She kept asking if I was okay; first while doing my make-up, twice again as we came downstairs, again between the front door and the car, another five times on the way, and finally when stood at the glass lined entrance. Every time I told her “yes,” but as we stepped inside I wasn’t so sure.
It wasn’t our first time at the Lovin’ Spoonful; Tanya had dragged me there every other day for the past year. Between what had probably been designed to look like crumbling plaster and old brick we could pretend that we weren’t still trapped in high school, like we were already college hipsters who knew it all.
The staff knew us by name. Gloria, the self-proclaimed Norse goddess of the bean, had exercised her power on us and guessed our orders the first time we met; an orange frappucino for Tanya, and a vanilla chai latte for me. With service like that it was easy to feel at home.
That night, however, was different.
I held the flyer in my hand, every so often unfolding it just to make sure. The message read the same as it had earlier; ‘Inside Out – a discussion and support group for Trans* Youth and Allies.’ The date and time were right, but the crowd wasn’t what I expected. (Honestly, I had no idea what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.)
“Hey, I’m Tom,” one guy said; “male identified, male pronouns. How are you?”
Then there was his friend; maybe boyfriend? It was hard to tell because of how ‘friendly’ he was to everyone. “I’m Baxter,” he grinned; “trans boi, he and him pronouns. I don’t think I’ve seen you around before, have I?”
“Pheonix,” another person told me. “I’m gender fluid, and prefer xe and xir, but if that’s too hard I’m okay with they/their or he/his.”
The more I talked to people and swapped smiles, pronouns and conversation about school and hobbies the more I heard about the women’s college, St. Maria’s, from which most of them had come. They told me ‘Inside Out’ was a new group, and most of their advertising had been done on campus where Tanya had first picked up the flier.
My chest was in freefall. I told myself that it wasn’t so bad, that even though I was surrounded by guys and gender non-conforming people who were “female assigned” (I think that was the term they used) that we shared a common experience, that we had all struggled to find ourselves in a world that just didn’t get it. Being there was worth my time, wasn’t it?
Tanya clasped my arms and examined me. “Are you sure you’re okay? We can leave at literally any time.”
“I’m okay,” I lied. “These are my people, right?”
Okay, so maybe I was disappointed, just a little. It was my first time meeting other transgender people face to face; was it so bad that I wanted to meet someone like me? All my contact up to that point had been on the internet, mostly with web comic artists who I’d taken for goddesses. To be able to have the kind of conversations we’d shared in person was a dream.
As the night went on I congratulated people on all of the things that I wanted out of my life; things like facial hair and strangers calling you ‘sir.’ What was my nightmare was their victory, and I tried to respect that, even if it was like the weirdest thing in the world.
A lot of them were okay to listen back, and encouraged me to tell my story; so I indulged them. I told them about what it was like growing up and knowing, even if I wasn’t always a girly girl; about how scary it was having to hide, how humiliating it was to have your needs excused away, and what it was like to have monsters like Adrian haunt your life.
“Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier the other way around,” I said. “I mean, nobody will forgive you for being a girl, especially if they think you’re supposed to be a guy. People seem to really hate it, and they want to destroy you for it.”
“Are you really trying to tell me that you have it harder?”
I looked to the cliché by the wall; skinny, sleeves rolled up his shoulder like he was James Dean, hair clipped around the side of a sloppy faux hawk. I’d never seen him before, but I knew his look; gods, did I know that sneer.
“At least people notice you exist,” (I assume ‘he’) jabbed. “Guys like us have to kick and scream a lot louder than you do, and guess what happens. We get laughed at. Nobody takes us seriously. Then we get ignored all over again.”
Tanya stepped between us like Mt Vesuvius bursting to life. “Are you listening to a word she’s saying? The reason she gets noticed is because she’s a target. Is that really what you want?”
“A target gets noticed when they fight back,” he spat.
“You can’t be serious.”
It wasn’t just Tanya that exploded, but the room. There wasn’t a head without something to add, save maybe my own; that was my mistake, and I wasn’t going to do that again. Instead I just sat there staring at my reflection in the glass while words like ‘tone police’ flew by like bricks in a riot; all while people who weren’t me started to talk about the things that I’d lived through like I wasn’t even there.
My fist balled and acrylic pressed into my palm. If I pushed deep enough the skin would break and I’d be in control again. That kind of pain I knew how to handle; I could make it my anchor and use it to breathe, and through it I’d be safe.
“This is supposed to be a safe space,” the antagonist all but roared. “There are guys here with legitimate experience, but you all rush to her defense when a girl steps in and makes it all about her.”
“I thought this was a discussion group,” I sighed. “All I said was that it’s hard to be a girl.”
“Yeah, well try being a man sometime.”
I wasn’t there when Tanya started world war three, or when a number of the guys jumped in to defend me; I was miles away chewing on the words. ‘Try being a man sometime’? What did he think I’d been doing all my life?
A tide of memory came washing back; ‘The Best of Kaira Cade’s Torrid History’, like the time I was laughed at for wanting to be a ballerina, or a Girl Scout, or Gadget from Chip n’ Dale for Halloween, or the time I told my second grade class I wanted to be Wonder Woman when I grew up. You know, like any of those things wouldn’t have been normal if I were born with the parts deemed appropriate for a girl.
I remembered all of those things and how each time I was told off, or worse. The powers that be asked me to forget about it and to be a man; gods knew I tried, because it was the only way they could ever love me, right?
My fist clenched tighter. No blood yet, but soon.
Next I knew I was standing by the side of the road hugging my arms and waiting for the lights to change. Thinking about it I only just remembered stepping outside; Tanya was so embroiled that I couldn’t ask her to stop, and even though she was going to chew me out later for it I had to be alone. That room was void of oxygen and I needed to breathe.
It was only then through the stinging in my eyes that I noticed the vehicle sat in front of the red signal. The guys inside laughed as their eyes pored over me, except for the brute in the passenger seat.
“Hey, that’s a guy,” Adrian hissed. “I #$%&ing know him!”
He stepped out of the car and two friends joined him. The trap door in my chest fell open, and the springs in my heels snapped. Looking back would have slowed me down, but I knew they were following. Fight or flight; this night was determined to eat me alive.
To be continued…