CHOKING UP

Oh, fuck, I’m about to cry. I’m in the middle of a sentence. My sentence is in the middle of a protracted ‘debate’ on trans representation. The ‘debate’ is in the middle of a two-hour class in the School of English, Drama and Film, where the tables have been arranged in a rectangle so that everyone can look each other in the eye. The published, the unpublished, the novices and the veterans are all on equal footing. It’s 2019; I am a twenty-two-year-old barely out of my undergrad, and I have as much visibility as the award-winning authors in this room whether I want it or not.

Crying starts in my stomach and rises like mercury. It tightens my chest and quickens my heart. My tongue is heavy and my cheeks are roasting. Tears start burning my waterline. Oh, fuck. I’m useless. I can fight the urge to cry at every step and still lose. I’m just muscle and bone and saltwater, conquerable as a mound of dirt.

In moments like these I somehow convince myself that no one can tell I’m about to cry. That if I just measure my breaths between words, I can reach the end of my sentence without anyone noticing. Yet clearly, before a tear drops from my eye, something’s giving me away to my classmates. Their expressions are changing. What is that? Pity? Compassion? Disgust? Someone asks do I need a minute. I don’t know what good a minute will do me. I don’t nod or shake my head. I don’t do anything but focus on melting the tears away. I can’t stand being interrupted, especially by my own body.

People are watching me from every table that makes up our rectangular class, waiting to hear my trans rebuttal in the ‘trans debate’. I don’t know why we call it that. I’m not debating anything, I’m begging for respect while others debate if I deserve it. I’m annoyed and frustrated, but that doesn’t feel connected to the fat knot in my throat. I don’t feel overwhelmed by emotion, I don’t feel like I’m breaking down crying, I don’t feel like bursting into tears. I don’t have the language for how I do feel, because all the words for crying are tragic.

I’m not tragic. I’m on the precipice of nothing more than being embarrassed in front of my classmates on a warm Wednesday afternoon.

Each row of faces crushes me with a wave of self-awareness: I’m the only trans person speaking in this room. I wasn’t prepared to be the centre of attention today. I thought a creative writing degree was a safe place full of lefty artists, where my identity wouldn’t be in contention.

I try to pace my breathing and finish my point, what even was it, something something zero trans Irish novelists—but my body doesn’t understand. It doesn’t know who John Boyne is. It doesn’t know what a university is, or a creative writing class. It doesn’t know that boys don’t cry. It only knows that distress signals are firing in my brain and it wants to protect me. It will choke me mid-sentence if necessary because it only has one priority: get help.

Crying feels like an outdated organ in this moment, an emotional appendix. Crying might have rallied Neanderthals to an injured tribemate, but today, in this classroom, it is killing my credibility. Perhaps evolution didn’t predict humans turning on each other. At any rate, whether I like it or not, I start to cry.

TEARING UP

I never knew I was a blusher until someone told me, and since that revelation I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what I look like in conversation. People cite my eyes (big and blue) and brows (full and dark) as my most striking features. They are, reportedly, expressive. In my reflection I can study how my hair falls to my chin, how the light bounces off my round nose, I can act out emotions and try to see what others see when I laugh, frown, gasp. I can see all the ways I look without ever knowing how I come across. I’m always troubled by the gap between how I look and how people see me, doubly so when crying. There’s a specific relationship between two people when one cries and the other watches. For the person watching, both distaste and empathy demand speculation around the crier’s emotions. That gets under my skin. People already feel free to scrutinise my existence and I don’t need to intensify that by crying in front of them.

But that’s how we deal with crying; we make it a moment, a spectacle, a conversation stopper. All our art about crying is third-person. It’s harder to capture the feeling of being the one crying and being watched while crying. The closest thing I’ve found is a series of photographs by Emily Knecht taken every time she cried for three years, including shots taken mid-argument with her boyfriend. ’If we’re having an argument and I’m crying,’ she told i-D, ’I’m like ”Hold on, I’ve got to take a picture,” he’s like, ”What the fuck is wrong with you?” It’s like, is it taking you out of the moment? Is it connecting you more?’

I derive pleasure from looking at her photos, from scratching at the itch that demands to know what I look like to other people when I’m crying. I don’t take photos, but I do much the same as Knecht. I interrupt my own emotions with performative ticks. I wonder what I look like, how I’m being perceived. I don’t fully feel my feelings. I don’t have the luxury.

With my thoughts diluted, I’m only grounded in the physical sensations of crying. My hands balled in my sleeves, pressing their cotton against my watery eyes, the dampness seeping through my jumper cuff to spread over my knuckle.

