This day and age have opened up so much for many members of the LGBTQ community to express themselves and their identity freely. Though not without their own struggles, many people have now found the courage to really embrace who they are. With this are the many identity labels that continue to come up—which tend to leave some, especially those within the gender binary, grappling to keep up and understand. Whether you are a member or an ally who wants to learn more, then this episode is for you. Host, Jennifer Whitacre, sits with host of the podcast show, Queersplaining, Callie Wright. Callie is a non-binary transgender person who identifies with the pronouns they/them. In this episode, Callie takes us to how their show sheds light on the narratives about the lives of queer and transgender people. They lead us to become more familiarize with the complexities of gender that stretch far beyond the terms and into the community’s personal struggles and continuous fight towards equality.
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Queersplaining: Narratives Of Queer And Transgender People With Callie Wright
Our guest is Callie Wright. Callie is a non-binary transgender person and her pronouns are they/them. Callie is a super okay roller derby player, a coffee lover and a podcast maker. Welcome to the podcast community. Callie’s show is called Queersplaining. Please, look it up. I’ve looked it up and it’s interesting the couple episodes I had a chance to listen to. Callie’s show is a personal narrative show about the lives of queer and transgender people, which is something that’s needed to help the rest of us understand. If it’s not something you were around, it’s a lifestyle that’s hard to understand. Callie, welcome to the show. It’s an honor to have you here. Thank you for being a guest on this episode.
Thanks for having me. I’m stoked to have the discussion. I enjoy doing the introductory conversations because my show tends to get a little 301 in terms of gender, so it’s nice to be like, “Let’s talk about the basics.” I’m into that.
Could you start off by helping our readers understand some of the terminologies? In your bio, it says that you’re non-binary transgender. What does that mean?
Transgender is an umbrella term that means that you don’t identify with what you were assigned at birth, in terms of sex or gender. If you’re born and you have a penis, they assign you a male, mark them on your birth certificate and everybody says like, “You’re a boy. This person’s a boy.” You get he and him pronouns. Someone who grows up to figure out that doesn’t make sense with the way they feel about themselves, the word transgender is what we use for such a person. There are transgender men, people who are assigned female at birth, but feel more like they’re a man. The converse of that person who is assigned male at birth but feels like they are women and then there are non-binary people.
Non-binary is another umbrella term that describes the spectrum of not feeling like the man or the woman, a label or category or box fits you entirely. That can mean a lot of different things. There are some people who say that they don’t feel like gender makes sense. They don’t feel like they have a gender at all or that their gender falls somewhere on the spectrum between man and woman somewhere. Non-binary is not a third gender category. It’s more of an umbrella term to describe this vast spectrum of identities that don’t fit squarely into a man or a woman box.
That makes a lot of sense to me because I was one of those people who made my way through college by finding a major where I didn’t have to take any super-duper hard math classes. I got away with statistics and what you described is a bimodal distribution. It’s like two-bell curves. You’ve got one bell curve for man, one bell curve for a woman. All the people that have penises, all the people that have vaginas and then you get to the slope in the trough between the two bell curves. That’s your non-binary.
Gender and sex both are like that. Sex is a bimodal distribution. It’s like we figured out these categories that we assign these words to, but it’s far more complicated than one thing or another. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t feel comfortable getting more specific than that, but I’ve done enough reading to know that that’s a thing. The way that I’ve always appreciated hearing gender described is that gender is like a color wheel. You can point to one thing and say, “That’s blue.” You can point to one thing and say, “That’s green,” but there’s this vast space in between like, “That’s maybe a little bit of one, maybe a little bit of the other, maybe somewhere in between. I’m not sure. Does it even matter?” A lot of people talk about the gender spectrum in terms of what you’ve got like man is all the way to the left, and woman is all the way to the right. There’s a spectrum in between those two points. Depending on your experience of it, gender can be a little more three-dimensional than that, if that makes sense.
I think it’s important to take a moment and distinguish between sex and gender. Biologically speaking, sex is what parts do you have, plain and simple. Do you have a penis? Your sex would be male. Do you have a vagina? Your sex would be female.Gender is more who you are socially and the norms that you subscribe to. Click To Tweet
Not entirely because there’s a category of people called intersex, who basically either their genetics don’t fit with XX or XY or the secondary sex characteristics because of the way that their body reacts to hormones or doesn’t react to hormones. There is a whole other group of people for whom that doesn’t fit either. There are people who are born with ambiguous genitalia of one kind or another. Some who have both penis and a vagina or people who anatomically have penises, but their bodies don’t produce testosterone or react to testosterone in the ways that like a “typical” male would. It’s even more complicated than that. Sex is a constellation of things that describes your genetics, your anatomy, the way that your body reacts to certain hormones or doesn’t. All of those things put together under one roof.
