I was driving through northwestern Ohio, which from the car window sure looks like a series of small towns strung out along cornfields. No offense to cornfields of course. My high school in Maryland was surrounded on three sides by cornfields. But my phone was broken so I was stuck listening to the radio and I’d made the mistake of tuning in to the local Christian talk radio station.
“Now, they say they just want to use the bathroom,” the announcer said, “but it’s really a trojan horse. What they actually want to do is destroy the nuclear family and drive us away from God.”
He didn’t have a southern drawl. I really like southern drawls. Instead he had that signature conservative talk radio voice: unaccented, and wavering between rage and that perfect self-confidence you know comes with a shit-eating grin.
“It’s going to be men with beards wearing dresses, just deciding they are women. As if God didn’t split us up into men and women.”
I’ll leave the God part out of it because I’ve got my opinions on that and maybe you’ve got yours. But I’ve usually got a beard and I usually wear dresses. Personally, I default to the men’s room — I’m genderqueer and not a woman, and while the men’s room at a truck stop isn’t the nicest place to be nonbinary, I feel slightly less likely to be harassed for using it versus the women’s.
But I am exactly whom this man said his listeners should fear, exactly whom this man said his listeners should hate.
* * *
If I’m wearing boy clothes, it’s either because I’m afraid or I have to move heavy things. That’s what I’ve been telling people for years. But last autumn I injured my chest, and it’s not healed yet, so right now, all that’s left is fear.
If I’d written this piece a year ago, I’d draw a different trajectory and I’d tell a different story. A year ago, I thought things were getting better. Now I think they’re getting worse. Anecdotes make for poor evidence, but here it goes:
For years, I was harassed on the street more or less daily for wearing skirts and dresses. The harassment ranged from whispered words I wasn’t meant to hear, to the classic drive-by screaming of “faggot!,” to the man who punched me in the face in Amsterdam, with all kinds of micro- and macro-aggressions in-between.
Then, a few years back, the harassment faded and became markedly intermittent, maybe only monthly. I never figured out what happened, but I developed a number of theories. Maybe I was old enough that it didn’t seem like a useful thing to socially shame me because I clearly wasn’t going through a phase I could be talked out of. Maybe there was something in my demeanor that indicated it wasn’t safe to fuck with me. Maybe I was just geographically in different parts of the country or world. Maybe society was becoming more permissive. No matter the reason, I started feeling safer.
Now? Now I’m not sure.
I was living in North Carolina when HB2 passed. It’s never been safe to be non-cisgendered (and in particular, as I understand, transwomen, trans people of color, and trans people who engage in sex work are at risk. I can be misread as a transwoman but I am not a person of color nor do I engage in sex work). Tensions are bubbling over. Hate crimes against trans people are on the rise even while hate crimes against the overall LGBT community are becoming less frequent. I certainly don’t believe there are more bigots than there were before. But the bigots are emboldened. Collectively, they’re on the attack.
It’s also possible that these attacks are just, finally, presented as newsworthy.
All of which is to say, I find myself wearing pants more often.
* * *
It’s actually kind of amusing, in a terrible way, to consider that some people think that masculinity is the tougher or braver gender. I’m not trying to shame masculinity, and any honest expression of one’s gender outside the norm takes courage. But femininity, for ciswomen and the transfeminine alike, is also bravery.
When I put on makeup in the morning, it’s an aggressive act. I do it because I want to look a certain way — I want to look like me — but putting on makeup is telling the world I’m ready to fight. Because I might have to. Femininity is targeted, whether cis or trans.
I put on eyeliner to accent my eyes and antagonize my enemies. I wear mascara to fill out my eyelashes and tell bigots they can learn to fucking deal. I wear lipstick to alter the color composition of my face and so that people who should be uncomfortable are made uncomfortable. One day I’ll figure out foundation and the straight world will tremble.
* * *
Bigotry doesn’t die without a fight. As best as I can piece together, what happened is this: for decades or maybe centuries, trans and nonbinary people have been fighting the gender police. Block by block, inch by inch, we’ve been gaining ground. Gender, where we’ve held it, has been liberated terrain.
Imagine a board game, Revolution vs. Reaction. It’s like Risk, kind of. After endless turns of fighting, we’ve swept through the continent Gender. But while we took out some enemy troops along the way, most of them withdrew. They’ve regrouped, and this latest wave of bigotry is the counterattack.
We’ll beat them back. Defense is easier than offense. But it won’t be pleasant, because it’s not a game.
I say this with the privilege of the nonbinary who can choose to pass as cis. At the end of the day, HB2’s bathroom provisions aren’t about me. But we gender-nonconforming people aren’t simply collateral damage. These laws, and this rising wave of bigotry, are aimed at the preservation of gender roles. They are designed to turn the citizenry into literal gender police.
* * *
I ought not be afraid, but the first step to conquering fear is recognizing it — feeling it course through your system and letting it go.
The only thing worse than a mixed metaphor is a mixed geek comparison, but I’ll go from Risk to Dune and close with a reminder to myself:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.