I am barely a teenager, perhaps 13, and spending the summer at a fishing resort that my father owns. On this morning I wake a little late and hear male voices outside the small cabin where I sleep, adjacent to the main lodge. I am filled with panic, knowing that men are outside already and that I will have to cross the short distance between the cabin and the lodge to dress and shower for the day.
Throwing on my bathrobe, I wait until I can no longer hear the voices before rushing out of the cabin. I have miscalculated, however, because I am no more than a step or two outside before I run directly into two men who are leaning against the lodge, quietly smoking.
Our eyes lock, and there is a look from one of the men that I have never seen before. He smiles, nods, and says to me, "Good morning, pretty girl."
That distant memory surfaced recently when I was thinking about my journey toward understanding, accepting, and loving transgender women as an important part of the queer community. The emotions I felt on that day were different from those I normally experienced around straight men. Fear was replaced with the discomfort and shame of being identified as something I was not and did not want to be.
Although I was frequently harassed and even beaten up because of my effeminacy as a child, it was only when I was mistaken for female that I resolved to become more masculine. From that day forward, although I have my feminine side, I have always dressed and acted in a way that is more butch than I actually am.
All of this is important to me because, for the past several years, I have been given the opportunity to interact with transgender women and have been forced to acknowledge and examine my discomfort with them. I was woefully uneducated on the most basic concepts about gender; the word itself seemed academic and remote. Although I had been an activist for years and lived my adult life in New York City and Los Angeles, I was ignorant about what it actually meant to live in a body that doesn't match one's soul. And I am not alone. I know so many gay men, progressive in every other way, who view trans people as embarrassments or threats.
Strangely, I have never really known a transgender man, but my life is full of trans women. Like many important personal transformations I've undergone in the past decade, my experience with trans women was made possible through my work at the Van Ness Recovery House in Los Angeles's Hollywood. When I worked as a peer counselor there, I was confronted with the difficulties experienced by the large number of transgender female residents. Many of the women I met at the Van Ness House had worked the streets just to survive, developing addictions and contracting HIV along the way.
While it is true that my experiences with these women are skewed because they were all recovering addicts, I was given the gift of being in a setting where there was a commitment to discuss any and all subjects with honesty. And these seemingly broken-down women taught me as much about trans life as I ever taught them about staying sober.
The misunderstandings about trans life in the gay male community are evident in the large number of gay men I know who still have a difficult time differentiating between a drag queen and a transgender woman. Many gay men willfully refuse to accept the difference between playing a stereotype of a woman and the very real pain of being a woman in a body that is male.
While I had at least moved beyond that thinking when I arrived at the Van Ness House, I still harbored a suspicion that some trans women identified as female because it made it easier to have sex with men. …