A Travellerspoint blog

Happy Transgender Day of Visibility

My experience going to a gathering for trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming peoples, and allies—and what it taught me.

There is something wonderful and nearly-indescribably comfortable about a homecoming: when you’ve been gone for days or weeks and you finally return home to your own house and you realize “Oh, so that’s what my house smells like.” You get to turn on your own lights without looking for the switch; you get to return to your own bed; you sit on your own couch, with the dent that perfectly matches the shape of your own ass; you get to shit in your own bathroom. A homecoming wraps you in a safe blanket of familiarity, stitched with threads of time and habit.

. . .

I sat cross-legged on the floor and listened to rapid, Chilean Spanish (which is to say, nearly incomprehensible, gargled Spanish that, like some algorithmic, linguistic equation, subtracts the “d” and the “s” and adds a “po,”). It was spoken in voices foreign to me—foreign but not strange. Some were deeper and softer, tentative to speak and quieted slightly by dainty hands that rested fingertips on lips or twisted hair. They were voices that squeaked with newfound depth, that had an artificially injected kind of confidence—one that comes from months or years of practice. They were voices that referred to “us,” “we,” the group as “nosotres”—not “nosotros” or “nosotras.”

We sat on the floor for the duration of the 90-minute meeting. By the end, my back ached. Others in the room were surely feeling a similar discomfort: hips and backs that ached from sitting, feet tired from walking all day, legs falling asleep from being crossed one over the other, a tiredness of eyes behind glasses, a discomfort from a body part tucked away, an uncomfortable tightness, the cake of makeup keeping skin from breathing, or the pull and pinch of straps, buttons, fastens, holding something up, or down, or on.

I sat across the circle from a beautiful woman. Her hair fell in black ringlets around her face, like the tight spirals of shaved chocolate on an ornately-decorated desert. She had winged eyeliner that flipped out dramatically, applied with precision and the flick of the wrist of a girl who has applied it a million times over, almost always in solitude. She was thin, almost worryingly so. She sat with her legs tucked underneath her, her long-fingered hands regally resting on her knees. She laughed when others made jokes, but it was a laugh that chimed daintily, not bellowing with the freedom of an un-sequestered belly laugh. When she spoke, it was soft. She smiled as she shared with the group, shaking her head from side to side as if to apologize for having started the story at all.

She shared the fact that she is now “Mara” at school. On her desk, that was what the nameplate had said. She had also gone to lunch with a friend, dressed exactly how she was: a dress, black tights, flat shoes with small beads and gems sewn to look like flowers, red lipstick, a confidence of shoulders up, back, and down, a polite, feminine, apologetic smile, worried eyes with subtle, shimmery gold eyeshadow.

We talked for a while in the circle about changing names. Well, some talked; I listened. We talked about how last year a historic law was passed in Chile that allows trans people over the age of fourteen to change their legal name and gender marker. But, after the meeting, my new friend Alex explained that “That isn’t really how it works.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, if you’re over eighteen, you can do whatever you want. But for kids, like minors, you have to have parental consent.”

“Do most parents not want to give consent?”

“Well it depends…this is Latin America”

. . .

The meeting ended with a brief speech from the discussion leader. We had been talking about transphobic attacks, especially in bathrooms or on the streets at night. He wrapped up the meeting by advising that “The best method for keeping yourself safe is to leave the situation as quickly as possible. Go with a friend, if you can. But don’t try to pick fights you have no chance of winning.”

When his speech was over, we all applauded. After the applause, there was a beat—just a few seconds where nobody moved or said anything. We just sat in a brief silence, feeling safe. The discomfort of the room: of the elastic bands of pantyhose digging into hips or the heat of layers over layers—it was welcome in that moment. We had wrapped ourselves in our blanket of familiarity there, in that small room of the “Cultural Center.” Nobody wanted to leave it.

One by one we broke away from the group. Mara went to the bathroom. She took a while and came out wearing different clothes: a black hoodie, black pants, tennis shoes. Her makeup had been wiped away, but her hair still fell in beautiful ringlets that bounced with each step. She didn’t look into anyone’s eyes, as we stood and waited, letting each person take their turn in the bathroom—the only gender-neutral bathroom any of us would likely encounter before arriving home—before we all walked toward the metro station.

