A friend of mine living in Albuquerque posted about an art project s/he recently completed, and I messaged hir to find out more about it. What follows is an interview with the artist, Harley Kirschner, in which we touch on toxic masculinity, safety, artistic processes, and a whole lot more!
Kam: How did you get involved in it? Did you propose the idea?
Harley: I work at Winnings coffee shop again, after a few years in plumbing and pipefitting , unemployment, self employment and other jobs. We have artists do murals in our bathrooms and it was time for a new one.The need was expressed and I jumped on the opportunity. I got free reign over what I wanted to do and as a trans artist who is getting into what I like to think of as oversized zines, naturally I created a zine installation about using public restrooms as trans in a public restroom.
Kam: Is it related to your plumbing career, your art career, or both? Can you elaborate on that?
Harley: My plumbing career collapsed which I now see as a blessing. However, in that collapse, after living stealth 24/7 I really collapsed emotionally. Everything about my art and my loud trans non-binary self is because I failed at fitting the mold of what a plumber or pipefitter or man is supposed to be. Trying to be someone that I’m not almost killed me as I was terrified and disassociated all the time. I do share my experience with how bathrooms were such a huge part of that in this installation. However, although I would usually put my name on my story, due to the location being my place of employment and coming to embrace myself as non-binary and using mixed pronouns when I feel safe, I felt too vulnerable. I thought about censoring my story but felt the content was important so I chose to leave off my name.
I found empowerment in taking a bathroom and making it my own and a safe place for trans people after my experience in the plumbing industry which has rules (which are laws under the guise of safety… Most are.), about gendered bathrooms. That was one issue that I always had issues with myself. My experience in the plumbing and pipe fitting industries was heavy industrial for the most part so I did very little in bathrooms and actually very little with water. Mostly, I piped refrigerant and coal. I still use some of my skills in doing irrigation.
When my plumbing career fell apart and I started talking about it in zines and about how toxic masculinity makes me want to kill myself, I started getting recognized for my art and it was very clear to me that where my art had been lacking in the work that I had been showing wasn’t in the technical sense but rather in the voice. I knew that if I wanted to achieve what I wanted with my art, to make trans people feel beautiful, I had to use my own voice and make it loud. I had been very scared to do that. Partly because it was incredibly unsafe in my plumbing career and partly because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. When I had nothing to lose career wise and my sanity and breath depended on taking up queer and trans space I knew that taking the steps to enhance my literary voice would give my fine art real value.
Kam: What are your goals with the project? What would you like people to get out of it?
Harley: To make Winning Coffee Company the most queer and trans friendly coffee shop in Albuquerque. To take back bathrooms after they made me feel so unsafe. To embrace the diversity within my community by feeling the love and support of not only trans people but of all the people who love my work. I feel that it is very new to me to feel the amount of love and support around being trans from cis people that I do and I would like to offer that same safe feeling in a public place in Albuquerque for all trans people. I am very lucky to have such great supportive coworkers that helped make this happen, including making the bathrooms gender neutral (a few years ago) and helped me paint the walls.
Kam: Do you see ways to expand on this? Other places or other ideas?
Harley: I would like it to be an ongoing conversation. As the installation deteriorates and get tagged (unfortunately a given with the Winning’s bathroom-nothing offensive just disrespectful in general) I would like to replace the paper with different stories. People are encouraged to contribute any stories they have about using the bathroom as a trans person. I have thought about doing this bathroom in other spaces but am too busy artistically to take on another project right now.
Kam: What did your artistic process look like for this?
Harley: I used matte black paint on all the walls but chose to keep the ceiling white and paint the door white so it didn’t create a feeling of being trapped. There was a metal frame that used to have an advertisement poster in it. The advertising company closed but the frame was still there. It reminds me a lot of the welding that I was working with at the job that I reference in my story so I chose to keep it and decoupage the plexiglass that it holds. It works very well with the symbolist element of my work. I wallpapered large photocopies of stories and photocopied collages of images related to being trans and using bathrooms. I incorporated images from my time in the union, including an image of my shadow where I look like I’m holding a gun and I’m going to shoot, an image of a sign that says “ouch”, and images from one of my textbooks. My favorite part is the dictionary words “restricted” followed by “restroom”, nothing could have been more appropriate. In my photocopied collages I incorporate transfers to overlay images. There is a grainy quality in oversized prints that I find particularly appealing.
