Symona and Phoebe

A Homewood conversation

1 March 2008 @ 10:15p
Homewood, in between two of the three Palma murders

I pedalled my bike north along the one-way side street. A white Yaris hatchback passed and halted up at the stop sign. A tall, blonde woman stepped out and left her date.

I placed her as trans — not for any reason other than having a pretty good sense for my own people. This is also Homewood Avenue, a de facto place for trans women to find under-the-table labour in the form of sex work. Not in the ka-ching sense, but in the “maybe I’ll get to eat a box of KD tonight” way.

Across the street, a shorter brunette woman saw her friend and called out. She crossed the quiet avenue to meet up halfway. As I pedalled nearer, the two began walking north along the sidewalk, talking about the departed Yaris guy.

I’m in the middle of writing this paper on the Victoria Day ’96 murders on Homewood, so I wanted to interview a few of the women who work there these days to compare their experiences against working conditions of a dozen years ago, to gauge what’s changed since that grim night. This term paper for a course called the City of Toronto is the most challenging yet, because our instructor, David Lewis Stein, wants an essay about a historical event in Toronto which is academic, journalistic, and narrative at the same time. No pressure.

Much to my frustration the other day, the ethics review committee at school decided I couldn’t interview people for it, despite my clear disclosure on the ethics review request that I was a member of the same marginalized population as the women I hope to interview.

Maybe they chose to overlook that. Maybe they don’t think it’s instructive for a trans woman to interview a trans woman about some of the particular experiences that a trans woman may grasp better than anyone who isn’t a trans woman. Maybe that’s dangerous. Maybe they don’t believe that a woman who’s trans, long since transitioned, is an actual UofT undergrad student. Maybe they thought I was just fibbing about being trans to curry favour for conducting research interviews. I’m pretty sure no one on that ethics review committee is a trans woman.

I braked a bit ahead of the women, somewhere nearby where Deanna Wilkinson, a trans woman, and Junior Keegan, a genderqueer kid, were each shot in the head, execution-style, by a cisgender man, Marcello Palma. It’s not only the very basis for my research paper, but it also still hits close to home. My very first visit to Toronto happened that same week, and I paid close attention to how people dealt with the violence.

The women caught up to where I’d braked to practically a track stand. I turned and asked, “Hi, sorry to bother. Could I ask you both a question?”

“Sure,” the petite woman said.

The taller woman squinted at me. “Are you a tranny?”

I winced. “Yeah,” glancing down. “I am.”

Especially since Minnesota, I’ve loathed having this pointed out by strangers (and often indelicately), but it’s rare to hear another trans person ask it. Her question caught me by surprise. “Really?!” She exclaimed. “I knew it! I could tell by your voice!” She had no idea how I’ve hated my voice since I was a child.

Both women, totally underdressed for the damp, freezing air, crowded closer. Compared with this unusually snowy winter, this night hasn’t really been that frigid. Unlike them, however, I was in the fleece vest, docs, and MEC coat, not the miniskirts and bolero jackets.

I sat upright on the saddle and let the torch flicker.

The petite woman, the brunette, was the elder of the two and appeared to be Filipina, though with the crappy metal halide street lights, I couldn’t really suss more. I guessed she was maybe 27, give or take. Something about the way she carried herself hinted how she’d been toughened by living near the margins longer than her friend, whose blonde hair was a wig over what appeared to be a brunette complexion. She appeared to be white and no older than maybe 22. Her expression held with amazement: “Are you female-to-male? Male-to-female?”

Honestly? Whenever it’s happened, I sort of like it when someone thinks I might be a trans guy. It means I’ve already undermined most of the expectations of what a trans woman can (or can’t) be.

I replied, cringing slightly. “I’m male-to-female.”

I cringed. This isn’t how I describe my experiences, but I wasn’t interested to make hay about it here. I didn’t feel the need to describe myself to either of them the way I might be coerced to with all the cisgender people around me at school or in co-op. They are the very people who may or may not be clued in that I’m trans, but either way, I’d rather not know. No one’s said anything to me these past three years, but I just assume that everyone probably knows anyway and are just being excessively polite.

