Story Update: Charlie Poulson “I Look at Being Trans as a Superpower.”

by Charlie Poulson

Nathan: Welcome to this week’s Story Update. Today, we’re going to be talking with Charlie Poulson. But first, let’s take a look his story.

Charlie: My name is Charlie Poulson and I’m from Des Moines, Iowa. I guess my story kind of starts going back to college when I first started transitioning. It was in Ames, Iowa, which is a little bit more on the conservative side. It’s mostly an Agriculture school so when I came out and started transitioning it kind of turned heads a little bit. But I was very open about everything from taking testosterone to surgery and everything else that kind of came with the whole package of transitioning.

But then that Fall semester, my last year of college, we did a study abroad trip to Rome and this was the first time I had gone somewhere after surgery where nobody knew my past, nobody had known that I used to be a woman. So I was a little bit worried that if I wasn’t passing that something might happen to me. But luckily, the culture is kind of where everybody kind of keeps to themselves.

The one moment where I was kind of like, “Okay, I can probably live kind of stealthy” was, I needed a haircut. It was getting long and I looked up barbershops and was like, “Alright, I’m getting a haircut from someone who doesn’t speak English at all. This is going to be a little difficult but I’m willing to figure it out.” And I was walking around and I turned this corner and there was this little hole in the wall store and it looked really cool from the outside and I looked in a little bit further and I realized it was a barbershop but it was a barbershop that hadn’t been touched since it opened probably in the ‘20s or something. This little tiny old man with white hair comes shuffling out from behind the curtain and I tried, I just slaughtered all Italian skills that I had at that point and I asked him for a haircut. And I brought in a picture of how I wanted it cut because I figured that would be the easiest way to go about that. But at the same time, a) I was nervous because I was getting a haircut in a foreign country in a language I wasn’t comfortable speaking fluently and b) barbershops are kind of like, almost a rite of passage for any kind of masculine, masculinity in general speaking. I was sitting in there and on top of that I was kind of worried about if he would figure me out, what am I going to do, but it just kind of, everything was totally fine, I didn’t have anything to worry about.

It’s the funny little things guys do between each other. For example, if you don’t know a guy and you are crossing paths with him, you nod downwards, but if you do know someone you nod upwards. It’s just little tiny unspoken things like that. And when he was cutting my hair it was a very unspoken, “Don’t worry, I got you, I’m going to cut your hair, make you feel better, you’re good to go.” That sort of thing.

That trip to Rome was like an entire turning point. It was definitely kind of like an interlude between two different books or something. It was kind of like a taste of what my life could be like. It could be something where I have more time to focus on design and things I really enjoy doing and I don’t need to worry about, “Do I need to tell anybody that I’m trans, do I need to out myself, that sort of thing.”

I think this story is important to share because not very many people have conversations about transitioning past surgery. They kind of see surgery as the end-all to every single transitioning problem but that’s not really the case at all. Past surgery, okay, great, that’s done, but how do you navigate the world past transitioning. You finally have had been on testosterone or hormones long enough that you can navigate your own emotions, but for example when I first started taking testosterone when I was getting the prescription from my doctor, he was going through a list of all the things that could possibly happen and you have to legally sign off on every single one, and he suggested going to therapy the entire time I was on testosterone. And he was super sweet, he looked at me and he goes, “I don’t think you personally need therapy. It’s not your fault, it’s society’s fault.” And it was like, “Okay, how do I navigate that.” So it’s good to keep talking about things past top surgery.

Nathan: Okay. Welcome Charlie. How’s it going?

Charlie: Good. How are you?

Nathan: Doing pretty well.  It’s good to see you again. We were just chatting before this and yeah, it’s been… it’s been five years now. So I’m looking forward to hearing what’s what’s going on in your life. One quick thing about your story that I’m curious about the past five years is that – have you had any other experiences like the one that you had and the, you know, getting that haircut. And I don’t even know if there’s a right phrase for that, but sort of like an affirming experience in some way that… that you can remember had an impact on you as that haircut did?

Charlie: It’s interesting because the way that I look at that experience is totally different now.  So I remember at that point in my transition, it was so important to me to find somewhere that was…. felt  more belonging.  And it was interesting to look at that in terms of, you know, God, it’s been, almost a decade since I started taking T.  And so back then, the objective was more to fit in as cis-gendered as much as possible. Whereas now I look at being trans as like a super power  and I’m super proud to be trans.

Whereas before it was kind of, like, okay, we’re just going to slide in and be as assimilated into society as possible.  Whereas now, I’m like, Oh no, I actually want to have experiences where I can say that I’m trans like very comfortably.

But I think it was important to have those experiences, like the barbershop,  where I could like have that moment of what it feels like to pass as cisgender.  And it’s such a double-edged sword of early in my transition, like I wanted nothing more than to just pass.  And now, if I see like other folks who are most likely queer identifying out in public and I want to make friends, like, it’s such a weird thing to try to approach them and be like, Hello, fellow queers.

Like I… I just look like a cis dude who’s trying to like chat them up.  So it’s funny because now the barber that I go to, the shop is very accepting and there’s actually a lot of other trans guys that go there.  But it’s not like a machismo situation where you kind of have to blend in or, like, they’re not saying super misogynistic things at all whatsoever.

I’ve definitely been another barbershops before where that was kind of like the shop talk and it was like super uncomfortable.  But not quite like that. I think it has changed a bit based off of how I view myself as trans.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s so interesting. So you’re… you’re basically… you’re saying if I have this right, that, you know, at the experience in your story, you were so eager to fit in and blend in and not stand out in any way. You just want it to pass as a man to other people. And now you’re, it’s almost like the opposite. You’re like, Wait, make sure that you know that I’m one of you, talking to queer people.