I don’t know what my classmates are seeing when I look up from under wet lashes. Is my face red? Are my eyes glossy or bloodshot? Do I look wild-eyed or just vacant? Do I cry like a guy or a girl? Am I coming across frustrated or depressed? Does anyone care if I finish my sentence anymore, or do they just want to know will the wobble in my lip cave into shoulder-shaking sobs?

I look off to the side to try and keep it together and now the conversation is over. The mood has shifted. I’m pretty sure I have ‘lost’ the ‘debate’. A tear hasn’t even hit my cheek yet.

Everyone is quiet. Silence and the pressure to fill it are overwhelming; I simultaneously see the hundred different outcomes depending on how I cry, where I cry, when I cry, if I cry. I wonder whether anyone in this room has a single other trans person in their life, or if I will be their one monolithic idea of what a trans person is, how they sound, what they believe, how they behave.

ACTING UP

I know the social worth of crying in front of people; I know to take it seriously when I feel a little cry coming on. I’m fascinated by the line between real expression and fabricated television and I can’t get through an episode of reality TV without commenting on the quantity, quality or function of a crying scene. I’ve almost memorised that interview where RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Kelly Mantle exposes how producers push Drag Race’s emotionally charged sob stories.

Drag Race posits itself as a place for lost gays to find a family under the wing of Mama Ru and good sob stories (and sob they must) are core to the cathartic appeal, but trauma saturation has created a ’quantity over quality’ approach. When a contestant confesses their personal trauma to judges, tears are meant to elicit sympathy; yet the sentimentality that the show is built around often brings out cynicism in the audience. Anyone, after watching enough Drag Race, will have had a knee-jerk she’s just crying so they won’t send her home reaction.

I’ve been guilty of this and I’ve tried to understand why. I’ve wondered if I take the queens less seriously because they’re effeminate, if I’m redirecting the scrutiny I feel when I’m crying. I’ve considered that Drag Race competitors seldom know what edit they’ll get and that Drag Race, in search of ‘universal appeal’, will prioritise a good arc over authentically conveying a crier’s emotions.

Knowing Roxxxy Andrews makes it to the finale of Drag Race Season 5, editors showcase her tears into a two-minute-long display with five musical cues lasting into the show’s end credits; conversely, from the moment Season 10 contestant Blair St. Clair first sniffles, she gets roughly fifty seconds with two pieces of music, rapidly indicating woe and subsequent resolution. In under a minute the show delivers: Blair opening up about sexual assault; queens breaking down; RuPaul building them up; a neat resolution. Blair is eliminated eight minutes later.

For the viewer, Blair crying comes out of nowhere. A shot of Monét X Change barrelling the camera cues us to feel that way—the editing pushes the idea that Blair didn’t have some unseen personality left on the cutting-room floor, that she’s pulling this out of her ass. It’s effective. Scepticism of queens in tears honed in on Blair; in a comedy set about frequent crying scenes in Blair’s season, Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio even said of her, ‘That other bitch, “I was raped!” No, fuck you. You notice she wasn’t raped until she was in the bottom two? … that’s fucking strategy.’

I’ve often tried to put myself in Blair’s shoes—or rather, those of Andrew Bryson, the drag performer playing her. We talk about his disclosure and elimination, but not what came right before. He was a 22-year-old on an internationally picked-apart TV show with a notoriously toxic fandom; he had earlier received both insults and affirmations from his fellow contestants; judges had just criticised the ‘cute’ drag persona he secretly formed in response to feeling ‘dirty’ as well as comparing him to a dessert, something useable, consumable. There was so much going on and so little running time to unpack it.

All the things someone in that position won’t say—can’t say—make ‘strategic’ crying the most efficient edit; all you have to do is remove context. It’s a week of sceptical fan engagement for under a minute of screentime. Of all the types of TV crying, it’s also the closest thing to real queer life. We don’t have manicured confessional interviews to speak for us when we’re struggling, we don’t have season-long character arcs clueing people into our backstory, we don’t have a colourful cast of characters around us at all times to show straight people the diversity of queer experience. In times of ‘trans debate’ I have rarely, if ever, shared the floor with another trans person.

So sure. It came out of nowhere.

GROWING UP

It shouldn’t surprise me when my body goes against me, making a show of me when I’m most serious. For years my hips have ached if I uncross my legs and try to sit ‘like a man’, and my high Valleyspeaky voice puts my phone bookings under ‘Jane’ instead of ‘James’. I’ve had a lifetime to get used to it, but I’m still incensed whenever my body is stroppy.

I announced myself as James in 2011, age fifteen. I’ve met trans people with names from their favourite movies, shows, comics; mine came from James and the Giant Peach, a film released the year I was born that I loved as a kid.

