A girl I used to know

I used to have this friend Sara. She was quiet, she was an alcoholic, she loved drugs, she loved really weird stuff; she kept dead animals in her freezer. She was obsessed with dead things; she wished she was dead so she could be pretty. She was a little older than me, I forget exactly how much. Five-ish years maybe.

I met her in the fall of 2007, when I was re-trying to come out and make moves toward transition. I was 20. Sara’d moved up to Portland and in with a friend, which is how we met, and the first day we did I was wearing a skirt. She thought the skirt was pretty. She was animated about it. She squealed in a way that would have had me eye-rolling years later but back then was like water.

She worked at Victoria’s Secret downtown in the mall. The next time I saw her she said: “I have something for you!” And she put in my hands a pair of girl underwear. They were cotton white with red webbing on the sides, and pictures of apples sliced in half on them. I loved them. I hugged her. She squealed again. And that was it. And the next time I saw her she gave me another pair. Which she did sporadically every time she saw me for well over a year.

It’s hard to think clearly about that point in my life. I’ve started and deleted a few sentences that seem representative. I don’t know. I’ll try. I was living with my old dudely best friend from high school, going to classes, smoking a lot of weed, and feeling really sad. Sometimes I talked about being trans; no one was kind to me about it. A lot of people were mean, many apprehensive and condescending—and there were some people who were nice. Which I cherished. But there’s a difference between nice and kind. That’s semantics I guess, but it’s how I feel: Nice is the thing that won’t hold up against meanness and coldness and cruelty; kind is the thing that does. It’s not always proportionate to the effort a person puts in either, though sometimes it is. Apply that however you like.

I’ve written elsewhere about this period (my essay in Untangling The Knot, mostly) and I don’t know what good it does to type it all out again here. Let’s just say that even in Portlandia it was still not popular or cool in any liberal or gay circle to like trans women, let alone actively support and think about trans women, and there were literally no trans women I would meet and befriend for a while, none, period (Though that fall I would see Elena Rose perform this piece, which was so powerful and I will never forget it.)

I did know and befriend a lot of let’s-end-gender AFAB type folks, and they didn’t really know what to do with me crying about wanting to be “seen as a girl” or “just wanting to be a girl for a little bit”, which was the language I had at the time. Those folks were trying to get away from that—Imogen’s MRR column of  a bit ago about it touches on this exactly. (Queer Community’s still like that in a lot of ways, of course, but trans lady culture is easier to find now in a way that just was so, so much harder back then.) Whipping Girl had just come out, it definitely wasn’t close to penetrating my crowd; the idea that trans women would always be men had a lot of currency and the idea that trans women were women, unconditionally, full stop, was an idea virtually no one but trans women were espousing. It just wasn’t a thing. And I didn’t know any trans women, wouldn’t have an actual conversation with a trans woman until 2009. So. You know.

My other group of friends were high school hometown folks from Eugene, young Democrat types who were down with the gays but still weirded and grossed out by trans girls. I could run around in skirts and that was fine to a point (and I felt blessed for that freedom—still do, really), yet no one wanted me to transition and a lot of people I desperately loved said that loudly and meanly and nobody was there to tell me anything else.

It’s hard to speak plainly and unsentimentally about your womanhood being so unloved—I so badly, and not unconsciously, just wanted someone to tell me that I could be a girl and that being a girl was ok. I did a good job (for the most part) of acting bouncy and happy during that time but I was dying inside. That period of 2006-2009 was my own version of a James H time, I guess—I knew I was trans but I also believed I could never be a woman. I’m grateful it only lasted three-ish years! Yet I’ve still got a lot of bile and crud built up in me from living like that.

Whenever I talk about this point of my life, I usually do so in the context of being disillusioned with queer community and the pervasiveness of transmisogyny in liberal/queer circles/etcetc. But I’ve rarely talked about Sara. What she did for me was so kind, it was a kindness and love and validation I received nowhere else and I can’t begin talking about what it meant to me. I don’t know. It was never a production when she gave me new underwear, it was never creepy or condescending at all, it was always just “Hey, I got these for you.” Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, even in my emotionally blanked-out state, it was. She stole underwear for her cis girl friends too. (Which, it probably goes without saying, never slipped my mind for a second.) She wasn’t a gregarious or a performative person, and in public especially she was quiet and shy and nervous, she wanted to be dead. And I doubt she intended it to be this big a deal but she did this thing I’ve never forgotten. She vanished from social media years ago and I don’t talk to the people who knew her anymore. The one trace of her on Google is a student art show she did last year in another state; it’s nice to see she’s both making stuff and alive.

