Paper Maps: An Essay About Finding Your Way

by Kristin Russo


I moved to New York City when I was nineteen. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a place that sparkled and shone quite as much as NYC did for me that year, teeming with tangles of dirty streets, angry, honking cabs, and an endless array of scuttling rodents. I’d dreamed of this for years. Finally, it was all mine.

When I first arrived, I rented a tiny room in a hostel on the Upper West Side. My room had everything I needed: a twin bed, a desk, a mini-fridge, a heating pipe (which would burst a few weeks after I moved in, soaking all of my belongings and my brand-new forty-pound laptop), a sink, and a closet with three hangers. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen with five strangers who lived in my hallway.

At the time, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in theater at Marymount Manhattan College. Marymount was on East Seventy-First Street, and my hostel was on West Ninety-Fourth Street. I studied the subway map (a paper map! I actually had a paper subway map!) to determine the best route between my new home and my new school. If I took the 2 train south to Times Square, I could transfer to the S train that would shuttle me across to Grand Central Station. Once there, I could transfer to the 4 train, one stop up to Fifty-Ninth Street and then transfer one more time to the 6 train to Sixty-Eighth. Boom. Four trains, no problem. This was city life. Yes!

I took those four trains twice a day. Not to brag, but I also learned how to get down to the NYU dorms at the South Street Seaport, where my then-girlfriend lived. (She was my very first girlfriend, and she was a great girlfriend. She let me smoke her cigarettes, wear her clothes, and borrow her wonderful CD mixes for my Discman-accompanied commutes.) One fateful day, I left her dorm and headed to catch the 4 train (another added bonus of staying at her place was that it only required two trains). I was wearing my favorite pair of overalls, which incidentally belonged to her and had legs that were wide enough to fit around my whole body. As I pushed through the subway trestle, I saw my train pull into the station. It had apparently only taken me three months of city living to begin to have the mind of a New Yorker, because my first instinct was to run as fast as I could to catch that train. And so, I ran.

And then, I fell.

Well… I almost fell. Truthfully, it would have been much better had I just fallen. Instead, my right foot caught in the wide swath of denim that surrounded it, and as I descended, I caught myself on the side of my left foot… and broke it.

Three months into moving to NYC, in the freezing November cold, I broke my goddamn foot.

I didn’t immediately know I’d broken it, but I did know that I was in a massive amount of pain. Not too much pain, however, to continue my now one-legged sprint to catch that train. And I did! I caught the train! No one cheered for me, but now that I understand the spirit of NYC a bit better, I’m certain they were all cheering on the inside. Once on the train and in the wake of this very real, very extreme pain, I lost awareness of what was and wasn’t acceptable train behavior. I dropped my bags in the middle of the train floor, I took off my giant winter coat, dropped it next to my bags, and I stared at my foot. That’s all I did. I just stared at my foot, sweating with pain, brow furrowed, with my belongings all around me on the subway floor. I stared at it all the way to Forty-Second Street, scooped up my things, and hobbled across the platform to transfer to the 6 train, dropped them once more on the subway floor, stared at my foot until we got to Sixty-Eighth Street, and then somehow walked, on my freshly broken foot, to my acting class. It took me almost thirty minutes to walk three street blocks and one avenue. For reference, that’s less than half a mile.

As you might expect, upon my arrival to class, my professor immediately told me to go to the walk-in clinic down the street. After x-rays, I was given a blue canvas boot and a pair of crutches, and I hobbled my way to an indulgent taxi ride back to my hostel.

In case you are unfamiliar with NYC winters, I will let you know that they are cold, they are icy, they are dirty, and they are entirely unforgiving— and all that with two working feet. I want to also remind you that my commute, up until this point, included about eight trains per day, and each of those came with ample walking and many stairs. I couldn’t get up and down stairs much at all, and certainly not when they were covered in icy slush. Suddenly, canvas boot and all, I couldn’t get anywhere.