Kam: Anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t ask about?
Harley: Thank you very much for asking me to talk about my work on your blog. Your writing has always inspired me and I hope that my voice will be as touching to others as yours has been to me.
The bathrooms (all except for two) at the school I work at are getting a complete makeover this summer! (This is only a part of the remodeling / demolition that’s been going on – it’s been a fairly chaotic and atypical few months. Most of the time it feels like, how is all of this going to be completed by September 4th?!)
Here’s a quick rundown of the bathroom count:
3 boys gang bathrooms
3 girls gang bathrooms
1 mens staff bathroom
1 womens staff bathroom
2 gender-neutral staff bathrooms
1 girls gym teacher bathroom
1 boys gym teacher bathroom
1 nurse’s office gender-neutral bathroom
7 classroom gender-neutral bathrooms
2 girls single-use bathrooms
1 boys single-use bathroom
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that my workplace has more bathroom options than pretty much anywhere else, ever. As a genderqueer person, I have never stressed out about where I was going to go pee. Never, until this summer. All bathrooms are out of commission except for one girls gang bathroom and one boys gang bathroom. “Gang,” in this case, means that more than one person can enter and use the bathroom at a time. I am missing my gender-neutral option!
Before I came out at work, I was using both womens and gender-neutral bathrooms. After I came out at work, I gradually transitioned to only using gender-neutral bathrooms. One good thing about all this upheaval is that when they’re done, there will be 4 more gender-neutral bathrooms than there had been previously. !!! !!!
Until then though, I’ve had to make some tough decisions. As the bathroom options started to shrink (due to demolition), I was getting creative, for a while. For example, I realized there was still a toilet not yet destroyed in on of the classrooms, and I was using that for a while. My co-worker, who knew I’d been only using gender-neutral options, asked me, “So which bathroom are you going to use?” Being semi-facetious, I replied, “I’ll use the womens for #1 and the mens for #2.” And I actually was doing that for a while.
But then I started running into other people who were also using the bathroom as the pickings got slim. And I started getting nervous. I’d rather people saw me as male and used he/him/his pronouns for me than not. Some people get that I’m neither, and that’s great, but I don’t need the whole school understanding this nuance. Things have been so much better for me since coming out; I just want to keep up that momentum.
So I made a stark, black and white decision, that I was going to use the boys gang bathroom, no matter who was around or who wasn’t around. It was tough to wrap my head around because, since top surgery, coming out, and being on a regular dose of T (in that order), I’ve been in all sorts of bathrooms depending on the context, how I’m feeling, and what the options are. But I STILL prefer and gravitate towards womens rooms. And I STILL have not been stopped or questioned once.
But, in this case, I’ve been feeling like I gotta do this because I’m trying to assert and simplify my identity so everyone gets the picture / is on the same page. It’s been working. Almost everyone (except my former supervisor who keeps leeching onto the building) uses he/him/his pronouns for me. Essentially, I haven’t been wanting to confuse people or have them question where I’m at. Even the contractors – all of them have been calling me “buddy,” and that actually feels really good!
It defintely has been nervewracking though. A few times, I almost ran into the girls room when I heard that someone was in the boys. I’ve never been in a mens/boys room with other males. (Er, actually, maybe a handful of times when I was traveling in Turkey, but that’s it.) But I stuck it out and passed them at the urinal in order to use the stall. Or was in the stall and heard them using the urinal. Or at the sink, etc. I went into the boys room while B&G (buildings and grounds – for the district) workers were around, while my co-workers were around, while (female) teachers were around.
And in the end, it’s all been OK. (It was a little less nerve-wracking, overall, because contractors were made to use a port-a-potty outside. Sucks to be them!) All I mean by that was that there were way less males using the school’s boys bathroom.
As soon as I can though, I will be right back in those gender-neutral, single stall bathrooms, which will be all over the place!!!
Wanna see other posts I’ve made in this series? Here they are:
Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective
Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective (pt. 2)
Oh, and, as always, I’ve been all over both the girls and the boys bathroom, in order to clean them, daily.
WordPress sent me a notification today letting me know that it’s my 5th anniversary of blogging here. So I’m scrambling to do a celebratory post!
