This blog post is part of a series of posts on trans survivors’ experiences of the pandemic. Walter (he/him) is a white, transmasculine survivor and theatre artist who lives in Saint Paul, MN.
Please describe your context and how you’ve coped with the pandemic.
I’m an artist in residence on a farm in Wisconsin, and there are some people there who are vulnerable to COVID.
Before the pandemic, I would spend like three days at the farm, and then three or four days in the Twin Cities. I’d also spend a week or two a month being on tour because I’m a violinist and an aerialist and the artistic director of an all transgender theater company.
So I was just traveling a lot.
One way I deal with my trauma as just by being, like, really, really busy. I just try to like, pack my life as full of things as possible.
And COVID took all of that away. I mean, I’m a performer, so COVID took all of my plans for the year. They were just gone. For the first like three months of the pandemic, I almost never left the farm. And in some ways, that was really good, because it made me slow down.
And I noticed that I started leaning into different coping mechanisms a lot more, especially smoking a lot more weed. I try not to judge myself for it because I think we all just do what we need to do to survive.
Weed has been like a coping mechanism for me for a long time.
But it’s not necessarily conducive to like other parts of my life, like I’m a singer and the smoke isn’t good for my voice. But I wasn’t performing, so I was like, who cares, you know? So for the first like three months of the pandemic, I spent just like a lot of time wandering around in the woods smoking weed. That was helpful because it helped me slow down.
Then when the uprising started in the Twin Cities, that really changed everything for me.
Day three of the uprising, I left the farm and came into the city. Since then, instead of going back and forth every few days, like I was doing pre-COVID, it’s more like I spend a month in each place.
And there has been other traveling that I’ve done. I am in a band that’s based in Detroit and I was able to go there for three weeks in July. We recorded an album, and that was fantastic.
So I’m hearing there’s sort of been two to three periods for you during the six months or seven months of COVID: like wandering around in the woods smoking weed, then the uprisings, and then settling in to this new reality. Is that right?
That really resonates a lot, yeah.
Tell me more about that last period.
The show that my theater company has been making is a surrealist opera about a transgender witch who goes into hell to barter with the devil for the soul of their lover, who was killed in a hate crime for being trans. It’s like an acrobatic show, and most of us in the ensemble don’t live together, so we haven’t really been able to rehearse. Once June or July hit, and it became really clear that nobody was going to be performing as usual for the foreseeable future, I saw my window of opportunity to get top surgery.
I had been in these cycles of working all the time instead of taking three months off from my schedule to do this thing that’s like really important to me.
So for me, this third period of time has been preparation for top surgery, which has been really interesting because it’s meant that I needed to quit smoking.
It really does feel like I’m entering into this like other period of time that’s just more reflective and present, whether I want to be or not.
And I think there’s some things about that that are really good and some things about it that are really hard so I’m really just trying to be gentle with myself right now.
For me, my trauma around sexual assault is really connected to my gender dysphoria, because they both happened right around the time that I started going through puberty. I also live in a neighborhood now in the city is that is like really close to like where I grew up, so there also has been like this whole feeling of like…coming home.
It sounds like it’s been triggering?
That makes sense. Tell me more about this opera.
Suddenly all of our rehearsals were like happening over Zoom and so, since we couldn’t work on the acrobatics, we started focusing more on the script and the songs.
So we started realizing that there was like a lot in the show that wasn’t done yet.
We really want the performance to be a ritual of reclamation for trans people. That’s why I started the theater company. We’re making the show for a transgender audience. In my late teens and early 20s, I felt like every show that I was in that was about trans people was about trans education or it was justifying or defending our existence. So, we wanted to have stories with trans characters doing like epic shit, like, for example, confronting the devil, who is also trans.
So the main character goes through this cycle of all these different trials which are really about confronting internalized transphobia. Many scenes in the show are based on nightmares. So what I realized was that we’re like really nailing the internalized transphobia but what we’re not really nailing is like how that can transform into a story of liberation. Like, are our characters really reclaiming their transness and their power in that? Or are we just making something that’s going to re traumatize people? And what became clear to me is that it was mostly the latter. And, I was like, oh, I don’t want to make another show that’s trauma porn because it’s not the kind of work that I want to see. And I don’t think that that’s what my trans community needs. So COVID was really generative in that way. There was a lot of writing and a lot of dreaming. It was a lot of taking my journal out with me into the woods and like sitting down and like writing new songs and like writing new scenes and like figuring out what each part of it needed to be.
What’s interesting is that I didn’t actually make lot of progress in the play until I made the decision to get top surgery this year and started actually going through that process. Then the ending of the show became clear to me.
