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Dear Sandy #1: Queerness in Rural Spaces
"I have found a rising feeling of unsettledness creeping into my psyche..."
A note to readers: This is the first installment of my new advice-ish column. To submit a question, write firstname.lastname@example.org. Further details at the bottom of page here.
A little over a year ago, my wife and I (and our two sweet senior dogs) moved to a rural and quite isolated town in Northern Tasmania. We bought a 103 year old church and have recently finished the renovations. It is the most lovely home and I feel so at ease within its warm embrace. We are nestled on a little hill with mountains surrounding us and have many beloved animal kin frolicking in the fields. It is truly a magical place and I love it dearly. I am sharing this little snippet of my life as I try to explain the struggle that I am experiencing with the duality of a rural queer existence. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and lived in Chicago in my early 20s as I explored my queer identity eventually moving to Sydney Australia with my wife. I have lived regionally for most of my time in Australia (19 years) and chose to move out of the city into a regional place while I transitioned all those years ago, but this move to Tasmania has taken remote to another level. I feel so at home in nature and so at home tending to the land, but I have found a rising feeling of unsettledness creeping into my psyche as I move into my second year of life here.
On the one hand I feel so at ease in this place as a queer trans man living surrounded by wildness and all the freedom that grants me. Gender, sexuality, queerness or any other part of my identity expression is wholeheartedly embraced and celebrated by nature and I truly feel that everyday and have deep reverence for this connection. But, on the other hand there is a deep fear of being "other" living amongst humans in an isolated rural town. I have experienced homophobia and transphobia directed at others in jarring and uncomfortable ways in this place and I struggle to reconcile the two sides of my experience. I feel much more exposed in my queerness even though I am surrounded by so many less people witnessing it and I easily “pass” (which is another topic all together) into the cis/white/hetero normative framework of this place. Tasmania only decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and by a mere one vote. Sometimes I even reconsider wearing a fancy hat or jazzy jump-suit for fear of drawing attention, and it is worrying as I have honestly not felt this since I was a teenager exploring my gender expression in the suburbs. It is a real conundrum and one I am actively working on with my therapist! I mean any trans person who watched Boys Don’t Cry probably shares my concerns of what can happen in rural towns.
All this to say that after listening to the podcasts where you discuss your choice to move to a rural place and how this was partly a result of your trans identity, I began to think about how you might feel living a queer rural life and if you ever experience the duality that I speak of. And I wonder if rural Upstate New York ever feels like rural Tasmania.
Thank you for your time and I wish you summer garden abundance.
Gonna be real, I am extremely in favor of you wearing a jazzy jumpsuit. Since reading that delightful phrase, I’ve enjoyed that image — you in said jazzy jumpsuit, going into town in rural Tasmania.
But then I consider my own jazziest jumpsuit, which I’ve actually mentioned on here before; it’s bright red. It’s fun. It’s a lot. I don’t know if it makes me look more or less weird or queer looking than I already do. How weird or queer looking do I already look? It’s a very active question, to me. One to which I don’t have what feels like solid answer.
I’ve been on Testosterone for about two and a half years. I am both fully no longer looking like my driver’s license photo and I’ve yet to update my driver’s license photo. Even though the DMV is not far from my house. Even though the DMV not being far from my house is itself unbelievable, honestly, because out here in these mountains, everything tends to be far, an hour away at least — a big movie theater, a Target-type store, a train.
Then there’s the truth of why I don’t go to the DMV, a situation I’m reminded of every time I pass the oh-so-close-to-my-house DMV and still don’t stop and deal with this. I feel shame, remembering the last time I did go there.
It was the second year of the pandemic. I had been nervous to go that day but also excited, because I was at last changing my gender marker.
I had gone to the DMV with my husband. We wore masks, which, around these parts suffice to say was never a popular move. And perhaps for that reason the woman working there was gruff that day. Or perhaps she was gruff because it was the DMV. Or perhaps she was gruff because she didn’t like the change I was there to make. One letter to another. This very slight but significant shift.
I handed my paperwork and ID to the woman behind the glass, who scowled at it. She looked at Rob and asked. “You the parent?”
I realized she thought I was a teenager. I muttered that I’m an adult; I forget my exact words. I often confuse this with another similar incident when I’d gone to vote in town, and as they checked Rob in, a volunteer looked at me and remarked, jovially, “Too bad you can’t vote!” I realized she thought I was a minor.
