Protecting life itself

Mark Notari/Flickr
Mark Notari/Flickr


This happened last April: I saw an elderly trans woman I know on a subway car. I didn’t say hello because she wouldn’t have recognized me (I was presenting as male for the day, going to Brooklyn to see my tax guy). Also, there’s an unwritten rule not to call attention to a trans sister in public, lest she be unnecessarily scrutinized and “outed.”

When Sophia (whose name I’ve changed) attended the drop-in group for the first time months before, I saw a hunchbacked, socially awkward person—perhaps on the Asperger’s spectrum—with close-cropped gray hair, wearing a man’s shirt and trousers. Though she asked us to use feminine pronouns, it was hard to imagine her as female, or even trans female. In less than a year, she was living as a woman full time.

But on that train car, in a polyester housedress, sneakers, and a bad wig, it didn’t appear to be much of a transformation. That’s the other reason I didn’t want to say hello, and I’m ashamed to admit it: I cringed to look at her. When she stood by the door as we approached her stop, someone even less comfortable than me came up behind her: a young black woman, not shy about examining Sophia up and down, who busted out in a silent though demonstrative belly laugh. She was huge and moved erratically, and I thought she might crush her.

Instantly I met that woman’s eyes, locked her in my gaze, and stared her down. My silent message: Make one move toward her, and you’ll be dealing with me. The train pulled to a halt, the doors opened, and Sophia wandered innocently out into Brooklyn. So nothing happened, but a lot happened. For one thing, my shame evaporated in a heartbeat. Here was a person not passable in the least, yet daring to go for broke and live the life she’d longed for, at a level of danger even I couldn’t fathom. If she’s not a hero, I don’t know who is. Maybe that’s why I stepped over my shame so quickly: in protecting Sophia I was protecting life itself.

I saw her the next week at the diner. (In lieu of the dysfunctional trans drop-in at the local GLBT center, some of us began meeting on our own each Wednesday at the Good Stuff Diner on 14th Street.) When I told her I’d seen her riding the train, Sophia flashed a big smile. I didn’t mention the huge woman lurking behind her.


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Diana Goetsch (formerly Douglas Goetsch) is a poet and freelance teacher of writing. Her latest book is Nameless Boy.


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