Until, that is, I revisited my subway map and learned that NYC, in addition to its sprawling subway system, also has buses. Who. Knew. I learned (via my paper map) that just a few steps from my door was a crosstown bus that, on the regular, traveled right through Central Park to the east side. I’d been taking four trains this whole time when I could have taken just one bus? This was the first moment where the NYC I thought I knew laughed directly in my face before playfully tousling my hair. You see, NYC isn’t shy about breaking a person, bones and all, in a gesture of the warmest welcome.

I’ve now been in this city for fifteen years. I know almost every subway line and bus route that exists in nearly every borough. I traverse it with the same ease that I brush my teeth or climb into my bed. That moment, fifteen years ago in lower Manhattan, was the first of many moments (they really never stop) where I was forced to readjust, recalibrate, and further question the city, and world, around me. I had many other pivotal moments in those first few years— some with only a handful of subway passengers as my witness, and others where the whole world watched my city in confusion and wonder.

We all, inevitably, break our metaphoric (or in my case, literal) feet. Am I glad that I broke my foot? Not really. Am I glad that it made me recalibrate, readjust, and continue to question? You’d better believe I am. I needed to learn, just as we all do, that there is always more than one route on that paper map.

Oh, hey! This is a piece I wrote for the essay collection called Freshman Year of Life : Essays That Tell the Truth About Work, Home, and Love After College. I am in some pretty wonderful company, alongside writers such as Ashley Ford, Shannon Keating, and Mara Wilson. You should check it out!

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“Last night was one of the worst in my life. I’d been wearing a binder for about a week or so off and on because I was having really bad dysphoria and dressing more masculinely is the only way to relieve it sometimes. I was in no way out to my parents that I was transgender and I didn’t want to be. They cornered me last night and wouldn’t leave until I came out and then tried to make me feel bad for doing so. What should I do now? I never wanted to come out.”

- Question submitted by Anonymous

Mal Blum Says:

First, I’m sorry this happened and especially that it happened like this. I don’t need to tell anyone that coming out to parents can be difficult to begin with, and should never be forced. On top of that, physical dysphoria can feel intensely personal and vulnerable (especially if you are still figuring out how it manifests in your body, and what eases it). To have it confronted and dragged into conversation like this and forcing you to explain yourself is truly awful.

This shouldn’t have happened and (this part is really important, if you don’t read any other part of this, please read this) it isn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong and they are wrong right now.

I say this because I know that when you feel vulnerable about something like this, it can be easy to internalize the things the people around you (especially authority figures) say about it. If they confront you in an aggressive way, if they make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed, there may be a part of you that is thinking “this is my fault, I made this uncomfortable situation, if I wasn’t trans this wouldn’t be happening, etc. etc.” – Here is where I am going to say it again, and hope that you believe me: if they caused you to feel uncomfortable in this situation, they are wrong in this situation. You are not responsible for this happening and are not at fault. Okay? So if you don’t believe that little voice inside of your gut that is telling you it isn’t your fault, then you can believe me, a stranger on the internet. Okay, so now that we have that covered, there is that question of what to do now…

Without knowing more about your situation, it’s a matter of what you have access to now. First is finding support to lean on. Do you have a supportive friend who knows what’s going on? Do you have access to a trustworthy counselor or therapist, if your parents aren’t supportive in helping you access that, maybe through school? I know some might not, and the plight of sticking it out and cohabitating with your parents can seem dire – I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention as a resource for someone to talk to about what you’re going through that The Trevor Project has a free 24/7 line (866-488-7386) or 3-9pm E.T. online chat. You can also reach the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860.

Second, I want to encourage you to let yourself cope in whatever ways work for you. Is there anything that makes you feel better, or takes you out of your head, even if only marginally, even if only for a few minutes? Music, books, video games, memes, maybe this e-care package from Everyone Is Gay, whatever it is, I want to tell you that it’s okay. My opinion is as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, whatever you need to do to help yourself cope is okay.

Third, be as kind to yourself as you would be to somebody else going through the same thing (and there are other people going through this, if it helps, you are not alone). This is an important one. Try not to say mean things to yourself. Remember to be patient with yourself. Be a good friend to yourself. You deserve that.

