hacklikeagirl

Beth 'pidge' Flanagan's blog. Open source queer.

On writers block. Now with Choose Your Own Adventure!

I’ve been walking a lot recently. I walk mainly to think, to process, to figure out things. The past few weeks have been me walking and thinking about this unending stream of topics I want to write about. As I walk (like a NJ/NYer, which means, two speeds, fast or GTFO of my way!), I think, fleshing some of these things out a bit. I end up telling myself “Oh, that would be something people would care about! File that away!”

And I have some real winners too. About the pitfalls of dating as a dyke identified trans woman. About how I almost died from a botched surgery. About the time I had to deal with 40 Philadelphia vice squad cops. About the for and by trans woman health clinic/surgery I helped start. About really personal things, some funny, some sad, all of them honest and (hopefully) interesting.

So, I sit down to start banging away on the keyboard and I realize that I don’t know where or how to start. How do I begin to even write about some of this stuff? Written words can’t even wholly express some of it. How do I put on paper what will be, in a few years, some of the more colorful parts of half my life? Maybe I should just say “Fuck it” and do what everyone else does and write about current events, just to avoid trying to figure out how to fit part of a life into an easy to digest blog post?

I guess part of why I’m so blocked up right now is because of Edward dying. I know, maybe I’m blaming everything on that of late, and I KNOW I haven’t really gone into that whole bit here and I should. But not right now. I can’t even pass a Burberry store (He *loved* Burberry) without crying.

When someone so close to you in age dies suddenly from a health complication, your thoughts are going to naturally turn to one thing; you’re next. I think that has something to do with what’s going on. I think I have so many things I want to get out of my head NOW, that I’m clogged up.

There is this story I want to tell about all these really awesome trans women (shout out to y’all, you know how you are) who I’ve come across in my life. These women literally transformed what it meant to be a trans women in this world, changed how the world related to us and how we related to the world. I can’t even begin to describe how different things were 20 years ago and how these women literally changed it. Every time I try to begin to explain *that* history, I just don’t even know where to start. But. again. I don’t know where to start because stories like that are just. so. big. So, I guess I’ll just start a bit smaller. But that begs the question. Where?

I’m going to be lazy and just leave this up to you. I figure that if I’m assigned a topic, I’ll feel a bit of pressure to stick to that topic and not wander. So, have at it folks. I’ll pick whichever is in the lead when I get a bit of writing steam going again (a week or so, probably).

P.S. I know, I haven’t written much about my Europe trip. I’m processing. I will, I promise.

On chosen family

I really dislike making New Years resolutions. However, with the whole “forgiving the family” post fresh in my mind, I’ve got to kind of temper my being an overly understanding doormat with me being a little bit of a killjoy.

When you lack blood relations, you make due with the people who come into your life. Sometimes, those people fill the void. Edward, who, for lack of a better word, was my adopted brother, was one of those people. My life was so much better for having known him. When my ex broke up with me, it was Edward whose shoulder I cried on. When she moved out, it was him who was with me when I came back into a half empty house and it was him who drove me around to find silly things, like a can opener.

My roommate. She’s the same. She’d probably take a bullet for me if I asked her to (although I’m tempted to ask her to, I don’t want to stretch the limits of our friendship). My friends B and C. The same. These are the folks who on those rare moments when I need something, they’re the ones I call.

And then… there’s the other folks. The folks you’ve kept so long because, well… you just have. They call you when they want something, but other than that, you don’t hear from them. When you need something, they’re never there. Or, they do fucked up shit and refuse to either own it, or when called on it, deflect. Yes, I’m thinking of two specific people in my life within the past year, who, if they aren’t dead to me at this point, they’re certainly in the “lost their phone number, ain’t calling anytime soon” section.

As an orphan, you keep those folks in your life out of some sense of… I don’t know, duty? Maybe a sense that if you do get them out of your life you’ll be left with nothing? Conceptual scarcity? I don’t know. But you do keep them, even though when they do interact with you, they basically get to make you feel like crap, and you let them do it, consequence free. And you take it, because, heaven knows, if you didn’t you’d be… alone? But, then there are those other people… oh… yeah… right…

So. Here is my New Years resolution. It’ll be the first one I’ve ever made in my adult life. I will no longer waste what precious time I have on people who don’t treat me, somewhat consistently (I mean, hey, we all have bad days, right?) with anything less than dignity, integrity, and honor.  Because life is too short to spend wasting it on people who treat you like crap.

A letter to my biological family

“So, did you get the presents I sent?”
“Yes.”
“Well…. did you open them?”
“No. We threw them out unopened.”
“*sigh* Should I even continue trying with you?”
“Probably not.”
- Last discusssion I ever had with my father, over the phone, Christmas 1996

Dear biological family,

I’ve hated Christmas for years. I didn’t use to hate it. In fact, it use to be one of my favorite holidays. For years it was the day that I mourned being told to stop trying; that I should give up hope on ever being part of the family again. These days though I usually try to spend today alone, in quiet contemplation. Doing so over the years has transformed it for me, into a different kind of holiday.

You know, over the years, my perspective on this has changed dramatically. The first 5 years after I was declared “Dead to me”, I spent the entire holiday season in a deep despair or angry at you. Now? Almost two decades after escaping the toxicity of being in the family, I’ve moved through being angry about it to now being kind of indifferent. Because, really, you gave me the best Christmas present ever.

