Story by Bryn Bell
Illustration by Kiriko Kajiwara
One evening in June, when the warm Arizona air was just breaking into the sweltering heat of summer, I found myself trapped inside a near-empty Target directly across from the men’s underwear aisle out of both sheer stubbornness and abject terror. While peculiar at best and pathetic at worst, the implications behind the dilemma I faced that night are a huge aspect of my narrative as a transgender individual. What would then unfold gave me newfound fortitude in myself and my identity, presenting a somewhat ludicrous scenario that mirrors serious challenges I have to face in the world as a transgender man.
At a time, before I had come out to my parents, my mom was unsettled, then dismissive, upon my mentioning of wanting boxers. “There’d be a bunch of extra space in the front,” she said. “I’m not buying you men’s underwear.” My parents were tolerant of my gender ambiguity: a short haircut, prickly legs, and male behaviors, all of which were awkwardly underscored by girlhood and she/her pronouns. Yet, somehow, men’s underwear seemed to mark the line that they were uncomfortable with me crossing. I knew that they were against my wearing boxers because of a deeper rejection and fear of my gender queerness, but they maintained the argument that it was simply not designed for my physical anatomy. Of course, that was exactly what I wanted; I was not foregoing panties for boxers out of utility. I associated a sense of comfort and rightness with them: the classic waistband and opening at the front allowed me a secret confidence that I could not afford with my outer appearance.
Almost stereotypically, like other transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, I curbed the dysphoria by surrounding myself with more masculine or unisex possessions. Being closeted and pre-transition in all manners except my androgynous presentation, I clung to whatever material masculinity I could find. I secretly spritzed myself with my dad’s cologne before going out and stole pairs of my brother’s black basketball shorts to wear to school. So, of course, one thing leading to another, the time came to get what I felt was the true hallmark of men’s apparel: boxers.
I drove to that fateful Target on an average night, determined to buy some underwear. Once I set foot into the store, my confidence dwindled. I paced slowly through the store, filled with dread, dragging my feet across the shiny white tile and perusing fake plant decorations. I found the men’s apparel section. Yet, I was unable to move. I stood in the baby food aisle adjacent to the men’s section, legs like iron. As other customers occasionally shuffled past, I became hyper-aware of how I looked, even with my femininity smothered by baggy clothes and a boy cut. My worst nightmares played out in my head, a gruff man stopping me, “The ladies section is over there, sweetie,” or maybe a group of guys my age milling around, giving me confused looks and snickering to themselves. Maybe an employee would approach me and, in an act of discreet transphobia, request that I shop in the ladies’ section just down past the electronics. Stories came to mind, like one my transgender female friend told about how a group of men confronted her while she was shopping for intimates. My hands trembled as I used my phone.
Indecision ate up more than twenty minutes, and the intercom began alerting the few remaining shoppers that Target would be closing soon. I finally resigned. Slipping into my car, I drove away, something like frustrated tears welling up in my eyes but never spilling. A barrage of worries about being unable to face stigma assaulted me on the drive home. If I can’t even grab a box when no one is watching, how am I supposed to bear with the real challenges? There are a million worse stories my therapist draws me near as a warning, like public restrooms and locker rooms with cisgender men, workforce discrimination in a state like Arizona, debilitating financial strains of transition. And I can’t even set foot where tired suburban dads could not care less about me? My regret was unshakeable.
The following day, I intentionally gave the incident little thought until I was driving home in the evening. Abruptly, I turned around and went to Target. My fears once again eroded at my resolve, this time even before I could see inside the store, but somehow my legs had more courage than me because they strode right inside and into the men’s section, ignoring that there were people around this time. I chose what to buy, and it was done, simple as that. I was shaking a bit when I drove home, perhaps from both excitement and the rush of adrenaline that had come in response to my fear.
In review of my experiences with stigma, I did not imagine I would be using this anecdote as an example of transgender struggles, but the truth is, with my failure to buy boxers came a greater symbolism, congruence with already existing insecurities in my identity. No, I did not end all transphobia by buying underwear, and my qualms about being transgender are not going to end after I purchase new clothes or even transition fully. However, I believe this was a fine moment for me and a step forward as I worked up the courage to come out to my parents.
While this story illustrates a simple problem as an analogy for the struggles of transgender people, there are many more layers to my transness than comical trips to the store. The LGBT experience is so nuanced yet so universally alike that it is difficult to describe how my transness has intersected with my personality compared to others’ situations. And as other queer people will say, there is no single “coming-out”. I will have to come out over and over again: in underwear aisles, airports, and schools, to strangers, colleagues, and friends. To me, fear is a disease. Although diseases may be eradicated, the virus will always be lurking. I have plenty to learn before I have a proper grasp on what it is like living as trans in America, but for now, I can only hope that I have the strength to help dismantle the sentiments that caused it.
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