In Between

Danielle Navarro

February 2019

Prelude. We’re all in this together

The balancing act of being feminine but not too feminine, assertive but not aggressive, to hide one’s anger, to work around the inconveniences imposed by men, these are things that every woman has to manage. As a transgender woman I feel this much as a cisgender woman does, but I am less experienced at managing this tension than they are, and it is a pressure that does not necessarily vanish in the company of women. The need to perform a suitable model of modern womanhood – to a standard deemed acceptable by cisgender women – is a thing I feel acutely, and woe betide the trans woman who places a single foot wrongly in the presence of a particular kind of feminist.

This tension is something I ponder a lot. There’s a nice article by Rachel McKinnon discussing a few of the ways in which trans women are subject to sterotype threat and attributional ambiguity in contexts that a cisgender woman would rarely feel threatened. Whether in bathrooms or in meetings, in conversations at work or in finding a swimsuit, I find myself seeing trouble coming in situations that cis women breeze through with a fluent ease that I admire and envy.

I was thinking about all this when starting a training program intended for professional and academic women judged to have leadership potential within the University. The session opens with a Ben Lee song We’re All In This Together, presumably intended to get everyone to stop, focus, and maybe think about what they really mean by the word “leadership”. It’s a nice method, playing into ideas of shared community and – because the facilitor is a woman working with a room of women – the shared bonds of being women in a world that isn’t friendly to women (and that’s all I’ll say on the program besides how awesome it is, because Chatham House Rules) But as a transgender woman who has presumably displaced a cisgender woman in order to make it into this room, the line that pops out to me is

I know you think about
Jumping ship before it sinks,
But we are all in this together.

and I wonder, but are we really? Am I a part of this community? Do I deserve to be here? Quite apart from the question of whether I have earned the right to consider myself a leader, I also wonder whether I have earned the right to consider myself a woman.

I ponder this question any time I am in a space traditionally reserved for cisgender women. Do I belong? Should I be here? How many people in the room secretly think I do not deserve to be here, or would do if they knew what I am? When I read books on professional development that tell me that I cannot realise my potential if I don’t bring my full self into the room, I wonder how I am supposed to do that?

Maybe I should jump ship before I sink.


X. The Good Tran

I’m afraid there’s a tendency among some philosophers to suppose that philosophical investigations into race, gender, disability, trans issues, and so forth are no different methodologically from investigations into the question whether tables really exist. One difference, however, is that while tables aren’t part of the philosophical conversation, trans people, disabled people, people of color, are part of the conversation. Or at least, we think we are. We’re here. In the room. And we’ve suffered from life-long abuse. I’ve helped a friend die of AIDS, fending off the nurses who misgendered her, watching in horror as the priest invalidated her entire life at her funeral by reducing her to a man. I’ve been personally assaulted in public to prove that I was a man. I’ve had a friend trans-bashed. And as this beating was gang-related, she then lost her home. I’ve had a friend stripped by police-officers, forced to parade back and forth while they ridiculed and harassed her. So please understand that this is a little bit personal.

– Talia Mae Bettcher, When Tables Speak

I appear to have been assigned the role of The Good Tran. It wasn’t a choice I made, and I fear I lack the temperament to play my part. If life were a play, the casting call for The Good Tran would request a white, cis-passing middle class trans woman living quietly with her family. The Good Tran is not an activist. She plays out the proper feminine gender performance just as it is expected of cisgender women. Perhaps she holds feminist beliefs, perhaps she holds views on transgender rights, but she keeps them to herself, and does not seek the public eye as a trans woman. Maybe by accident she has accrued such a profile, but she remains modest, humble and kind. She will never place herself above a cisgender person (man or woman), but she will tell the inspiring story of her journey from a dark place to her blossoming as a trans woman, whereupon she will fade away. Above all else, she is not The Crazy Tranny.

My casting in this role stems from a few factors besides the demographic factors listed above. Perhaps most prominent is that, well, I rather wish I were The Good Tran. She seems level-headed, reasonable and kind, and whether it is a good thing or not I do want to be like her. But there are other factors in play. I am the right age for the role – at 41 I am on the cusp of middle age – I am a scientist of modest reputation, and I am in a position of seniority that I am eligible for inclusion in “Women in Leadership” professional development programs. All modesty aside, I do indeed have the potential to be a role model.

Yet as Talia Mae Bettcher notes in her very excellent essay When Tables Speak, I do not come to this role as a blank slate. Having stayed hidden most of my life, to the detriment of my mental health, and being somewhat early in transition despite my age, I do not find it easy to hide my anger or my disorientation. I’d like to be better at “just having a discussion” about transgender topics as if my experiences with being trans were no different to my experiences with being Bayesian, but I am not. There are too many old wounds that have never really healed, too many repressed fears that have not resolved. Despite my best laid plans, I often lash out emotionally (thereby revealing myself as The Crazy Tranny) when I’d prefer not to. I’m still learning how best to control that.

I’ve been hurt deeply.
I imagine I will heal one day.
But for now, we need a plan.

– Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife

One. Thank you

The last time one of these “trans debates” went badly on Twitter, I deleted my history on the site and unwillingly withdrew for a few weeks out of fear of harassment. When it happened, though, there were so very many people kind enough to reach out to me with messages of support, and I wanted to find a way to express how grateful I felt for the kindness of strangers.

It hasn’t been easy learning to be myself, and I sometimes feel like I’m caught between being a middle aged woman and a teenage girl. It’s a very strange kind of in-between space to be in, and I don’t always handle it well. As a way of expressing my gratitude I made a gif:

# use showfont to load the font

# use fontr to extract letter forms
get_letter <- function(ch, xshift, yshift, id) {
  char_poly <-  glyph_polygon(
    ch, family = "Allura", 
    face = "regular", nseg = 20)
  char_poly$x <- (char_poly$x * 1.9) + xshift
  char_poly$y <- (char_poly$y * 1.9) + yshift
  char_poly$id <- id

# use transformr to add stars
get_shape <- function(xshift, yshift, id) {
  shape_poly <- poly_star()
  shape_poly$y <- ((shape_poly$y + 1) / 2.5) + yshift
  shape_poly$x <- (shape_poly$x / 2.5) + xshift
  shape_poly$id <- id

# specify stars 
sep <- .75
shapes <- bind_rows(

# specify text
msg <- bind_rows(
  get_letter("T", 1.2, sep, 1),
  get_letter("h", 2.2, sep, 2),
  get_letter("a", 3.1, sep, 3),
  get_letter("n", 4.0, sep, 4),
  get_letter("k", 4.8, sep, 5),
  get_letter("Y", 2.2, -sep, 6),
  get_letter("o", 3.2, -sep, 7),
  get_letter("u", 3.9, -sep, 8)  

# bind them
msg$frame <- 2
shapes$frame <- 1
dat <- bind_rows(msg, shapes)

# use gganimate
anim <- dat %>% 
  ggplot(aes(x,y,group=id)) + 
  geom_path() + 
  coord_equal() + 
  ylim(-2, 3) + 
  theme_void() + 

# make it happen...
animate(anim, type = "cairo")