Queer Secrets

The Apparition of My Unwashed Younger Self

I was 19 years old, a year on hormones, when Max Spit advised me to change my name on my ID if I wanted, but never my gender. “If I go to prison,” he said, explaining why his license still had his birth-assigned F, “and it says I’m male, I’ll be raped until I die.” This is how we talked, how we thought, how I often still think, now, despite all the therapy, some 20 years later.

Max was one of the Carhartt-wearing Camp Trans crust punks who hitched and carpooled to the northern Michigan protest every August during the nineties and early aughts. A hundred-ish mostly anarchist trans guys pitching their tents across the dirt road from the TERF-nucleus of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.

A little over five feet tall, wiry, with acne-scarred skin and a face full of metal, Max was the crustiest punk – male-passing, older enough to sneer at others’ self-labeling as boys. His words shocked not because of their brutality, but because he, of all people, seemed only clockable in a place like this, where the few cis “men” were lanky creatures who’d go on to identify as trans women. That night, on a packed-dirt dance floor ringed by fairy lights, Max bit my lower lip so hard it swelled around the nub of my own fresh piercing. It made perfect sense that a person that feral would kiss like he meant to eat me alive. I spent the following days mooning about on Max’s periphery, longing for the sexy, barely contained rage of his attention to again make me bleed.

What stands out now is not the kiss but Max’s conviction and how quickly I swore I’d never let myself get arrested. A lot of us at Camp Trans had experienced violence far back into childhood. That must be what gave us the nerve to transition in an era before politicians bothered debating trans people’s existence. It wasn’t necessary. We were invisible. Underemployed, fired at will, unstably housed, misgendered, hypervigilant and for good reason. We’d all had close calls, and worse. Prison was plausible; enough of us had been to jail, for political protests, trainhopping, or public intoxication. Sexual violence kept us traveling in packs or made us defiant, daring strange men to fights, flipping sex into a blatant, sometimes empowering transaction, for money, housing, drugs.

Today, my chosen family includes several gen-Z enbies who make me wish, a bit, to have been born later. The world of 2024 is chaotic and ultraviolent, but radically open in contrast to the clamped-down ’90s and capitalist perfectionism of the ’00s.

L, one of these beloved young friends, was born that same Camp Trans summer. When L shares their dilemmas with school, relationships, passing or not, my younger self flickers into view.

Not that L resembles a younger me nor the Camp Trans “kids.” L is chic, well-coiffed, and owns a tiered makeup display. They are fluent in the subtleties of emotional communication, interpersonal care, and how causes lead to effects. Their look is fluid and femme and slightly transhuman in that archetypal, gen-Z way. Whereas we Camp Trans boys reveled in unwashed clothes, messy polyamory, explosive, unmedicated emotions, and a willingness to set bridges to the world of adulthood aflame.

Still, my and L’s trans generations are links of a chain, part daisy, part steel. My generation’s Trans 101 workshops and “good politics” have ceded entropically to disaffection with binaries, period: I/thou, online/irl, cool/cringe, and yeah, boy/girl.

In fashion, the chasm is obvious. L is too nice to tell me how dumb my outfits look, but when I attempted to give a whale-print button up to a mutual friend, L shouted, No, Charlie! You look like a sixth grader. Meanwhile, brunette L has been bleaching their eyebrows progressively more translucent, such that, in dim lighting, L’s face is just a pair of ghostly frowns lifting humorously at a joke I’m too old to get.

Not every generational link is benign. The ’90s radio-dial bullies have sprouted a thousand toothsome new heads, injecting their “gender critical” venom via NY Times op-eds, school board elections, book bannings, and the mutant nazi nightmare machine of today’s Fox News, causing me to constantly re-see the worst images of that “groundbreaking” trans masc feature film, Boys Don’t Cry (Brandon Teena, raped and killed in life, brutalized again by the trauma porn-y production and publicity that spoke of him as a misguided lesbian).

Recently, a young trans friend was arrested. I blocked out Max’s prophecy with the certainty that things were different now, that my friend would make it through with no worse than a passing stress hangover. When I next saw them, exhausted but unbloodied, I felt more than anything relief. Even as I learned about the actual traumas of their experience, I could only register the fact that, alive and real, they were the opposite of Brandon Teena.

That’s a low bar, I know. But somewhere along the way, I lost the knack for anger. Or maybe my anger was only ever veiled terror, like how viciously my toothless Boston Terrier lunges at big dogs. Now that my fear has lessened, my defensive anger has been replaced by attenuated grief.

A part of me is shocked to be alive at all, muddling along into middle age without ever having had a model for it. If gen-Z’s trans youth are different, it’s this entitlement they seem to have – to a decent world where people take care of each other, where beauty can be randomly bleached eyebrows, and friendship beats sex.

An earlier draft of this essay misrepresented my friend’s arrest in a way that was hurtful. Instead of writing me off (as younger me would have done), my friend talked to me. It was a good conversation. This capacity for repair is something my friends L and Charlie have, too. They are as fiery as us Camp Trans kids were, just a lot kinder. My younger self didn’t have that. I could not enact kindness. I could not even recognize it. Hell, I really believed having my lip bitten bloody was the same thing as a good kiss.