I’m with friends at a favorite bar, half a drink down, and I feel that twinge. It’s like an electric whine, almost audible, a sharp vibration, starting down in my toes and creeping up my leg. And then it’s clear, tumbling like an avalanche: my jaw too square; eyebrows too thick; bristles popping through my foundation; shoulders hulking. I look, the inner voice says, like neither a man nor a woman, but a monstrous agglomeration. Look there, that ripple on my drink—it’s from my voice, that deep roll, probably. As I sit, I’m ever more lost, more confused. How are my friends so unfazed by this? How are they acting as if everything is normal, as if it’s all okay? How are they not seeing this?
Something’s slipping, shifting, cracking. Something’s crawling out. Claws, horns and scales—this chimera, this grafted monster, begins to consume me.
I retreat to the women’s bathroom and place my palms on the sink. I lean in, close enough to fog the mirror. What I see is simply my face. It’s an imperfect face, to be sure, in process and in progress, old and new, hybrid. But it is absolutely mine, my real flesh and bone.
Suddenly, the whine stops. The panic drains quick, out through my shoes and across the floor. It’s like the breaking of a fever dream. As reality snaps back together I’m left feeling foolish, unsure how I even got to that place, how that vision took over so fully. As a trans woman, mirrors are supposed to be my enemy, showing me how far I am from the ideal, so it’s strange to suddenly find this one a comfort and an ally. I’m back home in my actual body, imperfect, but in a practical way. Hardly chimerical, it’s my body: a body I can use, a body that’s okay. I run the cold water over my hands; it’s suddenly hard to understand how I ever felt myself to be a monster. I grab a towel, dab on a little more tinted chapstick and return, chastened, to my real life.
We talk about her all the time, even when we don’t know it. The chimera is always there: a shadow, a phantom, that monster trans woman in our heads. She is the trans woman we’ve been raised to see, the vision that crept in and took root before we even had words for what we saw. She’s an assemblage of fears, of seeing and being seen, hybrid and dangerous, stalking the dark corners of our minds.
There’s never a clean origin story for the shadow. She lurks in the world around us, whispering since birth. She is in churches and schools, on TV and in the home. She is in flits and shades, jokes and jibes, comments and concerns. Sometimes, she is literally beaten into us. She is there when psychologists craft elaborate theories to prove that we’re sexual fetishists. We see her when actual fetishists turn us into objects for their predatory kinks. Certain hostile feminists study her to learn how to wield her with maximum cruelty.
However hazy and opaque she starts, sooner or later we all meet her face to face.
On a summer afternoon in 1994, my little legs swung free, not quite touching the floor of that dark theater in Albany, Oregon. The lights went out, the projector whirred. We were there because my father assumed that a film about a “pet detective” would be great for a nine-year-old kid. It was not even R-rated, after all.
When people discuss the transmisogyny of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, they usually refer to a scene where Jim Carrey’s Ace finally realizes that a female police officer he hooked up with was “really a man.” Naturally, this is followed by a lengthy montage of Ace vomiting, scrubbing his mouth out with soap, and using a toilet plunger on his own face.
But that’s not the scene that stuck with me. In the film, a Miami Dolphins kicker had flubbed the most important moment in team history. Driven mad by shame and guilt, the kicker was committed to a psychiatric institution, escaped, underwent a gender transition, and appropriated the identity of a female police detective, Einhorn, to pursue revenge. And so at the film’s conclusion, Ace finally finds the kidnapped Dan Marino and Snowflake the Dolphin tied up under a dock. Einhorn, the real kidnapper, shows up with the entire Miami police department in tow. As the officers close in, Ace’s survival suddenly hinges on his ability to expose Einhorn’s secret, to prove that she was really a predator, a killer—a man.
And so he rips open her shirt. Unfortunately, she has full breasts, no help to him.
And so he rips off her skirt. Standing there, shivering in her panties, her smooth-seeming crotch is no help either. Einhorn, shocked, screams for the police to shoot Ace. They raise their guns.
And then Ace spins her around. There, huge in close-up on the screen, is the bulge of her tucked-back penis.
Ace, triumphant and vindicated, makes a joke about hemorrhoids, and then a joke about “Captain Winky.” The entire Miami police department, who have all apparently hooked up with Einhorn in the past, vomit in unison.