“Really? Get out!” Her excitement was bona fide. Her older friend exclaimed, “No way!” Both were genuinely surprised. There aren’t that many of us out in the wilds of this world, so it’s not often any of us ever run into one another through happenstance unless it’s some setting where we’re almost expected to be crashed into each other. Usually they’re settings not of our own choosing.

One such setting I avoid like a boat of rats carrying the bubonic plague (and maybe typhus) is the support group setting which caters to trans people with issues completely alien to anything I’ve ever dealt with — whether now as an essay researcher or way back when at age eighteen when I was just beginning to find my voice. Likewise, support groups are probably alien to what either woman here has ever dealt with. Support groups happen inside institutional places (like an actual “gender clinic”) or moderated by some kind of psychotherapist (who’s almost always cisgender).

Another place I’ve avoided for my own peace of mind for years are online groups which lean on leftover formats from the ’90s. They were long in tooth then and archaic now. They were populated by people with a weird complex for hamming up every gendered mannerism known. Maybe it comes from a sudden release after decades of suppressed social development. Lots of creepy, nonconsensual “HUGGGGGS!!!” would get thrown at you. It was as if they never grasped the notion of personal boundaries. It was pretty gross, and it was rare that the people doing it weren’t old enough to be my parent.

Beyond those two really savoury settings, there haven’t been many places where we’re very liable to see much of our own people, for worse or better. You can’t really walk into a coffee shop or anything and just be, like, “Oh hey, ’sup.” In a few cities, there are the “tranny bars”. San Francisco comes to mind. Adrian once brought me to such a bar during one bright, sunny afternoon in spring ’01. Thing is, such bars aren’t really casual social spaces as much as they are a place to accommodate interlopers: cisgender straight men who are hunting to buy a date. The bar wasn’t a leisurely place, but a transactional space, a grounds for the invisible hand to do its thing. I didn’t see a single trans man in there. Smiles and laughter were almost as scarce.

A trans bar probably substitutes the same class of informal economy which happens here along Homewood, but in the refuge of a private space to negotiate transactions, the police have fewer ways to target trans women. Toronto lacks such a bar (that I’m aware of, as I’m pretty sure there aren’t any trans people who own or operate bars). The fallback, I guess, is a quiet avenue like this: not too far from Church Street, but not too near, either.

This has gotten me to thinking about what kinds of spaces exist for cisgender queers to run into one another, whether it’s just to chill or for hookups. For cisgender dykes, you’re liable to run into other dykes at coded social events like arts cabarets, the rare women’s bathhouse event, or a particular bar where other dykes hang out (like the Wildrose in Seattle or the way Tango & Crewz was like back in the ’90s).

For cisgender gay men, especially the white ones, they can find each other along the now-upscale stretch of Church-Wellesley in business after business along the strip. That should be no surprise: many of those businesses are owned and operated by cisgender gay men. They now have several pubs and restaurants (even if that wasn’t always so). They have night clubs and bars. They have full-time bathhouses. And most of Pride. Until about three years ago, they also had a Second Cup. Now they have a Starbucks, which is where I am right now, drinking a hot cocoa and thawing out from being outside for two hours.

Here in Toronto, unlike San Francisco, “Tranny Strip” (one of Homewood’s several aliases) is one of the very few places there is for people like me to stumble into someone else like me outside of those odious “support” spaces. If I can draw any conclusion from the occasional stories reported by Xtra, cisgender people, usually property owners, dislike the presence of trans women on Homewood the way they dislike cockroaches or pigeons, but as long as we can be seen and kept to a single, contained place, then somehow it’s “sort of” OK or something.

The only fallback is to be invisible, to not be known to exist. Like, becoming invisible becomes the only way the bigger world of cisgender people can stomach us. If they don’t know we’re right there as they stand next to us in the workplace, inside a grocery store, or on the TTC, or if we’re successful somehow in some way which isn’t in their rule book of Where Trans People Belong, then they remain none the blissfully wiser.