Is sex not biological?
It is biological, but it’s bigger than your anatomy.
On the other hand, male and female and masculine and feminine, I personally see a distinction between the two. That’s my concept of sex versus gender. Can you talk a little bit about sex versus gender? I know a lot of people even in regular conversations that have nothing to do with the LGBTQ community, don’t get the difference between sex and gender.
We grew up in a society where those things are conflated as being the same even though they’re not. It comes back to the binary thinking that we have around literally everything, not just sex and gender. We live in a culture where we’re constructed of binaries of various kinds. Generally, when you say sex, you’re referring to someone’s biological reality like anatomy, genetics and hormones. Gender is more who you are socially and the norms that you subscribe to and that feels correct to you based around gender. Basically, one is biological and one is social. It’s not quite that simple because you can make the argument that sex is also social because the concepts of sex are what we have as a society, have collectively decided to refer to as sex. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t want to dive too deep and pretend I know all of these things when I’m not a huge expert. I do think it is important to call out what we normally think of as sex is this rigid, well-defined scientific reality. Those categories were also made by people. They are not handed down from some higher authority and are rigid and immutable. Things that our definitions can’t be expanded about.
That was a helpful explanation. Thank you, even there were a lot of things you said in there that I wasn’t aware of, I’m not a biologist either.
I’ve had to have at least a passing familiarity with those things to be able to answer questions in conversations like this where we’re trying to learn. That’s great and that’s awesome but also from people who are being crappy and being jerks, I have to deal with a lot of that too unfortunately. Existing publicly as a trans person is sometimes an exercise in which you have to become an expert in a lot of different things to be able to defend the fact that you exist.
That is unfortunate because that is what our social climate is like. Are you okay talking a little bit about your experiences with the social climate and what it’s like to be a transgender person in the world that we live in? We’re both from Ohio just different parts of the State. The Midwest is a tough sell on anything open-minded sometimes.
Specifically, where I’m at in Cincinnati, it has such a weird mishmash because there’s a great community of people here. There are also communities that are not so great. You can go five miles and be in radically different places socially. It’s a weird thing. Growing up, I got a lot of the same messages about gender that a lot of people do. Boys like blue. Boys like action figures, toy cars and toy trucks. Boys listen to certain kinds of music and wear certain clothes and all of those sorts of things. Pretty young, I realized that a lot of those things didn’t necessarily apply to me, but I didn’t know what any of that meant. I don’t think I had my first sex-ed class until I was ten. Even that was like, “Boys have penises, girls have vaginas, sometimes the two come together and sex happens.” It was very basic and binary. The fact that there was an experience or a group of people outside of that was never brought up. I thought that I was a weird kid and that there was something wrong with me for a long time.
Right around that time, puberty happens and I had this realization. I was sitting in the lunchroom at ten years old, that’s about how old I was when I was in fifth grade. I was by myself because my lunch friend wasn’t there that day. It was going through my head and I was watching the way that my body was changing and other bodies were changing. I realized that puberty wasn’t weird for me in the way that it was weird for other people. I didn’t have words or vocabulary for that until I blurted out like, “I was supposed to be a girl.” I immediately knew that the social group that I was in, that there was something seriously wrong with that. It was not okay to think that. It was not okay to feel that. I never told anyone and suffered in silence about it forever. Even in terms of my favorite color was purple and I wouldn’t tell anybody that because purple’s a girl color.
To varying degrees, sometimes that was the front of my head and I was miserable. Sometimes I was able to push it in the back burner until I was 28. That year, I started to deal with depression and anxiety to the point where I was having thoughts of self-harm and things were very scary in my head. I recognized that a lot of the things that were making me feel that way were gender-related. I worked up the courage to put the word, transgender, into a search engine because at some point in my life, I had become aware that transgender people existed. That was an experience that happened out in the real world.
I typed the word into Google and I looked. The more I read, the more it added up, I was like, “I think this is me.” It was a relief to have a word to describe that and to understand that there was a community of people like me, but it was terrifying. At the time, I worked in a job that was very stereotypically masculine. I did a high-end audio-video, home theater, home automation installations. We’re on construction sites all the time dealing with largely very rich and conservative people. Homophobic jokes were a daily occurrence and misogynist jokes of course. The occasional thing that would swipe at trans people in one way or another.
I’m curious, how did those seemingly harmless in conversation? People think they’re harmless you’ll get over it, “We’re joking. We’re kidding.” How did that affect you?