A figure emerged on the screen. It crawled out larger than life, striding over theater seats to hulk above me. She extended a huge and heavy hand, and cupped my cheek.
“This is transgender,” she said. “Now you’ve seen it; now you know. Sometimes men pretend to be to be women, and this is what it means. This is what it weighs, and what it brings. This is what you deserve, and if you do this, it will cost you everything.”
I’m not sure who suggested shaving our legs, but it didn’t really matter—there I was on that June afternoon at my friend’s house, sitting in the bathtub, learning the contours of my shin bones. If we three theater boys were going to wear skirts to high school graduation, someone had said, we should probably shave our legs, too—which seemed sensible enough. There in that bathtub, I did my best, only nicking myself twice.
We went together to find our skirts, picking our way down the Goodwill rack. There on the end, I found it. Knee length, black and pleated, Riot Grrrl vintage-meets-punk, it was just the right note to walk the stage at graduation, and just as right for the all-night party after, a last look to show them all before the long goodbye. What started as a joke felt more and more essential. It was unsettling to feel, suddenly, just how much I needed this.
For me, the metaphor of the closet was hardly a metaphor at all. Back in elementary school, in the middle of the night, I would slip into my actual closet and lock the door. I was still small enough, then, to stand inside it, squeezed in the little box, staring at my face in the closet’s mirror. I would ball up socks and stuff them under my shirt, imagining elusive futures. I would pull on sweaters so big the neck hung over my shoulder, and belt them like dresses. Even then, I knew the danger in it. I shared a room all through my childhood, so that closet was the only space in the entire world safe enough to open the box, to even ask the question. It was so heavy that I could never carry it outside of that space. But at least there, in that closet, she couldn’t reach me. The reflection I saw could be, simply, me.
For the longest time, I thought I just hated clothes. Stuck in that college town uniform, hoodies and baggy jeans, fashion seemed useless. Walking through the boys or mens sections, I felt a wave of dread and disgust, right down to the pit of my stomach. It’s strange to recall in my she/her life just how impossible it felt then. The women’s section compelled me, but it was an impenetrable fortress, walled and guarded — if nothing else, by my visceral fear. In my earliest memories, out at JC Penney with my mom to buy school clothes, maybe, I would look over to that section, its vibrancy and its magic, and immediately look away. Because boys weren’t allowed there. Boys were invaders there. If a boy crossed that forbidden line, I imagined, women would scream, alarms would blare, police would come, maybe, crashing through the ceiling on those SWAT team rappelling ropes, dragging them away. If I crossed that line, in short, I would become her.
Holding that graduation skirt, I felt antsy but electric. I was across the line, but I had back up. And after all, it was a joke. There’s no danger if you don’t really mean it.
With the fear at arm’s length, a peculiar feeling began to sink in each time my fingertips touched another potential outfit. Imagining myself wearing it, how it would look, how it would lie, it was so strange to feel good. To feel a spark of inspiration instead of dread or resignation. Then, finding that perfect skirt, something inside cracked, just a bit.
It was, of course, my idea. The skirt thing. The shaving thing. It had been all along.
When the day finally came, we packed our skirts in backpacks and changed in the men’s room just before the ceremony. There in our secret skirts, the robes hung down to our ankles as we waited to be called. We swished across that stage and received our little blue diploma folders. We walked back to our seats.
When the ceremony was over, my two friends headed back to the bathroom. Wait a minute, I protested. I thought we were wearing these all night? I thought we were wearing these to the party? Out with everyone, out in the world?
They shrugged, betraying their nerves. If that had ever been the deal, it wasn’t now. Even together, this was too much, too soon, too rough. I stood there, suddenly alone. The picture of my head, that hopeful, exciting vision of the night, began to warp, to shift into a face that was all too familiar. She cracked a smile. So, I followed them to the bathroom and changed into my shapeless jeans.
I’m testifying before an Oregon state legislative committee in my skirt suit. I’m the lead advocate on a bill to remove offensive trans language from our state’s disability law. The bill doesn’t have the biggest practical impact—the provisions we’re there to erase cause more confusion than harm, rendered obsolete a decade ago by a trans rights law—but the history runs deep, and it feels necessary to make them understand it. My intro done, I pause for questions, ready to explain everything for the legislative record.