The elder woman was giddy. “Oh my god, girl, you look great! Look at you! I thought you were, yanno” — she leaned close and whispered — “a fish.” She must have seen my reaction. “No offence, of course!”

I was startled. In the sixteen years since I began transition (wtf, my transition is now old enough to drive?), I can’t remember the last time I got called “fish”. Maybe once at Ground Zero in Minneapolis. Or from a cisgender gay dude the one time I guest-DJ’d for that AIDS benefit right after 9/11.

To describe any woman as “fish”, myself included, is troubling, but I allow this exception: should a trans woman say it to another trans woman out of respect, even admiration. I grasp what she’s trying to say, if but crudely: it’s meant as praise. My understanding of its slang origin comes from cisgender gay men who came up with it to describe the difference between cisgender women and stage drag performers. Along the way, they carried it over to distinguish cisgender women from trans women, which is just as bad, because the analogy implies we’re not legit. Still, no vagina I’ve met — mine included — has smelled anything remotely like a fish. Gay men. ::eye roll::

“No offence taken. Really.” I remained nonplussed. Hearing it made me less worried, because it was a conversational icebreaker. Over the years, I’d never spoken with sex workers while they were on duty, and I didn’t want to be a pest.

I asked her, “Say, what’s your name?”

“I’m Symona.”

“Hi, I’m Astrid.”

“Hey, do you have a cell phone?”

“Sure.” I pulled the phone from my messenger bag. “What’s the number?”

“Really? Thanks so much!”

As Symona dialed, the other woman began checking her face with a compact, to freshen up after the Yaris guy. I glanced at her face. There was just enough lux from the street light to sink my heart. Remembering compact mirrors as a basic survival tool still holds fresh and raw, even though it’s been years since it stopped being a necessity to check on my face or even to deal with makeup. These days, I don’t really wear any, or when I must, it’s completely clear.

As I watched her, all the heartbreak I used to feel every time I saw my face flooded back. She struggled to keep facial hair from consuming her fairly androgenized complexion. I sincerely doubt it’s a complexion she wants. I can’t forget it. The face thing was basically a constant, private stalemate with my own body — a private stalemate everyone else got to see.

I’ve tolerated too many cisgender people who’d ask stupid shit like, “So why let it bother you? It doesn’t make you any less a woman.”

“If that’s so,” I always wanted to say, particularly whenever a cisgender woman did the asking (which was often), “Then let’s start you on weekly testosterone injections and we’ll revisit what you’re asking me once you’ve been dealing with all the permanent stuff. Give it two years.” Thought so. Why let it bother me? Because if you never wanted your body to androgenize to start with, the emergence of facial hair is this brutal, persistent reminder of violence against your person, your spirit, and even your hope for the future. Also, it’s one of those things which cisgender people like to lean on hard whenever they want to make you feel totally vulnerable and inferior about things they’ll never begin to comprehend or relate to. It lets them have something invisible over you. Power. An upper hand on “normal”. Whenever cis people make untoward hay about something you wish to never have to think about, like your own face being hostile, they betray a complete absence of compassion and a lack of basic respect for what they don’t understand. It becomes this vicious circle which does one thing really well: it demolishes your self-image. Should it bother me?

Years ago, cisgender people would ask me, “Can’t you get rid of it?” (as if they thought I actually wanted it!) The wording was cruder. What I always wanted to say was, “Of course I do, but unless I’m allowed to work somewhere which not only will pay me a basic wage for food and rent, but also enough to pay for hair removal, then it isn’t going to happen right now. For now, I’m stuck in hell.” Sometimes, if more clumsily, I actually managed to say this. I’m just really shitty at witty responses in the heat of that moment.

Whenever I could find temp work, I was lucky in the sense that it was “over the table” work. Labour laws existed, even though I learnt intimately how they failed to deliver protection from illegal abuse and practices inside the workplace. To work “under the table” like Symona and her friend? I imagine it’s even more challenging to afford food, a place to live, and fundamental things like hormones and hair removal. Or maybe less challenging, but still fraught with greater risk to life and limb. Homewood isn’t the same as the sex work which paid Grayce Baxter decently, but it’s still an income.

