No one ahead, and the road just opened up to two lanes for the passing zone. Before me I have a wide, smooth hairpin that opens into a few S curves carved into the side of a mountain overlooking the entire city of Palm Springs, and by good fortune, I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a $160,000 Aston Martin dialed up to 11. Slap the paddles down a few times, get that V8 singing, and roll onto the gas. Uncork the ungodly forces of twin-turbocharged torque and let it force me back into the bucket seat. The cacophony vibrates through the cabin, off the rocky walls of the cliffside, and through my chest cavity as the speedo ticks upward with ludicrous rapidity. What ensues is a moment of freedom from the slog of traffic and gas mileage and insurance premiums; this is the theoretical peak of what driving a car should be like. My mind is cleared of all conscious thought in a way few things can accomplish.
I am an automotive writer, which means that this joyous experience behind the wheel of Britain’s finest sports coupe somehow counts as work through some series of arrangements I admit barely seem real to me. And even more incredible, I get to do this and be trans, too. Other trans writers have certainly done it, but we’re few and far between, because there is no faster way to get stuck talking about transness than to be trans. Instead I get to drive incredibly cool cars and talk about how they made me feel: their characteristics at the limit, what emotions they stir inside me, how their torque curves define their demeanor as the rubber underneath me yields — and none of those things require me to have taken estradiol to evaluate.
And yet, I’m still a trans woman. I am six-foot-two and in my first two years on HRT, with no budget for a surgeon to take a Dremel to my Arktika-class icebreaker jawline. So there’s still the constant spectre of transness that hovers over me, no matter how hard I run from it; this summer, as I drove across America on a road trip in search of meaning and self, I wrote about it openly. Others have to deal with far worse than I do, but the the trip was still an omnipresent reminder of my transness — from the negative experiences trying to escape hecklers in Los Angeles, to the positivity of acceptance from people who’d never met someone “like me” before — so I had to tackle it head-on lest it drive me insane.
Yes, I am proudly trans; I adore the radical act of self-transformation that got me here, and the community that I have found since doing so is made up of the strongest, most incredible people I’ve ever met. But also I am tired, as every trans person is long before we finally come out. Well before we take the first pills, we realize that we’ll be fighting an uphill battle for the rest of our lives. We exist as exhausted advocates; our rights dangle by a thread at every turn and we have to talk about it, because what choice do we have? I just want to spend a day not screaming into the void about how I deserve the same rights as any other cis person, but if I stop, I won’t have those rights anymore. I want to write about Aston Martins, not that I deserve to exist.
It did not help that I gained a platform in the first year of my transition; my tits were still painful buds and I’d barely even chosen a name yet when my first stories appeared with my byline. All the ‘sir’s’ and glares of that first year cut me deeply in a way I thought year two would soften, but it didn’t. If anything, as I learned to contour better and let my hair grow longer and picked out more flattering a-line dresses, it hurt more to put in so much effort and yet still be seen so openly and picked apart with a few hostile glances. Why could I not at least be politely tolerated; why did every interaction have to remind me of the uphill battle I lived in?
So I chose to embrace my transness as openly as possible. My dysphoria is lessened because of HRT, I think I’m pretty because I feel soft and have B-cup tits, and I will make that the source of my joy. I would discuss who I was before anyone else had a chance to bring it up, just to wrestle the power dynamic of any potential conversation back onto my own terms. I am trans, you have noticed — but so have I, and now we can move forward. It’s not something I really wanted to define myself with — I still prefer to be thought of as an auto writer, or that girl with the weird fashion sense, or literally anything else at all — but owning it and making sure it was clear I owned it was the clear path towards defanging the pain others could inflict, so I did so at every chance I got.
And then came the weekend that I ripped that satin-green Aston up Pines to Palms Highway like it owed me money. I cleared my mind of all conscious thought as I eked every last ounce of grip out of the massive tires, and I pulled up to the scenic overlook that towers over the vast valley of the desert below. It was packed with the traditional demographic of the twisty mountain passes of Palm Springs — old men with golf bags still seated in the trunks of their Corvettes or dealer plates on their sparkling new Porsches — and I stepped out of the Aston and surmised my view.
This is normally the crowd that forces transness back to the front of my mind. I readied myself for spoken-word sparring, to own the conversational battlefield and justify so many things I wish I didn’t need to. But I didn’t need to say a word about who I was. If I was trans, so be it. I certainly wasn’t in a position to hear criticism from a country-club retiree with a basic-bitch Corvette when I was driving Aston’s finest sports coupes, and they knew it too. Stepping out of the Vantage, I just felt like hot shit, and everyone else seemed to agree.
