The weekend of July 4, 2003, I was in Mount Laurel, NJ for the 2003 NOLOSE conference. NOLOSE. National Organization of Lesbians Of SizE. I was going to a fat dyke conference. I was going to a fat dyke conference? I read the web page. Fat dykes and allies. Cool, I’m an ally. I talked with a couple people.
“I hear it’ll be opening up to transpeople, too.” “I heard it’s not really opening up to transpeople, they’re just saying that to shut someone up.” Other rumors floated my way to sit on my shoulders, bring me down, keep me from leaving my apartment so small it could almost be a womb.
I read the web page again. Accessibility is good. I’m fat. I’m an ally of lesbians. My mother is a lesbian. I enjoy lesbians and the kind of energy that mostly-lesbian space creates. And they didn’t specify any unwelcome allies.
I’ll go if I get my disability backpay in time. (Which of course means I’ll have gotten disability.)
I got my disability backpay in time. The check came in May, shortly after I got a letter from the administrative law judge who reviewed my case, and ruled without a hearing. Clearly Shahn Dickson is disabled. He’s got fibromyalgia, might have muscular dystrophy, has TMJ, chronic migraines, agoraphobia, is a transsexual (…wait a minute!!! well, another column…) and has trichotillomania. Give this disabled person backpay for the entirety of their claim. I wanted to send her flowers. I wanted to kiss her. Finally, I can stop focusing on and emphasizing the ways in which I can’t.
I go back to the NOLOSE webpage. It’s changed.
“NOLOSE invites all fat or fat positive lesbians, bi-women — including those who are transwomen— trans folks, and our allies to participate, and we’re asking for your help to make everyone feel welcome.”
So I’m welcome. Cool. And my friend Alex is going and we’re rooming together and that will make it so much safer for me to go.
I hear a lot of “it’s easy to be a fat man” when I talk about being fat and what it means to be a fat queer transsexual crip who doesn’t identify as a man in this culture. I stopped talking for a while. I don’t own a mirror that sits on a wall. I have no way of looking at my body in my apartment. My blinds are closed most of the time, so I can’t even see my reflection in a window. I didn’t want to look at myself. I was fat, and fat is bad. My parents made sure I learned that lesson. I was taught I can do anything, be anyone, achieve any goal— but I could only be happy and loved if I was thin.
I obsess over the food I eat, to the point that I stop eating. I’ll catch myself eating a piece of cheesecake, and thinking I just won’t eat tomorrow. But my body is not a bank account. I can not deposit calories into an account for later withdrawal. I can not eat more tomorrow to make up for skipping a meal tomorrow, and stay healthy. I can not eat this way and even approach healthy. As much as I need sleep and rest and fun and love and shelter and community, I need food. We all do.
So I’m going to NOLOSE. I’m scared that as an FTM I’ll be kept out, or shut out of the community of size at the conference. I’m scared that I’ll stay out of the community to avoid the possibility of being shut out. I’m scared that I’ll have to talk about my body. I’m scared that I might actually start to like myself again. I try not to think about the sexual energy that will be there. The energy is inevitable, in my mind. Lesbians coming together, for whatever common reason, just generate energy. And it is so often sexual energy. All kinds of people generate sexual energy when coming together. For me, the scariest is lesbian energy. I’m not scared because it’s foreign. I know this sexuality well. I never felt at home in it, but I’ve lived with it and around it, I’ve marched with it when Pride was still “throw rocks at queers day,” I’ve fled from it when my mother came out to me, I’ve mourned it when I reached a point in my transition where dykes on the street would no longer give me that knowing smile-and-nod.
And now I’m going to be in the middle of it. But first, I must get there. Thanks to my backpay, I’ve got the money for a bus ticket, so I board in Northampton, heading for New York City where I’ll transfer and go to Mt. Laurel. As soon as I can, I call Alex and tell him I’ll be in NYC and can we meet there instead of the hotel? Of course we can, it’ll be fun to go together. Almost like a summer camp trip, or school field trip.