As Symona talked on the phone, the other woman spoke up. She was taller than me, though I didn’t think to check whether her shoes played a part. “I’m still pretty new around here.”

“Where did you come in from?”

“New Brunswick. There were no jobs back home and my parents kicked me out. I began tricking there.”

“How did that go?”

“It’s too small there. Not enough business. It was impossible to survive doing that there. So I came to the big city.”

“Better?”

“Than back home? Yeah. Not great, but at least I’ve got a place to live.”

“I got Symona’s name, but I don’t know yours.”

“I’m Phoebe.”

“Hi Phoebe. I’’m Astrid.”

She laughed. “I already heard you tell her.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

“No worries!”

Symona finished her call and handed back the phone. “Thank you so much!”

“Hey,” I replied. “I’m really lousy with names. What was yours again?” I really am. I always have to ask twice before it sinks in. I’d be the worst politician.

“Symona.”

“Got it. Thanks. Phoebe and Symona.” I smiled.

Symona was really inquisitive. “Hey, what’s it like to be on hormones?”

She stunned me. “Oh crap, you’re not on hormones?” I frowned sympathetically. I assumed wrongly that she had access to them at one point. Then again, maybe not, or else she wouldn’t be picking my brain.

“Not yet.” I heard her tone fall. “But I really want to.”

“Well, when you start, you’ll probably feel better, like, ‘Hey, this clicks with my brain.’ At least it did with me.”

“‘Clicks’ how?”

“Well…” I dug up memories from long ago, way back when my life sort of began earnestly. One may think something like that would be unforgettable, but at the time, it was a whirlwind. I continued, “For me, it was less like it ‘clicked’ and more like it cleared up a soupy fog in my head which had stuck around since I was maybe twelve.”

“Oh, I know what you’re talking about!”

“Yeah. Not having that anymore is really nice.”

“Damn, I want to be on hormones so bad!” The ache in her voice returned. “Hey, I heard it makes your chest hurt.” She gestured to her chest. “Does it make your chest hurt?”

I paused. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been asked that before. Or if so, then it was either so long ago that the memories are long gone, or else it came from a cisgender person, usually some guy, who wanted to put me on the spot maliciously and make me feel like an alien freak. (I tried to blow them off and forget as soon as it happened. Coping mechanism, I guess.) Cisgender women don’t usually pull that because the details are banal.

Then I thought about it. Holy shit. That was fourteen years ago, back when I first managed access to meds. Access wasn’t easy. It meant taking what felt like a huge leap of faith (and the right circumstances) to make it even possible. Through word of mouth, I knew prescription stuff could be found over-the-counter in Mexico, but doing so would mean a four-hour drive to the border, entering another country (something I’d never done before), and finding a farmacia in Nuevo Laredo. That was actually the simple part, since farmacias were everywhere. The whole transaction felt super-awkward, but still, relatively simple.

The hard part was returning. That first time, I was naïve and drove my car over the bridge instead of just parking and walking across. It meant dealing with dour-faced INS guards — all dudes — with a drug-sniffing doberman to scour my crappy little tin can. When they saw my licence and what I was bringing back, their stern faces turned to slight disgust with maybe a derisive smirk thrown in. Those border runs every couple of months were tense, especially after I stopped looking like a boy. I thought I looked pretty much the same. Apparently not. I still wore the same baggy jeans and t-shirts, but Nuevo Laredan men began leering in some pretty gross ways.

Did the beginning make my chest hurt? “Well… I recall how the first six months they felt really sore like they did when I was twelve.”

Symona puzzled. “How do you mean by that?”

“Didn’t you have that time around eleven or twelve when your chest grew buds? They felt like sore knots, then all of a sudden vanished before everything got bad?”

Symona looked up, as if to find a memory. “Uhhh, maybe? I don’t remember much from that far back.” Phoebe said nothing.

“Well, it’s like that at first. But then things start calming down. The knots go away and your chest starts to slowly grow. Like, it still hurts if you run into something or if someone hits you there. That’ll always hurt.”

