Fear & Freedom: Traveling While Trans

A couple of months ago, my girlfriend and I stayed in an AirBnb in Auburn, CA, near the Yuba River (we later hiked to and then skinny-dipped in the river over the 4th of July weekend; note that this is an excellent way to get out of town and avoid the “was that a firework or a gunshot” situation common to big cities).

If you’re not familiar with California, it’s like every other U.S. state in that once you get a couple of hours (sometimes a couple of miles) out of a major “liberal” city, it can get conservative, fast. Auburn is only 30 minutes or so from Sacramento, but it’s essentially Small Town, USA.

We arrived at the AirBnb in Auburn — a mind-bendingly cute converted Airstream trailer – and discovered it was bee themed. We couldn’t decide if this was because the owner loved bees, or went thrifting, found one cute bee-laden woven pillow, and built the AirBnb’s aesthetic around that one anchor piece. The other ubiquitous feature was Bible quotes.

After driving through Auburn to the trailer (which, we learned only upon arriving because the picture above doesn’t make it clear AT ALL, is directly in a residential neighborhood driveway), looking around, and noticing the glaring religiosity, my girlfriend started to get nervous.

“Do we feel safe here?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically. She’s much darker-skinned than me, and we were clearly in a very white area. While I’m from the pretty-diverse Bay Area, she grew up in a white suburb outside of Phoenix, and as such knows much better than I do what awaits brown girls in these kinds of areas.

But she wasn’t afraid for her own safety — at least not directly. She was afraid for mine. Does my AirBnB profile say that I’m trans? She asked. What if they find out and are upset? Do they know we’re queer? What if we get attacked? Chased out in the middle of the night? Murdered in our beds as we sleep? As the imagined scenarios grew more outlandish, she began to hyperventilate, and tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she fought a rising panic.

I rubbed her back and tried to downplay her concerns, explaining that it would be illegal if our hosts did anything even approaching kicking us out or getting in our faces about our identities, and that we could sue them and AirBnb if it happened. That the vast majority of transphobes relegate their hatred to the internet and don’t get violent in real life.

That the danger of bodily harm-type violence trans women of color face as we move through the world is amplified and exaggerated, because the “epidemic of violence” narrative is sensationalist and gets clicks.

That I sometimes feared groups of drunk cis men in city centers late at night, but not the sleepy suburban white housewives surrounding us; they were more likely to suck their teeth behind their kitchen windows and complain on the phone to Karen three houses down about having to share existence with us. But that would be the extent of it.

She wasn’t exactly convinced, and in her distress complained to me that I wasn’t giving this enough thought. That since we were together, this affected her too.

At first I balked. But she was right.

Because I have given it a lot of thought. In fact, my own safety as a trans woman of color moving through the world is on my mind near-constantly, every day of my life, and will be, likely forever — especially when I travel. Hypervigilance is a near-universal survival strategy for girls like me.

What I hadn’t given enough thought is that my safety — and the risks I take as I move through the world — are inextricably linked to the safety of my loved ones. They have to navigate that as well, and not only when we’re physically together. What happens to me also affects them, directly and indirectly. Because I am loved, if I’m hurt they feel it. If I die, they’ll mourn. My safety isn’t an individual experience.

I’ve internalized the idea that I’m alone in the world, that my struggles are mine alone; that discrimination and harassment are my own cross to bear. This isn’t true. When I first came out as trans to my father, he was stuck for weeks on an “Are you sure?” mindset that frustrated me at first — but he was genuinely concerned for my safety. “People will see you as a man in a dress,” he told me, and I was annoyed. But it didn’t come from a place of invalidation.

He grew up a Black man in the 1950s and 60s. He was intimately aware of discrimination, and was worried about what people would think, and do, when they saw a “man in a dress.” Parents want to protect their children. And themselves — if I was in danger, that put him in danger. And not just emotionally; when I was suicidal, I spent months at his house recovering after returning home from the psych ward that he had driven me to and picked me up from. My distress had an intense, direct impact on him — especially because, beyond continuing to love and support me, there wasn’t much he could even do about it but watch, and fear, and probably pray.

I get stared at, everywhere I’ve ever been in the world. I’ve sometimes been annoyed when friends or loved ones get unnerved by this — just ignore it like I do, I’d think, and sometimes say — without acknowledging how my hypervisibility also makes them hypervisible by association. I’ve had many more years than them of getting used to it; despite how benign it’s become for me — just part of the backdrop of my existence — for most people getting stared at is incredibly disorienting.

