A Fish Discovers Water

Vico Whitmore
6 min readOct 30, 2022

I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m certain it was not a fish.

I’ve never understood safety. It’s one of those concepts that I understand the broad idea of, can appreciate why people yearn for it, and have never experienced for long enough to fully grasp the felt sensation of knowing that danger is an impossibility, or at least unlikely.

I grew up in a family adept at both abuse and making it seem the only rational option. No behavior, no response, no facial expression was ever truly safe in my parents’ home. What was acceptable one day would be back talking the next, and it was impossible to tell which it would be until it was too late.

By the time I finally cut contact with my parents, their potential reaction to me coming out as trans had long been the only thing keeping me from starting hormone replacement therapy. It was a matter of months before I finally started HRT, and soon after I realized that my appearance had changed so much that I could no longer reliably pass as a man or a woman. I’d had a few precious months of not having to worry about my parents and their demands on my time, appearance, and behavior, and I’d spent much of it grieving a relationship I’d never have. Suddenly, without me ever knowing precisely when it happened, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

After a lifetime of trying to match my parents’ furniture, it was impossible to blend in. No matter what I wore or how hard I tried to disguise my changing body, people took notice of me, and it never felt safe when they did. People stared, they glowered. I often got the sense that had I run my errands after dark, the people glaring at me would have thought hard about doing much worse than giving me a dirty look. I’d gone from the threat of physical and emotional abuse to the reality of life as a trans person in the south without a second of peace in between.

Safety, to me, was a myth of the foolish. I assumed that everyone’s life could be changed by violence or aggression at a moment’s notice, and that the only difference between how I felt about it and how everyone else seemed to feel was awareness. I put alarms on my doors and windows while acknowledging freely that if someone simply smashed the window out those alarms would never sound. I carried weapons knowing full well if they were taken from me I’d be seriously injured. Danger was a backpack I lugged around every day, sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, but always with me, even when things seemed to be going well.

I knew moving from Kentucky to California would be better. I knew that at a minimum my new state would do a better job of protecting me from discrimination and allow for access to the transition related care I needed. While I had a vague sense that there would be more than the assurance that Mitch McConnell and Ron DeSantis wouldn’t be able to touch me, at least not without a national law, I didn’t really know what else to expect. Less than twenty-four hours after my drive was complete it became clear that Kentucky was much worse than I’d let myself believe, and that California had more to offer than simply not actively trying to kill me.
Less than a day after my arrival, I went with a friend to Safeway. We were in the store for maybe an hour stocking up on food that was familiar and safe for me. Not a single person stared at me. No one looked at me like they’d punch me were we in a more isolated place. No one took much notice of me at all.

Back home in Kentucky I’d avoided grocery stores entirely. After two separate incidents in which large vehicles had blocked my car into its space while the driver shouted obscenities at me, I had all the groceries I needed delivered along with all the take out. Unless I could go in the early morning hours when very few people would be in the store, I didn’t go in person at all. In California, no such threat exists. I can simply do my grocery shopping and leave. That’s brand new to me.

At my new job, my key ring drew attention. It has three separate weapons on it, two of which I’d used in Kentucky just trying to do my errands. My new co-workers did not understand this. None of them had mace. None of them had plastic pointed knuckles. They certainly weren’t carrying around a small knife disguised as a key. To them, the idea of being prepared to be attacked was bizarre. To me, not being prepared was terrifying, and not needing to be prepared was an entirely foreign concept.

A week later I got my benefits package at work. I’d had no idea that I could expect the majority of my health insurance to be paid for by my company. I’d thought it would be more or less the same as in Kentucky, where I was on the hook for the full amount and would have a few choices, all of which would be bad. In California, I had dozens of choices. I could research which insurance the majority of therapists were taking and pick one accordingly. Because my job was footing most of the bill, I didn’t have to worry about picking something out of my budget. Suddenly, I wasn’t trying to figure out how I was going to pay for therapy that was far more expensive than in Kentucky. I could address my mental health for next door to free.

Not long after, my new boss took me to a coffee place not far from work to talk about the position and how I was feeling about it so far. In the coffee shop there were visibly queer people everywhere. The place was crawling with people who looked like me. The mash of corporate types on coffee breaks and queer university students studying was dizzying. No one took notice of the other group. No one looked to be in the wrong place. It was simply acceptable to be visibly queer in public without the threat of violence. Trying to focus on what my boss was saying in that meeting was almost impossible. I kept finding myself staring at trans pride pins, a rainbow of undercuts, and the people who had no qualms at all about being themselves somewhere that other people could see.

Thus far, I’ve had to correct exactly one co-worker on my pronouns, and she was absolutely lovely about it. There were no excuses and no attempts to save face. She simply thanked me for the information and moved on.
I still can’t really conceptualize safety, at least not yet. It hasn’t sunk all the way in yet that I don’t have to worry about people hurting me for existing here, at least not all the time. In the back of my mind, I keep waiting for something to happen that will make it all feel like a sick joke.

No, what I’ve discovered isn’t safety. It’s how much fear I lived with my entire life. I realized for the first time that not everyone grew up expecting to be hurt at any moment, not everyone has been lugging that backpack of fear around with them. For the first time, I can see what a hermit Kentucky made of me, how terrified I was to do even basic errands in public. I no longer have to make sure I go to the bathroom before leaving the house and avoid drinking anything just to go to the grocery store. I still do those things, but now I’m realizing how incredibly horrifying and bizarre it is that I had to take those precautions in the first place. Now that I’m out of those waters I can now see what I spent so much time swimming in, and I’m horrified.

It’ll be a long time before I can talk my body into understanding that the while there is some risk inherent in being a trans person in the United States, it has been lessened considerably by moving out of the south. In the meantime, I’m still staring at those shark infested waters, wondering how I survived for so long.

--

--

Vico Whitmore

Trans CSA survivor leaving a trail as I stumble my way toward healing. Support me on ko-fi! https://ko-fi.com/vicowhitmore