“I’m 34,” I stammered. She didn’t apologize. She didn’t say anything.
This person at the DMV likewise didn’t say a thing when she mistook my husband, who for the record is five years older than me, for my parent. (I’m hardly the first queer person to have experienced this, I know.) If she was embarrassed she didn’t let on.
I suffered through the rest of the interaction, declining to get a new photograph for fear of lingering a moment more than was necessary.
The upshot of which is, every time I look at my own drivers license I have my correct name and gender marker but I see myself several years ago. Pre-Testosterone, my head shaved. These days my hair has grown in past my shoulders. My face has transformed in those profound but slight ways that come with turning into a man, at last. I’m growing a beard, however sparse and blonde.
That old picture, it’s a face that I admit is hard for me to see. Hard in a deep, ineffable way. So hard that, the other day, I found myself flipping my license around in its plastic sleeve in my wallet, because I didn’t like having to casually see my former self.
Lately I’ve been trying to challenge how afraid of everything I became during COVID’s first years. Which for me, like so many of us, is a complicated time period, the fuller story of which I’ll be telling in this next book, and one that’s also overlapped with my second puberty and all its attendant awkwardness. Coming out over the last many years, I’ve been revealing myself to be a category of person— trans — that’s also increasingly vilified, at least this country, for political bloodsport I suppose.
Meanwhile I live in great fear. All the time I wonder if I am too afraid, or perhaps not afraid enough. Every black truck that drives by my house, my pulse soars. Let alone ones that drive slowly or have concerning bumper stickers or whatever. When I do venture out into the world I’m invariably passing occasional houses around here that are festooned in FUCK BIDEN flags and other such. Though I also recently passed a house flying a Twisted Tea flag, which made me laugh. And I’ll see BLM signs and the various LGBTQ flags. All sorts around here, is my point. Even though my fearful mind would have me suppose it’s 100% people who would hatecrime me.
I’m also just one guy. I have many queer and trans friends and acquaintances, both locally and beyond, whom I know relate very differently to the conservative rural people with whom they’re in community. I’ve always tended to be a hermit, even when I lived in Brooklyn and worked from home. Partly this was to do with being gender-nonconforming and increasingly shy therefore. But also when I did go out back then, I enjoyed just being in my head, in my headphones. Watching folks on the subway. Walking bridges. Strolling parks and waterfronts.
It can feel like nobody and nowhere is safe. Even years ago, I’d see red hats in New York City and my insides would boil. Or back when I still flew (I haven’t in years), I’d see red hats in airports and on planes. Or driving around suburbs up north now, I’ll pass confederate flags. Or how, after first moving up here, when I was just starting to come out as nonbinary, we socialized occasionally with a group of liberal baby boomers, themselves mostly gay. Until once, at a party, I walked in as someone made a totally transphobic joke and got a big laugh.
Or earlier this year, I had to go to an ER and chose to drive an hour away in hopes I’d get more respectful treatment. The woman behind the desk looked like I’d announced I was a mythical creature when I whispered I was trans man. I told her I was was in fairly severe pain, which was true (in hindsight perhaps worse than my pain was my fear of what might be wrong).
This woman looked delighted, to be dealing with me. I sensed I was her very first trans person, maybe she’d ever spoken to in her life.
She immediately messed up my pronouns. I corrected her. She then messed up my name, later had to reprint my wrist band and track me down in the waiting room to replace the one she’d given me.
The older man across the waiting room in the veteran’s hat, was he scowling at me now? Or was that just his face? Was he scowling because he knew I was trans? Or was he scowling because he, too, was in pain?
I feel shame during such situations, assessing whether strangers are threats. Ashamed I can’t just shake off a joke or a clumsy first-timer. Ashamed I can’t just walk into the DMV and get my goddamn photo taken. Ashamed I don’t just hazard the inevitable harassment from TSA and board a goddamn airplane. But, I often wonder, what would I do about the gender-segregated bathrooms at the airport closest to my house? I’m still afraid to walk into men’s bathrooms, period, and I feel shame about that too.
I can barely pee in public is the truth, even in a fully safe situation, even using a gender-neutral single-occupancy bathroom. This has been true forever, that I struggled to pee, especially in public. I once reported and produced a 99% Invisible episode all about public bathrooms and whether we can do better at designing them, largely because I was just very fatigued when it came to trying to solve all this on my own.