It made me feel entirely unsafe to be where I was. I’m not at work with people that I want to be my best friends or that are my family or whatever, but generally speaking, if I’m going to spend time around people, I like to be friendly with them. I like to know them. I like them to know me. I like them to know about my life and the things that I do. Similarly, I like to hear about people’s kids and people’s spouses and their hobbies and the things they love. I’m a person who likes getting to know people. It always felt like I can’t bring all of myself to this. When I come to this job site, there’s a significant portion of myself that I have to set aside and leave behind that can’t exist here. In the period of time, where I was repressing things, it was hard but I was able in some ways to pretend that it wasn’t a thing. That’s part of why it built up and got as bad as it did in terms of my mental health. It got to a point where I was like, “I have to talk to somebody about this.”
I called a friend of mine and she was very supportive. I let it out like, “I’m having these feelings. I think this is what this means, but I don’t know.” She was like, “We’ve got to explore this, whatever it means, wherever it ends up.” Long story short, she came to my house, we did a makeover. We spent a whole bunch of time talking and crying. At the end of that day, I was like, “This is real. This is actually who I am.” It was the most me I had ever felt in my life up to that point. I looked in the mirror and I saw something that made sense to me, as opposed to what I had been, as opposed to what I had seen before, which was something that I was like, “Physically, that’s me but I don’t know that’s a representation of who I actually am.”The language that feels the best to you that is not hurting anybody is right. Click To Tweet
I didn’t care about myself. My hygiene was terrible. I had very low self-esteem and not a ton of confidence, but once I started to embrace who I was, all of those things started to turn around. It was hard because I had to stay at that job for a year after I came out to all of the people in my life. For all intents and purposes during that year, I was two different people every day or every workday anyways. I think that I still feel the effects of that to this day. Before that, I had some depression and anxiety, but it was situational. There’s this specific thing that I’m sad about because of what I’m going through, I’m probably sadder about this than I otherwise would be. I know depression is more than sadness, but that’s words I’m using for convenience. I never had random bouts of depression until after this. I never had random bouts of anxiety before this. Before that, I could point to like, “This is a specific circumstance that’s happening, that’s causing me to feel the way that I am.” I honestly think that baggage is from that time in my life, which is coming up on years ago. I still carry it with me.
When we are separate from our authentic selves and who we truly know ourselves to be, it creates a lot of internal suffering. Oftentimes, complex forms of stress, which is the day in and the day out of hiding, it’s something that naturally happens in childhood. It happens in abusive homes where there’s verbal abuse, neglect, emotional abuse. It doesn’t have to be hitting or beatings or sexual molestation. It can be as simple as the day in and day out, verbal abuse. Having to as a child, modify your behavior for the acceptance of your parents. As you get older, exactly what you’re talking about, realizing that’s not who I am. What you’re describing sounds to me a lot of complex post-traumatic stress, which I believe depression is a form of it.
I also believe that all mental illnesses are some manifestation of complex post-traumatic stress. It’s just what cluster of symptoms do you have. We pathologize it as if there’s something wrong with people. Instead of looking at it as, “You’ve been through this horrible situation. This is a normal coping mechanism, let’s find a way to help you through this.” We pathologize it and make people feel even worse and feel ashamed that they have something going on with their emotional health or mental health. I would imagine that coming out was a challenge for you. Are you okay talking about what that was like to come out?
I called that one friend, who was someone that I was very close to at the time. She was great and that was I think what gave me the strength to start coming out to other people. I had at least like, “This could have gone disastrously and it did not. Maybe I can do this again and it won’t be bad either.” I started to identify who are the people that I am absolutely the closest to that I can talk to build that base of support when maybe it all comes crashing down and someone very important to me is on board. I met with another one of my best friends who happened to live behind me at the time. I sent him one of those texts that I feel bad about the way that I did this because I’m sure it stressed him out a little bit. I was at work and I was like, “You got a minute this afternoon? I need to come to your house and talk to you about something.” He was like, “Is everything okay?” I was like, “I think so, but I’m not sure.” I’m sure that was stressful for him. I have apologized profusely for him too.
I came out to him and it went very well. He was like, “It’s surprising. I’m not entirely sure that I know what it means. I love you and so I want you to be happy. Whatever that means you need to do, I want you to do. Whatever hang-ups I have about it, I’ll work through and as long as we can talk openly with each other about stuff, then we’ll do the thing.” That was the repeat of the conversation that I had over and over again. I was super fortunate in that way. I did lose two important family relationships. My aunt straight-up refuses to even entertain the idea of respecting who I was. My grandma who is a very conservative Pentecostal was basically like, “I’ll always love you, but you know what the Bible has to say about that thing.” She tried to convince me that I was possessed by a demon that was making me feel this way. It was gross and tried to make it work for some time.