By not having you in my life, I was forced to grow into my own person. Without having the support people normally get from their families, I had to make due and figure it out on my own. If anything, this made me a vastly more interesting person and certainly a stronger one.

When you removed me from the family, you also cut off the pipeline of guilt and self-loathing. This, I think, is one of the better gifts from all of this. Because I didn’t have you tsk tsking, I was able to have adventures you could never dream of. I was able to live my life answering only to me, without guilt, without apology. Thank you for that.

I know you don’t think of what you did as a gift. I know, to you, it was punishment. Punishment for breaking the rules. Punishment for speaking out. Punishment for saying this is who I am, if you don’t like it… door. ass. try not to let one hit the other on your way out. And while I *know* I’m not entirely blameless for how things went down (I was awful and a kid and under a hell of a lot of pressure from multiple sides), the fact is, I’m much older now (and much grayer) and I realize that being mad at how you handled my transition doesn’t help anyone.

So, biological family of mine. Thank you. For two decades of freedom from you. For two decades of quiet holidays. For giving me the space to find my chosen family, those who love and cherish me (even if they’ll never quite get why I spend this day in my lab, working). For giving me space to heal from the damage that exists in our family, that you inherited just as much as I inherited my damage.

I hope that this time away has given you some of the same healing. I know none of this was easy for you and that you, like me, were navigating without a map, muddling around in the dark, damaged, blind, people walking about on rough terrain.

In closing, I was reminded of a valuable lesson this year. Life is really fucking short and can be revoked at any time. I lost a few good people this year. Some I knew very well and not having them around during this season pains me. Some, I hardly knew, but people I cared about did and seeing the pain their deaths caused was yet another reminder. Life is fragile and fleeting and being reminded of it so often this year, has given me the kick in the ass that I should probably say some things before it’s to late.

So, Mom, Dad, Sister, and yes, even you my Brother, who I’ve hated for so many years, I give you on this Christmas day, the only gift I can from so far away. My forgiveness. Because, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t true, I am your daughter and sister and my imperfections are a reflection of yours and without forgiveness, well… what can we ever hope for?

And while I have no overwhelming desire to have you in my life again (I may be able to forgive you, but trust is something that has to be built), I do want you to know that this last present is one I hope you open.

-b

I punch the first person who says anything about Pink Floyd.

tower_of_london

Caution: Discussion of personal trauma. Abuse, physical and otherwise. Also, cliched thoughts about walls and me being a dork in general.

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238

“Hey, I have, I dunno, a weird question. It’s about your blog.”

Oh shit. I’m on the phone with a friend of mine. One of my “open source friends”. They tend to be the group I discuss being trans with the least, mainly because, well, it just never comes up. I think “Oh crap. This is going to be ‘THE OP’ question. I know it. It’s going to have something to do with cut off penises…”

“Okayyyyy…. shoot?”

“So, this whole Bradley Manning thing….”

“You mean Chelsea…”

“Yeah, Chelsea. Do you think they’re just doing this to get an easier time in prison.”

I stifle a snort and couch my next words carefully, wanting to really make him understand it.

“Um…. the likeliness of her being treated well in a men’s prison during transition is highly unlikely. I mean, you do realize that she’ll most likely be kept in a guys jail and denied medical treatment for this. If she’s “lucky”, she’ll get some limited medical care and they’ll put her in adseg which means she’ll be a little less likely to be raped but she’ll be in a cage, alone. for 23 our of 24 hours. If she’s unlucky, well… it’s genpop, which increases her risk of violence, but she’d at least have time out of cell. I wouldn’t imagine anyone wanting to do this expecting better treatment. She’ll likely get much worse treatment.”

“Oh…. ok. I didn’t realize”

We continue our conversation but this part of it sticks into my head. This is not a non-intelligent person I’m talking to but the simple reality is, the lives of trans women are so far from what the dominant culture even thinks about, that cisgender folks just have no clue about our lives. Here is this really smart guy asking me a question that I’ve known the answer to for 20 years because what the general public knows about our lives is limited to what sensationalistic crap they catch from TV or from cisqueers using our lives for entertainment fodder (yes, I’m looking at you Hedwig. And you Ticked off Tr*****s.)

The reason I bring this up is because this week is both the Trans Day of Remembrance and apparently, Trans Awareness Week. At least 238 transwomen were murdered this year. This is only the murders. Not the assaults. Not the rapes. Not the suicides. Murders. Considering that there aren’t a whole lot of us floating about, this number is appalling and it is probably at the low end. I’m sure many more have been killed this year, that they’ve been lost to the count either through non-reporting or misgendering. The vast majority of these women are poor and/or women of color  That’s not to say that violence doesn’t happen to white trans women. It does. But white trans women tend to be shielded from the worst of the violence.

TDoR is old news for me. I went to the memorials for a few years and stopped going when I watched some transdude mispronounce Gwen Araujo’s name. I never went back to another one. It was almost always something that seemed run by and for female cis queers and trans dudes, even though they aren’t the ones being murdered. It seemed to be a way for white cisqueers and trans guys to make themselves feel better for not giving a shit about trans women during the rest of the year. “Hey, for one night a year, we *care*. Just as long as you died a horribly violent death.” Yeah, I’m cynical.

For me, it was insulting. The people most effected should be the ones taking center stage. So they can mourn. It’s their communities being decimated by violence. So, I mourn TDoR in my own private way and try to avoid TDoR memorials (or, ugh, dance parties? REALLY? Who came up with that bright idea? Certainly not a trans woman.)

