Every butch and chapstick lesbian, upon realizing their gayness, is given a formal initiation in the form of the lesbian head-nod. It could happen in the hall at school, a movie theater, mall, or any place where straight people are the majority. Then, as if by divine intervention, a butch lesbian will appear, look straight through to your queer soul, and acknowledge you confidently and subtly by nodding her head.
She has sensed your need for recognition, as you will hers. The nod is a life-saving rope thrown across a canyon over shark-infested waters. My first gay mentor in high school attempted to alter the ritual by putting her tongue between two fingers and screeching down the hallway. For some reason, this subtle, sexy hint didn’t catch on, so we went back to “the nod.”
I noticed it happening more and more as I started figuring out my own identity. I stopped trying to wear traditionally girly clothes and cut my hair short. When I looked in the mirror, I was beginning to recognize myself. Out in the world, other lesbians were starting to recognize me, too. The nod was an affirmation that I exist, and that others like me exist.
Once I got to college I knew the ropes well enough that when I encountered a girl with a buzz cut and cargo shorts, we locked eyes and nodded. My gaggle of straight girl friends asked me if I knew her and I answered, “not yet.”
Sure enough, next week in the dining hall, the girl in cargo shorts asked me if I was going to the Pride meeting on Thursday. I’m pretty sure everyone is invited only by way of the nod. There’s no way to be sure, as I refuse to read bulletin boards. Nowadays, I habitually nod to any butch woman or lesbian couple that I see. But, more often than not, the nod is returned with a scowl.
“Hey!” I think to myself, “I’m one of you!”
But I’m not. I lost my ability to blend into queer society sometime around 8 months on testosterone. Due to the magic of injectable male hormones, my voice is deep, my neck is scruffy, and my hair is thinning. These are qualities I’ve longed for all my life (okay, not the thinning hair). Growing up, I couldn’t wait until puberty so that I would grow a mustache like Zorro. Imagine my disappointment when I was the first person in elementary school to need a bra.
I always knew I was attracted to women, but my gender identity is something that took time to develop. Until then, I was inhabiting the space of being a lesbian even though it felt incorrect. But for a long time, I looked like a lesbian. I was visible as a lesbian to everyone in my high school and therefore was many girls’ first experience with a woman. Being trans and passing now doesn’t take that experience away from them, and I certainly wouldn’t say any of those relationships were straight. We had to fight to be recognized — I had to ask permission to take a girl to prom, I had straight guys curse at me for stealing their girlfriends, I’ve had my girlfriend’s parents tell me I’m a servant to the devil for making their child gay. These are queer experiences that make it so that I do not have shared experiences with cis men. These are the experiences and growing pains of a lesbian.
No amount of injections can change the fact that I was socialized as a woman. I made almost exclusively girl friends growing up. I’m attracted to women and one day I hope to grow a mustache that will piss off my future wife, but that’s pretty much where the similarities stop between me and cis men. I have no idea how to start a conversation with a stranger at a straight bar — my opening line of “What character from The L Word would you be?” is met with blank stares.
Now that I’ve made some of the necessary adjustments that biology messed up on, I have passing privilege that I use every day. I use it to walk into men’s bathrooms without needing to grip my phone in terror that I will have to send an SOS text to a friend stationed outside. I use it to joke with men about how much it would suck to get kicked in the balls. I use it to take up 3 seats on the subway by spreading my legs (just kidding, I WOULD NEVER).
I try to recognize my privilege and understand that this is the trade-off I chose when I decided to transition. For the most part, in my day to day life, I’m so happy to finally be seeing who I am in the mirror reflecting back who I’ve always known I was on the inside. I love going to the gym and building muscles and getting closer to the coveted Dorito body shape, where my hips are no longer wider than my shoulders. I hate binding but plan to get surgery eventually, which will further me from queer struggles. My actions would indicate that I’m trying my hardest to get away from my queer community whom I would be lost without.
The lesbian community was my first home. The first people that made me feel like I wasn’t completely alone were strong, proud, butch lesbians. I’ve loved so many femmes so deeply, and felt the comfort they provide. I try to reach out, but at the same time, I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted. I know all too well the discomfort a straight man causes in queer spaces.
I still get angry with cis men who go to lesbian bars, even though I look like one. I feel like trans men are aware of the space we occupy because of our experiences. My experiences from before I started passing don’t disintegrate with each shot of T. I was the president of my Pride Alliance in college. I am used to being fully entrenched in queer life. Giving that up for the opportunity to talk about being kicked in the balls does not feel like a fair trade.
Passing can make you feel invisible. It’s a contradiction, I know, because I’m trying so hard to be seen as how I identify. The truth is that passing takes away the power of community. The other day, I was in Sephora with my girlfriend as she attempted to find her favorite eyeliner when I spotted someone who I assume is a trans woman. I got the bubble of excitement in my stomach, my head was poised to nod — I saw my community right in front of me — and then I swiftly turned away and kept browsing for eyeliner. I know how it feels when someone sees me as trans instead of as a man, and it isn’t always a comforting, communal experience. Frequently, I feel like I’m failing to achieve my goal of passing. The trans community is riddled with these landmines — constantly navigating the space between passing privilege and fear of violence against our bodies simply because we’re trans. We long to connect while respectfully keeping our distance to avoid outing or offending each other.
This is the dialogue that swirls in my head as I enter queer bars with my lesbian friends. At Cubbyhole, a staple of the NYC community, people want to get to know me for how I identify, not just how I look. During a recent trip to Cubby, I met a young person who reminded me of myself. I very cool and casually (read: drunkenly) stated “I’m trans! I promise I sort of belong here!” and they started asking me questions immediately. They asked about hormone treatments and what most surprised me about my body on T. In that drunken moment outside of a lesbian bar, I felt safe.
Some might say that I should be at a straight bar. After all, I look like a dude, I date women, doesn’t that make me straight? While it’s nice to think everyone is evolved enough to understand I’m a man, the reality is far from that ideal. Most cis straight women I know wouldn’t date a trans man. My favorite question at Cubby is, “So, what’s your deal?” Nobody there expects to be identified by sight, and that’s crucial for trans people who don’t want to be lost as queer by passing, or told they aren’t good enough at being trans by being identified.
Being trans means I diverge from the desired norm of cisgender heterosexual culture. I’m never going to fit in at straight spaces without hiding the best parts of myself. There might be a need for a trans bar, but, to be honest, Callen-Lorde is short-staffed enough and if I have to wait as long for a shot of tequila as I do for a shot of T, I might as well just drink from a flask and belly flop into the Hudson. Honestly, I don’t want a trans bar. I want to hang out and meet vibrant lesbians like I’ve been doing for the past 20 years. I turn to my lesbian friends to let me know how they feel about trans men in their spaces. When I wingman at a lesbian bar, I feel confident and comfortable and welcome. My life as a lesbian is with me, right beneath the neck beard, and it connects me to my community.
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