Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about discovery/disclosure and the complexities of learning to how, when, and to whom to disclose various aspects of the self.
Labels and I have never been strangers. We have been intertwined in an elaborate series of dances, negotiations, bitter arguments, crying fits, and desperate bargaining. While I lacked the vocabulary necessary to describe my gendertrash identity, class-based language was freely available. The brutal thrashing of situational poverty and middle class aspirations introduced me to code switching.
To name is to (dis)empower. My bicultural education and consciousness began mid-transaction at the local grocery store as I watched my mother carefully tear along the perforated lines of actual food stamps. The entire store went painfully quiet, even the squeaky shopping cart wheels could not penetrate the overwhelming silence. It was as if an alarm went off with every disconnection of the small tabs connecting one stamp to another. All eyes were on us. Blood rushed to my face and ears as I sat on the small plastic seat of the cart with my legs straddling the cold metal. I didn’t understand why I was suddenly overheating. My mother’s fingers fumbled to complete the delicate task of removing the correct number of stamps. I could see her shame.
No. It was not her shame. Fuck that. Humiliation was inflicted upon her, a single mother of three, by the judgmental assholes behind us in line.
Their faces further recoiled as the cashier dropped the handful of small coins into my mother’s hand (food stamps were even dollar amounts). Welfare queen. These coins were precious. Desperately collected each month with each transaction. If she saved enough we could afford toilet paper because food stamps could only be exchanged for food and she made “too much” money to qualify for cash assistance.
“We’ll make it work.” A slogan? Mantra? No, it is the battle cry of the impoverished.
“I found myself crossing the threshold of working class poverty into the twilight zone of the middle class when I went to school.”
I never went hungry and always had a roof over my head. Though, I found myself crossing the threshold of working class poverty into the twilight zone of the middle class when I went to school. Relatives paid for my siblings and I to attend a private religious elementary school. I learned quickly that I was out of my league.
I was six when I was taught my first personal lesson about disclosure and code switching. The playground glowed green, gold, and red with the bright sun of a fall afternoon. I don’t recall the question asked of me, only the unfiltered answer: My parents were divorced because my biological father had sexually abused my two older sisters.
The brisk autumn air stung my lungs and rendered me speechless. Was it this cold ten seconds ago? The moment was gone as quickly as it came. My reputation firmly established.
I did not realize this was the lens through which my peers would continue to view me until middle school when I absentmindedly brought the subject up again. The look on my classmates’ face was of disbelief and horror. All this time they legitimately thought I had fabricated the story. They thought I said that to get attention.
“The world was not to be trusted with my most vulnerable parts.”
Attention seeking behavior. I didn’t want their fucking attention. From that moment on I only wanted to disappear. The world was not to be trusted with my most vulnerable parts. The second or third hand bright pink cat sweater, unintentional high-water jeans, and off-white sock covered toes protruding from my beloved blue faux suede shoes betrayed me and put my class status on display for everyone to see. I had to control what I disclosed about my family and myself. I listened intently to what was perceived as acceptable. Still I failed. Often.
People watching. I continued to listen and watch the people around me everywhere I went. They all knew something I didn’t. Where do I being to probe, peel back, examine, dissect, and question? I could rarely muster the strength, courage, or confidence to raise my hand in class. My body became heavy, heartbeat quickened, face flushed, throat constricting, hands and legs started shaking both chair and table, and finally the moment came. All eyes were on me. The tremble in my voice was not subtle nor my question succinct. I exhaled my mustered confidence and gazed down at my oversized sweatshirt, fingers desperately searched the discolored ribbed cuffs for an escape route.
When would I learn? Silence was safe and insulating but quickly became isolating and cold — like that rush of autumn air when I was six. Did anyone else feel as small, unintelligent, unworthy, and undesirable? Surely my life could not be the only one falling apart. My classmates must be hiding too.
“Hide-and-seek was never my game.”
Fortress of solitude. Hands clasped around closed eyes, I rocked back and forth faintly whispering, “If I can’t see them, they can’t see me, if I can’t see them, they can’t see me,” in a desperate attempt to self-soothe. But they always found me. Hide-and-seek was never my game.
