Skydiving in Two Genders: An Essay on Trans Visibility

This Thursday, March 31, is Trans Day of Visibility, a day that was created to celebrate the trans people who are alive and making themselves known in the world. Autostraddle is a website for and about queer women, and that will always, always, include queer trans women. In order to highlight just a few of the trans women we love, respect and admire here at Autostraddle, we asked several to take pictures of their day-to-day lives and answer a few questions. We’ll also be featuring several essays related to trans visibility by trans women this week.


I am living as a woman the second time I prepare to leap out of an airplane, 7,000 feet above Florida, the world filled with the drone of the plane like the rumble of some metal giant’s stomach. The plane has one seat—for the pilot—and my back is pressed against it. I am facing the man I will be strapped to when, in 30 seconds, we step into the space beneath the clouds. I am not as nervous, this time, as he checks the harness.

The door of the plane cranks open, and it’s like the rush of a storm has entered the plane. I imagine I am being pulled out as my partner tells me to crawl towards the open door and I begin grabbing at the controls on the flight deck on instinct to have something to hold, until I realise the pilot is yelling at me over the twin roar of wind and plane to let go.

Let go.

I have skydived in two genders. The first time I’d gone on a tandem dive was years before I came out as queer in any sense, out of the same plane over the same patch of Quincy, Florida, but living as a male. It had felt like a strange nightmare. I was partly to blame, as I had gotten the idea of skydiving for the first time after a bad romantic breakup so as to briefly stop hearing, through sheer adrenaline, the station in my head that kept playing unhappy music. But the other reason I had not enjoyed it was my sense that I had to act masculine during the whole process, lest the girl in me become too visible, lest I seem queer — the thing I feared so much. I felt I had to move and answer my dive partner’s questions a certain, masculine way, or he would suspect something. And, to be honest, I was scared. I had to practically be pushed out of the plane because I was so afraid that I couldn’t step out of the door. We had rolled through the freefall rather than falling in a controlled way — awkward from plane to parachute.

As silly as it seemed, I wanted to look like the girls, any of them, in the photos the dive shop put out of their first-time divers on social media. It was superficial, in a way, caring about the photo more than the experience; but when you have no photos of you, but countless of someone people think is you, even something as pedestrian as a picture takes on an outsize significance. I’d had no idea I would dive again, years later, as one of those girls, both on and off the camera.

I bring up this memory because I remember, that second dive, how much visibility and trans-ness mattered. I had told no one at the small skydiving school that I was transgender; I just wanted to go as a woman, no other specific nonvisual label applied. It’s part of a project I’ve embarked upon to correct the contours of my life since coming out. I will do the big things I’d done, as a ‘male,’ as a woman, letting myself feel free to write my future by remixing my past—not erasing it under the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, but making it right. Doing it better. Months later, when I snowboard at Breckenridge for the first time, I feel exhilarated, not just at fulfilling a dream of a largely snowless upbringing but because I’m doing so as a woman, as a person my fellow snowboarders — all strangers — call she. My womanhood feels visible, in this way small and vast all at once.

Before I can get on the plane to skydive a second time, I’m nervous, but not for the obvious reason. The fear comes from visibility. Everything is flipped from the first time; now, I want no sense of a past life’s masculinity present. The night before the dive, I worry for hours about if I can ‘pass’ at all if I tie my hair back, revealing the profile of my face, and I consider, seriously, whether or not to wear makeup simply so as to mask any trace of visual masculinity. Incredibly, there’s a tutorial on YouTube for skydiving makeup. The compass of myself is spinning madly. I watch the tutorial twice. I decide I’ll test the durability of a BB cream by Tarte at thousands of feet in the air, then feel ashamed at worrying so much about how I look, then feel the dread again, that all this might go completely wrong, not because I’ll fall to my death, but because I’ll be reduced to my past. I don’t want to be called ‘sir,’ to have that old ghost summoned by a word. I don’t want to be non-gendered, that neutrality that, sometimes, is a form of transphobia — a way of denying even the gender you present as because they cannot bring themselves to name you as such. I just want to let go, and be myself.

All seems well, I think.

