I’m standing in the little girls’ clothing section at Wal-Mart trying to hang up a fluffy pink tutu skirt. The handheld scanner is balanced in my blue smock pocket against my hip. It’s the kind of skirt I would have loved pre-transition—bright and girly, a hint of fairy queen, perfect for fanning out by the heater or spinning in the kitchen like a ballerina. $8.96, reads the tag. I don’t see any other skirts like it; they must be sold out. I place the skirt somewhere it doesn’t belong since it’s already homeless. I take a step back.
As a retail associate at Wal-Mart, my main task day after day, or, more accurately, weekend after weekend part-time, is to stock merchandise to make it look pretty. There is something beautiful in arranging colorful fabric in neat rows, all the way from men’s socks to women’s lacy undergarments. On my good days, I can’t believe that someone is paying me for one of my favorite hobbies: organizing.
At five-foot-four with round glasses and a skinny frame, I’m a somewhat nerdy man with a great eye for design and poor judgement of social situations. It’s 2020 and I’ve been on testosterone through HRT (hormone-replacement therapy) for nearly four years. While I’ve recently stopped packing (placing a phallic object in the front of the pants to make it look like I have a penis), I had top-surgery, or a bilateral mastectomy with male chest reconstruction, in 2017, and I “pass” routinely as a cis male.
“Attention all Wal-Mart associates,” the store intercom interrupts my thoughts, “Cashier B— is needed at the customer service desk. Cashier B— is needed at the customer service desk.”
The voice overhead is androgynous, and its decisive tone makes me think of God. God and I have a complicated relationship. I was raised as a hybrid unprogrammed Quaker and High-Church Lutheran and as a result, I find comfort in plain, silent things and extravagant displays of reverence. Nothing in between. I am a man of extremes like my father.
The Quaker meetings I went to as a child from around 1995-2001 were conducted in silence. The meetings consisted of about twenty adults sitting in a circle in a dimly lit room, speaking only when moved by the Holy Spirit. My sister and I joined other children downstairs to read scripture and sing songs about walking in the light with George Fox, though the facilitator was careful not to call it Sunday School. Some short years later, after befriending the family of my next-door neighbor, a Lutheran pastor, my own family was invited to attend their church, where we more or less ended up for the rest of my childhood and adolescence. The Lutheran church was as Catholic as possible in everything but name: midnight service on Christmas Eve, ornate stained-glass windows, a professional choir singing overhead with an organ on the indoor balcony, and the pastor in a gorgeous, flowing robe. While I’ve never wondered if God views being trans as sinful—there’s certainly nothing about it in the Bible—I am questioning why He made me trans. Me, specifically, a man who wants nothing more than to give his wife a child.
My wife, R, is also a writer—another Northern expatriate in Stillwater, Oklahoma. We moved to Stillwater for my Creative Writing Ph.D. program at Oklahoma State University from Bowling Green, Ohio, where we met in our MFA program in 2016. One year after our move, R decided that it was in her best career interests to earn a Ph.D. at Oklahoma State as well, making our stay in Stillwater longer but more meaningful. The two of us tend to both stand out and blend in at all the wrong moments. When discussing city life versus suburbia one day at an awkward tea party, a casual acquaintance told R with great authority, “You are the culture.” We’re still not sure what that means, but looking around Wal-Mart now, I glance at a man lumbering by a few aisles over. The back of his shirt reads, “Guns, Beer, Freedom,” and whatever “culture” R and I are, I know it’s not Stillwater.
My coworkers hate “zoning,” which is the process of wandering around the clothing department, picking up the errant hanger or two. Zoning is always a risk because if you move too slowly, a manager passing by might think you’re not working hard enough and assign you an onerous task. I pretend to hate zoning, so my coworkers won’t know how different we are. I put on a fake grimace and walk slowly to the baby aisle, then run as soon as I’m out of sight.