A transmasculine teen pre-‘The Transgender Tipping Point’, I had a much more assimilationist view of trans identity. I parrotted cis people’s ideas of what being trans should be; don’t look weird, try to pass, getting clocked is game over. I grew up, I met other trans people, I learned and unlearned a lot. I no longer feel like masculinity is something I have to copy verbatim from cis men, like it’s a competition that I lose if I express myself. I’m happy being more Nathan Lane than John Wayne, and I like being trans now. I like the insight being trans gives me into myself, I like the community around me, I like trans media, I like writing while trans. I like learning the overlapping histories of butches, trans men, gender non-conforming and non-binary people. I don’t call myself a trans man, I like ‘trans masculine’ for what it is separate from cis masculinity; formed differently, experienced differently, loved differently. Wonderfully.

Still, years after coming out it’s hard to silence that part of my mind forged in the fires of cis expectation; I still get anxious about looking weird, not passing, getting clocked. I still fear being publicly humiliated if I don’t adhere to cis masculinity, that I’ll be treated as a failure if I do something so ‘feminine’ as emote. If we talk about transness—when we talk about transness—and I speak, and I put myself out there to be looked at while speaking, and when I start to cry, I would be a sensitive, irrational queer, I would be somebody reaching at maleness who can’t do the bare minimum of keeping his emotions in check.

I have specific outfits to wear on days where I expect to be especially visible. I wear those outfits not to be read as male, but to look like I’m trying. Maybe if I hide my body and dress like cis people think boys should dress, don’t cross my legs or hang my wrist, I’ll get a night off from being an activist. I’ll be allowed to meet people, shuffle past their awkward double-take when the word ‘James’ leaves my mouth, and get on with my fucking life.

I am not wearing one such safety outfit in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a class in the middle of the ‘trans debate’ on Wednesday afternoon, and all eyes are on me, and my heart is in my throat, and I open my mouth, and I don’t even look like I’m trying.

BREAKING DOWN

A few months before the sentence in the middle of the ‘trans debate’, in November 2018, I went on my first real date. It was my first time meeting someone who wasn’t a friend I’d made out with in my teens, someone who wasn’t already familiar with me and my transness. I was meeting my first hot stranger off a dating app. A queer coming-of-age if there ever was one.

He was a gay man, attractive, and into me, but he was polyamorous and I was not. After a week-long flirtation, I broke things off.

I didn’t know until then how badly I’d internalised my undesirability. I’d been out as trans for seven years—an eternity in queer time. I had learned and unlearned cis masculinity; I had stopped chasing the Sisyphean version of body positivity where every glance at the mirror should send me into a frenzy of self-adulation. I still struggled with being misgendered, misunderstood, misrepresented, but I grasped that this was a matter of perception, that I was not in the wrong for existing as is. I loved my body, genuinely. I just didn’t think anyone else could love my body too.

I felt sick for days after our last text exchange, absolutely sure, at twenty-two, that I would never be wanted again in my life. I was in college the following day having told next to no one about the entire affair. I rarely tell people when I have a shot at something good, be it romantic or professional, in case it doesn’t pan out and I look the fool for getting my hopes up. I got through a couple of classes with glassy eyes and a foggy brain before sitting on a couch tucked under a staircase and then, without warning, I started crying on my best friend’s shoulder. She rubbed my back and didn’t try to talk down my anxieties, and I slumped over beside her like a dog tired out from doing nothing.

After a few months collecting myself off Tinder, I started dating a guy in January 2019. He took me to a café I’ve since learned was the hotspot for every gay first date in Dublin. Even my date knew that, and he was an American who’d only been in Ireland for five months.

I got a Coke and he got tea; we went downstairs to the basement. It was warm and smelled weird, like the steam inside a hot pastry. I inelegantly confessed that I had gone on exactly one date before, but then he had to go to the bathroom and throw up because of the weird smell, so I would call it even on weird first impressions. Despite that, we both wanted to see each other again, and again, and again. He was in Ireland for his year abroad and leaving at the end of the semester, so we planned to break up in April.

On a night in March 2019, a few weeks before the middle of the sentence, we were falling asleep together on my sitting room sofa. It was so nice it started to scare me. I wanted to sleep, to be falling asleep with a boy I loved, but I couldn’t stop staring at a small blue light in the corner of my TV. When I glanced around the room, bright blue streaks cut through the dark. He felt my heartbeat quicken and asked me what was wrong. I admitted that I was so, so scared no one else would like me after he went home. I pinched my eyes in the dark and whispered ‘oh, fuck’ out loud, asking them to not prickle. To him I said: ‘I promise I’m not a mess.’

