A Review of “The Collection”/Being Seen

My expedition for more trans lit has been a bit anticlimactic. Turns out I just had to venture down the block to my local library. There I (somewhat surprisingly to me) found The Collection, a book of short stories edited by Tom Léger and Riley Macleod. All of the authors are trans or gender-nonconforming, and all the stories are about similar characters.

My two favorite so far were Saving by Carter Sickels and The Queer Experiment by Donna Ostrowsky. These wildly different stories nicely highlight the variety of the contents of the book. Saving is about a trans man from Appalachia going to see his ailing grandmother who’s in the nursing home. He road trips down there with his hot, hip Brooklyn girlfriend who is always pulling out her camera to intrusively film tender moments for her next experimental short film. It deals with love, memory, and the feeling of going home to a small town that’s empty of the people you knew. I won’t spoil the twist at the end or the emotional revelations of the protagonist, but I highly recommend it. The characterizations are rich, and the whole experience reminded me of the writing of Marilynne Robinson.

The Queer Experiment is a parody of 1920s British academia, with its musty old professors and universities and incredibly misogynistic career structure. The narrator, a self-repressed lesbian academic who at the start finds herself locked in an asylum, speaks with a pompous and parodical tone. We learn about her strange experiments with an ancient machine to reach a gay world full of rainbows and club music, and her steamy liaison with her research assistant that leads to some unexpected experimental breakthroughs. I laughed out loud at the conclusion, which I shan’t deign to ruin. It’s definitely worth a read.

I’ll review more stories from this book and whatever other trans-related fiction I get my grimy mitts on, so be on the look out

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Aside from my book review, I want to address something that is always pecking away at my self confidence. It’s being seen, and the feelings it engenders (heh).

When you’re a ‘standard’ cis person in your presentation and identification, there’s a certain level of invisibility that you can expect. Maybe you get a couple glances here or there or if you seem out of place, or (mainly when you are a woman) if guys are being creepy, but, if you don’t deviate too much from the norm, you can at least expect to go around to a relatively benign place like the grocery store and not be noticed too much on an average day.

I used to do that too before I started transitioning. I never felt great about how I looked or that confident about it, but at least I could glide by. Eyes and footsteps would part around me like calm water, and I would sail on through.

Not anymore. For a lot of the last two years, especially as I was still figuring out my presentation and what my gender could be, I would be intensely stared at. Long, cruel stares, the kind where you can tell someone has firmly come down on the side of you having violated the rules of personhood. And it’s to such an extent that you can imagine that they would physically restrain you and yell at you if you weren’t a stranger or in public; maybe they would try to ‘save you’ if you were their friend. Deep, dark stares they give, that show you the whirlpools of fear and insecurity churning inside them. You can almost hear them say it (and it’s not hard to guess what they’re thinking either): “What the fuck is wrong with you?” And the less intense ones, who just look at you like you’ve got legs where your arms should be, “What the hell is that?”

I, of course, just feel like shit whenever it happens and try to roll with it. All I have done is try to wear a skirt that day (or makeup, or do my hair, or whatever it was that I was timidly exploring). You know you’re trans when you’ll put up with that to try these things, because being yourself, even halfway, can offset the feeling of ostracism and shame. It still fucking sucks though.

I haven’t gotten to hormones just yet (will get them next week actually), but even before doing this medicalized part of “transitioning”, I’ve already started to blend in a little again. Not from close up, not when I talk usually, but I’ve figured how to dress and do make up. I’ve also grown out my hair enough, so with all that I can glide by in public and not be noticed a lot of the time. It’s amazing to feel that way, but I can only think of my trans sisters (and brothers and siblings) who can’t do it so easily. If you’re trans and you’re reading this, know that it takes time to figure out how to look the way you want. I had a lot of help and it’s taken me two years, and I’m very far from perfect or where I want to be.

Know that you can be beautiful or handsome even when people stare at you. It’s not because you’re ugly or weird. Rather, it’s because, like a sunflower standing tall in a garden of roses, you’re too beautiful and incomprehensible to the people who only expect roses and couldn’t imagine another flower would be there at all.

To the cis people reading this, just a word of advice. Don’t gawk at trans folks, even if you feel it’s positive attention. It usually isn’t, and getting singled out for attention (even verbally) just reminds us that we’ve got a ways to go.

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