It was a real trip. It seems super obvious now that I was deprioritizing my own journey and putting up all of these walls between me and my own internalized transphobia. I had been prioritizing work and being busy to hide from how painful it is for me to exist in this body without having gotten surgery. So it was just like this whole vicious cycle. I think deciding to get surgery, which would not have done this year if not for the pandemic, has been really profound.
But it’s also been really hellish, no pun intended, because all of these barriers that I’ve constructed are gone. So it’s like it was opening the floodgates to realizing like how necessary surgery is for me on a visceral level.
And now I’m just a little less than like a month away from my surgery date. And so I’m just like in the thick of it right now. Every day I’m just like, OK, you made it another day.
So you’re just feeling like all of this dysphoria that you kind of weren’t allowing yourself to feel?
Yeah. I mean, I knew it was there. You know, I wanted to have top surgery for like fifteen or sixteen years, but I had made some protections for myself about it. Now it’s like I can see all of the pieces and how they all fit together and how it was like a very well-woven conspiracy to hide this pain from myself.
So, COVID gave you the space to feel those things and take action around them. And creative catharsis.
Yeah. And it’s interesting because it like it gave me the space to take action on the things. I think this all connects back to work, and to capitalism too, and the ways in which we’re taught to attribute our value to our level of productivity.
Wow, that’s powerful. Do you want to share more about how the pandemic intersected with your experience of survivorship?
In the middle of the summer, some survivor things got triggered for me that I was not expecting that I think potentially contributed to the ending of one of my relationships. I’m polyamorous and actually had two breakups during the pandemic. And now I’m like single for the first time in a very long time.
A pattern that I have had in the past, is that, if something is hard or painful or like having a hard time feeling good about myself, I’ll just start hooking up with people.
And I’m not really doing that right now because this pandemic. And it’s funny because, while quitting smoking doesn’t feel good even though it’s good for me, not hooking up with random people actually feels good.
Many times I ended up in scenarios where I wished I hadn’t been intimate with that person or there wasn’t mutual respect. And so I’m a little appreciative that I can’t just go out to a bar and go home with someone because I am sad.
I’m realizing that there’s also just so many ways in which I have feminized myself in order to secure those kinds of like interactions with people, you know.
And I can definitely see how that is something that I’ve I think I’ve retained from being socialized female: seeing my worth as directly proportional to how attractive men perceive me to be.
It feels good to be have affection in my life that comes from my friends or a weighted blanket. I’m just trying to explore giving my body love and like affection in these other ways because hooking up with random people seems comforting and validating and fun and exciting. But the last few times that I’ve done that, I just felt kind of hollow and demeaning. It’s now easier to see it as a trauma pattern. I notice that I’m just like repeating the scenario that happened when I was twelve, over and over and over again.
It sounds like you’ve really been able to gain a lot of insight into a lot of things during this time.
How has the pandemic intersected with any other identities you would like to share?
I’ve been really inspired by the mutual aid networks that have sprung up here during the uprisings. One possible regret is that I have not been like out in the streets very much because of like because of vulnerable people in my life.
I’ve had a lot of white guilt stuff about that. But, you know, there’s also a lot of other people who can’t be in the streets. And it’s the 21st century, so there’s like a lot of ways to be an activist right now. So it has been really awesome finding and creating those networks and finding other ways of being supportive right now.
And that been a major insight into my own like internalized ableism and the extent to which I prioritized, in my own mind, being on the front lines. That was a source of pride: being, you know, a person who could throw himself in front of the cops. Now I’m questioning why I put that role on such a pedestal and to what extent does that just encouraged my own internalized ableism and assuage my white guilt.
During the uprising, I was thinking about that stuff a lot, and doing other kinds of work for the movement.
How have you built community, among other transfolks and/or survivors kind of during the time of COVID?
Well, everyone at the farm right now is also like either like is like trans and or queer. That’s not coincidence. One of the priorities at the farm is to center like QTBIPOC folks. So spending time at the farm actually has introduced me to people.
Other than that, I’ve met some people through activism. You know, in the uprising.
I’m also in a few different groups that are trying to change how art foundations work. I don’t know if I like the term, “fundraising activist,” but it does sort of describe some of the work that I’ve been doing over the past like three or four months. And through that, I’ve been connected to other people nationally who are also trying to, like, hold foundations accountable and change the way that grants are made or processed or like what even grants are available.
Most of the people in my day-to-day life are trans: my theater company, my bands. So it’s just like, that’s kind of like who’s in my life.
Great! The last question is: how have you found strength, resilience and creativity during this time?
I normally journal a lot. But in the pandemic, I’ve done a whole other level of journaling.
I’ve also been reclaiming tradition of witchcraft. That’s been really grounding and really helpful.
I also went back to therapy in March, right when the pandemic started.
And being in the woods is amazing.