The Cis Women Who Helped Me Become The Woman I Am

My first professional photoshoot, from when I was just starting my transition. Photographer B.Z. Petroff did everything she could to help me feel safe in my own skin.

Sometimes when I do my own makeup, I think about the cis girl who did my eyeshadow and eyeliner and mascara at a party, back when I was first starting out. I don’t remember her name, but she was young and White and glamorous in a high-femme way. Mostly I remember her showing me how to do my eyeliner and mascara with panache, and how her eyes twinkled when she said, ‘people are going to find your eyes fascinating.’ Like my eyes were going to sparkle and transfix, like my eyes could become ornaments.

There were plenty of times, back then, when cis women would give me advice about makeup, or offer to help me, in a condescending manner. Like they really wanted an excuse to let me know that I was doing it all wrong, because I had missed out on growing up female. You could hear the “oh honey” in their voices. But this person was chill, and friendly, and just seemed to want to help my eyes become more *fascinating*.

Lately I’ve been thinking about her, and about all the other cis women who helped me out when I was first transitioning and was scared out of my mind that I would be murdered, or destroyed, or cast out into some dark frozen expanse. We talk a lot about transphobes disguised as feminists, and about cis women who reject and loathe trans women while claiming to love us. The long-fought question of whether trans women should be allowed in women-only spaces (including bathrooms) has suddenly become a Mainstream Issue. And so, I keep thinking about the cis women who went out of their way to help me, and to make me feel welcome in their communities.

I was lucky with my transition, in so many ways. I had White privilege, and class privilege, and a supportive mom. But I still think I would be in a very different place if some cis allies, especially cis women, hadn’t been there for me. I have imposter syndrome at the best of times, and even though I believed in my heart that trans women are women, I didn’t want to go where I wasn’t wanted. And when I did show up in women’s spaces (or most queer spaces, tbh), I was usually the only trans woman there, and I felt like I stuck out like a bent stem in a vase.

So it matters that cis women put themselves out there, and maybe risked getting some shit themselves, for me. My first proper women-only event was in Boston, MA, and the hosts were a lesbian couple who led me around and introduced me to everyone. (And I wasn’t the only one they were doing this for, to be clear. They were trying hard to make everyone feel welcome.) But I remember them making a big point of including me and inviting me to participate, and even giving a tiny bit of shade to the one or two people who gave me grinchy looks.

Speaking of Boston, I was living there for a short time early in my transition, and I went to queer spoken word events in church halls and bookstores and bowling alleys, and there was a brilliant, ferocious trans community. But also? I got invited to join the Boston Lesbian Avengers! I still have the T-shirt, with a cartoon bomb on it. The Boston Lesbian Avengers were mostly cis women, though one of their leaders was a trans girl named Stacey. They spent a lot of their time doing anti-racist activism, and protecting abortion clinics, but they also spent a lot of their time protesting against the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s anti-trans policies, and organizing boycotts of musicians who played there. (Here’s an old flier for the Boston Dyke March which includes the word “trans women”). The Boston Lesbian Avengers weren’t just supportive, or tolerant, they were pissed and righteous and ready to march in solidarity with trans people at the drop of a hat. That was huge, and it felt especially huge coming from a group of mostly cis women. They taught me that if anyone tried to exclude me it was their problem. That honoring women meant honoring all women, with all our complexity and all our different origin stories. I belonged.

There are so many others, including a ton of women whom I’m still friends with today. So many small acts of kindness and no small number of back-off-she’s-with-me lion’s-roar moments. I try to pay this forward. Whenever I see anyone who seems to be on the periphery of a scene, someone fidgeting anxiously in the corner, I think of the kindness people showed me. Especially when it comes to trans and particularly QTPOC folks. I try to do my best to bring them into the circle, the way others brought me in.

We talk a lot about ally-ship, but it’s not just posting memes on twitter. It’s noticing who’s left out and finding ways to bring them inside.

To be clear, I got plenty of help and support within the trans community, too — and I don’t believe for a second that trans people need cis people’s permission, or approval, or help, to be ourselves. But I know my transition would have felt very different if cis women hadn’t treated me as one of them.