Unknowingly, I hid in the center of rooms surrounded by microphones and fact checkers. Well-intentioned, but thorn-covered hands occasionally broke through the crowd. A conditional respite that drew blood one too many times. Frustration bubbled over when I could not “reasonably” explain my sullen emotions, explosive behaviors, and spectacular failings. I withdrew even further into myself thinking safety could be found within. I found my hiding place, but it was already occupied.
Faggot. I was 11 years old the first time I was called a faggot. The sun was casting beautiful expressions of yellow, orange, and red across the playground as we held hands under one of the tall trees marking the oppressive border of the school grounds. Our matching bowl-shaped haircuts often made us indistinguishable from one another at a distance and in crowded hallways between classes.
The trance of sunset was broken by the shifting of greased bicycle chains and gears as they approached us with long blond hair, spotless white sweatshirts, boot flared jeans, and tennis shoes there were clearly not purchased at Kmart. I waved as they approached. They were, after all, a year our senior and lifelong members of the popular club, and I was hopelessly optimistic.
“I did not understand why this one word had broken him, had broken us, creating a cavernous divide between us…”
Brakes engaged, tires squealing, her voice rang out and I suddenly became aware of how heavy my stomach was. How did she know? Our relationship ended abruptly a few days later on a quiet side street as we walked toward a local park. I did not understand why this one word had broken him, had broken us, creating a cavernous divide between us, with caution tape and large flashing orange signs shouting “CAUTION: DO NOT ENTER.”
When tomboys were cool. This was the beginning of my education in middle school gender politics. It was my final year of being one of the guys. I had already learned that I could either date boys or continue to act like one. I chose the latter. We exchanged crude jokes and secretly passed the latest Mad Magazine from one to another behind the large oak tree near the unforgiving metal playground equipment. Chasing each other from one end of the playground to the other acquiring grass stains and exchanging copious hair-frizzing noogies. I thought I was free.
“Strangers no longer defaulted to masculine pronouns and instead became emboldened, empowered, and justified in asking what I was.”
What are you? Shoulders forward, head down, my white-knuckled hands gripped the hem of the community college t-shirt that extended to my mid thigh. My prepubescent ambiguity had been non-consensually taken by newly emerging breasts. While my feminine peers excitedly picked out training bras and capped sleeved, skin tight t-shirts, I was quickly running out of options. Strangers no longer defaulted to masculine pronouns and instead became emboldened, empowered, and justified in asking what I was. No one ever asked who I was, not that I could have answered that question either.
Checking the mail. I loved being the first one home after school because I got to check the mail, not to mention the precious few minutes of having the house to myself.
Water bill, mortgage statement, bank statement, credit card offer, grocery store coupons, and a Teen People magazine. My paternal grandparents had gifted me this subscription assuming that, as a 15 year old girl, I would appreciate it. I scoffed at Josh Hartnett’s pretty little face on cover, wondering, who legitimately reads this garbage? My saunter down the driveway came to a halt as I read the lower right hand corner of the cover, “Born with the wrong body: Transgender teens answer your questions.”
“Even though my questions had not been entirely answered, at least I knew that I was not alone.”
I re-read the story three times behind the locked door of my bedroom before the weight of excitement and anticipatory terror settled in my body. Even though my questions had not been entirely answered, at least I knew that I was not alone. I was gendertrash.
Now what? I had to tell…someone. Anyone. Who could I trust with this fragile little being I had hidden away so carefully for 15 years? Nervously, I knocked on her office door. The warm glow of the lamp created a notable threshold between it and the cold florescent hallway. My heart beat wildly until it was all I could hear. Just say it. You practiced this line all weekend. Don’t waste her time with bullshit silence, spit it out!
Relief and unprecedented panic. All of the sudden my depression, suicide attempt, and self-harm “made sense.” This disclosure of my trans identity was the first of many. Close friends and family were largely unsurprised and generally supportive. Hell, I only lost contact with half of my biological family, save for a few “pray the gay away” articles and brochures I received in mail.
I had renewed my relationship with disclosure on what I thought were my own terms. Maybe now disclosure would be my choice.
(I was wrong.)
To be continued…
K.M. Shultz is a transfabulous activist and future clinical mental health counselor. Currently, he works with college students with disabilities to make campuses more accessible. His true medium is mixed-media art, but he’s starting to dabble in writing.