MJ's Story: Existence is a Radical Act

MJ's Story: Existence is a Radical Act

October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.

By MJ Eckhouse, trans advocate and writer

"You look uglier every time I see you!" Said Mike, smiling, standing outside the church. I laughed, hugged him, and lit a cigarette.

"Yeah, last time you saw me, I prolly didn't have all this going on." I said, gesturing towards my facial hair. I appreciated the compliment. Mike's straight, so if I'm getting uglier in his eyes, testosterone must be working.

I know it's working. Sometimes I'll disclose to people, and they'll say, "Oh I had no idea!" and I reply, "Why would you?"

People often think they'd be able to tell if "one of those transgenders" walks past them on the sidewalk, or Republican God forbid, in a public restroom, but reality is, you can't tell. You might assume correctly, but you can't tell unless we tell you.

Excuse me if I sound resentful. I am resentful sometimes. Today, I saw a Facebook post using the transphobic slur, "trap". I'm not sure if the guy who posted it knows that term describes the ignorant notion that trans women "trap" and "deceive" men, neglecting to wear the compulsory neon sign informing everybody she is transgender, in case a cis/het man finds her attractive.

Later, I heard about a straight couple harassing a trans woman at a gay bar, culminating with the man spitting in her face. His wife is a school principal in Pittsburgh.

Anyway, back to Mike and I outside the church. I thank him for the compliment, we chat and smoke, then go in. People sip coffee, clear their throats, talk about their jobs, families, friends, TV, etc. The clock strikes 7:30 and the chairperson cuts through, "My name is______, and I'm an addict."

"Hi, ______ !"

Welcome to tonight's 12-step meeting.

When I entered the program, I was 90 pounds of trembling anxiety. First, I was late, so that drew attention. Also, I had some horrifying bacterial infection I was sure people could smell. Most nerve-wracking of all, would they recognize me as male or not?

Thankfully, they did. They passed me a list of men's phone numbers, encouraging me to call if I wanted to use. Still, I feared they would reject me if they knew I was transgender, and part of me still wanted to justify getting high, wanted to be rejected. I told them.

They hugged me and told me to keep attending meetings. Two years later, I haven't drank or gotten high since. I'm endlessly grateful for that, and for the ability to help other trans people, by participating in activism and by simply surviving.

The idea that genitals determine gender, and the accompanying expectations of gender assignment, are perhaps the most universally and violently enforced unspoken laws. Breaking them, as trans people do, makes even existing a radical act.

It's brave for trans people to exist, but it's brave like escaping a burning building; there's no safe alternative. Instead of telling trans people we're brave, make the world safer for us.

At age 11, I decided to get high. Middle school was torture. As my friend (representing half the school's black population herself) aptly named it, Podunk Football Central is conservative. The bigoted children of adult bigots harassed and assaulted me because they knew I was assigned female at birth, and they believed I deserved abuse for my short hair and clothes marketed to and designed for boys. Plus, the impending bloodbath of puberty terrified me, and I couldn't explain exactly why.

Gym class hurt worst. When the teacher directed me to the boys' locker room, I whispered, mortified, the untruth I'd been conditioned to recite: "I'm a girl." I told my parents I was a boy when I was about five, and they told me I was wrong. Showing more decency than many parents, they let me cut my hair, choose my clothes, and abbreviate my name, but they wouldn't refer to me with he/him pronouns. They wouldn't acknowledge my reality of self, and I learned to bury and deny it.

I learned early that gender variance is wrong and dangerous. Another boy and I were playing video games, when he felt between my legs to determine my gender. Years later, a woman did the same to my chest in a dilapidated basement where we smoked crack cocaine.

I don't mean to sound self-pitying. I just want you to understand the reality of trans experiences. Of course, they vary, but often share similarities: self-loathing, shame, anger, sexual violence, addiction, suicidality, sex work, discrimination. I have nothing profound to say about this, other than institutional systems of cis-supremacy create these conditions. It's not our fault and it needs to change.

When some people learn that trans people attempt suicide 10 times more often than cis people, they think it's because trans people are inherently mentally ill. Transphobia requires absurd willful ignorance. If working class trans people could access healthcare, housing, and social support, that number would decrease.

Back to the church basements. It's September 27th 2015. I have two years and one week clean. I've been on testosterone for a year and five months, and I'm five months post-top surgery. I'm extremely grateful for my life today, sometimes I can hardly believe how well things have gone. I am living the life I have always wanted, and that feels incredible.

Everybody deserves those opportunities. Capitalism and its resultant poverty make that goal impossible. If we believe the myth that poverty must exist, then it will, and trans people and other marginalized populations will keep dying.

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As a young boy, I asked my mom, "what's a period?" I had an idea, but wasn't sure. She said, "do you really want to know?" I said no.

Please God let me not get a period. Let me be intersex. Let it not happen, I'd pray on the toilet. As far as I knew, periods indicated the onset of a disease called puberty, and one of the most frightening symptoms was  attraction to other humans. The scary part was, which category of humans would I prefer? School bullies told me I was gay, and this was a bad thing, the worst thing someone could be. I was convinced I'd be gay. Why else would they have decided I am?