I made the decision to cut off contact with her, not entirely because of trans reasons. There were other things too, but that was the impetus for it. I lost some friends along the way, no important friendships. I got lucky. I did the job that I was at. I lost that job over being trans in an indirect way because it wasn’t my boss was like, “I don’t like that you’re trans. You’re fired.” It was like, “Our clients are super rich and super conservative and they’re not going to want you in their houses.” I’m like, “You’re right about that.” It was a small business. We were a company made up of four people and this guy was living in his sister’s basement with his two kids at the time trying to save money to buy a house. He’s trying to feed his family. I’m not trying to get in the way of that. If this was a big billion-dollar corporation, I’d be ready to tell HR like, “You’ve got to burn the place down for this,” but this is a guy trying to feed his family. I’m not trying to get in the way of that. Eventually, it became clear that it wasn’t going to work and I quit. I lost that job because I was trans somewhat indirectly, but that’s what it was.
I am eagerly awaiting the day when that becomes illegal to fire somebody because of things like this. It is not okay.
In some states, thankfully but not federally. It sucks too because people can be sneaky about it and do it for that reason without saying it’s that reason and get away with it. There are laws that need to be fixed, but there’s a culture that needs to be too.
There’s a culture that needs to be fixed. “How do we go about that?” is the question. It’s easy to point out the problems. The solutions can be a little bit more challenging because the solution requires other people to change. We don’t have control over that.
I should say that the first of two comings out, I didn’t understand that non-binary was a thing. As far as I knew, there were two boxes. One didn’t fit, so I had to pick the other one. A lot of the trappings of that felt very correct to me at the time, long hair, makeup, dresses, painted nails, stereotypically feminine and everything. That’s what made sense to me. At the time, it was trans women, she/her pronouns and it wasn’t until probably months ago that I had come to Jesus moment, as the best way that I can think to describe it, that non-binary is what made the most sense to me. It would take me a long time to talk about everything that brought me to that point, but a lot of stereotypical gendered things stopped making sense to me. Even thinking in terms of the gender binary, I don’t fit neatly into one category or another. Thinking about the binary and the requisite stereotypes, I don’t fit into those things.
I’m trying to opt out of thinking that way at all. I’m thinking in terms of like, “I have this category. I tick these boxes in this category. I’m these boxes in this category, whichever category has the most check marks is the one that I have to pick.” I think trans people feel a very strong pressure to do that to be seen as respectable and as worthy of being taken seriously and respected. Even among some trans people, there’s an attitude that people who are non-binary are confused and that eventually, you’ll settle down and pick one. That was like, “It’s not serious. You’re doing it for attention because you want to be special.” It’s all crap. I had a couple of strong experiences around clothing, gendered language and those sorts of things that were none of this fits me.
The man box doesn’t fit, the woman box doesn’t fit. It was about figuring out what language felt correct. I would literally say out loud, “My name is Callie and I’m a man.” That feels terrible. I want to wash my mouth out when I say that. When I say like, “My name is Callie and I’m a woman.” I’m like, “It maybe feels like a t-shirt that doesn’t fit right.” It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it certainly doesn’t seem it fits. “My name is Callie, I’m a non-binary person and my pronouns are they/them.” That all started to feel the thing that was the most correct to me. I did the same thing.
I had some close friends, my wife, my roller derby teammates and I was like, “This is a thing I’m thinking about. Can I try this for a couple of days?” I have used they/them pronouns when talking about me around me? I want to see how it feels.” Immediately, it felt correct to me. It felt right. Being referred to as gender-neutral ways is what feels correct to me. I’m finally comfortable with claiming that language to refer to myself. I think it was a little bit easier because as far less of a thing coming out because everybody already knows that I’m trans. I’m like, “I’m a different kind of trans than I maybe thought I was before.” That’s been less of a big deal. That was more of, personally for me, feeling that I finally figured out what makes sense to me and what fits in a way that feels it fits more than the other thing did.
That’s a wonderful explanation. That’s helpful. That’s interesting because that’s what you described. I’ve heard many people say it is like, “They’ll figure it out. They’ll eventually settle down and pick one.” It sounds like it took you a long time to unpick one. One thing I talk about a lot because I specialize in intergenerational and developmental traumas, it’s a lifelong journey to connect with ourselves authentically and learn who we are and all the bits and pieces. It’s this big exploration of the subconscious.
