Originally published in Bodega Magazine
I came out as trans while working at an Irish pub in Lexington, Kentucky. The pub, Laney’s, was something of a legend in the minds of the locals. By the time I got there, however, its golden years were long over, and its legacy lived on only in the slurred stories told by the aging drunks who kept our doors open. The bar’s owner, Richard, a straight white guy in his early forties, had bought Laney’s when it was hemorrhaging money, right after the previous owners had run it into the ground. I admired Richard’s ambition and work ethic; what I didn’t admire was his brand of masculinity, the way he cultivated a reputation of being insensitive and unempathetic, taking pride in his lack of such “feminine” qualities.
I will forever remember the day that Caitlyn Jenner’s story came on CNN while I was standing with Richard behind the bar.
“Man, he is messed up,” said Richard.
“Who is?” I said, pretending to be absorbed in the silverware I was rolling.
“Him,” he said, pointing to the television.
I winced. “You mean Caitlyn?”
Richard snorted. “Whatever. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I think people should be able to do what they want. But like, if you’re amputating body parts just because you ‘don’t think they should be there,’ something is wrong there.”
Part of me was desperate to end the conversation, but I pressed further.
“I think that’s the idea,” I said, mustering up the courage to confront him. “Something is wrong. Their body doesn’t match their gender.”
“No way. What’s wrong is their brain. If someone feels like they should’ve been born without limbs, then they need counseling—not amputation.”
This conversation took place just a few weeks before I came out as trans. I came out to my coworkers first, so that I’d be able to use their support as leverage when I came out to Richard. Standing awkwardly in his office, I told him that I had been seeing a gender therapist, and how after years of discomfort I was ready to acknowledge that I am male, which for now would mean going by a different name and male pronouns, and eventually, physically transitioning. I let him know that I’d already told my coworkers, and that I had their support. When I was done talking, Richard nodded, and matter-of-factly said that it didn’t matter to him, all that mattered was that I do a good job, which I did. I couldn’t believe my ears. Why was he being so civil? Did he not hear me? Should I explain it again? Hell no, I was going to quit while I was ahead.
Tears of relief spilled down my face as I stepped out of the bar into the cold winter air. Though it was still early in the afternoon, I went home and cracked open a beer. “To celebrate,” I told myself. In reality I was drinking not to celebrate, but to alleviate the stress and anxiety that I had been carrying around in the weeks leading up to my conversation with Richard. I drank until I blacked out early that evening. I hadn’t forgotten the transphobic comments Richard had made a few months earlier, but I also knew that surely he respected me on some level, and that even if he didn’t respect my identity right away, he would learn to.
After a couple of weeks, I was growing increasingly anxious to change my name in the system. I voiced the request several times over the course of several days, and each time Richard replied vaguely that “he would do it.” But everyday my old name kept coming up on my tickets and my customer’s receipts, and everyday I’d be forced to explain the discrepancy to at least one curious customer or table. I could feel my social anxiety growing, and I was beginning to get the sense that Richard was avoiding my request. Finally I confronted him about it.
“Hey, umm, were you still planning to update my name in the computer? Sorry to bug you, I just wondered if maybe you forgot.”
He snickered. “How could I forget? You bring it up every time you see me.”
“Well…is it difficult to change?”
“No, it’s easy.” He was avoiding my eyes, shuffling around the office trying to appear busy.
“So do you think you could do it, maybe tonight? It’s just, like I said, it’s kind of awkward introducing myself to customers as one thing, and their checks saying another thing. I don’t want to confuse anybody.”
He smirked. “Oh come on, customers aren’t reading their checks that closely.”
“You’d be surprised. I’ve had two tables ask me about it just tonight.”
When he didn’t respond, I took a deep breath, and pressed further. “Is there some reason you don’t want to change it?”
He finally turned to look at me. “It just seems like you’re jumping the gun.”
I laughed awkwardly. “Okay, uh, well, I get that it might seem that way to you. But for me it’s been a long time coming. And all of my coworkers and regulars are using my new name now. I even have a court date to change it legally. What difference does it make anyway?”
He looked exasperated. “Alright, alright, relax. I’ll do it before I leave.”
He took his time leaving the bar that night. Meanwhile, I seated, served, and cashed out several more tables before a check finally printed out with my new name on it.
“Wait, you’re a ‘he’ already? That was fast,” Richard would say the first time I reminded him of my pronouns. It wasn’t just my pronouns that he butchered; he regularly referred to me using hyper-feminine language, such as “lady,” “ma’am,” “girl,” and “girlfriend.” If he apologized, his apologies were backhanded: “Sorry about that. But what am I supposed to call you? ‘Sir?’ That’s a stretch.” Again and again I broke it all down for him: the psychological consequences of misgendering, and the ways it affected my performance at work. But psychological consequences carried no weight for Richard, who regularly used emasculation as a means to silence me. He downplayed my anxiety, mocked my over-sensitivity, and mansplained that if I wanted to be a man, I would need to grow a thicker skin.
It eventually became apparent that Richard’s “inability” to adjust to my transition came from a place of resistance. He couldn’t adjust because he didn’t want to adjust, because he didn’t want to believe that I was a man. It offended his sensibility, or more precisely, his misogyny: his sense of being biologically distinct from, and superior to, those he classified as women. Meanwhile, my health was beginning to deteriorate. I wasn’t eating, and was drinking heavily while relying on pain relievers to relax the knots in my shoulders, where I carried the stress I brought home from work. If I was able to sleep at all, it was a fitful sleep plagued with anxiety dreams.
