The thing about catalysts is that they aren’t necessarily loud or obvious or explosive or expected. They can arise out of a variety of places and they can change your life without warning or care for your needs.
A catalyst causes reaction. It is the mixture of two disparate objects or notions never likely on a trajectory toward one another, arriving in an isolated environment—and I use both those words extremely loosely—to create a shift in the status quo. In chemistry, the results are often instantly observable, Mentos™ the freshmaker dropped into a Diet Coke (now just imagine that in your gut). In sports, a catalyst might be a three pointer that causes a run of scoring for the home team, and you can see and feel the change in the game, in momentum—it’s instantly identifiable but also ineffable. In politics you might hear a candidate speak of an event from their early career that motivated them to run for office—Elizabeth Warren entering the public sphere as a reaction to bankruptcy acts for individuals—but not see the results for years or decades. These pushes take so many different temporal forms, but they all present a similar equation: Foreign object + subject with latent potential + isolated environmental conditions = dynamic reaction.
I didn’t realize that I had any latent potential around my identity. I’m a late transitioning 37-year-old transwoman who has moved through a variety of careers and has crafted an identity that is often abrasive or loud, opinionated but understanding, empathetic and quick to react. I know who I am, and I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my time, though it was very much a passive “experience the world as my internal gender for a while.” “Live your truth” like they say. I’ve been very content to just exist within my identity in the world I’ve created for myself, and while it hasn’t always felt full of impact, I have found a level of happiness in my life. I am the subject.
I hate swimming, I hated it before I started to transition and after it’s become this overwhelmingly complicated dance of “If I change in this dressing room is anyone going to call me out for being in the wrong place” and “Seattle’s fine with my transness” and “I can’t find a swimsuit to fit this trans body, so I am wearing my wife’s maternity swimsuit that has a bunch of cherries on it;” all of this exists wrapped up in this anxiety around my actual pool performance, that by the time I get into a pool, I’m ready to move into the hot tub and just melt into it. These are the isolated environmental conditions.
This past Sunday, I entered the pool with my 5-year-old for her “we need to get you better at swimming” lessons, in place of my partner who typically handles the task. I was terrified of everything, and though I managed to move smoothly through the changing room part to get into the pool and try to get my kid at least vaguely comfortable in the water, instead I was trying to guide a tornado who didn’t want to be in the water. I finally asked for help from the instructor. Inviting in that foreign object.
Apparently confused at my existence yet wanting desperately to honor my identity, she used the wrong words to ask me who I was. They were legitimately the wrong words, and they legitimately humiliated me. This catalyst put me into a dark place and made it difficult to finish the lesson. When it came time to relax in the hot tub after the lesson, there was little I could do except exist inside my head to hold back tears. The intention of the instructor was to ask a question and get the information, and I knew that this was not an attempt to other me but to understand me, even though it ripped through to the core of my insecurities.
I gathered myself and asked a friend to stick with my kid while she changed so that I could approach the instructor and give her a better option for how she could ask that question. I could not have approached her without having that frustration and anger and humiliation that I had experienced in that moment. I could not have just emailed her supervisor to let them know what happened. I had to very quickly manage my emotions, channel them and come up with something to say.
I can point to a lot of speeches I’ve made as being major moments in my life (graduation and vows at my wedding), but I’ve always been better at an off the cuff response: The theatre director in me emphasizes that skill. I believe that the conversation I had in this moment will remain the most impactful to the course of my life. And I derived it on the spot. It allowed me to work through the humiliation of the moment and start to move onto solutions. Having a solution, engaging in a strategy, was the way that I could present my whole self in any possible environment.
“Your actions humiliated me. I can see from your reaction that you know that, and I have no interest in dwelling on that with you. Here’s how you could do it better next time, and I recognize that this isn’t your fault but a systemic one.” There may have been some embellishments and specific detail in there, but that’s unimportant.
Coming back over a week later, I cannot believe I had the capacity in that moment of such deep hurt to compartmentalize that pain and discuss it without making it about my hurt. I did everything I could to make it about doing it better the next time. I realize that I can sit in this emotion and offer “how can we grow” to those who trespass against me. In the time between that moment and now, I have already had to use this strategy in four other completely distinct scenarios, some part of planned engagements and others part of catalytic response. In each scenario I have been heard, identified, and honored in a way I never have been before in my life.
I’ve not felt such mental acuity and clarity about anything since I was directing my first passion project almost a decade ago, and this came from individual discussions and interactions with people, not in the “creation of art.” I have gone through decades of training, through working as a desk jockey to creating art to building community to coming out as a transwoman to engaging in discussions around equity in the work place, and what it took for me to understand how I can make a difference in this world, how to find and use my voice, was to be humiliated and respond with compassion and solutions.
A catalyst can be anything, and mine includes a cherry patterned halter top maternity swimsuit, a swimming instructor for kids, and having an emotional conversation while holding a carseat.
Allanah is your friendly neighborhood transwoman. She is in her late 30s and is focused on building community in trans and parenting communities. Dad to Svea and Partner to Beth, she spends most of her time with family, cooking, hitting up a farmers market, or at work at PEPS.org (a non-profit organization that creates support groups for new parents).