A Travellerspoint blog

Chile

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 Comments (0)

I’m Here! I’m Queer! My Boxers are Stained!

My flights from Indiana to Chile and my first day in the country

sunny 32 °C

I took my first proper step toward adulthood when I was thirteen; my mom dropped me off at the grocery store with a list, and she told me she would be back in twenty. In my mother’s handwriting, along with the other items on the list was “1 watermelon.”

I remember making my way through the store to the watermelons and carefully observing the old lady in front of me choosing one. She picked it up, held it to her ear, and tapped on it. Now, nobody had informed me that there was a Melon Etiquette. Not at all. But I could tell that, clearly, there are Good Melons and Bad Melons in this world, and there is a way to know the difference. I just had to figure it out.

I stood there watching as adult after adult, with their business suits, and mortgages, and tensions with the in-laws, and bad credit scores, and solid grasps on what constitutes acceptable produce, performed their own personal melon rituals: smacking them, tapping them, lifting them up, shaking them, scratching the rinds and sniffing them—a bizarre amalgamation of suburban ceremonial behaviors.

I wasn’t sure which of these fine specimen had discovered the best melon-choosing ritual. So I chose to go with the Tap then Shake Method™️, as it seemed the least ostentatious. I wasn’t sure (and still am not sure) what a “good” melon should sound or feel like. But insofar that I can remember, the one I chose that day was acceptable, and I have used the same melon-picking method ever since.

. . .

Boarding the plane to fly from Indiana to Georgia (the first leg of my trip to Santiago) was the first time I had set foot on an airplane. It was a dinky, economy-class flight of maybe twenty people. I was informed after the trip that the skies had been abnormally turbulent, which is great to know—I thought planes were always just…like that. The shaking and bumping of the turbulence seemed to fit the ambiance. With the curved walls and clouds passing by out the window, it truly never managed to slip my mind that I was in a metal tube rocketing through the sky.

About 20 minutes into the flight, the attendant came by offering drinks from a cart. She asked if I would like coffee. Apparently, the altitude up there at 35,000 feet had affected my ability to foresee the problems that might arise when you combine the variables of a very bumpy plane and a hot cup of coffee.

“Yes, I would love one. Thank you.”

“Cream or sugar?”

“Just sugar, please.”

The man sitting beside me got his cup first, and he took a sip nonchalantly, no problems whatsoever. Then I reached for my cup, promptly spilling a third of it into my lap during the handoff. I continued to spill it as the plane shook and I tried to use the little square napkin to wipe myself off (with little success). I smiled at the attendant and said “thank you,” wanting nothing more than to find a parachute with which I could jump from the plane.

For the rest of the flight, I sat with hot coffee slowly seeping its way into the boxers I would then have to continue wearing for 20 more hours. Is this what traveling is going to be like? I thought. Me having pubes that smell like stale Starbucks ‘We Proudly Serve’ Pikes Place Roast® while the strangers around me have seemingly gyroscopic grips on their cups?

However, with time, I have come to appreciate that plane ride. At no point in Santiago have I felt quite so low as when I wet my pants immediately after a flight attendant wet my pants for me on what was supposed to be the first “best day” of a string of the 116 Best Days of My Life.

The second flight seemed much more like the airplane rides I had seen in the movies: overly-friendly flight attendants, weird food in impossibly asinine packaging, little TV screens on the backs of the chairs, etc. I did find myself wondering, while we were flying over the Pacific, if they would give me some of the free champagne if I asked for it. (Because at what point in the air, really, did we leave the 21-and-over law of the US and start following Chile’s 18-and-over?) And I was terrified of flushing the toilets. But other than that, it felt relatively “normal.”

When we landed, I went through something like the five stages of grief in reverse order, ending in complete denial that I, some queer little Hoosier, from a college in the middle of nowhere, with $0.00 of local currency and a never-before-stamped passport, could be 5000 miles away from home, trying to explain in broken Spanish to my host mom that I don’t like milk and that I didn’t bring a towel.

That first night, she took me to the grocery store to by some food for the next couple of days. I was still wearing my coffee boxers, and I didn’t understand why all the soups were sold in bags instead of cans.

We went to the produce section and my host mom pointed to a honeydew.

“¿Te gusta el melón?”

“Uhhh..sí, sí. Me gusta. Sí. Es muy bien. Uh-huh.”

She then proceeded to sniff the melon before shaking it a little. Thank goodness. It was the first familiar thing I had seen, the melon ritual. So, while standing in the middle of a grocery story in the metropolitan region of Santiago, with no money, no memory of how to talk in Spanish in the future tense, and with no soup cans in sight, I thought to myself: Okay. Well, at least I’ll be able to choose a melon.

Posted by Tad Kaufman 15:40 Archived in Chile Tagged planes chile santiago flights lgbt gilman usac lgbtq+ queer_and_abroad Comments (1)

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