It’s Trans Awareness Week, the week leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20th. When we say that Autostraddle is website primarily for queer women, we want to be 100% clear that that includes queer trans women and that it’s important to honor trans women year-round, not just in obituaries. So all week long we’ll be spotlighting articles by and about trans women, with a special focus on trans women of color. We hope you’ll love reading everything as much as we’ve loved writing and editing it.
Learning to love yourself is a lot like learning to breathe.
I have been learning, again, how to live, to love, to breathe.
When you begin to transition, sometimes the world seems like a new place, terra incognita, the patches labelled ‘here there be dragons’ on an old map. I know this was the case for me. In some ways, it still is. I’ve been fully out for almost a year, and I’ve both learnt new confidence and failed to unlearn some of my old fears from my earliest days of presenting as a woman. I still, sometimes, hear my heart beating in my head when I step out the door in a dress, wondering if today is the day that wearing that dress will cause a man to call out to me in front his friends, then, realising I’m not the cis woman he wants me to be, turn his call into curses and kicks or worse. I still hesitate, sometimes, before picking up the phone, even when I know I must make or take a call, worried that the voice I have worked on for so long will vanish and that I’ll be reduced to a ‘sir’ by a stranger. I still use the restroom quicker than I should on some days, avoiding eye contact with the women in it, hoping I don’t give off such an overwhelming aura of nervous energy that I’ll cause the very thing I want to avoid: everyone turning to me.
Getting over these fears, and choosing to live with fear rather than live in fear, is an act of self-love. Learning to control your heartbeat so you don’t hyperventilate, learning to breathe normally in a crowd: these are lessons of love. These are ways of embracing ourselves.
I’m still learning.
The first day I taught a class of undergraduates presenting as female made me think, later on, of learning to scuba-dive in the Caribbean Sea. The two were many islands apart, me teaching in my new home in Florida after having learnt to dive in the Commonwealth of Dominica, the verdant island I grew up in between Martinique and Guadeloupe, but they felt quite close, all the same. Both set my heart going like the erratic wingbeats of a bat.
I’ve loved the ocean for as long as I can remember. As a child, I spent hours looking up information about the denizens of the deep sea, the realm that fascinated me the most. I was particularly intrigued by the enigmatic giant squid, and I remember with embarrassment the day I sent an email to one of the world’s most eminent squid scientists, Dr. Steve O’Shea, proposing what I thought was an obvious solution for capturing the then-as-yet-unseen behemoth on film. Why not, I wrote, just attach a camera to the back of a sperm whale, since they eat the giant squids? O’Shea, a gentleman, wrote back soon after, politely telling me that my idea was rather unlikely to succeed.
I loved the sea so much that it came to terrify me as I learnt more about the creatures that lived in it. I knew well it was unlikely I would encounter any of the creatures I’d read about just by going snorkeling on a family trip to the beach, but my imagination always ran wild. I was unable to wade more than a few steps most of the time, my mind filled with images of rushing tentacles, barracudas, and the barbed tails of stingrays. Beyond that, I was never a strong swimmer. My mother’s tales of old friends being dragged out to their deaths by currents in certain fatal patches of water — which she would repeat whenever we drove past the beach or estuary where someone had lost their life — would echo through my head. I would panic as I took a few steps into the water, the sand swirling around my feet in clouds, and begin to hear my heart hammer. I at once knew too much and nothing at all. If we were at Champagne Beach, where the beach was more rocks than sand, the ground lizards and the occasional iguana might leer at me as I retreated from the water, as if considering whether or not to run from such a comical specimen.
But, like embracing the woman I am, I couldn’t stay back from the allure of the waves. The pull of my trans-ness and queerness, of course, would always be stronger, the strongest impulses I have ever known. The sea, like them, was a place that represented a kind of forbidden love. I needed to overcome my fears or I would feel that I was holding myself back from living authentically.
So, contrary to all the walls my fears had erected between the sea and me, I decided to learn how to scuba dive.
Learning to breathe with your scuba gear is a kind of act of faith. It seems contrary to all expectations if you’ve never done it before, especially if you’ve experienced the sudden lack of air from poking your head too far beneath the surface while snorkeling. Yet somehow it works. You just breathe, as normally as you can. And the world is your air: your breaths become loud and constant. As you learn to descend, though, the sea reminds you it is there. You feel its weight, your having come from the surface, when you descend a few feet and there is a pain in your head. You learn to pinch your nose and blow out to equalise so that you can slowly descend further into this blue world.
