"Now that I know there’s a place, that there is middle ground, I choose to exist there."
It’s Tuesday morning, March 31st, and by total coincidence – I’m the one to realize it, not So — today is the Transgender Day of Visibility. What are the odds? On this day, I’m spending the entire day with my genderqueer neighbor So Brown. I didn’t know today was special. I just wondered what it’s like to be So Brown on Tuesday.
So is a talented recording artist – a singer/songwriter as well as a guitarist, pianist and drummer. Also a prospective model and aspiring actor, So even does standup comedy.
My first stumbling block as I start putting words together here is the lack of an appropriate pronoun. How can I start Tuesday when language stops in my tracks?
Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll randomly switch between “he” and “she”. I’ll do a magic act. I’ll navigate the either-or so deftly, it will feel like vocabulary caught up with reality. Let’s go.
8:15am: So clomps downstairs from the third floor to meet me on the second. He’s already texted the bus and knows exactly where it is at this moment. Racing to the stop, I’m shortly out of breath competing with So’s long stride.
We arrive on time for her appointment at the DMV. She’s legally changed her name to “Sonia Daniel Brown”, and she needs to update her driver’s license. It’s her choice to have a name that’s both male and female, the better to embrace two sides of herself. It reminds me of this story she told me about the time when she was at a transgender book release at the LGBT Center:
“I was in a room filled with lots of transgender people,” he recounts, “most of who had fully transitioned, you know? Families, like, trans dads chasing their kids around. And at that time I had been very uncomfortable and in a lot of emotional pain trying to figure out what was right for me. You know, do I transition? And because I was in that pain within myself, it made me uncomfortable dealing with the community.”
She had a vision. She was in Central America. There was an androgynous figure, probably Mayan:
“And I was under the impression that it was a priest of some sort. And they said to me ‘You don’t have to worry about modern American ideas of gender anymore. You are connected to something older.’”
There are no complications procuring the driver’s license, but the rules require that So specify “M” or “F” on the application. He opts for “F”, and so his state-certified identity matches his sexual anatomy. But why no “MF” option? Why no “T” or “Q”? The DMV cares little for older things.
Mission accomplished, we stroll down Atlantic Avenue and talk about music. So released her debut album, Point Legere, in 2014. It’s a collection of songs named after a secluded peninsula near Mobile, Alabama.
“I thought I was excluded from life. You know, if you’re living in parts of the south, and you’re transgender or you’re gay, good luck surviving to adulthood.”
In Point Legere, she could breathe, embrace solitude, give her imagination free rein. That free rein takes shape on the album in songs that range, according to the Wall Street Journal, “from dark and foreboding to wistful and elegiac.” The album features contributions by several New York music notables, including Norah Jones.
So also acts. He recently had a part on the new web series Brothers. We’re standing on the sidewalk outside the health food store on Court Street where, in between bites of his take-away lunch, he tells me about his delicate stomach, and that time he was a background actor on an episode of Orange Is The New Black.
On the third day, there wasn’t time to grab and tote the good food his stomach can tolerate. At the shoot, he ate a chicken salad sandwich, even though he normally steers clear of chicken or mayonnaise or wheat.
“I went back upstairs, and it’s this huge shot with, like, the entire room and tons of actors and tons of extras. And then my stomach starts to hurt. I’m in this massive shot, and you can’t move. You can’t interrupt it and be like, oh excuse me, I have to leave, because you will, like, ruin the entire shoot for maybe fifty people. And I start sweating, and I started hyperventilating. And it felt like the end of the world.”
“…praying to every god I could imagine to please let me survive this and not shit myself in front of everyone.”
We grab the subway into Manhattan, to a designer men’s clothing store that will remain nameless at the risk of PR wrath. So has a gift card. She buys amazing, otherwise-unaffordable jeans, and hopes she can earn several hundred dollars for a belt she adores.
So’s walked a runway: At DapperQ’s (un)HEELED fashion event at Brooklyn Museum, she strutted a Bindle & Keep suit. She’d love to model menswear, and was recently at a modeling “go-see”.
“That was for a public service announcement for trans men,” he tells me, “and, you know, again, it’s weird for me because ‘trans men’ is a category. So even though I’ve been passing as a boy since I was seven or eight, you know, like, I don’t have facial hair, I’m not taking testosterone…”
We discuss her transition over the past year – not female-to-male, but clothes-hating to clothes-loving. This is someone who as a kid hated even entering a dressing room.
“I used to get whatever baggy, androgynous Goodwill two-dollar shirt…when the reality is, I probably wanted to dress up and play, but it was so traumatic every time I tried to do it.”
