Five years

[Trigger warning for transphobia and allusions to transphobic violence]

In case the world doesn't have enough autobiographical accounts of white ladies going through gender transition, forgive me for a few observations.

There's a glut of certain narratives, but aside from that, there's another reason I don't often write about my transition. It's hard to write about. In my experience, being a trans person involves a lot of pain and isolation. Seriously (not seriously) how the hell is it possible to write from a place of pain and isolation? Anyhow, let me be the first (not quite the first). Besides, it's a happy story. A greatly abridged happy story.

I remember my early days, the days of stealthily perusing the broccoli at the Waupaca Piggly Wiggly while wearing clear nail polish. I remember that was the biggest deal ever.

I remember pumping gas after dark while wearing a skirt. My therapist and I worked together in concocting that scheme. The darkness cut down on visibility. Pumping gas involved having a car within arm's reach, should “something” happen.

There were the long, dark drives between Madison and meetings in Brookfield, two safe havens separated by seventy miles of interstate. If it was absolutely necessary and I was up to it, I might catch a bite from a restaurant drive thru, but that was about it.

I remember clinging tightly to Becca while leaving a movie (a matinée, no less). Neither of us remembers the movie. That day wasn't about the movie.

Things have gotten better, happier, less scary, but I still carry around a little piece of that past terror with me everywhere I go. It's just there. I don't dare say it's reassuring, but it's grounding to be able to hold on to it, taking it out of my pocket from time-to-time just to know that I'm still here. I'm still here. I'm still Kate.

All of this seems to have happened ages ago, but my sense of time is blurred. Life starts with the assertion of an identity, which in my case is a relatively recent phenomenon.

I can tell you when things started to get better, good even. On April 27, 2006, exactly five years ago today, the Dane County Circuit Court granted my request for a legal name change.

I waited on the fourth floor of the county courthouse forever. The appointment was early in the morning, which was totally intentional on my part. I didn't have anywhere else I needed to be, and dammit, I was there on time.

The judge read some boring technical stuff to the empty courtroom. Then he asked me a series of questions. He asked me if I'd gain any advantage by changing my name. I laughed. No. No I would not gain any advantage by asserting my identity as Kate. The judge raised an eyebrow and asked again. Taking the hint, I rambled on for a bit about the advantage of having my papers match my person and so on and so forth. Then we were done. The bailiff wished me good luck, saying that they only got to do a few of these a year. Honestly, if you worked in a courtroom, what else would you rather be doing?

After the perfunctory gathering of notarized forms, I ran straight to the DMV. I was finished in time to make it to my Thursday afternoon ecology lecture. I sat through the professor's story for the day, and proceeded to flash my new license to my fellow graduate students. A group of my students saw what was going on and broke into huge grins.

I was out. I didn't really have much of a choice in the matter. Despite being at a large university, my world was really small. I also didn't have a notarized copy of a court order at the start of the semester. This meant I was necessarily out to my students.

I actually came out at work the semester before all of this. I hadn't settled on a name at that point. Since I didn't have the paperwork to back it up, there wasn't much point in outing myself to my students, though.

By the time the Spring term rolled around, I was tired of that. I had a name (Becca will tell you this was our first argument, but I'm not sure that's how it really went down) and I was determined to use it. I didn't have the paperwork to back it up. Thus, the semester of two names was born. As it turned out, most of the women in the class called me Kate, while a few of the men uneasily called me by my birth name. We all seemed to be pretty comfortable with the arrangement by the end of the term. An hour after electrolysis appointments, I'd show up to lead the class through the frigid woods to collect data, my face still angry and red. Fun times.

My newfound legal clout didn't change everything. I still got in the occasional argument about whether I was or was not Kate. There was the time I had to display my long form to a cashier at my Co-op to prove that I was in fact Kate and it was in fact my Co-op. He eventually relented, and I got ten cents off my cup of coffee, plus the whole dignity thing. Then there was that one time (three times) I visited the fertility clinic:

“We can't put you in the computer as Kate. Do you have a different name?”

“Why not?”

“Well, the computer won't take it, it won't make sense.”

I didn't win that one, but I was eventually able to convince the director of the program that I was, in fact, Kate. The “My name's Kate. I make sperm.” bumper stickers never came back from the printer. That's probably a good thing.

Nowadays, I still get in the occasional argument over whether or not my birth name is, in fact, my birth name. This typically involves my trying to cash checks from various bureaucracies. If it didn't involve money, I wouldn't bother.

In any case, this would appear to be a key facet of my transsexuality: getting in arguments with people who think they know me better than I know myself.

Legal recognition of my identity has been good to me, though. I can now carry around a limited amount of safety. I don't have to out myself when I buy groceries.

Especially considering that I've been able to get a drivers' license that reflects my gender, I've been increasingly confident (although not completely) that I won't get arrested for using the ladies' room. (Although getting arrested isn't the worst possibility.) Before I had my papers, I had to think long and hard over the circumstances surrounding each visit to the bathroom. Which room is safer? Am I sure I can't hold it? A correct driver's license isn't magic, but it sure doesn't hurt...

Not every trans person is as privileged as I am. I was able to scrape together the nearly three hundred dollars to pay for my name change. I had a friendly judge, and lived in what is typically a not-unfriendly jurisdiction. My court appearance went smoothly. There was no talk of my therapy appointments, my manner of dress, my genitals. Things at the DMV went equally smoothly- an exchange of paperwork followed by the issuance of an appropriate license. While I no longer have much patience for the need for all this paperwork, at the time I was grateful.

I don't think it's a secret that there are judges and jurisdictions that are hostile to trans people. There have been any number of cases here in New York where judges have refused to allow people to change their names. Sometimes it's about genitals. Sometimes it's about “confusing the public.” It's always about hate. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund have been successful in fighting for some clients seeking government affirmation of their name.

As for drivers' licenses and birth certificates, that's a whole secondary layer of bigotry and harassment. I, for one, get a lump in my throat every time I need to show my identification card to someone charged with upholding the law. There's no telling what might happen to me or my identity.

An identity is the least that society owes each of its members.

If I get a wish on this anniversary, I wish for us all to renew our commitment to fight for each others' identity. This fight is not about technicalities, it's about respect. Each and every one of us has a right, among other things, to be acknowledged as who we are, and to be respected accordingly.

That's my wish. Also, I like fish tacos, so if anyone has recipes, that's cool too. But mostly the respect for humanity thing. That's kinda important.

Crossposted at Duck! Duck! Gay Duck!

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