In 1999, I was living a double life: By night I was a queer butch artist on the verge of transitioning, enmeshed in a queer utopia; by day I worked up to 80 hours a week building elaborate sets alongside former outlaw biker dudes. The dirtier, louder and more challenging my work, the more I felt like the guy I was beneath the veneer of “butch woman” that the world saw.
At the fabrication shop, I learned to drive trucks and forklifts and operate industrial sewing machines that could rip off a finger. I became skilled in carpentry, welding and how to talk “dude.” I learned to use humor to make allies of the surliest guys. I learned the safest eats from the roach coach, how to replace the thermostat on my ancient pickup truck, and how to smoke cigarettes while ripping eight-foot plywood sheets on a table saw.
Stan rolled into the shop every Monday morning on a gush of air, a barrel of a man, chest-first and pockmarked, incommunicado until he slugged back his first mug of coffee. Stan’s growl of a voice always took on a high, eager register with me.
Hey, Coop! You watch The Simpsons last night?
He regaled me with the episode’s gay jokes, his bright blue eyes twinkling above his ravaged cheeks and grizzled goatee.
What did you do for the holidays, Smithers? Something gay, I hope.
Stan drawled the word out in a nasally Mr. Burns voice: Gehhhay. He laughed. He saw me as something gay, and so this was bonding. He seemed so eager to be my buddy. This was the primary way that the men in the shop demonstrated collegiality: by throwing it at each other like a medicine ball. If you caught the ribbing with grace, no matter how heavy it was, it showed you could take a joke. If they actually didn’t like you, they wouldn’t joke around with you at all.
He followed me around work reciting Simpsons quotes and movie lines, and I responded with the most heinous gay jokes I could muster. Anything they could say, I’d heard worse.
Stan’s time in prison was not discussed. Half of my co-workers were biker types who’d worn side arms to work back in the day. I loved the outlandish wildness of their stories. They were seasoned, rough people, who laughed and knew how to do things. They were fully themselves. They could literally fix or build just about anything. I respected that, having grown up with a father who could draw, cook, garden and repair our car. My dad had even built our house himself. But I hadn’t spent much time around folks who’d spent swathes of time in prison or carried a pistol as an everyday accessory before.
Another co-worker, Daniel, told me that the other guys used to spend a job advance on fixing up their motorcycles and doing crystal meth, then stay up for a few days in a row to finish a set on time. Daniel welded submarines in the Northeast back then. Real welding, I thought, comparing it to the shaky beads I was learning to burn. Nobody packed pistols anymore — as far as I could tell — or did crank, but vestigial elements of those days seeped through when shit got stressful and Stan started kicking over trash bins with his heavy boots. Or when suddenly everyone ran around, under pressure-fueled rage, making huge messes but accomplishing little.
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None of them rode anymore. Our foreman, who went by the sobriquet “Zuni,” had an Easy Rider–era Harley leaking to death on a piece of oil-stained cardboard in the back of the welding shop. I rode a motorcycle every damn day, but it never counted in their eyes because it was a Japanese bike.
Rice burner, they’d sneer. A girl’s bike.
Hey, at least I actually ride a motorcycle. You guys just talk about how you used to.
In this hinterland that I occupied, I got away with saying things like this. I could make fun of them for their racist, sexist comments, because at the end of the day they ultimately saw me as a woman — though a weird one — and there was still some code about not kicking women’s asses. And, for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend, Stan really liked me. I worked hard and was gung-ho to learn things, and Stan respected this. Despite myself, I liked Stan too. Still, I wanted to believe that in becoming male, I could make different choices than he had, like somehow I was better than him.
Stan was only a little taller than me, 5-foot-10, at the most. His shoulders were broad, his traps arched. His belly pushed over the belt of his jeans, and his thick forearms were covered with scratchy prison tattoos, ink fading to blue beneath his skin. He would burst through the woodshop in an aria of joy or in a moody, trash-barrel-kicking rage. I’d had plenty of modeling from angry white men and required no more, but what fascinated me was Stan’s utter impudence: He was never sorry for who he was. He spent zero time agonizing over how others perceived him. I was jealous of this freedom.
While I worked, pneumatic-nailing framing together, gluing up veneer, or welding thick little knots to hold metal tubing together, I snuck looks at Stan’s muscled back rippling beneath his paint-spattered, sweaty T-shirt, wondering what kind of creature testosterone would mold me into. I’d recently made tentative forays toward transitioning: found a therapist, gone to some support-group meetings for trans men, asked my closest people to call me “he.” I was still working up the nerve to make it to a Tuesday night intake at the Tenderloin trans clinic, where I hoped to walk away with a paper prescription for hormones in my pocket. I was scared and unsure. Faced with the opportunity to become a man, I studied the ones at work with an intensity I hoped I kept hidden. If they noticed my scrutiny, did it seem creepy?
Stan came in one morning excited to share his impressions of the documentary Nico Icon. He flattened his affect to channel the German Chelsea Girls star’s husky lament that she was born a woman instead of a man. All day, after his buoyant, Hey, Coop! he repeated the strange, prescient Nico line: My one regret in life … as if intuiting something about me I’d never discussed at work. I wondered if he knew how it landed on me. I felt exposed, held up for inspection like an X-ray, though Stan said it without a lick of malice.