I had been on a tightrope since we’d met. He was nice and smart and funny and he knew more about gay life in Ireland than I did; I wanted him to remember me as someone equally cool. As a result I was oddly open with him, admitting whenever I felt anxious but immediately blaming it on an outside trigger—college, usually. Sometimes it was true; I told him all about the ‘trans debate’ thing after it happened. Sometimes I think I was reaching and I just wanted a reason to be sad that wasn’t ‘I am a sad person’. I was afraid it would seem like negativity just generated inside of me, that my tears were just coming out of nowhere.

In April, the week we were due to break up, he told me he had also been crying on that night we talked on the couch. I just hadn’t noticed in the dark.

My best friend and I spent three full days together right after the scheduled breakup, going out to movies, getting takeaway, hanging out at my house, all planned well in advance so I wouldn’t be on my own for those vulnerable days. There was a time limit—we both had finals due in less than two weeks—but she came anyway and with her company I found it easy not to cry for a few days.

Very quickly, I started to think about flying to visit him in the US. I tried filing the idea away as something for ‘next year’, but no matter how irrational I knew it to be, the thought wouldn’t leave my mind. Abruptly I paused the episode of Survivor my friend and I were watching, saying I needed to go ask my mom about something before she went to sleep. I ran upstairs to tell my mom about these flight plans, hoping she would point out how nonsensical the idea was and that, equipped with her motherly wisdom, I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. I sat on her bed and didn’t get so far as explaining my plan before I started crying, quietly, about how nice he was and how badly I missed him already.

BREAKING UP

In the span of our four-month relationship, he only cried in front of me once. It started when we were sitting on my bed with pillows propped behind us, talking about the practicalities of his departure. Suitcases. Taxis. Planes. He mentioned feeling sick, and I said it was an appropriate bookend for our relationship, given his initial barfing. He started crying. I was relieved for a second. It was the first time I’d really seen him cry, in the light, and he couldn’t hide it.

I couldn’t reconcile tears with his face. That behaviour was mine, not his. Despite having been in his exact position and knowing these things have no rhyme or reason, I was convinced it was something I said. So I asked him amid fuzzy, numb-fingered comforting, what brought this on?

He said he was just thinking about our first date. He was really going to miss me.

For the first time ever, I wished that I was crying. Everything was the wrong way around. It wasn’t like me to be so composed. I’m stupid, I’m hysterical, I can’t control it—I’m the one who cries, not the one who watches. I was used to my mind being calm and my body acting out; now I finally felt emotional, I felt irrational, I felt a need to express to him that I was by all definitions heartbroken, and instead I had a face like stone. I needed tears to explain that I felt the same, and nothing came.

I was so confused by my feelings the first time a boy cried in front of me. I still lack the language. Did I think my crying about our separation made me the only vulnerable one, the naive one, the one who was in it, achingly, humiliatingly, for real?

Two years on and I haven’t found all the answers, but once again I’ve come closest through art. There’s a scene early in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, when teenage Jess Goldberg is struggling to preserve their softness while embodying the toughness demanded of 1960s butches, and a femme named Angie says, ‘You’re OK,’ then, ‘Are you OK?’ and finally, ‘You’re not OK, are you?’

These two queer people, a femme and a butch, know that the ways they can be seen in the world are limited and they will always have fundamental differences in expression; but when they’re in private, Angie gives Jess a respite. Someone else telling Jess that they aren’t okay is enough for Jess to express that they need care, and they do so by starting to cry on Angie’s shoulder.

I didn’t know it at the time, and I still don’t know all the right words for it, but I feel my American gave me that. Not an outlet to be vulnerable but a way to be the caretaker for once, not the token kicked puppy in the room. A show of strength outside of cis masculinity. He let me be what so many others had been for me.

My friends, my people, my Leslie Feinbergs, my Nathan Lanes, my SOPHIEs, my loves have given me that recognition that Angie gave Jess: it’s okay to cry. Not as pithy philosophy or a shallow mental health campaign, but with the full knowledge and understanding of what I am and what that means. The world is hostile, the café closed down, and my life is debate fodder, but in a wonderful way, my body was briefly tricked into thinking otherwise.

Crying, in this deliriously trans way, is outside of that copycat cis masculinity I wore as a teen, and it’s a part of what makes my masculinity mine. I’m not on T right now but if I chose to return to hormone therapy, I might find it harder to cry. It’s a relatively common side effect. I’ve tried imagining how I’d feel if my abundance of crying suddenly turned into an absence, and I would hope my body remembers that feeling of vulnerability even if it no longer expresses it. I’d tell it to remember this of my tears: there are times when it’s scary and embarrassing and inconvenient, but what a small price to pay for the knowledge that a body has known true safety and love.

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