Packing my Identity: Reflections of a Queer Traveler
June 29, 2012
A native of New York, Nick Krieger realized at the age of twenty-one that he’d been born on the wrong coast, a malady he corrected by transitioning to San Francisco. His writing has earned several travel-writing awards and has been published in multiple travel guides. He is the author of Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender.
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About five months ago, I quit my day job as a web writer, put my possessions in storage, and took off for Asia. I’d just finished promoting my memoir, Nina Here Nor There, exploring the land between man and woman. During the four years it took to complete the book, I also changed physically, growing comfortable in my body, now commonly perceived to be male.
My great intention for this trip was to put my memoir down and leave my transition behind me, to clear some space for the next phase of my life.
I eased into Bali in luxury, at a closed yoga retreat with my teacher and a few friends from San Francisco. In heteronormative settings with swimming pools, I’m used to fielding questions about my chest scars. Sometimes I’ll tell people they’re shark bites. At first, at least. Then I’ll disclose the truth. “I’m transgender,” I always say, occasionally adding something explicit despite my discomfort, like “had breasts,” “born female,” just to be clear.
I wrote a memoir, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I find outing myself powerful. The ensuing conversation is my opportunity to educate, dismantle stereotypes, and make my queer, gender-hybrid identity visible. As a speaker on trans issues, I’ve trained myself to handle unintentional insensitivity and ignorance, but even after a record-breaking number of questions, one particularly tactless person in Baliset me off.
Internally fuming, I went to the edge of the jungle and hurled rocks into the black night. All the old words -- disfigured, abnormal, glaring, different – came alive again. I threw wildly, venting my frustration and anger, until I accidentally pegged a nearby tree. The rock bounced back and almost nailed me. I started to laugh. Which made me laugh even harder, joggling something loose deeper inside.
I wondered what it would be like to really leave it all behind, not just the story I’d crafted between two covers, nor the hormones, surgery, name change, family and workplace challenges, but the pain I still held on to and all that I’d built around it -- the drama that defined who and what I was.
After the retreat, I embarked on my own solo journey through Bali and then Nepal. I learned to say, “I had surgery, I’m totally fine, but I’d prefer not to talk about it.” Even with my shirt on, I faced challenging questions about my writing. I told people my memoir was about “alternative genders.” Of course, this was confusing. If pressed, I’d cop to my evasiveness, write down the title, and suggest they look it up later, like when we were in different countries. (I received a couple of kind emails later.)
Without presenting myself as a queer person and writer, the most amazing thing happened. I made friends, lots of them, of all ages and nationalities. Underneath the tags I’d adhered to myself, and beyond the stories that had solidified like foundation, I rediscovered a sense of myself that existed outside of identities and narratives, expressed in my smile, my laughter, and the way I carried myself.
The longer I spent on the road, the fewer and fewer people I told about being trans. I shrugged off comments about my “women’s fit” backpack, and my atypical traits for a man-- my small size, youthful face, and robust hairline – all prior triggers for me to mention my past.
During my last month, I outed myself to only one person, my new best friend, a Dutch woman I’d met during my stay at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. After our course, we trekked for two weeks in the Himalayas, talking about everything in the way that you do when you eat, sleep, and walk side by side.
“Could you ever live here?” she asked as we crossed a suspension bridge over a glacial river.
“No,” I said without hesitation. Throughout my twenties, I’d traveled to dozens of countries, spent many months backpacking alone, always wondering if and when I’d arrive somewhere that could become home. Eventually, I started to believe that I’d never find in Nepal, in Bali, in Laos -- in the places that I loved the most -- something I’d always need, the freedom to be queer.
“The things I care about,” I said, “The subjects I write about, the lifestyle I lead, sex and love, I can’t find that here.” I’m pretty sure my friend had no idea what I was talking about, but I continued, rambling about GLBTQ progress and trans/queer struggles, spurred on by the resurgence of a passion that had lain dormant for the past few months, “I cannot be my full self here.”
Reminded of the split I used to feel between my traveler identity and my queer identity, I thought of a long train ride I once took from Amsterdam to Slovenia. Re-reading Michelle Tea’s “Valencia” cover to cover, I got lost in the sexually-charged dyke world of San Francisco. Toward the very end, I looked up to find myself surrounded by the mountains of Austria, an apple-strudel setting straight out of the “The Sound of Music.”
I felt unmoored, disconnected from both my home culture in the States and the new landscape I was exploring in Europe. Both were flashing before my eyes, in the pages and out the window. Unable to situate myself, the whole notion of identity started to seem relative, something created in connection to my surroundings. On a train, my background in constant motion, for a brief moment, my sense of a solid self crumbled.
I think that’s when I fell in love with traveling. Since that journey, I’ve disappeared from San Francisco for a few months every now and then, changing the backdrop and watching my own self-definitions fade just a little.
By the time I returned from this trip, my queer/trans badge had fallen to the very bottom of my backpack. Culture shock, or reverse culture shock (always more my issue) refers to the disorientation that results from jumping across continents, and even after a month back, I’m experiencing it big time. Some days, I think it’s getting worse.
Pride weekend just ended. It was my 13th Pride here, and over the past few years, it’s become an effort for me to engage in the festivities – the crowds, the boozing, the out-of-towners, the chaotic energy – I find it slightly painful.
Instead of going to the Trans March, I attended my regular yoga class wearing my tacky rainbow wristband. In my heart, I was with my people in Dolores Park, united in pride – for surviving, for being, for fighting for rights and equality.
I knew I was in the right place, there on my mat, even as the waves of guilt, and sadness, and fear passed through me. What if I blended in with the straight guy next to me who had no idea it was Pride weekend? What if I could no longer summon that hurt, angry boy chucking rocks into the night? What if my activism, my writing, and my passions change?
From afar, I couldn’t see that in creating the space that I now have, the first thing to show itself would be uncertainty, and that to dwell here would require patience and faith. As I readjust ever so slowly, I try to keep the traveler in me alive – not in terms of revisiting trip highlights, but in the ways my sphere of caring expanded, my sensitivity to all sorts of people increased, and the world outside my own trans narrative got a little bigger.
Photos courtesy of the author.