And then there is the terror, which you must face, of simulating having your dive mask knocked off, where you must suddenly either close your eyes or come face to face again with where you are and either way put it back on. You learn to control your breathing so you don’t kick back up too fast to the surface when your gear stops giving you air, as once happened to me about 50 feet below the surface — for returning too fast can be your death sentence. And then, of course, you must learn how to control your fear when the old nightmares appear: when you encounter the creatures where you are diving. I learnt not to fear the enormous stingrays, the blue morays with their mouths hanging open that swayed in the current, the rare spotted eagle ray that once found its way into the area I first learnt to dive in. I even learnt, on my first and only night dive, to gradually not fear being surrounded by the darkness, only our flashlights, the pale moonglow, and the bursts of phosphorescence softening the black.
So much of this reminds me of walking outside presenting as a woman for the first time. Of having men call out to me, of having security guards in museums proposition me when no one else was around and my heart suddenly wanting to burst from my chest for the very person who I thought would protect me might become my enemy if I say the wrong word, and if I speak in a voice that does not ‘pass,’ what will happen next? I remember the many, many nights I stayed in instead of going out, even for something as routine for groceries, for I was terrified of being clocked as a trans woman, of being laughed at, stared at, followed.
I remember when all of my optimism about shifting my voice into the kind of voice I had always wanted came to an end, when I was humiliated over the phone. I’d had to call Tallahassee Memorial Hospital to pay a bill I couldn’t pay online for some reason, a bill that was under my new legal name and gender. I tried to raise my voice the way I’d tried before, thinking it sounded all right in my head. ‘How can I help you, sir,’ I heard seconds into the call. It became worse. My account number wasn’t coming up, so the man I was speaking with transferred me. The woman who answered brought up my information, but wouldn’t believe I was Gabrielle Bellot. I couldn’t be her because of my voice, she reasoned.
To prove I wasn’t a criminal, she asked me to verify my gender. I’m accustomed to verifying my first car, my best friend in secondary school, and my mother’s maiden name, but I had never been asked to verify my gender. I imagined, suddenly, that she had asked me to strip over the phone. I told her my history with transition over the phone. She sounded relieved.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said.
My eyes began to sting, and the world felt heavy. My gender said ‘F’ on my file, but her pronouns wouldn’t shift. I didn’t even imagine, at the time, that the woman was transphobic; I imagined that my voice was simply so non-F, somehow, that her own instinct couldn’t align it with the ‘F,’ couldn’t fit the contours of the right word. I didn’t love myself enough to even correct the woman.
It was a humiliation that echoed what would happen soon after on a trip to New York, where a receptionist at the Neue Galerie, a museum I had longed to visit for years, gendered me female on sight, then shifted without a blink to ‘sir’ as I blurted out that I couldn’t find my student ID for a discount. It was such a quick, cold switch that I left the museum after fighting with myself for half an hour, because I had come to hate myself so thoroughly. I had come to not see the paintings in the top floor properly through my stupid tears. I felt imprisoned by my fear of my old voice. Clearly, I was not ready to descend into the world, not to these depths.
Now things have begun to change. I enter the world with more confidence. I know the privilege to pass that I have; all the same, I’m prepared for the looks and questions I do get. I have worked on my voice for months because I wanted to, not because there is anything wrong with keeping your old voice, but because I didn’t want that voice, didn’t feel safe with it, didn’t feel right with it, didn’t feel happy with it, felt embarrassed teaching with it, hid because of it. I learnt to change the timbre of my voice through breathing differently — quite literally — and hundreds of recordings and hours of research. It may not be perfect, but it’s hard to express how happy I feel when I can pick up the phone, call a stranger, and — most of the time — expect to hear ‘ma’am.’
It was a labour of love to reach this far — and the labour, I realised, signified the love. To be lazy in such things was to be love-denying, to see myself standing at my own door and to shut it instead of letting myself in.
I remember descending over the largest stingray I’ve ever seen on. It was resting on the silty bottom near the wreck of a small liner we were exploring. The stingray looked like a muddy magic carpet with eyes. I remembered my terror of stepping on one before I learnt to dive. I was still, floating, the sound of my breaths a reliable muffled rhythm, the bubbles floating up to the surface like currents of little jellyfish.
I remember smiling like a fool. I had learnt how to love a world I once feared.
Now, I must do it again. I must learn to be brave wearing a new wetsuit, getting a new diver’s card with the right name and gender on it. Diving for the first time since coming out scares me. I wonder at the dangers of diving in a group of strangers, where someone learns you are trans and decides they do not like it. I think of how I still avoid going to the beach because I have never worn a woman’s swimsuit in front of anyone but my reflection. In my worst moments, my past dives begin to seem like dreams.
But I’ll do it.
“Create dangerously,” the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat advised in Create Dangerously: the Immigrant Artist at Work, “for people who read dangerously,” for people who, she says, soon after, “may risk his or her life to read” your words. To that I would add: love dangerously, so you don’t regret the breaths you could’ve enjoyed.
I cannot return safely to the place I learnt to dive as a queer trans woman, but I love the lessons it taught me, which I only understood better later, when I began to become myself.