She was a big girl. Over six feet with enormous hands. She wore a skirt, silk blouse, and oversized pumps. Black hair framed her face like curtains. It was 1994, long before Caitlyn Jenner put a famous face on the puzzle my English class was trying to solve. The library was transitioning to a computerized catalogue, something I hadn’t yet mastered. I stood at a bank of monitors beside the big girl and tried to follow the instructions taped to the wall. Again and again I typed, but the C-colon kept flashing INCORRECT ENTRY. The librarian was assisting a long queue of townies and gownies who were not computer savvy yet either.
The trans woman was savvy. Long fingernails clicked her keyboard at a more respectable speed than I would ever master. Results scrolled across her screen. I wish I’d leaned in to see what she was researching. Surgical procedures, perhaps. Discrimination laws. I’m sure she was hyper aware of the snickering girls staggering past, the bug-eyed boys.
The campus clock chimed, winding down time, torquing my anxiety. Finally, I leaned toward the big woman. “Excuse me. Can you please help us?”
She looked me up and down. I was happy I’d worn a dress. “Of course.” She stepped over to our monitor and typed in the magic code, navigated through a few pages, her fingers adorned with chunky rings. Soon we were into the database and the students sighed relief.
“Thank you,” I said, offering my hand.
She took it and gave it a firm squeeze. “My pleasure.” Then she added something I wasn’t expecting: “Maybe someday you’ll do a favor for me.” She peered into my eyes as if I really should expect a knock on the door, a late-night phone call. I conjured a potential favor involving an emergency room with doctors stitching her up after an assault. Not long before, on a Sunday morning, a gay man had been found beaten to death in our electric company’s parking lot.
“I’ll be happy to,” I said, and I meant it.
A month later I sipped a beer in The Drop Shop, a local bar that hosted faculty readings. The MC’s voice crackled over the speaker announcing the opening act. Ilene Over made a grand entrance from an indoor catwalk, stunning the crowd with her daring, giant wig and décolletage, her sequined gown. She billed herself as a drag queen. That big girl in the library was not a flamboyant drag queen, but they were sisters of a kind.
I am neither gay nor transgender. When I had pubescent crushes they were always on boys. Still, when I was thirteen, I was invited to a Halloween party and something inspired me to go as a half-man, half-woman. I drew a partial mustache with my mother’s eyebrow pencil on one side of my face, a Marilyn Monroe beauty dot on the other side. I wore one of Dad’s wingtips, one of Mother’s high heels.
Maybe we’re all on the Kinsey Hetero–Homo Scale. I’ve certainly given off gay vibes. When I was in college I stood outside a pet store ogling puppies when a woman approached and clamped her hand on my thigh. “No. I’m not—” I sputtered before dashing off. A hometown girl had a crush on me too. Wooed me with bar drinks I never should have accepted. Tried to kiss me goodbye when I moved away after college. Seven years later, when I returned home after a horrible marriage, I sought shelter in a fundy religion and swallowed the sanctimonious Kool-Aid. I couldn’t hate gays the way some congregants did, but I denounced the lifestyle until I remembered the biggest rule of all: love. I’m still repenting those Pharisaical years. I’m especially repenting how I treated that gay friend who had bought me all those drinks: “I’ll pray for you,” I’d written in a kiss-off letter where I also condemned her sexuality. I cringe when I think of my unholy intolerance.
A decade later I walked a bustling San Francisco street, outdoor cafés jammed with patrons. I kept pace with pedestrians, feeling brave and big-city. About ten yards ahead I spotted a woman strutting toward me with the determination of a New Yorker. She had spiked tawny hair, biker boots and jacket. She would have fit in perfectly with the gangs of self-proclaimed bull dykes in Houston who liked to intimidate, well, everyone. She was smiling at the sky, and as she neared, I wondered what she was so happy about. When she was three feet from me, she cocked her arm and punched me hard in the shoulder as she passed. She never looked me in the face. I staggered a bit, more from disbelief than pain. I spun toward the café patrons whose dropped jaws indicated they’d borne witness. I rubbed the wound and headed back to my hotel feeling less brave and worldly wise. I wondered what I’d done to make me a target, yet again. Not the first time I’d given off odd signals. Now, I pin it on karma. I was getting a big-fisted dose. Kiss this off.
I know that transgender and gay are two different things, but in our culture they are both considered other, something too many of our citizens fear. We needn’t fear other. We needn’t fear offering or receiving acceptance. Other, however, has something very real to fear: winding up tied to a barb-wired fence, left for dead in a power company parking lot.
When I met that big girl in the library, I was impressed by her bravery, her daring to claim who she was. Though she could likely handle herself if threatened, I hated that she had to collect potential allies like others collect cookbooks or figurines.
I never received a late-night phone call from her. I never apologized to my gay friend for shunning her during my period of unholy zeal. I repent in my fiction. Craft big-hearted gay and transgender characters who often offer more grace than straight folks. It’s small penance, but it’s the best way I know to return the favor.
Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, received The
Weatherford Award. Shrapnel won The
Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in
the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and other journals.
Her essays have appeared in Word Riot, Cossack Review, Still, and elsewhere.
Learn more at www.mariemanilla.com.