I stride alongside So as he totes his head-turning shopping bag to The LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street. We discuss the general concept of queerness, both of us wondering why a person’s identity is so greatly defined around who they want to have sex with.
For the record, in So’s case, it’s women. Definitely women. Need I repeat?
Moving to NYC was one of the best choices So’s ever made, but she’s still in therapy trying to heal the past. The past used to include the conversation-stopping act of entering a public restroom, men’s or women’s.
“I don’t feel I can go into either one,” he explains. He’s describing his acutely awful seventh grade year at a new school where no one knew if he was a boy or girl. “If I go into the women’s then people freak out because on my surface I look like a boy. If I go into the boys, then, if I have my pants undone, you know, they’re gonna see I’m missing something. So I used to sneak into the nurse’s bathroom in the office. And – ”
“Would you just, like, not drink water?”
“I would not drink water. I still have issues with that. And for me it was as severe as, like, looking around the corner to see if anyone was even in the hallway. Like being in a war zone.”
In the seventh grade, So didn’t want to go to school. He wanted his parents to put him in home school. He’d be so nervous his stomach hurt, and he had panic attacks every day. He started taking Advil and aspirin and different pills to make it go away. It was his first experience looking for a substance as a crutch to get through the day.
“I think I used to go to the nurse’s office just, like, looking for little pockets of safe space, you know? Where I could exist for just, like… Just give me like twenty minutes without feeling like I’m gonna be outed or discovered or beaten up, looking for little pockets of that through the day, where, like…”
“That is like being in a war-zone.”
“I’ve had Vietnam vets come up to me and say ‘I see you do this, and this and this,’ and it’s all indicative of PTSD on the level that soldiers go through.”
We take a quick break at the all-gender restrooms. Then we’re off to catch the train home. So has a music student to teach.
“Do you feel like what you’re ideally supposed to do is exist as a man?”
“Well, you know, now that I know there’s a place, that there is middle ground, I choose to exist there. I feel sort of like a man that is comfortable enough in his masculinity that having breasts and a vagina and occasionally wearing dresses is okay. And I wish all men felt that way.”
On the way home from the train station, So walks briskly and I jog.
“Do you feel that you’re in the wrong body?”
“I used to. Last year I was seriously thinking about getting a sex change. But I think that has more to do with…if I give more credit to the ideas of masculinity and femininity that exist in the world, that say I should be this or that…I just sort of stepped away from that and I was like, you know what? I’m fine. And there’s nothing about how I am that is inappropriate for a man to be.”
We’re inside the building by now. Good old NYC has opened the door to possibility, and So can envision a place for himself, picture a life going forward. That may not seem like a big deal to some, but So assumed he’d live in the sewer. There is joy in realizing the untruth of that. Also sadness that he could have ever thought otherwise.
Up the stairs she goes. She’ll drop off some stuff, grab her guitar, and be back out the door inside of thirty minutes.
10:30pm: By the time I’ve left my apartment, So is already down the block at the bus stop with the sad news that the bus is twenty minutes away. We finally arrive at Sunny’s in Red Hook to check out some music. It’s western swing, maybe a nod back to So’s Delta blues roots. Maybe that connection is not entirely severed.
All is chill until not much later when So tells me that if we don’t leave immediately to catch the next bus, another one won’t arrive for forty minutes! She has a 10:00am commitment, and so we are out of there! Outside the bar, he checks his phone again. The bus is two stops away! It’s impossible we’ll make the station! “Unless we run,” I offer, and we take off. I manage to hold the lead for two entire blocks, though So finally gallops ahead. We round a corner to find the bus stop packed with prospective passengers and a cheerily lit bus a full two blocks away. So turns with a bright smile and a big thumbs-up.
“With time to spare!” she brags. His eyes are warm.
Here’s my wish for So: May all busses be caught. May Wednesdays always follow Tuesdays.
On public restrooms: May they be all-gender. Peeing is “something older” and should not be rule-bound.
On pronouns: Forced to choose, So feels a little more “he” to me. At the same time, I’ll admit to a slight preference for “she”. Because as a “she”, she’s exploded the definition of “she”, and as a she myself, I really dig that. Which comes first, the reality or the narrative? May language catch up with truth.
For more on So Brown, check out their site.
FEATURE PHOTO: Josh Rothstein EDITED BY: Lawrence Gabriel MAKEUP/HAIR: Merideth Haring STYLIST: Basia Zamorska at Kate Ryan Inc.