Girl Work

Zefyr Lisowski

My tongue does unforgivable things.

I am standing in the museum and I am speaking with it.I am stealing a selfie with a friend in the museum mirror. I am standing in front of a robot arm that is masturbating.

Of course, I am a trans.

I will earnestly not deceive you.

The average lifespan of a trans, depending on ones’ source of information, is either twenty-seven years old or thirty-five years old or forty years old.

My friends all joke about this statistic. I am almost at my lifespan, says a boy I date a year ago. He is twenty-four when he says this.

Of course.

Of course, averages are tricky.

A trick, according to the dictionary, is a deception, and is also a loose woman.

The movie Trick, which I have never seen, is about two gay men living in New York City who fail to have sex.

They fail in kitchens, in apartments, in public parks.

I have failed at many things, but even in New York, even as a gay not-man, having sex has come naturally to me.

You are so gorgeous, a man says to me while selling peanuts from a cart. You must hear this all the time, a man says to me at work while eating an apple.

Masturbating robot arm moving up and down, up and down, up and down.

My first roommate in New York City did not say these things to me. He was poz, and mainly stayed in his dark bedroom, posted on Facebook about ACT UP. Wrote threats on our shared bathroom mirror.

The movie Trick came out in 1999, which is to say after the New York Times declared the AIDS crisis “over.”

On the newsstands, in the streets, elsewhere.

My first roommate hated the movie Trick.

Our apartment, which was disgusting, lay perched on top of a bus station in Bay Ridge, windows smeared with exhaust all day long. It sickened me.

The retch of exhaust. This is what sickened me.

As a trans, I am used to the notion of being sickened. For instance, I never helped my first roommate with anything. Instead, I’d walk on the long green tangle of boardwalk, silhouetted against the Verrazano Bridge.

These numbers I’ve cited above, the life expectancies of a trans.

They are deceptive.

Deception is a funny thing.

For instance, it is still legal in New York State to claim you were deceived by a trans person as your defense in the trial for their murder.

It is legal to claim this in nearly every state in the United States.

I was going to cite some examples of trials that used this tactic but began panicking as I prepared to do so.

This is an attempt at humor. This name of the legal tactic I was attempting to cite, colloquially, is called the “trans panic defense.”  

I am a panicking trans. 

A more whimsical kind of deception can be found if you are in the museum. Going down the stairs, you come across a masturbating robot arm tucked away in a stairwell. You have been deceived: you expect a stairwell, and find a stairwell with a masturbating robot arm.

I have given you several examples to ensure you are familiar with the concept of deception.

Now I will return to my main point.

The life expectancy of a trans is as low as stated because of several factors.

One of which is medical complications, which include HIV/AIDS but also various cancers. A mutual distrust of doctors.

One of which is suicide.

One of which, as you might have guessed, is murder.

When I was living in North Carolina, a neighbor, who was not trans, was murdered. Her death was all the papers were talking about. Weeks. Months. Her pale face, fluttering in the newsstands, flickering on TVs, elsewhere.

When a trans person is murdered, this does not usually happen. Usually no one talks about a trans person’s death unless they themselves are trans or they want to appear compassionate to an observer.

The news platform Democracy Now!, for instance, always covers transgender death. Amy Goodman shakes her heavy grey hair at each news item, and blinks tears away from her creased alabaster skin. She wants to appear compassionate to an observer.

I do not believe it is white trans who are ever murdered.

I walked the Verrazano Bridge every evening, illuminated in the floodlights.

Mainly these murder victims are Black women who are sex workers, or women in the global South who are not white who are sex workers.

In this way, this specific pattern of transgender death is not only gendered, but classed and racialized, as well.

As such, the lifespan of a trans, if you attempt to apply this information to all transes, is a deception.

I am, of course, myself a white woman, who has only occasionally done sex work.

The first time I did sex work, I did it over the internet, and a man with a salt-and-pepper moustache asked for my home address in all caps.

Shortly after this, I read a poem about having sex with my then-boyfriend, and an audience member approached me afterwards to say how much they liked the “sex work poem.”

There was no sex work in the poem. It was a deception. He was tricked.

All of this is to say, my own life expectancy cannot line up with my statistical life expectancy. My own, actual life expectancy has to be unknown.

I practice saying this on dates, rolling it around in my mouth like a glove. Unknown.

All my white skin. She makes so many speeches.


Now to return to the poem. You may have noticed me signposting my transitions in this way.

I am stealing this tactic from the Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier. She does it in her poem “38.”

It’s a poem about the thieving of Native lands by white interlocutors.

I am stealing this technique from her poem because I steal things.

This is not a sudden change of subject. In many ways, as I understand, I am a deception.

My whiteness, it thieves multitudes. It cloaks itself in skins.

I tell myself I steal because my gender has rendered me unstably employed, but it’s far more likely that I steal because I can get away with stealing.

An academic book. A coffee.

My alabaster skin, sinewed and sinewing.

My dress outside.

As murderers may know, there is nothing innocent in ones’ dress. My father, who taught me to steal, taught me this. There is nothing innocent about you in a dress.

A sinkingness in the stomach.

I am coming to my conclusion. Here is a tree. A field. Two white gay men running in the hollow of Central Park.

My long blonde hair—in hallways, in busses, in private places.

Now the news broadcast goes on. It consumes.

Now a man calls my name. Now many men call my name.

The arm moving up and down. A coffee. Spread across the city, this and more.

Saying, are you listening? Are you listening?

Zefyr Lisowski headshot

Zefyr Lisowski is a trans poet from the South. She’s the author of the short poetry collection Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and a poetry co-editor at Apogee Journal; her poems and essays have appeared in Waxwing, The Offing, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She’s received support from Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, Blue Mountain Center, and the Center for Book Arts;  Zef’s also the recipient of a 2020 Center for the Humanities Adjunct Incubator Grant for Wolf Inventory, a collaborative film about ghost stories and sexual violence. She lives in Brooklyn and at