For most people, being stared at is rare, and is a message, and sometimes that message is: violence is imminent. It’s a threat, an exposure, a challenge. To experience it is emotionally distressing.

But I’m only just realizing that to have normalized it is, too.

Considering the discomfort my friends and loved ones experience when we travel together, or when I share what I think are unremarkable experiences of microaggressions or discrimination, has helped me understand the degree to which I’ve normalized things that are not normal.

I consistently struggle to disambiguate twin truths: that discrimination and harassment is what I can expect from existing in a racist, sexist, cisheteropatriarchal world as a visibly trans woman of color, and that it’s reasonable and maybe even healthy to, regardless of how ubiquitous these experiences are, be bothered by them.

It’s a survival mechanism, especially as someone with depression and anxiety, to try to ignore and normalize the dehumanizing experiences I have to move through in order to live. If I were to allow myself to be bothered by quotidian microaggressions and invalidations and othering, I’d maybe never leave the house. I already rarely leave the house!

If I had to consistently and earnestly face the truth that a big chunk of humanity would prefer if I didn’t exist — I might just give up on existing. Again.

At the same time, it’s also mentally unhealthy to internalize, accept, and normalize that experience. As much as I believe consciously that I don’t deserve it — that all people should be free to move through the world without harassment — this not being the case in my own life subconsciously sends me a message. Normalization of discrimination is also a step on the road to hopelessness. Is hopelessness inevitable?

Then there’s another consideration. I’m 6’5” and 240 lbs; if some asshole wanted to step to me, he’d better get ready to catch these hands. I’m college-educated and have a career in a field I enjoy and coworkers who accept me. I’m light-skinned, somewhat thin, and when I wear makeup I can sometimes “pass” (if people don’t look too closely, or are at a distance, or if I’m sitting down). These privileges affect and complicate my positionality when it comes to safety, violence, and risk.

As I exist in the world, and especially as I travel through it, I have to reconcile all of these considerations.

For years, I’ve believed that dismissing fear — largely by normalizing discrimination and harassment, leaning heavily on things like statistics and probability, and hand-waving the daily distractions of transantagonism or the safety measures I engage in that have become routine — is absolutely necessary to maintain my mental health, to keep myself from being constantly distracted by the presence of discrimination. Now I’m reconsidering all of my positions.

I’ve long thought about how overblown, for example, discourse about pronouns is. People who respect me gender me correctly; strangers and antagonists don’t. No big deal; why should I worry about what strangers and antagonists think?

Strangers stare at me, or ask me inappropriate questions about my genitals. But that’s really just a reflection of their own ignorance and says nothing about me.

TSA agents don’t know what to make of the bulge in my pants and the blob on their monitors, and pat me down. But they’re just doing their jobs; I could have a bomb, not a penis, in my panties, I guess.

I use the “family restroom” as often as possible in airports, and/or hold my breath the entire time I’m in a “women’s” restroom. But that’s only a few minutes out of my day.

Celebrities on Twitter say that allowing trans children to be themselves is “dangerous,” and comedians and media personalities talk openly about how disgusting I am and how if I were their child, they’d have beaten or murdered me. But they’re hacks; lowest-denominator jokes play well, and their views are just the product of western religious colonialism anyway.

It’s taken me over eight months to renew my passport because the guidelines for legal name and sex changes are different federally from my state’s requirements, and require a special form and a doctor’s note, but I didn’t have health insurance, and then my first doctor refused to write the letter, and the endocrinologist she referred me to refused to even see me, because they both didn’t know how to care for a trans person, so I had to find a new doctor, which took a couple months, but then when I did, the new doctor wrote the note but it wasn’t good enough for the passport office, and then she was on vacation and couldn’t give me a new one, and so I finally got her to edit it and turned it in, but have no updates on the passport, and so I had to turn down a trip with my girlfriend to Europe. And I’m scared of Trump’s America and wish I had the option to escape if I needed it but I still don’t have a passport. Because I’m trans.

But… there are like, terrorists and criminals doing legal name and gender changes to… escape the law…? Or something? Maybe?

Damn. That’s a lot of hand-waving.

