I heaved my luggage – full of dance gear – into the train car. Luckily, the car wasn’t very full and I was able to find a seat. I collapsed into it, removing my gloves and shoving them into my pockets. I was cold, having stood on the train platform for longer than usual. I adjusted my scarf to protect my face – covered in stage makeup – from smudges.
“What’s up, fag?” whispered the man behind me, right in my ear.
I stiffened, not knowing what to do. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see his family – his mother and another woman I assumed was a sister – laughing hysterically into their hands, eyeing me disdainfully. I decided to ignore them.
I didn’t hear their later mutters and giggles, as I shoved earphones in and started listening to the music I was learning for an important show: The Artists Against Hate Inauguration Protest show.
There is a silver lining to this story. I’m trans masculine, which means I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), but I identify as being masculine, not a woman. In May 2016, I had top surgery to remove my breasts. I’ve been on testosterone since April 2015. Unfortunately for me, the testosterone has taken its sweet time and I’m only just now getting facial hair and the masculine musculature I’ve been waiting my whole life for.
But the fact that this guy mistook me for a gay man – a fag – was a first for me. It was a landmark night, one I will never forget, for good or ill. He was partially right. I don’t lay claim to the label of “man” yet (it’s loaded with a lot of baggage I haven’t completely worked through and might never), but I definitely am queer and masculine. He recognized that, and it frightened him enough to harass me for it. To him, I was a threat – a man in makeup.
My Inauguration Protest show piece was for people like him, that random bigot on the train.
Three weeks before the show (and about a week before the train incident), I was looking up songs to perform to. I needed new inspiration, not only for this show, but also for upcoming shows. I wanted something different, something no one had heard before. I dove into my Spotify “Might Be Cool to Dance to” playlist and found a song by an artist called Garek. I had initially thought I would use it for drag, but as I listened to more of his work I realized I could dance to it too.
I realized that here was an openly gay man singing about being gay, about being bullied and called names for being queer, and that was exactly what I was looking for. One song had a lyric that stood out to me: “Would I be a better son with a gun in my hand?”
I chose that one to be my protest song, because it hit on many issues that we are all struggling with right now: toxic masculinity, guns, and being bullied for being LGBTQ+. It spoke to me personally because I have been struggling with calling myself a man and what it means to be (queer and) masculine in a world filled with examples of how masculinity can be damaging to the world and to both men and women. Garek frankly sings about being gay and how disappointing that can be to parents wanting manly behavior out of their sons. And how damaging that is.
I made a vow then and there that I would put queer artists before all others this year. I will still dance to songs by other people, of course, but my priority will be to dance to those musicians who are openly queer.
And so when that random bigot whispered a slur in my ear, I put on the music I was learning for the Inauguration Protest show. And my thoughts just before going on stage for the protest show itself turned to that man and others like him: people who are afraid of queer men, who are threatened by a different kind of masculinity. I feel sorry for them, trapped in narrow definitions of manhood that hurt not only others (who are victims of their pain) but themselves as well.
But once I stepped out onto that stage, my thoughts were for others like me: queer men and masculine-of-center people (however they identify) who have been called names, been bullied, have sat with a gun or a knife in hand and wondered if death would be the release we had been waiting for, or questioned their value or position in life just because of who they love or what their bodies look like. You’re not alone. That dance was for us.
I didn’t worry about dancing like a man. I didn’t worry about whether I looked too feminine in all that makeup, or whether people would hate me or accept me. I danced to heal myself, and to protest and highlight the increase in bullying me and other LGBTQ+ people have received at the hands of bigots emboldened by the rhetoric of our new President. We must stand up for ourselves, we must fight back, we must show the world that it is not okay to bully, to call people slurs, to make them afraid.
I am not afraid. I will stand with you. I will make art and dance to show the world this queer male body and just how strong it is.
Most of you know by now that I am in the process of transitioning. I am in an interesting point in my life and career where I can basically reinvent myself. It is both frightening and exhilarating. I fear for what this will do for my belly dancing career (do I try to continue to dance while presenting female, which I’d rather not do, or go whole-hog male and risk alienating people? In between, which is where I’d rather be, is probably just too confusing for most of the general public).
But I cannot lie to myself or others just to preserve my career. I’ll build it from the ground up, once more, if I have to. Belly dance and my identity both mean that much to me.
The struggle to be at peace with my body has been a long, hard, and almost disastrous one.
I hated my boobs with a passion that is difficult to describe. They didn’t belong on my body. They were two large, non-cancerous tumors that caused me emotional and physical pain. I hated the way I looked in costumes, I hated how I always had to accommodate them in order find costumes that fit. Whenever I had costume issues, it was always the bra. So imagine my discomfort participating in an art-form that values big breasts.
This is in no way meant to shame people who have big breasts. They’re great. Just not on my body.
When I realized that Tribal Revolution was going to be where I would most likely perform for the first time after my top surgery, I knew I had to tell my story there.
My journey through my belly dance life and my transition are one in the same. One fed the other. And so I have fused those two stories together into one piece.
The piece I will be dancing at Tribal Revolution is not only a journey through all the belly dance forms I have learned and loved, but also the journey to love my own body. There was pain and heartbreak at the beginning. When I first started dancing, I hated my body and covered it up as much as possible. But with some inner work, I made, at best, a guarded peace with it and began to perform.
As much as I love traditional style dancing, it wasn’t the best fit for me (at least then; I’m looking forward to exploring it more now through a male lens). It was girly and flirty, which was fun sometimes, but entirely not who I am. It was difficult to fake. So I moved on to fusion (mostly). At first, I tried to fit into other dancer’s ideas of fusion. I learned all I could about other fusion dancers’ styles. But that wasn’t a fit either, though fusion caused less confusion and pain than the traditional styles.
ATS® has given me another home, with people I love to dance with. They’ve been so welcoming, even though this was when the struggle to be me has hit me hardest. With the highest highs come the lowest lows. Despairing, I kept dancing. It was the only thing I could do.
And now, my body has changed. My dancing has changed. I can finally be who I am meant to be, both male and female and neither, and all styles fused together as one. This has been a huge relief for me, freeing me from the chains that bound me to a body I didn’t want to inhabit.
I hope that you can come and see it live, and I hope you truly do enjoy it. This piece is deeply personal and means a lot to me.