Talking To A Middle School GSA Taught Me A Pivotal Lesson About My Adult Trans Experience

Nik Toner

The middle school kids knew what it was like to avoid looking corny, but they also knew a lot about bravery.

If you’re like me, your favorite memory from middle school is when it ended and you never had to go back. Maybe that’s why, when my teacher friend invited me to speak to her school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), I was as nervous as I was excited. What could I say to make those tortuous years have some light at the end of the tunnel?

I can remember my days in GSA, though we didn’t have that option until high school. I got a laugh from the kids when I told them that it wasn’t the cool club to join, until I joined it. But that’s not really the truth. I was very young and intimidated by the seniors who ruled the club. The seniors were a lesbian couple who made out in the hallway between classes and at the GSA meetings would sit on the tables in the science lab we met in, one swinging their feet clad in huge red Etnies sneakers. They were clearly not there just to put it on their college applications or to check a box for participation. They wanted to show the younger kids that there was somewhere to go where they could just be.

Before I went to their class, the middle school students compiled a list of questions and sent them to me in advance because my friend rightly guessed they would be too shy to share any questions when they met me.

Some questions I expected, like ‘When did I first realize I was trans?’ and ‘Is it okay to not be sure yet?’ There were also a few that I couldn’t answer, at least not without putting in some thought first.

Do you ever sense that when you’re out in public, people notice that you’re trans? Do they react in a certain way and if so, is there a way you hope they would react or not react?

I stammered for a few moments. The kids with their big eyes looked so absorbed, on the edge of their seats, for what I would say next. I felt like what I had to say could be a key to how they can treat people more kindly.

People do sometimes recognize that I’m trans in person, and “sense” is the right word. There’s a certain skin-crawling feeling I get when I feel someone’s eyes on me. I’m very self conscious about my butt, and how big it is. Sometimes I can sense that people are noticing my proportions and can tell that I’m not biologically male.

I told the middle school GSA about how the other day a kid noticed me skateboarding and I heard her ask, “What’s that girl doing?” I was wearing short shorts at the time (shoutout to Chubby’s. I look great in their 5.5”) because my girlfriend likes to ogle my legs in the warmer months.

The little kid didn’t mean any harm. They’re curious about the world and like to put things into the boxes they’re taught about. I also like to sort things (ask to see my collection of Magic cards) so I understand the impulse. But it did make me want to put on longer shorts.

The students were nodding along, which made me think they must have some similar experiences. Maybe they were identifying with that self conscious feeling that burns in your stomach when the world observes you a little too closely.

I also told the GSA about how I once locked eyes with someone who I assumed was a trans woman in the mall. I was about to make some kind of declaration of unity, when I realized that might hurt her feelings. I don’t like when people point out that I’m not passing (appearing as a male to the general public), so there’s a good chance she didn’t want it pointed out to her either.

But I still hadn’t answered the student’s last question. How DO I want people to react to me?

I want to be identified as a member of the queer community— that’s something I feel very strongly about. I’ve spoken to quite a few trans people who feel the same way. It’s hard to go from being part of a tight knit group to being an outsider to that group. It sucks when suddenly you’re looked at like an outsider at the Pride parade. I used to just walk down the street and everyone knew I was queer, whether that was a good thing or not. I cut my hair short, wore cargo shorts, and would periodically mention my good friends, Tina and Bette. I would do the lesbian head nod and get a response in kind. But now, people don’t automatically assume I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community.

I even told the kids that some trans people don’t want to talk about their experience at all, which makes it even more complicated to strike up these unifying talks.

So, how do I, as a trans person, keep the door open for that unity, without putting my body dysmorphia on the line? (To the students, I said something more like, without having other people make me feel bad about not looking exactly like I want to look.)

When I first moved into my apartment complex in upstate New York, my friend who lives in an adjacent apartment told me that, incidentally, there were two trans women who also lived in the building. I was mildly interested but didn’t give it too much thought.

During that first week, there was a lot of unpacking, fighting between the cat and rabbit as they determined their territories, and trips to Dunkin’ Donuts.

One day, I grabbed my keys and headed outside to make the first trip of the day when I noticed two women walking home with their Dunkin’. Huh, I thought to myself, I could walk to Dunkin.’ What a good idea. It’s pretty warm out so that would actually be nice. But I would have to carry everything back and this is a pretty big order, not just a coffee. Maybe on a different day, when I’m just getting an iced coffee, I can walk. Yes, for now I will take my car, but good idea.

As this robust and life-altering thought went through my head, all the while I was standing there, looking at the two women with their Dunkin.’ I was also squinting, because the sun was in my eyes. I was also wearing Adam Sandler shorts (not my 5 inchers).

The two women picked up their pace and went inside. I came out of my very long thought to realize, shit, those are the trans women. And I, a passing male wearing Adam Sandler shorts and squinting like a grimace, just probably freaked them out. They probably think I’m transphobic. They probably think I’m a menace.

I had resigned myself to the fact that they would just hate me forever. I vowed to one day approach them and apologize, once the whole social distancing aspect of our lives subsided. But I felt awful.

A few weeks later, I was settled into my apartment and I hadn’t had any more interactions with the trans women, who I found out live right above me. Then came Trans Day of Remembrance. On Trans Day of Remembrance, I was taking out the garbage and I noticed they had their Trans Pride flag flying on their balcony.

I had a hard time articulating to the students why their trans flag meant so much to me. I didn’t want them to think flags weren’t cool, but I had to admit that I always found them too targeted to straight people. I had never realized they could be a beacon.

Now that I’m passing as male, I’m looking for new ways to display my membership in the LGBTQ+ community, besides how I dress or wear my hair. Hanging a flag wasn’t something that came to mind. It seems so…corny. The middle school kids knew what it was like to avoid looking corny, but they also knew a lot about bravery. My neighbors were brave enough to fly the flag, and I was inspired to reach out to them.

I ran out to Walmart and got a flag pole that day. I found my Trans Pride flag tucked in my Pride backpack and hung it up, hoping they would know I had come in peace, and that I hadn’t been staring at them with malice, only absent-mindedness as I’d recited a Dunkin’ Donuts soliloquy in my head. The next day there was a note taped to my door.

Dear cool peeps in apartment 6. Love your flag, we would love to meet you.

I explained to the students how inspired this whole situation made me feel. A community had been formed by simple but pure means. My neighbors flew their flag high and it gave me the courage to do the same. Suddenly it clicked to me, as I described to the students how I want people to respond to me. I want them to respond with respect, and to wait for me to invite them in. I want to feel safe and held when people approach me, not self conscious or like someone is discovering a shameful secret.

Since then, I’ve been looking for other ways to reach out to my queer community. I started putting Trans stickers on my skate helmet. If someone wants a way to strike up a queer conversation at the skate park, it’s a great opening point. And nobody has to look at my butt (unless they want to).

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