Sushi X was a boarded-up warehouse with no front door. At least, that’s how it appeared when my wife and I pulled up to have dinner with a friend and her new girlfriend. We parked in the empty lot and looked around, wondering if we put the wrong address into the GPS. We didn’t see our friend’s car, but we decided to be brave (or foolish) and leave the safety of my 2009 Ford Escape and walk towards the warehouse. Turns out, there was a door– I wouldn’t be so generous as to say a proper front door, but it was a portal that admitted patrons of X-rated Sushi nonetheless. There was also a cardboard sign with Sushi X’s hours scribbled in pen.
I followed my wife into a lovely neon-colored restaurant with dazzling lights and plush booths. The specials’ board relayed that we could eat to our heart’s content for $27. Our friends were seated next to each other, staring at one another with the googly eyes only young lovers have.
I socially panicked as we made our way to the table. After all, my friend’s girlfriend, Aurel, was still solidly in the acquaintance zone. Plus, it was still quasi-Covid and I didn’t know if we should hug, so I didn’t extend my arms. I wondered if I’d offended Aurel, who also happened to be trans, like me. Oh no, I thought to myself, I hope she doesn’t think I didn’t hug her because of some weird gender thing.
As a passing trans man, I’m generally happy with how I look and how I’m perceived. During my transition, I was singularly focused on being seen as a man all the time, and didn’t consider the option of presenting any other way. Aurel didn’t pass in the traditional sense and, I’d later learn, spends most of her day at a job with people she isn’t out to.
My whole life, I had a hard time ignoring the voice in my head. It said, what strangers think of me is who I am. I believed, mistakenly, that everyone was watching my every move, like the gender police. I believed that I had to be tough and gruff and deep-voiced; because if people didn’t see me how I wanted to be perceived, right off the bat, then I had somehow failed.
I also avoided trans people for a long time. It made me feel too seen. I wouldn’t go to support groups or meetups held by my doctor’s office or community Pride center. I thought they knew my deepest insecurities because they were the same as me. If I saw them as trans because they couldn’t grow a thick mustache or because their jeans were too tight on their feminine hips, then other people must see me that way, too.
At Sushi X, we ordered appetizers, I ordered a beer, Aurel asked for more water in her gentle voice. She made direct eye contact with me when she was talking about her family’s business, but turned demurely away when I sensed she felt she was talking too much. She wasn’t. She never took up too much space.
We didn’t discuss being trans; we shared a homeland rather than a language. It’s the kind of connection that makes you kindred. A family that doesn’t choose to misgender you when they are mad. She told us about working in construction and how it could be exhausting. (I imagined in more ways than one.) I could see so much of myself in her. The way she let out a breath when I used her pronouns correctly. How she talked sweetly to my friend once she knew we were safe to be around. I also have a tendency to fold inside myself until I realize the people around me can be trusted. We had these fears in common, but recognizing our similarities wasn’t scary. Being with another trans person made me remember that it’s brave to be vulnerable. She put herself in my company and trusted me to catch her, to hold her and see her better than any townie on the street. Better than her coworkers at the construction company where she has to be a stranger to herself.
And I saw that it can be a gift to ask to be seen. She trusted me with a gentle creature: a human being asking openly to be understood. She had on makeup, a baggy sweatshirt, and heels and didn’t pretend that it all added up to a coat of armor. It was like a meditation, sitting in her presence. Take a deep breath, think before you speak, and see the people around you for who they are.
I had always assumed that my friends were struggling to gender me correctly after I came out to them, or that it was annoying when they had to constantly correct themselves. But hanging out with Aurel reminded me that truly seeing someone is not a burden to be policed by thoughts and words; rather, it’s about feeling grounded, like when you are drawing a flower and need to understand the whole before you can sketch the petals.
A supercut went through my mind of all the times I thought I couldn’t be a burden to my family, who still call me by my deadname when they’re mad at me. Of when I thought I didn’t deserve to be correctly gendered until it was natural to the cis people in a room. Until I had a beard and was balding and could fill up the sleeves of my t-shirts with biceps (and triceps! 2/3rd of your arm!).
I was in awe of the woman across from me, maybe inappropriately so. I fall a little in love with people sometimes. I realized, as she sat across from me eating sushi, that it was my own fears that kept me away from my trans family. I couldn’t chill with the people who would see me, because I thought they would only be pretending. I always assumed people were just being nice when they called me my new name. Yes, they were being nice. But being nice doesn’t mean lying. It means showing enough love to another creature to listen to what they are saying, to look longer than a glance, to make a judgment based on compassion, not bias. In the restaurant, eating edamame next to my wife, I came to a crossroad. I could turn away from this feeling. I could run and never look back, never letting anyone see me for who I know I am. I could pretend I don’t know better than strangers. I could continue to demand validation from others rather than trust my own feelings.
Or I could turn towards this new reality. The one that says I know better than them. That the people who love me enough to look deep are the ones who really count. That I deserve better than being misgendered in anger.
After meeting Aurel, my aversion to seeing other trans people transformed into understanding. Her brave way of showing up as herself and demanding respect matured my self image. Since then, I’ve started hanging out with more trans and non-binary people. Some people who don’t look clearly male or female and like it that way. Or some who don’t have the privileges I do to be passing or be out to everyone. I now know that truly seeing someone means caring enough to look deeper than the surface. This was a hard pill to swallow: confidence can come from an internal source, rather than from external validation.
This communion, this breaking bread with my sister, opened my eyes. To me, God is being connected to the living beings around you. When you are connected, you feel what they feel. If you hurt others, you will hurt. When a gentle creature tells you how to not hurt them, they have something figured out about how to navigate the world without becoming hard and callused. I am no longer afraid to be one of the gentle ones.