Guys, I’m so tired of thinking about how I look.
I did an interview with a podcast and they asked for a headshot. I’ve had headshots taken 3 times. My first year of comedy I paid a friend to walk around Tremont with me and take some black and white photos. He was not really a portrait photographer, so we had a lot of shots were blurry. But they were black and white, I was in a hoodie, I wasn’t wearing makeup. I had some idea when I started comedy I would be a female Bill Hicks type. That’s not a thing. I don’t actually believe you can get up on a stage with tits and do what Bill Hicks did. Because people are thinking about your tits. But in those shots I thought I looked tough, I looked real, I looked like I was from where I was from.
The first time I worked a club I featured at Zanies in Chicago. I bombed incredibly hard, just ate shit for 4 nights straight, friday and saturday two shows a night, going up there to have the audience look up at me uncomfortable and progressively more annoyed. I had short hair, I might have worn some eyeliner, I wore a loose purple sweater dress I liked. One of the employees, I think she was a shift manager, took me aside and told me conspiratorially, “Don’t be afraid to show off your body! Put on something tighter!”
That week at Zanies happened the same week the article about rape jokes came out and everyone in the comedy community was hating on me. Her comment really stuck with me. Because there was no part of me that wanted to give that to strangers. When she said that I did think, something is really different, and off, about me. Something is not right here. This is not who I want to be. I want to be Bill Hicks. Bill Hicks never put on something tight.
Then another 3 years in, after I’d quit and come back, I got another set taken. I knew at this point I didn’t want to perform for straight audiences. Being queer was central to my every plan- for who I would be as performer, for who I would end up with long term, for who I would live around and the work I’d do. When I said queer I meant I was attracted to a lot of different people, but more importantly I was in on a project of liberation- liberation from the patriarchal power structure, the family structure, the two adults raise kids together thing, the one stays home and does the caring, one goes out and earns the money thing. I didn’t want to play the woman in any of my relationships. I had had a boyfriend while I was queer-identified, and the dynamic he wanted seemed very mother-son to me, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. Cis men seemed pretty hopeless. They always seemed to run a deficit of concern and care, they expected more than they were willing to give, even the most liberal, quaker-educated ones. These headshots were queer glamour shots. No makeup, my short queer haircut, eyes piercing. The shots of just my face looked hot and androgynous. But pictures of my body revealed what was still prominent, what was still woman about me, what the audience could see even if I blocked it out.
It’s important that I never got to look like a dude. Sometimes I feel so jealous about that- I never got to walk down the street as a man and experience what that is like. I try not to feed into that jealousy because I know a fair amount of detransitioned women who did pass, for years, and there are real scary downsides to that experience. I try not to put too much stock in the jealous fantasies I can create about anyone else’s life. Those fantasies are always an obstacle to actually listening to what they tell you about their lives. I do think if passing had been easier for me I would at this point still be trans. I also think there’s a good chance I’d be a very socially anxious shut in, because that’s the behavior and patterns that brewed in my life while I was trans-identified. I have the capacity for a lot of anxious spiralling thoughts, and that is why, for me at least, I need to treat my own brain something like a toddler. Yes brain, you think you want this thing, you think if you don’t get this thing life will be unbearable and you will explode, and also, no I’m not giving you that thing.
When I worked at the clinic it was this terrible reveal that everyone in the world- trans or cis, lgbt ally or no, black, white, poor, rich, was remarkably nicer to me when I put on makeup. When I worked at the clinic and didn’t wear any makeup, I got eye rolls and sarcasm. When I tried wearing makeup to the clinic, I got smiles and help. Trans guys were nicer when I wore makeup, cis women were nicer when I wore makeup, for sure cis guys were nicer, for sure trans women were nicer. Even today, when I get feedback on my videos, I know the feedback I get is a lot gentler and nicer because I’m not butch.
