Content warning: This autobiographical piece contains references to homophobic slurs.
I live and move through the world as a writer. In this work, I’ve written lengthy essays about my sobriety (which has earned at least one publishing award nomination) and my identity as a trans woman. I’ve discussed and dissected arts and culture. But this wasn’t always the world I lived and breathed. In fact, I orbited as far from it as you can imagine.
I vividly remember the day I threw my hammer. I was trying to move a steel door frame into a wooden opening that just wasn’t working for me. I was tired and dirty and frustrated, my hand had gotten cut earlier on a steel door threshold and the paper towel wrapped in duct tape that I had covered the wound in was starting to fail. Blood was running down my hand and onto the handle of my hammer as I valiantly attempted to get this door frame to fit into an opening a clear set of eyes could see wasn’t going to be accommodating. I hit my limit, yelled FUCK'S SAKE and threw my hammer behind me in anger. I missed my apprentice standing behind me by inches. With rightful indignation he yelled “what the fuck man?" at me. I hated when my apprentice would call me man, I couldn’t quite explain why.
I started working in construction when I was 17, in Whitehorse, Yukon. On the verge of impending adulthood and unsure of what I was supposed to be doing with my life, I was offered the path of least resistance: my dad told me I should come work for him at his glass shop. Just before that, I was working at a mid-scale men's clothing store. It was called Men's World, as if aware of its existence as a place where stereotypes of late 90's masculinity could meet and congregate. I hated this job, spending all day refolding Levis 501s and having to stay in “the sale zone” where you hover near people and remove them of any personal agency to ask for help with your persistent presence. I hated being in this zone. It prevented me from standing and staring at the hallways of the mall and wondering what else was out there for me.
I wasn’t a particularly adept youth, not entirely aware of my life or where it was going, nor what it needed. I was a quiet kid, a reader and dreamer, more content to lose myself in a book or a record than I was performing labour of any kind. I wasn’t connecting the dots on why working in a place literally called Men's World didn’t fit me. Working in my dad's glass shop offered not only a way out, but the promise of answers. Maybe working in an environment with real men would enlighten me to the gnawing questions in my bones. While I was considering my dad's offer, my boss told me that he thought when he hired me that I knew how to dress myself nicely and that I was popular, and he was sad to discover neither of those facts were particularly true. I promptly quit.
I hated when my apprentice would call me man, I couldn’t quite explain why.
That first day walking into the glass shop, all 6’2” and 175 lbs of me was not prepared for the reality of my situation. This wasn’t an environment where I could stand listless and ponderous, staring out into the world and waiting for it to tell me what I was missing. This was an active environment of masculinity and it was up to me to get on board and be an active participant. My first day, I shoveled broken glass from the concrete floors around the glass cutting tables into garbage buckets and then emptied them once they were full. I ran and grabbed things when needed, delivered tools and pitched in the best I could. I was trying my best and was repeatedly told to get out of the way until I would retreat to the bathroom to catch my breath. My first experience having a panic attack was in the bathroom in the back of our shop. My world immediately felt more intense and I wasn't sure what to do with the energy it was directing into me. This felt different than my previous job. Where once Men's World was simply the sign on the building, here it felt like a statement of truth. This was a world in which I needed to be a man, even when I didn't want to be.
I grew in leaps and bounds. Where once I was clumsy and in the way, I became adept. I learned to carry and cut glass, replace broken windshields in cars and fix doors. I learned how it felt to cut myself on the sharp edge of a piece of glass. The first time almost felt like a rite of passage in a working environment that bordered on demanding pain from its denizens. Maybe now I would be seen, not just by the men I was working with but by me. Maybe this cut would open up and reveal some deep secret contained within that would show me just what was missing in myself. I saw nothing. Just blood.
The cuts came deeper and more frequent, every time a little scar on my hands and arms that grounded me in this place, branded me into this life I had passively chosen for myself. When I turned 19 I was adept enough at this work that I decided I should go to trade school to formalize the relationship, and work to become a journeyman.
On the first day of classes, our teacher told us to look around and notice that the class was all men. “I’ve only ever taught men how to do this job,” he said, “this isn’t an industry for women.” At the time, I took it as women not being physically capable of doing this job. Glass work is a physically demanding job, one that takes its toll on even the hardiest of men. How could a woman manage the weight and power of it all? Putting aside the obvious misogyny for a hot second, it’s only later in life that I understood what he was really telling us. It’s not that women are physically not capable of handling the work, it’s why would they want to put up with all this? Who would put themselves in a position to work with a delicate structure that could break at any moment and slice you open, all while the person next to you is sizing you up to tell other men how inferior you are? High school gossip chains, but make it toxic masculinity. Over the years I would work with a number of women in the trade, though they never went to school for it. They said the environment at school scared them. I understood what they meant.
