I had just crossed lazily through the intersection toward Wells Fargo Center, gently swinging my bag in the late afternoon heat. I had also decided that day to make friends with the hips I had developed over the past six months and lean into them … literally.
I saw him, 30-ish, scruffy, with a dirty T-shirt and a backward hat, leaning against the building. Our city has its contingent of panhandlers. They add a little paprika to our lives and I didn’t pay him any mind — until he called out to me as I passed by him.
“What?!” I asked, incredulously while laughing, stopped in my tracks.
‘I asked if you were married,” he answered with a crooked smile.
“Yes,” I replied and started to walk away. He wasn’t done, though. “Can I get your number and text you?” he yelled at me.
I turned around. “HAPPILY married!” I shot back and spun around on my heel and walked off, laughing.
I’m not married, dear reader. Nope. Not even close. And I’m a 40-something trans woman living here in the Zenith City. But, you might have known me in a previous life as Dennis Kempton, editor, food critic, theater critic, and a former queer activist with a penchant for Burberry jackets and the classic pair of wayfarer shades. I still like the wayfarers but I spend some money now on bags and I’m on a seemingly unending quest to find the perfect shade of blonde for my hair. If you’re reading this and we dated, hooked up, or if you were just unlucky enough to be my boyfriend and you didn’t … know … this already, I’m sorry. I’d like to say you may be entitled to compensation, but you’re not. If we recently connected on Tinder and you sent me a picture of your genitals, again, I’m sorry. Don’t freak out. I only judged you as much as I rolled my eyes at gay men similarly sharing with me, back in the Before Time.
But, if you’re queer, or non-binary or trans, I’m being visible for us. If you’re a parent of a trans or gender nonconforming kid, I’m here for you to see it will be okay. If you’re a cis het guy, I’m here to normalize and demystify — although that’s kind of a leap, since you’ll discover I’m terrible at being normal, but your mom will really like me. If you’re a trans-exclusionary radical feminist or hater, then my name is Nancy Reagan and you can go … well, let’s not do this. I love Perfect Duluth Day and we’re going to keep it fun. Yeah?
It turns out that Duluth is a pretty cool place to be trans although there’s plenty of room to grow when it comes to our medical care. For me, at least, my very public transition has been met with the support of glorious friends. A friend recently asked me over dinner how things were going transition-wise. I absorbed the question while indulging in a plate of mostaccioli, downtown at Pizza Lucé and then sighed.
“Oh, fine,” I answered breezily, adroitly avoiding the garlic bread. “I go to the grocery store. I go to restaurants. I hop on the bus. I negotiate getting out of the back seats of midsize Uber sedans with some semblance of grace. Nobody cares. It’s all rather humdrum.”
There’s privilege, of course, in my experience. And to put a finer point on it, my story is pretty textbook. I was assigned male at birth. I knew from an early age that wasn’t my scene, and I chemically and surgically changed my body to make things right. But, there are all kinds of trans people. And not all of them choose my path. There are trans men and trans women who never choose surgeries and they’re just as valid as any other person identifying as male or female.
While sitting for a recorded interview about the past year of my life, with Lisa Johnson at KUMD, she asked me why I didn’t choose to move away to a larger metro to start this part of my life. It’s a fair question. But I have come to like Duluth quite a bit. I’m a transplant from the southeast, going on 22 years. I became an adult here for real. Twice. And Duluth has supported everything I’ve made up my mind to do whether it was directing a play, editing an indie newsweekly, writing about politics, or starting my own marketing business. This quirky little city that often feels like an outpost embraced me in ways no other place could have.
Early on in my transition, I was on my way from my office in Old City Hall to a medical appointment at Essentia. I decided to take a shortcut through the Sheraton. I was wearing a red T-shirt, a dark green jacket, jeans and running shoes. I didn’t have on anything obviously femme and I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I walked into the lobby of the hotel and made a beeline toward the elevator that would bring me up into the skywalk. I was absorbed in my own thoughts. I didn’t really pay attention to the first time I heard, “Ma’am? Can I help you?”
I looked around and it was just me and the front desk guy. Inside, I said, “He’s talking to you. Get it together.”
“Ma’am, can I help you? Do you know where you’re going?” he asked brightly, with a smile on his face.
“As a matter of fact, I do know where I’m going. But, thank you,” I answered, filled with gender euphoria.
“Have a great day!” he replied and I got on to the elevator.
“Well. That just happened!” I said out loud to myself as the elevator moved. And that’s when I decided I’d stay. It was, for me, a rare perfect Duluth day.
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