I had never been to Shake Shack before November 2016.I had never been Danny outside of my brain before November 2016, either.
I was in Chicago, IL for the better part of 2016. I had just finished graduate school; I was a selectively-closeted nonbinary lesbian of color with a fresh-off-the-press Masters in Sociology with severe consequential burnout, whose next move was to move in with their family. The thing with my family is — as quite a few folx in the LGBTQA community can relate, I assume — I never felt safe enough to assert my gender or pronouns to them. It wasn't only because of the differences in our formalistic interests that caused friction in our relationship, it was their lack of empathy towards someone who didn't (or couldn't) prioritize winning in capitalism over their wellbeing; the passive aggression towards the Other. It was a whiplash, to say the least, to go from a graduate school full of like-minded comrades to a privileged home in the Midwest. I was desperately homesick for compassion.
Consequently, I started spending as little time as possible under their roof. I became a regular at many libraries throughout Chicago. I carried my laptop everywhere to frantically apply for jobs as my ticket out of the Windy City. I would wander the streets of Chicago long after the local libraries kicked me out for the night, rather than go back to the house I woke up in. That was, of course, soon met with street aggression. Once, I was aggressively berated by an old white man on the train for five full minutes: the colorful languages touched upon my non-whiteness, his confusion over the shape of my genitals, among many other things. Needless to say, I was terrified for my life.
Street aggression is a common form of harassment that threatens people's safety daily — especially so if you are perceived as a woman.
As the nation was anxious for the 2016 presidential election to come to pass, the number of hate crimes crept up. As an adjacently-femme-presenting, nonbinary queer person of color, I was no exception to it. A study shows that queer women, especially women of color, are significantly more likely to face street harassment than their straight/white counterparts. Countless other members of the LGBTQ community also face danger on the streets, many fearing for their lives; some lose it as a result. This is an under-discussed issue that simmers with the potential to threaten lives. Looking back, I can say with absolute confidence that had I had immediate access to a safety net of friends or a means to alert them instantly when in danger, my quality of life would have been significantly better.
Then, the election came and went.
The devastation that swept the marginalized communities that day seems to be still intangible to those who don't belong in any of them.
Since then, I had to take shelter from the near-constant threat of unsafe interactions on the streets by finding a fast food joint that was open late. Waiting until libraries were closed then wandering the streets was definitely not an option anymore — the numbers of emboldened transphobes and racists were increasing daily. I couldn’t risk putting myself in danger. I went to McDonald's, Starbucks, Chipotle — whatever place that was open and had a seat.
One evening, I walked by a Shake Shack and realized I had never had their burger. Not thinking much of it, I went in. When I was standing in line, something new happened. My brain was completely worn down by so many things — the election, the passive aggression from my family, not feeling safe enough to assert myself to them, the hopelessness of trying to find a job with a Master of Arts degree in hand. The memory of the old white man from the train misdirecting his rage at me echoed through my subconsciousness, halfway convincing me that maybe I really didn’t deserve space. I was in a constant state of self-doubt, despair, and numbness. The moment the cashier asked me what my name was for the order, though, something snapped. I had had it. I was going to claim space where I could.
So I told them my name was Danny.
This was a name I had cradled in my heart for a long time but never allowed myself to claim. I had only shared this name I had with my close friends during my graduate studies. They encouraged me to use it, seeing how wistful I was for the chosen name, but I never felt trans enough to justify it to myself (or, was it internalized transphobia?). The few minutes following the cashier punching in my name in the system, a part of me was in fight or flight mode. The internalized transphobia mocked me while I waited for my food, shaming me for even wanting to use a different name than what I was given. How dare I do such an illogical thing? Surely I wasn’t trans enough to not stick to the legal, given name, why couldn’t I be happy with what I already had? What was wrong with me?
But then the kitchen staff called my name. "Danny".
Let me tell you. I had never been so close to crying at a fast food joint in my life — nor had I felt pure, unobstructed gender euphoria, ever.
At that moment, in a random Shake Shack in Chicago, I was safe. I was safe from the razor-sharp winter, I was safe from the cold shoulder from my family, I was safe from the eyes of racist and transphobic strangers. I was safe from internalized transphobia. I was safe to be me. I was safe to be Danny.
This was the first time in my life that the hard shell of internalized transphobia caved in, letting light seep through. This moment was the first (of many to come, soon) time I resonated with the idea of safety deep in my bones. Sure, I was privileged to have a roof over my head unlike many other peers, but the sense of protection was nullified by the passive aggression from those who are supposed to be near and dear to me. This was the first step for me to own who I was. This was what began my transition. Through it, I realized I needed to find people who would lift me up and respect who I am, not scoff at those who are marginalized and call them “weirdos”. I had found safety in being Danny. Now I had to find those who wouldn’t threaten it.
I am in New York City, surrounded by a group of friends who respect me, uses they/them pronouns, and care about my wellbeing. To them, I am Danny. the voice in my head is no longer. They love me for who I am and I, them. I am now privileged to have a safety net, that is my chosen family. The peace of mind knowing that there is always someone willing to come to help you from a dangerous situation is truly incomparable. As someone who once had none of that and chock full of the opposite, I know bone-deep that this is not something to be taken for granted.