Paige Schilt

A Road Trip, Told as a Series of Pit Stops

Filed By Paige Schilt | August 02, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: borderlands, borders, genderqueer, queer family, transgender, white privilege

It's the kind of truck stop where a voice on the loudspeaker calls out "Customer 47, your shower is ready." alienrestroom.jpg In the back, plywood covers a large hole in the wall, a monument to some past collision. In the front, porcelain bald eagles are arrayed next to bright yellow boxes of energy "vitamins."

When I was a straight, white college student, I used to appreciate places like this as kitsch. That was before I traveled the U.S. with my ex--a gender non-conforming man of color, a non-citizen. Now I sense the undercurrent of violence. I can taste the ambient terror.

My six-year-old son, Waylon, has to pee. I take him with me to the women's bathroom, then begrudgingly allow him to choose a candy treat. "Those are two for one," drawls the white woman behind the counter. I just want to get out of this place, but Waylon's already made a beeline back to the candy aisle.

Just then, Katy walks up. "Do you have your phone on you?"

"You want to make a phone call right now?" I ask, incredulously. I have cash in hand. My eyes are fixed to the spot where I'm waiting for Waylon to reappear with a second pack of Skittles.

"No," she says, sounding only slightly exasperated. "I need to do the phone trick."

Duh. I've been focused on my own freaked out feelings and shepherding Waylon out of this place. I've forgotten to think about how Katy is going to pee.

"The phone trick" is something Katy came up with over our last summer road trip. It's a survival strategy for places where an ambiguously gendered body is likely to run into trouble in public restrooms.

It's simple. She holds the phone to her ear as she enters, pretending to be engrossed in conversation. She speaks in a high voice, so that people who might be confused by her appearance can assign a gender category that allows her to use the women's restroom. She never puts the phone down or stops talking, leaving no opening for strangers to engage her.

A few minutes later, I'm sitting in the front seat with my eyes on the door of the truck stop. When Katy finally emerges, she slides into the driver's seat and hands me back my phone. "How did it work?" I ask, relieved that we're all safely in the car.

"I needed it," she says. "It worked."

We're not the most vulnerable to violence in a truck stop in a place like Van Horn, Texas. I'm well aware that our travels are protected by the buffer of our race and class and citizenship privilege. No economic dislocation launched this voyage. We're on vacation. We chose to come to West Texas. We're driving a Prius with a Would Jesus Discriminate? bumper sticker. From far away, all people can read is "Jesus."

Katy slows down when she sees a white car in the distance, but speeds up again when she sees the green stripe that signifies border patrol, not state trooper.

I'm remembering what it was like to go through checkpoints with my ex, how he tensed up miles ahead of time. The agent leaned into the window and said "U.S. citizens?" out of the corner of his mouth. My ex showed his driver's license and maybe his permanent resident card. He used his deepest, dudeliest voice while the agent surveyed our belongings in the back of the truck.

Fort Davis, Texas
Katy gets pulled over for speeding. The officer makes her get out of the car before he'll approach. I watch in the mirror. Even though she's got driver's license and insurance papers ready, I'm afraid. We're in the middle of the nowhere. What if the trooper doesn't take kindly to someone whose presentation doesn't match her gender marker? What will he think of the two of us traveling with a child?

Waylon is watching cartoons on the iPod, oblivious to all around him. Later, when we're safely on the road again, Katy teases him: "You didn't even bat an eye when Mommy got pulled over by that cop!"

"You mean when you were talking to that cowboy?" he says, completely unalarmed.

He's too complacent about cowboys, I decide. I've just been re-reading Borderlands/La Frontera, and I try to tell a six-year-old version of Anzaldua's history: how the Cochise people moved southward, how the Aztecs dominated other tribes and the Spanish exploited those divisions, how the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo robbed people of their property. We end up in a conversation about different ways of understanding humans' relationship to land.

"I don't think anyone can own the earth!" Waylon says, outraged. I have to smile, because--as an only child in an owning-class family, he can't even share toys very well. Still, I'm glad that borders don't seem natural or inevitable to him.

After all this talk about how the west was stolen, Waylon has another question: "But how do we tell them that we're not the bad kind of white people?"

I pause. I'm trying to parse the "them" and to imagine what kind of encounter he's imagining. We talk about the people we know who variously identify as Native American, Hispanic, Chicano/a, or Mexican. I'm trying to think of how to teach him to be just without being self-righteous. How do you inculcate reflexivity? Six-year-olds have a fairly dualistic worldview. Either you're good or you're bad, just like the cartoon characters he watches on the iPod.