“Ouch!”

“Yeah, but I knew that’s how it’d be, you know?” I changed topics. “Say, is it safer nowadays to work around here then it used to be?”

Symona replied, “I’ve been working for three years, some of it here, some of it escort. Yeah, it’s still dangerous.”

Phoebe chimed in. “I’m still kinda new, so I dunno.” Despite her height, Phoebe was still a girl. What betrayed her youthfulness was this ebullience I’d expect from a Hannah Montana fan in her tweens. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

I asked them both, “Do the cops give you shit for working?”

At first, both said no, but then Symona, who had some faint cosmetic tattooing under her makeup, said, “Except when they hassle us and ask for ID, saying, ‘Oh, the name you give us doesn’t match what’s on your ID…’”

“‘Oh, excuse me,’” Phoebe riffed on the mockery, “‘but you said your name’s one thing, and on here, your ID says your name is… Bob’ or something.” Her “Bob” exaggeration was funny as it highlighted a ritual cruelty of harassment which repeats itself over and over for trans people everywhere.

Symona added, “I mean, like, it makes it so hard to have this wrong ID info and the cops hassle you, and you can’t get a job anywhere because no one wants to hire a tranny, you know what I’m saying? Of course you know what I’m saying, girl!”

I stared off to the murkiness beyond Wellesley. Everything I’ve been trying to bury deep pushed to the surface when she said that. The zombie memories. They just won’t die.

“Yeah. I do.” I sighed pretty heavily. I’d forgotten to breathe. “I really do. Some hard, painful shit.” I looked to the pavement.

In some ways, I’ve been lucky. Lucky I got my paperwork dealt with long ago. Lucky I did it when doing so was practically unheard of. Lucky I could do it without needing to hire counsel. Lucky it happened before it became legally impossible after the devastating Littleton v. Prange decision. Lucky it happened before September 11th. For some of us, coming of age after such grim milestones were death knells in their own way. No correct ID amounts to no hope. I’ve been lucky because I made it past closing doors, if but barely. And still, luck wasn’t nearly enough to protect me in Minnesota, where the supreme court crushed me to a squishy mess.

I was caught up in these raw memories when Symona changed the topic. “Wow, you really look so good, girl! I never woulda known you were one of us, you know what I’m saying? And I love the get-up, too,” wag-pointing at my bike and messenger bag.

“Oh. Yeah. I work as a bike courier, which explains the look.”

“So tell me something,” Symona said. “Did you have the surgery yet? Are you post-op?”

Nearly nobody under any circumstance has any business putting that question out there. The exceptions are less than a handful. Someone who shares my experiences, hoping for something to look forward to, is one of those exceptions. Even then, it’s case by case. I’m kind of a jerk about language, too: the “[wildcard]-op” shorthand, the linguistic wunderkind faulkind — or “lazy kid” — of cisgender gatekeepers, has no business being trotted out by anyone except attending staff and only when one is under hospital care for that reason. Visions of mostly old white guys (and a few white women) come to mind whenever I think about gatekeepers. Another “lucky” is I’ve done better than most in avoiding them, especially before gates we’re not supposed to get beyond without having to deal with a gatekeeper and their control. We practically have to get on our knees and hope for divine acts of cisgender mercy if we hope to get through. Forget that shit.

Symona is a peer. So is Phoebe. Symona wanted something to keep believing that it can get better. So I told them the truth, and they were OK with it.

We share this as a common bond, even if we may not share much more. We struggle in our own ways to own, govern, and control our own bodies on our own terms, even as others try to do it for us. We aren’t the ones pushing to have our bodies legislated or adjudicated from existence, and we aren’t pushing to have our bodies criminalized or victimized. We don’t want to be classed as “special” in discourses which only cisgender people get to make. We don’t want to be rendered invisible or dismissed as “confused” by a cisgender LGB community whose last and least interests seem to favour our basic welfare. We don’t want cisgender strangers and colleagues to warp us into a bunch of involuntary biographies preoccupied with our bathing suit areas. We don’t want to be pathologized by self-vetted, circle-jerky sexologists, always cisgender, who insist they know better than us what’s best for us. We don’t want to have our social exchange value indexed to the Zimbabwean dollar by a never-ending media narrative rife with tropes of falseness, exotic myths, ludicrous immortalities (because muses are forever?), or anything else they think to throw on us.