One night, after a string of triggering encounters with Richard, I had my first-ever panic attack. I was standing at the bar waiting for Doug, the Sunday night bartender, to make the drinks I had just rung in. It occurred to me that I was having trouble breathing. Before I knew it, my heart was racing, and my head and hands were starting to tingle. I asked Doug to keep an eye on my tables while I took a lap.
I sat on the office floor, facing a small electric fan. I was shivering but could feel rivers of sweat trickling down my sides and back. I didn’t know what to do. If I called Richard he would just tell me to get ahold of myself. I searched the room for something to focus my attention on. My gaze travelled up the liquor shelves. I began at the top shelf, reading each label until my breathing had normalized and I could return to the floor.
The day finally came when I’d had enough. I gave my official notice to Richard in the form of a typed letter. In the letter I stated that I’d received an offer that I could not turn down (in truth I had yet to even secure a job), and downplayed my actual reasons for quitting Laney’s. My intention was to make my departure as amicable as possible, so that I could still use Richard as a reference. It was as if Richard sensed that this was my goal, and set out to undermine it. He left my letter sitting on his desk for days unopened, heaped additional tasks on my plate without a please or thank you, made snarky and condescending remarks at every opportunity, and made even less effort than usual to gender me correctly. In response I held my tongue, kept my head down, and counted down the hours until it was over. Finally, he broke me.
It happened during Friday lunch, the busiest shift of the week. We had just lost our kitchen lead and were down several line cooks, so Richard and I were forced to tag-team manager duty. My replacement, who I was training that day, stumbled around on my heels like a lost puppy as I raced back and forth doing the jobs of several people: making and delivering drinks, seating tables, checking in food deliveries as the trucks rolled in, printing checks for the vendors and putting away the orders, periodically stopping to help the server cash out and bus her tables, then sprinting back to the ten-by-ten-foot kitchen where Richard and I worked elbow to elbow to crank out orders, handing off hot pans and sharp utensils, barking instructions and clarifications back and forth. The tension between Richard and myself, combined with the grating sound of the ticket printer and the heat coming off of the grill, created an atmosphere that could compete with hell.
I was pattying out burgers during a lull, and my trainee was helping me. Richard was doing cold prep a couple of feet away from us. At some point, I asked Richard a question, and after a beat he responded, “I don’t know what to tell you, lady.” My stomach lurched. A second or two passed, and he continued, “I mean, guy. Dang it…I suck at this.” I dropped the utensil I was using onto the cutting board. I could feel my body temperature rising, all of my blood going to my face, and my trainee—who I hadn’t told I was trans—turning and looking at me. After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, I picked up the utensil again, and with shaking hands finished the task in total silence, dizzy with shame. When I was done I walked wordlessly out of the kitchen.
In the office, I tried to control my breathing, to tame my anxiety so that I could go over my options. But there was something else inside of me, something less submissive than anxiety, that refused to be tamed, that wanted to take the bottles off of the shelves and smash them against Richard’s skull. I forced myself to stomp out the violent fantasy. I needed to calm down. I needed a plan. Should I go back out there and act like nothing had happened? Or pretend to be sick and go home for the day, come back tomorrow with a cooler head? The thought of placating Richard in this way repulsed me; my rage responded to it like a fire to gasoline. I felt sick, like I needed to vomit, and could barely breathe. I was trapped, what felt like miles from the exit, inside the tiny office being consumed by flames.
The door flew open. “Are you hiding?”
“I’m furious,” I croaked.
He looked annoyed. “Yeah, that’s obvious. Look, Adrian, maybe you should go home for the day.”
I had no words. He was the one who was driving me out. He was the one who’d just outed me to my replacement and the other new employees in what was obviously an intentional, fucked-up power play. I no longer expected him to respect me. At this point I just wanted to finish out my notice and leave Laney’s in peace, and he couldn’t even give me that.
“I’m trying to run a business here,” he said, raising his voice. “If you can’t keep your feelings from interfering—”
I cut him off. “Are you fucking serious?” He was gaslighting me, and we both knew it.
“I corrected myself, didn’t I?” He was yelling now. “I can’t help how I see you. Mistakes are going to happen. I’m human.”
“This is not about mistakes, and you know it.” My voice was still shaky, a testament to my fragility, but at this point I didn’t care. “It’s been a year. And you still call me ‘lady?’ In front of new employees—people who don’t even know I’m trans?”
A look of amusement spread across his face, and I could tell that he was trying hard to not say what he was thinking: Of course they know you’re trans. Do you really think you pass? Besides, they’ve heard me call you “she” a million times. If you really think they think you’re a man, then you truly are delusional.
Instead he said, “Humans make mistakes. If you can’t deal with that, well then—”
So this was it, I thought. This was what I waited a year for. All the times I “hung in there” just to get shit on again and again, for this. I couldn’t hear him anymore. I fumbled to get my bar keys off of my key ring, threw them on his desk, and brushed past him as he continued barking at me. I left the bar without saying goodbye to anyone, and never went back.
At least, in my waking life I didn’t.
Years later, and over a year sober, my dream-self still wakes up hungover, puts on his binder, and holds his breath as he goes into work.
Adrian Silbernagel is a poet and coffee shop manager who currently lives with his partner and two cats in Louisville, Kentucky. Adrian’s first book of poetry, Transitional Object, is forthcoming from The Operating System in April 2019. His work has been published in TYPO Magazine, PANK Magazine, The Atlas Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Columbia Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere.