“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
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.
Beth ‘pidge’ Flanagan
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.