The very last thing we could possibly be are people who have dreams, who somehow hold on to them, provided we’ve also managed to hold on to our lives. Though it’s not my thing, maybe that dream is to simply raise a family one day. Or maybe it means dreaming of a long life filled with enriching experiences and fortuitous surprises. Maybe it’s the dreams we once had when we were little, long before we got told from nearly every direction that what we dreamt of was verboten, a big no-no.

Before others made us into the Other.

Symona looked directly into my eyes. There was a pleading expression to them, backed by a kind of fear. “I want the surgery so much, because I’m a woman, you know what I’m saying?” Her eyes began to well up. “I just want that chance.”

I wanted to give hope, but it felt awkward. “Symona, you will get there.”

What a stupid, weak-spined thing for me to say. I don’t know if it’ll be true for her or Phoebe as it was for me. When I think about people I’ve known with far better life chances than my own who got halted by “The System” of gatekeepers, I don’t really know the chances these women will get to have. A stable living which doesn’t require the streets? The opportunity to have an intimate life on their own terms? To experience other things which only far more privileged people get to know? I include myself with privilege. I am, after all, the student-interviewer from a decent university who wasn’t supposed to be chatting with them to begin with.

“And we’re real women, not like those ‘girls’ down the street,” Phoebe gestured south toward Carlton Street. She added with a catty adjunct: “So don’t talk to them or nothing.” I hadn’t seen anyone else, so I didn’t know who she was referring to.

After a pause, I asked, “Say, can I ask either of you another question?”

Phoebe pouted slightly as a car drove by. She was elsewhere. I felt like my presence was scaring off their clients, so I tried making it quick. Symona wasn’t distracted, but she was more wired. “Sure! Anything!” I gathered both were amped on something, Symona especially so, maybe to cope with the stress of working, to stave off the chill, or to numb the trauma of being reduced to surviving this way. Maybe it was a lot of coffee or something else much stronger.

“So I’m working on this essay at school. I’m studying at the University of Toronto. The paper has a lot to do with when I came to Toronto for the first time twelve years ago. I got here five days after two girls” — not the word I preferred, but this wasn’t the time for it — “were murdered right around here.” I pointed toward a parking area. “And over there,” pointing behind me at a driveway entrance.

“Oh yeahhh, those two girls died right there,” Symona said. “The girl who died over there was Sandra…”

Phoebe interrupted. “No, Sandra died of AIDS, remember?”

“Oh!” Symona corrected herself. “Oh, that’s right. Yeahhh.”

I said, “Deanna died there, and Junior was shot over there.”

Symona turned to me. “Honey, did you once work around here?”

I glanced to the pavement. “No, I’ve never done sex work before. Too afraid.” I paused. Phoebe looked distracted. “Listen, I don’t wanna keep either of you from paying the rent and putting food on the table. Would either of you be OK with me dropping by again to do a kind of interview for my paper?”

Symona volunteered. “Absolutely! You can stop by whenever you want. We’re all trannies here. We’re kin.”

We looked at one another. We come from different places, but we share this ineffable language of experiential learning which none of us can escape. It’s not a language any of us asked to have fluency (as with its knowledge comes great hardship), but what we share is an overture for good will, I guess.

They offered a hug. It ended up being an awkward group hug, me still on the bike. The sentiment was heartfelt. They didn’t know me, and yet they tolerated me. As I dug into the pedals, they began walking toward Wellesley. I said, “Listen, be safe, ok? Take care of each other. Don’t let anyone hurt you.”

Symona said, “We’ll be careful! Bye!”

I began riding and could hear them talking giddily about our encounter. Symona said something like, “Wait’ll I tell… about her!” I didn’t catch the name, but obviously it was someone they knew.

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