When I started this blog, I was trying soooo hard to navigate my gender identity and to find a community. I’d say the first year or two was spent feeling like my blog was not enough, just continually putting myself out there and obsessing about how to connect with others through this method. I spent hours, daily, reading as many other blogs as I could find, about gender. After about 2 years, I think I started to feel secure in my writing voice, if not quite my gender yet. I really settled into writing regularly, and I got so much enjoyment out of it – this more than any other creative endeavor, for a long time. I’d say that within the past year, that’s shifted again, and I’ve felt pretty disenfranchised. I get way more “views” than ever before, mostly thanks to this singular post: 28 risks of chest binding. People love a good scare. They love to google things that could go wrong. I’m definitely proud of that post – I put a lot of work into that one. And I do love the fact that once they find my blog through that route, it seems like the majority of people poke around a little more and go deeper. (This is based on what I can tell from “stats.”) But the sense of community I felt so strongly has dwindled over time. People have stopped posting / I have stopped finding new blogs to read. There are a few mainstays that I haven’t quite kept up with; I’d like to remedy that…
The way I decided to celebrate this milestone is to pick 5 blog posts that I think got overlooked (one per year). Either I put a lot of emotional energy into them and didn’t get much feedback, or maybe I just think they’re worth checking out – they withstand the test of time, something like that…
2013: From whimsical musings to invasive rumintations on transitioning – This was my 10th post ever, and I really think I zeroed in on the psychological push-pull of not feeling like either gender for the first time here. I even used some of what I wrote here much later, in an essay that is forthcoming as part of an anthology published by Columbia University Press. For real! The date keeps being pushed back, but it will be within a year – I’m sure I’ll have updates as that approaches.
2014: The Soft Sell (upping the ante) – This was my 30th post. It was mostly about: despite the fact I may have been solidifying my gender identity more and more, I was waaaay behind in telling a lot of the people in my life about it. The blog was a great outlet to be semi-private but also just feel it out as I went. The term “the soft sell” came from my therapist – that was her reaction to me telling her the half-assed way I had come out to my parents. When she said that, all I could picture was the members from Soft Cell, one of my fave bands. That has always stayed with me. Hah.
2015: I came out to the principal of my school (workplace) – This post was definitely not overlooked, but I still think it’s worth highlighting. I came out to her waaaaay before I actually actively came out at work, and I strongly feel like the fact that I did that, that I put those roots down, gave me hope toward my final destination. It also breaks down the divide I feel between the “janitor” and the “queer” parts of my identity – this blog has continually felt out where that line is, where it crosses, where they are distinct, etc. I just really like this post because it addresses a lot of that stuff head-on.
2016: Drag king stories #5 – This is definitely my favorite entry within this ongoing series I’ve been doing. I wrote it in honor of Prince’s death (the actual show took place in June of 2012) – the fact that I got to emulate Prince at a really well attended event meant the world to me, and the fact that I performed one of the songs with my drag partner/buddy’mentor made it all the more special. We were both regular drag performers at a gay bar in 2006 and 2007. Before I could articulate where I wanted to go with my gender, I got to act it out in all kinds of fun and creative ways, harnessing music and dance and costuming and make-up. Being a drag performer was a big step in my journey – this post really showcases that, I think.
2017: Jeepster (working title: I got an oil change and got my mind blown) – this is a real oddball post. I’ve always said that the three things this blog is about are: gender, being a janitor, and mental health, and this one here really crystalizes a mental state that was temporary (thankfully!) I had just recently gotten through the thick of a manic episode, and the residual disorganization / megaorganization is still very much apparent in the writing here. I think I want to highlight it because I’m currently working on a 16+ page piece where I just try to remember as much as I can about my most recent hospitalization. This is a companion piece.
And I’m gonna cop out and not do 2018 because the year’s not done yet! Plus, it’s my 5th anniversary, so I’m highlighting 5 posts. Makes sense. Here’s to 5 more years!
Dear friends and family of trans-people,
It can be super challenging, on multiple levels, when a loved one comes out to you, especially if it never occurred to you that they might be transgender. You might not know where to turn, or what resources to access to help you navigate the changes they (and you) will be going through. There ARE resources though, plenty of them, and support groups (if not locally in your area, then definitely on the internet). It is not up to the transgender person to be your sounding board, your therapist, your coach, or your educator. In addition, as you work through it in your own way, please put a damper on the “transition as death” narrative. It is trite, outdated, and toxic.
