6 min read

What Rainbows Sound Like

Even Neil Patrick Harris thinks you should butch up.
A tab on an aluminum can opened between a butter knife and a long black stiletto thumbnail with white tip.
hey u, butter knives are your bubbly-water-opening friend.

ON THE 325th day of my 41st year, I saw a rattlesnake and screamed like a lady.

It’s one of my favorite jokes in movies, when a grown man screams supposedly like a woman—not because I think it’s right or good or even funny to ridicule men for supposedly feminine characteristics (like totally appropriate reactions to excitement, surprise, or snakes), but because it’s a soothing reminder that whatever a man’s chromosomes or socializations, that sound can come out of their bodies. It’s always been technically producible by mine.

Still, on that day I felt weird about the scream. I’m not proud that I felt weird about it. I was hiking with another guy, butcher and straighter but probably not at all fazed by the sound, not because he was also trans (which he was) but because it came from me. I imagined, with some shame, that that’s what he expected a guy like me to sound like. I was wearing nail polish and a crop top, which I didn’t feel weird about, but those expressions, I had controlled. I had chosen them. My response to the rattlesnake, it had escaped without my permission.

If the scream had asked and I’d had the option, I’d have said no.

Don’t scream. There were moments—there were so many moments—when my life depended on it. It was a long time ago, but I haven’t forgotten. I’ll surely never forget. I remember a time when I was in grade school and came bounding down the stairs one night when our house was quiet, not super late but late enough to be dark, the carpeted staircase dim, not a lot of lights on and not any people until suddenly there was: my father, turning the corner at the bottom, starting to walk up. Immediately, I collapsed, and hugged myself into a small corner of the narrow stair against the wall, a scared reflex. But I did not scream. Instead I choked the scream that had tried to arise and emitted a low, guttural moan that was so involuntary and animal it terrified me.

He issued his own startled “Oh!” to my response, and laughed.

Decades later, when I was 38, a roommate and I entered opposite ends of a hallway at the same time in the dark and I did not collapse but did do a similar fail-scream, a choked moan.

On the hike, though, in the Bay Area sunshine in my neighborhood forest with my friend, I took a step toward a rattlesnake lying partway on the path and opened my mouth and screamed, jumping back to put my hand on my friend’s shoulder, jumping away from the snake with full-throated, high-pitched, squealing abandon. Just a few days earlier, the same friend had asked me how I felt after a session of Neuro Emotional Technique with a practitioner who helps patients release stored traumatic stress, and I had said: safe. A therapist had recently asked me the same question (How are you feeling right now) and I’d given a long and rambling answer trying to describe it before he said: So…safe?

Ah, yes, I laughed. I had heard of that. Is this what it felt like? I didn’t know. Safe enough to scream, evidently, which I don’t know if gets its own special designation, but to me, it feels like it should.

HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED when I screamed.


No, not nothing: The rattlesnake retreated. He saw or felt my jump or the vibration of the screaming but whatever it was, he moved out of my way. He went slowly, rattling at us, but turned around and backed up off the path.

My friend and I continued on. I felt uneasy—I have seen the jokes about shrieking males in the movies! I was taught to hate femininity even when I presented as female, and everyone in this misogynist world knows that the only thing worse than a female is a femme male. Four months after the scream, I turned on Netflix’s then-new show Uncoupled, specifically because (I even said, out loud, to myself alone in my apartment) “it has gay boys in it!” But fewer than four minutes in, opening credits still rolling, actual gay Neil Patrick Harris says to another gay, “Please, no squealing, Eric. You’re the reason blue states turn red.”

So says even liberal gay television, gay men are responsible for the political oppression that deprives queers of life and human rights, because, screaming.

Somewhere between my snake-induced outcry and a gay icon shaming me for it, I got my first ever nail extensions. As I was having the long almond acrylic painted sparkly pink, a middle-aged cis woman wearing a wedding ring took a seat next to me for her own appointment, looked over at my station, and lost her mind. She couldn’t believe I was doing it, and she could not (or would not) stop telling me that I was crazy, even after I got a little short with her. But once I had supposedly very femme nails, I couldn’t believe I ever hadn’t. I got them reshaped and repainted every couple weeks, until the extensions grew out and it was my very own cells and keratin, hardened into decorateable accessories made by my own regenerating human body. They’re such an integral part of my gender that when I didn’t have them for a yearlong break after I moved into my RV, I felt like parts of my fingers were missing.

“I couldn’t do that,” the freaked-out woman at my first salon appointment said. She followed it with the same sentence many other women have when telling me long nails wouldn’t work for them, completely unsolicited as I haven’t tried to sell any to a single one: “I use my hands.”

Me too! Almost everyone with hands uses them, I think. And it’s true that I need to adapt the way I use my fingers, but humans, as I point out in response sometimes, are very adaptable. It is not, I say at others, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nor that have women of color, however people heap more racism and classism on them for wearing their nails long. Strangers regularly approach me to comment how the more femme fingernails—or the people wearing them—get, the more useless they become.

“Is it harder to type with nails like that?” a very old man behind me in line at Wal-Mart asked the other day. It’s a fair question. A little bit, I told him. But I do it every day.

“Good for you!” he said.

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