When I was in tenth grade, a student I’ll call “Ricki” gave a presentation in our history class. She was poised and articulate, tall and slim, dangling earrings and long brown hair. She wore heavy make-up, a mini-skirt, dark nylons, scarf tied around her neck. She was pretty and charmingly awkward, as though still adjusting to her own height. I found myself liking her, even though we had never met.
Then she brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, and I blinked. The hands — large, like her feet. I looked closely at her scarf, hiding her adams apple. I froze, not because I was uncomfortable with a trans girl, but because I was terrified for her. In my high school, gay and transgender students were regularly beaten.
Fights in movies are carefully choreographed, a thundering dance sequence, often accompanied by pounding background music to feed an adrenaline rush. A fight in real time is different. The thud of fist on meat, except the “meat” is a human body. The cries. The grunts. Torn flesh. Blood. People slip, stumble, flail. They heave as they struggle to breathe. At my high school, fights were too common.
That day in my history class, as I listened to Ricki’s report on the Articles of Confederation, she read my expression and saw that I knew her. She swallowed hard. I had no intention of outing her, but she didn’t know. She watched me closely as she reached for her poster and that instant, with everyone’s eyes on her “required visual prop,” I mouthed, “It’s okay.” She finished her presentation and as she walked past, returning to her desk, she whispered “Thanks.” I nodded slightly without looking at her, neither of us wanting to draw attention.
Over the course of high school, Ricki and I ran into each other occasionally. Our bond was unusual, founded on one intensified moment, and our friendship remained within that initial connection. She never told me her last name, or if she had siblings, or whether she planned to go to college. But she confided that every moment of every day, she feared discovery. She felt “trapped in a male body,” but the issue was “complicated,” because “it’s my body, the only body I’ve ever known.” She said that if anyone at school identified her as trans, her beating would be inevitable, and she feared her assailants would “get carried away and kill me by accident.” Still, she showed up every day, “because I won’t let them stop me.” I also knew her favorite color was green, her favorite class was history, her favorite earrings dangled, and her favorite food was chocolate.
Today, over forty years later, my country struggles to regain equilibrium after a few brutal weeks, harsh even in the skewed standards of the Trump Era. Eleven were gunned down as they worshipped in their Pittsburgh synagogue. More were wounded. An African-American man and woman fell in Kentucky, dead of gunshot wounds. Pipe bombs were intercepted, targeting several people for their liberal political beliefs. Anti-immigrant sentiment continues to boil over, focusing on The Caravan, targeted for character assassination before they even reach the United States. And another kind of annihilation is in the works — a movement to “redefine” gender, to remove all Title IX protections for the transgender population, to erase people who are transgender and gender-nonconforming.
All of these seemingly different events are actually variations on the same dangerous theme. The theme is murder. I wonder where Ricki is today and what she’d say, given that she spent her high school years expecting to be murdered.
The notion of “Transgender” sends people over the top, and I wish I could calm their worries. It makes some people so anxious that they reflexively try to make it go away. But “Transgender” isn’t an IT; Transgender is a human being. When you try to erase the idea of trans, you’re not trying to erase a concept. You’re trying to erase people, which won’t work. You can’t erase 1.4 million transgender individuals by changing a dictionary-definition of gender. Just like you can’t erase African-Americans, or Jews, or immigrants, or liberals by firing bullets or mailing pipe bombs or telling them they don’t exist. You can hurt others irrevocably, skyrocket fear in our homeland, enable an upsurge of bigotry. But you can’t erase people.
I haven’t seen Ricki since high school. I hope she owns a fine collection of dangling earrings. I hope her home is filled with green and chocolate. I hope she’s safe. I hope she stands proud, a transgender woman, one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. And I hope she knows that I stand with her — then, now and always.
*All Identifying information in this post has been changed to protect “Ricki’s” privacy.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, deals with homophobic bullying in high school, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor working to guide the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case.
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