I struggle onto the bus with my cane and am relieved when I learn I won’t have to leave the bus until I get to The City. I try not to drink too much, too fast, so I don’t have to pee. I can’t walk fast enough to use the bathroom in the bus stations where we refuel, drop off, and pick up new passengers. I can’t fit into the bathroom on the bus. It’s the same on airplanes, but I take the bus so much more often. It reminds me of when I couldn’t use any bathroom: my appearance challenged everyone’s gender identity, sexual orientation, and reality. I’m grateful to be so close to that struggle, to be reminded that “passing” is not an option for everyone whether they want to or not. Even when passing “works” using the bathroom isn’t always so easy. What if there are no doors on the stalls? What if there are no stalls? What if they’re all full? What if someone opens the door accidentally, or peeks through the glory hole or the crack between door and wall; what if someone learns that I don’t really belong there? I imagine gang rape scenes that some people might consider fantasy, that I consider my death.
Finally, we pull into Port Authority, New York City. It’s dark in the cavern of the terminal, and I forget that it’s only afternoon. I’m tired, hungry, dirty, and I have to pee. I’ll meet up with Alex and his friend and go pee and then we’ll get on the bus and be off to the conference. Then I can relax and let my guard down. Maybe.
Much drama ensues, trying to find Alex and friend. My pre-paid cell phone doesn’t work in the terminal, and my calling cards don’t work at the payphones. I can’t call A. I’m alone in Port Authority. I go to the bathroom, hold my breath as long as I can so the cleaning chemicals don’t assault my nose so much. But alas, I have to breathe. Urine, bleach, and the leftover colognes and soaps and other “products” fill my nose and eat away at my septum, leaving me light headed enough that I forget to watch the door. As I finally leave, I silently thank Allah for my relative safety, and I thank Men’s Room Etiquette for being so repressed, as much as that repression is part of my vulnerability’s fuel.
Alex and friend are there now, and we finally get on a bus heading to Mt. Laurel. I tell them my story of calling the hotel last night and making sure we can get from bus terminal to hotel reasonably well. We can, it’s very close to the hotel, but on the highway so it’s recommended we pay the five-or-so dollars for a cab. I’m glad to pay five dollars for a cab, but the three of us decide we’ll split it, which is even better.
The hotel is nice, air conditioned, clean. We see a few fat dykes meandering about, and I’m already relaxing. I suggest we check in first so we can put our luggage away and be freer to roam about. The woman at the counter makes sure she has the right room for Alex and I:
“That’s two queens?” Alex giggles, and I try to stay as respectable as possible, but I end up doing some kind of hand-thing while answering, “Yes,” and thankfully manage to suppress “honey.” Just through the door and it’s already a great weekend. I’m glad I came. We get our room key-cards and look for the elevators. It’s a short ride up to the 4th floor, and we finally find our room not quite to the left of the elevators, and not quite to the right, but in between. I am pleased that we have this not-quite-but-inbetween room, even if it means walking a little bit.
Registering for the conference was lovely. Alex and friend and I were a little bewildered after riding the bus, and I can barely understand the directions I’m given: “Take this, sign that, here’s your registration packet, have a great weekend!” Huh? Oh, sure, packet (thank Allah it’s a bag, I can hang it off my cane handle) and where is the food? I feel shame wash over me as I don’t even ask where people are, but immediately inquire about food. The women behind the registration table smile warmly and point to where the people are. “Go eat, you must be starving,” I think I hear someone say. I finally stagger over to the food. It’s mostly snacky food, and I’m greatful that I get to nibble on something without feeling like I’ve eaten a meal today. Still, the shame persists. I’m not sure what I was expecting: some magical fat-love-ray we all get zapped with for the weekend?
