COMMENTARY: Survival

While waiting for the bus in the summer of 2018, I overheard a stranger talking about how trans people “ought to be hanged.” His language was more derogatory and graphic but I won’t describe it here for the safety of folks reading this.

I became hyper-aware of how trans I look.

A few nights later, another stranger approached me outside the bus station and said she would assault me the next time we crossed paths.

Both times, my body felt tense, my heart pounded and I was short of breath. It felt like I was taking in every sound, sight and sign of movement while simultaneously feeling like the earth was spinning in slow motion.

My body told me I was in danger. My body told me to do something, anything, to survive.

After the woman threatened me, I knew the path for survival was clear. Run.

I got on the first bus that arrived and waited behind the driver’s seat for my bus to pull up. I didn’t tell the driver what happened.

I’d experienced these kinds of incidents before and since, familiar accusations began to rattle my brain.

“If you weren’t obviously different, this wouldn’t happen to you. If you looked normal, this wouldn’t happen to you.” 

I knew I’d hear these thoughts echoed from loved ones when I told them what happened. Hearing the same sentiment from the bus driver wouldn’t help.

Maybe the driver would say I looked too trans, maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they’d be supportive and offer help, but I couldn’t take the risk. Still, as I sat behind the driver, my body screamed at me.

You’re in danger. Do what it takes to survive.

This feeling wasn’t unique. Every time someone looked at me too long, I got a Facebook message from a stranger, and every time I saw a new or a less-than-trusted healthcare professional, hairdresser, retail associate or professor, my body would tell me the same thing.

You are in danger. Survive.

Sometimes surviving means hiding with my head under the bed covers for days because nowhere else feels safe. Some would describe this as a symptom of mental illness.

I’ve been diagnosed with several mental illnesses but I can’t help but think this feeling of urgency and danger, the constant strategizing — Where is safe? Who is safe? — can’t be explained away with neurochemistry. Not when my queer and trans friends know the feeling too.

The day before a queer youth conference last May, someone spotted a trailer with signage that proclaimed gay people were sinners in the eyes of the Judea-Christian god. Social networks blew up with warnings and strategies about the stranger. People posted pictures of the vehicle and licence plate. They tried to identify the driver. Others helped each other plot paths to avoid running into the vehicle.

While politicians boasted about kicking the driver out of the city the next day, not for homophobia but for registration, the queer and trans community was still on high alert.

I found myself standing between LGBTQ+ youth participants and the conference centre windows. I found myself talking with conference volunteers and speakers about the best way to ensure the youth were having a good time and didn’t have to worry about being targets of discrimination for one weekend.

Queer and trans people experience betrayal, discrimination and abuse at a young age. They learn how to survive when they’re children and teens. Their bodies speak to them, telling them they’re in danger at the first glance of suspicion.

The queer and trans community is messy, dramatic and beautiful. I love how readily we share our survival toolkits with each other, but what if we didn’t have to?

What if queer and trans people telling each other where and who to avoid was unnecessary? What if we lived in a world where the goal was not to survive one day to the next, but to live life to the fullest?

We don’t live in this world.

While I hope queer and trans youth can grow up and see a world that believes in their value as human beings, there’s still so much work to be done. I want to be someone who helps build the community and to do that, I need to protect myself.

For now, I calculate risks at every turn. For now, I use the tools my queer and trans community gave me to mitigate inevitable threats. For now, I listen to my body when it tells me I’m in danger. I hear my body when it speaks and for now, it tells me one thing.

Survive.

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