All The Puzzle Pieces, Please

I have a roller bag/trolley. It’s a battered railway-issue bag I’ve had for a little over a year, and it goes almost everywhere I go. People comment on it as though it’s funny: they can’t imagine why I need to take it everywhere.

I consider it an accessibility aid for anything that involves leaving the house.

I have things I need to take everywhere with me. My wrist and thumb splints, because my pain is something I can’t plan, and being in pain at work without a splint is a nightmare. A thick hooded jumper, because my hypersensitivity to cold means that waiting at railway platforms at night is agonising. A woollen, hooded scarf, ditto. A large tub of Play-Doh, for stimming. A bottle of water, for timetabled and non-timetabled medication. An umbrella, because I live in Geelong/Melbourne where we can get five seasons in a single day. Lunch, if I’m going to work, because I can’t afford to just buy two meals a working day on the hours I get.

I’ve also got optional things I take everywhere with me, like my netbook (I use all time I spend on trains), deck boxes and a dice bag (you never know when you might run into someone and regret not having a deck on you), a playmat (this makes it so much easier for me to pick cards, even sleeved cards, up off the table) and other odds-and-ends (wet and dry tissues, nail scissors, deodorant, a tape measure because the Warhammer players never bring their own and sometimes the store one gets lost). Yes, I have the bloody kitchen sink, but you’d be amazed at all the times someone has needed something I just happen to have.

I also have a rainbow-striped satchel over my shoulder for absolutely-bloody-essential things like wallet, headphones (I need something to drown out the noises made by other people/traffic/trains), coin purse, meds, bandaids, notepad and pen. A satchel bag where I can just reach in without pulling the bag off a shoulder and unzipping is so much better than a backpack, even if a backpack is less gendering.

I also need, quite simply, a place to put anything I buy.

I can’t carry any non-light things in my hands. I don’t have the wrist strength. When I’m desperate, I’ll loop bags over my elbows, but I generally find whatever way I can to not carry something. Backpacks are out because I’ve lost a whole lot of upper-body strength through not using my hands, but also because I keep having to pull them on or off to put something in/take something out. A roller bag makes everything that much easier.

I couldn’t play Magic outside my own house without it. I’d be denied yet another hobby, thanks to my hands.

The downside to this is that I can’t exit a store without having to open my own bag and prove I’m not a thief. It’s easier for me to open up a trolley bag than it is to pull a backpack off my shoulders and open that up for inspection, though, and young-looking people with backpacks along with anyone with a trolley seem to be in the high-suspicion category, so the only thing I can do is go straight up to the attendant on the assumption they will wave me over.

I’m used to this. I don’t like it, but I’m used to it.

(I want to emphasise here, though, that this isn’t the sales assistant’s fault. They’re having to carry out a store policy that annoys and frustrates people, and getting angry at the poor enforcer isn’t fair or right.)

I was rather taken aback, though, when I went into my local Savers, found some clothes that looked to be the magical combination of not-gendering and possibly-able-to-fit, and was told by the attendant on duty that I couldn’t enter the change room with my roller bag.

This is where things get interesting.

I’ve been trying to update my winter wardrobe for the last three months. I need to do this knowing that I don’t have a lot of money, that for some reason manufacturers don’t make a lot of clothing that suits my expression of non-gender in small sizes, that the style of clothing I like is seldom on trend at any given time, and that I’m more comfortable in stores that accommodate male and female clothing in child and adult sizes in addition to non-gendered change rooms. Opp (second-hand) shops are the best places for me to go, and Savers, like many other opp shops, fills all those requirements.

This said, my ratio of clothing tried on to clothing bought is something like 12 to 1. Being small and female-designated is great if you’re female and want to dress feminine, and a nightmare if you’re not and don’t. Men’s clothes are too big and boys’ clothes are often too-short in the sleeve and too wide in the torso while being not quite wide enough over the hips. I try to find the most boyish shirts possible in the girls and women’s sections – any time I can find a check/plaid shirt without chest darts that isn’t also too big, I’m stoked – but it’s a search that’s literally one piece here, one piece a month later, a search made complicated by low-income. If I can find two pairs of bootleg jeans that actually fit at the same place for prices I can afford, the universe is shining down on me.

(I’ve bought a lot of ill-fitting jeans to get me through until I can find ones that do.)

So. I’m a non-binary queer shortie without much money struggling to find clothes that make me feel happy in my own skin. I also struggle to carry things in my hands, thanks to my chronic pain, but my chronic pain and my autism mean that I have to carry many things with me. I also suffer anxiety, which makes it hard for me to be assertive when someone’s telling me that I can’t take my bag in with me, and this anxiety very much increases my pain.

To the sales assistant telling me my bag was too big to go in the change room with me, it was merely a matter of stock control: the bag made it very easy for me to steal things, therefore I should leave it outside with her. I don’t know why they’re now cracking down on this when I’ve been taking trolleys and roller bags into the change rooms with me for the five years I’ve been buying from Savers, and I can only presume there has been a raft of recent theft, but it’s not complicated. It’s not her fault.