I desperately want to be a father, and R—despite anxiety about the ethics of deliberately bringing a child into this mess-ridden, Trump-dominated country—wants to be pregnant. More than getting pregnant, however, R says she wants to be a mother. She had already talked about wanting kids during our MFA program, while I had reservations due to timing and a lack of financial stability. Over the next four years, we would go back and forth, her maternal clock happily reshelved just as I started wanting kids, then reversing the cycle. She asked me early on whether I would still want to get married if she never wanted children. I said yes because after my miserable pre-transition years, all I wanted was to be happy, and being with R was happiness. Kids would just be a bonus.
Two years ago, coming home from the bar in a happy, tipsy state, R tipped the Uber driver way too much and I managed to open the front door. We reopened the dialogue about having a family after having put it away for perhaps a month or two. I was failing a noble endeavor to wiggle out of my tight skinny jeans, and R was battling her eyeliner with a Neutrogena makeup wipe. R highlighted the various irresponsibilities of twenty-first century childbirth: there are children in foster care waiting to be adopted, the world is dangerous, and she might not be a good mother.
I struggled to find a counterargument for a moment, then sat down on the bed in my partially pulled-down jeans. My muddy Converse sneakers were still on. I opened and closed my mouth like an outwitted fish. I tried to say the beauty of the world still outweighed the ugliness, that oppressive politics were things we could fight against, that I could make the world safe for our child, but all that came out was, “Consider Obama.” I had a hangover the next day.
“Consider Obama” is now the joking catchphrase we apply to poorly thought-out arguments (she sometimes repeats it back to me to tease me), but it’s also become a symbol of fighting for everything good in the world. I had just turned eighteen in 2012 when Obama ran for reelection, and that lucky feeling of getting in just under the wire to vote for him bolstered me for years. But Obama is not the most popular guy around Stillwater. More than once I have come face-to-face with “Make America Great Again” hats blaring like red police sirens. More than once I have worried for my safety. Since I’ve stopped packing, people can easily see when I’m wearing tight enough pants, that I don’t have a penis. This makes going to the bathroom in public a risk. The men’s room at Wal-Mart is small and tucked away at the back of the store. There is one urinal and one stall. It would not be hard to corner someone alone. If curious eyes followed me there, I could be beat up or raped.
As a trans man, natural insemination is an anatomical impossibility: even if I had bottom- surgery, I would not have any semen. Bottom-surgery procedures include phalloplasty, vaginectomy, urethroplasty, scrotoplasty, and metoidioplasty, and they can all be as expensive as $50,000—and health insurance, of course, rarely covers a cent. The procedures all do slightly different things. Urethroplasty, for example, would enable me to pee standing up, but so would buying an STP, which is essentially a packer that you use to pee out of (I haven’t bought one yet because they’re expensive—a high-quality STP is at least $50—so it’s still not safe for me to use the public bathroom). I recognize the pointlessness of those procedures every day and mourn it; I recognize the pointlessness every day and will science to move faster. If in vitro fertilization is possible, it seems unfair that a doctor can’t manufacture my very own sperm. Sperm can neither be created nor destroyed.
As with any surgery, there is also the risk of damage to nerve pathways. In the case of bottom surgery, the result may be decreased or zero sexual pleasure for the rest of a trans guy’s life. For many trans men like myself, the choice may be between having body parts that feel authentic while risking the fulfillment of intimacy, and the nagging, ever-present voice in our ear that says, your body is not yet your own.
My wife and I do, of course, have options. We could adopt. We could foster. We could go to the sperm bank. R has even suggested asking one of my estranged half-brothers for sperm donation (“I want my baby to look like you,” she says). All of this assuming that the proposed Trump-era adoption restrictions for LGBTQIA+ families on religious grounds do not pass. Lawmakers in the United States have historically made it difficult for queer people to start families. We’ll decide which method we want to use soon (hopefully after her comprehensive exams or immediately upon graduation), but I think it’s important for us to sit with our grief until it’s ready to go.
A small conflict in the boys’ clothing section catches my eye. An exhausted-looking mother is holding up various dinosaur shirts for her son’s disapproval. He looks maybe three years old, old enough to have preferences, young enough to throw a tantrum. The brontosaurus? No. Stegosaurus? Also no. The T-Rex will have to do.