I was largely taught that fear is a negative, self-limiting emotion that should be not just avoided but stamped out. In activist circles, we talk about fear-mongering, and how it’s a tool the powerful use to control the masses. In some queer and trans circles, people talk about how fear restricts our potential and is a capitulation to the cisheteropatriarchy. I’ve written before about how fear of violence — specifically the fear of murder foisted upon trans woman of color — contributes to the mental health crisis we face.

Toni Morrison, may she rest in peace, said that the primary function of racism (and, in my opinion, all forms of oppression to a degree) is distraction. Even having to consider all these things, these fears, deciding to hand-wave them away, takes up a vast amount of emotional and cognitive energy that most people have free to use on other things! The more energy I put into fear of violence and discrimination, the less energy I have to self-actualize!

Of course, evolutionary psychologists have long maintained that fear is a useful tool; that it keeps us safe from danger and harm, and that while it can override our ability to self-actualize it’s generally an important message about our surroundings. Somatic psychotherapists talk about the bodily experience of fear, and the sub- (or super-?) conscious data we get from our own nervous system via the fear response, and how crucial it is to understand this as we navigate the world. When I think of my friends and loved ones, my fear of harm is also in place to protect their safety.

This tug-of-war is largely theoretical, but whenever I travel it’s pushed to the forefront. How much fear is healthy? Especially for someone who’s much more concerned about her own mental health and safety than her physical? If I fear too much, I never go anywhere. If I don’t fear enough, I put myself and and my loved ones at risk.

The answer seems to be where it always is — in community. Despite my years of writing and advocating for community building, I still seem to forget that interdependence is the only way people like me and my chosen family will ever survive. I teach others that taking care of each other is a joyful experience, that empathy is a gift, not a burden, that if I try to fashion my life so that I’m the only one ever affected by anything I do or that happens to me, I’ll have to go it completely alone. And I continually re-learn that lesson; the universe keeps giving me opportunities to practice what I preach.

The flip side of having deep, intimate personal relationships, where we take care of and love each other, is that we also have empathy for each other. When I’m hurt, my loved ones hurt — and vice versa. Interdependence means shared trauma and pain… and fear. Given this, how do I approach fear, risk, safety, and my loved ones’ well being?

When I acknowledge that I and my loved ones are interconnected, and that my hurt is their hurt, I’m empowered to better understand my position in the world, to more deeply empathize with my loved ones, and to protect myself as an expression of love for them and myself. When my family and friends express dismay or discomfort at the discriminatory things I experience, I’m reminded that my struggle is undeserved — that when I’m told I’m bringing it upon myself because of my “lifestyle,” that’s a lie. When I rely on my network for emotional support while in crisis, I glimpse a vision of a better world, and when we work to love each other and struggle together against systemic oppression, we help to make that vision manifest.

I’m flying back and forth around the country four times over the next month. Plenty of chances to keep practicing. 🗺️

Edited by Heather.

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Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter or check out her website at abenijones.net. Got a music recommendation, a positive trans woman story/news item, or wanna book me for something? e-mail me by clicking here!

Abeni has written 39 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. OMG 😲 This is so much of the things I am CURRENTLY struggling with or went through in the last year! Biggest difference is I’m white as hell, and only 6’2″ 180#. Oh and I was able to get surgery. I’m on drugs right now from getting FFS a few hours ago, so sorry if I’m fucked up, but I just got home, saw this, and WHAT THE FUCK this is what I NEED to see her on Autostradle. THANK YOU SO SO MUCH and sorry for the caps

  2. I’m finally getting around to reading this and just, wow. This is one of the most powerful things I’ve read here. Thank you so much for writing it. I sometimes feel like I have no right to my fear and anger, because who am I to make such a big deal of things when she’s clearly been out here handling them with grace for years? But they’re real feelings, and they’re valid too. We need more stories like this, that reach through to the heart of hope. Thank you.

  3. I saved this for the weekend, so as to allow it space of all kinds, and I’m so glad to have done so. This is the kind of writing that unfolds my thoughts, offers the potential of new connections.

    I keep circling around these ideas of seeing life as an interconnected whole. About also the idea that our mental health is linked intimately to our connection to others. To heal means to make whole. How do we approach that though when that wholeness is denied? How do we honor the connections we do have?

    I am going to be mulling over inter-connectedness and healing.

    Thank you, Abeni.

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