If you feel like you are mourning a death, that’s fine – all feelings are valid (etc.) But why would this be something you need to work out publicly? We are very much alive. Almost always, transition is actually close to the opposite of death – it’s a time to finally feel out who we actually are. We may have felt like a “half-person” or a “shell of a person” or, to put it in those same grim terms, like a “walking dead person.” I know I did prior to transition, quite a bit. Coming out was a celebration of life. I feel like I have so much more to live for now.
When you claim that the person you knew has died, you are implying that the person we are becoming is not worth getting to know, or that we have slighted you, tricked you, we are to blame for your feelings of loss. And, actually, we aren’t even “becoming” a different person. We are the same person, just finally in technicolor, finally kaleidoscopic, however you want to look at it. If you took the time to see how much we settle into ourselves, how often our worst mental-health issues start to soften around the edges, how we can be more present in the moment, more peaceful, more calm, then you might understand that it is so far from a death that the analogy is utterly ridiculous and laughable.
Please reflect on the ramifications of claiming we have died.
And now for some hard evidence! Two sources that have been recently on my radar have had me in hyper cringe mode as they talked about the “death” of their transgender loved one.
First, an episode of the podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People: I generally love this podcast, and in fact, I’ve written about it before, because there have been 2 prevous episodes highlighting transgender narratives. If you wanna check that blog post out, it is: Beautiful / Anonymous: Trans-related episodes.
Episode #116, sensationalistically entitled She Killed My Father is a much harder pill to swallow. The gist is that the caller is an only child, the adult child of a transwoman who came out later in life (in her fifties), much to the surprise of those around her.
Caller: “Sometimes it feels like this person killed my father. And in a way, that’s right. You know, I, well, think about it this way: When you lose… my father, as a male, does not exist anymore. This person is gone. And normally when that happens, you have this grieving period, you have this ritual, this ceremony, you can go to this funeral or this memorial service and people bring you food and people give you cards and people just give you your space and they really support you and they let you process that. But for me, um… especially with my dad… I don’t have a dad anymore, and this person came in and said, ‘Your dad’s gone. Now it’s me….'”
Chris: “Wow. This is, this is, by far, out of all the calls we’ve ever done, one that is so much to wrap one’s brain around.”
Blaaaaaaaaaah!!!!! To be fair, I am just isolating this one thing, and of course it’s way more complex as we hear more of her story: Her father is also bipolar, and has issues with boundaries, always wanting to be more of a “buddy” than a parent, stuff like that. But really, nothing excuses this framework the caller has set up so starkly. Can’t get past it!
The second instance I’ve recently come across is in a book called, At The Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces. This book is co-authored by both mother and son, and it is in many ways a difficult but worthwhile read. It’s rich in its depth and complexity. Both authors are not afraid to show their wounds and flaws, and, to be sure, some of that is cringe-worthy.
She (the mother, Mary Collins) delicately sidesteps the specific “my daughter has died” scenario, but she has an entire chapter entitled “Mapping Modern Grief,” and there’s plenty of comparisons to the death of her father at a young age, as well as, “I am grieving the loss of my daughter,” “I understood my daughter would never return,” and this mindboggling way of looking at it: “My emotional journey with Donald seems to more closely mirror more nebulous losses, such as moving away from someone I will never see again.”
Not as in-your-face with the death imagery, but just as chafing, on an emotional level.
I wanted to highlight this change, on testosterone, because I’ve vacillated so much over time, and it seems worth noting. Initially, this was the thing I feared the most. It’s one of the changes that happens early on, is irreversible, and is most noticeable. I wanted to avoid it all together, partially because I wasn’t ready to come out beyond what I was comfortable with (my community and friends). I didn’t want this change to “out me” before I was ready. Also, I didn’t want to tip the gender balance – I wanted to be, over-all, androgynous and not definitively masculine in any way.
When I was on a low dose of Androgel (for over 2 years), I successfully kept things right where I wanted them. Then I went off T completely for a while, and in that time, I started DJing for a community radio station. I didn’t like listening back to my shows at first, so I just didn’t. They felt cringe-worthy. Eventually I started listening, and improving, and switching things up. I started to find my voice, suuuuuuper gradually.
About a year in, I was ready to plunge into T-injections and all the changes that may come along with that, including my voice dropping. I had already come out with family and at work and had changed my name legally, so those things were no longer road-blocks.
