Wearing a Woman’s Shirt to a West Virginia Wal-Mart

[Author’s Note: This is Dawn. Nic and I took a two month break from updating this blog. I had a myriad of mental and physical health issues in addition to some family drama that crashed together all at once. The last chapter of this had been half-written for two months, and I was just not well enough to finish the other thousand or so words I had left to write. I hope this personal, non-fiction essay can help shed some light on the personal issues that Nic and I are trying to explore with this series. There is a lot of supernatural silliness at the edges of Orchid, but it’s a fundamentally trans Appalachian narrative from two committed leftist storytellers. This is a look into our actual lives.

Also, I wanted to credit the above image to the wonderfully talented FawxDraws. Nic and I had been looking for an icon for this site before it went live. Nic knows a lot of really talented artists through their various Tumblr fandoms, and I knew that I wanted Fawx to draw our titular Orchid as soon as Nic showed me one of their pieces for the first time. Nic and I are hoping to commission more art for the site in the future but for financial reasons, that’s a more long-term plan. We both hope everyone has been enjoying our story.]

My partner and I are at Wal-Mart after work on Wednesday. I need soda and breakfast snacks for our shared call center job. Nic wants vegetables.

The only cultural advantage of our current apartment is its proximity to the White Hall Wal-Mart in Fairmont, West Virginia. It’s less than a five minute drive. Nic and I probably go to Wal-Mart two or three times a week. For two neurodivergent types with severe executive dysfunction that are always forgetting that one thing we need at the store, we save on gas and travel time.

I am wearing my new favorite shirt.

About two months ago, Nic helped me realize I was ready to start ordering women’s clothes. I’m an out trans woman, but I’m still very early in my transition. If I’m presenting femme in public, that’s generally restricted to wearing makeup, my hair down, and lightly colored men’s button up shirts. I don’t really have any spare money. I’m drowning in student loan debt. I have a lifetime of men’s business and casual wear. I have to make do with what I have as I start to put a new wardrobe together.

One of the first pieces of women’s clothing that I bought online was a dark purple woman’s button up shirt for work. I was twenty-nine years old before I ever realized that women’s shirts button up on the opposite side of men’s shirts. Nic researched why and apparently it’s because aristocratic women had servants that buttoned up their shirts for them, and this is one of a million anachronistic and impractical quirks of women’s clothing that I am going to have to adjust to like barely existent pockets. Darker purples highlight my auburn hair, and if I’m wearing that shirt and my hair is down, I almost convince myself the average person on the streets could mistake me for a cis woman.

I haven’t been presenting femme in public a lot lately. There was an incident in a gas station restroom a couple months ago outside of Pittsburgh, and my consistent external transition has stalled as I mostly failed to recover from what could have happened.

Nic and I went to a Gin Blossoms concert in August. We were heading to their friends’ house in Cleveland afterwards for a birthday party. Lots of late night driving. It was past eleven in a Pittsburgh suburb called Crafton and Nic and I were at a convenience store for coffee and food. I had to piss.

I was wearing makeup. The tickets had been a belated birthday present for Nic. I’m Nic’s girlfriend, and I wanted to look my best with my partner at the show. Also, we were meeting Nic’s queer friends in Cleveland. I wanted them to see me as I want to be, and not the me that I feel can exist safely in rural West Virginia. Nic and I cuddled at the show. “Hey Jealousy.” “Follow Me Down.” All those sappy romantic 90s alt rock ballads. Nic is a 90s enbie and I’ve never been on a date in public where I felt more safe and secure and loved and me than I did at that show with Nic. All of the terrible anxiety that has plagued me at every concert I’ve gone to my entire professional life as a music journalist was gone. I was home with the person I loved.

When I walked into the Crafton gas station, I was presented with the dilemma I have every time I wear makeup to work. Do I use the women’s restroom which is the gender that I identify as but can in no way pass as because the little facial hair I ever could grow gives me away every damn time or do I use the men’s restroom which… I’ve got a penis but even when I’m wearing men’s clothes, my men’s glasses, and my hair up, men get confused as to why I’m in their restroom. Work has one single-sex bathroom per floor which is full most of the time I would want to use it. I use the men’s room. If I’m going to have to make someone uncomfortable, I’d rather it be a cis man. I don’t care about offending a transphobic cis woman, but I just don’t need the legal hassle of someone trying to call cops or security on me for walking into a woman’s room.

The flip side of that problem is that I become a woman in a men’s rest room. I’ve got a deep voice so if I’m presenting masc by necessity or convenience, I can usually hit my lower register and assert my “rightful” place in this bathroom. I’m just some hippie, not a trannie faggot god forbid. But if I’m presenting femme, there’s no evading the look I’m intentionally projecting. And I just have to hope that I can get in and out of the bathroom before anybody has time to put two and two together.

In Crafton, I was not that lucky.

I walked into an empty bathroom, and I chose a stall even though I only had to pee. I’ve favored stalls my entire life. It wasn’t until I started to transition that I realized how much that tendency was related to my dysphoria and not just one of a million mental health related behavioral quirks I do my best to conceal from others. While I was in the stall, I heard the door open and I heard someone starting to piss at the urinal just as I was finishing in my stall. It was a small, square bathroom. The stall and urinal were on one end. The sink and door were on the other. The guy at the urinal had his back to me. I figured I could sneak out before he even realized I was in there.

