My family is not much for holidays. I mean, we do our best to gather, geographically, around them, like most people. We reach out, ask for plans, inquire if congregating in the same place, at the same time is possible. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, etc. However, we are all musicians, of sorts, so holidays take on a different spin. They are events that one entertains for. Paid or not. We have traveled and played, together as a family, at home and at gigs; bonfires, reunions, parties, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, festivals, holidays, etc.
This holiday wasn’t an exception, we gathered at my sister’s house, as my parents had booked a fourth of July party at a bar in a very tiny, remote town in the west end of the U.P. The “U.P” is the upper peninsula of the state of Michigan. It is a beautiful, fairly undisturbed, stretch of hundreds of miles of wooded landscape, with a few scattered pockets of people. The west end is one of the most remote areas and if it is occupied, it is by a few remaining, tiny, mining towns established in the late 1800s, early 1900s, during the copper and iron ore mining boom that tunneled through the land at the time. There are minimal highways to choose from and endless dirt roads to get lost on. You could literally get lost, with no cell phone reception, no people, and no modern conveniences. It is still possible to die in a snowstorm if you didn’t know where you were and strayed too far out. It is not for the faint of heart. The people that remain or choose to inhabit, value the peace and privacy the location offers. There is no one around to tell them how to live or what to do. They are hearty, down to earth and fun loving. Most people are of Scandinavian or Italian decent and there is a small Native American population that has persisted, comprising the only consistent minority group.
So, through discussion of gig attire, I learned the bar we were headed to had the particular theme of Hillbilly Hoedown. I thought nothing of it at the time. Sounded like my whole childhood. However, in hindsight, it may have been a good idea to give that a second thought. You see, at the time, I had recently started gender bending my clothing. I had been out as a Lesbian for almost 20 years, but at this time in my life I was learning to embrace the particular amount of gender fluidity that existed within me and a stronger sense of self comfort. I wasn’t asking anyone for permission or approval. Those thoughts hadn’t even crossed my mind. I usually felt pretty secure, and rarely ever afraid in public, but I was spoiled by the shelter of living in the city for years. Fear and insecurity are common states of mind that LGBTQ people juggle every day. I have learned that self-acceptance is usually what other people need to accept you, accompanied by a silent, smiling lack of giving a fuck. I wasn’t trying to make a statement or change pronouns. I just wanted to relax into my own skin, even more. So, I wore the clothing I had brought. Overalls. PERFECT! Along with a white button down and a soft, pink, silk bowtie that my sister had made me. Quite soft and feminine, actually.
All of us, Mom, Dad, brother, sister, her husband, their 2 toddler boys, and I, loaded up in our caravan and headed to the gig. It was crowded and hopping already in the midsummer evening light. The fenced in backyard open with a small bandstand awaiting. We set up all the sound equipment and then my brother and I tooled around, wove through the crowd, met the owner and made our way to the bar to order a couple of beers before we got started. Usual gig routine. I started to notice, more than usual, side glances at my bowtie. Which to be honest is pretty normal, but paired with the local personalities in attendance it began to feel slightly awkward. My mind said “whatever”, as always and I pushed through the discomfort, as always. When one is a member of the LGBTQ community, one gets used to being looked at and assessed. However, also, when one is a member of the entertainment, one gets used to being looked at and assessed. You see how my conceptual lines may have gotten blurred a bit. As a musician, there is a lot of skepticism and judgement before you are allowed to play music and “prove yourself”. It’s quite a masochistic place to insert oneself, but you get used to it, and learn to ignore it. So at this time I mentally placed myself as a member of the band, ahead of the “other” membership flag I was involuntarily waving.