It was a bizarre and largely private thing to go through. I don’t talk all that much in my daily life, to begin with, so it was a lot of testing out the changes, daily, in my car alone. And then also the radio show, weekly. I know there were times when my voice cracked, but I haven’t listened back, specifically, for that. I’m sure I could find those moments, in the archives, if I really wanted to. But I don’t! Haha.
Fast forward, and I am super satisfied with my voice as it is now. I have a hard time relating to how tortured I felt about it in the past. Along with increased confidence and comfort with my body and my place in the world, my voice just feels natural. It also just feels so much easier to find words, to converse in all sorts of situations, and to be more out there. It is awesome in so many ways.
In preparing for my 100th radio show, I did go back to those first few shows and listened to them probably for the first time. And they WERE totally cringe-worthy, haha. My voice was stilted and stiff; I sounded so unsure of myself. I did a cool thing where I isolated some of the sound clips from those early shows, and then I played them live, on my 100th show. Here’s me, talking about lunch over the course of a handful of shows, before T-injections, and then me interjecting over top of that – you can really notice the change in my voice that way! Also my best friend was there in the studio – she’s the third voice on this track:
In November of my senior year of high school, I had an appointment to see a counselor – my mom had set it up for me. I’m not sure who she contacted or what route she took to find this person – I should ask her. I never ended up going to them though because, a week before the appointment, I went to a psychiatric hospital. I talked to people there. And when I got out, I started seeing a therapist who was affiliated with that hospital. I went to her for the rest of that school year, plus my freshman year of college. I remember talking to her on the phone from my dorm room, and seeing her whenever I came home on breaks.
She quickly and easily became my favorite adult. I always looked forward to seeing her. I didn’t talk much. I had no template for how to converse, basically. She chipped away at that naturally, gradually, over time. Sometimes we would role-play. I often came home from our sessions and wrote out, word-by-word, our conversations. It’s really neat to read back through those!
She was the first person to ask me about gender, and specifically, if I was comfortable with my female body. I had just seen Boys Don’t Cry (my mom was reluctant to let me see it, but I was persistent, and she took me), and I told my therapist all about it. She asked me about different aspects of my body, and I admitted that I don’t like this or that about it, I don’t shave my legs, etc. But I essentially told her I couldn’t see myself as a man.
I started to go to a youth group through the local gay alliance that spring, and it was super helpful to be able to talk about those experiences from the group, with her. Plus I had a crush on someone at school – in my memories, it feels like 90% of our sessions were taken up talking about that, specifically. She always made me feel like there was potential and hope there. In the end, she was right. Kinda. In some ways. But that’s a different story!
Last week, I uncovered a cassette tape that has her name on it, in my handwriting. I knew exactly what it was – I always knew this tape existed. I had just misplaced it for a long time. I’d been passively searching for it for years, actually.
I put it in my tape deck, which is right behind me where I’m sitting now, and pushed “play.” I thought I would have some visceral or nostalgic reaction to her voice, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. It was just her, reading from a script, going through a guided relaxation full of visualizations. It was kinda cheesy. Nothing that actually felt like a connection.
As I was planning my radio show this week, I incorporated about 2 minutes of this tape, layered with an instrumental track.
When I went to therapy on Wednesday, I brought all this up – finding the tape, planning on including it on my show, thinking about her again. My current therapist knew her – they were collegues. I told her I was thinking about trying to contact her, but I was at a loss because she got married (changed her name) when she moved to North Carolina.
I’ve half-heartedly tried to “google” her once or twice, a long time ago. For whatever reason, it felt super weird and I didn’t pursue it any further. But actually talking it out, at therapy (and I’m talking about the here-and-now, current therapist) made it not seem strange at all. People do these things. They reach out, try to find important others from their pasts, all the time.
I’m gonna do it! I’m pretty sure I tracked down her phone number online. Now I just gotta figure out what I’d say in a message. My voice sounds male now – I’m gonna have to explain that. I have a different name. Yet another coming out. What am I gonna say?!