But it is my problem, every time I leave the house for any longish amount of time and I’m faced with that sense of total anguish inside, that worry of whether I’ll have a bathroom to use. I’ve bought a few stand-to-pee devices, what I call my “peeing dicks.” (Maybe because this makes me laugh?) But I am bad at using them without making a mess. I’m even worse at remembering to bring them with me.
I’m glad to hear you have a therapist, N. I also talk to my supportive professionals about this stuff. We untangle, we unpack, we strategize. I know there’s benefit to me practicing challenging my own sense of comfort. I know I cannot just sit at home forever.
I went to the city for a week this spring, my first time in years staying overnight away. I went alone. I walked the streets a lot, miles each day. I often wound up walking around Prospect Park. I bought coffees; I bought meals. I practiced having conversations with strangers. I tried not to head trip about what gender they thought I was. I wondered if I looked like a man and I figured I must have, because unlike when I was a woman in the city I was never once catcalled, nor whistled at, nor made to feel afraid because of what a stranger wanted to do to me.
I walked down the sidewalk and wondered how a man is supposed to walk down the sidewalk. I rode an escalator and subway and wondered about how a man is supposed to do those things. I wondered if I’m supposed to open doors now, for others.
I felt overwhelmed. Totally new, like an alien who’d never been to earth. But I was also re-acquainting myself with a city I’d lived in for years, a city I knew well, and love. I was seeing its pandemic trash and feeling the accumulated sorrow of these years.
Sometimes I felt anxious. Mostly I felt alive. The week passed slowly until finally I traveled home, utterly exhausted.
Recently another trans person came to my house here for the first time. They’d driven in from some hours away and upon arriving, commented that the little town I live outside of was very cute. But, they said, they wouldn’t stop in a place like that.
I told them I agree, adding I never go into town.
The day week I went into town. I went into the grocery store; hadn’t been inside in years. I strolled down the ice cream aisle. I selected hot dog buns. I wondered, as I do in such situations, whether those around, whether the person at the checkout for example, whether she thought I was a man or what. I wonder, in other words, whether I pass.
I never know what people think. Like the waitress at the pizza joint where I went recently for lunch, a woman who seemed immediately frustrated when I tried to place my order, was she short tempered because I am trans, maybe because of my voice? Or was she just having a rotten day, maybe because fifty tourists that morning had made her answer annoying questions, or whatever circumstances of her life I cannot imagine? I worked in food service for years; I know to a degree some staff are also just ornery with the customers.
I wonder often if I could ever work that sort of job again — waiting tables, making coffee. I wonder if I could handle the inevitable misgendering, let alone overt prejudice. The inevitable ways strangers would seem to confirm that thing about me that I am all the time hoping to somehow never acknowledge. That sense I am a scam. And, out here especially I guess, as you allude, that therefore I am prey.
Not long ago I stood around in a gas station a few minutes, waiting to pay, when I noticed a fair bit of memorabilia around that signaled the owners had some not very shall we say politically correct opinions, in what felt like a performative way.
I suddenly became aware of my body in space. I became aware of every other person in there. I became aware of my choice of outfit that day, worried it wasn’t masc enough. I stopped saying much. Often in public I find myself hiding my voice, still, perhaps a throwback to when it was a total giveaway.
But nothing happened. I eventually paid, got out of there.
Moments later I was on a beautiful highway, winding through green mountains, home. I was fine. I was safe.
Have I told you about the beauty of this place? I never stop feeling it, the beauty of this place. How every season, how every day, is some fresh story. The endless reveal of something. Some blossom, some leaf. A mossy rock, a rainshower, a bird in flight. I am beyond-language in love with the place where I live. I feel it on a level that is absolutely spiritual. Being trans, to me at least, also feels indelibly spiritual. I do think the one and the other, the being trans and the living here, they relate, for me, and it sounds like for you too.
I often feel the question of whether to remain. In this country, or at the very least in this sort of place, if I’m to remain in this country. I live in a blue state at least I try to console myself, but I sense how vulnerable we all are, given *gestures at everything*.
I’m pretty sure anybody who’s not already powerful feels it too, this sense of great dread, as we watch warily whatever the Republicans are up to. But specifically being a trans person in America in 2023, I’m too aware of this sort of unabashed, out-and-proud hatred of people-like-me, how it’s apparently more fashionable than ever, amongst some. I’m also too aware of the profound indifference of most all cis people, still, even the ones who are probably nominally my allies.