The love comes quickly, as soon as I see my good friend S and we hug and do a little cuddling during some announcements. I am reminded of how much I enjoy physical contact, and how alien it feels at the same time. This friend asks a lot if it’s okay she touches me. It’s okay. I’m thankful for the contact that reminds me I really am awake and alive and this is not a dream that will evaporate when I wake up.
I’m still scared. I’ve put a lot of importance on this weekend. This is my desperate attempt to stop hating my body and my body’s size. I don’t need to come to love right away, but I need to come to at least a general sense of peace. There must be a cease-fire between my self-hatred and my body. I want so much to love myself. I hope that being around people who are in the same place (or have been in a very similar place) will help me get over what I hope is my last speed bump. There is a performance next.
The performance troupe is called Fat Fuck and I don’t want to see it, but I do want to see it, so I stay. I try and continue physical contact when I can, as I hold back decades of tears and recognition. I can’t fall apart before the weekend starts. I know I’ll be writing about this, but I can’t figure out how I’ll describe what I see. It’s sexy and sad and thoughtful and mournful and beatiful and I’m thankful that they’re here from California to share these stories— our stories— with all of us. There’s an ftm-ish genderqueer in the troupe and Alex and I are both relieved that we’re not The Only Ones. I’m still scanning the audience for a transwoman. I don’t see one, but that only means I can’t tell there is a transwoman here. The (we) three ftm-ish genderqueers stand out more, with our varying facial hair.
I’m still getting used to being relatively small in a crowd. I’m still getting used to being in an incredibly beautiful and handsome group. Most of us are smiling most of the time and I’m stunned at what a difference this makes. Both my smiling and being around other smiling people. We’re taking a weekend (even if only this weekend) to stop listening/talking about weight-loss. We’re all spending this weekend swimming in as much self-love as we can. I’m guessing, as I look around the room, that some have more practice at this than others. It’s late, and I’m tired, and I want to go to sleep, but S and her friends want to go to Denny’s and S remembered that I said I hadn’t eaten much. Would I like to go? Yes, I would love to go. It was a lovely time, and I like Denny’s food okay, and I did need to eat something even vaguely resembling nutritious. Got back awfully late. Tried to tiptoe into the hotel room.
Alex was still awake, thankfully, since my tiptoe-ing turned into slamming the door and running into something. We talk while I wrestled my sandals off and got down to my boxer briefs and hobbled into my queen bed. I say “Don’t tell me what time it is, I’ll pretend it’s 1:00 a.m. and fool myself into feeling rested.” We left for Denny’s at about 1:00 a.m. so I knew I was fooling myself all ready. But sometimes it works. Alex and I chat and giggle about the “two queens” line and finally drift off to sleep.
Saturday is a blur of smiles and hugs and introductions and flirting and food and a little crying. Lynn McAfee is the keynote speaker after breakfast. A beautiful, funny, intelligent woman of size, Lynn has this audience. There’s no convincing to be done, as it seems she usually has to do, from her speech. She talks about the beginnings of the fat activism movement and the inevitable sexual connections between so many. Sex with other fat people was a revelation then, it seems. I’m catapulted back to my childhood, playing house with my best friend H: pillows under our shirts and I would play “the man” and we’d be a fat couple, trying to kiss each other goodnight but bumping bellies instead. We giggled and rolled on the floor with the silliness of it all. We were eight years old, and figured we were going to grow up fat so we may as well get used to it. H’s mother had her on diets already. My parents just made me go hiking every weekend and never let me rest, even if they had to drag me up the trail. But Lynn is almost done, and she’s talking about the need for Fat Theory. I think to myself, Fat theory. Wow, that sounds awesome! and make a mental note to try my hand at writing some.
The first workshop still feels like morning to me, even though it’s after noon. I go to a workshop on intersections of oppression. How fatphobia and classism and sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia can all work together to self perpetuate. I’m overwhelmed with it all, but the thing I really hear is one NOLOSE veteran express her joy at increasing inclusion within the group tempered with a fear that there will no longer be a place for her in NOLOSE. I cry a little inside myself, and wish for a day when we can be inclusive without pushing anyone out. Because if someone is being pushed out, how inclusive is that?