When I lean back, this time, to fall off the plane’s edge, I grin like it is the best day of my life.

delirously_happy

On this day, we celebrate the triumphs of transgender people — all transgender people must be included and championed, binary and non-binary alike — and look at how far we have come, as a global community of sorts. And I am so happy to be alive now, able to feel, for the first time in my life, that I can tell someone I’m ‘transgender’ and not necessarily expect them never to have heard this term before. I’m so happy to be alive at a time when trans women of colour are fighting fiercely against being pushed to the margins or forgotten. Janet Mock’s autobiography, the first by a trans woman I ever read, still resonates with me deeply, still helps me articulate how it means to define and redefine the ‘real.’ Jennifer Finney Boylan’s own, though a bit older, is resonant, as well. And there is so much in our growing literature of trans-ness to be proud of: we are writing fiction by and about trans persons, addressing the fact that, for a long time, most of the literature of trans experience was nonfiction autobiography. We are in the media. We exist. In my mind, this day proceeds with the carnival atmosphere of walking through the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the possibility of the wondrous seems always in the air.

We cannot only celebrate, cannot only let go.

And, just as the atmosphere on Bourbon Street is thickened for tourists’ satisfaction, we cannot allow our day of visibility to become some kind of commodity for the kind of cis persons who think giving support is merely being ‘polite’ by not using the wrong pronouns.

In my home country, like in most of the Caribbean, laws protecting or even addressing gender identity do not exist. In Iran, sex-change operations can be funded by the government, but only on the extraordinary premise that everyone is really heterosexual, and that a transgender person — who must be binary in this worldview — is merely a heterosexual person born in the wrong body. In Brazil, transgender people are attacked and killed more than anywhere else in the world, even as Brazil has increasingly adopted progressive laws regarding LGBTQ persons. Sixty-five years ago, Christine Jorgensen, then the world’s most famous trans woman, was a sensationalistic story in newspapers; only this month, Lilly Wachowski came out after being threatened with being outed by The Daily Mail. In 1989, Akira Yasuda transformed a cis female character for Final Fight, Poison, into a pre-op trans woman, justifying this by arguing that it would be more acceptable to beat up a transgender person than a ‘real’ woman and that ‘hitting women was considered rude’ in America, a statement that implicitly isolates trans women. Decades later, I am still accustomed to seeing people refer to this character as ‘a man’ and making jokes about how ‘gross’ it would be to ‘hit’ that in another sense, jokes that many trans women, like myself, are accustomed to hearing applied to ourselves. I left my home — which declared earlier this month that anal intercourse is still illegal — to find a safer life in another country because being openly transgender is far from safe everywhere. I am often afraid to go to the doctor simply because I fear my voice, if not ‘right,’ will cause someone to ask me why I am using a woman’s ID—as has happened to me before.

When I wrote a piece for Slate in January about using the women’s restroom as a trans woman in the wake of fear-mongering anti-transgender laws, I was unsurprised at the vitriol in the comments; this is just how it is in 2016, the idea that we are, despite our social gains, ‘predators’ and ‘perverts’ and ‘freaks.’ And when I was lucky to write a piece for VIDA about visibility as trans women in the Caribbean, I was reminded just why I needed to write such a piece to begin with.

We are beginning to be accepted, loved; we are still hated. And some of that hatred often, unfortunately, comes from within ourselves.

To celebrate is to focus one’s gaze, to relegate the terrors to the shadows, at least for a bit. Perhaps that’s how we do anything as humans, focusing our gaze. In his essay ‘On the Pleasures of Hating,’ The English critic William Hazlitt—famous for the acerbic way in which he took down writers in his criticism—argued that it’s impossible not to hate. “[H]atred alone is immortal,” he said. The sun is temporary; the dark is forever. I don’t want to feel hatred towards those who hate us. It’s hard for me to hate, when face to face with someone. But there is so much loathing for us out there, looping the world. And most all of it is rooted in the same ignorance from which we get misogyny, fundamentalisms, and homophobia: the belief that there is solely one, conservative way to view reality, and that anything that deviates from that must be deviant, must be evil, must be detested and destroyed. I often want to just look another direction, drifting away on an air-stream of happier dreams. But I can’t. Won’t.