Stay tuned for the conclusion, where I actually talk to her, if it all works out…
I’ve been a part of an all-volunteer, community radio station for over two years, and it’s been an incredible experience, across the board. I’ve met a bunch of new people, learned how to use technical equipment, and have found my voice in a very fun way! The station is a combination of music shows of all genres, and talk shows covering an array of topics. I listen to a lot of them, on-and-off, while I work. A few weeks ago, a friend alerted me that one of the talk-show DJs was perpetuating a transphobic paradigm. I downloaded the show to hear it in its entirety, and then I decided to write him a letter in response. Essentially, he sought out a video from a certain Dr. Michelle Cretella and took her side, as she chipped away at the topic of puberty blockers for transgender teenagers.
I decided not to link to her video, here in this blog post, because I’d rather people not see it! But if you want to, you can totally search it out (and it would probably make the following letter I wrote make more sense.) I watched it. It was terrible.
Here is an edited version of what I wrote and had delivered to the DJ:
Dear [Radio DJ],
I’m a fellow DJ, and I’ve been enjoying tuning into your show for a while now. The first one I heard was all about the importance of eating healthy, nutritious foods, and I was totally into it.
Your show from two weeks ago, and your discussion about transgender puberty blockers as institutionalized child abuse, however, hit me right in the gut; I feel so strongly that I decided to write from my own experience in the hopes that it’ll bring up new considerations.
I found the video clip that you shared to be sensationalistic and oversimplified. It is not all of those things all at once: puberty blockers, “mutilation,” sterilization. It is a very gradual process, and it involves listening to the child at every step of the way, which, it turns out, is actually a worthwhile thing! Children start to understand gender at around age 3. If their gender is incongruous with their sex, it is certainly possible for them to start to feel this as young as they are. The key questions medical and therapeutic providers keep in mind, over time, is: are they consistent, are they adamant, and is it increasingly apparent that they are becoming more and more uncomfortable?
If so, preminary actions can be taken to alleviate these intense feelings, and none of them are “undoable” at this stage. Maybe the child wants to feel out what it means to be called a different name and be referred to with different pronouns. And then, possibly, maybe they want to switch back. No harm done. Children can be very much androgynous before puberty hits, as they are testing out what feels right. I can attest to this 100% – I was a tomboy who was often “mistaken” for a boy. It was vital for me to be able to explore this without much pushback.
Dr. Michelle Critella hit the nail on the head when she said, “If a child can’t trust the reality of their physical bodies, who or what can they trust?” This is at the crux of what it means to be a transgender person. When puberty hits, their bodies betray them in monstrous ways. Many of the changes that occur at puberty cannot easily be “undone.” Namely, voice drop and body/facial hair in boys, and breast development in girls. Puberty blockers essentially allow for bided time. More time to understand the situation of the child, now bordering on a teenager.
At this stage, the best thing to do is to keep options open as the child continues to grow into who they are. If they can put off puberty for a little longer, it can literally be a life saving pathway. Down the road, they may be turning to more permanent changes, such a surgery and hormone replacement therapy (taking hormones that fit with their gender identity.) And yes, “sterilization” is one of many factors that would have to be a part of the discussion (and that’s a complex thing in and of itself that I’d need to learn more about. Basically, there are options.) These choices, which are being made by both the transgender person and their family (ideally) and a therapist, are far from “institional child abuse,” because the alternatives are far more drastic. Suicide, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual abuse, brutal bullying, are all very real for transgender teens. If they are listened to, believed, and being guided through steps that help them holistically, there’s nothing better than that!
Being transgender is not a “lifestyle” and it’s not a choice. It runs much deeper than that. It is at the core of who someone is, and people grow into their true selves in myriad ways. If they start to know that pathway as early as the age of 3, then, yeah, that could be one of the ways someone gets to where they need to be, as they continue to figure it out. During your segment, you questioned, “Who are they?” “They” are transgender people and the allies who listen to them.
If you’re interested in continuing this conversation, I would gladly be a guest on your show. Better yet, it’d be amazing to get a group of transgender people with very different backgrounds to come on and speak from their own experiences.
Let me know if that could work out.
-Kameron, fellow DJ and transgender person.
I’ve been binge-listening to Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, a podcast hosted by comedian Chris Gethard. The premise is so super basic: He “tweets” out the phone number when he is in the studio, and whoever ends up getting through talks with Chris, anonymously, for exactly one hour. Sometimes it’s just chit chat, sometimes the caller has an agenda and they want to make the most of this platform. Sometimes it’s funny, but more often, it’s sad, intense, and heartfelt. I’ve heard the experiences of someone in an abusive relationship, someone who escaped from a cult, someone who was a heroin addict, someone who was in an inappropriate relationship with their teacher, and so much more – including two episodes in which the caller is a trans-person.
