The other day I was waiting in line at a store when a stranger attempted to strike up a conversation with me:
Stranger, abruptly: "what does the button on your purse mean?"
Me: "oh, it is a symbol for trans pride*"
Kindly stranger, smiling: "oh cool, my daughter is trans!"
Me: *smiles awkwardly*
Kindly stranger: "that's really cool, I like that."
Me: *smiles wider and nods* "thank you" *hastily buries self in phone*
I wanted to say more. The stranger had two elementary-age kids with them and I felt glad that the kids could be themselves. Wish I could have thought faster and said something meaningful like, "thank you for being an accepting parent. It makes a world of difference." But in that moment, it was all I could do to engage as much as I did.
There was a time about a decade ago when I would have responded by making eye contact, asking questions, and offering resources including my contact information. I would have been thinking about what that trans kid might need and what the parent might not have access to. I would have felt in my element and found the conversation easy.
But now, what I felt was just extreme overwhelm, as if lights were flashing and sirens were going off and I was being pulled in one direction and pushed in another. Part of it was from standing with my back to most of the store, part of it was feeling stressed about being next in line and not wanting to annoy the cashier, part was the overhead noise, and part was a piece of me saying "wow you have zero self-preservation instincts -- what if they hated trans people" and then the other part of me arguing back.
I feel such a sense of loss at current me's feckless response to this opportunity to offer potentially life-saving resources to a trans kid. I was just so thrown by how unexpected it was that in such a sensory-overload environment, I couldn't even process what was happening. I replied on auto-pilot and had to delay my emotional and mental response to the meaning of what the person was saying in order to simply absorb the literal words. I didn't make a conscious choice to say either of the two things I said -- they just popped out.
I couldn't really cope in the moment with an unexpected, completely novel experience in a loud, busy environment. But now that I have had that experience, I will be prepared for it to happen again. I will make up a sheet of local resources and try to let that be my touchstone and conversational foundation if someone says "my [friend/relative] is trans." I can ask how plugged in they are to the community and if they would like some resources. I can hope that something like this happens again and when it does, that I can be effective and useful in my response.
*it is actually a symbol for a gender and sexuality minorities conference which no longer seems to exist, but I used a shorthand without thinking