In the afternoon, I decide to go to a workshop about weight loss surgery (WLS), and two friends’ journey while one has decided to get the surgery and the other has decided not to. I’m struck immediately by the parallels between WLS and trans* surgeries. Whether or not to get them, whether or not one can afford them, whether or not desire really factors into the decision making process. Pressure from one side or another side or another side to either get a surgery or eschew surgery or demonize people who choose something other than what one chooses. Anger at the medical community for not providing more information, initiating more research, keeping costs down. I think of people I know who were told they couldn’t get sex reassignment surgery (SRS) because of her weight, but she could get WLS almost as easily as I could get a can of pop at the store. I think of the surgeons who told me they’d never operate on me for anything because of my weight, and how easy it was for me to get a breast reduction. I decide to stay quiet during the workshop because while I think the parallels are fascinating, I’m scared that I’ll be accused of hijacking the workshop and diverting attention.
I wait until after, to talk with a couple people with whom I’ve managed to gather and their response is eye-opening. They’d never thought that weight would be a factor in eligibility for SRS. I talk with them about how I see many trans* people go on crash diets, develop eating disorders, and lose what self love transition had gained them because of these surgeons’ weight restrictions. As if the only way to be a transsexual is to be a thin transsexual. We all mutter about the myths that fat equals unhealthy and then it’s almost supper time.
Supper is a fantastic buffet and lovely people and amazing conversations. Dessert is amazing, and I don’t want it to end. I’ve eaten three meals today and not exploded like my parents had warned me all my life. I’ve not hated my body all day and the world did not implode. I can only hope that this will rub off into my daily life. But before that, it’s time for the Big Burlesque.
Big beautiful people dancing burlesque-style for other beautiful fat people. What could be better? Everyone looks amazing, and I feel so blessed and honored to watch. Included in the more practiced numbers are several people who attended an earlier workshop on this very type of performance. I’m in awe of these people getting up, most for the first time, and taking clothes off, dancing around, and accepting dollar bills and hoots of encouragement. I wish I had a way of recording the whole thing so only we (audience and performers) could enjoy it over and over again. But I don’t, I’ll have to settle for what my brain can hold onto. Later in the evening during the dance, dj’d by one of the hottest butches I’ve seen in a long time, I’m treated to some friends dancing around me while I sit and watch. There’s no way I’m dancing, but it’s exciting to watch everyone have fun, and also to see some people in scooters get up for a few minutes to move around the dance floor, and get back in to their scooters. I’m asked a couple of times why I’m not dancing. I call it crip-math: I calculate what I can and can’t do, and what I can live without in order to the stuff I can only sort of do. I can only sort of do a weekend conference, so I sit out the dance. This will conserve my energy enough to let me lose sleep and stand up and walk around more than I’m used to, and I was never a big dancer anyway so it’s not a big deal to me. A couple of my friends decide I need a lap dance, and I try not to blush, and enjoy the attention thoroughly.
I’m no longer thinking about being trans at a lesbian conference. I’m at a conference for fat people, many of whom are lesbians or queer in some way. I’m with family. We’re friendly, we hug and flirt, we disagree respectfully, and we enjoy this weekend of community. I cry a little while finally going to sleep, remembering that tomorrow it’s over.
Sunday happens even faster than Saturday. I miss the workshops to spend more time with people I’ve been getting to know over the weekend. The brunch buffet was flabulous (a word I just learned and love) and there was more cheesecake. Score!
After brunch is the Fat Art Live performance. Many talented and lovely people grace the stage. Radical cheerleading, singing, an amazing flute solo, it’s all so wonderful. I feel like I’m with my people. I know I have a lot of work to do, to figure out where my fears of being shut out of communities are and trying to exile them from my mind and life. But after this, I feel ready and even excited to do that work. I want to work with NOLOSE and help as much as I can.