The other day I got a call from someone at my doctor’s office, which is an hour and a half away. The drive is inconvenient, but this provider’s also the best I could find in the region — and believe me I’ve searched. I usually don’t answer phone calls but again lately I’ve been trying to be more brave. I happened to be sitting on the toilet when the call came and immediately regretted answering. The woman calling started calling me “miss”. More than once.
“Hold on,” I said, stopping her, gathering the nerve. “I’m a man.”
She sounded aghast. I asked her why she was calling. I must have sounded perturbed. She was calling regarding a hysterectomy referral I’d received, which must have been the reason for her confusion. Someone else had already called me about this, which I tried to say. She seemed like she thought I was being hostile, and this was annoying to me because if anything, she was the one who should be apologizing to me, not making me feel like a jerk, and I swear I was trying to keep my cool, but she said: “I’ll never bother you again,” and hung up. My heart thundered.
I hate these moments. I hate them because they’re unpleasant and because now I was sitting on the toilet wondering do I have to find a different doctor’s office? Maybe one that’s two and a half hours away or even further, back in the city? Will that guarantee I won’t have such experiences?
I wonder if I should just get more tough, not let such moments get to me somehow.
But I know that, no, I’m allowed to feel the fact that this sucks. It sucks when a stranger drops into your day to micro-aggress you, somebody ostensibly working for your own health.
I try to peer into the future, politically. I try to forecast just how doomed I might be. I sometimes think myself into panic attacks or bursts of tears.
The other truth of me is I’m an anxious person generally, deeply so, for many reasons. I also work hard to not let the worry rule me. I know that dwelling in imagined futures rarely serves me. I know my imagination, though powerful, has a lousy record when it comes to be being correct.
When I feel myself spinning, I try to re-ground. I try to breathe. Have a glass of water. Have a joint. Have a bath. Maybe I try to talk to someone safe. Maybe I try to take a walk. A cloud catches my eye, or a mountain. A stand of spruces. Something lifts me. Reminds me of the divine or whatever word you want to use for what’s bigger than the all this and the right now.
“I am in love with this green earth…” a line I often repeat in my mind, walking around here. From Charles Lamb, one of those rare lines that’s memorized itself into me, dug in like a bur.
“I am in love with this green earth..".”
When I feel worry taking over, I try to remind myself what actually is. As in the present moment. If I can, I try to re-direct fear-thoughts into hope-thoughts or at least gratitude thoughts. I am afraid of losing everything becomes I am grateful for all I am afraid to lose.
Right now, I am grateful for the cool air after a midsummer rain. For songbirds, midday, darting by the pond. For my younger dog, the red one, grown now, sunbathing on the doormat, his belly breathing in sleep.
The truth is I don’t know the answer, whether to remain or to stay. Whether everything will be okay. There is so much I cannot pretend to know. Why did the universe have us be trans, right now? I don’t know. Why do I live in the Catskills, or you in Tasmania? I often wonder versions of this, for myself. Why as a trans person did I plant my garden here?
But — I then retort internally — why not?
Why not live here, and joyfully?
If not tomorrow or in the future, at least today?
And sure maybe someday this calculation will change. My husband is Jewish. He is descended from and was raised amidst a long tradition of very candid reckoning with the realities of bigotry and the real threat of genocide. Over dinner, he and I have deathly serious conversations about how we think about all this. We have a gorgeous view, a pond and a mountain beyond. This contrast alone is terrible, all the beauty versus our grim talk.
I never know how afraid to be, is the truth. I sense, however, that it’s important that we relish what time we do get here. That we feel absolutely in love with these perplexing miracles that are our lives.
I re-read this sentence from Hil Malatino the other day and nodded vigorously: “Whatever being trans is about, it’s decidedly characterized by upheaval and emergence into a social world with shifting and shifted parameters.”
N., I hope you know how much your email brightened my week. I’m grateful to have heard about your life, your century-old church. I appreciate hearing from other humans who are living these same contradictions; it reminds me, as so many people do, that I am not alone.
Sorry I don’t have a better answer, really. Except maybe that having a daily meditation practice kind of helps. I don’t know if you’re into that already. I’m hardly the first to say so, but sitting a bit every day in some quiet helps me appreciate more of what’s already here, all around me. So I try to do that if I can.
And then I try to enjoy it.
p.s. My gardens are indeed abundant right now. The one I planted by the house in the spring is an overgrown mess of mostly bolted lettuces and arugula; the trellis tall with peas. The second garden is coming in— tomato and pepper plants growing larger by the day, rows of onions, robust kale.