Showing Up in Public in a Disabled Trans Body

artistic splatter illustration of a person swimming

The first time I limped out of the men’s locker room and into the YMCA indoor swimming pool area without a rash guard covering my surgery-scarred chest, I felt queasy. I was certain it would turn into an 80’s high school movie-style scene wherein every person in the room would stop what they were doing to point and proclaim their horror. The body of a visibly trans person is noticeable and vulnerable. The body of a disabled trans person is vulnerable and a spectacle: a parade float of difference. That day, nothing happened. Hardly anyone looked. One guy did, but then just looked away, and another gave me the overly-enthusiastic “you go boy” grin of awkward allyship.

I swam my slow laps, working the soreness out of my shoulders and neck, and felt good in my remarkable body while everyone else did their own thing. This is what queerness is. Showing all the way up in places that aren’t expecting anyone like you and making them yours. This is also what disability is.

On one hand this is fabulous. Since I never feel particularly welcome anywhere, I can write my own ticket and go wherever I please. On the other hand, feeling constantly vulnerable and uncertain of the welcome I will receive is exhausting. Much of my energy goes to risk assessment and working up gumption for actions that are terribly mundane. Frankly I would prefer to spend that energy on more interesting things.

I have a complicated relationship with the California cult of wellness and the broader western cult of self-sufficiency. I am the son of a surfer dad and a mom keen on taking off to the mountains whenever a spare moment arose. I grew up disabled, but aware of the joy that comes from moving through space on my own terms. The complexity only comes in when I have an audience.

Here’s the thing, I love my disabled trans body. And, yes, I have hated it, but not because it is trans or disabled, so much as because I am a person who has grown up in America on the cusp of the 21st century.

I love the lightness my body feels while it moves through water. I love the feeling of gently discovering new shapes that my limbs can make in adapted yoga classes, the feeling of discovering what I can do with my body in the shape it already is; of gently nudging it towards something new.

What I hate is the assumption that I am in the pool, or in these classes looking for a cure, or worse, to disrupt the people who truly belong.

Wellness spaces are often not safe for disabled people who like their bodies. I have been in gentle yoga classes and been surrounded after the savasana by well-meaning yogis telling me about the miraculous recoveries of some guy they met one time. Telling me completely unfounded tales of my bravery for essentially mildly stretching and then lying around for a bit smelling the essential oil diffuser and listening to that one rainstorm CD that every yoga studio plays during class. These conversations cause an instant tensing, shoving me out of the mellow, good feeling of being in my body and dragging me straight back to a world that wants me either cured or elsewhere.

I have found fitness spaces easier to navigate with a disability, but far more challenging of my trans identity. Walking into a men’s locker room as a trans man who sort of usually passes is always a leap of faith. Trans people have been beaten up or worse for far less.

The first question I asked when I joined the Y was when the quietest time was at the gym. I swim on Sunday mornings just after the retirement-aged swim team has finished practicing but before young families have gotten themselves out the door for swimming lessons. I would like to go more often, but am still working up the nerve to try weeknights when the place is full of young professionals.

My remarkable body has every right to be in these spaces. All of our bodies do. We have every right to the practices that allow us to celebrate the things that make our bodies happy, to move in ways that feel good for the sake of this good feeling alone. The dull and exhausting fretting is a price that must be paid until existing as a disabled trans person who enjoys their embodiment is no longer incomprehensible. But this is a change that we can’t control. For me to stop being a public spectacle, it’s the public that needs to change. Until then, I will keep showing all the way up.


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Christian McMahon is one of the 2018 Rooted in Writing Fellows. He is a disabled trans writer living in Sacramento, California as well as the communications specialist for The Arc of California. His work has appeared in publications including the Toast, Catapult, and BuzzFeed, among others.

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