"Maybe the answer is just not to act like a know-it-all," I say. Waylon shakes his head eagerly. He hates know-it-alls. They are the bane of his kindergarten social landscape.

Marfa, Texas
We're staying for the night in Marfa, the hipster capitol of west Texas. With its big sky and classic county courthouse, Marfa looks like a movie set of a western railroad town. Some of the scenes from Giant were shot in our hotel. Now the 1920s storefronts are homes for galleries and trendy restaurants, thanks to the magnetism of the nearby Chinati Foundation.

They're used to weird white people here. bathroomguy.jpgWe don't even stand out next to the noisy German art collectors and East Coast ArtForum types. At breakfast, we become enamored of a seventy-something woman with round, black-rimmed glasses and a helmet of silver hair. She's a dead ringer for Edith Head. Katy waits in the vestibule outside the bathroom, hoping to capture a surreptitious iPhone picture of our crush, but ends up accidentally snapping some random dude exiting the restrooms.

Balmorhea, Texas
We make a day trip to San Solomon Springs, a natural spring-fed pool in the middle of the desert. It's Saturday, and the place is full of middle and working class families, brown and white. There are thickets of picnic tables, and people are barbecuing, hanging out, horsing around. Everyone from middle-aged bikers to tiny kids line up to jump off the high dive, which was constructed--like the rest of the pool--in the 1930s. There are no lifeguards.

While I'm swimming with the fishes in the deep end, Waylon has to pee again. Katy escorts him to the entrance of the men's restroom. Using the men's room on his own is relatively new, so she attempts to give him a refresher about what to do if anyone approaches him. "I'll just kick 'em in the balls," he says, slipping out of her grasp and lighting out for the urinals.

After our swim, we stop at a roadside general store to stock up on chips, soda, and ice cream bars for the drive back to Marfa. As I slide into the car, I tell Katy that there are two single-stall bathrooms at the back of the store, with a gender-neutral common area for washing up. "It's probably your best bet for miles around for a trouble-free pee," I say. She jumps back out of the car. It's been hours since we left our hotel this morning, and I wonder how long she's had to go.

Las Cruces, New Mexico
We decide to spend an afternoon at the movies. Halfway through the film, I have to pee. I emerge from the dark theater, still in a cinematic dream state, and suddenly I'm confronted by a sign that says, "Restrooms for Humans Only." Perhaps because I've been studying too much Traditional Values Coalition propaganda, it takes me some time to figure out that this isn't intended as anti-trans intimidation. Because we're in the southwest, it takes me even longer to ascertain that the cartoon alien on the sign isn't part of some kind of anti-immigrant campaign.

I stand in front of the sign for a long minute. I realize it's an ad for a sci-fi movie. I proceed to the bathroom, feeling oddly suspect.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we find the only gender-neutral "family" restroom on our 1000-mile road trip. That, and the spectacular caverns, make it well worth the drive.

(Alien photo credit: FarkleberriesUSA.)


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A. J. Lopp | August 2, 2009 1:50 PM

This is a wonderful short story illustrating why at least one one-at-a-time restroom at such places (and all public places) ought to be required by law.

Also, the number of women truckers is growing. That has to do something to lessen the den-of-machismo ambiance of truck stops. But of course, xenophobia is a state of mind, not a gender.

P.S. Paige, the sign at Las Cruces is probably a cultural joke local to New Mexico. Roswell, NM is the place where a spaceship is rumored to have crashed in the 1950's, complete with a few dead bodies of "little green men" and supposedly the subject of a secret Pentagon cover-up. Now there is an annual "alien festival" there --- to bring in tourist dollars, of course, not real extraterrestrials.

A. J. Lopp | August 2, 2009 3:13 PM

Oops! Paige, you were right and I was wrong --- the URL on the sign is for the movie District 9.

Well ... but I could have been right about the Roswell mythology ...

Yes, I thought they might have something to do with Roswell too. That's another reason why it took me so long to figure it out.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 2, 2009 2:33 PM

Paige, I love your stories! They are so evocative while also communicating basic and heartfelt information about gender, class, race, culture and other facets of our culture. Thank you, again, for sharing! (And that is an awesome photo of your family!!)

