In 1999, I was also a “hidden figure” in the struggle for civil rights in this country.
Laverne Cox talked about the parallels between the real-life NASA “computers” from the movie, “Hidden Figures,” on Stephen Colbert’s talk show recently, and the case of the young Supreme Court plaintiff, Gavin Grimm, who is suing for the right to use the boy’s bathrooms at his public high school. Like me, Gavin is FTM, and we’ve both facing the same civil rights barrier today, in 2017, as black Americans did in 1961.
I came out later in life than Mr. Grimm, who is now seventeen. I was 24 and a divorced parent, living in Florida, working at my first job out of college, when I finally knew what it was that had been crushing me, all of my life, without a name. I was transgender, a man. And that meant I was going to have to fight.
I’d fought bullies all my life, starting with the ones in my own family. It was one of my first obsessions, to figure out what it was about me that made me seem a victim to others, a stranger. Another recent film, “Moonlight,” brought this home to me, watching the young hero, Chiron, hide from the boys who chase him through the streets of Miami. He learns why he is their target, and then has to learn to hate himself for being what even his mother despises.
For my transition from female to male, I began by following the standards of care for the time, which required a “real life test” before medical intervention. That meant dressing as male, using my new name, and using the men’s restrooms. It meant coming out to family and friends, and weathering their responses. When I first came out as trans to HR, I got their consent to begin using the men’s, but within a few days, one of my male co-workers had complained. After that, I was given a key to a bathroom in another building on campus and told I’d have to use either that or the women’s room.
Even after I came back from surgery and had new documentation as male, because my co-workers knew my history, I was still not allowed to use the men’s room. To go into the women’s would have felt like an admission that my transphobic employers were right, and I was “really” a woman. That what I knew about myself was not as true or trustworthy as what other people knew.
The company was planning new headquarters of its own, down the road. We all toured the newly constructed building a few months before the move from our rented offices in a corporate park. My old boss told me there would be no bathroom solution for me here, no single user bathrooms. That was my timetable: find a new job before my only bathroom disappeared. I didn’t have a hero for a boss, dedicated to smashing barriers to my participation. I was a replaceable cog in a capitalist machine, and for all I knew, it was my new, evangelical boss at the firm who objected to my presence in the men’s room. It wasn’t hard to intuit that they would welcome my replacement, with some new cog who wasn’t such an uncomfortable fit.
One of my jobs in college was in a hospital that was constructed in the mid 1950s. It was evident from the placement of sets of public restrooms and water fountains, that it was originally built with segregated facilities for colored and white staff and visitors. I knew it on some level, but still lacked the words to describe what I saw: that public access is a civil rights issue, that it is built into society with laws and myths as well as with bricks and mortar, and that it’s easier to take down some signs than to change people’s ideas of how to divide us, and where we belong.
For the rest of my tenure at that firm, when I needed to go, I left my air-conditioned cubicle, crossed courtyards and parking lots in sweltering Florida heat and sudden, powerful rainstorms, and unlocked the semi-private bathroom on the other side of the corporate park. I didn’t call it transphobia, or civil rights, or public access. I just called it going to the bathroom. That was how my oppressors preferred it.
Stealth was my goal and my privilege as a transgender man, an escape unavailable to people of color during the Jim Crow years. In public places, I am invisible even to people looking for a transgender person. I’m proud of who I am today, and resent having to hide. I’m not proud of the times when I’ve buckled under the weight of transphobia. I felt humiliated, like I’d failed.
Fighting to be who I am, in a world that has systematically removed me from its own image of itself, is a struggle that has shaped my life. I had to penetrate a wall of deception, beginning in early childhood, at the age when we first come to see ourselves, including our genders. As a child in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was denied the knowledge that being FTM was even something a person might be. I didn’t know we existed until I was in college. And then it took a period of grief, to take stock of my life and see how this new knowledge fit my condition. That being FTM was not just an idea with no consequence, but that I am FTM, and it means my condition has a name, that there are others, and avenues for relief. Being able to name that pain has been powerful.
I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is. I’m not a sexual predator, or a habitual liar. My gender identity is not a “lifestyle choice.” Being trans is part of who I am. It is something essential to me, and I was denied that self knowledge for such a long time. Without realizing, I absorbed false, damaging impressions of what it meant to be trans.
To say, “I am racist,” or “I am transphobic” is a universally true claim for all Americans, regardless of our race or gender. We breathe in these myths and phobias like smog, because we need to breathe, even when the air is polluted. We need to have families, friends, and communities, to share their values, and if the only ones available to us are poisoned by bigotry, then that’s what we’ll take in. Living in a deeply conservative place, I struggled not to believe in the correctness of the transphobic reactions I got from other people. The majority of people seemed to believe I deserved to be treated this way. The more power people had to take away my rights, the harder it was to convince myself I was actually an okay person.
I began my transition more than seventeen years ago. In that time, I’ve grown older and my society has grown more interested in the experiences of oppressed people, in breathing the clean air of our true diversity as a strength of American society. That we would become less transphobic over time may seem like a given in retrospect, inevitable progress in social justice, but it takes lifetimes, and in mine, acceptance of transgender people has happened more quickly than in any other generation in American history. Trans people are part of the ongoing story of civil rights in this country.
America has a lot of its own myths, not all of them good, but I always thought Americans had agreed on some basics that we wanted for one another, like equality. Somewhere along the line, some of us have lost sight of this civic lesson: that we need equal access to the necessities of a decent life—bathroom facilities and schools, roads, marriage, clean air and water, healthcare, and the rest of the things we’re fighting for right now. Each of these things needs to be available to all of us, not just the well off. These are not special privileges. Everyone has to work, and go to the bathroom, and protect our families.
I was robbed of more than a job when I transitioned in 1999, gave up more than the hours spent in crossing campus to use the bathroom. I lost relationships and a home, and my illusion that society was not hostile to my existence. I found out that people who pray, and people who told me they loved me, were perfectly willing to express their disgust for me, in every way you can imagine, great and small. Little things are all our lives are made up of, the atoms of our existence. If you take them all away, all of the safe, clean, interesting places where life can exist, there’s nothing left. One of the ways you take them away from others, is when you look away, and decide this isn’t your fight.
It takes every kind of resistance to face down injustice. Sometimes it looks like Kevin Costner as Al Harrison in “Hidden Figures,” using a heavy pipe to destroy barriers to his vision of a patriotic meritocracy at NASA. And sometimes progress comes in a form like Katherine G. Johnson’s, taking the risk to speak truth to power. Or like Dorothy Vaughan, by finding innovative ways to empower yourself and the people around you through education. Next month, in this same tradition, a shy teenager named Gavin, who has faithfully worked within the system, will stand before the Supreme Court to say, “I belong here.” And so do I, and so do you.
Feature Image: clockwise from top left: Gavin Grimm, Katherine G. Johnson, still from “Moonlight”, 1943 sign for segregated bathrooms