That said, this week is also something called “Trans Awareness Week.” I didn’t get the memo on this from the Cabal of Trans Folks until late, but apparently, we’re supposed to a. Let folks know we’re trans and b. Give folks 24 hours to ask all the stupid questions they could want without fear of us ripping their heads off. Personally, I can see letting folks know you’re trans being important. Like, if you’re friends with one, you’re less likely tosay, vote in favor of restricting the bathroom use of transkids in California schools.

Or murder us. I mean, hey, I know some of the folks who follow this blog, but maybe there is some craphead out there who goes out on a date, and after finding out his date is trans, thinks that the appropriate response is to murder her. Who knows, right? It’s the internet after all.

The second part of all of this I find kind of silly. Like, there is no universal trans chick experience. It’s not like we have a hive mind, so really, you ask 10 of us the same question, you’ll get 20 different answers. And, to be frank, I hate being Google for stupid “What do they do with the penis after they chop it off?” questions. It all feels horribly self-absorbed and my desire to participate in it is very limited. Besides, I would hope that I’m approachable enough that people felt ok with asking me questions.

But… that said. 238 women. My sisters. Women like me. They will never wake up, never see another sunrise. All because someone refused to see their humanity and passed a death sentence on them. Guilty of being some trans thing. So, if people needing to ask the “dumb questions” helps them, then sure. Fine. I’ll answer whatever dumb or not dumb question people have about my life if it means that person will make me a promise.

Here is the cost of me answering questions. I want everyone who reads this to do something to make the lives of trans women better. It could be as simple as saying something when people say transphobic shit or as complex as saying that you won’t consider the trans status of your dating partners or as obvious as saying you’ll fight for trans inclusion in your work insurance policies (many places do not include treatment for trans issues in their insurance policy, at least in the US).

Because I’m tired of seeing people like me get killed.
Because I never want to see another Rita Hester.
B
ecause I never want to see another Angie Zapata.
Because trans women of color are at an insanely high risk of being the victim of violence.
Because over the past 7 years, about 1,300 trans people have been murdered in 59 countries, the majority of those women being trans women of color.

Because this needs to stop.

Girl and a half.

“Hrmmm…. that doesn’t quite feel normal?”

I don’t want to hear this right now. Out of all the things I could have wanted to hear as I lie there while some guy I’ve just met not 20 minutes ago gropes about my breasts, that short phrase knots my stomach even more than it already is.

I’m in my new doctors office. I have to go to get my refill of estrogen and do the whole annual checkup. I always kind of dread going to a new doctor, especially when they’re not specifically knowledgeable in trans health care.

“When was the last time you had your period?”
“Uh, I never had one.”
Look of shock “Uh, why?”
“Because I lack a uterus…”

Then comes the whole explanation and then I have to do the 30 minute “Trans Healthcare for Doctors” spiel. Yes, I need breast exams. Yes, I know my estrogen intake.

This new doc was actually pretty ok. He admitted he had no clue. Ok, that’s a good start. We go through the standard questions and then it’s time for the once over exam. Yeah, sure, breast exam, whatevs.

“Yeah… I don’t think this should feel like this. Do you have a history of breast cancer in your family?”

Oh fuck. Oh shit. No, this isn’t happening to me. “Uh, not that I know of? I don’t speak to them anymore, so, I don’t exactly know what we die of other than black lung disease, alcoholism and emphysema”

“Well, I’d feel better if you get a mammogram. You’re a little young to start them, but with your estrogen intake, I’d rather be a bit cautious. Plus with your supernumerary nipples, there is evidence of a slight increased risk for breast cancer, even though this is probably just a cyst.”

Ok, don’t panic. It’s probably the same “hormonally active breasts” your last doc found…. it’s ok… probabl… wait. superwhatisit nipples? I sit there trying not to panic, trying not to think of having to have the breasts I spent years growing slashed off in a blink of an eye as I scan my 25 year old, little used Latin. Super…. numerary. Wait, did this doc just tell me I have extra boobs? What. The. Hell?

“Uh… supernumerary nipples? What do you mean by that?”

“This mole. And this one, right there under your armpit. They’re extra nipples.”

*blink*blink*
“Now, this lump is probably nothing to worry about. It’s most likely a cyst. But, I’m going to write you a script to go get a mammogram.”

We go through the rest of the exam, with my head bouncing between absolute panic and being somewhat amused. Extra boobs. I can’t help but imagine that I’m the dominant part of an in utero twin absorption. Does this make me the good twin or the evil twin? Will my now absorbed twin, one day try to regain control? For fucks sakes, please, don’t let this be cancer. Cool, it’s like being a character in geek love. Or a dog. How many nipples do dogs and cats have? Fuck, if it’s cancer, I don’t want to go through that. Not now. Please. Fuck, not one but two extra boobs. I’m like super girl and a half or something. Fuck. Cancer.

Shit.

I end up trudging out and going to work, ignoring the script in my bag. I’ll deal with it later I tell myself. Like, never. Because if I don’t get it checked out, then it can’t be cancer, or something like that. Don’t ciswomen get the whole breast health thing drilled into their skulls? We don’t. I’m kind of surprised that more transwomen don’t die of this. Oh, right. Too busy getting murdered or not having health care.

Besides, this is probably just the foot of my absorbed twin that he’s feeling. Yeah. One day, this little version of me will twist herself free from my breast and I’ll have a mini-me. Or, I’ll have cancer and then will get my boobs lopped off. Or I’ll have cancer and die. Or. or.

