At the bus terminal in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I stopped and stared at the two bathrooms ahead of me, my bladder full. Immediately, I was shuffled into a beeline for the women’s bathroom, hoping that my cap, large backpack, and the swarm of people around me would render me invisible—or at least unnoticeable—in the public restroom. Inside the stall, I whipped off my cap and ran my fingers through the short hairs of my shaved head, staring at the toilet bowl as beads of sweat dripped down onto its porcelain rim.
The next few minutes were reserved for a mild panic attack as I tried to gather the nerve to use the plastic device that allowed me to pee standing, which I started to use while transitioning over the past year. But the looming threat of nearby “queer conversion” clinics had me constantly watching my back. (Local human rights groups in Ecuador have reported that secret, unlicensed clinics use violence to “cure” LGBTQ individuals in the country.) I was afraid that someone would see my feet facing the wrong way in the bathroom stall and call a guard to whisk me off for “rehabilitation,” so after about 20 minutes of anxious deliberation, I resigned myself to squatting instead of standing to pee in order to avoid being spotted and taken out of sight.
Gay, queer, trans, nonbinary—all of these identities seem a blur to those who squint in your direction as you pass by, asking either to themselves or out loud, what is that? I’d become accustomed to receiving that squint everywhere I went since I was a kid. Starting at an early age, my baggy clothes, short hair, and combat boots drew not just stares but also derision—from the teacher who ran away from me after I was outed by another student to the stranger (old enough to be my father) who repeatedly called me sir while scolding me for talking in a movie theater. I quickly came to understand that the border between how society defines a “man” and a “woman” is heavily guarded, and that whether we’re venturing to another country or across the street, being out in the world while trans—and visible—is at once as radical as it is dangerous.
The first time I claimed a term that most closely expressed my gender identity was 11 years ago when I posted an ad on Craigslist in search of a travel buddy. It went something like, I’m a 20-year-old genderqueer punk looking for someone who isn’t a creep to hitchhike with me to New Orleans. Serious inquiries only! A week later, I was sitting with a Haitian kid who’d answered my ad on some boulders at the edge of Brooklyn, where we looked out across the black water at the Manhattan skyline and bonded over our gender troubles. After the potential travel partner made a pass at me, I decided it wasn’t a good fit, so I set out for the South alone.
I began to officially transition one year later—binding my chest, taking testosterone, and going to support groups for trans men. After a lifetime of gender dysphoria, which felt like the world wanted my body to be something it wasn’t, I knew that my gender identity was some kind of trans, but existing outside the gender binary wasn’t an option I was aware of. It felt like there was only one direction to go in: “female-to-male.” (At least that’s what everyone around me said.) Still, following my transition, I wasn’t perceived to be as masculine as other trans guys, even though I had trouble passing as a woman too. In the wake of all the physical and emotional trauma transitioning had brought me, I just wanted to run away again. But farther this time.
After 21 years of living in the United States, I had finally saved up enough to buy a one-way ticket to Ecuador, where my mother’s family emigrated from more than four decades ago. I always felt out of place in my world—neither fully a citizen nor foreigner, male nor female—and looked to Ecuador, a place I’d been dreaming of since childhood, as my ultimate chance at feeling whole. I hoped a trip to my family’s homeland would provide a timely escape from my messy gender troubles and the opportunity to start anew. But that’s not how travel works.
There’s no guide to traveling while trans, much less for people who have to introduce themselves to relatives they’ve never met in a country they’ve never been to. My distant family members were expecting a girl to arrive at their doorstep in Ecuador; instead, they got me. The first time we met, each of my tías cornered me individually and began their inevitable interrogations about my trajectory toward motherhood (a conversation many young Latinas come to expect). ¿Y tu novio? ¿No tienes esposo? ¿No tienes hijos? Pues, ¿cuando vas a tenerlos? I thought my hairy legs, bald head, facial piercings, tattoos, and masculine clothes—all universal symbols of queerness and gender nonconformity—would answer these questions for me. It turns out my family looked past the obvious about my identity in search of the answers they wanted. You’ll find a man soon enough, mija, they promised, before muttering to one another as they walked away.
But outside of my family’s home, there was no pretending. Following my panic attack in the bus station bathroom, I made my way to board a bus departing from Guayaquil (where my relatives live) for the Los Ríos province, where I planned to spend a few days in the cloud forest before exploring other parts of Ecuador. When the driver saw me, he told his friends, Women don’t look any different from men these days. They all cackled. I was drifting off in my seat when the bus arrived to my stop in Los Ríos. A group of people around me started yelling ¡señorito! until I finally stirred and stood up, realizing I was the one they were calling. As I grabbed my things and got off the bus, they all watched in silence. A few weeks later, I was in Quito when a guy stopped me in my tracks and demanded to know, ¿eres hombre o mujer?
Every day, my gender was perceived differently depending on the way the light hit my body or the shape my shadow cast on the ground, and I didn’t fight it. Part of being nonbinary is resigning yourself to the reality that you’ll always be misgendered, so there’s no point in correcting folks. I got used to responding to all types of pronouns and set my CouchSurfing.com profile to “multiple people”—the only option for identity other than “man” or “woman” on the homestay networking site. I decided it was best to be ambiguous, though hosts would always be confused when I’d show up alone.
As I made my way from pueblo to pueblo in Ecuador, through the Andes to the Amazon and the Pacific, I depended on a silent code to communicate with other queer locals—eye contact that lingered for longer than usual, knowing nods exchanged in passing on the street, and every now and then, a smile that simply said, I see you. More than a decade later, as I continue to make annual trips between New York and Ecuador, I still use those nonverbal communications to signal to others that they’re not alone.
Traveling to unfamiliar places helped me work through years of gender struggles by reminding me that I would always be a foreigner somewhere and that that was OK. Every day, trans folks take up more space in the societal conversation, from trans lives of color represented onscreen in mainstream television series like FX’s Pose to the ongoing fight for expanded public policy and federal protections that include gender identity. Our visibility gives cisgender people a frame of reference through which to understand us. They may not always like it, but at least they’re beginning to know that we exist. I waited in the closet for years until an eventual tide of progress caught up and people I knew in all aspects of life began proudly claiming their places outside the gender binary, which made all the difference when I finally owned my genderqueer identity out loud.
Even though I’m now out to my chosen community in both the United States and Ecuador, sometimes the thought of giving a nod to the wrong person can be enough to keep me indoors. It’s still extremely dangerous to be a visibly trans person in public—especially for trans women of color. I weigh the risks of venturing outside almost every day, everywhere. But life can’t be lived indoors or relegated to the outskirts of society. Navigating a binary world in a nonbinary body might always be a little scary, but, most days, I refuse to stay out of sight. And as I continue to travel alone, whether in my neighborhood in New York or the Ecuadorian pueblos I now visit every year, I know that, wherever I am, I’m in the right place.