This is a great post, and a useful reminder for those of us who live in metropolitan areas on the coasts about the fact that the rest of America exists!

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 2, 2009 8:58 PM

Emily, I don't know which metropolitan area on the coast you live in, but I live in a California coastal city with a population nearly twice the size of Dublin, capital of Ireland, and I could easily find areas as scary for a trans person as described in this story.

I'm sorry. That comment was indicative of my cis privilege more than anything else and as such was pretty unconscionable.

Oh my gosh, did you know that The Bilerico Project was started by people from Indiana? Yes, the midwest "actually exists" too. They even have computers there.

A. J. Lopp | August 3, 2009 1:06 AM

Yes, we do have computers ... everywhere! ... but you better live in a good area in a major city if you want decent broadband at an affordable price. Even some of the "rougher" areas of Indianapolis don't have it.

The truck stops do usually have Wi-Fi ... and so do most public libraries ... and the libraries tend to be friendlier to trans-people than the truck stops.

Great post--the evocative detail helps to create a strong emotional impact, at least for me.

In specific response to your comment "When I was a straight, white college student, I used to appreciate places like this as kitsch," I'm uncomfortable with the tendency on the part of well-educated, middle- to owning-class people's to (condescendingly?) label markers of working-class culture as kitsch. There's a neighborhood in my hometown which has become a destination for tourists from the suburbs and residence for hipster-ish kids because it has a reputation as "kitschy." The local retailers have certainly deliberately magnified and cashed in on this reputation, but it still makes me feel weird to see people's lives and culture lovingly condescended to.

Hah! the District 9 sign actually worked! Those sneaky advertisers!

Great stories Paige, and you did an outstanding job of capturing the modern west that I know and love.

Paige, you seem far more concerned about racism and sexuality than anyone in your trip was. You constantly assumed people were going to give you a hard time and when not one single person does, you offer no apology for your flawed thinking. Don’t you think you should have ended the story discussing how although you assumed everyone in the south is a racist homophobe, no one was or acted like it?

If you look for discrimination and judgment hard enough you will find it (or think you find it) in any situation. I mean come on you thought a sign for a alien movie was discrimination against who are transgendered or non-citizens, and it took you a while to see that it wasn’t? You should be ashamed of yourself.

You have a wonderful opportunity to teach a growing boy that we all have differences and can exist together, but instead you are teaching him that straight-white people are violent and judgmental.

I find it sad that although your trip went off without one hint of discrimination, violence or other problems, the message you chose to send to other gay, lesbian, or trans individuals is NOT that the area may not be as close minded as you once thought but that the south (and their bathrooms) are scary places, regardless of the fact that you experienced no problems.

Shame on you, Paige. Judgment goes both ways, and I think you owe the south an apology for assuming they are a bunch of violent, ignorant, racists.

Jamie,

Part of my inspiration for writing this piece was to write about the survival strategies that my wife uses to avoid harassment. We didn't have any major incidents on this trip in part because she was avoiding bathrooms (or using the phone trick) in places where harassment was likely to occur. That said, you're right that that kind of harassment is not specific to the South--she actually came up with the phone trick last year when we were in Las Vegas and she experienced repeated incidents of bathroom policing.

I have to disagree that teaching my son about racism and privilege are the same thing as teaching him "that straight white people are violent and judgmental." He's a white kid from a white family with majority white teachers--I'm not too worried that he's going to paint all straight white people with the same brush. I'm much more concerned about teaching him to think critically about some of the racist, white supremacist mythologies of our state and our region, which he already gets through pop culture and school curriculum.

I've lived in the South the majority of my life, my wife and son are native Texans, and part of the project of my writing is to create a complex depiction of our life here. I think of this piece as being in dialogue with earlier pieces about our mundane family life in TX.

I also try to depict myself in a somewhat self-deprecating, self-reflexive way--as when I talk about how I used to appreciate truck stops as kitsch. The moments when I say Waylon is "too complacent about cowboys" or when I talk about puzzling over the alien sign--those are meant to be ironic, humorous moments.

That said, I don't think that my sense of that we're living in xenophobic times is unwarranted. While we were in New Mexico, mainstream politicians were on TV every night fomenting the white supremacist conspiracy theory that the President is not really a citizen. A few weeks before we left on our trip, anti-immigrant militia members murdered a 10-year-old Mexican American child and her father in my home state of Arizona.

I just don't believe that "we all have differences and can all get along" is sufficient to the situation.