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Public Affirmation

I experience constant and unyielding street harassment. It pervades every realm of my life.

To cope I remind myself that people who harass haven’t received enough intimacy and affirmation in their lives — they have been misguided to believe that hurting other people helps them heal.

We are inundated with violence. Over saturated with critique. At every level we are encouraged to tear each other apart.

I’m trying to do something different with my life. 

Recently to challenge a culture of harassment I have been practicing public affirmation. I tell passengers next to me on the train that I am rooting for them and grateful they’re alive. I tell strangers walking next to me on the street that I am glad they are trying their best and to have a great day! I try to tell as many people as possible that they matter to me and that I need them and that I am so blessed to experience their presence. 

People are often shocked.

We are so much more familiar with critique than compassion, aren’t we?

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trans body hair

one of the most painful things is when binary trans people tell me that “i am not even trying” or “not trying hard enough” because i don’t remove my body hair. “if [he] doesn’t want to be read as a man [he] could at least shave.”

really? trying??

the assumption here is that i am “lazy” & don’t experience the “real” struggle of “real” trans people. but: not removing my body hair doesn’t protect me from violence, in fact it causes it. not removing my body hair isn’t a passive action, it’s an active decision that requires constant justification amidst total & complete denigration: almost every day i receive threats to my safety both online & offline because of my body hair. i am followed, spat on, insulted, laughed at, groped precisely. because of my hairy gender non-conformity. and still i go outside & go online: brown, gender non-conforming, and HAIRY!

i know my life would be easier if i shaved & complied with society’s gender norms, but i shouldn’t have to change myself to make other people more comfortable. i am trying every day to manifest my own truth in a world that punishes me for it. i am trying to survive constant harassment, sexual violence, and physical violence. i am trying to fight for the legitimacy of gender non-conformity in a trans movement & a feminist movement that still excludes people like me. i am trying to prioritize my self worth outside of society’s patriarchal standards of beauty & desirability.

so yes i am trying very, very hard. trying to get everyone to realize that body hair is not gendered! that people of all genders have the right to look like whatever they want without having their identity be up for debate.

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spectacular hurt

the other day on a packed subway train this stranger came up to me & yelled “ARE YOU A CROSS DRESSER?” i smiled & nodded no. i didn’t want to go into it with them — i have learned the hard way that when i advocate for myself in public the harassment gets worse. so then this person started to talk to my friend next to me: “is he a cross dresser?” my sweet friend said “no she is a she” (i use “they” but in the moment this was the intervention to be made). then this person started to interrogate my friend about me: have i always known, that she knows a transgender, how she likes NYC because she gets to see different people like me. all the while she was yelling & the entire train was staring at me. i got so flushed and embarrassed i’m sure my face was as red as my dress. being made into a spectacle means that i am simultaneously made hyper visible while also being erased. i became an object — dehumanized — a subject of conversation, but not of personhood. to have someone talk about you like that — as if you’re not there... there is so much i want to say in the moment but i can’t because of the reality of violence. it makes me feel so degraded and powerless, totally ruins my day. my writing — specifically my poetry — feels like the only place i can be myself anymore. it’s where i can say “that hurt. i am alive. it matters.” it’s where i can scream, cry, demand my personhood — remind myself i am real. so i am just writing this here to say this happened; it hurt; and i am trying. trying to generate the confidence to keep going even though i am exhausted & scared.

destruction is creation

six years ago i was living in cape town when i caught on fire & sustained second & third degree burns on my hands & feet. my blanket got caught in my space heater & i woke up in flames. the thing about crisis is it suspends time. i googled what to do when you are on fire. i crawled to the shower. i remembered to grab my keys & my wallet. i thought about my mother & god (in that order). i felt mundane things that were magnificent & magnificent things that were mundane. i did not cry until i called my mom to tell her: your child is flaming (!) i will never forget that day lying on the hospital bed at 21 years old, writhing in pain, but viscerally aware that i was alive & that that was enough. this was the winter i couldn’t dance because of the bandages on my feet (so i invited people over). this is the winter i couldn’t leave the house for work because of the bandages on my hands, so i stayed at home. & i needed somewhere to put the pain, so i wrote. every day i wrote. poems about the mountain, poems about my body, poems about yours, poems about love, poems about loss. this was the winter i could not bathe myself so i read my poems to my roommate after they sponged me. this was the winter i made friends out of strangers, along with the leftovers in the fridge. & right before i left i did one final reading. i said “this is who i am” & i read those poems to that small group in that small living room in observatory & the people that i needed they said, “you are an artist” & for the first time i believed it. & i haven’t stopped writing & the living room got bigger & now there are hundreds of thousands of strangers i cannot wait to make friends. this is the winter i learned that destruction is another form of creation — that loss creates the space for something else, the cycle, stubborn & unyielding of a forrest set ablaze only to bloom again. & so here i find myself back again six years later back in this strange city i grew to call a friend writing to you once again because i need somewhere to put the pain. i am so grateful to be alive: in other words, here is my art. come over at 5. i need you.

