Afraid of the Woman in the Mirror

When I was a kid, I was terrified of the woman in the mirror. Say her name seven times in a dark bathroom while spinning. She’ll appear. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

I never did it.

I also, for a good chunk of my childhood, wouldn’t close the door to the bathroom.

I almost saw her, every time I passed the mirror. In my mind’s eye, she was old. Almost beautiful, almost ugly. Long dark hair framing her face. Confidence, terrifying confidence, in her eyes.

In fact, she looked a lot like me.

* * *

I didn’t come out as trans until my 34th birthday. I’ve known for a long time. In fourth grade I tried to change my name to Kelly, but I was already being beaten up enough as it was. Around the same time, I realized that I wished I’d been born a girl. It wasn’t an overpowering need. I wasn’t convinced that I already was a girl, trapped in the wrong body. Just that, all else being equal, it would have been better to have been born a girl.

By high school, I grew my hair long and strangers constantly mistook my gender. Every time, I flushed with joy, then immediately shame, then anger. Every single time.

In college, I started to wear women’s clothes. When I dropped out of school to ride freight trains and try to overthrow the government and smash capitalism, I wore dresses and skirts more days than not. By my mid-twenties I’d named myself Margaret, wore makeup, and… and still saw myself as a boy.

I was in denial.

See, the thing is, I’ve always, always been terrified that I would end up a trans woman. Even as I became one, I couldn’t see it. I wouldn’t admit it.

* * *

I live in the forest now, alone in an off-grid cabin I built with my hands and my friends. It’s a black A-frame with a sharp-peaked roof, and two magnificent orb spiders guard the front porch alongside a nest of wasps I don’t have the heart to evict. For a moment, while I built it, I worried that I would be too scared to sleep there. On stormy nights I can hear the rain heavy on the steel roof and see the moon through the south-facing window, and it’s just every bit the setup of a horror movie.

Then I remember who I am.

I’m not the victim in a horror movie. I’m a thirty-something anarchist trans woman who has stared down cops and confronted fascists. I carry a knife I made myself from a block of steel and almost all my clothes are black. The thing is, I’m the scary thing in the woods.

I’m the woman in the mirror.

* * *

I was afraid of everything when I was little. Murderers, monsters, ghosts. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary. I couldn’t handle scary stories and to this day I don’t usually enjoy horror movies. I swore off of them entirely for years while I was living in a van by myself.

Frankly, I don’t believe in ghosts because it would fuck my life up to believe in ghosts.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t just afraid of aliens and demons. I was afraid of the feminine. I was so utterly terrified of the idea that I might be a girl that my brain shut down the thought before it ever went farther than “I should have been a girl” and the followup thought “don’t end up a trans girl.”

For awhile, I couldn’t bring myself to say the word “pink.” If I said it by accident, I screeched and hollered uncontrollably. I know this doesn’t make sense, but there it is. My family made a game of it, trying to trick me into saying pink and laughing at my resulting hysterics. I couldn’t tell you how old I was, elementary school probably, or how long it went on.

Drag movies left me in tears or hysterics or just quiet with anxiety. Mrs. Doubtfire. To Wong Foo. Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I remember leaving theaters or the TV room shaken to my core. To be honest, I haven’t forgiven those movies. I’m glad I was an adult before Hedwig and the Angry Inch came out. I’m sure that movie was important for plenty of trans women. I’m equally sure it would have fucked me up.

Trans women are seen as monsters by our society. They were when I was younger, growing up in the 80s and 90s. We are again, as the 2010s draws to a close.

One thing that’s changed in the intervening decades, though, is that I’ve come to terms with being a monster.

* * *

This isn’t fair to any of us. It isn’t fair to me, it isn’t fair to the trans people who paved the road that I walk on. It isn’t even fair to old Mary Tudor, the original Bloody Mary.

What is and isn’t monstrous is a matter of public opinion. That is to say, monstrosity is socially constructed. Certainly by any rational ethical standards, I’m no monster. I’m not out to deceive anyone; I wear my politics, motivations, and gender on my sleeve. I don’t murder lost hikers in the forest and there’s no stewpot big enough for children next to my cabin. If I were represented in a horror movie, I’d be the strange old woman the protagonists are afraid of who helps them escape from the murderer in the end.

Yet when men scream obscenities at me from passing cars, their words are laced with fear. This is how I know I’m a monster. “What are you?” they scream, their voices trembling. I’m glad they’re afraid. Monsters, even when we are hunted, are not simple victims. We’re not prey. We have claws and fangs and knives. We have friends, too, cis and trans, who will defend us.

I don’t think I saw trans women as monstrous, as a kid. Trans women and drag queens and crossdressers and transvestites, and all the people breaking from society’s assumptions about their bodies and genders. While I have a lot of internalized transmisogyny to unpack, and always will, I want to be gentle with, and forgiving to, that confused little girl who was raised to believe she was a boy. What I saw, when I saw those movies that terrified me, were women like me caught up in that vicious cycle in which if you don’t laugh with your tormentors, then they’re laughing at you. And if they’re laughing at you, soon they’re going to hurt you.

I didn’t want anyone to be laughing at all.

* * *

Mary Tudor was the first queen regnant of England. That is to say, she was the first woman to rule there. She won her throne by military force after being cut from the line of succession. And look, fuck a monarch. I’m not going to go to bat too hard for someone with absolute authority. Queen Mary was Bloody Mary because she burned protestants at the stake. But she was also Bloody Mary because she was a woman, and all women, cis and trans, have a bit of monster in them. The same year she died, the Protestant reformer John Knox circulated The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, a polemic that argues against rule by women. Against monstruous regiment.

Her husband was bisexual (and a piece of shit murderer who killed his lover but that’s a different story) and Queen Mary I revoked her far-bloodier father’s buggery laws, legalizing homosexuality between men. Her reign was the last time gay men could legally fuck in England for the next three hundred years. Buggery was a capital offense until the mid-19th century.

Queen Mary had a false pregnancy, giving her all the symptoms despite bearing no child. No heir. Four years later, it happened again, and she died at 42 from what most likely were ovarian cysts or uterine cancer. There’s something in her story that resonates with me, a certain tragedy, of a woman determined to claim her agency against all the world. Killed by a simulacrum of birth and condemned forever to live in the mirror.

Her father was Henry the VIII, one of the most famed misogynists of all recorded history, but Mary Tudor is the monster. Now children say her name, or don’t dare to, in the bathroom late at night.
Here I am, closer to forty than thirty, and I’m just starting to recognize the woman in the mirror. I’m just starting to be able to meet her eyes. And she’s smiling, and her confidence terrifies people, and I’m not afraid of her anymore.

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