A couple more examples, one political and one personal.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I joined the staff of Anything That Moves, the (in)famous bisexual magazine. And I was sort of expecting the whole thing to be about bi invisibility, and how to help people who loved more than one gender to be out and proud, and how to combat biphobia. We talked about those things plenty, for sure. But we also talked endlessly about fighting racism, fatphobia and transphobia, because those were bisexual issues too. When I look back at the magazine now, I’m amazed at how intersectional its coverage was, and how many column inches it devoted to talking about capitalism, racism, gentrification… and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I wasn’t the only trans person on the staff, but it was mostly cis folks, and everyone took it for granted that the fight for trans inclusion was an important part of our struggle.

And then there’s d.g.k. goldberg, aka Kelly. She was a brilliant author of horror and weird fiction, and she was one of my closest friends on Earth, until she died of cancer. Kelly and I used to geek out about writing all the time — she had an incredible talent for psychological horror, and for weaving real-life traumas into her fiction in startling ways. One time, I had written a (frankly dumb) story about a man who chains up a woman in a basement, and Kelly helped me to see how it could be a story about people, and feelings, and their weird baggage. I often think of the opening line of one story she published in Moxie Magazine: “Imagine I am an actor playing myself in a movie about my life.” Kelly was also the first person who ever believed that I could be a writer.

A “Jewish Southern belle,” Kelly taught me how to walk in high heels, marching back and forth on the frayed carpet in her living room, while she ate gummi bears and gave me feedback. Kelly’s mom had taught her to walk in heels when she was twelve, training her ruthlessly until she could have done a 10-K in stilettos, and Kelly was way more gentle with me, but still passed on her knowledge. Not just how to walk, but how to pick heels that fit just right, so you don’t hurt yourself. Kelly and I went clothes shopping for hours, and I still cherish some of the outfits she helped me pick out. She coached me on makeup, skin care, and a dozen other things, and I used to email her every day with my girl troubles. She made me the femme I am today, and I carry on in her name.

One time, I was at Dragon*Con, wearing my Wonder Woman costume (which I wore constantly, and I wish I had more pictures.) All of the writers and cool book nerds hung out at the bar, as usual, including Kelly. I came over to say hi to her, and a big group of dudes at the bar started heckling me — telling me my boobs weren’t big enough to pull off that cosplay. I wanted to run away, hide in my room, change into boring clothes. Kelly spun around and unleashed her full Jewish Southern Belle fury on those dudes, telling them exactly how they could go fuck themselves, and then she turned to me and told me my costume looked lovely, that I looked lovely.

I wore that costume for the rest of the day, because Kelly was with me.


Something I love this week:

Julie and the Phantoms on Netflix is everything. I’m just in awe of this amazing series about a teenage girl who hasn’t played music since her mom died (every teen character on Netflix needs a dead parent, I guess). And then she meets the ghosts of a boy band who died after eating tainted hot dogs, and discovers that when they all play together, these adorable ghosts become visible. All of the characters are so lovable and yet flawed and complex. And one of the cute ghosts is Jeremy Shada, the voice of Finn from Adventure Time. Julie and the Phantoms is a remake of a Brazilian TV show from 2012 called Julie e os Fantasmas, and all of the episodes of the Brazilian show are on YouTube (sadly, without subtitles.)

Something I almost tweeted:

The people who insist that there must be a Price to using magic often seem to be the same folks who believe there’s no cost to using technology.

My stuff:

I’m still writing essays about how to write your way out of the horrors of 2020 (or any other god-awful time in history) over at Tor.com, and there are like twenty of them now.

Also, I recently took part in StoryFest 2020, organized by the Westport Library, and you can watch the panel discussion, also featuring Tochi Onyebuchi, Sarah Gailey, Mallory O’Meara, Stephen Graham Jones and Paul Tremblay, right here.

And finally, check out the gorgeous cover of my young-adult debut, Victories Greater than Death, coming April 13, 2021. You can preorder it now!