Last week, I chatted with a former student. The last time I saw this student in the spring, she had long curls. This time, they were cut short. I said, “You cut your hair!” She and I talked about curly hair care and the complexity of finding a trusted hairdresser. I shared a story with her about the first hairdresser I ever trusted.
When I was in ninth grade, I would get my hair cut at the Galleria in White Plains, New York. I would go to the same salon on the third floor and never really thought twice about whose chair I sat in. Then one day, they told me that it was an hour-long wait, so I decided to go to the other salon on the second floor. When I sat down, the woman asked me, “Is your hair curly when it’s wet?” I didn’t really understand the question in that my hair was less curly when it was wet, and I assumed that this was “straight.” So I told her yes. She washed my hair and cut it.
After she was done, she informed me that my hair was curly when it was wet and, as it began to dry, the curls tightened and her cut became haphazard and clunky. It was horrific. I still said “Thank you,” and paid in respectful manner, then immediately ran back up to the third floor salon in tears. I was placed in the hands of Beverly, a drag queen,* and she fixed my hair. I don’t know what she did, but she fixed it. From that point on, I always went back to Beverly, even after I went to college in Boston, because I didn’t trust anyone else with my curls.
*My 13-year-old self called her a drag queen. That was the language I had at the time. “Trans” was not in the public discourse, but “Supermodel” was at the top of the charts and To Wong Foo: Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar was one of my favorite movies. In my 13-year-old mind, I knew that “transvestite” or “transsexual” were not appropriate terms, so any woman who was born a man was a “drag queen”.
I have shared this story more times than I can count, and I have always mentioned that Beverly was a “drag queen.” It is important to note that I never asked Beverly about her identity; she presented as a woman, and that was all that mattered, but my 13-year-old self was hip to the LGBTQ community, and this piece of information has become part of my reflexive retelling of the story.
However, on this occasion, sharing this familiar story with this student, who is sensitized to issues of gender and social justice in general, I asked myself why I needed to mention Beverly’s gender. Or more importantly, why I always mentioned her gender when telling the story. Beverly was also Black, but I never felt the need to mention that piece of her identity. I realized something important about a personal story that was over 20 years old.
Beverly was the first trans person I ever knew. And she saved my life, well as far as a 13-year-old girl’s life is defined by their appearance, which it is. Specifically sharing her trans-ness was less about calling her out, although it may seem that way, and instead acknowledging that she was brilliant and skilled and a wonderful individual, independent of any stereotypes that I may have held or were present in culture. I loved her and it was a moment in my life where Allport’s Contact Hypothesis was made real.
Even as I write this, I’m sure some of the language I’m using is problematic. I’m also bothered by the fact that I continue to identify her as a trans woman without ever asking her identity; it demonstrates my assumptions of what a “woman” should look like, but I was convinced of it at that age, so please forgive me. I’m trying as a 35-year-old professor of identity and a cis woman to talk about my 13-year-old understanding of the world and how it affected me today. More importantly, I’m trying to understand the underlying meaning of my storytelling choices and how they impact every person with whom I share this story.
I hoped that by saying that she was a trans woman, I could provide some information about trans folks that countered stereotypes and convey my appreciation and adoration for Beverly. But that assumption is dependent on my audience making that connection for themselves, which is not a good assumption to make. I know now that in order for this story to serve as a piece of valuable data for others, I need to be more explicit. In just saying that she was trans, I thought that I was providing content for those who have no interactions with trans people and for whose knowledge comes solely from media. But in just mentioning it, it becomes an unnecessary identifier, and I am allowing my audiences’ stereotypes to drive the information they glean from this story, thus reinforcing any problematic stereotypes that they may have about trans people. And that’s counter productive to the purpose of mentioning it in the story. I must decide if this story is a story about my hair, or a story about Beverly, because those are two different stories, and I do neither of them justice by conflating them into one.
My student never mentioned any of this in our conversation, but simply knowing that she holds me to a high standard around all things social justice and identity related was enough for me to stop and consider my words more deeply. I love it when life hands me self-teaching moments.