On this day of beautiful diversity, we must remember, too, to celebrate ourselves, if we have spoken out against the mind-sets that would rather such people as myself never speak at all. Let us not forget: celebration, sometimes, is itself worthy of celebration. To celebrate how far we’ve come, after all, we must not hate who we are; we must love ourselves, so we can be happy for ourselves, and for others like us.


I remember standing in front my bathroom mirror a few days before I began to write this. A faint orange-yellow lamp in the background, the sink in shadow, me like a figure in a chiaroscuro. I put a hand over the space between my legs. I turned one way, then the other. For a while, I just stood there, imagining myself as if there had never been anything but a vagina there. I smiled, but I was sad. The organ I had been born with seemed, in that moment, a kind of secular curse, like the pig’s tail certain members of the Buendia family would be born with in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was not a curse. I would not have been me, really, had I been born without it, had I been born like so many cisgender women. I would not have been better or worse, even if I might have been better or worse off in other ways; I would have had an utterly different life. There it was again, that pleasant-pedestrian-painful reminder: I was always a woman, but I would have been a different woman had I been born cis. I don’t even know that that other person, that smoky dream-self that only exists in the space where genies’ wishes do, is ‘I’ at all.

This is as obvious as can be, but so easy to forget, and so important: we are who we are, and we would not be if we had been otherwise. If we wish to celebrate ourselves and others, we must start by banishing the desire, if we have one, to have been born something else. I say this, but I feel like I am surrounded by smoke as I write this, and it is not from a cigarette or a candle.


After the second dive, I’m sitting in the main room again with Cindy, the woman who runs the place, and another woman who is filling out the paperwork for her first dive. “It’s all girls today,” Cindy says to her. “No guys signed up.” I feel elated.

The other woman steps out for a moment. Cindy turns to me. She smiles and tells me she had read an essay I wrote about being a trans woman before the dive, after I’d added the skydiving school as a friend on Facebook. “I say, go girl!” she exclaims, chuckling and putting a fist in the air. She says that voice must be difficult, but that because I am from the Caribbean, I can perhaps compensate for it slightly by my accent.

At first, I feel deflated. Sad. I’d thought no one there knew. Then, as I consider it more through the day, I realise that, whether or not Cindy and my dive partner knew I was trans, they had treated me in such a way that I had no way of knowing. To my partner I was simply a woman, undefined as any category of that term; and to be a trans woman, after all, is to simply be a woman in its own category, just as it is a category to be a Dominican woman, a tall woman, any woman at all, and categories often intersect. My dive partner had neither explicitly looked down upon me for being a trans woman nor congratulated me for it; he had simply called me ‘girl’ and ‘girlie’ each time in a way that seemed natural to him. I was simply female to him, and wasn’t that, I wondered, the best possible outcome, where, ‘read’ as transgender or not, you are treated as the person you are in such a way that you wouldn’t know if anyone else had read the book of your history in your face, your body, or somewhere else?

I remember the rush of the fall through the air, and how, this time, all I felt was bliss as the air rushed into my face like a vast waterfall in reverse. And I remember when the parachute opened, and the roar of the wind stopped, replaced by a beautiful, calm stillness, as we descended on the wind to where we had set off from.

Let’s celebrate the future by taking from the past, and making it better in the present.

DCIM126GOPRO

DCIM126GOPRO

Gabrielle Bellot grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. She has contributed work to or has work forthcoming in Slate, The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, VIDA, Lambda Literary, The Toast, The Normal School, Harlot, and other places, and she was featured on The Butter's 'This Writer's On Fire' column. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University and is working on her first novel.

Gabrielle has written 5 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. “I was always a woman but I would have been a different woman if I was cis”- I love that; I’m so often at a loss for words trying to explain that duality that, for me, comes from being trans.

  2. “This is as obvious as can be, but so easy to forget, and so important: we are who we are, and we would not be if we had been otherwise. If we wish to celebrate ourselves and others, we must start by banishing the desire, if we have one, to have been born something else. I say this, but I feel like I am surrounded by smoke as I write this, and it is not from a cigarette or a candle.”

    Oof, wow, that hit me in the SOUL.

    This entire piece was fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your words. And while I’m way too much of a scaredy-cat to ever try skydiving myself, I am deeply envious of your pictures. The whole world beneath you and nothing but smiles!

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