Rather than a source of regret, my gender was a puzzle I’d been trying to untangle my entire life. However I performed it, I failed: Presenting as properly female was always an impossible disaster; and now, showing much more of my comfortable, masculine self-made me a visible target for people’s feelings about gender transgressions wherever I went.
I wondered how Stan saw me.
I was pink-cheeked and bright-eyed; it was often difficult for me to repress my smile, unless I was walking alone down a street past strange men. I wore greasy, paint-spattered, saw-dusted, work pants, each utility pocket occupied by some kind of tool. A tape measure bounced from the lip of my right pocket. My black T-shirt was equally ruined by the stuff of my work. My hair was somewhere between a pompadour and a mullet, Elvis gone to seed, slicked back from my forehead with a filthy ball cap curled down over my eyes. Dark licks of hair curled out from the back of the cap. I cut the hair along my jawbones to resemble the sideburns I wished I could grow. My chest disappeared beneath a combination of a hideously flattening sports bra and a bandage wound around me so, so tight. My limbs, long and strong, didn’t show much bulk of muscle. Tattoos etched out an illustrated map of my life so far, but most had been done by professionals or friends or both and were far fancier and perhaps less storied than the ones that wound up the thick forearms of Stan.
My lover, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, accepted into her bed each night the fetish I’d made of my body for her: I was her blue-collar relief valve from the pressures of her intellectual studies. She’d tug my dirty workpants off, stroke my callused palms, call me her man. When I said I was thinking about applying to work on a MFA in creative writing, she pushed back, telling me no, this was who I was. Maybe she thought she’d be the brains, while I’d exist only as a body. A body that delighted her body. You’re a workin’ man, she drawled, fixing me in place with her desire. I let her.
It doesn’t matter what you say, Coop, it’s what you do, Stan said once, after telling off our boss, who wouldn’t retaliate, because Stan did his job every damn day. At the shop, whether good or bad, everyone walked their talk. I thought about this back in my “real” life, wondering if the queer people I knew valued what they said over what they did. The queer community was a cauldron of self-invention and reinvention. Identity was exhausting. Everyone was always trying to tell you who they are. It was a relief to go to work and just be a body that did.
One day, Daniel and I went for burritos during our lunch break.
My wife and I watched this PBS special last night and it made me think of you, he said.
Hmm? I mumbled through my carne asada deluxe.
Yeah, it was about people who change their sex.
I stopped chewing and didn’t glance up from my burrito.
This one guy started out a girl. He reminded me of you.
Daniel was always cool with me. I considered him a friend, even. But it had never occurred to me that he saw my gender expression as anything more than a manifestation of my queer identity. Maybe he’d studied my masculinity with the same scrutiny I’d studied his.
Have you ever thought of doing that? he asked. The Change?
I looked across the greasy metal table, bolted to the parking lot under a makeshift tin canopy, and into Daniel’s big brown eyes. He had clocked me as trans. He was willing to put words on the table between us even if I couldn’t. I wanted to understand how he made sense of being a man. I had a lot of questions. I took a deep breath and decided to trust him.
Well, actually, yeah, I said. A wash of cool terror pooled in my gut. I’d stepped through a portal, out of which I couldn’t return.
I love you, Daniel said, quiet and calm. But if you can find a way to just be happy the way you are, you should try to do that. It just seems like a really hard life to be a transsexual.
I held my burrito in both hands, immobile. That word; so clunky and clinical. Some were using “transgender” instead; there’d been a magazine for years called Transgender Tapestry. But I didn’t know if transitioning would involve me changing gender, exactly. My gender was already its own thing. It was the body on which that gender hung that vexed me, that felt at odds with the brain it carried around. The distance was vast, foggy, nebulous. Could rudimentary medical tweaks close that gap? I wasn’t sure, but the question hammered inside my head with increasing velocity.
More than all of that, what Daniel said was true. Being trans was hard. But my whole life, people had been warning me away from the life I wanted to live, as queer, as an artist — all because they were worried that it would be hard. But life is hard for most people, so I figured it was better to spend it being who I wanted to be.
At the dyke bar where I strutted my aching, filthy body on Friday nights and drank exhaustion away, regaling friends and lovers with tales of my workday exploits, things began to blur: Which world was my real life? Stan came to my art opening with his wife and his nephew. He burst through the front door of this sacred queer space, fist swinging from his Popeye forearms. We’re taking over this place, he growled. The happy-hour queers cowered at dark corner tables. I lived for moments where worlds collided and nothing could be assumed about anyone — what I used to love about being queer. Stan held down the pool table all night long with my best friend, and on Monday at work he raved about how cool she was: The one with the big nose ring and green hair? She’s awesome!
I thought my macho job might teach me how to be a man, or at least make me feel like a man, but in fact I learned something far more valuable from those guys: how to coexist with people completely unlike me. I looked for clues into how a man chooses to take on or reject elements of masculinity that our world insists are fixed and immovable, but I began to see the tenderness rippling beneath their masculine bravado. I learned to not dismiss people at face value. And perhaps most important, I learned humility. Even all of these years later, each time my now far-less-callused hands peck away at my keyboard, I’m carrying the things they taught me.