Twenty years earlier, a very different hearing took place. Back then, when trans was basically illegal, extensive surgeries required for even the slightest recognition, the notion of employment protection for trans people seemed unimaginable. The community found other ways. Instead of begging for respect directly, they begged to be seen as limited by a condition—that is, to be classified legally disabled. In the late 1990s, framing transness as a disability seemed like the only path to protection. Miraculously, the Oregon state labor and employment division agreed, determining that firing workers for being trans was unlawful disability discrimination.
But it was a short lived victory. Political forces took notice. In a hearing before the 1997 legislature, trans people came forward and begged for their livelihoods, for their very lives. The legislature was unfazed. They passed a bill stating that individuals did not have disability protections for conditions “arising out of transsexualism.” Under that bill, the disability law didn’t apply to “transvestism, pedophilia… and other sexual behavior disorders.”
In the face of this deep hurt, community advocates have been scared to bring it forward, whispering about these transphobic disability provisions for so long in secret. When the chance came to remove the provisions, we girded for a fight. And so I sit in this hearing, ready to pour it all out, ready to justify why we are really here.
The Senators look on, silent. Moments pass, but it’s clear they don’t need to hear anything more.
I step down. The hearing closes. The bill passes out of committee unanimously, on a bipartisan vote. The bill passes the state senate unanimously. The law changes. The offensive provisions disappear.
For a few days after, I feel off and it’s hard to say quite why. It finally hits me: I brought this story, this deep hurt, into that committee room seeking recognition and redress. We changed the law, but I still carried the hurt with me. I never got to put it down. There’s a sense of stolen catharsis.
I don’t know that there is ever a normal time to be queer in this culture, but the current world presents such ridiculous contrasts. We’re under attack. The current administration works doggedly to erase all progress for trans people. Trans women, particularly black trans women, are murdered for being who they are.
But it’s hard to get lost in despair when I find myself, at Pride, in a sea of young people with trans pride flags around their shoulders. Kids who learned what trans was from Laverne Cox, not Ace Ventura. It’s hard to feel sad when major corporations file briefs asking the Supreme Court to protect their trans employees, as they are this very term.. The center has shifted, and often it feels that many cis people simply want to move forward and move on.
I keep coming back to that story, the one I held in the legislative hearing but did not share. Because really, that’s how it always is with queer stories, with queer hurts. I think of the first years of the AIDS epidemic. A child then, I knew it only as an indistinct shadow on the nightly news. Coming back to it now in the PReP era, poring over photos of beautiful boys holding each other in AIDS wards, paging for hours through the AIDS quilt, immersing myself in accounts from survivors—there is still so much lost in translation. We carry languages made for worlds that have shifted. Devastating events for some become footnotes, old history lost in the mist.
This chimera, this trans woman in my head—others don’t know her the same way I do. Not exactly. While we share so much, and while we all know her in some way, she is distinct and personal to each of us, assembled of different parts, different fears, different hurts. The world moves, and she stays with us, ours to carry, ours alone.
The room has that faded 1980s hospital feel, gray-on-brown tiles worn, rough linens, hallways narrow and dark. It’s the summer of 2014, and here in this San Francisco ICU, everything is past tense. He’s here and he isn’t, asleep with his head bandaged and bruised. It’s hard to find his face; it’s him, and it isn’t. But there, sliding out from the edge of the blanket, is his hand. The antimicrobial gel comes out gloppy and viscous and it takes forever to rub it in; it’s an ablution you can never quite complete, a reminder that you are never quite safe to touch.
He’s so close and so familiar, my oldest friend, but our hands have never touched like this. His hand rests in mine all tan and pink, with dark thick hair running down his arm and across the back of it, out to his fingers to blend with the hair on mine. I press his palm—it’s vital, so warm and alive, and I’m struck by the sameness there. The masculine weight of his hand mirrors the weight of mine, a weight we share, pulse to pulse, together.
“I love you, Zach,” I say, forcing a smile as tears run into my beard. “I always will.”
My wife and I call them the Years of Hell. They tracked my time in law school, but school itself was a haven—it was the rest of my world that fell apart. It began with my father’s brain aneurism, his life staked on a coin flip, his long imperfect recovery. Over a couple years, we learned that cancer can kill slow, and that it can kill quick. The list of dear ones lost grew and grew, all these faces who didn’t make it out with us.
Zach was different.
