A puppy’s breath, baby giggles, going to bed without having to set an alarm are a few of the things I love most and among these is spring time in Washington, DC.
Spring, the season of rebirth, is finally here after a long and gruesome winter that almost brought me to point of saying “F’it I’m moving back to Kissimmee”. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom that attracts tourist from near and far. Millennials are beginning to fill up all the outdoor seating spots for our religious Sunday brunch after a long night of partying in Adams Morgan; once again the metros are packed with twenty-something year olds in sweats with a yoga mat strapped to their backs, trying to reclaim the figures that have been hidden under parkas for the past five months, and being that it’s an election year, activist and political PACs are kicking into high gear ahead of the fall elections. As the optimism of a new day surrounds us from cleaning out our closet to the ballot box it’s—out with the old and in with the new.
Spring takes on a special meaning this year. It was this time last year, in the season of rebirth, that my petition for legal name change was approved, allowing me to officially change my name from Jason to Joanna. This was one of the greatest moments in my transition. As a trans woman I often have to fight and defend my identity to society, loved ones, co-workers and even my own body. So to have the governing body of my city order all agencies and whomever it may concern that from that day forward I was going to be known as nothing other than Joanna was a recognition of my identity that provided me with a sense of empowerment that could not be replaced.
I remember walking into Bank of America requesting a name change on my accounts. When the teller called out “Jason” in the height of Friday rush, even after I had already given them my new ID along with my court order, I swiftly told the teller and the manager of the branch: “My name is Joanna. I clearly stated I was here for a name change and provided you with my ID. So if you are so negligent that you can’t pay attention to detail, I am more than willing to take my business elsewhere”. “I’m so sorry ma’am it won’t happen again”, was what the teller said, “see to it that doesn’t”. “It’s just we’ve never had this situation before”, added the manager, to which I replied, “tap me on the shoulder or call me by my last name, figure it out. I’m not here to teach you about Jesus!”
This was one of my soon to be many: Don’t fuck with me fellas! Mommy Dearest moments—hey my blog isn’t called Fire-Breathing T-Girl for nothin. Having that court order gave me that sense of claim over my name. For the first time, I didn’t have to say to the teller I’d prefer to be called Joanna, I told him “my name IS Joanna”. Recently I was invited to attend a panel discussion on women of color and feminism by one of my (cis) girlfriends. This event was right up my alley, they were talking about systems of oppression and intersectionality. Child, I was getting my life and feeding my inner feminist. Between all the “yass gurl” and finger snaps, one girl began to speak about her difficulty with owning the term feminist because she felt as though it didn’t really speak to her as a woman of color. After listening to her comment, I felt compelled to talk about my constant battle between my inner feminist and my inner trans. The girls in the room were listening intently to my every word. After I finish speaking a young woman on the other side of the room asked the panelist “To that point, can a man be a feminist?” while pointing at me. So my first reaction was to read the heifer. As my inner trans was pulling her hair back into a ponytail and smearing Vaseline on her cheeks getting ready to go all schoolyard on this girl, while saying to me “I know this trick didn’t just try me” as she cracked her neck to each side while taking off her earrings and putting them to the side. “Don’t let her get to you, she probably just doesn’t know any better” I told myself.
But there I was, slapped in the face with the ‘M’ word, and trying to figure out whether or not I would address it or just let it go. As I was going through a list of pros and cons on whether I should address the situation, I remembered a recent interview with Janet Mock in the wake of her Piers Morgan interview. Where she kicked herself for not speaking up when repeatedly being referred to as a ‘man’. “He called me a ‘man’ on TV—and I said nothing.” I also remembered my mother, who always told me “smart people learn from their mistakes but wise people learn from the mistakes of others.” In that moment I had a minor taste of what must have been going through Janet’s mind in that moment. Having the privilege and burden of representing an extremely oppressed population, wanting to be gracious, feeling as though you have to be an asset to your community and try not to come off as the hyper sensitive angry trans girl that is unappreciative that she has been afforded this kind of platform. My situation was a thousand times smaller I was in a room with 30 other women of color and my stress level was on high so I can’t imagine what was going through Janet’s mind at that time. A year ago I wouldn’t have hesitated on reading this girl, but this was not a space made for girls like me. I am a guest, this was a place for ‘real’ girls” I told myself, feeding right into my less-than insecurities, consoling myself with something in the line of “you should feel privileged that you are ‘allowed’ to be here. You, a ‘man’. Oh, hell, no! Screamed my inner feminist finally breaking her silence and freeing me from all the thoughts and insecurities racing through my head “girl if you don’t speak up you are validating what she is saying and allowing everyone in that room to think it’s ok to call you a man. Even worst, you are saying it’s ok to call trans women ‘men’”. In my quest to put a good face to girls like me and be an asset to my community, I almost completely missed the point that by me not speaking up I was not doing anything to help move the movement forward. Being silent will not elevate the conversation, and it sure as hell won’t help us in our quest to be treated with respect and have our identities validated and affirmed.
I politely raised my hand and stated “I just like to say I am not a man, I may not be society’s definition of a conventional woman but I am a woman none-the-less”, to which she replied by saying “oh no, I’m sorry I didn’t mean it that way”. As a girl who has put her foot in her mouth on more than one occasion I accepted her apology an assumed best intentions.
But what really surprised me was that after the event multiple women came up to me saying “I noticed she said that too and I was waiting to see if you were going to say something, because if you didn’t say something I was going to say something”. That recognition was something that really struck me. As a girl who often had no one in her corner it was nice knowing that although I may be the only trans woman in many spaces, I don’t always stand alone. Although these women didn’t know what it’s like being a trans woman, they knew what it was like to have to fight against other people’s definitions of you. They also knew what it feels like to have to show a good face and “represent your people”.
All too often #girlslikeus are raised to be fighters in a world that is hostile to our very existence, we are always ready for a fight. This way of thinking is one that is very difficult to unlearn especially because so frequently we still have to fight. However, this spring, in the very same season that gave birth to Joanna, I am reclaiming once more my identity, because if you don’t own who you are, you’ll allow others to identify you as whom they think you ought to be.