[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
This story is from a zine titled Gender Matters that is compiled by Carrie Colpitts. Here’s a short explanation about Gender Matters from Carrie: “It’s a collection of writings from trans/gender-fluid folks focusing on adolescence, growing up and transitioning. The idea to put it together came when one of my students asked for an extra copy of a piece we read in zinemaking class. The piece was from a trans man writing about his decision to have top surgery. She wanted to share it with her friend who had begun to identify as gender fluid. I tried to find more material to pass along, and I found some but guess what? Not a lot! It’s hard to find stories about trans and gender-fluid people that are appropriate for middle (and even high) school aged students.” The first issue of Gender Matters is available at Quimby’s bookstore, or through Carrie directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes a world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” –Adrienne Rich
July, 2009. The night before I’m scheduled to appear in court to legally change my name. As I go to bed, I make sure everything is in order: the paperwork, directions downtown, everything.
I go to bed.
I try to go to sleep.
Lying awake at night, growing up, I wondered why my life couldn’t be different. Why I couldn’t wish my way into a different life; wish my way into a different body; wish my way into a different self.
You see, once upon a time, I was a boy. I was! At least, people saw me that way: I had a boy’s name, boy’s clothing, had my hair in a buzz cut every summer for years, changed in the boys’ locker room, wore a suit and tie to important family occasions . . .
I wanted a girl’s name, girl’s clothing, to have my hair long and flowing, to change in the girls’ locker room, to wear skirts and dresses to important family occasions . . .
July, 2009. The day of the hearing. I gather the documents I need, and get dressed: makeup, jewelry, low heels, khakis, and a scooped v-neck purple sweater. I am undeniably in “girlmode.”
I try to stay calm as I get ready, but have a hard time collecting myself. In my nervousness, I leave extra time to get downtown. In my nervousness, I perhaps leave a little too much extra time to get downtown: I slip into room 1214 at the Daley Center, where my hearing is scheduled for 9am, slightly before 8:30. The courtroom is empty.
So I wait. For half an hour.
I twiddle my thumbs. I minutely examine my fingernails. I check my e-mail on my cell phone.
I think about the person people saw me to be, growing up. About the person people see me to be today. About how I want people to see me, moving forward.
Because I’m not sure how to reconcile the different stages of my life. Do I ask my parents to take down pictures from before I transitioned? Do I want to wipe clean the time before I was 22 or 23? To cover the mirrors which reflect the parts of myself I don’t always want to remember, don’t always want to see?
I wonder why there isn’t a simple clock hanging in the courtroom, but actual individual numbers screwed directly into the wall, with the hands protruding out above the jury box. I imagine going over and changing the time, so that the hearing will start sooner.
At last, at 9am, the judge comes in and sits down. He calls my name and I stand up to approach the bench.
“Present, your honor.”
“Yes, your honor.”
“No, your honor.”
“Yes, your honor.”
The judge is confirming that, yes, I want to change my name to Rebecca and, no, I’m not doing so for fraudulent or deceptive purposes and, yes, I have all the paperwork. The actual hearing takes about three minutes, during which the judge directs more “Sirs” at me than are strictly necessary, especially given how I’m presenting myself, and what I’m there to do. But figuring I should know when to pick my battles I keep my mouth shut. In part, my anxiety that something will go wrong keeps me from speaking up. Looking back, though, it’s infuriating that this authority figure who held all the cards and all the power refused to respect me enough to gender me correctly.
I head down to the cashier’s office to get everything certified.
So finally, two months and $526 after first filing my petition for name change, I have four certified copies of a document saying I am now, legally and duly recognized by the State of Illinois, Rebecca Rodin Kling.
Transitioning, for me, has been a gradual process. As much as I would have liked to rip off a mask one day and have my entire being magically transformed, life doesn’t work so cleanly. Changing my name is just one step in a long journey, one that may never be definitively “over.” Still, holding those certified papers, complete with the seal of the state of Illinois, feels pretty damn great.
A month or so prior, my roommate and I had gone bowling. Piet has known me since long before I began transitioning, and was one of the many people in my life who needed to learn to call me Rebecca.
We were discussing silly bowling nickname names. The bowling name I had used in high school was a play on my old (male) name, and we were discussing possibilities for a new bowling nickname. As we were talking, I realized we were going out of our way to avoid saying my old name. I finally said, “It’s not Voldemort. If you say my old name, I won’t burst into flames.”
You’re allowed to laugh at that, the Voldemort joke. Piet is overly apologetic and will sometimes tell me a joke about trans people only to instantly retract it, saying, “Was that too much? Did I go too far?” It never goes too far with him, because he is always laughing with me, not at me. Being trans is often absurd, surreal, hilarious, and I’m not too militant to admit it.
But I make the Voldemort joke because my old name, my old gender has been used to hurt me. Names can seem unimportant, right up until someone refuses to call you what you ask to be called. Gender can seem easy, right up until it’s not.
Likewise, the name change paperwork as important as it is to me won’t do me much good if I get pulled over with my old license. So off to the DMV, for a drivers license that will, for the first time in my life, truly be mine.
