Running Toward

Bea Sullivan-Knoff

Making Peace with my Non-Passing Trans Body

bea sullivan knoff transgender runner

Recent Appellations from Strangers

  • “miss”
  • “sir”
  • “ma’am”
  • “he—she…”
  • “Are you in that cabaret show?”
  • “someone who’s doing something with gender”
  • “Is there a drag show going on right now?”
  • “DAMNNN”
  • “Is there a rehearsal going on for a drag show right now?”
  • “bro”

Living in a body that most people misgender by virtue of its physical properties (its pecs rather than breasts, the squareness of its jaw, that ever-peppering stubble) can be frustrating, to say the least.

I identify with feminine pronouns, despite a body most read as “male” (and that I don’t want to change), and no matter how much makeup and jewelry I adorn, no matter if I’m rocking the highest of heels and the swirliest of dresses, even my closest friends still sometimes call me “he.”

This is exhausting.

I try to make up for the differences as best I can: I raise my vocal pitch around strangers—especially in public bathrooms, for safety’s sake—or I just avoid speaking, if possible; I put extra effort into maneuvering my already-delicate wrists in dainty figure eights; I cross my arms over my pecs rather than breasts: anything at all to disguise the dissonance between who I am and who other people see. I don’t want to be attacked, after all.

But something changed one day, and I didn’t feel the need to try so hard to hide anymore.

I blame it on the weather.

* * *

Spring had finally arrived in Chicago. After an ambivalent beginning, cool and wet, the sun emerged in the Midwestern skies, replete with her warm and cheerful splendor, and all the world came out to see it. forget how many people live within a one-mile radius of you, packed in like livestock until the first real day of spring. The streets buzz with young parents pushing their children in new strollers, students, the homeless, stuffed shirts on their smoke break, women shopping, large men drinking beer too early in the afternoon, and everyone else who can get away from whatever it is they should be doing in order to enjoy the glory of the day.

The other thing that happens on the first real day of spring is that everyone digs into the depths of their dusty wardrobes for that favorite tank or that cute top they bought last summer at that sidewalk sale. Gender surges onto the streets in a more obvious way. Bodies wear less, leave less to the imagination. Beneath what remains can be easily approximated—that body has a penis; that body has breasts, we know without thinking, that body looks like the kind of body with which I’d like to bump bodies; that body does not. For those of us living outside easily intelligible gender, however, we suddenly find ourselves grappling with more bare-fleshed surroundings, and the impending, unpleasant predicament of being misread all the more.

* * *

When I first started wearing women’s clothing, I didn’t know how to shop for myself. The armpits pinched and the chest sagged; the hem barely covered the wrong genitalia. Even now, with more experience, I still constantly readjust: my posture, my outfit, my expectations of happiness.

But somehow, someone saw me—in a pizzeria, of all places, in Buenos Aires, at night. He saw what I was wearing and he knew what was underneath. And despite—no, because of my dissonance, he leaned over to me, his breath already fogging with the thick scent of beer, and called me linda. This means “beautiful” in Spanish, conjugated to indicate that the recipient of the compliment is feminine.

When the transman sitting next to me called me this word,it felt as though a small anvil had been placed in the center of my flat chest, grounding me in my non-passing transgender identity in a way that I had never previously known, and that I have not since rediscovered. After all, gay men tend to like men who are still men; straight men tend to like women who were born as such. It would be nice to feel beautiful with frequency, but so would a lot of things.

Which brings me back to my springtime conundrum: what do I do, therefore, importantly, about beach season: do I squeeze into bikinis or one-pieces even though my pecs rather than breasts will surely fill them poorly? Do I tuck away that impish appendage or do I allow her to poke obviously from the bottoms of my swimwear? How do I even begin to hope that people will use the right pronouns with me at first, half-nude glance?

* * * couple days ago I went for a run. The heat of the previous few days made me lively and adventurous again. I’d temporarily hung up the form-fitting dresses and selected, instead, loose-fitting athletic clothes that are more conducive to my long, sweaty days of classes and bicycle riding. I hadn’t been wearing makeup. I liked feeling connected to my body, a body that is ever at the ready to pick up and keep moving, getting covered in dirt and cuts along the way and all the happier for it.

On this most beautiful of days, with the sun out and radiant, and with the prospect of concrete beneath my feet, I considered a running shirt or a tank top. I imagined my sweat soaking heavily into the fabric.

Slowly, aware of the implications, and with a mischief that reminded me of inventing masturbation, I slid into the bootiest of booty shorts in my collection. I felt powerful and femme-tastic. I strapped on my knee braces, slipped into my Vibrams, and threw on a bandana to tame my long and not-yet-long-enough hair. And then… I went out the door without a top on.

The sun felt good on my skin. It took me longer to start sweating than normal what with the wind whispering along the contours of my bare and fleshy surface; my bright and un-tanned body-husk; my pale, imperfect blood-pelt; my audacious organ-rind, my pecs-rather-than-breasts.

“You’re topless!” exclaimed one friend as I whizzed by.

“Yep!” I replied, grinning.

With concrete moving beneath my non-normative feet, and with every non-normative step and dodge I took around the sun-worshipping masses, I stopped caring that people would probably use “he” first upon first seeing me. My physiology has not journeyed neatly from one pole to its opposite, so why should I expect the general population to make the parallel linguistic journey for me?

I have a beautiful body: thick in places, with enough room to hold; wide-set ribs that make fitting into dresses often difficult; slender and delicate wrists. Most people still read this body as “male” and wrongly assume that such a clinical distinction reserves for me only the most masculine of pronouns, but I know better, and those that get to know me will soon enough learn.

The lake reached out of sight as I ran the length of its grassy shore. Somewhere just before the horizon, I could see all the body ideals to which I had ever subscribed–lean masculinity, curvy femininity–sink into the blue-grey water.

I just get to be bea, I thought.

The sun shone warmly on my pecs. My ankles were already caked in dirt. I smiled.

About the author

Bea Sullivan-Knoff

Bea Sullivan-Knoff

A Chicago-born-and-(for-now)-based writer, performer, and researcher, Bea Cordelia Sullivan-Knoff uses her playwriting, slam poetry, blogging, and academia for transgender activism and other forms of social change. Four of her plays have been produced to date and a handful of her poems published. In a strange turn of events, she was once a guest writer for an episode of All My Children. Check out her latest (including an upcoming autobiographical one-lady show) at or

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