I made my way to the ladies room, or rather, the end of the line in front of, only to have all four women turn around and give me deer in headlight glances. A large bearded man came out of the men’s room and gave me the same, as well as exchanging a quick look with the woman in line before me. I contemplated going into the men’s room, as there was no line, but my gut said no, and I am very glad that I listened to it. As the line shortened I made small talk with the last woman ahead of me and before it was her turn, she turned to me and said, “They do have another bathroom out back if you don’t want to wait…did you see that one?” I paused in my confusion, laughed and naively said “Nope, I haven’t been back there yet. I will have to check it out later.” “Oh” she said, nodding her head. So, I waited, she came out, I went in, did my business and plunged back out into the bar without hesitation.
I made my way to the backdoor, which didn’t actually have a physical door, shocker, and down the rickety stairs into the backyard when I noticed it almost immediately. It had a clear, four foot space all the way around it, so was easy to see. It was a clean white toilet, setting on the dirt ground, backed up to the tall, picket, wood, privacy fence that ran all the way around the open backyard of the bar. A large American flag was hung directly above it on the fence and a cute basket of flowers sat on the top of the tank. As I slowly approached the toilet I could see the seat was down and a sign written in red sharpie marker had been taped to the lid. It read “Transgender”.
I paused and stood there blinking at it. It took a few minutes for my mind to register exactly what I was looking at. This set up was placed here, I learned later, by the owner. A joke, of course. A cruel, hate filled, joke…which then turned into a very clear warning. As soon as my brain caught up with what everyone else knew, all the faces I had interacted with as I had made my way through the bar made sense. The bar was filled with a range of generations and reactions. It was all a mixture of indignation, trepidation, shame and indifference. As I processed the understanding of all those facial expressions, I could then feel all their eyeballs burning holes through the back of my overalls and knew it was time for me to move on. I took a very long drink of my beer, turned on my heels, and walked away.
Now, I am not Transgender and do not claim to know what it would have felt like, had I been and encountered that. I am an androgynous Lesbian, who often gets mistaken for a man in public spaces, so I am familiar with alienation, confusion, discomfort and on rare occasion violent behavior projected towards a fluid identity. To be honest, I would be surprised if most of the clientele at this venue would know or care about the difference. Wouldn’t matter anyway, it’s all “wrong.” I cannot say that I am not familiar with the prejudices and stereotypes of this demographic. I grew up amidst it. It is sprinkled throughout every corner of this country. However, it is still always a little surprising when a new avenue is opportunistically used to demonstrate the same demeaning, oppressive, aggressive and violent actions without even the most minimal objection. As a lesbian or gay man, there are many ways to assimilate, which we learn, right quick, at a very young age. However, when crossing gender boundaries, even with the simplest symbol such as a pink bowtie, as well as my personal demeanor, blending in was not an option. I contemplated removing it, but somehow felt submission would make me more vulnerable, and increase justification for the intentions of the display. Ironically it became the only armor I had on. I was also lucky I was with the band. It made me keenly aware of the possibility of violence that floated in the air like smoke, trailing behind me, anywhere I chose to traverse that evening. If I had been alone, and tried to leave, it may not have been pretty, and could have been deadly, which scared the living shit out of me. Just a tiny window, into the everyday life of every brave soul who does not fit the mold in this way, yet still chooses to venture out into this, at times, hate smeared country. It makes me sick to my stomach. I wish it had, literally. I wish I had lifted the lid and vomited into the bowl. Or better yet, undid my overalls, sat down and taken that living shit.
Instead, I swiftly took my place amongst the shelter of the ‘’band” and my family and danced with my nephews. My family rolled their eyes and raised eyebrows in protest, but our business there was, well, business. There was no room for moral or emotional dissension. Nor could we afford it. This was our livelihood. If you piss off the proprietor, you don't get paid. We finished out the time we had to play, the music lulling everyone into emotional unity, as it usually does. We packed up our stuff as fourth of July fireworks were set off. We watched the sparse, sparkly display quietly for a few minutes before piling into our caravan again to head home. Prepared to hate this godforsaken place, forever, I offered to drive, as I had drank the least, choosing to keep as many wits about me as possible. My brother-in-law happily agreed, sat next to me in the passenger seat, my sister and the boys in the back, and I gratefully drove away.