Paige Schilt

Passing (Or Not) at the Pool

Filed By Paige Schilt | June 19, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: chest surgery, cisgender privilege, LGBT parent, passing, privilege, transgender parent

It feels like 95 degrees in the shade. We're standing in line at the municipal pool. The mom in front of us has three kids and a tattoo on her cleavage that says "Ivan" or "Juan," I can't tell which. My hand moves reflexively toward the "Katy" on my own arm. Before I can solve the mystery of Ivan/Juan, the woman moves on. Now it's our turn to pay the pasty teen behind the concrete counter.

Once inside, we walk past dilapidated metal bleachers and spread our towels under a giant oak tree. By this time in the summer, we know where to sit to avoid fire ants. This is our Sunday afternoon family ritual: I swim laps while Katy takes our six-year-old son, Waylon, to the recreational side of the pool to play with his neon orange Nerf football.

I always feel like I'm getting away with something.

Why should I get to exercise in peace while my spouse does solo parenting duty? But, despite my qualms, I'm mostly superfluous to their fun. Childhood nearsightedness has left me with a permanent fear of flying objects. Katy, on the other hand, is the child of a football coach. She's serious about passing on her athletic heritage. Waylon can already send the football soaring in a slow, perfect spiral. Each week she expands his vocabulary to include moves like "stiff arm" and "stripping the ball."

I try to keep an eye on them from the lap lane. They're usually easy to spot, because Katy makes dramatic, splashy dives for the ball and then stages elaborate fumbles so that Waylon, his head bobbing a few inches above the water line, can intercept. Before each pass, she feints in seven different directions, her face a cartoon of shifting intentions.

Lots of parents use the pool as cheap day care. A fun, involved parent in the water is like an underwater kid magnet. It's not unusual to look up and see Katy running for the ball with two or three random kids clinging to her broad back, trying in vain to tackle her.

On this particular Sunday, I was just getting used to the rhythm of my breath in the water when a flash in the shallow end caught my eye. I had to stop, mid-lap, and remove my goggles for a better look.

All her life, before and after chest surgery, Katy has worn a t-shirt in the pool. In the water, the shirt gets loose and heavy, which makes it difficult to swim. Out of the water, the shirt gets cold and clingy, which makes it difficult to relax.

Now, some four years after her surgery, Katy had decided to take off her shirt. The flash was the blinding whiteness of her heretofore unexposed skin. It created a high-contrast canvas for the tattoo across her chest, an image of Siva Shakti, the father-mother deity who represents the transcendence of dualities.

When I saw her bare chest from across the pool, I felt a surge of happiness. I hoped she was feeling comfortable, physically and emotionally.

But, of course, taking off her shirt created a whole new set of conundrums. Once she had revealed her man-chest, she was de facto male at the pool. As a genderqueer dyke, she's used to funny looks and even belligerent bathroom confrontations, but now the women's changing room felt completely off-limits. And this isn't some swanky pool with a gender-neutral "family" restroom. She started changing in the car, even on days when she still wore her shirt in the water.

Last Sunday, the t-shirt was on. A sociable four-year-old named Dylan was watching Katy and Waylon play. Katy was throwing Waylon really high in the air. He shrieked with joy on the ascent and cried "again, Mommy, again," each time he came up for air.

Before long, Dylan sidled over and asked Katy to throw her up in the air too. Katy sent her to ask her mother, who was reading in the shade. Mom gave the thumbs up, doubtless relieved that someone else was entertaining her child.

Once Dylan had been tossed in the air a few times, Waylon got jealous and wanted to play catch instead. Dylan was too tiny to handle the football, so she turned her attention to the puzzle of Katy's gender.

"You look like a boy," she said, smiling.

"Yep," Katy said, smiling back at her.

"You look like a boy because of your hair...and because you have so many tattoos."

"Yeah, I do," Katy answered, still smiling.

"Mommy, Mommy, throw it to me," Waylon shouted. Katy threw it to him.

When I swam up and Waylon started calling me "Mom" too, Dylan looked like her head was going to explode. Still, she couldn't tear herself away. She kept swimming to the side and then swimming back and asking to be tossed in the air again. I checked to see if her mother was alarmed that she had attached herself like a barnacle to a tattooed and gender ambiguous personage, but mom appeared to be completely absorbed in her book.

Finally, after several rounds of "just one more time" in the air, it was time for us to leave. We said goodbye to Dylan and told her maybe we'd see her next weekend. Katy and Waylon headed to the car to change. I went to the women's changing room to rinse my hair in the shower.

Dylan followed me in, her mother close on her heels.

"I just want to see if she's a boy or a girl!" she shouted.

My immediate thought was thank god Katy's in the car. This is the kind of scene she dreads. My next thought was what's going to happen now? I was fascinated that Katy's illegibility had rendered me illegible as well.

Dylan's mother, looking mortified, scooped her up just as she reached the showers.