In May 2004 I got my first period and wanted to die. I usually wanted to die, at least on weekdays. My mom feared my explosive temper, so my dad consoled me. It's funny because my dad is cisgender and therefore  never experienced a period. He said: "It's just a minor inconvenience."

My dad has been right about many things but not that one.

The following summer I met a boy. He played bass, also liked punk rock, had messy black hair and some muscle tone. Puberty hit me like a semi truck and I was balls deep in my first crush. And praise the lord, I was heterosexual! Or so I thought.

Now I'd discovered my attraction to boys, a dilemma arose. A misguided friend said, "no boy is going to like you if you look and act just like him." I needed to change, to actually be a girl, like everybody had been coercing me to since I was born.

A friend volunteered to teach me femininity. I attended the eighth grade dance in a dress, my hair done, and chemicals slathering my face. My peers praised me for adhering to social expectations based on my genitals, and I told myself this compromise was worth it. Like most teenage boys, I wanted to get laid, and if that required dressing like a girl, so be it.

I presented as female from ages 14 to 20. I spent my 20th birthday in the hospital. Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant and amphetamine, gave me severe insomnia. I was paranoid and hallucinating. I was also drinking and getting high regularly.

Upon release, I left school and moved back in with my parents. I realized life is too short to live for anyone else, so I cut my hair and wore the clothes I wanted. The next fall, I enrolled at Kent State University where I met someone whose androgynous appearance interested me, and I found out they are non-binary. They read me as a trans guy before I knew trans men existed outside of cinema/cemeteries. They asked if I wanted to use he/him pronouns, and soon I publicly announced my manhood.

I don't know many trans people, let alone in recovery. A friend and I discussed a problem with queer spaces.

Her: "It sucks, basically the whole queer community is..." she paused, thinking of the right word.

Me: "Drunk."

It's true. "Safe" spaces for non-cis/het folks are usually bars. It's challenging for a trans person in recovery to find solidarity, understanding, and acceptance, but it is possible.

I spent almost a year using after coming out. I argued with family and using buddies about pronouns, I was kicked out of my house, assaulted, couch-surfed briefly before finding safe, affordable housing. I studied  hormones and surgery on the Internet, but medical transition was impossible unless I got clean. Shortly after leaving home, I discovered hard drugs and using became my only priority.

Finally, in September 2013, after enduring enough physical, mental, and emotional degradation that I couldn't keep denying my addiction, I became ready for recovery.

Without the constant pursuit of drugs dominating my consciousness, I knew I had to address my health problem. I had a genital bacterial infection. Reluctantly, I made an appointment at Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood were respectful. I explained I'm trans, and they didn't harass me or ask invasive questions. That is not true of most health providers. I don't tell doctors I'm trans because many healthcare providers attribute any medical issue we experience to our transness. Common cold? Probably because of HRT. Alrighty then.

I'm still waiting on my paychecks for teaching several therapists what "transgender" means.

Antibiotics cured the infection. I'm grateful that Planned Parenthood provided safer healthcare I could actually afford. Afterwards, I went to 12-step meetings slightly less self-conscious.

People in recovery welcomed me with open arms and open minds. They helped me stay clean and slowly I regained my mental clarity, my sense of purpose and self. Soon, I got a job, which I kept for 18 months. I'd never kept a job even half that long before. I learned communication, honesty, and trust. I started rebuilding friendships and relationships with my family.

At seven months clean I started testosterone. It relieves anxiety, and lets me exist comfortably without working so hard. Trans people share "passing tips", suggestions for rehearsing mannerisms, speech patterns, etc to increase one's chances of people recognizing their actual gender. With testosterone, I don't have to rely on that, and I don't have to force my voice lower. It's a great relief and lets me decide whether to tell people I'm trans or not. That can be a safety issue.

Before testosterone, I never looked in the mirror. Now I can hardly stop. I'm finally happy with my appearance.

A year after starting T, I had top surgery. I am exceptionally fortunate to receive this necessary healthcare. People shouldn't need to be economically fortunate to get necessary things. Healthcare in the US is a disaster (Martin Shkreli recently demonstrated this, with his decision to increase the HIV medication's price by 5000%) and for trans people, healthcare is often an insulting attack on our dignity, humanity, and bank accounts.

Things need to improve. My predecessors, like my sponsor, a gay man who remembers Stonewall (the historical event, not the whitewashed film disappointment) and fought for HIV/AIDS rights, tell me things are improving for trans people, relatively fast. Usually I believe it.

Before recovery and transition, I never realized anyone was actually this happy and content. I'm truly satisfied with my life today. Everybody needs that opportunity. I have many ambitions for trans activism to create those opportunities. Thanks to the unconditional love of my family, friends, and other recovering addicts, I can make a difference today, writing this, volunteering on the Trans Lifeline, and staying alive.

If you're cis and reading this, please consider how you can help trans people. Respecting us is only the beginning. There's lots to learn and plenty of progress we need. I hope my experience helps you understand trans people a little more, and inspires you to help us.

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 Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.

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