The difference between working at a trans clinic wearing makeup so my coworkers would be pleasant and working at a random office full of straights wearing makeup so the straights would be nice to me didn’t seem like a real difference. You take a social group in which everyone is desperately trying to signify “radical-ness” and then you add in people who need to hold down jobs to pay their bills, and “centering femmes” morphs into compulsory femininity real quick. If I had played by the queer rules I could have done the one two punch of calling myself genderqueer and wearing makeup daily so people would be kind to me. But I felt so completely over the queer rules. The disillusionment was so complete and deep. The queer community wanted the same kind of life for me everyone wanted for me. The plan for liberation didn’t include me.
I had a friend in California who when I detransitioned signed me up for a mail order service where they send you makeup samples. I was surrounded by people who just wanted the whole thing to be about me “exploring gender.” That was the same friend who I once went drinking with in the city, made arrangements to stay on her couch that night, and after the final train to Oakland had run, told me she and her girlfriend had talked about it and she was “allowed” to hook up with me. The access that people in San Francisco expected to have to my body was nuts. I don’t even understand now whether it was because I was trans, or because I was single, or the comedian thing, or if there’s something about me that sends out signals that I am endlessly available to whoever wants an ego-boost for the night. But I couldn’t get the people I knew in the Bay Area to understand that I believed the sexual experiences I had mattered, were important, were big deals in my life. That I didn’t want to explore, or experiment- I wanted my body to be touched with kindness and reverence and deep concern by someone who cared a lot for me. I’ve never had that. It sounds like quite an experience
So I came home and hid out. Then after some months of hiding in my room in my dad’s house, barely talking to him because I was so sad and angry and humiliated and obsessively self-conscious, I tried to force myself to go out and be social again. And I realized I didn’t know how to do that without comedy. It had been really my whole adult life, performing comedy rather than socializing. So I thought, ok, I’ll do it again, but it won’t be a chase, it’ll just be about being in the community and meeting the women in the community and being with people. And if that was all it was going to be about, not me being Bill Hicks, then who cared what I said or did on stage. I would just tell stupid jokes about the person people thought they saw in front of them. A basic-ass white woman who has never done anything weird. She’ll wear makeup and heels and she’ll think her ass is funny and she’ll want to snag an athlete and she’ll drink pumpkin spice lattes, and maybe she’s never read a book, and maybe she has hardly anything to say about how we live and how we should live. She has no depth, she has no thoughts, nothing that has ever happened to her matters.
I got new headshots taken. The guy I paid to take them takes burlesque photos. He looked at my boobs the whole time. I like his girlfriend a lot, so maybe he’s actually a cool guy if he’s not looking at your boobs. But that’s the thing about a lot of guys, they might be cool, but they are really committed to behaviors that make trying to spend any time around them a degrading experience. Then they get mad you’ve written them off. Then they say it’s because you have issues with men. Which, hey, if there is one thing I am willing to cop to, yes, I definitely have issues with men. Definitely being scared of them, while being bonded to them, then thinking I was one, then thinking they were actually even scarier than I originally thought, now eventually being at a point where it’s just like, dudes. Act better. Just get it together. No boob-staring, no rape, no rape jokes. Show us your wise, compassionate heart. Don’t tell us about it, just demonstrate it, just act it out. Show us the heart you want us to see. When you talk over me is that the heart you want me to see? When you joke to your boys about me is that the heart you want me to see? Decide what you want me to know about your heart and then reverse-engineer how you could behave so I can see those aspects of your heart.
So this producer from this podcast asked for a photo to promote the podcast with. I hate that last round of headshots, where I’m in makeup and a dress. I don’t feel comfortable with my queer glamour shot from awhile back either. I feel honestly totally chill about selfies that I take and share with friends, there’s just something awful about photos of me that are meant for strangers. A photo that is supposed to make a stranger feel some way about me. Strangers just always have so many feelings about how I look, and they tell me so often.
Here’s a photo I sent her. It might not be big enough. I put on some mascara for it, and I brushed my hair. I sat by a window in my dining room I knew would have good light. I tried to make the arranging imperceptible, but then I feel crazy when I arrange too well. All these mirrors, all these cameras, all these images to create, all these impressions to give. A whole lot of strangers who want to know what you look like. Then they’ll know what to think about you. Then you’ll know what to think about you too.