I’m bad at taking care of myself sometimes. Ok, a lot of the time. Doctors and dentists and the health care profession in general stress me out and when I can avoid them I will. I refused to go to the hospital when I broke my collar bone and dislocated three ribs (popped the ribs back in place myself and slung myself with the collarbone). But shit. Breast lump. Fuck fuck fuck.  I mention it on facebook. And then disappear into work. A week later I get a message from a friend of mine (we will call her S. )who knows me all too well.

“Did you go get your mammogram yet?”

“Uh. No, got busy.”

“Beth, Don’t fuck around with this.”

“Uh, I won’t. Swear. I just got busy.”

“By next week… ok?”

“Ok, mom.”

Fuck, don’t make me deal with this, S I just want to write code, get my release out, maybe go out for drinks. I don’t want to think about dying. I don’t have the bandwidth. I just dealt with Edward dying, I don’t want to deal with this shit. I know. I’ll think about the damn extra nipples, because then I can at least say I’m thinking in the general bodily area and maybe then I can squirm up the courage to go to the boob squishing van.

A week later.

“Did you go yet?”

“No, the mammogram van is coming next week.”

“Beth, dammit, just go!”

“I will, I will, I swear! I’ve made an appointment”

I didn’t. But shit, if I don’t go now, I’m lying and I don’t lie (I take it as a matter of pride that I don’t lie, except during poker and practical jokes). I make the appointment, dreading each day until it comes.

The day of the appointment, I drive the motorcycle in. There it sits. A bus sized, pink ribbon monstrosity. The thing that is going to tell me if I live or die. I eye it, like the thin letter a high school senior gets from that university they applied to but don’t think they got accepted to. Fuck, I just won’t go. Then I’ll never know and none of this will be real. I head into work, knowing that the bus in the parking lot has an appointment with my name on it. I head down at my allotted time. Squish. Zap. Done. Ok, that didn’t suck nearly as bad as I thought. And then I wait….

A week later, the doc calls. I go in again, trying hard not to vomit. It’s going to be cancer, I know it.

“Good news, it’s a cyst, like I thought. I still want to do an ultrasound to make absolutely sure, but, yeah, it’s just a biggish one”

I breath a sigh of relief. And then go back to thinking about this kind of weird thing I’ve now found out about my freakshow of a body. I decide that I like the absorbed twin explanation and that I’m going to name her after that friend of mine who rode my ass to go get my mammogram. I think she’d appreciate the humor.

Oh Dublin… I may have been wrong about you….

So. Dublin.

I was hating on you for a while. I really was. Somewhere within all my grumpy dislike for you, I wanted to like you, but I couldn’t find a reason. Then, I went to this party… and there was this woman… and a conversation… and now my heads all spinny and getting Dublin (and her and our conversation) out of my head has been difficult. So, let me tell you the story…

Friday, my last day in Dublin, I actually hopped in to go visit the local work office and talk to the locals. It was typical work and I headed on out of there, planning to go to the one thing that night I thought that I *might* have fun at. The local anarchist space was having a queer zombie dance party. Like, ok, right there, you’ve pretty much hit the head on what can drag me out of my shell to go socialize. Zombies? Queer? Anarchist? I’m there. You could call it an anarchist queer zombie root canal and I would be the first in line.

And I pretty much was. Like, suuuuper early. Oh, crap, I forgot. Queer standard time. People show up 2 hours after things start. Oh well, I’ll be social, drink tea, smoke, and chat. And I did just that, which I’m pretty proud of myself for doing. A lot of times, I’ll find a corner and read, just to be around people, without having to have too much interaction.

A few hours in, I’m hanging out when in walks…

ok, let me back up here. I apparently have a “type”. My adopted family and I have discussed how I really do have a type and it’s not like this standard, boring, “type”. It’s very specific and I don’t even try to make excuses for it. It just is what it is. And no, I’ll not be describing my type, because it’s really not a hard and fast type, it’s more a tendancy…. anyhow…

In walks my type. But, zombiefied. I, being the sauve bitch I am, immediately run outside to smoke and get as faaaar away as possible. Yeah, that’s how I roll! I run away. Introverts FTW!

I spend the night avoiding her, because well, it’s my last night. What’s the point, right? I can just convince myself that she’s vapid and I would hate her if I talked to her, because, hellllo, airplane, 12 hours?

I’m hanging out with someone, smoking cigarettes. Everyone is fascinated by my pre-rolled American Spirits. I end up chatting with this woman I lent my lucky 2 dollar bill to, when who walks up? The cute zombie woman. Oh. yeah, of course they’d know each other…. Ok, Beth, don’t panic. Remember. Vapid. She’d probably not going to be someone you’d be interested in. And then the worst thing that could possibly happen, happened.

She started talking with me.

I’m not a shallow critter. I don’t care if I find you attractive. If you can’t hold my interest (which most people can’t), pft, not interested, even remotely.  We started chatting politics, specifically the diaspora. We talked about cultural trauma, plastic paddyism, RD Laing…. She explained “the Gathering” which I’m still 20 shades of “eww” over (I have a lot of thoughts on this, but nothing coherent yet). We talked about language. We talked about food politics. I think I stunned a few folks in that I had more irish language competency than they would have expected an american to have. We started talking irish politics. Ok, ok, now I’m kinda interested. And then, like, the most awful thing happened ever….