We’re handed much and told, “This is what you have to be. This is who you have to be.” I was fortunate because all of the crappy stuff about gender came from places outside my own home. My mom was fantastic. I love my mom to death. We have a great relationship still to this day. She’s one of my best friends and I love her dearly. Coming out was a big deal to her, but it wasn’t a problem. We’re all settled in and that’s all fine. I feel fortunate that my mom did set the light, “I want you to grow up to be a happy and healthy adult. I don’t have any other ones or expectations for you aside from that.” She would do the mom thing where I’d be like, “I’m going to be a band and a famous musician and tour the world.”
My mom was like, “If you love music, maybe be a music teacher because that’s something you can pay your bills with.” She was doing the mom thing, but that was all of the right stuff to do. She never discouraged me from following my self-expression, all of the weird haircuts that I had when I was a kid and all of the clothes that I had. I never got more than an eye roll from that. I think my mom was entitled to that and that’s totally fine. I had a lot of baggage to wade through. Thankfully, I didn’t have quite as much as some people do because I didn’t have those super rigid standards growing up at home, at least.Trans people are not a monolith. Click To Tweet
Could you help us understand a little bit more about the pronouns? I get he/him and she/her/hers and they/them, I get that. It’s a little harder to understand and I’m not even sure how to pronounce it. I’ve seen pronouns with the letter Z and M also with the letter X and M, where do those come from? Can you help us understand the pronouns? Does that fall into the bimodal distribution also?
I don’t know. Generally speaking, yes, but not always. I don’t find it useful to think of pronouns as inherently gendered because there are non-binary people who are comfortable with she/her and he/ him pronouns. That’s why I asked my friends if they would test them out on me. Obviously, he/him is the stereotypical masculine pronoun. She/her are the stereotypical feminine pronoun. They/them are the gender-neutral pronoun that you will find most non-binary folks use if they want a gender-neutral pronoun, but Xe, Xem, Xe, Xyr and those are what we call neopronouns. My understanding is the origins of some of them are languages other than English that have a commonly used gender-neutral pronoun. Some of them are pronouns that people have said like, “What we have in English doesn’t make sense to me. This is what does make sense to me.”
They put it out there as to why and it makes sense to some other people and they decided to use that as well. It’s as simple as that. I love the idea of normalizing, asking and giving pronouns as a matter, socially. As soon as I learned way back when I first came out and I learned that non-binary people existed, I started an effort to degender my language as much as possible because I think that’s an important thing to do. There’s so much crappy misogynist baggage wrapped up in some of the languages that we don’t even think is wrapped up that way. It can be as simple as like, “My name is Callie, my pronouns are they/them.” I’m a big fan of introducing yourself with your pronouns as a matter, instead of necessarily asking people for their pronouns. If I say, “My name is Callie, my pronouns are they/them,” that’s an implicit invitation for the other person to do the same if they’re comfortable doing that. The thing is we all always have to realize that we might be in an environment where it’s not safe to do that.
For me, I play roller derby. I’m physically strong. I can handle my own. If people want to get physical with me, that’s probably not going to go super well for them. I feel safe wherever I’m at, so I don’t mind. I don’t lead with that like, “My name is Callie. I know local trends.” In most situations, I don’t feel uncomfortable or unsafe outing myself as trans, which, if I say my pronouns are they and them, obviously that’s what everyone’s going to think. They’ll be confused because not everyone even knows that non-binary trans people is a thing. Some people aren’t comfortable that way. If someone on the outside appears to be a very stereotypical feminine person, but turns out they’re a trans guy that uses he/him pronouns, from an onlooker who would be interested in hurting a trans person, that perceived mismatch between their appearance and the way they’re asking people to refer to them can out them as trans.
That can create an unsafe situation. I don’t like to unless I’m in a space where I know that’s an okay thing to do. When I meet strangers, I say, “My name’s Callie and my pronouns are they/them.” I leave it to the other person to handle however they want. I will use someone’s name in place of pronouns or I’ll use positive identifiers. When I give talks at conferences and I call them like, “My friend there with the blue hat or my friend there with the Ohio state shirt on,” something along those lines.
All of this makes sense to me because if we take a deep dive and start to look inside of ourselves, every one of us is going to have some question of, “Where do I fall?” I consider myself a cis white female and at the same time, when it comes to femininity, I don’t see myself super feminine. When it comes to the stuff that we normally associate with women, I hate to shop. I don’t care too much about makeup. I put a little bit of eye makeup on, but that’s about it. The stuff that makes girly girls, there’s a little bit more toward the masculine spectrum. I’m happier in a pair of sweatpants than I am with a skirt.
For me, that comes down to figuring out what language feels the best for you. What feels right is right because you’re not hurting anybody.
It is an interesting self-exploration. If everybody got honest with themselves and looked inside, they would see that they don’t fit neatly into any of these, male-female boxes or masculine-feminine boxes that you’re talking about.
