The TERF on my Shoulder By Riley Zahn

The TERF on my Shoulder

There’s a trans exclusionary radical feminist that lives on my shoulder.
She thinks I’m a man.
Let’s call her Janice, or Cathy or Society,
let’s call her the TERF on my shoulder.

She’s my anti-conscience, imagine Jiminy Cricket,
but transphobic,
always reminding Pinocchio he will never be real.

She is the lingering feeling that I don’t belong
the deep breath I take before entering a women’s bathroom
and don’t release until I leave the women’s bathroom
She is the hole tucking has worn into my favorite jeans,
The moment of panic every time I interrupt someone
or show any anger.
She calls me rapist every time
I message a lesbian on tinder
or don’t disclose
my transness to the drunk boy putting
His tongue in my mouth.

She is the series of blue ink marks I write on my hand
in a women’s studies classroom:
One tally mark for each time I speak in class
not to exceed 5 tally marks, because she’s waiting
with accusations of male socialization and domination.
A cis woman who talks too much is a bitch.
A trans woman who talks too much is a man,
so I make tally marks. I wonder, if I press hard enough,
can I make myself bleed?
She tells me, you can be a real woman if you don’t bleed.

I’ve faced similar oppression as her.
Look! I even kept the receipts,
I framed them and hung them over the fireplace.
One for every idea taken out of my mouth
and pinned to the lapel of a male colleague.
One for every disapproving look for holding the hand
of someone who is not a man.
One for every time a strange man followed me home,
holding my safety in the palm of his hand,
his male gaze searing the hairs on the back of my neck.
I show her the receipts, but she never accepts them
She says,
“Sorry we don’t accept isolated incidents, only systematic oppression.”
I wonder if there is any way
I can live my life that she will approve of.

I tell her she’s wrong about me
But she will not listen.

And I tell her, I exist
And I am a woman
And I am real
And I am real
And I am real
But she does not listen,

and every time I try to smash her,
I just give myself a bruise.

By Riley Zahn


Riley Zahn (she/her) is a trans woman, poet, educator and graduate student from Mankato, MN. She spends her time learning, unlearning, playing nerdy card games, and wondering if the people who work at the Chinese Buffet place are judging her for how often she eats there alone.

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