I was invited to a wedding of an old friend in Albuquerque last week. I knew her before my transition, which is now somewhere between its early phases and the middle of the journey. I would be traveling from New York, which is probably as trans-friendly a burg as you can find (especially if you’re “passable” whatever that might mean, and if you are white, which is a keen source of guilty despair for me). So I did my research about dealing with airlines and the TSA. The gist was: prepare for a hassle, but overall it is do-able if you notify the airline in advance and request a special screening. Then I realized that my credit and debit cards, not to mention my driver’s license, were still under my male name. So I decided “fuck it” and traveled as a guy. My dysphoria is mild, if that, so it did not bother me much, and decided that as soon as I got to New Mexico I would “Laura-fy.”
In the airport, however, something interesting happened. I was wearing jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, having gone through security with two hours to spare before my plane was scheduled to leave, when I went into an airport restaurant for breakfast. I had ordered, and then when my omelet was delivered the waiter declaimed “here you go ma’am…err, sir.” This had taken me aback. When dressed as a woman I have been misgendered a few times, but here, in misgendering me the waiter was actually, albeit unknowingly, accurately gendering me, a paradox worthy of comparison with “The Liar” and “The Barber”…..
I am probably more tolerant and forgiving of misgendering than most, possibly more than I ought to be. I am transitioning at an older age than most, and I suppose it is a function of my age that, having used up most of my fucks to give, I find it hard to get agitated at this sort of thing. Most mis-genderers (or the unwittingly right-gender-er like my waiter) are well-intentioned, so patience is, for me at least, the right reaction. And if the misgendering is ill-tempered I am inclined to wear my resting bitch face (still under development) and walk away.
If everyone was on the downward slope of middle-age, like I am, the world would be in worse shape than it is, though. Being capable of expressive anger is a virtue in the young(er than me). Cluelessness on the part of those not trans-savvy, however well insulated by good intentions, remains a vice, if a minor one when compared to boorishness, malice, and misogyny. If polite correction does the trick, it’s important to use it in case of misgendering; if politeness does not work, it is imperative to confront the clueless party more assertively. Gauge your response by the quantity of the fucks you have left to give, in other words.
We trans-people are in a kind of transitional period, I think, when it comes to being understood as well as perceived in society. In certain places cis-people know the drill: they may be entirely comfortable, or not, but you are acknowledged as your presenting gender and treated accordingly, respectfully, and even kindly. In other places, not so much; in still others the hostility is thick enough to be cut with a knife. We can console ourselves that it took time and energy for our Gay and Lesbian colleagues to gain the modicum of acceptance they have received: patient plugging-away is good as a tactic for the strategic aim of calm social existence.
But a modicum is, after all, only partway acceptance, and one that is being challenged every day by a resurgent political Right and a kind of religious idolatry that celebrates “us normal people” over “misfits.” I find religious transphobia to be pretty ironic. If there is any worthy take-away from the Jerusalem-based monotheistic traditions, it is that no one is “normal” and everyone is some form of “misfit”, which should put “people of faith” at odds with the trans- and homophobic macho-merchants that hold sway not just in the USA but Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and many other locales around the globe. Trans-people need to challenge this toxicity, vigorously. But we have our work cut out for us.
But I digress. . .
The morning of the wedding, I decided to take a two-mile walk to the University of New Mexico campus, where the ceremony was to be held. I had planned to do so prior to my daily practice of becoming Wonder Woman, then return, calories burned, to get ready. Coming back to the hotel from my trek, I noticed a guy in a wheelchair in the right lane of University Boulevard, struggling up a hill, with a trail of cars behind him, the lead vehicle being little more than a couple of feet from the rear of his wheelchair. (Were this in New York, the cars would be honking incessantly; here they were quiet.) This, I thought, was a catastrophe waiting to happen. As I was running toward him, I noticed him waving me on. As I grabbed the handles of his wheelchair, he thanked me and said he could not stay on the sidewalk because it was too bumpy; he requested that I take him to the nearest bus stop.
He was paralyzed from the waist down and just released from the outpatient division of the hospital for a procedure on his leg. He was wearing hospital bracelets, and had a serious bandage on his leg. I pushed him to the bus-stop when he remarked that the bus was going south when he wanted to go east. I said I would hail a wheelchair accessible cab for him: when he said he had no money, I said I would pay.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Central Pennsylvania”, he replied.
“What?! You mean 3000 miles east of here?!”
“No, man. Central Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s in Albuquerque.”
Well that makes me an idiot I thought to myself. With some justice.
I left him in front of another UNM Medical Center building to get cash from an ATM. When I returned he was gone. An ambulance driver at the entrance told me he headed south. I decided I would head south to look for him but only half a mile or so before I would turn back and head to the motel. Fortunately I did manage to catch up to him under the portico of yet another medical center building.
“Dude, I was lookin’ for you. Why did you leave?”
“I dunno man, thought you ditched me. Not too many nice people around who’d do what you’re doing.”
It is probably worth noting here that he was of Mexican descent. Albuquerque is a small city, but with many ethnographic divisions: white people, Mexicans, some south Asians. Poor people, middling people, some well-off people. I saw at least three MAGA hats when I was there, and while it’s probably wrong to generalize, it is fairly tempting to do so. Lack of humane concern can be found everywhere and in any group, directed at all kinds of targets, but when its target is someone conspicuously in a minority, well, it becomes all the more intelligible and all the more infuriating. Still, I kept my word and did what I had promised to do. I got him a wheelchair-accessible cab, which was a chore since there were two big conventions in town and car service resources were scarce. The dispatcher asked me what the destination address was: “Central and Pennsylania” was not enough. I asked him for a more precise address.
“Tell him I want to go to The Pussycat Theatre.”