When my sister and I were little, we played with dinosaurs in the bath. We were sensitive children and most things scared us, but in the light of six o-clock bath time, we were brave. Our dinosaurs had a pool party. I imagine the bathwater now as holy, some surprising portal opening into somewhere better than here. We were baptized every day in the tub by our mother, her scrubbing our hair clean and making up songs. Her favorite was “I Love to Throw My Puppies in the Shower,” whose chorus went, “And they shout / let me out / let me out.” The soft Michigan sun streaming in through the window, kissed the mirror, and stirred dust particles. The shampoo stinging our eyes was a wakeup call, a call to grace. How did we not see it?
My mother sent me a children’s book in the mail the other day, Lily Wool by Paula Vásquez. She didn’t include a note. The book is about Lily Wool, a tiny sheep, and the adventures she takes around the farm. The cover is a faded pink with impressions of clouds. Front and center, Lily Wool lassoes something just outside the reader’s view. The book cover is almost identical to the stuffed animal display around the corner at Wal-Mart. My mom called shortly after sending the book. She’s impatient and not known for subtlety.
“Did you get the book?” she asked. “I’m not saying you have to have children, but if you did…”
I assured her that I did, in fact, get the book. Message received.
R tells me she just keeps thinking we’ll get pregnant, that she’ll wake up one day with the root of life quietly nestled inside her, and one month later she’ll realize she’s late and buy a pregnancy test at Walgreens. We both believe in immaculate conception. I imagine coming home from work one day like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and R rolling over happily to say, “Remi lassoes stork.” She’s been throwing up a lot lately—cause unknown, though the doctor suspects a parasite ulcer—and each time she excuses herself from dinner, I think it’s morning sickness until I remember God didn’t give me semen, and I swallow my prayers by the time she returns to the table. This parasite could be anything from a pulsing ulcer, waiting to burst red to moderate indigestion. Sometimes I can’t help but imagine her stomach lining under attack, a tiny army wreaking internal havoc and a trip to the emergency room. It could also be anxiety.
The anxiety could be about having children, but it could also be anxiety about daily life—maybe teaching, maybe her upcoming Ph.D. program. R has a strong work ethic and an even stronger heart, which makes teaching difficult; setting boundaries with eighteen-year-olds requires tough love. They need so much help and ask so much of us, yet they also must learn how to do things on their own. In these ways, teaching is not unlike parenting.
I’m kneeling now, at a different shelf, dusting off some baby shoes that had fallen to the floor. They’re $2.88, and seeing as they’re designed for babies 0-3 months, I suspect they’re a rip-off. Kneeling on the floor causes my pants to bunch up around the crotch, emphasizing the emptiness between my legs. I glance around to see if any customers have noticed. I stay on the floor for another minute, telling myself I’m just making sure no other merchandise is lost, but maybe I’m praying. I’m praying to be different. I’m praying to be understood.
When friends and colleagues find out I’m trans, they often assume I don’t want children. Somehow my not having a penis translates to not wanting what so many households in the United States have: another mouth to feed, story time, cheesy holiday cards, small pink socks folded on top of the dryer. Is the assumption that my marriage isn’t traditional enough? Not straight enough? Do they think being trans is some chic new counterculture meant to go against the grain and not what it actually is, the understanding that you will always be different, always carry a small grief in your bones?
My colleagues like to share pregnancy scares in the office. That was a close one, they say. God, I hope I never have kids. Can you imagine? They laugh and commiserate among themselves, not noticing my face change just slightly from friend and eager conversationalist to a ghost peering around the corner, then thinking better of joining the living and slinking away. Having children, I understand, is not the right course for everyone. Everyone should have a choice in what they want to do with their bodies (also, cis women are not the only people who experience pregnancy). As for my family, our choice is to have children.
“Automotive, you have a call on line one. Automotive, you have a call on line one.”