I was out of town for a storytelling event. I was staying with a friend and this was right around the time where I had come out as non-binary. They had asked me like, “Is it cool if we asked where that come from?” I spent probably 1.5 hours running down all of the experiences that I had had that led me to think of myself this way. My friends sit on the couch and her mind is blown. She was like, “I don’t have a different experience than anything you just said. Did I figure it out I was non-binary?” I was like, “I don’t know. Did you?” Ultimately, people could have similar experiences but have different levels of comfort around the language that they use to describe them and that’s okay. I think so much of the difficulty that people have, as species human beings, generally, we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity.
We like to meet the answers. We like solid answers. It is either this thing or the other thing or one of these three things or something along those lines. We get very uncomfortable when it’s like, “I don’t know what the answer is.” It’s different for everyone and that’s okay. Honestly, that’s where so much of the discomfort around trans people come from because as a trans person, I have been forced into doing a lot of self-exploration that a lot of people never have to do. In some ways, that’s a gift. I know myself very well. I’ve been able to identify the things about myself that I don’t like and try to change them, but also being forced to do that self-exploration and living in a society where what I figured out about myself is not considered an okay thing. That’s tough. Part of the reason is that people are threatened by that.
I’m going to overgeneralize here because I know there are exceptions and I’m overgeneralizing. A lot of the people that I work with trauma and childhood trauma, people who are okay with not knowing, are people who have come through their traumas. They’ve healed from them and they’ve made it to the other side. They’re not still struggling with that internal mindset that this negative feedback loop of internal self-talk that holds us down. That type of traumatized internal self-talk is what needs to know. It’s that superego mindset. I call it the narrator because it’s always telling us. It’s always creating stories based on your perceptions and experiences in life. Your experiences in life have been vastly different than mine. If you get caught up in your story as if it’s the only truth and I get caught up in mine, then we’re going to butt heads and we’re going to clash. It takes curiosity and understanding out of the equation.
What I’ve seen and it’s been my experience that people who have healed from those traumas, they’ve found a way inside their own mind to get that voice under control. They have some control over that voice where that voice becomes the servant, not the master. They’re the ones who are okay with not knowing. They’re okay with the curiosity. They’re okay with, “Let’s try this out and see what happens.” As you explained with, “Do you mind calling me, they/them for a few days and see how it goes for me? Could you help me out here?” It’s almost like a little experiment. I do believe there’s an element of trauma on both sides of it. It sounds like you’ve come through a lot of your trauma. I can’t imagine anybody being in the LGBTQ community in America who doesn’t have some trauma from the social climate and from walking outside. I don’t know the experience of walking out my door into public as a trans person, as a queer person, as a lesbian. I don’t know what that experience is like. For me to sit here and somehow judge somebody else and say that their experience is invalid because I haven’t had, it is ridiculous.
For me, figuring all of that out has been such a gift, not just learning about myself, but in the connections that I’ve been able to make with other people and learning about where people are coming from. The great joy of making my podcast is meeting all of the rad people with this wide variety of experiences and learning that the trans experience does not have to be inherently tragic. It often is, but that’s not because of our transness, it is because of other how other people react to our transness. Doing that, it’s been a lot of great self-exploration for me, learning from other people, but also learning for their own sake that other people have got to a place in their life where they’re able to do amazing things. They’ve overcome all of these obstacles. It’s been great for me in reminding myself that this is an okay thing to be. The problems that I face around my transness are societal problems. They’re not problems that I have brought on myself because of the kind of person I happen to be.
What is the social climate like? What are some of your experiences with being out in society? Do you mind talking about the social climate a bit?
A couple of important things to point out, one is that I am white and that greatly reduces the stress that I feel every day for being trans. Trans people of color get the worst of the worst of it in terms of everything, honestly. The other is that I am a middle-class person. I’m not poor. That greatly changes the experience that I have relative to other people. That being said, for me, the stress is more systemic and societal. Thankfully on a day to day, the worst that I get is people whispering about me under their breath at the store. The rude comment here or there. Somebody saying a crappy thing, a crappy comment on a YouTube video that comes from my podcast, a crappy email and DM. There has been one time where I legitimately thought that I was in danger of violence. My wife and I, girlfriend at the time, we were at the store.