We started talking early irish law.

Those of you who know me well, in real life, know, that all you have to do is start discussing early irish legal structures and, hell, you could be the corpse of Richard Nixon and I’d sit there starry eyed. It’s intellectual foreplay for me. (I’ve been looking for an original copy of Corpus Iuris Hibernici for YEARS.) And here is this… this… zombified, adorable woman, talking about one of the few subjects I rarely get the chance to dork out on (believe it or not, I don’t have a lot of chances to discuss early irish laws surrounding property rights during a divorce with beautiful women… I know, surprise, right?).

I stuck around for the rest of the night, just so I could listen to her, just so I could hear every single damn word out of her mouth, just so I could drink the last few hours of Dublin in and maybe have it make up for the past few days. I ended up getting back to my hotel at 4:30 in the morning, barely awake, hopping a flight, getting to my airbnb place and sleeping 13 hours the next day. I still don’t know if she was single, or queer, or interested and not a damn bit of me cares. For a whole of 5 hours, I got to listen to someone I found insanely attractive make my brain light up with talk of early irish caste systems.

So, Dublin. I’m still not sure what to make of you. You’re kind of like that ex of mine who I thought I hated but I ended up adoring. I’m willing to give you another try. Especially if I get to hang out with her again.

Ah, Flanagan, is it now?

I know I should start this post with a big backstory on why I’m working remotely in Europe for the next few months, but a few of the reasons behind it are still a bit painful. Long, complex story that I’ll tell one day in full, is that one of my chosen family, someone I loved very deeply, died, very unexpectedly at 43. At 42, that kind of thing gives you a kick in the rear. It just brings up that whole line from Shawshank Redemption “Get busy living or get busy dying.” So… I’m living out of a suitcase for the next few months.

The one bit of backstory that I guess is relevant is that I’m thinking very hard about moving here. As I’m a dual citizen (UK/US), this is less of a problem than it would normally be. So, I’m off trekking about, airbnbing it, looking for places that I could reasonably live without going nuts. I know a lot of people find this awesome, and I do as well, but it’s absolutely terrifying to me. Nerd+introvert+transwoman (remember. extreme social anxiety.)+being outside of my comfort zone == I’m being a bit of a nervous wreck right now.

So, I’m in Dublin on a bit of holiday right now (look at me, dropping articles like I’m in Europe!) after having a week of tech conference in Edinburgh and a glorious but oh so short tour of Cumbria.

Being in Dublin is kind of a brainfuck as an Irish/British/American. For example. I hate hate hate St. Patrick’s Day in the US. It is foreign to me. In my family I always got the impression that it was a celebration of depression with a heavy undercurrent of PTSD and a feeling of being somewhat lost and away from home. The orgy of green beer swilling Americans who lack the cultural context to really grok why it became an important holiday for the Diaspora annoys me so I don’t take part in it. I hide in my house, drink by myself and more times than not, try to write code I’ve been wanting to catch up on.

The most common conversation I have during the weeks prior to the holiday, often occur at a market, when I show my credit card to pay for stuff.

Counterperson: (fake brogue) “Ahh, Flaaaanagan, is it now? A good Eorish name.”
Me: “Um, actually, it’s the Polish variant. They changed it.”

At that, the shopkeeper normally blinks, says “Oh, wow. I didn’t realize there was a Polish version.” and continues the transaction. I roll my eyes and continue on my day, reminded that I’ll be hiding in my house from stupid drunks fairly soon and then have a whole 11 months before I have to deal with this shit again.  My ethnicity being reduced to a drunken, Lucky Charms box cover aggravates me to no end.

Here, in Dublin though, the implication of “Ah, Flanagan, is it now?” feels different. It feels like this weird “Ah, an American coming back to look for their roots.” tone. A kind of sideways insult, that feels like it means, “Well, you have the last name, but you’re not REALLY Irish.”

Part of me wonders if I’m internalizing that Irish American sense of “not being good enough”. It’s endemic in my family and in others I know. It’s my mother’s disease, the thing that drove her to ride my back when it came to schooling like I had a set of handlebars installed on my shoulders. There is this nagging in the back of my head when people hear my thick New Jersey accent here. “Ah, Flanagan, is it now?” feels like it really means “pft, plastic paddy who probably can’t even name the Taoiseach.” (I can, Enda Kenny, Fine Gael, and a right tit, who has helped drive the ROI economy into the shitter. Also, his support for the removal of Irish language competency in leaving certificates really boiled me. Yes, I follow Irish politics. I’m a dork.).

My family is screwed up and broken, a brokenness with very real life results that I can count back for at least 4 generations. A VERY large part of that brokenness is due to a kind of cultural PTSD from my family having little choice but to leave this island. This brokenness has real consequences in my life. My biological family is a mess of feuds. This person doesn’t talk to this person. This one doesn’t talk to this person. Don’t mention X subject to this person as it’s painful. Don’t do this or you’re dead to me. It’s little wonder I’ve tossed them all out of my life. That’s part of my brokenness, an inability to form tight familial bonds with people I don’t necessarily like.

But the biggest way this damage has effected my life is that I don’t feel at home anywhere. My sense of  home has always felt forced. I’ve moved over 4000 miles in my life, looking for “home”. New York/New Jersey felt in some ways like that, despite it being a few million people living on a toxic waste dump. My last name wasn’t an oddity. There was a steady influx of Irish to make you feel a part of your community. But I hated it none the less and have spent the last 20 years of my life wandering.

