On Friday night, I was out at a queer-ish club. I don’t go out after 10 p.m. very often. I’m more of a morning person than a night owl. But since I’d already gone through the effort of leaving my house for the evening, I decided to stay after my friends bailed, long after, dancing alone. When I told them this the next morning, they were astonished. “Who are you?” more than one of them asked.
Ten years ago, I would go out semi-regularly to the spots that didn’t get going until other places closed, the Endup in particular. I was often with a friend who wore vinyl pants and feather boas. She would spend the whole night on the dance floor surrounded by shirtless gay boys with glow sticks, and I would sit in the back courtyard in my baggy Gap jeans and REI fleece, chain-smoking cigarettes and talking to the methheads until dawn. My friend would come out every hour and check on me, sit on my lap, give me a sweaty hug, and kiss me on the cheek before returning inside. Our dynamic worked. She danced. I didn’t. Ever.
From childhood through my early twenties, I only really moved my body in one setting: sports. I dove, ran, leaped, kicked, shot, hit, ran and lunged across soccer fields, baseball diamonds, rugby pitches, basketball and tennis courts. I accessed many parts of my body in those endeavors. I would dribble basketballs with my pinkies to build strength and have friends toss lacrosse balls against my goalie helmet to eliminate flinching. Every move I made was in response to something external–a ball, a stick, a defender, someone or something to chase.
The thing about dancing is that it comes from the inside. It is self-expressive and physically creative. To have rhythm is to align with a beat, a sound, a vibration. Sometimes in yoga class, my teacher turns up the music and says, “move your body in whatever way feels good.” Cement feels good, I used to think to myself. I am moving like cement, can you tell? I almost stopped going to yoga classes because of these spontaneous dance parties. A friend just wrote a piece referencing these “painfully awkward mandatory dance breaks” with the request, “Teachers: please stop doing this. Please. Just. Stop.”
I couldn’t agree more with this request, except that it was on my mat in a drenched tank top, totally sober that I learned to dance, or to let myself dance. I kept my eyes closed the first few times, then I would sway my arms in a forward fold. Eventually I got myself to stand upright and sway. A discomfort would pervade my whole body; I felt so visible standing and moving at the same time. If the music allowed for bouncing, I would often try that, calming myself down like a parent does a baby. Now when I know the dance break is coming on from the staple songs that serve as cues, I remind myself that yoga is a practice, a time to confront that which is “painfully awkward.” Lately, I’ve been working on getting my hands above my head. I immediately feel a tightness across my chest, a reflexive need to drop my shoulders, draw into a hunch, and hide the breasts I no longer have.
A few days ago, I watched this video of an Australian trans man, Paige Elliot Phoenix, on a reality singing/dance show. When he speaks, he has that look in his eye that says, “I survived the trans journey”—it’s a look I feel more aware of lately, or one that I’m simply seeing more often as trans folk become increasingly visible. Paige says that he could not have auditioned for the show before his gender transition. Some things just had to fall into place first. I understand. Completely. I could not have stood on a stage, or a yoga mat, or a dance floor and let life express itself through my body. My body was a walking corpse.
So much of my self-understanding has come in retrospect. Uncertainty was my only companion for a good many years. But you sit with uncertainty long enough and the fear and anxiety separate from the instinct and self-knowing–that’s what I want to tell people when they ask how I know I’m transgender. For me, it’s not about the toys I played with as a child, the clothes I wear, about masculinity or femininity. It’s about trading my Mrs. Doubtfire costume for that of Spiderman, dropping the padded, suffocating woman suit for a skin tight, breathable, superhero suit. Still a costume. But one that allows me to move.
Dancing alone at the club, I thought of my old friend and our times at the Endup, how she could just go for hours and hours. On this night, I felt that I could too. I search for the appropriate word to describe this feeling—freedom, liberation, connection. But powerful as they may be, I’m not sure they capture this transformation for me, the external and internal, the morphing of my flesh and form into something that I can identify with, the willingness to practice letting go of my self-consciousness to discover a self I do not know, or perhaps have always known and can see more clearly now that there is no obstacle, distraction, or blight of persistent pain and confusion.
My friends may have wondered about who I am now. But the question I want to answer is, What am I? I am alive.