This last bit is only for if you are anxious about the long term. I don’t know your parents, or your relationship with them. I do know that your relationship with your parents may grow and change. On my best days, I believe that people have a tremendous capacity for change. Part of my first “coming out” process involved an intervention-style “family meeting” where I was confronted, shamed and told awful things that I internalized, including the position that if I were “the gay kid” I would be responsible for my youngest sibling (my ally in the family) being bullied and assaulted on my account.

As an adult, I know that is wrong. It is not okay to put that responsibility on a child’s shoulders, it is not okay to aggressively confront your child about their gender or sexuality, or use derogatory language to get your point across. As a child, I think I knew that somewhere, but I didn’t totally believe it. I hope that you believe it.

I also don’t know if it helps, but I am close with my parents now. I kept them at arms length at times, and I did a lot of work once I was out of their house. I learned to assert boundaries, I learned to express myself and feel more valid in my opinions, thoughts, feelings and needs. I am still learning. That same sibling was really helpful in coming out to them about gender stuff over the last two years, and they have clearly grown a lot and I am glad to be close with them now. There were times I never could have imagined it 12 years ago, but a lot can change.

That said, if your parents are not the type to grow and change with you, if they are unwilling or unable, if they continue to be harmful or abusive, I don’t think you owe them anything, including a relationship.  Either way, you don’t have to figure it out today, all you have to do right now is focus on being kind and patient with yourself and surviving the best way you can.

Sending hugs, I hope you’re okay,
Mal

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"I’m a trans woman, and in the wake of the election I’m finding it hard to be hopeful. Any advice?"

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Mey Rude Says:

Hey, honestly, I’m in that same scary, hopeless boat as you. But, the good thing about that is that there are a lot of us here in this boat, and while all of us are afraid of sharks and storms and jellyfish and waves, we’re also all together, and that makes us stronger. And while you and I might be really scared of the water and all the things in it, a lot of the people in the boat are a lot braver than us. A lot of them also have skills we don’t have. Maybe they know how to spot changes in the weather or how to patch up holes in the bottom of the boat. Maybe they know how to fight off dangerous sea creatures. Maybe they even know how to spot land and how to get us there.

Now, I’ve probably strained that metaphor about as far as it will go, but I hope you understand what I’m getting at. You’re not alone, we’re not alone, and we never will be. We’ll always have each other. A lot of trans women, and trans people of all kinds, are going to be banding together more now than we have in decades, because, honestly, the danger that faces us is greater than is has been since the days of Reagan and the AIDS crisis. Let me tell you something, though, when we come together, we are powerful as heck. We started the Stonewall Riots, that means the LGBTQ movement as we know it is because of us. We changed the way people look at gender and fashion and language. Shade, werk, yaas, read, all of that was us (and when I say “us” I mean specifically Black and Latina trans women in this case). Culture would not be the same without us. We are revolutionary, radical and resilient.

What’s more than that – and this is really good news – is that we have all of our allies. We have the people who love us and are willing to sacrifice in order to protect us. We have people who are fighting tooth and nail for us, and they’re not going to let this ship go down no matter what (there I am with that metaphor again). They’re already donating their time and effort and money to places like the Trans Lifeline, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Transgender Law Center in order to help us out. They’re already helping us to change our names and our documents, they’re offering us shelter in case we lose our homes, they’re offering us love and community and protection.

Also, to be completely honest, maybe my words won’t give you hope. I understand that. I’ve had a lot of hopeless days since the election. But even when I’m feeling hopeless I’m going to keep fighting until I get that hope back, and so are a lot of other people. And if you can’t have hope right now, that’s okay, the rest of us will hope for you. Soon enough of us will be fighting (whether we have hope or not) that we’ll make things better and it will be easier to be hopeful. This is something I believe with all my heart and know with all my soul.