My choices, now, are to let her watch over my bag while I try on clothes, to carry everything in a backpack with me and suffer the pain, or to leave items I need at home so I can try on clothes without having to worry about my bag … and then suffer the pain carrying anything I buy home. I’m anxious and paranoid enough that I’m not letting a stranger watch over a bag that contains my netbook, the notebook that contains password details for one of my jobs, and my Modern Humans deck, among other things. How do I know she’s not going to get distracted by another customer, when in that store there’s nowhere safe to put my bag that isn’t in view of and accessible by the whole department, customers and staff alike?

The real answer, sadly, is that I need to cross Savers off my very-short list of comfortable clothes shopping destinations. I’m not willing to leave things at home or suffer unnecessary pain just to be able to try on clothes to check fit. I’m not willing to have to defend my requirements to a sales assistant each time I just want to try on a shirt.

I’m happy to open my bag, if asked, before and after I go in. I’m happy for her to look at the clothes I’m taking in.

I’m not happy, not in the slightest, that I can’t take my bag in. I’m not happy, most of all, that the policy seems to be operating on the assumption that my bag is just an optional extra and not a requirement, and therefore it doesn’t matter that I now feel unwelcome entering that store with something I need to be able to shop like everybody else.

I’m not happy that my disability means I’ve got one fewer safe place (and that list is short) to find affordable gender-suitable clothes.

How much further do I need to travel to find opp shops with enough stock turnover that I have a chance of being able to find any clothing I can wear? Do I need to worry that my roller bag means I’m an unwelcome or suspicious customer at similar stores?

The worst part about walking away from this experience, though, was the realisation that I don’t see too many examples of this kind of story in queer dialogue.

I’ve seen too many awful stories about the challenge it is to be trans with regards clothing, affordability and safety, and too many trans people are having to operate within similar or far more challenging parameters of low/no income. For we non-binary people, just deciding which change room to pick is a dysphoric reminder that we don’t really exist and are seldom accommodated outside specific non-binary safe spaces. I hate public bathrooms and trying on clothes in department stores. I hate sales assistants directing me to the female side of the change rooms based on a lie they see in the social construct of my facial features and voice.

Where are the stories of trans people who struggle with being trans, though, because of disability? What about cis queers who struggle with being queer because of disability?

Many queer and trans people suffer mental illnesses – we’re forced to live in a society that denies us acceptance, recognition, visibility, legitimacy and safety, and therefore we develop mental illnesses as a result – but this isn’t all that often talked about other than as accepted fact. I don’t see much dialogue on how different it is to be queer or trans when one suffers a mental illness in comparison to the queer or trans experience without. Nor do I see much discussion on how different the queer and trans experience is when one has mental illnesses other than depression and anxiety, for that matter. What about neurodivergence? I know I spoke a little about how, in my singular opinion, it makes sense to me that we might find it easier to discard the gender binary as a relevant construct, but do we experience being queer and trans differently from neurotypicals? Do we have differing challenges? How different are our stories?

I don’t know, although as someone new to the concept of not being neurotypical, I don’t see how I can know. All the stories I’ve been told, after all, are about neurotypicals, and that goes for queer and trans narratives as well.

What about other forms of disability? How hard is it to be queer or trans with any number of other physical disabilities? What about the experience when one has several? I can only imagine that my experience of being genderless as a (designated-female) person with mental illnesses, chronic pain and autism, is wildly different from the experience of being genderless as a (designated-female) Deaf person – and that we struggle with wildly different intersections of our genderlessness and our disabilities.

I can’t be queer and non-binary without experiencing chronic pain, autism, anxiety, depression. These things are not separable. Anxiety and depression make it so much harder to be my openly queer self in the first place. Chronic pain makes expression and activism, at times, physically impossible, and anxiety over just being myself worsens my pain. Autism makes it hard, in verbal communication, for me to say what I think and feel in ways others understand, and anxiety makes it harder to keep trying when others don’t … but chronic pain means that writing often isn’t the best way to for me to communicate. The act of being me means I’m negotiating at least one if not all of these things at any given time, no matter what I’m doing!

Then I have days where I just want to try on a pair of jeans in a shop where I feel safe and free of gendered restrictions, and I discover that while my pain isn’t presently halting me from doing so, its existence, and the limitations I suffer because of it, is.

(You had better believe I have days where I’m in too much pain to try on clothing!)

My story about change rooms loses power and meaning if I concentrate on just the fact of my chronic pain or just the fact of my gender. The distress I felt and feel is nothing without the limitations of my non-gender expression and the consequent narrowing of my options thanks to something that should be unrelated to my difficulty in finding clothing. A trans person without disability can just not bring a roller bag, after all. A high-income trans person has a broader range of shops to choose from in the search of finding somewhere safe and appropriate. I have fewer choices, thanks to the intersectionality of the factors that comprise my present identity, and I’ve either got to choose being in pain, actively and repeatedly defending my right to keep my bag with me, or find clothes elsewhere. Where? No idea!

When I see trans people talking about trans issues, though, I don’t often see people talking about problems caused only for trans people, yet by non-trans complications.

I want to feel like I’m not alone when disability (as my case in point) makes something, already a nightmare for trans people, even harder.

I’m tired of queer dialogue that doesn’t take into account the massive impact disability has on my experience of being queer. I’m tired of disability dialogue that doesn’t take into account the massive impact queerness (especially gender) has on my experience of disability.

Let’s stop breaking our identities down into easy-to-digest single puzzle pieces by talking about them as though the surrounding pieces don’t matter.

The pieces matter. They always matter.

We make our stories so much less without them.