What Not To Ask A Trans Person (Episode #54) In this episode, Chris deviated from the formula a bit – every so often, instead of taking a random call, he’ll ask people to leave a “pitch” as a phone message, and he will reach out to one of those people. In this case, the caller is a 28 year-old transman who is engaged to a transwoman… and, unfortunately, that’s about all we get to know about him as a person. The majority of the call is Trans-101 stuff – we are STILL only at this basic level with the general population. Chris puts his foot in his mouth a couple of times (he makes it clear this will be inevitable.) At one point he uses the word “transgender” as a verb, when he meant to say “transition.” Also, this exchange was super cringe-worthy:
Caller: “Even people who are not in any way transphobic, most people don’t know a lot about the experience being trans or the trans community, so they tend to be very curious. And this is fine, except that often it ends up that often trans people end up being … put in a position of having to answer all their questions, sometimes very invasive questions … like, what your genitals look like.”
Chris: [Talks super eloquently about mental health in the trans community, transphobia, and other vulnerabilities. Then says] “I do like that the first one you did mention was people asking you about your genitals. That’s gotta get real old real fast. That being said, on behalf of everybody who is wondering, I wonder what your, what your eh, your your…” and then he trailed off. DUDE. The caller handled it really well, making it super clear that that’s not a question that you ask people.
Chris: “Are there any stories… Is there any real life shit you can put out there and just make it eye opening of like, ‘yeah, this shit is real.’ You know?”
Caller: “You know, like, I think … the biggest thing is like, maybe stop murdering trans people.” He said this so casually that I laughed out loud.
One other thing that the caller pointed out that I’d never really thought about before was when talking about the high percentage of trans people who have attempted suicide – I always saw that as some concrete indicator of how outcasted the population is, how brutal society has been toward trans people. But for someone who is apt to brush that off and think that trans people are just mentally ill to begin with, that person will just cement it in their mind further that of course trans people want to kill themselves. They’re crazy. That’s demoralizing to think about.
Coming Out, With Katie Couric (Episode #77) This one also deviated from the normal format in that it was the second episode ever where Chris had a co-host. (The first one was episode #37 with Hannibal Buress.) Apparently Katie Couric reached out to him, really wanting to come on his show! The only thing I’d heard about her, any time lately, was that she botched an interview with transgender model Carmen Carrera in January 2014, asking things such as, “Your private parts are different now, aren’t they?” And then later, Laverne Cox stepped up, came on her show, and told it like it is, namely, (and yep, I’m reiterating this from just a few paragraphs ago) That’s not a question that you ask people!
Since then, I’d basically villified Katie Couric in my head, just assuming she’s too mainstream and out of touch. But, as she tells it, she had the opportunity to just edit all that garbage out, and she decided it was important to leave it in as a teachable moment, and admit her mistakes. And then! She went on to produce, along with National Geographic, a whole documentary called Gender Revolution, which came out in February of 2017. I had no idea.
So when the random caller for this particular episode happened to be a trans-woman (and she had no idea Katie Couric was there with Chris when she called), it feels serendipitous. And it’s a lot more interesting and personal than the other episode I’m highlighting, largely because it feels more meandering and off-the-cuff. Chris, again, is a little off (he isn’t usually, haha!) and Katie Couric is super thoughtful and poised. I kinda like her after this, even. The caller is at the very beginning of her journey, as a 20 year-old junior in college, studying math and economics. She has only told 6 people so far, and she’s just dabbled in painting her nails, little things like that. She’s been on estrogen for two weeks. She’s not yet comfortable seeking out support from other trans people, experimenting with clothing in private, anything along those lines.
It’s super interesting to hear from someone who is just starting to feel out her gender identity, as opposed to many of the voices from the trans community who seemingly have a lot of it figured out / are much further along in their journey.
Highly recommend these episodes!