Delaware. Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Montana, Washington, Oregon…. none of them quite felt like home

The other day I hung out with a co-worker who lives in the UK and we took a tour of the backroads of Cumbria. Way up in the hills. He asked me “So, is this what you expected?” I couldn’t really give him an answer, so I gave him kind of a bullshit one, that I’m going to now revise a bit. Standing in the mooshy hillside, looking over sheep, 1000 year old walls, ruins of Roman forts, for the first time in my life, allowed me to feel *almost* a sense of home, a feeling I had long given up on having. So, the answer is “No. I had never expected to feel the kind of deep connection to a place that I felt that day.” So, maybe my brokenness in that regard at least can be repaired. One can hope.

More later.

Look kiddo, I’ll give you something to worry about!

“Life is the expectation of the unexpected – the things you worry about rarely happen. Something new, the unexpected, will usually come from outside the ball park. You’re all nodding as if you understand but you really don’t. What I’ve said are just words to you. I want you to go to your private cubbyholes and think for the next four hours. Try to remember all the things you worried about during the last years and whether they ever happened or what did happen – and then we’ll talk about it.”

Saul Alinksy Rules for Radicals

I am a natural worrier. Part of me thinks that it is because many transwomen generally carry around a big knapsack of anxiety. Most of the time, though, I realize that it’s because I just spend way too much time trapped in my skull over analyzing “stuff” until I’m genuinely anxious about it. I tend to worry about the most insane things.

I once worried myself into a panic attack in fourth grade over the annual school inspection. It had nothing to do with me, of course, I just had a picture of a stern nun inspecting our fingernails for the slightest bit of grime and flunking the entire school because *I* was the one who had a slight bit of nail goop. I worry about jelly bean color (blue food. YECH!) I worry about whether that weird vibration in my car’s front end is just the grooved road or is my tire about to fall off and send me slamming at a high speed into an oncoming bus, killing me and the bus full of orphans in a painful fiery crash. Most of these are just micro-worries. Things that I worry about for a few seconds. Little illogical things that are entirely nonsensical but make my thoughts a little more entertaining.

Worrying is how I make sense of this world. It is how I can sit there and pick apart fairly complex systems, both technical and social and come to a better understanding of them. Follow the path long enough until you find something to worry about. Back up a bit. Follow another path. Worry about it. Pick it apart. Worry about the parts, the connections. That is how the cracked out hamsters in my head work. Pure, unadulterated, Acme Brand Worry.

These days, my worries are mostly about work, a much more important worry in my opinion. Every software release period, I end up obsessing over the build to the point where I sit there not sleeping, watching my 3-7 hour build like a hawk in order to ensure that nothing went south. It almost never does, and I essentially ramp myself up into a nice case of insomnia or even worse, a migraine. But none of those worries can compare to the state I was in a few days ago.

Four days ago, I was in a blind holy hot white panic of worry that I hadn’t seen in years. I had to call a friend of mine and have her list the reasons I should post my coming out post. I was about to free information that once out there, I couldn’t go “HAHA Guys. TOTALLY KIDDING!!! JOKES ON YOU! PSYKE!”* I had a few ideas about how people would react and all of them included some really lousy stuff. I know quite a few transwomen** and I’ve seen a lot of them transition at work, but not a lot of them had actually navigated a post-transition coming out of the closet.

We just RARELY do this it seems. I had few folks whose experiences I could really go. No one I know of in open source. Like, a few who transitioned during their time in open source. A few who are out in open source. But… I couldn’t think of anyone in open source who actually came out as a transwoman, who I could ask “er… how do I do this? What do I have to worry about? Patch rejections? Trolls? Martians?”

It’s kind of too early to give any real data yet, which I am compiling, but, what I can say is this. My worries seem to be unfounded so far. Everyone I generally deal with on a day to day basis has pretty much said the same thing. “Great. Can you get that bug fixed now?”. No, really, folks have been amazing and I’m grateful that my worries were unfounded. I spent a few moments on Wednesday tearing up over some of the heartfelt comments I received. To everyone who sent me kind words, words of encouragement, irc messages, phone calls, emails, etc. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Your support and kind words have meant the world to me. I can’t thank you enough. Especially to the other transwomen out there, both caged and uncaged. I love you for all the love and support you’ve given me the past few days.

-b

* Although, I must say, the joker in me was tempted to try it.

** When we transition, along with the lifetime supply of estrogen, the insanely awesome sense of humor, and a fruit basket, we also get a subscription, similar to the old MSDN subscriptions. Once a month we get, on 24 CDs, a complete list of all transwomen the world over. This is why, when people find out I’m a transwoman and they ask me “Oh, do you know so and so.” I always say “Oh! Of course I know so and so! I saw her a few weeks ago! She was saying some awful things about you the other day *tsk*”. It’s because we really do know each other. I promise! And like my old MSDN subscription, the CDs end up stapled to my ceiling and walls of my lab. It’s like living in a freaking disco ball sometimes.

Out of the cage.

“Later, as you get to be my age, you will see your friends begin to die, to lose their memories, to see their skins turned wrinkled and sick. You will see the effects of dark secrets making themselves known. The only payback for all of this – for the conversion of their once-young hearts into tar – will be that you will love your friends more, even though they have made you see the universe as an emptier and scarier place – and they will love you more, too.”

