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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

A stranger called me ‘f****t’ last week: A (newly-out) trans woman’s Carleton experience

A stranger called me a f****t last week. He shouted it from a car, cruising past me at a pretty nonchalant speed. At first I could hardly believe it. “Did he just shout ‘f****t’?For about an hour, I convinced myself I misheard him. The whole situation seemed too stereotypical to be real, like it was lifted straight from an on-the-nose transphobia PSA. But no. I heard it. “F****t.” All the right sounds in perfect order, loud enough to echo off the chapel tower. It couldn’t have been anything else.

Over the past few days, I’ve told the story to several friends. Nearly all of them asked the same question: “Was it a student?” Their tone was one of concern; to them, the answer was clearly a matter of importance. From the receiving end, this question makes no sense at all. What does it matter? Why do you care? The more I reflect on it, the more I think this question betrays a need for reassurance. “Was it a student?” seems like a substitute for “No student would do this, right?” I suspect those who ask, on an unconscious level, want me to exonerate their community. They want me to shore up the optimistic idea that all Carls are open-minded and accepting, because the alternative possibility scares them. The underlying meaning, the “real” question being posed, is insensitive. The asker (unconsciously) wants me to reaffirm their sense of safety; meanwhile, my sense of safety is lying shattered on the floor. To be clear, I love my friends, and I don’t blame them for asking. I would probably do the same in their position. The idea that a student could be so bigoted scares me too. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed — in fact, it was never in the harbor. Regardless of where the guy came from, the facts don’t change: I was called a slur on campus, and it could happen again. 

Besides, the idea that no student would do this is wishful thinking. Any group of sufficient size will contain hateful people, and the mere presence of an accepting majority doesn’t prevent them from acting on that hatred. I share my friends’ desire to bolster such a comforting illusion — that Carleton isn’t a school where this happens — but it’s pointless to try. Of course it happens here. It happens at every school. It happens everywhere.

Earlier, I wrote that being called a faggot by someone in a passing car seemed too stereotypical to be real. Looking back on it, I think that reveals something about me. Maybe I developed that idea because I’ve lived most of my life in the guise of a cis white guy, a mode of expression that doesn’t attract unwanted attention. I was surprised at how many queer people, in their messages of support, recounted similar experiences. Then I was embarrassed about being surprised. Maybe I’m just now realizing what this country is like when you’re not part of the club. The irony isn’t lost on me: I’ve experienced “my first slur.” I suppose, as of last week, I’m officially a trans woman in America. 

After my denial phase wore off, the incident unleashed a torrent of intrusive thoughts. First came the self-blame: “Maybe if I hadn’t worn… Maybe if I hadn’t gone… Maybe if I’d been in a group…” Then came the dysphoria: “Maybe if my waist wasn’t so goddamn disgusting… Maybe if I wasn’t so fucking tall… My shoulders are so… My arms are so… My face is so…” each one a cul-de-sac of mental self-abuse. I usually manage to fend them off. On bad days, they tend to ooze in through the cracks. I was tempted to shield myself beneath the layers of menswear gathering dust in the back of my closet. Dressing male — or rather, dressing in a particular way to provoke the assumption I’m male — makes me feel (1) safer and (2) like my soul is slowly decomposing in a sun-bleached junkyard microwave. I have to endure risks and anxieties when I express my identity, but locking it away feels suffocating, and nothing drives me up the wall like giving in to social pressure. I decided I had a responsibility to continue expressing myself, to show the world no sign of weakness or demoralization. I wore a dress the next day. A stranger even complimented me on it, because, as you might expect, I looked cute as fuck. No bigot can take that away. 

Despite its overtly hateful nature (or perhaps because of it), harassment isn’t the only thing I want to discuss. It’s terrible, of course, but it’s much rarer than other behaviors that also make me feel unwelcome. Every time I wear a femme outfit, a lot of people give me “the look.” Sometimes “the look” is a glance that lasts too long; other times, it’s a shameless double-take. The dining halls are especially bad because of the huge number of peak-time occupants. Whenever I step into the Sevy Tea Room in a dress, a swarm of eyes immediately snap to me and linger, something that doesn’t happen when I’m wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. It may not sound that bad, but trust me, it takes effort not to buckle under the weight of public scrutiny. “Maybe they like my outfit. Maybe they’re glad to see another queer student. Maybe they’re just curious. Maybe they’re not used to seeing trans people. Maybe they’re cringing at me. Maybe they resent me. Maybe that one is fantasizing about bashing my head in.” All of these possibilities run through my mind, but the truth is, I can’t know why any individual person is staring at me. That lack of certainty makes me feel paranoid: “Maybe I look horrible or pathetic and my friends are too nice to tell me.” (I even aborted a previous attempt at gender transition several years ago because the anxiety from “the look” was so intense.) No matter the motivation, it sends the message that I am seen as a novelty. It sucks. The point is, this happens to me every day, and so far, I’ve only been hit with a single slur. That day was hard, but so is every day when people don’t realize they’re othering you. 

This isn’t the time or place to offer a call-to-action with a list of ways to help. My goal is to give you a glimpse into my life; feel free to choose your own takeaways. I wouldn’t say I’m in the best mood to give this piece a happy ending, but even so, I want to. A lot of trans discourse revolves around the ways in which we suffer. It’s an important thing to talk about, but if struggle consumes the whole discussion, it’s easy to forget why we break traditional gender rules in the first place: To free ourselves and find ourselves, to harmonize the external with the internal. While some prefer to see gender transition as a treatment for a medical condition, from my perspective, there’s more to being trans than wishing you weren’t trans. There are even unqualified advantages. Throughout my journey, I’ve pushed myself to be more courageous than I ever thought possible. I bet many cis people will never have a reason — an opportunity, even — to make radical, liberating changes to their lives. They may never discover, as I have, the rewards of trading conformity for authenticity. I may have been missing a major part of my identity for most of my life, but guess what? I found it. Also, it’s just so FUN. I like feeling girly. I like feeling cute. I like feeling sexy. It’s how I stick it to the bigots from my old hometown. It brings me so much joy; it makes me feel whole and right and wonderful like nothing else in my life has. 

I’m four months into transition now, and things are going well. My hair is starting to grow out, the hormones are starting to kick in, and I’m starting to find some really affirming outfits. These days, when I look in the mirror, I’m beginning to catch glimpses of a girl I’m just now getting to know. She’s a version of myself I can truly love.

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    Nicole CollinsApr 23, 2023 at 10:22 pm

    This was sent to me. Just wanted to say that, as a recent trans woman graduate of Carleton, I too had many similar experiences. The school’s transphobia isn’t discussed enough and it really negatively impacted me while I was there. Sending love and support your way. Stay strong.