CW: slurs, homoantagonism, assault, transantagonism, misgendering, dysphoria, suicide, overdose; references to sex work, alcoholism, death, and marijuana.
I was eighteen years old when I was assaulted in a bathroom in a homeless shelter in San Francisco. I was eighteen years old when the starry-eyed way I looked at San Francisco, as if it was some sort of godsent, some sort of safe haven, some sort of miracle city, dropped to the floor.
It was late October. I had intended to just get in, get dressed, get out, and grab a donut and coffee before hopping on the bus to the youth drop-in center. When I entered the bathroom and found it full, I felt dread. I felt like every man in the bathroom was staring at me as I passed them shaving, combing their hair, washing their hands. Every second of accidental eye contact made my heart race faster. I held my pile of clothes close to my chest and hoped no one noticed my bust as I walked to the stalls.
Occupied. Occupied. Occupied. Occupied.
I groaned and gently stamped my feet on the ground. One man grabbed me by the shoulder.
“Just use the urinal. It’s faster.”
“I’d rather not.”
“What, you think we’re homos?”
“I just don’t like using the urinal.”
“Are YOU a fag?”
“I just want to use one of the stalls.”
“Are you a GIRL?”
It happened too fast for me to do anything. One man grabbed my clothes. I covered my chest too slow.
“THERE’S A WOMAN IN HERE.”
“How did you even get in here?”
“Do you have a dick?”
One man pushed me against the wall and pulled down my pants.
“IT’S A GIRL.”
Hands reached downwards and adrenaline pumped.
I blinked away tears and pulled up my pants and ran into a stall that had been opened by someone who wanted to know what was going on. I slammed the door and ripped off my clothes, stepped into my binder, pulled the straps up over my shoulders, tucked my chest into it, threw on my shirt, threw on another shirt, pulled on my pants, ignored the intense need to pee, tried and failed to ignore my dysphoria, opened the stall door again, and pushed my way out of the bathroom.
I ran to my bunk, shoved everything into my backpack, and ran to the elevator.
“I hate cis men,” I muttered against the filter of a cigarette, fumbling to light it.
“Am I a cis man?”
I looked up at Nathan. My partner, my roommate, my client I guess. Friend? Ally? Everything was so mixed up between us. We had both been thrust into the fast pace of San Francisco with the clothes in our backpacks, the shoes on our feet, and near-empty wallets. When we met at the youth shelter and smoked cigarettes in an alley and talked about our similar mental illnesses, we were bonded. We were similar but definitely not the same. We were alone, but alone together. Out of a need for a friend, an ally, a hand to hold, a person to rely on…we somehow started dating.
I took a drag, exhaled. Grimaced. “Yes.”
“I hate it when you guys call me that.”
“I hate it when you misgender my friends.”
“You said ‘guys’. They’re women.”
“Guys is gender neutral.”
I shook my head.
“Why can’t we just be people?” he continued. “Why do you have to call me cis?”
“Don’t you mean, Why can’t we just be ‘normal’ and ‘trans’?”
“I’ll give you alcohol for it again.”
“I wasn’t serious. And like, I shouldn’t drink today. I’ll overdo it. I’m too fucked up today.”
“If it gets us through, right?” He held out a blunt. “Want to share this? It’ll calm you down.”
“What part of ‘my rapist was high when he first kissed me’ don’t you fucking get?”
He shrugged. “More fun for me.”
I took a long drag and held it. Blew out a puff of smoke. “And I’m not fucking you again. Not if you keep wrestling for my tits. I wear a binder for a reason.”
“I just don’t get why we can’t just be people. I hate being called cis. I’m just a man. A normal man.”
Implying I wasn’t a normal man. I didn’t know if I was even a man at all anymore. But it was what I was operating as, so. Trans man. Whatever.
“We won’t just ‘be people’ until your people stop killing my people for just being ourselves. For just walking and talking and breathing on this godforsaken planet. Until people like me don’t get assaulted at shelters anymore.” I paused to take a drag, hide my voice cracking. “I don’t even want to go back there. I’d rather sleep in Golden Gate again.”
“I can’t just leave my bed. They’ll give it to someone else.”
“I’ll go without you. I’ll go with JT.”
“He’s got a bed now, too. If you go alone, won’t you be at risk for ‘my people’ killing you?”
“Maybe it’s just time for me to die. Maybe I want to.”
I attempted suicide by overdosing on ibuprofen that afternoon. I spent the next 24 hours in a daze, somewhat fueled by alcohol. The next day I found blood in my stool and walked to the youth shelter. I told them what had happened. I told them I wanted to die. An ambulance came and the paramedics strapped me into a bed. I made eye contact with Nathan for the last time. I wanted to punch him and kiss him at the same time.
“Why can’t we just all be people?” J, my housemate, asked. “Why do you have to call me cis?”
I exhaled smoke into the cool January air and pursed my lips. “Because people like you put people like me into a box first. You wanted a word to categorize us, to pathologize us. This is us evening the ground. Normalizing ourselves. Because we are normal.”
“You’re not normal, girl.”
“I don’t get why you want to be a boy so bad. No one’s gonna believe it.”
I stubbed out my cigarette and stood up. “It’s not a matter of making people believe me. It’s a matter of people accepting me for who I actually am.”
Cis is Latin for “on the same side”. Trans is Latin for “across” or “on the other side”.
Cis is not a slur. It is not a bad word. It is a category. It is a gender identity. It is evening the ground so that transgender people are not “abnormal” by virtue of cisgender people being the default, the norm.
We cannot “just be people” as long as the existing systems of oppression and injustice exist in our society.
We cannot “just be people” until trans people are no longer killed at a disproportionate rate to cis people, until trans youth do not experience high rates of homelessness, until trans people can no longer be fired, denied a job, denied housing, denied service at public establishments for being transgender.
We cannot “just be people” until cisgender is no longer the accepted default and transgender people are accepted as normal and encouraged to live our authentic lives.
Until there are no more experiences like mine, and worse, I will not accept “why can’t we just be people?”. I will not accept “we’re all human”.
Lucas Kieran is a nineteen-year-old agender genderqueer person residing in Texas. Ze is an exmormon gender studies enthusiast who enjoys psychology, feminism, music, and cats. When ze’s not playing minecraft on zyr server or working foodservice, ze enjoys composing music, reading about gender (among other things), and writing. Ze hopes to attend Utah Valley University for a dual degree in Social Work and Psychology, and work as a counselor to young trans people.