Between filing my name change paperwork and getting it approved, I went out to a bar with friends. By early 2009, I was Rebecca in all aspects of my life at work, with friends, and with family. But my documentation hadn’t caught up with reality, so I was forced to hand my old license (with a male name and male photo) to the bouncer. He looked at me incredulously and I said, “Look, I’m trying to get it changed. I promise you that I’m not any happier about having that license then you are about having to look at it.” He let me through, and wasn’t even rude about it, but it made me want that new license all the more.
The downtown DMV is just across the street, and getting a license with my new, corrected name is surprisingly easy: five dollars and showing someone the certified documentation. But when I ask about changing the gender marker, I’m told I can’t do that without a “note from a doctor.” Once again, like when standing before the judge, I’m too nervous to protest. I feel powerless.
I’m sent to the photographer.
The guy taking the photo does a double take when looking at my old license, but before he can say anything I interject, “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m getting a new license.”
The picture isn’t great, but what driver’s license photo is? On the whole, I’m feeling rather pleased: I have four certified pieces of paper confirming my name change, and a new driver’s license to back it up. My name . . . is actually my name.
But I really want that gender marker changed on my license. The DMV doesn’t get to decide my gender. The government, some judge, doesn’t get to decide my gender. I don’t need a doctor to tell me something I’ve known most of my life. And now, outside the DMV with a moment to pause and think about the successes and setbacks of the day, I get frustrated. Annoyed. Pissed off. I want that drivers license to say “F.” For once, I want to be able to say “I win.”
Something occurs to me. I’ve been getting “ma’am”ed more and more. The number of people who do a doubletake when seeing me shopping for women’s clothing, in the women’s restroom, out with girlfriends, keeps dropping. What if I go to another DMV and tell a little white lie? I figure, what’s the worst that can happen? They say “no” again?
I should go to work. I took the morning off to get this done, but I still need to process payroll and get everyone their paychecks. I don’t have time to take the Red Line home from downtown, and then drive to the Elston DMV and wait in yet another line for who knows how long.
But that “F” I want on my license isn’t just me being stubborn. Well, maybe it’s a little stubbornness, but there are real consequences to not having documentation that matches your presentation. It’s the difference between panicking whenever I give my license to a bouncer, and simply being let into a bar. It’s the difference between being convinced that the police officer who pulled me over is going to harass and humiliate me, and simply being able to say, “What’s the problem, officer?” It’s the difference between every TSA security checkpoint becoming a referendum on my gender, of being terrified that I will be caught trying to smuggle a penis through airport security, and simply making my flight on time.
It’s the ability to relax just a little because it’s one less thing for the world to pounce on.
I don’t have time to go to another DMV, to try my luck again, but I go anyway.
My number at the Elston DMV is called, and I hand my license to a little old lady behind the counter, explaining that I had just gotten a typo corrected at the DMV downtown and somehow they had put male as the gender marker, which doesn’t make any sense!
The gods of bureaucracy are smiling on me, because she looks at the license, looks at me, looks at the license, and says, “Well that’s not right! Let’s get that taken care of.” At this point, I need to suppress a grin from breaking out.
She types away, “Hmming,” and making me worry all over again. I am convinced the name change hasn’t propagated through the system. She can see my old name. She can see my old photo. She can see right through me. But she doesn’t. Shehands me some papers saying, “Take those to the cashier. They won’t charge you for the correction, since it was our mistake, but they need to sign off on it.”
In 2009, I was convinced this little old lady at the DMV was simply fooled by my ruse. But, in the intervening years, I’ve started to question that assumption. What if she knew everything saw my old name, my old photo, my old license, all on her computer screen and helped me anyway? It’s easy for me to list the people who haven’t offered their support in my transition: judges and bouncers and bosses and assholes on the street. But what if there’s also an unseen population that has had my back? What if this DMV clerk knew exactly what I was trying to do, but didn’t give it a second thought?
Back in 2009, none of these thoughts cross my mind. I don’t bother to suppress a grin, and smile my way over to the cashier. He sends me to get (another) picture taken for my second new license that day. But now I’m ready, and actually smiling, and am subsequently handed the most perfect driver’s license that ever there was.
That’s sort of how being transgender works: Every mundane detail of daily living can become a battle of bureaucracy, of patience, of keeping your cool. I’ve been required to justify my presence, my appearance, my very existence.
But for all that fear and doubt, I find closets too confining. My life seems too deliciously absurd not to share. And sure, I pick my battles. I didn’t try to explain gender theory to the judge at the Daley Center. I haven’t pushed queer theory on TSA officers. But I am trans. I was a boy (at least, the world saw me that way). But I’m not anymore. And where’s the fun in staying silent?
Carrie is releasing a second issue of Gender Matters in early 2014 for Chicago Zine Fest. A third will follow soon. Send submissions to email@example.com. Please send as an attachment in basic Word formatting or as a Google document with “Gender Matters Zine Submission” as the subject. For art submissions send grayscale images in TIF file format (300 dpi). Include a title for your piece, a brief bio, and any contact information you want included in the zine. Every contributor will receive a copy of the finished zine, so please include a mailing address for your copy.