Finding space where I can be me

Published 15, Dec, 2016

As a trans woman living with HIV, Maya Cole knows well the value of safe spaces and people she can trust.

Finding space where I can be me

My least favourite time of day is from 6:00 AM to 7:30 AM, on weekdays. That is when I enjoy a cup (or three) of coffee and watch the news on TV but I also feel a growing sense of unease then. This is the time before I have to head out to work. Every time I leave my apartment in the morning, I worry about my personal safety.

I am a trans woman with a distinct, somewhat raspy voice. My adam’s apple protrudes. My five o’clock shadow still mildly shows through my makeup. I listen to music and play a logic game on my phone to pass the time. I am conscious of every look that comes my way. When I reach the doors to my workplace, I feel like I have won a race. I truly feel elated.

But am I running from a perceived and viable threat? Or is there something deeper going on?

I have definitely been wearing quite the protective shield, as of late. Earlier in my life, I felt as though I had to appease the desires of others in order for my worth to be validated. In identifying as trans, I am finally doing something for myself - apart from anyone else - to feel a sense of peace and true happiness. An authentic happiness. In doing so, it is important for me to find a space where I am welcome and can feel safe. This is no easy task.

For years, I moved through social spaces dominated by gay males (because at the time, I identified as one). More than half of the spaces I frequented were oriented around hooking up or delving deeper into gay male sexuality. This is perfectly fine, but I always felt a deep sense of discomfort in these spaces. I felt like a fraud. I knew, deep down inside, that I was not supposed to be there - yet I could not understand why. I drank heavily and used drugs to feel more comfortable in those spaces, when in most cases it just bought me an early cab ride home.

Let me be clear: gender and sexuality do not necessarily need to intersect. However, the truth of my own gender identity was thrust to the surface by me occupying those spaces. I had to live years of discomfort and not knowing before I could know the truth. Of course, not every experience was awful. I have had several romantic relationships with gay men over the years of whom I still consider important to my life today.

"There have been many events in my lifetime that have led me to hold myself close, to be my own protector. As a trans woman, there is a need to be vigilant."

Upon transitioning and beginning to live my true self, you would think I would feel more at ease. Most of the time, I feel much more grounded. I remarked to my mother today on the phone that I am less reactionary than I was before. Yet, finding space continues to be a big challenge. My life has been dominated by the theme of searching for acceptance.

So, where do I belong?

The answer to this question has intersections with testing HIV positive. As a person living with HIV, in many ways I have felt like the Other. Reinforcing this ideal has been my own resurfaced internalized stigma when in a serodiscordant relationship. Yet, those romantic relationships built the foundation for connecting on an intimate level with a strong foundation of trust. Without trusting myself or others, the difficulty of finding space and acceptance is incredibly heightened.

I began to find acceptance as a trans person by first speaking with my family about my gender identity. In all honesty, I felt they had been cushioned by previous revelations of my sexuality and becoming HIV positive. However, I quickly learned that coming out as transgender (especially as a trans woman) is altogether different and complex. Members of my family who I am closest to have made great strides in challenging their own biases towards gender identity. They have allowed for open dialogue, which I find is another key to creating safe space. There are some members of my extended family that I believe are still struggling with the acceptance of my trans identity. Their process is a slower one. I am challenging it, where my own personal resolve and heart can persist - but I am coming to accept that my safe space may be away from them, when it becomes too much for me to process.

Seeking space to be visible as a trans person should probably also start where one spends the most time in their day. For me, that is at work. This is where I have been most surprised, mostly because of how circumstances have challenged my own protectionism. In recent years, I have become a highly guarded person. There have been many events in my lifetime that have led me to hold myself close, to be my own protector. As a trans woman, there is a need to be vigilant. My work colleagues have really opened their hearts and minds, leaving me feeling very lucky to be working in such a wonderful place and with such amazing people. They have broken down the walls that I put up around myself.

Where things become quite arduous is in daily activities outside of the safety of work and home. Here’s a perfect example: I recently had a lovely day of brunching and film watching with a dear friend of mine. In spite of my enjoyment of the day’s activities and the good company, I had to plan when and where (with precision) to go to the washroom. As far as we have come to having truly accessible washroom facilities, we have a very long way to go. It is this basic need that can create a good deal of stress in my day. It limits my social activities, as this is one space where I truly need to feel safe. It’s the washroom!

My manifesto to finding space and creating paths to acceptance is still being written. I am emboldened by lifelong friendships, as they help me to navigate my daily challenges. I am especially gifted with building close friendships with my ex-husband and ex-lovers, who have reminded me on more than one occasion to stay true to who I am. They have also helped me to not take on too much. Being trans is an overwhelming and fascinating experience that is strengthening my sense of self. It is important to temper my desire to challenge every microaggression, as in the beginning I have found myself emotionally exhausted at times.

Patience. That is what being trans has taught me the value of. I think that as long as I keep practicing this, the hours of 6:00 AM to 7:30 AM during the week will become easier.