I’ve been thinking lately about social justice Internet discourse and the way we’re supposed to be allies/showing solidarity/etc. I’ve been thinking about the obsessiveness of *We’re Doing It Wrong Here’s Another Way We’re Doing It Wrong* articles and posts and tweets. I’m not thinking about toxicity or rage or judgement, though like you (I’m going to guess) I’ve felt call-out culture breed enough cruelty to want to Never Discuss Anything Again—see any of a dozen wise pieces from Katherine Cross but especially this one and this one. And I’m not thinking about performative politics, though like you (I’m going to guess) I’ve felt political posturing both offline and on get so gross and meaninglessly unproductive. And I’ve taken part in my own share of rage and posturing.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how social justice Internet discourse promises a nourishment, gives us a goal and something to work towards, gives us a feeling of purification when we discover more things to cut out of our lives, more things to toss aside for being Wrong. It always reminds me of a feeling that a lot of secular people never understood about the intense religiosity I was raised with: The yearning I used to feel for purity, the desire for clear markers on how to be clean, holy, how to live a Godly life, a yearning by no means unique to religious people. It wasn’t born of rage nor posturing but genuine desperation.

If rage is one side of call-out culture’s coin, the other side is the promise of How You Can Be Better. The promise of easy guidance in this hopelessly shifting monster world of Hydra-like evil. The titles of those Everyday Feminism articles, so well-intentioned, always read to me like the worst magazine articles that prey on insecurities, or like the preachers my grandmother watched: “Popular Foods You Need To Stop Eating” “Turn To This Bible Verse In A Time Of Need!” “Oppressive Words To Remove From Your Vocabulary.” Right. Now.

My point is not that social justice Internet discourse is bad! (I think it’s easy to forget how much good it’s done, actually, but that’s another post.) And my point is not that cis people just need to stop reading Everyday Feminism and start blanketing their local trans woman with stolen panties (as fun as that could be for a week). I’m not sure if I know what my fucking point is. I just keep thinking about how, in our day-to-day personal messy-as-fuck human lives where we have to interact with other messy-as-fuck humans, where people are fucking and yelling and working and dying, it’s so easy to overlook who is not receiving kindness and why. And that lots of this “How To Be An Ally To Trans Women” stuff that has sprang up in the last couple years sometimes leaves me feeling really empty, feels so disconnected from the problem every human with a conscience is faced with: of how to be good to the complex people you come face-to-face with in your every day life. Does anybody else feel this way about stuff written about them? Anybody who sorts through People Are Trying To Ally At Me, not just trans women? I don’t want to be a 20-year-old in 2007 anymore—God, I don’t. But 95% of the time when people Ally at me, I still feel myself floating away behind glass until they stop. In the best case senario.

“It’s horrifying!” said the cis gay dude employed as a youth programmer at the LGBT non-profit who brought me in to do a workshop last year at a youth camp. He’d done some training thing in Toronto about trans women. He had the most concerned face. “I didn’t realize all these things about transmisogyny!” This was the summary of his thoughts on the subject. I would love to be gracious about that in an objective sense, think it was a net good he went to whatever that training was, that he needed something like that, that he was gonna be the guy working this job whether he was trying or not—and hey, maybe he’s doing good things for young trans girls right now and a minimal amount of harm. And maybe neither of those things is the case in a serious way—I wish I could be starry eyed about it, but knowing from the previous two years volunteering there how ignorant everyone in that organization was personally about trans women (and where, of course, no trans women worked) He said some nice and correct things but I still left it just feeling so oogy.

But regardless of thinking in the context of community, personally I was sick, realizing how little this man who was paid to watch out for us knew about me or my sisters, how little the specifics and intricacies of my stupid life would mean to him in this context, how anything I might tell him about myself or my experiences would only serve to plug into something from a workshop, what he thought he had carefully learned, as opposed to the fullness of one stupid breathing weird human in front of him, with her own unique sets of shittinesses and talents and needs.


“Check it out!!” Sara said one night at a party at our place (we had a lot of parties). “I got you gay dancing sailor underwear!”

Yeah she did.

I hugged her and asked if I could make her a drink.


“Light, medium, or strong?”

“Strong.” She was such a tiny girl.

I don’t know if I’ve really expressed myself clearly here. Eight years ago I was a sad mess crying out to be a girl but nobody knew how to deal with that. And then another fucked-up mess of a girl didn’t try to talk about it (even if she wanted to, she couldn’t have) and instead did stuff like give me gay dancing sailor panties. I will remember her more than many other people. She was just really fucking kind to me in the most unassuming and beautiful way. I miss her. I miss people like that.