We had signed the lease for our first apartment and we were at the store getting cleaning supplies or something mundane like that. There was a guy that kept looking at us and then looking back at his wife. I try hard not to attribute stereotypes to people’s emotions, but he read as being very angry while looking back and forth between me and his wife. As they were leaving the store, he turned and he was walking directly towards us with hate in his eyes. I had seen that in the protesters in Pride festivals that are screaming slurs at you. You can tell that these people are hate-filled. It was that look that he had in his eyes looking straight at me. At the time, my wife had no idea this was happening.Allyship is a verb. It's not a thing that you are, it's a thing that you do. Click To Tweet
She was looking towards me. We were talking and I was glancing over. I didn’t want to freak her out, but he was walking towards us and at a quickened pace with hate in his eyes. At last, he turned to walk the other way. Thankfully nothing happened, but that was terrifying. Personally, where it’s the grossest for me and where it hurts the most for me and this is a marker of privilege, but I get to travel rather often to do interviews, to do conferences. Being trans at the airport is not fun. I’ve had bottom surgery. I had vaginoplasty years ago. Ever since then, I had probably two dozen trips through the airport. There have been maybe two or three times where I didn’t have to enter a crotch pat-down from the TSA. Do you know how the body scanners at airports work?
I don’t. They can see your naked body through your clothes.
They can. What they say is that unless someone has authorization, they don’t see the pictures the machine takes, but what happens is you walk up, there’s a pink button and a blue button and the agent picks one based on the way that you look. The machine then scans for the stereotypically appropriate anatomy for that button that you have pressed, if there’s “anomaly,” that part of your body gets flagged for a pat down. There have been times where my crotch has flagged and I asked like, “Are you screening me as female?” They would say, “Yes.” I’m like, “That doesn’t make any sense to me because at this point in my life, the machine is looking for the anatomy that I have.” I don’t know. Even the TSA agents don’t know. That’s why this is all security theater. I was flying home from New York and the TSA agent told me that she thought the lettering on my shirt might’ve triggered the scanner. It’s all crap and none of it makes any sense or does any good for anyone.
I had a TSA agent asked if my breasts were prosthetics once because my chest flagged the machine and they have to feel up around her bra. That was humiliating. When I was in Seattle on the flight back as I approached the machine, the guy was like, “Raise your hands as you do. Put your hands above while the machine scanned you.” As I raise my hands, he goes, “I hit the wrong button.” The other TSA agent walks up behind him and she goes, “From a distance, it looked like the other thing.” I guess they’re depending on the fact that most people don’t understand how those machines work. I had to do the research because I’m flying as a trans person. I need to know what I’m getting myself into. I knew exactly what they were saying, “From a distance, it looked like the other thing.”
Being talked about like that, like I’m not there knowing what that was dehumanizing and humiliating. That was gross. There have been times in those crotch pat downs where legitimately the agent’s hand has touched my vagina. It feels gross and I hate it. I’ve heard stories far worse than my own about that too and that’s the luxury that a lot of people have that they probably don’t even think about. Obviously, nobody likes the TSA, but that’s probably the most visceral thing for me that I experienced on a regular basis is being humiliated by having a stranger touch the sensitive areas of my body regularly. In one way or another because they don’t fit with what is expected.
I didn’t even know that was a thing that you had to go through. Here I am thinking that there’s a person of color in front of me. They’re more likely to get the random search than I am because random searches are not random. I’m sorry, they’re not random and Customs, coming back into this country.
I have not flown internationally.
It’s not random. I have flown to Canada several times. When I go through Customs in Toronto, I don’t have to do anything. When I get back to Columbus, you get off the plane and go home. They’re not unbiased in the Customs Department at the Toronto Airport. I’ve witnessed it several times. I can almost stand in line and pick out the people in front of me that are going to be pulled off to the side or taken to the room in the back.
To open a whole other can of worms, I will say in terms of things that make me remember that I’m not welcome to a lot of areas of society is the current discourse about trans people participating in sports. I play roller derby. I play a very physical, violent contact sport. There are lots of people that don’t feel like I should belong there. People think that my presence is dangerous there.
I don’t understand. I cannot get my head around that line of thinking. What are the types of things that they say to you? What are the reasons for you to saying you shouldn’t participate?
The idea is that as a person who’s puberty was fueled by testosterone, it gives irreversible advantages that people whose puberties are fueled by estrogen do not have. It’s scientifically inaccurate. That’s not how it works. We were talking about sex is a bimodal distribution. It’s a bell curve. Even if we accept a binary, in that case, it’s objectively true that there’s a wild variation in terms of that. For example, Michael Phelps. They found out that his muscles naturally produce 1/3 of the lactic acid of a real person’s. It was like, “What a genetic marvel.” If a seven-foot-tall woman joins the WNBA, nobody’s going to say like, “She has an unfair advantage, so we have to stop her from participating.” The argument is that we have an unfair advantage, in which the conversation they never talk about trans men having an inherent disadvantage. The joke that I had is that cis men shouldn’t be able to participate in men’s sports because they have an inherent advantage over trans men, which is not true. That’s the facetious thing to say in response.