. . .

Alex is twenty-three but he could be eighteen—or fifteen if he removed his lip ring. He walks with the confidence of someone who knows what he is doing, where he is going, and what he’ll say if someone tries to question him. He walks with the confidence of someone who knows that his ability to pass while walking alone on the street is dependent upon said confidence. He performs as he walks: he speaks loudly; he shoves his hands in the pockets of his jacket and pulls the fabric strategically; he stands tall and walks quickly. He knows that if he shows hesitation, any fear or uncertainty, the men around him will notice in an instant. On the streets of Santiago, fear is female. Uncertainty is feminine. It doesn’t matter if you are trans or cis. Here, even the dimly lit streets are the easy places for predators to search for prey—they sense “womanhood” like a shark smells blood in the water.

. . .

I said goodbye to my new friends at the metro platform. We gave hugs, I kissed Mara on the cheek, and I asked for Alex’s phone number. I rode the train home with a person from the meeting whose voice I hadn’t heard. They said that they had lived in the US for multiple years, so we spoke to each other in English.

“Right, well I am back because I am getting my doctorate.”

“Really? How old are you?”

“I’m thirty. My girlfriend convinced me to start coming to these meetings because I get so lonely. It is really hard to meet Queer people in Santiago sometimes. Well, especially trans people.”

As we spoke these words, I was unsurprised. Here we stood, no “out and proud” pins, no pronoun patches, no visible indicator that we were a part of any group. And, at the exact same time, on a metro train zooming to the opposite end of the city, there sat a girl in a hoodie, pants, and tennis shoes, probably still smiling apologetically. And, next to her, there was a guy performing, and doing it well—no one around him would know that he would be getting a mastectomy in ten days. Nobody would think anything of either of the two of them. They were seemingly just riding the train, one carefully self-policing and one in disguise.

. . .

“Well, I met this really cool group of people,” I told my most mother.

She was cupping a mug of coffee and milk. The steam was slightly fogging the bottom half of her glasses, as she took small sips. Her eyes were tired, but the skin folded softly in the corners as she smiled kindly.

“Bueno.”

We sat at the table, having our after-dinner coffee. I wondered if I should tell her about what we talked about at the meeting; I didn’t know if she would understand.

“I didn’t really talk that much when I was there, though,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I guess because my Spanish isn’t very good. I was just afraid I would mess up with a pronoun or something and hurt someone’s feelings.”

She pushed her glasses up into her hair with her pink-manicured fingers.

“It is like I’ve told you and like I always told my sons,” she said, pausing to drink the last of her coffee. “Nobody should let anybody else hurt their feelings. You can’t let other people have power over you. You have to be independent. If you’re walking one way on the street with a group of friends and you want to go the opposite direction, then you go—even if you go alone.”

“Right, I just mean that, like, this group uses gender-neutral language. I haven’t really ever practiced using that in Spanish before.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like in a group, we are not ‘nosotros,’ we are ‘nosotres.’”

“So they change the ‘o’ or the ‘a’ to an ‘e’?”

“Right.”

“Well, they don’t need to. In Spanish, if it is a group of women, you say “nosotras.” If it is a group of men you say “nosotros.” If it is a mixed group, you say “nosotros” also.”

“Right, which is what I’m used to. But they say ‘nosotres’ to be more inclusive.”

“Inclusive of whom?”

“Everyone. Like, maybe people who don’t identify as a man or as a woman. Or just because the language is a little sexist.”

“It isn’t sexist. It’s gender neutral.”

“But I think they are arguing that using a ‘masculine’ ending for something that is supposed to be neutral is inherently sexist.”

“Right, but it isn’t.”

Her platform wedges clicked as she got up from the table and brought our mugs to the sink.

Posted by Tad Kaufman 19:46 Archived in Chile Tagged chile safety gender lgbt usac lgbtq+ queer_and_abroad trans_day_of_visibility

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