When I was 23, I went to work in Edmonton, Alberta, to get some formal training in a more urban environment than what I was used to. When I showed up, I realized I was the immediate replacement for an employee that had just left. The staff hated him, and were excited to know he had left the city in the middle of the night. The first day I walked into the break room I was introduced by the shop manager to everyone, and as soon as he was out of earshot I was asked the pressing question on the congregation’s mind:
“So are you a faggot too?”
It was asked so crassly that it took more than a few minutes to get my bearings. Incredibly, I asked the guy to repeat his question to me. “The guy that left was a faggot, that’s why he’s gone. We can’t have another one of them here”.
The guy that asked me this recounted his story to me about how once, he had been forced to go on a work trip out of town with “the poofter”, which was their fun little slur they had for the employee they had conceivably harassed out of a job. Working out of town, they had to stay overnight in a motel for one night before returning home. Sitting there around the table in the break room my first day on the job, he told me his harrowing story of having to sleep in his own double bed in the same room as a gay man. I asked him what the problem was, as his story didn’t seem to imply any wrongdoing or danger. “He was sleeping right there in the other bed!” he yelled. I once again told him I failed to see the problem, the man had just been asleep.
“He was a fag, that’s the fucking problem” another man jumped in. Here I realized that everyone was staring at me. “Tell us right now if you’re one of them” he demanded. In my time working in construction, I have had 4 near-death experiences, but I never felt a danger so personal as this. I felt unsafe and called out, visible. I reversed course with a quick “no, don’t worry about it, I love women”. Not a lie, but I had to pause and wonder why I felt the need to back up my claims of heterosexuality. What if I was a fag? What’s the harm in that? I could still lift and bleed and stare into the abyss and tell everyone that I was better than them in no uncertain terms. Just like anyone else in that break room.
I was in my late 20's when I realized I had developed a temper. I would yell at things when they weren’t working, get frustrated at tools failing or things not going the way I wanted. I would stand in the back of work trucks and yell at inanimate objects, feeling anger and aggression course its way through every vein and molecule of my body. Some days I would spend the whole day so angry, I would come home and lie down on the floor of my kitchen, waiting for the next day to come. My anger became a question there was no answer to, just a part of me I had picked up somewhere along the way, in some city at some job site somewhere and now I couldn't shake it, like a bad shadow.
I started my own contracting company when I was 27. The stress got worse, compounding on my shoulders as I attempted to build myself into a model person that I didn’t want to be. I joined the boards of arts organizations and started writing for a local paper just to put myself out on a new limb, in hopes that it would save me. But still I grew toxicity within myself like a weed in a vain attempt to push myself to live the life that had been decided for me, one that I refused to spend time thinking about my role in. I developed severe anxiety and depression and learned what a panic attack felt like. Eventually my body, as if in an act of defiance, started to break down. I began to suffer from chronic pain stemming from pinched nerves, overworked muscles and exhaustion.
So, I quit the industry altogether. I started working as the Executive Director of the arts organization I had been sitting on the board of directors for. A good paying job that covered all my bills and allowed me to move away from construction. A year later I came out as trans. I had chosen a life and lived it until it was over, but now I had a new path I could find my way through, one that maybe had branching roads and little outlooks, one that wasn’t carved for me but there waiting to be marked out.
Eventually being out as trans in my home town came to be too difficult and I left town, fled to Toronto, where I could live and hide and be safe within myself and figure out who I really was. I had no job lined up, no career prospects to speak of and only one thing I could fall back on for work.
I started doing home repairs for people, offering my services to queers and trans people. I know how it is to not trust the people in your home, and thought I could do something good and be a handy person they could trust.
But hammers hold memories. Every time I picked one up the feeling of anger came rushing back, the desire to be the best, to be cocky and self-assured and tough and strong and closed off flowed through the handle and into me and reminded me of the path I thought I had jumped off. Every frustration with a piece of drywall to fix or a leaky faucet that wouldn’t stop led me back to that route. I started to see myself undone in the mirror, cracks in my face opening to reveal a life I had left behind shining through.
Then COVID hit. All of a sudden, going into people's houses was unsafe. Doing the work I was doing wasn’t possible. So I had to stop, take a beat. Wait a minute. The cracks went away, the old life faded back into memories and feelings. I went all in and focused on writing as my chosen profession and I learned to listen to the voice in my head that told me I could do something, something radically new to me, even at the old age of 37. The voice that said if I tried hard enough, I had the skills to back me up and help me create a new life for myself.
I lived a whole life I never chose. I let it choose me, every decision a passive wave crashing over me and throwing me back onto the beach. Deciding to find a new way to live and a new way to work changed more about me than any simple coming out has done. COVID provided a unique, albeit sad, opportunity to focus on finding what life I wanted to live for myself. Choosing to focus on a writing career brought a happiness into my life that has long eluded me. Beyond it being a job I chose, writing has allowed me to develop a connection to myself in ways I could never imagine, working through traumas with a pen and not a hammer. It’s been so long since I felt anger in me that I’m starting to forget how it felt. I learned to put away all the objects that held painful memories and replaced them with the tools I need to move on.