In memory of . . .

29 07 2009

I don’t know if she’s* still alive but, considering she was probably in her late 70s when I knew her in the early 1990s, I can’t be sure. From the ages of 17 to 19, I was working at a convenience store/gas station (a Shell, I believe) in Sherbrooke, QC. I knew nothing about trans issues at the time but when this male-bodied person who dressed and presented as female came to put gas in her big, white van on a regular basis, shortly before the end of my evening shift, I made it a point to be nice to her and to treat her like a lady because I knew that she probably didn’t get much of that. I looked at her wonderingly through the window as she gassed up, with her flowery dress and hat and her big rough hands.  Sherbrooke is not a tiny place but it is not a big city either and, at the time, it wasn’t the greatest place to be queer. Not that I was anywhere near admitting queerness or transness to myself . . .probably at least in part because it wasn’t the greatest place to be queer.

During my last few weeks, as I did with all my regular customers (the ones who were nice to me, anyway), I told her that I was leaving so that I could attend university in Montreal. This was out first actual conversation and she told me she would miss me. She came all the way to our gas station because she was respected here, she said. The one closer to her home out in Lennoxville, about a 20-30 minute drive away, was scary. There were always nasty teens hanging around who would pick on her and even threaten her. I don’t remember anything about how the service there was but, having gone to that store regularly as I was a student in Lennoxville, I knew that they didn’t get the same kind of customer service training that we did.

I’ve wondered what ever happened to her from time to time. And now that I know more about some of the difficulties involved in being trans, and even more specifically, the difficulties involved in being a trans woman who does not “pass”, I can imagine how brutal it must have been for her in Lennoxville and wherever else she went during her life, roughly from the 1920s onward.

I wish I knew. And I wish I could tell her how much I admire her.

*I’m using female pronouns here based merely on the assumption that she did, or would have if she could have, identified as female. I base this assumption on the fact that she was dressed as female every time I saw her and during mundane activities such as putting gas in one’s vehicle. I realise that I could be grossly mistaken and that maybe this person cross-dressed, did not identify as female, and happened to need gas every time they came out of a weekly discussion group for cross-dressers. Nevertheless, the aspect of the person that I knew radiated femaleness so the “she” is hopefully not insulting to them in any case.

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7 responses

30 07 2009
Shirley Anne

‘If you can’t say something nice about somebody then say nothing at all’, is a saying we all know and should apply in our own lives. It is nice to see that here in the written word. That is a credit to you Jacky.
It really must have been difficult for that lady presenting as she did and I suspect she did it because she had to because that’s who she was. We should all have that privilege in life but society being as it is makes it very hard at times. People can be so cruel and this story demonstrates the lengths some will go just to avoid conflict and humiliation. She found somewhere and somebody who cared and made a point of going there instead of taking the nearer option. It would be nice to know how she got on in life since those days. I would like to know that she survived and was happy.

Shirley Anne x

30 07 2009
veganactivist

Thank you for your memorial. I have known people like the woman you mention, who are so grateful for just a little kindness in their difficult lives. You certainly seemed to have made a difference in hers.

I found your post through the “Queer Canada Blogs” site and it struck a strange chord. I’m living in BC, but went to university in Lennoxville. When I arrived, there was no queer pride group on campus. In order to have one, I had to become the President of the club. I wasn’t very good at it, but at least we started to meet & gain visibility on campus and in the community. Lennoxville was largely a challenging place, but there were also signs of hope. One time, I even saw two men walking down College street, hand in hand. We had a queer art show at the Cafe Java, too.

I just thought you might like to know that in the 2000’s, things were moving and changing a little in Lennoxville, and though I’m sure it’s still largely unsafe, at least some queer culture is around … who knows what impact it may have.

Take care!

2 08 2009
joaquinjack

This is a little unrelated.

It can be joyous, or heartbreaking, or unnerving, all at the same time to see someone you think could be from “our world” in real life. There’s a person working at the local Save-Mart as a cashier who I think might be a fellow transman. (The rest of this is going to be hard to write without proper pronouns and I hate the weird little “in-betweeners” like “ze” and so forth, so at risk of being totally wrong, I’ll assume this cashier would like to be known as a he.)

He passes ridiculously well, flat-chested and short-haired, reminiscent of a young man going through puberty. In fact, the only thing that gives him away is his voice and the delicacy of his eyebrows. But I hate the idea of jumping the gun and assuming he is one gender or another. Maybe he doesn’t identify as male, and was just blessed with small breasts and happens to like short hair and no makeup. Maybe he was BORN male and just happens to have a high voice and feminine features. Or maybe I’m right. His nametag bears a unisex name so there’s no clue as to what he WANTS to be seen as there. I don’t know how to approach the situation without insulting him because the chance of being wrong is so vast. So I just don’t.

It really outlines how lonely we are as trans in the real life community. Even if we see one of our own, even if it is blaringly obvious to those on the inside, we pass silently like two ships in the night out of the fear that we could be wrong.

It makes my heart soar to think there might be someone so close who might understand my life, and then it falls like a rock to think how far they really are from me, just by terms of social ettiquete. There’s a wall between each of us.

Is there any right way to ask someone if they’re trans, even if you are, too?

3 08 2009
Jacky V.

Shirley Anne: Yes, I’m glad that I was there to provide a small beacon of kindness. Hopefully there were others in town that did the same and it wasn’t all bleak for this person.

Veganactivist: Wow, small world! Glad to know some things happened in the 2000s. I wasn’t anywhere near queer identified at the time so I have no real idea of what it might have been like to be a queer student. It’s not really something that was discussed. I know that at my high school in Sherbrooke it would’ve been horrible. I remember some incidents involving students who were perceived as queer . . .*shudder*

JoaquinJack: Yeah, I understand that feeling. Since we all have different comfort levels about disclosing, it can be really awkward to reach out. Some trans people genuinely do want to go unnoticed, even by other tarns so it’s hard to find a good way. I understand the frustration too of being so close and yet so far, when you need someone who is like you to talk to.

I don’t know of a right way to ask. However, depending on your comfort level, you can discreetly or not so discreetly disclose yourself and see what happens. I mean, if the only context you see this person in is as a customer, it can be difficult since they are busy working. But even then, you could wear something with a trans symbol or something and see if there is a reaction. If you do have the opportunity to converse in a non-work related context, or even at work when there are no other customers waiting, you can discreetly ask about their pronoun preference. If this person is as gender ambiguous as you describe, they might find it a relief to have someone ask rather than assume one way or the other. Something like: “Just to make sure I get it right and can address you respectfully, can you tell me what pronoun you prefer?”

Good luck! Please let me know about any future developments!

8 08 2009
joaquinjack

OH, you’re a genius. I’ll make an FTM patch or something; pretty much the only people who would know the acronym are people within the community, so I wouldn’t be outing myself in a dangerous way. And if you are FTM that particular set of letters will jump out at you like a burning flag, so it’ll definitely get his attention in a non-intrusive way.

Thumbs up!

10 08 2009
Jacky V.

Good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes! And you’re right, people who are unaware (as trans haters generally are anyway) wouldn’t really know what FTM means. It might be wise to come up with an alternate phrase that it might stand for in case someone asks and you are uncomfortable with them. “None of your business” is always an alternative but can be alienating so . . .

10 08 2009
joaquinjack

Well, there’s this band called “Flight To Mars” that often goes by the acronym FTM (I found that out running an image search on “FTM badges”), so if anyone asks I could just be a hardcore Flight To Mars fan. 😉

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