just said, “You’re all set sir” releasing me from the hands-over-head-machine. My voice must have given him pause. He awkwardly scrutinized me and asked me to step back through the machine. He mumbled something about having screened me “incorrectly”. I did as asked and went, a bit self-consciously, on my merry way. There was no more exchange of holiday greetings. I hadn’t realized or considered that TSA might do a different screening for men than women.
Our few days in St. Louis was a whirlwind of visits and catching up with relatives and friends. Of course no one said anything to me, so I have no idea if anyone noticed anything different about me. Emily’s sister Julie is one of those people whose personality is larger than life. She is funny and loud and quick-witted. She has often referred to me teasingly as well as ironically as her “brother-in-law” and frequently calls me “uncle Hali” when interacting with her son. Her manner is silly and playful when she does this. She’s kind in the extreme (a family trait) and would never, even jokingly, say these things if she thought any of it would hurt me in any way. As for me, I secretly really like it. I’ve never said that outright of course. Like we have never openly discussed my gender status. Discussing things like this openly is NOT a family trait in Emily’s family. But I clearly give off a vibe of acceptance if not overt pleasure at being referred to as such.
At Thanksgiving when the house was teeming with 50 or so people, I bumped into Julie who was with two women I had never met. Julie introduced a co-worker of hers and the co-worker’s wife to me. Introducing me to them, in turn, as her “brother-in-law”, said with a slight lilt of facetiousness. There was a second’s hesitation of uncertainty, followed by eye-rolling grin of skepticism before one of the women put out her hand to me in greeting. As we shook hands and exchanged names Julie added, “or we just call her uncle Hali”. Immediately the co-worker came to my defense(sic), saying, “Julieeeeee, Stop that!” Her expression was laughing but it was the “joke taken too far” attitude of mild discomfort that came across clearly. And I was uncomfortable with her discomfort. She corrected Julie as if Julie had said something wrong or bad or insulting. Which made me feel wrong and bad and embarrassed. Part of me wanted to say something like, “I’m actually fine with it”. But the maladroit reprimand and the claudicant laughter gave me no room to do so. It would have made an already uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable. So I stood there dumbly while everyone laughed at the ridiculousness of the *joke*, avoided eye contact and changed the subject. I slunk away as soon as I was able to without attracting any more attention.
The good news is that either the testosterone is doing its job or I am growing up. By which I mean, neither of these incidents has done any lasting damage. The discomfort and even the shame I felt in each of those moments, dissipated relatively quickly and I was able to move on. Whereas in the past these awkward moments would have been played and replayed in my mind, eating me up inside and leaving me feeling contaminated and abhorrent.
I remember watching Ellen when she first came out. She was doing a live show and taking comments from the audience. Most of the people were thanking her or telling her how brave and amazing she was for “coming out”. She called on one person of indeterminate gender and said, “Yes sir, what would you like to say?” And the person began to answer with a rather high-pitched female voice. Ellen fell down laughing and apologized as this person tried to say whatever they were prepared to say. But the general hilarity of the audience (modeled by Ellen) completely drowned out whatever the person was trying to say. I remember watching it and feeling sick to my stomach, shame of understanding welling up inside me. I turned the television off before anything had resolved. The audience still cackling, Ellen still holding her stomach and repeating “Ma’am, I’m sorry. Ma’am”, and the person in question’s face a hot shade of red, trying to get past the farcical burlesque of the moment. Clearly that episode has stuck with me all these years. I can still see the shame on that person’s face. I can still feel how the importance of what someone has to say or who they are can so easily get lost in other people’s inability to listen beyond seeing. That is slowly beginning to change in and for me. I hope it is beginning to change in general.