The dispatcher was a bit nonplussed. Frankly so was I. The Pussycat Theatre? I was struck by the comic absurdity of it all. Absurdity not in the Albert Camus mode, but in that of Groucho Marx or the Coen Brothers.
“You’re a saint, man!” he kept telling me. I felt very uncomfortable at this remark. I did what I thought was virtuous and dutiful (Aristotle and Kant alike have served as my mentors), but there was nothing heroic about it. People have said I have trouble taking a compliment, and while that’s true I didn’t think that what I did was exceptionally praiseworthy. It’s just what you do. It elicited all kinds of misanthropic emotions from me: if this is saintly behavior, then frankly we’re fucked.
“Pay it forward!” I replied.
“I don’t know what you mean by that.”
“We won’t meet again in all likelihood. So do a good deed for someone else when you get the chance. Pay it forward, dude.”
“Pay it forward” has become a meme-cliché. But it’s one that I endorse and fully embrace. One problem with 21st American society is that the self-congratulatory ethos of the 1980s has become so deeply ingrained, at least in the more fortunate classes. So helping, i.e. “paying it forward”, has become a question of desert — “does this person really deserve my sympathy or not?” Liberals rightly argue that everyone deserves the kind of help I offered to the wheelchair guy, or that the refugees at the southern border in similar fashion deserve humane treatment. This is certainly true — especially in the case of the refugees, it is a matter of justice and not mere charity. But to parse this as a case of either social justice or individual charity misses the larger point, or at least the kind of larger point that Christians make, which is: you help the hungry not primarily because they “deserve” food, or because you’ll feel good about being “charitable”, but because they are hungry. You give drink to the thirsty not because they deserve drink, but because they are thirsty. You comfort the afflicted not because they “deserve” comfort but because they are afflicted. The Beatitudes are thus an instruction manual for recognizing our common humanity and acting upon it, for no other reason but our common humanity.
Trans-people clearly recognize the stake in this: we deserve justice and human respect, but just desert is secondary to the common humanity we share. So it’s also important for transwomen and transmen to see our efforts as intersectional (an awkward word, but for now a useful one) with other struggles for the recognition of common humanity, struggles for a world in which common decency isn’t something that occasions extravagant praise, but is almost boringly commonplace.
But I digress. . .
The wedding itself was wonderful. There were many children there, which added to the general wonderfulness. After the wedding broke up, a number of us went to a karaoke bar in a local bowling alley. This too was fun, even if, afterwards, looking at videos of me in a green formal dress ineptly doing Ann Wilson and Dusty Springfield, it was pretty embarrassing.
However, after coming out of the bathroom, I wandered into a fracas. A local guy got into an argument over who was next up to the microphone with a friend of a woman in the wedding party. He called her a “cunt”, and she rightly got in his face, whence a shoving match ensued. The bartender broke it up and informed us that “all you ladies got to leave, and you are banned from here for life!”
My first reaction was: jeezus, here I am, an ultra-middle-aged transwoman, and this is the first time I have ever been kicked out of a bar!!! RRIOT GRRRL!
My second reaction was more sober. One thing that being a transwoman foregrounds is the amount of privilege that goes along with being male, and the shadow this casts when you relinquish this privilege for the sake of being who you perceive yourself to be.
“Cunt” is a particularly disgusting epithet. It reduces a woman to her external genitalia, which is beneath being disrespectful. (And, yes, guys call each other “pricks” or “dicks”, but as the most treasured part of the male genitalia there’s kind of a smirky self-congratulatory undercurrent to the insult — as if to say “yeah, you’re just a dick, but at least you’re not a cunt!”).
Guys — and yes, it goes without saying not all guys — very frequently “cunt-ify” women. It is part of the epidemic of toxic masculinity that seems especially widespread and acute in the United States, and has increased in virulence since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It is a mentality that bemoans the “pussification of America”, where that is a euphemism for just how awful being “soft” is when everyone knows that the only acceptable (i.e. “manly”) emotions are meat-headed jollity and unquenchable anger. It is the cult of “toughness” that Trump has added to Reaganite acquisitiveness and indifference. It makes a bad state of character even worse. Far worse.
But “toughness” is not a virtue. It is not the same as courage or steadfastness, which are virtues. It is actually a character defect rooted in insecurity and pumped full of inflationary yet defensive self-regard. A fellow feminist-philosopher has coined the apt phrase “testosterone poisoning” to describe it, and I don’t think you can do better than that. When we were kicked out, I did not so much feel part of a group of women who were wronged because of their female-ness, although that was the case. I felt a kind of subdued pride. If that’s what the male gender has become, I am glad I quit it.
After the event I felt a certain unease: what, in fact, gives me the standing to identify with this group of lightly inebriated women celebrating a wedding and responding to a gross insult? What entitles me to claim sister-ship with women at all? This is the “shadow” I spoke about earlier: up until recently I have enjoyed the privilege the male karaoke boors exercised in the bar. Yes, I always felt disgusted by male arrogance and chastised those who exhibit it, and I have now relinquished my connection to it. And I will not cede any cognitive territory to those Gender Critical Feminists who would maintain that I remain male and was never a woman to begin with. As I have argued in other Medium essays, the GC position fails to capture the complexity of “gender” as a concept, and most of the time simply serves as a theoretical mask behind which to troll on Twitter and elsewhere, a disguise for irrational contempt. If this makes me “a woman with an asterisk”, so be it, but the “*” indicates “not a woman assigned at birth”, as opposed to “not a real woman.” I perceive myself to be female, and that is a variable that makes a difference. Yet it remains disarming for me to confront, as a transwoman, what cisgender women have spent an entire lifetime dealing with. That said, I stand with them, with women as a woman, so bring it on: Rriot Grrlz forever.
But I digress. A habit of mine…..