‘Rich white people treat another rich white person well’ is certainly not a story, though, because it’s common sense. The entire way this country works is based on the premise of classism; luxury goods that don’t perform any other purpose exist solely to signal that the owner is one of the chosen few not to be spoken down to. The reason I get misgendered at the supermarket is because I carry an off-brand purse with my Target dress, and everyone knows they have nothing to lose by reinforcing my secondary status to them. I have enough trans friends that wear designer just to get through the day to know this, and an Aston Martin is designer on four wheels.
This is only half of the story, though. The event itself was a drive experience held specifically for women in automotive writing, and I’d agreed to attend before I’d even pitched a story on it. Being invited at all felt like freebasing validation; yes of course I would like the keys to an Aston and to be accepted as who I am. I have to give my legal name out for the flight bookings and the very nature of my work means there was no mistake; they wanted me to attend for who I am.
So yes, the fancy car making strangers act like I’m a person who actually deserves respect was fun, but the combination of the trappings of wealth and a cis crowd that knew exactly who I was made me ache. Every other attendee at this fancy Palm Springs getaway was a cis woman, all either sent directly from Aston themselves or other auto writers with bylines that extend back to before I was born. Unlike the men with khaki shorts and New Balances posed atop the scenic lookout with their Corvettes, they know I don’t own an Aston Martin, and they could tell me whatever they wanted to if they desired.
They chose to be kind. They welcomed me with open arms, and we discussed cars and the finer points of a ZF 8 speed transmission alongside sexism and families and makeup; it was the girls’ weekend together I grew up dreaming of but was never able to experience. And for a lovely moment, I was able to put aside who I was. I was one of the girls. None of them get treated better than me by the dinosaurs of men in the industry, God; all of them still agonize over the little facial blemishes or errant hairs I delicately pluck. My transness became an element of a story that got me here when it did come up, but it was rare and I often brought it up myself, still crouched in my defensive posture from so many other bad experiences.
But the whole weekend passed, and for the first time since I started presenting full-time as a woman, I was able to move beyond consciously thinking about who I was — a trans woman — and able to subconsciously be who I am — a woman. For once, instead of agonizing over an unkempt arm hair, I just spent time trying to determine if what I wore would go well with everyone else’s dresses for dinner. I walked into an airplane museum and asked for special permission to shoot photos, and got it, because I was dripping with confidence that only self-assuredness can deliver. I felt desirable.
The entire world was open for a damn weekend because I was no longer a trans woman; I was a woman that was trans. If you have a problem with me, the Aston Martin implies it’ll be your own problem soon enough, as do the half-dozen cis women who have handled the absolute worst sexism the automotive world has to offer and continued on their merry way all backing me up. There was a power to every step I took. The ‘sir’s’ of hearing my voice were rapidly corrected to ‘ma’am’s of common decency.
Then I returned the Aston Martin and flew back home to the suburbs of Houston, Texas, where I get looked at once more as though I am an oddity, but I still look in the mirror and see the things that made me beautiful in Palm Springs. I desperately want that feeling of being able to engage with my transness on my own terms yet again. I am so tired of being so openly trans, because we live in exhausting times. I love being a woman, despite the fact my life would have been massively easier to the outside world in the closet. But above all of this, I love feeling like I’m desirable. I love to walk onto the tarmac of a Palm Springs runway and shoot photos with vintage airplanes and not feel stupid and obvious about it. I love to drive a Bond car and feel like I belong there, posed next to it, and have the men who would normally gatekeep me from my enthusiasm vindicate it instead.
It’s not bold to say that the trans community teeters on a precipice. Every headline, every day, brings worse news about our acceptance, and our fate. The community is now on some of the most tenuous ground in decades, and even the position held now was hard-fought. It feels constantly like nothing will improve for trans people ever again, as we collectively watch the rights that those who came before us paid for so dearly eroded away with every legislative and physical and rhetorical attack, and it’s hard to hang onto that confidence in the face of such crippling fears.
But as I’ve stared into the abyss that seems all but destined for us all, I’d forgotten that on the other side is level ground; we are not preordained for only heartbreak and sadness. An entire weekend free from feeling like a curiosity, standing fifty feet from the abyss, made me reevaluate what we still stand to gain. A better world no longer feels like an imaginary construct I dreamt up to soften my anguish; it was a place that I lived in for three days, and it changed me.
Ever since Palm Springs, the face looking back at me in the mirror is kinder than it’s ever been to itself. I know I’m still trans and I will never run from that, but I am trying to keep the hop in my step I found back on that runway in the desert. I have found that hope is what is fueling it. I don’t know what the future holds. It could be worse than this, and frequently I think it will be. But we deserve a better future, and we are allowed to dream of it while we strive towards it.
Cover Photo: Jess Walker, Aston Martin