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walking with grandpa

walking around the city with my 90 year old grandfather is one of my favorite things in the world. people are incredulous, confused, sometimes even abrasive. when people gawk at me or harass me he asks, “does this happen to you often? everywhere?” and i say “yes” and he responds “i don’t understand.” that look in his eyes when he says that makes me want to weep. i hurt and he hurts and it hurts. every time we meet he tells me about watching news segments about violence against trans people & to watch out & be careful. he says that this country is not hospitable to people like me & that it is very unfair. when i told him i was not a boy or a girl he told me that all great artists aspire toward androgyny, and we kept on walking together, talked about his art and mine. today we went on an excursion to meet one of his old friends. when he was talking about me he used gender neutral pronouns and it made me swell inside. pride month is always so hard for me. to watch everyone celebrate while the people i am & the people i love continue to be degraded with little acknowledgement, let alone concern. so i try to focus on the small victories: the pride in my grandfather’s eyes when he looks at me means more than anything else. i remind myself: there is no dissonance here. there is no dissonance here.
 

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Missing Grandma

i woke up today beneath one of my grandmothers paintings. in the corner lies her signature: Champa Vaid. i find it difficult to write about her now because i have to use the past tense. which is another way of saying: language mourns insufficiently. how callous it is to make something past with no ceremony? when she was (...) alive she used to make me turn her paintings around over & over again, ask: “which way do you think it should go?” “you know best grandma.” and that she did. she would decide and then etch her signature in the corner “so you know which way direction to put it.” 2017 was the year i remembered how to believe in magic. grandma died (...) & over night i saw her signature written on my chest. maybe so i knew which direction to go. maybe so i knew where i came from. i used to call her mostly inbetween things: meetings, classes, shows, destinations. she always answered. & i imagined her sitting in her bed & she imagined me going somewhere & we would talk about ‘nothing’ but it felt like ‘everything’ & it just got me there, where i was going. i rarely said goodbye, it was mostly “i have reached.” with her gone i feel lost. disoriented even. i r.i.p. at my chest, tear pieces out, look for the compass, the signature, the magic but all there is me. do her paintings miss her like i do? does art grieve more adequately than language? i think they do. i think it does. i think i make art to be remembered, like she did. maybe that’s the only thing women can do: write signatures like spells say, “i was here.” no: “i am here.”

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Saying Bye to Achamma

for my past few days in Kerala i had stomach bug & in some perverse way i found myself enjoying the sickness because it meant being doted on by achamma. she spent hours on the phone calling every relative keeping them abreast of my bowel movements. she made me porridge & steamed banana, checking on me constantly throughout the day & the night. she told everyone how sad she was that i was sick. on my final night she offered to sleep on the ground next to my bed in case i needed anything. i am constantly thinking about the things i have lost to oceans & this is one of them: the ability to love like that, as if the boundaries between ‘her’ & ‘me’ are non-existent, as if me being sick was her being sick, the porousness, the refusal of individuality. at the same time, the failure of language to express what i felt — to say i am alive because of you. after leaving achamma I thought about the last time i said goodbye to my other grandmother. she died 6 months later. how i recorded a short video from afar for her on her death bed — me fumbling through another goodbye, a bunch of words to say: “I will remember.” why do we say bye instead of i will remember? when my sister left for college i cried every night for a month. at her graduation party i made a slideshow with a poem & cried so hard i had to leave the venue. how do we go on knowing it will never be the same? how do we say goodbye to the people we love? how come it’s goodbyes that let us know just how much we love them? i keep thinking about all of things i wanted to say/could have said/couldn’t say to achamma, to nani, to the people i love or rather, the people who keep me alive. so i write poems & letters & notes from afar miss everyone & everything, regret the limitations of a tongue, the vulgarity of a hand waving goodbye.
 

2018 Resolutions

1) rediscover symphony in the silence. solitude is not loneliness.
2) insist on reciprocity. leave when unrequited. (even when it hurts).
3) your heart is infinite, but your body is not. this is not a limitation, it is a gift.
4) in a world hellbent on destruction, do not just critique. create! create! create!
5) respect/love/affirm/celebrate/desire/defend femininity.
6) resist rhetorical inclusion. dream beyond binaries. assert your multitudes.
7) need everyone harder. there are no strangers, just potential friends.
8) recognize your worth and your pain beyond their ability to be aestheticized.
9) apocalypse is not inevitable. fight for the people that you are and the people that you love.
10) their ugly is your beauty. their messy is your magnificent. their broken is your becoming.
11) grieve it all. everything deserves a funeral.