I remember one nightmarish Thanksgiving trip home to Michigan in 2018, our first year in Stillwater. R and I have long valued our drives together, which we’ve been taking since we first got together in Ohio. We’d shove Taylor Swift or Hamilton in the CD slot and cruise for hours down the rural backroads, or make up a reason to get out of the house, maybe an “errand” like going to a library in a nearby town that would take the majority of the afternoon. The car was our safe space, a place to tell secrets or share the worst part of ourselves.
That trip in 2018, our left front tire had a leak and we drove on it until it was almost entirely flat. We were supposed to leave for Michigan within a few days, so we didn’t have much time to get it right. Luckily—or so we thought—Wal-Mart was on Perkins Road just around the corner, so we drove there and had the automotive shop replace the tire. A grumpy, gray-haired woman met us in the parking lot near the garage.
“People usually park closer, you know,” she barked at us. R and I exchanged a look. We were used to this kind of treatment. I’m sure we mumbled some sort of apology as we led her to the car. The mechanic circled our 2006 Ford Explorer like a vulture, pointing out all of its flaws. A dent here, a replacement needed there. Neither of us knew anything about cars, so we foolishly believed everything she said. She jabbed her handheld device each time she made another moral indictment on the vehicle, a moral indictment on us for daring to have such an old car. Every time we agreed to a repair, she got a little nicer.
A few days later, driving up 1-94, we were stuck in Gary, Indiana, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The Wal-Mart automotive shop had destroyed our car, having used the wrong kind of transmission fluid. The immediate danger, however, was that they had replaced the leaky tire with one that was bigger than the other three tires on the car. Our car had been driving for 750 miles like a horse missing a horseshoe. The friction of the wrong tire against the other had damaged the car. I refused to drive home again after that. Airplane tickets are expensive, but a new transmission is a bodily sacrifice.
R and I like to take long trips together. We load up on fruit snacks and trail mix with an energy drink for me (or my “poison,” as her cousin likes to call it), a full tank of gas, and a hodgepodge of quarters for the Oklahoma and Texas tolls. We pour our loot on the backseat of our 2014 Nissan Rogue, four years behind the times but an upgrade from our accident-ridden Ford. Is this enough? Do we think this will get us all the way through?
It’s never enough. I know this because on a recent drive back to Stillwater after visiting family out of state, we returned yet again to the topic. It was dark outside. The Oklahoma clouds gave the streets little rain-gifts strong enough to caress the glow of streetlights but not enough to pose a real hazard. The two-a.m. radio wasn’t playing anything we wanted to listen to. We talked quietly about children as if the stars outside would hear us.
“Right now wouldn’t be a good time to have a baby,” R said, adjusting the blanket on her lap. I agreed. Since I’m in school and she’ll be starting in the fall, we wouldn’t have the time or money to support a child. “But still…”
I nodded and focused on the road as R trailed off. I turned my blinker on as we approached our street.
“It just seems unfair that some people can get pregnant accidentally and talk about it as if it could happen to anyone. They’re always talking about it in the office.” She paused. “I don’t know. Is that selfish?”
“No,” I said slowly. “It’s not selfish. I think the same thing when I hear them. I wouldn’t ask you not to keep it if you got pregnant right now. I would be overjoyed.”
We sat there in the car, perfectly still, unsure of what to say next. I felt like I was holding her heart in my palm. The rain came down harder. Each time a speck of rain landed on the windshield, I remembered my Lutheran pastor back home sprinkling me with water on Palm Sunday, how for so much of my life I was an atheist, and now that I’m not, I still can’t have a miracle. I pulled the car into the driveway. My headlights scraped against the mailbox, and we saw that the cracks in the sidewalk outside our front door had already collected water. I wanted to find a baby, any baby, and baptize it right there, the sign of the cross for the rest of our life.
I hear a baby cry a few feet away from me at Wal-Mart. The screaming is loud, but it doesn’t bother me. I smile and feel bad for the parents, who are presumably tired and stressed. I scan a T-shirt on the shelf in front of me to make sure it’s where it should be. The scanner chirps in confirmation. It is exactly where it needs to be.