“I guess I could be your trans mom”, and other stories of the many ways trans women can truly see one another
Just before I come out, I start writing letters to T. It’s 2013 and I still use they/them pronouns and go by my punk name. She’s the first trans woman that I talk to about gender stuff – we discuss why we do or don’t want hormones and workout routines that don't emphasize our upper bodies. I found T through a Black and Pink prisoner support group; she’s incarcerated for life.
Our correspondence is awkward, stuttered. We trade poetry and pictures, telling stories about where we’re from and how we grew up. She tells me about the girls that she shares cells with and the sex they have. She won’t go into details about exactly why she’s locked up, but the picture I get is that someone raped and abused her and now he’s dead.
That fall I decide to start hormones and come out to my family, and my letters become less frequent. I’m too busy crying on the phone in the rain to be a good pen pal, but I send money to T when I can and write her, excited, when my tits finally start to hurt.
Four months after coming out as a trans woman, I am called out for hooking up with someone after they were dosed at a party and my world falls apart. I’m excommunicated from my political scene and friend group and I spiral into self-hatred and despair. I can’t talk to my parents without getting into a screaming match, and I can’t walk down the street without being harassed. I don’t write to T again.
A year later, the lights go dark and the audience leaps to its feet around us, bursting with applause, but A and I are sobbing too much to do anything else. I had clutched her hand in mine in the middle of Sean Dorsey’s The Missing Generation, a dance performance that collectively mourned the loss of so many gay men and trans women to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Living in queer community, I was no stranger to this story; in my work I’d had conversations with men who had survived and struggled through the plague.
Partway through the performance, however, I realized that this telling would be different – it centered recordings from oral history interviews with a trans woman of color who had come of age in New York. She told stories of riding the train from the suburbs into Penn Station just to be with the other girls who hung out there, and as she described the steady disappearance of her friends to illness it dawned on me why I had struggled to find mentorship from older trans women: many of the women I needed were dead.
I had known this abstractly before, but hearing the words directly from a survivor drove the feeling home, deep into my body and bones. I watch these men hold and lift one another and I’m transported to those conversations where Sophie carried me through self-doubt and self-hate; I see that moment in the kitchen where we all hugged Vivi and sobbed together. I hold A in my arms and it all comes up: the years of loneliness and isolation, our horror at the way our family was left to die.
When I finally manage to choke back a sob and look up, the rest of the audience is trailing out. A and I are alone.
It’s late and I’m on my way back from San Francisco on BART, when a woman passes me asking for spare change. She implores me, “Baby, I’m sick. Look at me; I’ve got AIDS. I need help. You got a few dollars?” I tell her I do, and she sits down next to me.
As I hand her the bills I can see the moment of recognition in her eyes. She leans in and whispers, "Are you a transsexual too?" and I nod. She looks me over and says, “Girl, you look so real! You look so real!” At the moment I feel more like a lump; my hormones are all out of line, my haircut reveals my receded hairline, and my clothes are a mess.
But I take the compliment, smile, and tell her, “Transsexuals can always see each other.” Her eyes widen, as if I’ve said something profound. She looks away from me and draws a figure in the air while saying something under her breath – it feels like a protection spell.
She looks around as if she’s about to go, but before she goes she turns and whispers one last bit of wisdom in my ear: “Honey, crack is Jesus.”
Barely anyone's arrived at the party yet, but K's already shaky with anxiety. Their hand trembles as they try to free-hand their eyeliner, and they look to me for help. I just invited them to the party, I tell myself. I didn’t volunteer to do their make-up. I ask a friend to help K before, frustrated, I go off to put on my own look.
A friend connected me with K a few months earlier when they were looking for someone to talk to about gender stuff. We met over bottles of wine every few weeks and talked about coming out, hormones, and dealing with parents. I gave them everything I knew, thinking that all they needed to successfully transition was information.
But it dawned on me that they needed more than that. K was socially estranged from their family but still relied on them for access to health insurance. They worked a minimum-wage job doing retail for conservative white people on College Avenue, and they struggled to keep everything together just between work and school. When it came to questions of surviving life under capitalism as a trans woman, I didn’t have easy answers for them. I had come out at my job but working there gave me panic attacks, and I often had to hide in the bathroom to sob over the smallest slight. I had access to health insurance, but my plan had just denied me access to gender-affirming surgery I desperately needed.
The dance floor is empty most of the night and everyone I know sits around the fire, chatting idly. I drink some and dance a little in the tallest heels I’ve ever worn, but mostly I just sit outside talking with my friends. Later I hear that, while everyone I knew was outside, a crew of trans girls we didn’t know showed up and fucked each other on the dance floor. K mostly hides in my friend’s room, and she slips out without saying goodbye.
"I guess I could be your trans mom," Autumn jokes as she shuffles around the objects in her little house. I’ve just woken from a nap in her bed and my mind still feels fuzzy from the warm afternoon sun. “I don’t really know that people need trans moms to explain how things work anymore though,” she says, “they all have the internet for that now.”
I shrug. “I guess I didn’t,” I say, “I didn’t really know any other trans women until I was already on hormones.” Autumn winds up an electrical cord and pops her head up to the second floor as she adjusts the extension cords that feed power to her backyard Berkeley treehouse. “But I guess I don’t just mean like that,” I add. “Like, I put up with so much shit trying to navigate a queer scene dominated by cis dykes and trans men. I didn’t have any other trans women to help me deal with the bullshit, especially when the queers expelled me.”
“Or they were probably already expelled,” she quips, and we both laugh.
Encounters like these are scarce or completely absent in the novels, films, and television shows I’ve seen about other trans women. Even in the narratives that we write about ourselves, we are often framed as singular protagonists who rarely, if ever, interact with other trans women.
But I’ve been searching for my mothers and sisters ever since I knew what I was. Trans women may be more conspicuous when we flock together, but we’re also more dangerous that way. We need to find and support each other to fight against the many forms of social death that come up, whether it be prison, HIV, or ostracization.
We mess this up a lot. We’ve all been through too much to be perfect to each other, but we keep showing up because no one else will.
I’m on the couch wedged in between Neeah and Lex. There's a board game on the table, but our attention has waned into giggling and side conversation. I’ve been at Queens, a majority-trans woman collective house, for hours and I’m fading but I can’t bring myself to leave. The room is full of tall girls that I’ve snuggled, argued, and run from riot cops with. I lean back and close my eyes, daring myself to fall asleep.