When it comes down to this is there are lots of places where trans people are allowed to compete in sports and we don’t dominate. We don’t regularly dominate everyone in a way that makes it obvious that we have an inherent advantage. That even feels a gross argument to make because then I’m arguing my mediocrity is evidence for why I belong and that crap. I don’t like that at all. I think about playing roller derby and how often I get my ass kicked. In theory, I should have an advantage over all of these cis women and I clearly do not. There are some that kicked my ass regularly and very hard. There are some that I kicked theirs and I’m in the middle of the pack on that. It’s been such an amazingly positive thing in my life and legitimately life-changing. If I never played roller derby again, my life would forever be better for it. The idea that trans people shouldn’t have access to something like that, it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart to know that there are people who have been pushed out of sports of one kind or another for those reasons. It’s been such a positive thing in my life.
I understand that you won’t ever tell anybody what you refer to as your dead name. I’m assuming your dead name is the name you were given at birth. Can you talk about why? That’s something I didn’t know was a thing. I’m curious as to what that’s about.
Names are very important. It’s the word that you hear most often in reference to yourself. There’s a lot of self-identity that’s wrapped up in your name. Not every trans person feels the way that I do. That’s important to point out, but for me, my dead name is a representation of a person that I am not anymore largely. At a time in my life where I was not living authentically and I was not presenting my true self to the world. I have those feelings with that name. It is important to point out, trans people are not a monolith. Not everyone feels that way. There are some people who will literally say, “When I was Jim,” that doesn’t resonate with me. That doesn’t feel good to me at all. That’s like the one thing. I’ve done probably six or seven episodes of my podcast about my vagina.
I don’t have any shyness about that, but my dead name is something that I will never tell anyone because of those feelings about it. I’d rather talk about Calliope and how she’s the Greek muse of epic poetry and has a neat story that I feel resonates with my own life a lot. That’s why I picked that name. I feel confident saying that most trans people feel somewhat similar to me about their dead names. Most of us would prefer to leave those in our past, even if their feelings aren’t quite as strong as mine is on the subject. It’s very important to not always err on the side of forgetting your trans friends’ dead names and never use them again, even in reference to the past. It is not a universally held opinion, but I feel confident saying that’s the majority opinion.
This has been eye-opening and enlightening for sure because this is the first time I’ve had this topic on my show. It’s such an important topic because there are a significant number of people in the population who fall into the LGBTQIAA community. In my humble opinion, it’s important for all of us to coexist and to get along peacefully. There are a lot of people in the world that I would rather keep at arm’s length and that’s okay. I can keep them and still coexist peacefully. There doesn’t have to be anger and vitriol. I hope some of this discussion cleared up any questions that people might have, maybe raised some questions. It sounds like your podcasts could help answer any more questions that people have, which is Queersplaining. Could you tell our readers where to find your show?All voices are very important. It's important to make an effort to seek those voices out. Click To Tweet
Queersplaining.com is the website. The show should be on all of the podcast platforms. Anywhere you get podcasts, you should be able to get my show. If that’s not true, let me know because I would be bummed to find that out. You should be able to find it anywhere you find podcasts.
Thank you so much, Callie. This has been helpful.
I’m glad. Thanks for having me. It’s been a great talk.
It’s been a good conversation. Do you have any final tips or bits of wisdom to leave with our readers?
I would say be proactive. Learning about these things and learning how to be respectful of queer folks, and trans folks, especially allyship is a verb. It’s not a thing that you are, it’s a thing that you do. It’s very important. I am one member of the trans community. We’re not a monolith. I can’t speak for everyone in the community. It’s important to do your best to seek out the voices of people and others in the trans community, especially those who have different experiences than mine, trans people of color, poor people, disabled people and people who have intersecting identities that I don’t necessarily have. All of those voices are very important. It’s important to make an effort to seek those voices out as well.
Thank you so much, Callie. It’s been an honor to have you here.
Thank you so much for having me.
For all of our readers, if you want more information about my show, you can find me at JenniferWhitacre.com. You can find more information about my podcast at JenniferWhitacre.com/Podcast or you can look me up on Facebook. Look for Jennifer Whitacre and that’s where you’ll find me. You’ll find this episode on Facebook and on my website. I will see all of you next week.
- Jennifer Whitacre on Facebook
About Callie Wright
Callie Wright is a non-binary, transgender person whose pronouns are they/them. Callie is a super okay roller derby player, coffee lover, and podcast maker.
Their show is called Queersplaining which is a personal narrative show about the lives of queer and transgender people.
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