By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
“It’s based off a card game called Rook,” I explain, pushing the sleeve up past my elbow. It’s a family tattoo I got with my siblings in memory of our grandparents — my granddad’s love of card games, my grandma’s fondness for singing (and dancing) in the kitchen.
I don’t have time to elaborate before he inquires about the ink peeking out on my left forearm. He asks what it says between the wings sprouting out from the black and white anatomical heart.
“It says ‘survivor,’” I reply. It’s been two years since I got the tattoo — my first — to mark the two-year anniversary of leaving a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. At the time, friends cautioned me against something so blatant, reminding me that it would invite questions. But I was proud to be a survivor and compelled to make that part of my history visible.
“A survivor of what?” he asks. I get that question a lot, mostly from phlebotomists and other health care providers. Once, an ER doctor told me she assumed I had survived heart disease. In a way, she was right.
The checker pauses and a wave of sadness washes over his face.
“Domestic violence.” He sighs. “It breaks my heart — but I don’t understand. Why do the women stay with the men who abuse them?”
The phrasing feels awkward — why is he referring to me in the third person? — but it doesn’t register right away. I’m still ma’amed more often than not, so I tend to assume that strangers are reading me as female unless their language indicates otherwise. Caught off guard by his question, I offer an over-simplified response.
“It does funny things to your brain.”
It does funny things to your brain? I kick myself for not coming up with a better response to this frequently asked question years ago.
“I guess it turns into some sick kind of love. Like Stockholm Syndrome,” he offers. “Do you think they know why they stay — those women?”
Finally, it dawns on me. “Those women.” He thinks we’re talking about someone else. Us guys are not survivors of domestic violence. And so this fleeting moment of visibility has rendered me simultaneously invisible.
Sometimes, being seen makes me stand out even more. Visibility, it seems, is rarely neutral. Walking through our neighborhood in East Portland, my partner and I are hesitant to show affection in ways we never were before, aware that the more people perceive me as male, the more we are seen as faggots.
As I transition from female to male, I shift from victim to threat (and, perhaps, back to victim again). Sometimes, my position within that power dynamic shifts many times in one day. It makes it hard to trust that anyone’s perception will hold. And if it wavers in the wrong person, well, you’re fucked.
Last month, I was a “sir” and a “gentleman” in the morning, but a “ma’am” by the afternoon. As much as I relish the affirmation inherent in masculine honorifics, they also put me on guard. I worry that people take a closer look, see the shaping of my eyebrows, hear the treble in my voice, catch the lilt in my step, and realize they were wrong.
Driving through Wyoming last fall with my partner, we stopped in a thrift store to look for vintage Western wear. As we were perusing the men’s shirts, the shop keeper called out to us.
“Let me know if you gentlemen need any help.”
I hadn’t really come out as trans yet, and wasn’t making any particular effort to be read as male. Still, the acknowledgement was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I wasn’t afraid of the woman, but I didn’t want to deal with awkwardness of an unaffirming apology. So I skulked around the back of the store, shrugged my shoulders forward, and avoided eye contact when we departed.
I take the same don’t-look-too-closely stance with the Office Max cashier, continue to play along with this story we’ve created about those women who stay with their abusive men, hypothesize about their experiences as if I don’t — can’t — know.
“I think some know why they stay and some don’t. It’s complicated,” I reply.
He doesn’t know the half of it. I don’t have it in me to explain and I’m not sure why. Am I afraid of the vulnerability or worried that he’ll find me out? But there’s no time to ponder. I’m running late (as always) and search for an escape.
“Well, those men aren’t men, they’re boys,” he says.
I nod, figure the best way to end the conversation is to agree, and mutter something about how grown men ought to act. Satisfied that I share his worldview about the ways of men, he hands me my receipt and I slip out the door, step up into my partner’s big red truck, and drive off to a gay bar.