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ode to the small town gay bar

after my 18th birthday i convinced a friend to drive me down to halo. i grew up in a small town in texas which is a polite way of saying i survived (we love euphemisms down here) which is another way of suggesting that almost a decade later i find it difficult to swallow when people say ‘happy birthday.’ it feels like a stale piece of cake in the fridge: beautiful until you bite. like im living on stolen time. 

halo was a gay bar downtown: a folklore passed down from high school seniors, a place of whispers, nudges, innuendos. i couldn’t believe it until i went. nothing like that could exist ‘here,’ & by here i mean the town i learned magic tricks: how to disappear myself, how to make them think i was still there. & by there i meant the baptist church around every corner, the persistent drone of ‘faggot’ ‘pussy’ ‘sissy’ flung at me like a morning prayer. a baptism in their spit. in god’s name, a-man!

i have never understood why they call it “coming out,” as if removing their arms from my neck is about my emergence & not their erasure. but at 18 i clung onto words like ‘gay’ to hold up a white flag among the wreckage. “i surrender.” less about the accuracy, more about indicating a sign of life. 

& i found myself at halo week after week too shy to ask anyone to dance (still am), that 18 year old messy girl on the stage getting her life (in more ways than one) until close, that flaming queen from texas, setting the stage on fire. it was me & “britney bitch!” & the goths & punks & rebel middle school teacher & old cowboy from 3 hours away, & that lady i recognized from the grocery store - it was “us,” one of the first times in my life i remember experiencing “us.” halo was that place where ‘we’ the discarded things, the children they did not talk about, the misfits, the queers, where we came to dance — or rather, live. 

here i am almost a decade later with a new gender & an old shirt. & so much of who i have become is from this bar & this town: learning to love difference in myself & others despite everything we were taught, saying “hello” like our lives depended on it, needing each other because we had nothing else.

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5 year anniversary of performing!

flash back friday: 5 years ago today when i was on my first ever poetry performance tour!! it was called “reclaiming our color from the rainbow that stole it from us” and i was raising money for (the now no longer 😢) queers for economic justice! i had no idea what i was doing but i scurried around the east coast crying & screaming & dreaming and it was the most spectacular feeling. that sense of being able to name my hurt, and perhaps even make something beautiful out of it, externalize it from my body. i remember wrapping up the tour and saying, “this is what i want to do with my life.” i remember the clarity that came from being able to work it all out on the stage. i love performance because it is one of the only times in the world we can be real anymore. the stage is one of the few spaces left for truth telling. it was on the stage that i eventually came into my gender — performance was the only space I could experiment with my gender, be affirmed for it. when i look at myself and my becoming over these past 5 years i realize that i am the product of the hundreds if not thousands of audiences i have had since then: being seen, being allowed to grieve, being allowed to be messy. performance has fundamentally shifted the way that i life my life by which i mean i try my best to apply what i learn from the stage (vulnerability, story telling, catharsis, experimentation, improvisation) to my life. onwards to the next 5!

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sexual harassment against gender non-conforming people

been holding this in my body: feeling sore & tired and just need to get it out somewhere. the other day a cab driver interrogated me incessantly about my genitalia. “do you have a penis?” “do you have female hormones?” “who do you have sex with?” i was noticeably uncomfortable & kept trying to deflect, but he pushed & insisted to know what was between my legs. i was anxious because the car was moving, he had my address, i was the only one in the car. so i just sort of complied. i felt disembodied: thought of all the stories i know of what happens to trans girls & gnc femmes of color when men are too curious. thought about how powerful i feel on stage and how traumatized i feel in public. i eventually got home (safely), but was overwhelmed with deep sadness not necessarily at this individual man but the world that enabled him and this. i thought about the hundreds of times absolute strangers have interrogated me about my genitalia, my body, personal details of my life with this..look in their eye as if i am not a person right there in front of them. i thought about all of the comments & discussions random strangers online have about my genitalia & body. i thought about how this was and is never understood as a transgression of a boundary because as a gender non-confirming person i am already seen as transgressive & therefore incapable of having boundaries/privacy, my gender presentation is made into a spectacle for public consumption & therefore cannot belong to me. it brought up how dismayed i have been to witness conversations about harassment that once again erase trans & especially gender non-conforming people, even though we experience assault on the daily & are blamed for it because of our gender expression. i felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia about going outside — knowing that this would happen again, that there would be no discourse to acknowledge that it happened. i thought about how in a moment of supposed “victory” and “progress” gender non-conforming people like me still can’t exist in public without constant fear and how so few people seem to care about this. care about us: we who are neither women nor men.

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