Until then, though, it’s not going to be easy. I don’t want to give you unrealistic expectations for the next four or eight years. But I’m fine giving you hope, because no matter how small hope is, it isn’t unrealistic. It can’t be. It’s hope, and hope is literally magic. I told you I was done with the metaphors and I am. When I say that it’s magic I mean very literally that hope makes things that should be impossible possible. It changes lives and it changes the world. And so while it seems like these next four years are going to be impossible, as long as we have each other, as long as we have our allies and as long as at least some of us have hope, we’re going to keep on fighting and keep on moving forward.

If you’re feeling hopeless enough that you want to hurt yourself, please reach out to someone. You can call the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860 in the US or (877) 330-6366 in Canada, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or the general National Suicide Prevention Hotline for the US at 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project also has text and chat lines.

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"Self-care. Please self-care."
Some thoughts on preserving yourself / ourselves in a complicated time
by Kristin Russo

hello there, lovely readers.

for the past six years, most of my advice has been rooted in my lived experience. when you came to me with broken hearts, i told you how my own broken hearts had felt, and how i made it through to the other side. when you were having trouble with parents who didn’t accept you for who you are, i shared my own experience as someone who came out to a very catholic mother. when you found yourself in love with your best friend, i told you how i, too, fell hard for mine (and survived).

now, though, in this post-election world, we are facing some pretty big feelings together, in real time. i haven’t walked through this particular mix of sadness, confusion, and grief before – in big part because of my own cis, white privilege. perhaps you are more familiar with these feelings of confusion and grief than I am or, perhaps, you have found yourself just as embarrassingly railroaded by them as i have.

one thing i believe to be true for all of us, though, is that – now more than ever before – we must take care of ourselves.

some of us have been angry for days, others of us have fallen into a pool of sadness; some of us have been quiet and scared, others have taken to the streets with loud voices and painted signs. this fight has been and will continue to be one that requires our stamina, our strength in the face of hardship, and our resolve to hold each other up. this is a short list of ways in which i think we can do just that:

• give as much value to turning off your phone as you give to turning it on. yes, it is important to know what is going on in the world around us. i, too, know the deep pull to constantly check my social feeds, to share my thoughts, feelings, and findings with others, and to gather, collect, & critique that information. that is important, necessary work. however, those dives into the land of digital information can (and do) often snowball down into a dark, weighted place – especially in times like these. we must take breaks. don’t bring your phone into your bedroom at night. if you need it as an alarm? put it in airplane mode. set boundaries: don’t look at your phone or digital media of any kind during mealtimes, and give yourself at least an hour before bed and after waking up before re-engaging.

• talk to your friends. laugh with your friends. when the world feels heavy, sometimes we feel we are not allowed to let light in. please, please, let the light in. make a concerted effort to plan time together with those you love. facetime with your long distance friends, meet your amazing cousin for a drink, gather at your best friend’s house to have a coloring party, or schedule a weekly movie & grilled cheese night (!!). you are allowed to have fun. you are allowed to laugh. if fighting this fight is the exhale, consider these moments of laughter and levity to be the inhale. they must exist together.

• go outside. this planet is a beautiful, magical place. leaves change color and fall from their branches, streams bubble over rocks as they have for centuries, clouds make ever-shifting shapes in the sky. make time for yourself, at least once each day, to appreciate this beauty. put your work, your phone, and all else aside and commit to taking a walk outside every day (even if you have to bundle up in the cold weather!). those shifts in perspective & moments of reflection can underpin some of our most important ideas.

• look for new ways to engage with community. i recently received an email from a friend who told me that, in the wake of the election, she had decided to reach out to all of her old high school teachers. in her letter to them, she offered to be a pen pal or resource for any high school student who might be feeling stuck in her conservative home-state of south dakota. now is an incredible time to engage with our communities in ways we haven’t before: volunteer at local organizations who serve LGBTQ or other marginalized communities, help arrange a book-drive, look into arranging a digital meet-up, write letters to the people who have inspired you to keep fighting. engage.

