This piece was originally published on Rainbow Roo but I think it’s better suited to the spirit of Transgender Day of Visibility.https://rainbowroo.com.au/blogs/news/she-s-got-the-op-shop-blues
Camphor. Dust. Silverfish husks.
It’s tricky to describe the smell of an Op Shop, because they carry an ocean of muted scents; the average of a thousand wardrobes washed in an industrious belly. It is here, in the Vinnies in Redfern, stalking the racks of colour-coded donations that we set our stage.
“What about this?” I say, pulling out a long brown leather jacket. “I think it’d be
ah-mazing with those flared jeans we got last week.”
“Okay!” says Amanda, “I’ll try it on.”
She disappears into the changing booth. I run my fingers along hanging fabrics in the plus-sized section, my tips caressing soft and smooth and silky and ruffled and rough. Nothing interests me, as very little plus sized clothing is attractive. There is a skirt which looks like a Picasso cube. A dress which… hides. I envy Amanda her size ten.
A couple of cis-gendered UNI girls enter the store. They are cute, daggy. One of them wears denim overalls with a cropped white tee. The other an ochre checkered mini-skirt with a pink half-top, exposing her tight midriff. I am jealous beyond my capacity to describe.
“God, Vinnies is so random!”
“Oh my god, look at this -” the other says, holding up a frayed denim skirt with embroidered flowers. “It’s like, so ironic!”
That’s not how you use irony. She’s abusing irony.
The girls fondle tiny skirts and dresses and tops. They hold them up against their gorgeous frames and press them against their hippy hips and I imagine that just about whatever they chose to wear, even if it was the black garbage bag the clothes were donated in, they’d look cute. They’d look like – girls.
“Cady!” Amanda calls from behind me.
At the end of a clothing aisle she is standing in the long brown leather jacket. It is as funky as a hipster monkey – with buckled straps at the mid, aged spots and scratches across the shoulders and the tummy leather, and big swell buttons. It looks like it fell straight out of a 70’s hot tub time machine. Plus it has pockets. Pockets!
“Oh my sky monster! I love it!”
“Really?” she squeals.
“Yeah! You look like a Whovian Doctor.”
“All of them!”
We buy it.
As we leave the store, I glance back at the cis-girls. One of them catches my gaze and promptly returns to grazing on irony. I track her until she disappears beyond the frame of the door with a heavy green heart.
The next day, Amanda wears her new Whovian jacket with a white t-shirt and a funky pair of flared denim jeans. She looks outrageous, she has an epic groove – the outfit looks great in combination. The jacket is a little masculating – it is chunky and form fattening. It is a woman’s jacket, but it lands more on the side of androgynous. But this is not what bothers Amanda. She scratches at her crotch, pulls the jeans down, resettles herself.
We head off in search of Pokemon with our phones, passing over a pedestrian footbridge on the long route towards the train station. Today, Amanda is uncharacteristically slow, lags behind me. I turn to find her constantly fixing the crotch in her jeans. She is distressed. A city train passes beneath us and its upward draft masks her sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” she says, crying. “I can’t – I just can’t. It feels wrong. I’m wrong!”
I go to her, wrap my arms around her and stroke her hair. Her body shakes in mine.
“It’s okay baby, it’s okay.”
“It’s this… thing ” she says, hitting her crotch. “These jeans are so uncomfortable. They squish it . They hurt so much. I’m sorry. I wanted to look really good today, I’ve failed.”
“Baby, I don’t care how you look, I care how you feel.”
We head back to her flat and she changes into a denim skirt. It breaks the ensemble but she is infinitely more comfortable, appears relieved. But there’s also a sadness behind her gaze now, a floating shock. She has been forced to confront her still maleness, the deathrow genitalia which haunt her. Her flow is disrupted. She is in desperate need of some comfort food.
“KFC chippies?” I say.
She smiles a tiny smile, nods.
We head into the city and enter the KFC on George St near Central Station. It is packed. We line up and I order her a large chippies from a clerk with a glazed forgottenness. She taps at the Colonel’s touch screen like an uncooked hen lost in void. She prints out a receipt and I give it to Amanda, then we stand aside and wait for them to call her number.
Minutes later, comes the call.
“One eighty three,” a young bloke yells. “One. Eight. Three.”
Amanda steps forward, her skirt swinging, her small boobs bouncing in the bra beneath her tight white top. Her hair is still growing, nearly at shoulder length, and it is smooth and silky from her recent keratin straightening. She speaks in her soft, chirpy voice:
“Yep! That’s me.”
The guy behind the counter looks her over, then slides the chips at her.
“There you are sir . Have a good day sir ,” he says, then turns away from her.
Amanda is shell shocked. Her shoulders sink. I feel useless. I touch her softly and pull her from the throng, we head out onto George St. She plucks chips from the box, crunches on them as we walk. But she is absent. She is with me and not with me. The box swings to the side of her deflating frame, her comfort food of no comfort in the now.
She breaks down. She bawls. I take her into me, hold her tightly, stroke her back.
“SIR! SIR! Fuck! Do I look like a fucking sir?! Why? Why did he do that?”
“I don’t know babe, I’m so sorry. Maybe he didn’t see you?”
“He saw me! He called me sir! I’m not… I’m not a girl?! How can I be? I can’t wear jeans, I look like a man in this jacket!!! I’m a girl, damn it! Why’d he call me sir?!”
“I’m sorry, babe. Screw him. Screw that jerk.”
“No! I’m going back there, I’m going to – I’m going to tell his manager, and I’ll say – I’ll say, I’ll just tell his manager, I’ll tell him he’s a fucking asshole. I’m going back!”
She turns to head back to the KFC. She is strong, and it is like holding back a tornado, but I stop her. I tell her it will do no good, the moment has passed. You can’t rub a dog’s nose in its piddle after the fact, it won’t know what its done wrong. If she yells at the guy, it’ll only further entrench his transphobia. It will create a negative link to trans people and strengthen his xenophobic resolve. I tell her all this while she heaves, sobbing in the shadow of the UTS building, as pedestrians sweep around us, stealing curious glances towards her tears.
I am telling her to eat her pain.
For transgender people – misgendering is more than an insult. It’s whiplash of the soul. Gender dysphoria is a painful echo, it reminds us of the lingering parts of ourselves which we hate, no matter how hard we try to leave them behind or evolve them. It’s different for everyone – some people despise their genitals, their chests, their faces or skin. To experience it feels very much like lead in the heart, like grieving for a lost loved one.
It is grief for the person we feel we are not.
Society is still developing a language for gender diversity. While in Australia, people are largely tolerant, though an ignorance still persists simply because we are nova – we are new. Trans folks may have existed for centuries, but we remain a minority awaiting true acceptance. Awaiting the day when being trans won’t be an interrogated aberration, but merely a flavour of diversity. Like having red hair. Or blonde. Or blue eyes. Or green. The day when a language exists because we have existed in harmony long enough to simply – be.
People are like cups. Our days get filled and refilled, resetting with the rising sun of every nova day. In the absence of good, our cups can be filled with poison. Thus the best thing a cisgender person can do for a trans person is the same as you would do for anyone – be kind. If someone clearly identifies as male or female, then use male or female pronouns. It takes nothing away from your existence to accept theirs. If in doubt, don’t use any gendered words at all. They’re superfluous in any conversation; linguistic tassels.
The following day Amanda and I are shopping for groceries. We’re looking for the frozen mozzarella, and we hover around a Coles employee as she packs yoghurt onto a chilly shelf. She senses our helicoperting and turns to us.
“Can I help you ladies?”
She just did.