I briefly considered not washing my hands because I wanted to get out of this bathroom as quickly as I could. A thing cis men will never understand is how unsafe you feel as a woman at all times in public. It’s a thing I only have to feel when I’m presenting femme (although my PTSD ensures that I feel it to some degree at all times). A cis guy friend once told me I had male privilege for feeling like I can identify as a woman. I told him that I’ve used the privilege of spending so much of my life thinking I was a man and accepting all of the unspoken privileges that entails on many occasions. But the moment I intentionally reject that mantle in public, I mark myself as a potential victim for misogynistic and/or transphobic violence. If I’m stuck in a room with a strange man or even a man I know whose potential for violence I am not entirely confident of, my number one priority is getting out of that room as quickly as I can. I have known the sadistic violence of toxic masculinity too many times to ever feel safe around so many men.

However, one of those million mental health related behavioral quirks is a high-functioning tendency towards obsessive compulsive behavior and I had to wash my hands. I washed my hands. There were no  paper towels. Only those horribly loud air dryers. My hands were wet, and I decided I was being paranoid and besides the guy was still pissing so I could get out of that bathroom fine. I driedmy hands and when I turned to open the door, the man was zipping up his pants and staring at me in confusion.

“Hey. Hey! You! You’re in the wrong bathroom aren’t you?!”

“I think you’re drunk.” (He was.)

“No. No. No. What are you doing? You’ve got your own bathroom.”

“I know what bathroom I’m supposed to be in.”

I grabbed the door and power walked out of the restroom.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing in here!?”

I slammed the door behind me and found my partner who had finished ordering coffee and midnight snacks. The guy stormed out of the bathroom and just stared at me. He walked to the cashier and the counter. He said something to the clerk and left. Nothing happened to me. And all I could think was that the fact that I’m a baritone with an omnipresent teenager’s light ginger beard saved from having my ass kicked by a drunk in a gas station bathroom or from being raped or murdered or both.

I’m a sexual assault survivor. Rape in college and serial assault in high school. All by cis women. Despite the gender of my own attackers/abusers, I know enough about rape culture and men’s capacity for other sorts of violence to just have that switch flip in mind that I know I have to expect the worst when I’m around strange men. Grocery store and malls are specific triggers for those anxieties and have been since before I started to identify as genderqueer and transgender.

When I was a kid, my mother used to scare me into staying close by her side in grocery stores by telling me horror stories about young boys who were raped by sexual predators in the men’s rooms of Wal-Marts and shopping malls. I guess I had a bad habit of not sticking by her and sexual predators are a serious danger in public spaces and kids should be aware of how dangerous strange men in isolated spaces are, but I was a kid with a predisposition towards severe anxiety and I internalized that shit. I would go dangerously out of my way to avoid using a public restroom until I was in my twenties  after the worst of my actual experience with sexual assault had already happened. I just wasn’t as scared anymore. I was still scared, but at least I knew what one of my worst fears was like. I’d lived once.

It took me nearly a decade to reckon with how severe my anxiety and depression had become as a result of my PTSD and dysphoria and the catastrophic intersection of all of those issues. I’m not going to have health insurance or medication for any of struggles with mental illness until January, but I’m so much better and healthier than I’ve ever been because of how safe and open I can be when I’m with Nic. When you’ve never had someone you could really truly exist around before, having even just one person that is that total safe space is life changing and life saving. But having that drunk man harass me in that bathroom the first time I ever wore my face out in public to a place that wasn’t work (where I know I have legal, company policy protecting me; I am far from the only out queer person in my office, let alone the multi-state company with thousands of employees that I work for), it triggered one of my worst depressive and anxious incidences in almost a year. It also coincided with my mother reacting to the news that I was a woman by calling it a “disappointment” and refusing to accept my identity and my decisions. My summer took a very rough turn, and I’ve only really just started crawling out of it the last couple weeks.

This week, I wear my dark purple woman’s button up shirt to Wal-Mart. I wore it to work. I pick that shirt almost without fail whenever it’s my first work day after the day that I’ve done the load of laundry containing that shirt. I love that shirt. I love how I feel in that shirt. I look at myself in the mirror at work, and I don’t see a corpse staring back at me. Nic and I stop at Wal-Mart on our way home from work. It is, once again, the most substantial perk of our address. I realize my hair is up. I wear it up at work. You try taking over one hundred calls every day with hair that falls halfway down your back and is always in your face if you don’t have a brush immediately handy. I let my hair down. The first and only other trans woman that I know for certain I’ve seen in the area used to work at that Wal-Mart. She helped remind me that I can exist in this town. I haven’t seen her at the store or anywhere else in town in months. I hope she got out. I can’t. Not yet anyways. I’ve worn makeup to this Wal-Mart before. I couldn’t tell if the men staring at me and the one that followed me down a couple aisles wanted to fuck me, kill me, or both. I’m not wearing makeup right now. Just my long hair and my woman’s shirt. I’m wearing my men’s bar frames. My Woody Allen frames that I desperately want to be rid of and will be as soon as I have insurance again and can afford my copay and deductible. I feel like half a person. I feel like I’m about to evaporate into nothingness in this store. I am terrified of every man. I can’t breathe.

And then I grab Nic’s hand, and I’m okay. Not okay in the sense that my mental illnesses are magically cured. They aren’t. I’ll struggle with the my entire life. Okay in the sense that I can keep going. I can keep working. I have things worth building towards. None of the people who have actually hurt me have put me down for good yet, and I’m not going to let some piece of shit yinzer who couldn’t handle a woman in the same pisser as him put me back in this place. This place I have lost so much getting out of.

I also don’t  know how long I can maintain that confidence and it is indicative of the transmisogynistic violence of our society that so many (trans) women have to deal with these same issues every day.

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