Here it is, finally! Photographic proof that my name plate finally arrived the way I want it, after many delays and a mix-up. If you want to read about the backstory, here are two past posts:
From December: The “Mx.” got way delayed
From last January: I came out at work, cont’d
The short version is that I asked for the Mx. a year and 3 months ago, following my legal name change. A full year passed before anything happened, and it came through as Kameron [last name], which was not what I wanted. So I talked to the principal again, and luckily, she was pliable. A month ago, I saw a name plate in the admin. assistant’s trash (only because I empty her trash), that said, Ms. [last name]. Meaning, that Staples messed it up even though it got submitted the way I wanted it. Another week passed (during which time I was wondering if I’d have to check back in with the admin. assistant or not. Glad I just waited.) and, finally, there it was, on the custodial door.
Within a week of me coming out at work, a new protocol had been put in place for how we should go about cleaning bathrooms. And for the first time, it applied to all cleaners in all bathrooms, not just guy cleaners going in women’s /girl’s bathrooms, or gals going in the men’s / boy’s. The timing of it was not lost on me.
1. First, call out to see if anyone is in there. If they are, wait.
2. Next, take a sign that is now velcro-ed to the back of all bathroom doors, and velcro-adhere it to the front. This sign reads, “Do Not Enter. Cleaning in Progress.”
3. Close the door, and then do whatever you’re doing, whether it’s just loading more paper towels or full-on cleaning the bathroom.
Before this, we only had to be conscious if we were in bathrooms that were opposite to the ones of our gender/sex.
When I came out to the principal and assistant principal, one of the first and only questions they asked was about bathrooms. Which bathrooms did I plan on using? If she (the principal) could make a suggestion, it would be best if I only used the gender neutral bathrooms. I was polite in response, even though I had not thought this through, and at the time, I used both the women’s bathrooms and the gender neutral bathrooms. All I said was, “A lot of people are worried about bathrooms when it comes to trans-people.”
As it is, a year later, I really only do use the gender-neutral bathrooms because different people within the school have different perceptions about where I’m at, and I want to protect myself and also foster the idea that I am neither male nor female. I didn’t plan on this. I thought I’d be continuing to use both women’s and gender-neutral ones. But I’m not.
I clean one set of bathrooms in the “centrum,” an open plan area where the first graders are taught – there are 3 regular classrooms, 2 resource classrooms, a big open area, and two bathrooms. These bathrooms don’t have doors on them, and also therefore, there are no, “Do Not Enter, Cleaning in Progress” signs accompanying them. Since I do get a head start while the first graders are getting ready to go home, I always yell, “Anyone in here?” even before just dumping the trash / cleaning the sinks. (Due to placement, there’s no way I’d encounter someone using the restroom from the sink area.)
A few days ago, I was doing my routine and called out like always. No one answered. I was putting in a new roll of paper towel. Then I heard a toilet flush. Also a bunch of kids were to the immediate right of this bathroom, putting on their winter coats and boots. I finished loading the paper towel, deciding that it would have been a bigger deal if I had just left it half loaded in my paranoia to escape the bathroom. The girl washed her hands and then I ripped off a piece for her to dry her hands.
Kids who were right there had a very lively conversation!
“There are no boys allowed in the girl’s room.”
“And also no girls allowed in the boy’s room.”
“But why is he in there in the bathroom then?”
“He has to be in there because that’s his job.”
“He’s putting more paper towels in there.”
“But still are you sure he can be in there?”
I just cleared out without further fanfare, but I felt kinda flustered. Personally, I still feel like I half belong in the girl’s / women’s bathrooms. Indeed, those are the ones I use the vast majority of the time when I am out in public.
I was intrigued that these first graders gathered that I was male. I honestly have no clue whether kids at the school I work at think I’m male or female. Whenever I’m asked (this happens so rarely), I do make a point to say, “I’m neither. I’m a little bit of both.” But short of that, I don’t have a clue what conclusions they come to!
One other thing that is tangentially related, I feel, because it concerns personal space: Since I’ve come out, had top surgery, and been on testosterone for long enough that my physique and how I carry myself has changed, I get touched a lot more at work. Some teachers pat or gently tap my shoulders and back. A few days ago, I was thrown way off when a kid patted my midsection for no apparent reason! It’s definitely different, and I don’t respond likewise with anyone, but I gotta say that I do think it’s a positive change – I think people can tell that I am more comfortable in my skin, and some of them act accordingly.
I’ll take it!
If you’d like to see what I originally wrote about this topic, back in January of 2014, here it is:
Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective
I decided to write a Part 2 because this one felt outdated. And I still haven’t covered everything, not by a lot shot! (probably part 3 will appear in the future…)