The thing is, I cheated. Back in middle school, Zach and I were fast friends from that first dewy morning of sixth grade when we both arrived early, two mousy boys sharing a cafeteria table, too nervous for words. We played Magic: The Gathering constantly in those days, and I cheated. Shamelessly. Masterful at my legerdemain, I slipped cards in and out, peeked and rearranged, obscured and shifted, showed just what I needed to get by.
I never knew if he knew.
I always wondered if he could have missed it.
Or maybe he did know, and maybe he loved me and forgave me anyway.
Maybe he saw through me and kept my secrets.
I’d always planned to tell him. Someday, I would be ready.
For childhood friendships to survive adulthood, you have to make them anew. After college, in different cities, in different lives, I felt so privileged to see him grow, to fully come into himself as a kind, beautiful, brilliant young man. The rest of the world saw him, too. On the day of my wedding, I dragooned him into the ceremony to bear the ribbon I would tie on my wife’s finger.
And then he was gone. The details were absurdist: a meth-addled carjacker led San Francisco Police on a high speed chase like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The chase ended downtown with a red light run, a crash, a falling pole, and my friend Zach walking his bike home on a mild evening. His helmet was on his handlebars. There was time, until there wasn’t.
There is a lightness in my fingers now, soft and effervescent. After years of hormone therapy, they are finally free of that old weight. But there’s so much weight in that memory. Now and then, I think of Zach, and I find myself looking down at my hands—pale and slender, soft and light, these fingers never really touched his. He was a dear brother who never knew my real name, my real face, my complete self.
I transitioned on the heels of many close deaths, but something I didn’t expect was how unmentionable that part felt. All this loss seemed to be a part of the story I had to leave out. And I recognized the voice that held me back. For all the years I kept it secret, terrified that those I loved would see her. She tells me now to bury their loss. Because you see, transitioning under stress is just what they expect. When the world crumbles, people grasp for some sense of control. It’s exactly what she would do.
The thing is, she was half right. Because those years did matter, and they did play a part, if not in the way she said. What I learned from those deaths was that if you stay quiet, if you hide for fear of monsters, they can still eat you up. If you stay silent for fear of losing those you love, you may lose even more.
I barely crossed the river out of my hometown and it all just broke. It was the fall of 2015, and after years of closets, the box shattered and I couldn’t stuff myself back inside any more. Driving back up to my home in Seattle, I managed to cry all the way to Portland, an hour and a half, through a highway downpour. I shouted the words there in my private cabin, over and over again, still feeling new and strange in my mouth but nonetheless right. With each syllable, it was more certain, more real. I imagined what I would do when I got home—shout it to the world, blast it on Facebook, make up for all that lost time.
I-5 swooped through Portland, across the Columbia, and I finally managed a little control. To be honest, it had all turned maudlin somewhere around Woodburn, and it was past time to grab back a little dignity. The rest of the drive through southern Washington fell to meditative silence.
My wife would tell me, years later, that she knew something was different the minute I walked back in the door. That night, I floated up the steps, and even with three quiet hours in the car I couldn’t scotch-tape it back together, not fully. It was no longer fixable; no longer broken, really. I arrived after dark, walked in, picked up one of our cats and buried my face in her fur, that soothing familiar scent. I realized too late that I hadn’t washed the stains from my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
I tried to demure. “Nothing, it’s fine, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“No really,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Days after I finally broke through, finally spoke those words to my wife for the first time, she took me by the hand and led me out. She lead out from our apartment and down through the forest park, down a canyon and by the stream. She led me to the nearby shopping center. She led me through the doors of her favorite fast-fashion store, right into the racks of clothing—girl tops, girl socks, girl hoodies, girl jeans.
Of course she was there, with all the old weight and doubt and fear. But that day, she was nothing in the face of my wife’s determination, nothing against the warmth of my wife’s hand. It was a kindness so profound it’s hard to put into words, one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I knew just then, as I held up tops openly, tried on jeans without shame, as I felt that connection and possibility, that it would never be the same again. Because she was truly a chimera—that is, phantasmagorical, an illusion, a figment of my own imagination that cannot exist in the light of day. Like a mother shining a flashlight under her daughter’s bed, my wife and I looked together and there were no monsters there. This weight I’d carried, the fire-breathing lion heads, goat body, serpent tails, all faded before plain real life. I could never exorcise her fully, but that didn’t matter. Because I finally knew that wherever I was, in process and in progress, old and new, it was all simply me, coming together to make a whole.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.