• read old books, new books, used books, all books. we have a little ongoing list over here on facebookof books that are exceptionally important to the work ahead of us. you should read them. add your own recommendations to the list. read them along with your friends! heck, go ahead and start a book club! bring cheetos to share!! you can even read more than one book at a time. my wife does this, so i know it is true… she stacks them up in a big pile and then depending on how she is feeling and what she needs from a book, she chooses accordingly. you can have a horror-book and a queer-book and a comic-book and even a cooking-book all at the ready for whenever you are in need. books are like the fucking super-food of self-care.

• if you are able, be active. physical activity gives our bodies a way to use all of that whaaaaaattheeeefuuuuuck energy in ways that, at the same time, make us stronger. do ten jumping jacks when you wake up. learn how to do a sun salutation. go swimming. start running. rearrange your bedroom. organize your garage. dance to tegan and sara on full blast. do all of these things or some of them or even just one of them!

• create. there is a very silly myth that some people believe, which is that in order to create you must be good at creating. not. true. write a poem, sing a song, draw a picture, braid your hair, finger paint, make a collage. you do not have to make art for anyone but yourself, but spend some time each week on creating something… anything. remember that it isn’t the end-product that matters, it is the process itself that allows us to find new spaces of healing.

• ask for help when you need help. it is okay to struggle. reach out to those you love when your heart is breaking, when you get stuck on the couch in a whirlwind of sadness, when you sit at your desk surrounded by papers and due dates and rage, rage, rage. talk it out, yell it out, lean on those close to you, and keep a list of hotlines handy should you find yourself in need of more professional care. the trevor project is available at 866-488-7386 and the trans lifeline is available at 877-565-8860.

• breathe. like, literally… breathe. breathing regulates our entire nervous system. there are many different breathing exercises that you can learn, and you can even make it a fun new project to try a new exercise each week. my go-to is square breathing, where i breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and repeat. close your eyes, find a quiet place, and do this for ten minutes each day – if you can, do it right when you wake up. in moments of extreme anxiety, use these breathing techniques to help you find your center.

my dears, i am going to hold tight to this list fiercely over the coming weeks, and i ask you to do the same. it is easy to feel like we cannot take a moment away from the fight because it is so vital, so critical to our own survival and to the survival of so many… but we cannot sustain it if we do not sustain ourselves.

remember that when you take time out to do these things, you are still fighting.

clear eyes, full hearts,
kristin

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"How can I be cool and casual and chill at college parties and hooking up, when I'm the least cool, casual, or chill person ever?"

- Question submitted by anonymous

Kristin Says:

Let me tell you what: I am not cool or casual or chill. I won’t ever be any of those things because I have some social anxiety and also I have a lot of feelings and also mostly when I dance I just fling my arms about the room and bob my head.

Let me tell you what else: Probably at least a few of you think I am cool and casual and chill… even though I am like HAHAHAHAHA NOPE. I have scientific data on this because the other night I went to dinner with an Everyone Is Gay reader who is starting her freshman year of college and during our dinner she said she thought I was cool... And, in response, I laughed just like I did up there, in all caps, but in person because she was sitting across the table from me.

Point being: No matter how “uncool” or “not casual” or “really the opposite of chill” you are… the right people will still thing you are the fucking coolest, best, raddest person there is. You see, that is how we find each other! We see a person flinging their arms about the room and we are like OH THANK GOD ANOTHER ARM FLINGER IS HERE, and then we talk about Harry Potter or we talk about manicures or we talk about denim or we talk about Tegan & Sara or we talk about the earth orbiting through space or we talk about the X-Files or we talk about The Bachelorette. We find people who think we are cool as we are, because, well, we are cool and also “cool” is relative.

What you need, Anon, is to do all the parties you want and skip the ones you don’t, and work at being YOU. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s fucking real as shit. I am still struggling to do this, myself. Sometimes I write things here or I take a selfie for Instagram and I am frozen with all those voices saying, “You are so so so not cool, don’t you know how uncool you are?!”

Work with me to say, “Cool is relative, and I am me.”

I promise to post my pictures and write my advice as ME if you promise to kiss those babes and go to those parties as YOU.

Cool?

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