"Oh, she has nail polish, she's a girl," Dylan concluded.

I had to smile that my 34A bust is apparently not the most salient aspect of my gender presentation.

Later, I would realize the extent to which privilege was shielding me from fear and shame. I sometimes feel a bit queer in the changing room, but, as a gender-conforming cis woman, I still feel a sense of unconscious entitlement.

Perhaps because I felt safe, and because the whole interaction seemed curious rather than hostile, I wasn't quite ready to be read. As Dylan's mother dragged her reluctantly away, I couldn't help troubling the waters one more time.

"Boys can wear nail polish too!" I said, in my friendliest singsong voice.


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Paige,

Thanks for writing this.

Thanks for getting me, Yasmin. If I could write like the bizarre love child of you, Mattilda, and Sara Whitman, I'd feel like I was hitting the mark.

As the aunt of four young boys, only the oldest of whom is old enough to remember me before I transitioned, this is very familiar territory. It gets even more interesting as they get older and really want some answers.

I hope that your family always finds joy at the pool.

I particularly love this article as it opens my eyes a little wider. Thank you for a beautifully written gentle reminder - privelege shields me from fear & shame too, and I forget.

Thank you for this.

A 34A hasn't made me immune either. Strangely i'm o.k. with it.

Thanks for the story. I haven't been to a pool in years because of gender stuff and it's great to read how other people are negotiating those tricky waters. Who knows, maybe I need to buy some swim shorts!

Reading this made me think of the time I took my then-4-year-old nephew, Alex, to the grocery store and we came in contact with a man who had one leg amputated above the knee. He was on crutches, and as we approached the cashier, I prayed my nephew wouldn't say anything (I myself was in my early twenties and pretty naive, too). To my HORROR, Alex yelled incredulously "You got ONE LEG!?!?". Clearly the child had never been exposed to an amputee. He was a sweet and loving kid who simply hadn't learned to edit himself yet. The man gave my nephew a look that scared us all, and said "shut up, kid". I have to commend you and Katy for being at the same time patient and transparent with our little ones as you help us to guide them through waters that we weren't even given the chance to navigate as little ones. Reading this made me miss you guys (I know it's only been two weeks), so I hope we can see each other very soon!! xoxo

Reading this made me think of the time I took my then-4-year-old nephew, Alex, to the grocery store and we came in contact with a man who had one leg amputated above the knee. He was on crutches, and as we approached the cashier, I prayed my nephew wouldn't say anything (I myself was in my early twenties and pretty naive, too). To my HORROR, Alex yelled incredulously "You got ONE LEG!?!?". Clearly the child had never been exposed to an amputee. He was a sweet and loving kid who simply hadn't learned to edit himself yet. The man gave my nephew a look that scared us all, and said "shut up, kid". I have to commend you and Katy for being at the same time patient and transparent with our little ones as you help us to guide them through waters that we weren't even given the chance to navigate as little ones. Reading this made me miss you guys (I know it's only been two weeks), so I hope we can see each other very soon!! xoxo

Every now and then i get reactions a bit like that especially if my hair is down and I'm wearing a kilt.

Thanks a lot for writing this. It helps to hear from people who face these same type of gender-related every-day situations.

What an interesting story. Thanks for sharing, Paige!

Sarah Bird | June 20, 2009 11:58 AM

Paige, what a gorgeous piece of writing. Poignant and beautifully observed. Saludos to you for your open heart and to Katy for her courage. Love, Sarah

This touches me so much. Thanks for writing and sharing it.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | June 22, 2009 5:20 PM

Paige, that was an incredible story that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time, hoping that no one was going to say something hurtful or block access or be ugly in any of the countless ways people are around gender!!! Isn't it sad we live in a world where gender is policed so stringently that transgendered folks and those who love us need always be on guard?

Thank you so much for sharing the story! And for being the brave, sweet family you are.

Adam Miller | June 23, 2009 7:57 PM

Paige,
nice use of the word salient! :D

Hey, bravo for an amazing article. It was smart, funny, and insightful as always. You have a great talent for spotlighting things that are apparently mundane on the surface and just stripping it down to the crazy social algebra that underlines it all. I love it.

Thanks for writing this terrific story and helping me see people in new ways!

your friend,
A

Thanks so much for writing this article. My girlfriend and I are both genderqueer dykes attending a super conservative, large university in Texas (guess which one). We get stares all the time and people have a hard time understanding us. Even some of our close female friends chalk up our looks to an inability to dress in a feminine style. They just don't get what it's like to not feel comfortable with their own bodies. When we go to a public bathroom, people double-check to make sure that they are in the right one and then let us know that we are in the woman's restroom. I usually look at them and say "I know" and not a word more and they just walk off perplexed. So thanks again for writing an article that makes us feel a bit less awkward and definitely less invisible

Hey Paige...thanks for sharing your family with us. I really value our friendship. I love reading your writing and look forward to what may be coming down the pike. Peace and Love - Bill