With a watchful eye hanging above every interaction, life takes place outside of my body. Protection fashioned through performance as a way to interrupt my viewer: this is my trans womanhood in public. Adopting foreign movements—shoulders pulled back, a permanent smile—to accompany the self-inflicted inflections in my voice, just to be perceived as cisgender. I anticipate their movements in response to my body, so I can calculate if their intentions are rooted in violence or ambivalence. The start of a life of self-preservation is an education of the self behind the lens of the spectator. Eyes pausing on a feature that testosterone left its mark upon is the catalyst for future hours of examination. Hours later, I study this feature and strain myself to recall how it looked before it was muddied by their gaze. By this time, there are twelve hours before I’m due at work, and only three of those hours will be spent sleeping. Distraction for my wounds, I repeat the same questions that arose the last time this happened.
“If they knew, how did they know? If they didn’t know, why did they stare?”
I assess my capital in femininity. Here is the perfume I was wearing when a boy who didn’t know my gender history asked me out. There is the outfit that shows the dip in my waist. Whether these creations were innate or acquired didn’t matter. This was survival. In my bedroom was where my womanhood existed without these patriarchal devices. In the mornings when I construct this presentation, it is for the purpose of its deconstruction in the evenings. In my bedroom is where retaliation lives.
Enclosed by bookshelves of words that were written and read in search of communion, the unraveling began. I listened to the hum of the words “safety” and “woman,” each time they traveled across any book and journal in my possession. Coated by women of cisgender experience, the only sign of trans womanhood on these shelves could be found in my own writings. As formative as the cisgender writers had been for me, there was a stopping point for our relationship. My transness began where their cisgender identity ended. From a fountainhead for redemption flowed streams of the responsibility to place a trans experience on the shelf that took a hold of me. I began to write. I wrote for my immigrant grandmother, who learned how to read at the age of 30, when she could no longer be silenced. The bite of my pen was the break of this generational curse. I pressed my pen harder into the paper. Both familial and cultural, the commitment to heal was my ancestral blueprint. Phantoms of stories untold were my only suitors.
Candy Darling, a transgender actress of the ’70s exploited by Andy Warhol, sat atop my bookshelf. Smoking her cigarette, she oversaw the continuation of our history. Rachel, a Mexican trans woman and the inspiration to many of Lou Reed’s greatest hits, stood by my window as a watchtower. Just as people of the past never dreamed it would be possible to fly, the documentation of our lives wasn’t meant to stand on firm ground. Bypassing the men that have historically spoken for us, we stepped around our assigned role of muse. Men were no longer the intermediaries of our narrative.
The first time the role of the muse was handed me to, I was told that I spoke like an artist. Not that I was one.
I was 21 years old, one year into my medical transition. My womanhood was an infant. The man before me was 31 years old, a decade of experience ahead of me. Beyond that, as a cis person, he’d spent a much longer time in his gender. His compliments were carefully selected so that when I began to inform his work and thought process, it would appear to be my idea. He was an artist, and his art paid his bills. Dazzled by this New York City myth come to life, I tailored myself to his desires. Pushing my best ideas forward, I twisted and turned around every corner of his mind. Taken by his Lower East Side uniform of a beard and tattooed arms, I became addicted to the adjectives he stuck to me. Underneath him, I was mature for my age, wise, and unlike any other trans girl he’d ever met. To express my gratitude, I nourished him with my own brilliance. When he extended an invite to a hotel that cost the amount of one of my paychecks, I considered myself lucky.
I entered a room with panoramic views of the city. Our windows were eye level with the skyscrapers, no longer making me feel inconsequential. That night I was on par with the Empire State Building. Sitting on our temporary bed, I watched his eyes appraising me. Finishing his drink, he asked me to stand in front of him.
“God, you’re so pretty. I’ve never seen a trans girl like you.”