Around Town

Tales of the City

My tribe

I was sitting at the open window of Atomic Rooster recently waiting for my friend to show up for lunch. It was a beautiful day and I was sipping my beer watching the pedestrian traffic on Bank Street when I became aware of a woman walking her bicycle along the sidewalk. As she drew near, I realized she was a trans woman! When she saw me, she smiled, and we exchanged a shy hello before she went on her way.

This little exchange had me smiling for some time. Despite the rise in trans visibility, I still don’t see a lot of recognizable trans folks on the street.

The time before was last fall when I pulled into a gas station to put some air in a tire. I was disappointed when I saw there was a car ahead of me, but decided to wait. When I got out of my car, I realized it was a trans woman holding the air hose. We were both a little startled to see each other. She went about her business without acknowledging me until, tires full, she handed me the wand with a knowing nod. (She graciously left me time to fill up my tire without my having to pump more coins into the machine. Yay!)

It always feels good to unexpectedly meet another member of the tribe, but it’s always a little awkward also. It’s as if we don’t want to intrude upon each other’s space or blow each other’s cover. When I mentioned this to my friend, she thought we should always acknowledge each other, that not to do so just reinforces our place in the closet.

She’s right in theory, but it’s a complicated business being trans. Our awkwardness comes from our empathy. We know so well the experience of being trans, but we don’t know where our sister is in that journey, how comfortable she is with being acknowledged, or if she is hurt by being read. (I say she because it’s a more difficult task recognizing trans men, cisgender women having more leeway in expressing gender non-conformity.) There were times in the past where I’ve let the moment pass and always felt briefly disappointed, as if I’d missed out on making a connection, however brief it may have been.

I hesitate to impose myself on another trans person, but I believe we should push ahead and always acknowledge each other’s presence. It builds strength and solidarity in the community, and it feels much better than pretending we don’t see each other.

Out of the mouths of…

I once had the opportunity to speak to a woman with schizophrenia. She didn’t appear to be suffering from any delusions when she first started talking to me, but after a while what she said made less and less sense. The ramblings of people with schizophrenia often sound poetic because of their stream of consciousness delivery and surprising use of images, but their illogic makes for a one way conversation. Just as I was wondering how I was going to extricate myself, she suddenly stopped talking. She looked at me blankly and said, “I don’t know if you’re a man or a woman, but you look nice.”

It was so unexpected I burst out laughing. I also realized what she’d said was about the best I could expect from my transition. But that’s okay. I’m glad she thought I looked nice. I feel good about myself and am grateful for the life I have. Things could be worse.

Trans friendly city?

A little while ago I was waiting in the check out line at my local grocery store. I had my stuff on the conveyor and, being a polite Canadian, had put the plastic separator down to demarcate my groceries from those of the person behind me. No sooner had I done this when a bottle of ketchup fell over onto my side. The man whose ketchup it was gathered it up and, seeing only the back of my 6′ 3″ body and being a polite Canadian, said, “Sorry sir.”

I may have sighed. I don’t remember exactly, but I know I was more exasperated than angry. So when I turned around I simply smiled at him. He was a short man with greying hair, probably in his early sixties. What he did next threw me completely. He gently laid his hand on my arm and with a kind smile said, “Oh, pardon me. Ma’am.”

I am often astonished at how nice people are to me. Having grown up in the transphobic 70s and 80s, I developed a not so healthy misanthropy that I nurtured for many years. I’m still no great lover of people, but I have had a glimmer of an idea that perhaps I was being a little harsh on humanity.

When I was changing my name on the various accounts I hold, many of the people I was dealing with congratulated me on my change of life. Small thing, but it touched me. It’s not what I expected from bank tellers and people working for Hydro Ottawa.

Without a doubt I have never had better service in stores than I do now. On several occasions I’ve had two clerks come up to me at the same time asking if I need help. Complete strangers say hi to me in the street. People seem to want to talk to me.

My neighbours have been great. I have a neighbour who knows what’s going on with everyone on the street. One day he saw me in my driveway and came over to chat. I knew right away he was on a recognizance mission. He greeted me by my old name, but it was more of an inquiry, as if he weren’t sure whether it still applied. “Tara,” I corrected and then told him about my transition. We talked for a while and when it was time to leave, he said, as if to explain his curiosity, “You know, my mother-in-law was telling me, ‘He’s looking a lot prettier lately’”. I laughed. “See you later, Tara,” he said, and he’s never dead named me since.

I don’t want to minimize the obstacles that trans people face because they are many. I’ve encountered plenty of rudeness and one threat of violence, although the latter was a long time ago. I also wouldn’t recommend being in the Byward Market at 2 am when the drunks are stumbling out of the bars. Based on my experience, however, Ottawa is as welcoming a city for trans folks as there is in Canada.

Or is it? Could my experience be the product of my privilege?

I’m white. The harassment black trans women face is well documented, but most of what I know is based on the experience of black trans women in the USA and Toronto. How are trans people from so-called “visible minorities” and two-spirit indigenous people treated in this city? I really don’t know.

I’m 64. My age also accords me respect.

I read Fae Johnstone’s article in the Huffington Post about the reportfrom Support And Education For Trans Youth Ottawa (SAEFTY) regarding challenges trans youth face in accessing health care. I was struck by how little agency people in positions of authority grant young trans people. They don’t take their wants, concerns or sometimes even their identities seriously. I think it’s safe to assume that the treatment trans youth receive in the medical community is reflected in broader society also.

This has never happened to me. Presumably people think if I’ve reached this age I’ve figured out who I am.

My last privilege is one I originally believed would be my great disadvantage. As I mentioned earlier, I’m 6’3″ tall. This does not work well when you want people to see you as a cisgender woman. In fact, in earlier transphobic times this alone would disqualify me from accessing hormones. While it’s still not ideal, I realized recently that tall and slim, even for a trans woman, is a privileged body type. It’s a contradictory situation because while trans bodies aren’t universally respected, tall slim bodies usually are. If being this tall hinders my ability to live as I see myself, nevertheless it also accords me basic respect in this world. It has its advantages.

So perhaps my view of Ottawa as a trans friendly city is naive. This would be a good topic for a survey. Although I have no experience in framing questions that would provide the most credible answers, it strikes me as a worthwhile project to pursue. It would be good to know other trans people’s experience of the city.

The pitfall to such a survey is that it must necessarily require some subjective responses. The danger to that is clear from my last tale of the city.

The ‘Fair Lady’

I own a black 2005 Nissan 350Z.

One day I was in said car waiting at a traffic light. It was a fine day and I had the windows open and the music playing. Despite this, I was under a cloud. I had woken up in one of those misanthropic moods I mentioned earlier. I thought most people were ignorant hypocrites, and don’t tell me otherwise.

I became aware of a fellow bicycling toward me on the other side of the street. He was looking at me, which raised my ire a little, but I thought it might be an incidental glance and so tried to let it go.

But no, dammit, he’s still looking at me.

As he approached my window I was glowering at him and ready to pounce. Just give me a reason! As he came alongside, he said, “Don’t ever sell that car!”

Oops! It’s not always about you, Tara. It’s not always about you.