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12 responses to “A girl I used to know”

  1. I think ultimately in my opinion why it feels wrong is that it feels like people are being sold a set to steps which they don’t have to think about, a sort of, do this and you’ll be “right”, do this and you won’t be attacked.

    Rather than getting them to see us as human beings, it instead prompts them to see us as a series of checkboxes to tick off for their approved not-a-terrible-person award. If they just don’t do X, Y or Z then they’re being perfect allies to whatever group or groups we belong to.

    It treats social justice as if it’s a series of steps one can follow without actually thinking about those steps or what they mean. I suspect the panties thing might have stuck with you because from how you describe it, Sara didn’t do it because some blog or article told her to, she did it without thinking about you being a trans woman, it’s wasn’t a special step on the ladder of how to be perfect ally, it was something she did for every woman she knew and without skipping a beat, she included you as a woman without needing to be told that she had to. It’s rare to find someone who does the right thing without thinking about how they’re being awesome because they’re following the list, they’re being the perfect ally, without in short mentally sunbathing in their own “goodness” towards you.

    That’s the problem is performative social justice, it still centers the “ally”, it still is more about “how to be the perfect ally” and the ally following it giving themselves mental backpats for doing the “right” things and not the “wrong” things than it is about minority needs. Sure, there’s certain things minorities do need, but it’s not a one size fits all. And it still leads incredibly scope for terrible behaviour outside of the rigid rules of “don’t do this, do do this”.

    Just my two cents.

  2. This is really good and really topical. In the midst of being nice and avoiding being oppressive, not everyone makes the step of actually Being There. Being There is scary and feels like too much sometimes, and it means getting involved with other people’s messy lives. This article flows along with how I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve noticed how some people can comfortably watch another person drown, and others never can, and this doesn’t always line up with progressive politics or anti-oppression talking points (but sometimes it does, and that is doubly powerful). Some people are Kind in ways that break the flow of pain and oppression for others. They show up, they ask how they can help, they insist on not letting others slip away even if they try.

    It reminds me of a little exercise set up in the basement at the Outright youth retreat ten years ago, where they set up little posters in separate rooms that said, (Trans people/gay people/bisexual people/insert identity here), how do you want people to treat you and demonstrate solidarity. Below there was a space to write things in. And in half-jest eighteen-year-old style, I wrote on the Trans poster, “Give us money. Buy us things. Have sex with us.” Later on, someone sensible came and wrote some other stuff there and my comments were erased from the final email sent around describing what people had written. But like I said, I was only half-kidding. I already knew about poverty and isolation, and that the general feelings we have about life aren’t just born of people getting or not getting our pronouns right, or people carefully negotiating our identities. I knew that many people were jussst uncomfortable enough to never say something rude, but never stand up for us either, when it really counted. I knew cis people would reject us as partners or dump us because it was a social liability to date a trans person. I knew many of us were and would remain poor, borderline unemployable. I knew many were doing sex work and porn already to compensate for that. I knew how easy it was for people to turn the other cheek when we were the ones being beat up in public. But I didn’t yet know how to say, “Be kind. Stand up for us even when it costs you. Don’t leave us. Don’t leave us, my god, don’t leave us behind.”

  3. This is beautiful and ultimately speaks to me about loving others the way they need/want to be loved, not they way we think they need to be loved.

  4. I’ve felt call-out culture breed enough cruelty to want to Never Discuss Anything Again— I so relate to that line! I’m personally just out of the gate in transition and already feel disillusionment creeping in. The giant, supportive sisterhood I had imagined just doesn’t seem to be there. But yeah, in the end the Trans community is just as messy as the world at large, tripping all over each other but trying for something none the less. Great piece, I’m officially a fan now.

  5. Reblogged this on SunBurntKamel and commented:
    I’m not gonna turn this tech blog into a thing about me being trans, I have plenty of other outlets for that. However, I’m reblogging this to say, if you ever want to know a thing about being trans, about all that happened with me in the intervening time since I was writing this tech blog previously, you should read Casey Plett. This is a great piece.

  6. This is such a brilliant and beautiful post. I’ve been reading a lot to try and understand how to show up and be a better ally and it’s left me feeling confused but in all I’ve read, you are the only person who has written with any kind of realness I can relate to. You’ve reminded me how simple it is (not necessarily easy but actually really simple). Be kind. Listen. Really listen. Leave space for other people. See them for who they really are and support them how you would want to be supported. One messy human to another. Thank you for writing this.

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