On the day Scott Morrison declared that "gender whisperers" are infiltrating our schools and turning innocent children trans, I was meant to see a play.
I'd been bristling about Morrison's comments all day, alternating between impotently tweeting and raging with my housemate. I felt, as I often do, completely powerless in the face of institutionalised condemnation - especially, condemnation of something I would have found helpful, someone to tell me it was okay to be trans, when I was in school.
I caught an Uber to the theatre that evening, having tweeted myself into lateness. When I got into the Uber, the driver makes a comment I've heard countless times before: "Oh, apologies, I was looking for a boy - Charlie’s a boy’s name!"
Being inherently anxious and conflict-avoidant as I am, I usually let comments like this go. Not everyone has a frame of reference for contemporary discourse around gender, I can't expect complete strangers to know instantaneously how I identify, and not knowing these things doesn't make someone a bad person. Every social interaction is based on a hundred minute and instant assumptions about the other person, so it's no one's fault I'm sometimes misgendered.
On this evening, though, my composure cracked.
"Can you just drive already?!" I snapped, harsh and caustic, a rush of panicked rage hitting me as soon as the words are out. They hung heavy between us, as he pulled away from the curb. The rest of the trip was silent.
As a queer transgender man, I am frequently struck by the cognitive dissonance caused by existing simultaneously on a human and a political plane as a minority. On a daily basis I contend with my identity as a global concept - I read reports of the Trump administration wanting to define trans people out of existence, for example, and I feel that violence individually as well as through my community. At the same time, I'm just a guy, and my day-to-day existence is filled with interpersonal interactions that also scrape against my personhood - being called "ma'am" in a store, being questioned about my name or appearance by Uber drivers, being misunderstood by a doctor.
Both of these forms of oppression are, in their own ways, demoralising and hurtful. What is underappreciated, however, is how hard it is to deal with both at the same time, and how easily they start to conflate, until every moment feels like a battle.
What happened in the Uber that night is easy enough to explain.
I had spent the whole day seething over Scott Morrison's bewildering and uncalled-for comments, and the implication that the existence of more trans people now than 10 years ago is a) caused by insidious “gender whisperers and b) a bad thing at all - and this was something over which I could exert no control.
So getting into that car, I instinctively lashed out at something I could control. It just happened that the situation I could control was a totally harmless and well-meaning Uber driver who’d probably been driving for hours, was himself working on autopilot, and just wanted to break the silence. All in all, it was an unproductive outburst, even as a form of misdirected catharsis.
You spend your whole life feeling unable to control how people view you, and on top of that you have to contend with every other conservative politician or public figure trying to quash your very existence.
It’s not the first time that’s happened to me, and I know I’m not the only trans person who experiences this phenomenon. Sometimes it’s been people in stores or cafes, sometimes it’s been telemarketers, sometimes - most painfully - it’s been friends. An errant “she” - something I’d ordinarily correct but not be enraged by - becomes a fight, or a lecture, or me simply leaving a social situation. I’m not proud of those moments, but I understand where they come from.
You spend your whole life feeling unable to control how people view you, and on top of that you have to contend with every other conservative politician or public figure trying to quash your very existence. Lack of control makes people do crazy things.
On an individual, interpersonal level, I understand that I am a whole person. It would be ridiculous to think otherwise. In my day to day interactions with friends, family, and strangers alike, I am certain that I am just as visible, valid, and deserving of respect as the next person.
But on a national, and international scale, recently it’s been hard to maintain that certainty. When the Trump administration leaked a memo saying it planned to redefine gender to be only the binary sex an individual was assigned at birth, trans communities all over the world felt that certainty shake. The memo indicated that gender markers on birth certificates would only be allowed to change if there was “scientific, DNA-based evidence” supporting that change. They are, of course, ignoring all the scientific evidence we already have for the existence of trans people: what they mean is your chromosomes and secondary sex characteristics don’t lie, that trans people aren’t really who they say they are, and that those with intersex variations can just forget about legal recognition.
Under this redefinition, trans people would not be able to legally change their gender - because trans people would not exist. This would mean trans people could be denied access to the correct bathrooms, that people who have transitioned would be put in even greater danger when their ID doesn’t match the way they look - but the thing that I fixated on that day is that transgender people would not have rights because they would not exist. We would not be lesser, not second class citizens, but non-existent. In the space where each of us used to be there would be - well, what?
On the day that memo leaked I wanted to have something productive to say, but I couldn’t find it because you have to be a whole person to have productive things to say.
When the guy who makes my coffee says “ma’am”; when the sales assistant who assumes I’m lost and points me to the “women’s section”; when the friend-of-a-friend says “she” and my friend feels too awkward to correct them; I look at these people and I wonder: do you think I don’t exist? Are you denying my existence too?
At a time like this, when every other day there is a news story, a memo, a prime-ministerial tweet, about how I am deemed less than the cis people around me - when every trans person is subjected not only to individual violence and oppression, but governmental structures that seem not to care - it becomes hard to tell what’s real or not, what’s cruelty or accident.
I know I’m supposed to calmly correct people, to take a deep breath and explain, to smile and let it go. But those all sound like things you can only do if you’re a person.
Charles O'Grady is a queer playwright an director, and a proud trans man.
November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance.