| Arts & Culture
Queer Life On Running Shirtless While Trans
Maybe I was tired of hiding and being afraid. Maybe I was just overheating and my nipples were starting to chafe. Maybe it was all or none of the above.
Ever since I started running shirtless, I’ve found that the streets are at their most forgiving at 4 a.m. There’s a hushed kind of quiet. Dark roads and windows unfurl into a beckoning hand. When the skies are clear, the moon limns everything in quicksilver. When the clouds sag close enough to touch, muscle memory and wide-eyed trust lead my feet through places where the ground disappears. The feeling of falling transfigures into the heady lightness of escape.
It’s a world adjacent to apocalyptic, where the prospect of being the last person alive elicits a feeling closer to relief than horror. Where you can almost trick yourself into believing that the most dangerous thing around is your own imagination.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more comfortable in my own skin as a trans person as I do then.
I only started waking up this early because I started a job a few time zones ahead of me. It’s true that I could have moved my runs to an hour slightly less ungodly. But the first time I decided to take my shirt off, hunched against a tree far from the streetlights and prying eyes that probably weren’t there, I knew I wasn’t going back.
Going shirtless in public is something of a transitional milestone for many transmasculine people. The first time this happens is a moment I’ve often seen played out by a beach or a pool—eyes squinting into the sun, teeth and chest and scars bared in joy. It’s akin to the feeling of finally being able to recognize yourself in the mirror. Of a T-shirt finally falling the right way over your body. Of finally being able to take in a breath so deep you can feel your bones giving way to euphoria.
But private self-recognition is different from having others bear witness to it. It’s both affirmation and benchmark—if not of how much one is accepted by society then of how well one passes under the radar. I safeguarded my joy because I didn’t trust anyone to handle something so fragile with care. This meant keeping my body covered from everyone everywhere at all times except when I was sure I was alone. I didn’t want anyone to know that it was still so fragile in the first place.
As soon as I felt wind cutting against the bare skin of my chest, however, miles of empty road ahead of me, I thought I figured it out. Part of the exhilaration came from realizing a long-harbored desire I didn’t think I’d ever fulfill. But a large part of it was also because I didn’t have to worry about whether someone’s stare was lingering a little too long. I didn’t have to wonder if it was because their eyes had snagged on my chest scars or if they couldn’t quite figure out my gender or if they had figured out my gender and were going to share their unsolicited opinion with me.
The darkness stripped me of my shape. I melded with the shadows pooling between the streetlights, the creatures with flashing eyes that were there and gone. I was pure breath and force, airborne and beyond reach. In these moments, I could almost believe that nothing and no one could catch me.
The next time I visited my parents, I packed only one running shirt and was feeling inordinately pleased about it. Yet another perk to add to the list: no chafing, improved thermoregulation, imperviousness to rain, smaller laundry loads. And now, lighter luggage.
At that point, I had technically come out to my parents twice: the first, after a month on testosterone; the second, a month after top surgery. Their reactions were identical each time—deep shock followed by deep hurt followed by a period of bargaining that ended at an impasse. And even that was soon lost to a relentless tide of changed topics and swallowed comments, washing us back to the status quo. I was resigned to having this be enough—I told them, and they knew. Whether or not they acknowledge it, I decided, was out of my hands. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly not the worst-case scenarios I’ve seen play out for others.
But I realized coming out was going to be an ongoing occurrence when my mom caught me coming back home from a run one dark morning with my chest bare. She was so scared that she screamed.
“Girls are supposed to be covered,” she said, a dark mass huddled against the sofa. I was prepared for a reprimand, a fit of outrage. I didn’t expect her to sound so shaken. “What if someone sees you?”
I wanted to tell her that I’m not a girl. I wanted to point out that I don’t have “ female-presenting nipples ” that need to be freed from social media guidelines. I wanted to ask her what about me still looked so feminine that she feared for my safety. I wanted to explain to her that the taboo aura around the feminine chest is a product of centuries of sexism and the entrenchment of the gender binary.
But none of this would have meant much to my mom, a first-generation immigrant who watches old Chinese soaps with wistfulness in her eyes. Someone who dreams of demure daughters with downcast eyes, tending to generations of blood bound together under the same roof. And who am I to protest, when I only ever take my shirt off when no one is around to see?
So instead, I sank back into the shadows and stole away into my room. Good thing I brought one shirt , I thought.
I never actually wore the shirt.
I wore it when I went out the door, took it off as soon as I was out of sight, then put it back on when I returned. I continued running shirtless even as frost bit my skin red, as the wind shrunk me into myself and set my teeth chattering hard enough to crack. It felt less like getting away with something and more like a compromise no one agreed to.
I never actually wore the shirt. I wore it when I went out the door, took it off as soon as I was out of sight, then put it back on when I returned.
It didn’t help that I began to feel like I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought I was. Of course I knew I wasn’t the only one up at 4 a.m. It wasn’t uncommon to encounter another person shuffling down the street for one reason or another that wasn’t my business, much like mine wasn’t theirs. We were just two shadows who, for all intents and purposes, didn’t cross paths in the first place.
But sometimes it felt like eyes had lodged silently into my back, following long after I turned the corner. Like the car coming down the road will level a loaded barrel at me. Like the dark figure just a few paces ahead is waiting for me, has been waiting for weeks or months just for this very moment.
I’ve lived much of my life in bubbles of luck and privilege. Where safety is just staying vigilant and making yourself a small target. But then I think about someone walking in with a gun at the Chinese salon my parents and I frequent. I think about someone following me into my apartment building with a fist already in motion. I think about walking through the same place where someone who looked like me and my family was spat at , pushed , and kicked until they were spilling on the ground. I think about a hundred different attackers coming in a hundred different violent ways and wonder if I’ll be able to see them coming, or if seeing them coming would matter at all. Even with the advantages I have, it feels naive not to consider when my borrowed luck will run out. When I’ll be next.
I thought that transitioning would make me less of a target in some respects—an armor of masculinity almost bulletproof with certain angles and clothing choices. All it would take to pass would be slightly baggier shorts and a loose shirt in duller colors, changing my name and letting my voice sink until it’s scraping gravel. It’s an uncertified agreement with society at large, the terms of which I am still negotiating. But it’s still one more layer of protection on top of living in a place that isn’t overtly racist or transphobic, on top of being able to run without being seen as a threat or something to be hunted down.
But I think that deep down, my parents and I both know that our safety is conditional. And maybe that’s one of the presumed truths they’ve tried to get me to wear like its own form of armor: Girls stay covered; Asian people avoid conflict. They point out women walking down the street with a target on their exposed backs, cousins who died for mixing with the wrong crowd. They tell me to stand down when I want to speak up. “It’s not worth it,” they tell me, because they have seen the consequences. And because they know that I have too—that despite my understanding that it often doesn’t matter what you wear or whether or not you stand your ground or run away or stay silent or scream, I still cling to these talismans of safety—they leave it at that.
“It’s just how it is,” they tell me, each time this topic raises itself up from the dead.
They know, they tell me, because it’s how they got to where they are now—one kid and a creaking fence thousands of miles away from where they started, laugh lines and a crown of graying hairs commemorating their survival from war, from being refugees and aliens, from the fate of their friends and neighbors. They know, because they can still feel the pulse of crisis fluttering just below their skin.
A body becomes more than itself when it’s a subject of theoretical inquiry. There, it’s easier to see being trans as a form of liberation, or being Asian as a source of power. It’s easier to reappropriate being seen as a monster to be driven out or slain—to transfigure what is supposed to make you feel shame into that which allows you to transcend dull mores no one else realizes are shackles. It’s not “just how it is” because it hasn’t always been this way. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be.
But theory is a balm, not a sword or a shield. It may save my life, but it won’t protect me from attempts to physically take it away from me. It won’t stop me from feeling like I’m being chased or wondering if this will be the moment I lose it all.
Sometimes I think my attachment to my 4 a.m. runs is my version of what theorist Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism —when your salvation becomes your undoing. It’s possible that I’ve miscast the dark, empty streets as a shelter when they’re nothing more than a fantasy of safety. Some days I think that fantasy might end up being a fatal delusion. Other days, I am prepared to live in that fantasy as long as I can.
Then one morning, I woke up to find sunlight creeping over the rooftops.
I had overslept. A leaden dread crawled through my veins until I finally swung my legs onto the floor. Just put a shirt on , I thought to myself. Don’t be so dramatic.
I stepped outside. It was strange to see people and cars milling through the streets. It was stranger still to feel cloth wrapped around my torso. The collar of my shirt was rather like a fist tightening with every brush against my throat. I felt self-conscious, and embarrassed for feeling self-conscious. The crowd didn’t spare me a glance.
Theory is a balm, not a sword or a shield. It may save my life, but it won’t protect me from attempts to physically take it away from me.
Or if they did, maybe it was because I had ducked under a tree with my hands fisted into the hem of my shirt, staring sightlessly back at them as I deliberated. Heat licked up my neck and pooled under my arms. A dog hustled past, shirtless owner in tow. The runner had one hand outstretched, fingers lightly skimming across the top of a flowering shrub.
Maybe it was the yearning that lit inside me. Maybe I was tired of hiding and being afraid. Maybe I was just overheating and my nipples were starting to chafe. Maybe it was all or none of the above. As I took off my shirt and felt air sweep across my skin, I decided that I didn’t need any one reason to bare my chest when I run. I didn’t need to justify reveling in the feeling of sun beating down, in feeling so light I could almost be airborne.
I know I’m lucky that this is a choice I can make—that reclaiming my body could be as easy as taking my shirt off, that the risk of living fully has an outcome where I am still alive and whole. So why not choose to take it? Whether or not someone sees it, my skin is still my own.