Was there… do you remember the moment, the first time that happened, or the moment where you realized like, Wait, I… how can I make sure that I… that other people know that I am of their community? Was it like a moment as there was with the barbershop or did it just kind of happen over time?

Charlie: Yeah, actually, funnily enough, it happened in Italy, in Rome at the same time.

Nathan: That’s your place!

Charlie: Yeah that’s… it must be. But I remember I was on one of the trains, like going from our apartment to the studio and I saw someone who – and the hard part about it is I can’t really assume that people are trans. And that’s the hard part is, like, they might be in the situation that I was in, where all I wanted to do was pass as cis gender. So if somebody were to spot me out as trans, I would be not thrilled with that.

So, I saw someone who I thought was a trans woman. And at that point I had… there was like nobody else who was queer in like the group of people that were over there. And I just so desperately wanted to be around my community. So I saw this person and like so badly, I wanted to be like, Hey, in whatever broken Italian that I knew to try to explain that, like, I’m also trans. You know, but that’s when I was like, Oh, okay. I’m noticing also that people are staring at this person. And like how uncomfortable that must be.

And my staring probably is not contributing to it, but I’m not staring because I’m gawking at this person. I’m formulating in my head of is there some kind of thing that I can flag or say, or like a secret code or handshake or something to let them know that I’m part of their community, but I still haven’t figured that out.

Nathan: So when you were on the train, did you… did y’all make eye contact?

Charlie: Yeah. Yeah. We made eye contact.  But I don’t know. I feel like, I mean, for me personally, like I can usually tell when somebody is trans. I think just naturally, but also, I think I can usually tell within their eyes. So I kind of was like, Oh, this is my one string of, trying to make it work. Like, can you see that, like, I’m also trans? Like, it’s okay.  But yeah, nothing was ever said, and it just was two people on the same train for like a very short amount of time. But yeah.

Nathan: So what would you say to someone who is kind of in your situation at the barbershop in your story? If they are – I know that you’re in a different place now, but if someone was looking for… they’re at a point in their life when they’re trying to  fit in and blend in and they’re not ready to, you know, they don’t want to stand out in any way. What would you… what would you tell them or advise them?

Charlie:  I think I would tell them that their need to, or their want to blend in is super valid. And I totally understand wanting to have that experience because I think it better informs who you become as your true self.

And so for me, I don’t think I would have totally understood the value of, like being out and trans as an entrepreneur, and that being kind of rare. But I think it’s also interesting too, to look back five years ago and how I was working in the professional field and like how I look at it now, it’s totally different.

But I now talk about being trans in, like, all… all of my work that I do. And all my clients know that I’m trans and it’s super nice and I have really great clients now. And I can say no to ones that are really bad. But it’s almost as if being out iandn trans now is like a filter for clients that I wouldn’t want to work with in the first place.

But I think I also needed to be in that spot that somebody else might be in now to understand why those clients, who would not know that I was trans and like that I would have to keep that a secret for me of why that’s not healthy or like why that’s not something that I personally wanted in the end.

So it’s super important to get as many experiences as possible. And sometimes that’s just part of that experience collection.

Nathan: Got it.  So…  so what else is going on in your life? I know that when we spoke first, you were in Brooklyn, as I was. Where are you these days? And what’s… what’s going on in Charlie’s life these days?

Charlie: Yeah. So I’m in Portland, Oregon now.  Lots has been happening here.  I think we’re on day 200 something of protests and they’re still going strong.

Nathan: Wow.

Charlie: It’s been interesting.  I, in terms of work, I’ve definitely taken a more entrepreneurial approach now instead of just working with agencies. So I’ve launched one business in the last two weeks recently.  And have been partnering with a couple of people, launching some other businesses as well. So, I’m, like ,finally getting to where I want it to be five years ago. So that’s good.

Nathan: What do you… and what do you do? Can you tell people what… what kind of work you do?

Charlie: Yeah.  So I own Americano, which is a brand design studio.  And we use a lot of,  like, AI, and basically make brands human-based off of personality types.  So a little bit different but which is nice though because from an entrepreneurial sense,  I can use the Americano to create the branding for other businesses that I then launch.

So it’s been fun. It’s been a huge learning curve but I’ve learned a lot in the last five years of how to be financially literate and realizing that I wasn’t at all, and like totally owning that and being like, Okay, how do I learn from this? And how do I move forward? But like all kinds of stuff like that.  Just being super humble with learning new stuff and admitting that I don’t know everything.

Nathan: That’s all… that’s always a fun and empowering thing to learn. I think everyone hopefully continues learning that throughout their whole life. Well, Charlie, is there anything else that you want to share?

Charlie: Yeah, not that I can think of really, but if, you know, if you, if you got to be… if you want to be stealth for a while and get that experience by all means. But I think it’s super important that at some point that people, you know, come out as their true selves and use that to their advantage. Like I use it for work where I’m like, hey I understand like having to adapt to different personalities and using that to talk to different people when I was in Iowa. And like, I had to navigate my way talking to people who might not have been trans-friendly. But because I could have a conversation with them, they would be like, Oh yeah, Charlie is just like a nice guy. Like, he’s not, like coming to disrupt anything or screw up my agenda or anything like that. So,  using that skill in work has been super, super valuable.  And it’s not something worth hiding about.

Nathan:  Yeah. Great. Well, thanks for sharing that and thanks again for taking the time to chat with us and, of course, for sharing your original story.

And if anyone has any comments feel free to leave them in the comments and, Charlie, maybe you can check back off and on to respond to them, if you’re willing and interested. And for everyone else, check back next week for our next story update. Thanks for watching.

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