I spent the better part of the last six weeks on the road and it finally caught up to me.
Over 20 gigs and 12 airplane rides in 40 days, and finally my carbon footprint kicked me in the ass. I woke up the first morning home with a throat full of razorblades and a fever, and two days later a nasty green monster had taken up residence in my chest.
A week later it was worse, not better. My girlfriend, my mother and the little old lady across the street were all in agreement — I needed to go see the doctor and get me some pills. At least get myself checked out, since there were some nasty things going around and it was best not to take any chances.
I have had the same doctor in Vancouver for the last 18 years. She never blinks an eye at my tattoos, or my chest hair. She is unfazed by piercings. As much as I hate going to the doctor, I have learned to love and respect her over the years.
She works at a clinic on Commercial Dr. She calls me Ivan. She knows I’m queer and couldn’t care less. She reads my books.
The only thing she has ever questioned me about is smoking cigarettes, and even then all she did was ask me if there was anything she could do to help me quit.
But I wasn’t sick in Vancouver. I was sick in a small Ontario hamlet that doesn’t even have its own gas station; much less a queer- and trans-positive walk-in clinic.
Every time I tried to imagine driving myself 20 minutes into Arnprior and taking off my shirt in front of a strange doctor in a small town, a prickly lump of panic would swell up in my chest.
I could see it unfolding like a homo horror movie plot in my mind: the doctor walking into the waiting room with my chart in his hand and calling out my legal name, and then doing a double-take when I stood up to follow him.
Even though all I needed was a stethoscope on my chest, in my nightmare I am naked except for a paper dress, on my back on the examination bed with my icy feet in the stirrups, trying to explain my complicated gender identity to an aging ex-military doctor with a brush cut and still muscular forearms.
There are needlepoint Bible verses framed and hung on the walls of his office. His wife likes to do needlepoint when she isn’t teaching Sunday school or volunteering on the right to life pregnancy hotline. I am crying and he is frowning.
It probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near this terrifying, but I am cursed with an active imagination. So I didn’t go.
Ten days later I still wasn’t getting better, and my girlfriend sent me a link to a walk-in clinic in downtown Ottawa. There were rainbow flags all over the home page of their website, so I called to see if I could book myself an appointment.
The receptionist explained to me that I lived outside of their catchment area and would have to find somewhere closer to where I lived. I told her I was living in a very small town, and that I didn’t really fit into a gender box, and that I was a bit afraid to go to a small town doctor.
She told me I was just going to have to get over my social phobia if I wanted medical attention.
I swallowed, not quite believing what I had just heard.
I thanked her for all her help, letting the sarcasm seep into my voice, and hung up the phone.
Then I paced back and forth across the kitchen floor 20 times or so, trying not to let the tears spill over my bottom lids, and picked up the phone and hit redial.
I asked to speak to the clinic’s director and explained to her what had just happened.
To her credit, she was as horrified as I was by what I had just been told. She apologized profusely and assured me that a terrible mistake had been made and that she would talk to the receptionist and make sure that nothing like this ever happened again.
She said that because I worked in Ottawa, I could come in the next day and see a doctor. A doctor who didn’t care if I had chest hair and a girlfriend.
All the way into the city the next morning I thought about it all. I’ve heard the stories. Trans men who are saving up for top surgery and haven’t had a breast examination or a mammogram in years because they felt the same prickly lump of panic in their chest at the thought of a stranger touching the breasts they didn’t like to be reminded that they still had.
The lump of panic weighed more than the lump the doctor would be feeling around for, so they didn’t go.
Trans women with prostate glands afraid of judgmental doctors with unkind hands.
All those bodies that belong to my people, people who have learned ways to hide their breasts and tuck their penis away and shave and pluck and bind parts of themselves. People who can’t be touched in certain places by their lovers in the dark, much less a stranger in a white coat under a fluorescent glow.
When was the last time I had a pap test?
I thought of all the small town queers and trans folks out there who don’t have access to the progressive-minded inner city clinics that fly the rainbow flag because their postal code got in the way.
I realized that finding a doctor who I felt comfortable and safe with was only the first step. The hardest part was convincing myself to go.