- Douglas Coupland, Shampoo Planet

Friends,

I think I’ve tried writing this letter about 20 times over the past two months. Every time I’ve attempted it, I’ve never been able to quite say what I wanted to say. It always ends up reading flat, like a technical manual. So, I end up deleting this letter, over and over, and reading the above passage after every failed attempt. I read it and sigh to myself, for this letter is about my once-young heart and how it is now quite dripping with tar for keeping a secret that I honestly believed that I would take to my grave. This, dear friends, is my attempt at trying to scrape some of that tar off my heart.

We all have our secrets. Some more dark than others. One of mine, for I’m sure I have many, is something I have kept to myself and all but a few close and trusted people for almost 20 years. Secrets are powerful things and keeping one is always fraught with danger. It eats at your soul, with a constant low level of stress pounding in your chest, keeping you in a steady state of fear. About someone finding out your most secret of secrets. About someone telling. About it being used against you.

With secrets, you are always doing the math, trying to balance the equation. Is the danger and harm of this secret coming out more than the pain and stress of keeping it? That answer, back in the mid-90s when I started keeping this secret, would have been a resounding yes. Now? While it is still dangerous for me to tell you what I’m about to tell you, the damage I cause my heart and soul daily by keeping this secret is worse than it being out there. Please do understand, though. What I am going to tell you, while it is no longer a secret, is still something I have trouble discussing. Secrets are like that, if you’re not use to talking about it, discussions are hard to have. I’m getting better at it. It is however, not something I particularly want people to focus on when they think about me. It is in fact, the least interesting thing, in my opinion, about me.

So. Let’s cut to the chase. About 20 years ago, I transitioned from male to female after many years of anguish that started around age 6. Some of you know this already. Some of you might have guessed. Some of you have no idea. Well, now you know. I started keeping this a secret after having been forced out of the job I loved because my employer at the time couldn’t deal. I lost my entire family over this and that still hurts my heart. I have had my status as a transsexual woman used in some particularly vile ways against me over the years, but for the most part, that is in the past. So, this is a part of who I am. It influences my views on life. (Example! I have a great insight into the relative cleanliness of gendered bathrooms!) It is the source of my strength, my sense of humor and how I see the world.

Ok. So, I know I may have to do a little bit of education here. In the spirit of good engineering, I’ll just do this in a very limited FAQ form. Anything particularly deep, please ask me personally. These are all questions I’ve gotten from people I’ve told over the past 20 years.

Q: Oh, so, you’re really a man!?!
A: No. Not in the least. I hate discussions about this because people always throw “Well, geneticalllly…” out there, not having any access to my medical records. Or they make disgusting comparisons to race or just really really wrongheaded arguments.

So, let me nip this in the bud right now. Gender is really complicated and not at all as cut and dry as people would like to think. I identify and always have, for as far back as I can remember, as a woman. Over the years, I’ve added on a lot of additional modifiers to “woman”. Like “geek woman”. Or “irish american woman”. Or “trans woman”. If you want to discuss the science behind it, feel free to educate yourself on it first and then, if I’m really insanely bored, I might even take you up on the discussion. However, my gender and my identity is not up for debate. It is something I’ve fought long and hard for and I expect that to be respected and honored.

Q: Uh…. what’s your real name?
A: Shit. You got me. It’s not Beth. It’s actually Elizabeth. Seriously, the evil twin brother died years ago. I’ve yet to hear a good reason to expose this information, so you’ll forgive my snark here. If you must know though, it’s Mxyzptlk.

Q: So, erhm… have you had “THE SURGERY!!!” ™(c)(R)
A: The only time I discuss this generally includes dinner and a movie or theater tickets and as much as I love you all, none of you are my type. You would be flabbergasted about the number of people who think this is somehow their business.

Q: She-male, tranny! I can call you that, right! My other tranny friends…. Pronouns… I’m confused about what I should call you. Help me!
A: First, “tranny” etc… No. Don’t. Unless you really want to see my rage face. Those are generally considered offensive terms. If you must refer to me as something other than “Beth” or “pidge” or god forbid “Elizabeth” and it has to be about my trans-status, please utilize “transwoman”. I’ll also accept “transchick” and “bad ass”. Please utilize the same old boring pronouns (she/her/royal “We”) as you’ve always used for me.

Q: HEEYYYY GIRLFRIEND!!! SO, like, we can TOTALLY talk about this at the bar….
A: No. We can’t. Just because I’m being more open about this doesn’t mean I’m still not being “private” about this. The world is still a dangerous place for me. I’ve personally known too many women like me who have lost their lives to murder that I don’t like discussing this in places I don’t feel safe. If you for some reason wish to discuss this with me, pull me off to the side and ask me if you can do so, privately. If I say “Not now”, please respect that.

Q: So, does this like, mean that you’re going to start taking testosterone? I’m confused. Why do you want to be a boy?
A: I swear, someone I love asked me this. I had to blink a few times to grok what she was asking. So, no, wrong direction, dearies.

Q: OMG. You. Are. Like. SOOO. Brave/Strong/Courageous! (alternatively..) Oh, yeah, like, totally knew/didn’t know that!
A: This one is a tough one. I realize folks want to say something and try to be supportive. I really do appreciate that. But this is kind of a minefield for a LOT of reasons best gotten into outside of this letter (for instance, the “Oh, I totally guessed!”. Think about how you’d feel if folks were to tell you that they always kinda suspected you were born in the opposite gender… now turn the volume up to about 100 on that).

It’s best just to sidestep all this and if you want to be supportive ask me “Awesome. Glad for you. What can I do to help?” To which I’ll probably respond with something silly like “Give me all the money in your wallet…” or “Can you juggle these staplers for me?” Or, I’ll actually ask you for help with something.

Q: Bathrooms, locker rooms, etc…
A: Really? The same ones I’ve been utilizing over the past two decades, silly.

Q: Why now? Like… I would NEVER come out like this. You’re done, run away and be done with it. Why do you have to talk about this?
A: See the rest of this letter…..

People call this whole thing I’m doing coming out of the closet, but the fact is, it’s coming out of a cage. If you’ve ever been to a very nice zoo, cages can be comfortable places, full of balls, food, toys and good hay to sleep in. But cages end up resulting with you imprisoned, the rest of the world free to go about their daily business. Every now and then one of the visitors to the zoo will notice you sitting in the cage and start poking you with a stick out of cruelty. It may even be a relatively comfortable imprisonment, but you’re still imprisoned. You’re still not free. But, you’re at least safe-ish with the exception of a few pokes now and then.

If you’ve ever seen animals kept in long term captivity, you’ll notice that they pace their cage and are generally not happy. Cages are incredibly stressful places. You are always trying to balance the safety the cage affords verses the danger beyond those bars. The world is still a dangerous place for transwomen but I live in a relatively safe city, have privileges that protect me to some degree, work with great folks, have an excellent boss and have people who love me. But… cages also get comfortable if you spend too long in them. You get so use to living in them that the very thought of leaving them causes you to feel physically sick. You realize that once you are out of the cage, there is no going back, that the door will slam shut forever. So you convince yourself to leave the cage next year, when things are better. And you just wish that all the other people who exist in cages in the zoo would step out with you. Doing that would make things seem less scary, less lonely, because there exists safety in numbers. But… someone has to make for the door first.

I’m going to be a bit of a downer here, because I think it’s important for cispeople (not-trans for those not familiar with the prefix ‘cis’) to understand the reality of what it means to walk this world as a transwoman and why that cage is so damn attractive.

I live in a world where this is what being a transwoman means in very real terms:

  • 41% attempting suicide as opposed to 1.6% of the general population
  • 55% of trans people are living with severe social anxiety, compared with 6.8% of the general population, and 8.2% of military personnel.
  • 26% have been fired from a job due to their trans status
  • Double the rate of unemployment. If you are a transwoman of color, you have five times the rate of unemployment.
  • 64% have been sexually assaulted
  • 90% have experienced harassment on the job
  • 16% work in the underground economy (drugs/sex work)
  • 20% have been homeless
  • about 1/3 live below poverty level

I’ve yet to meet a transwoman who hasn’t had at least one of the above effect her. This is the bargain you make with the cage. Don’t be out about it and you can keep your job. your home. your life. Maybe you can limit some of the hostility and micro-aggressions you experience daily. It’s a bargain made out of fear, a deal I personally made after I had literally done the most terrifying thing I ever had to do in my life, transition, only to face horrible consequences.

My time in this cage has without a doubt turned parts of my heart into sludge. I’m very vague about life before a certain age, prior to my transition. Vague about my family situation. Vague about my social life. Many of you only get about 50% access to my life with me holding onto and protecting the other 50% with Gollum like obsession. And that’s not fair, to you or me. We all deserve a better world than that.

I’m coming out of this cage, in part, because I’m doing more work around transwomen’s issues, specifically, utilizing open source to get more transwomen into economically sustainable fields. I will be doing this work, in my spare time, under my own name, working with other transwomen in the tech sector to provide training and mentorship programs to this community in order to improve employment opportunities. The majority of transwomen I know make less than 18k a year, an absolutely deplorable number. I will of course still be doing my regular work for the various open source projects I’m a part of, still be working on women’s issues within FLOSS, still pulling all night hack sessions. I’ll just be adding this to the list as well (which means I’m just giving up on sleep!) And yes, when I have more to share with folks on this project, I will, but, if you want to help out, please, contact me!

What does this mean for you? Probably not much other than you know a bit more about me than you did before. It means that you’ll see me talk about being trans in social media from time to time, whereas before I had a very firm wall in my social media life that I refused to break. You’ll probably notice that I’m stressed a lot less. It means that some folks outside of my immediate circle of friends may ask you questions. Feel free to send them my way. I would prefer if people, obviously, didn’t introduce me as “Beth, the transchick” although “Beth, the bad ass build engineer” is still appropriate. I’m sure there will be talk in the communities I’m involved in, some of it not particularly flattering. Let me know if there is, please, so it can be dealt with appropriately. I obviously expect folks to call out bad behavior when they see it. There are a lot of mean folks out there and I’m sure this letter will expose some of them.

And lastly, I expect that if you have respectful questions, you’ll want to get answers from the source. That’s fine. We’ll do lunch and you can ask away. Or you can ping me on IRC at ‘pidge’. Or email of course.

But mostly, I just expect people to treat me the same as they always have.

Yours truly,

Beth ‘pidge’ Flanagan

June 2013

1) I know I focus a bit on the horrible awful things people say about transwomen in my FAQ and I know some folks may think this is me being overly concerned and blowing things out of proportion. My concerns are not unfounded. See: http://lwn.net/Articles/252073/ and read the comments to understand why I am concerned about some of the particularly vile individuals out there, especially in geekdom.

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