I don’t remember I when I first heard the word fierce used to mean something other than “angry or intense,” but I do have strong recollections of when the alternative definition really started to resonate. It was 2010 and I had just started watching the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race after a friend had told me about the show.

As an embryonic trans woman recently cut loose from a marriage that kept my true self (and hopes and dreams) locked away at the back of a closet, I was too fresh and naïve to notice features of the show that would later seem highly offensive to me as a trans woman, but I paid attention when a contestant on the show was called “fierce.”

This wasn’t your Webster’s definition of the word. Oh, no. More like the Urban Dictionary, which defines fierce as “The combination of a positive mental spirit, bold words, and unapologetic actions used collectively.” For a baby trans like me, this use of the word was liberating.

I knew that trans women and drag queens were two totally different things, but I still had friends who were cross dressers and called it “drag” when they dressed up and went out. I didn’t like thinking of it as drag myself, because even at that time I knew this wasn’t just a performance for me. If anything it was a trial run — could I go out in public as the woman I increasingly knew I was? I did. Several times with those very friends. Yes, mostly at queer-friendly clubs, but also at diners and beauty salons. We even browsed the women’s sections of department stores and haunted the local Payless, especially during BOGO.

It sounds pretty normal now — going out to any of those places looking feminine is no big deal for me now, 8 years after starting my transition, but back then it scared me to pieces. What I needed was intestinal fortitude. Though I had a troubled relationship with mine, others said it required “balls” to be out and not care that the people at the table next to you in Denny’s were staring at you. But as I watched the queens vying for the top spot on Drag Race, it was the term fierce that really resonated with me. When a contestant kept going after competitors threw shade on her, I would think, “that girl is fierce.” When someone had to lip sync for their life and kicked ass (and didn’t have to “sashay away”)? Yeah, fierce.

Specifically, though, the idea of fierceness had implications for my own life. I didn’t face the same issues as a lot of the contestants on the Drag Race, of course. I was a white, middle age, middle class person from the suburbs. When not dressed en femme, I passed as a cis, hetero guy. I could take off the wig, the make-up, and clothes, soak my fingernails in acetone, and my neighbors on the cul-de-sac would be none the wiser.

But my situation just added to my fear. Because of how people saw me and where I lived, going out was even more frightening than it might have been had I lived in the city’s “gayborhood,” and only frequented LGBT-friendly spaces. In my mind, at least, encounters with cis het suburbanites as Janelle would be awkward at best and, possibly, even dangerous.

The thought of going out would have been daunting enough if I had gone directly to the local gay bar without leaving the safe confines of my car, but I went farther afield than that. One time my then-girlfriend and I spent an enjoyable day in her suburban neighborhood, eating at a local restaurant and getting her favorite hair dresser to trim our wigs into a very attractive style.

Several months later, I drove five hours to another city for a transgender conference and even stopped for gas and coffee on the way. By that time, I had developed a “fuck ‘em” attitude. The guy in the car next to me at the light stares at me? Fuck ’em. The kid behind the counter at 7–11 can barely give me my change without bursting into laughter? Fuck ’em. That attitude, I believe, is a prerequisite for being fierce. You can’t project a strong, confident attitude, you can’t tell people to kiss your ass if they don’t like you or agree with you, if you care what people think about you.

Woman in front of rainbow and trans flag
Woman in front of rainbow and trans flag
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I’m not exaggerating when I say learning to be fierce changed my life. Since I didn’t care so much what people thought, I was able to put up with losing some of my cross dressing friends when I realized I was more than a cross dresser myself and would need to transition.

I was able to channel that fierceness when I attended my first transgender support meeting, when I took the initiative to meet new friends as Janelle, and even when I told friends and family that I am trans. I truly relied on it when I had to come out to my boss, other leadership, and my coworkers. It empowered me a couple of years later to move halfway across the country to a much more progressive and LGBTQ+-friendly place (New England, as it turns out).

It wasn’t a clear shot. I did have moments of doubt, of isolation. I struggled with the drastically shifted attitudes of coworkers after I came out at work. I dealt with disapproval, even from some close family members. Even if I succumbed once in a while to self-pity, to self-isolation, it was my determination, my drive, my hell-no-you’re-not-going-to-do-me-like-that, my fierceness that got me through.

That’s a great story, Janelle, you might be thinking. But what does that have to do with me? Turns out, quite a lot if you are like most people. Confidence is key to so much of people’s success.

Pardon me while I tell one more story from personal experience. Around the same time I was figuring myself out as a trans woman, I was also teaching a developmental writing course to new college students online (mostly non-traditional students, who hadn’t written anything but texts and tweets in years, and were convinced they would hate the course). Because I was able to give them plenty of opportunities to write and provided a lot of supportive feedback, most students found their writing had significantly improved by the end of the course.

They had improved their skills and they felt more confident about their writing. If they hadn’t tried to learn, though, if they had decided the prospect of showing a faceless professor and other students how far they had to go as a writer was just too daunting, they would never have gotten to where they ended up. In other words, if they hadn’t been fierce, they would never have gained the skill and the confidence to be successful.

And fierceness can be applied to just about any aspect of your life. Afraid to apply for your dream job because seems too daunting? I couldn’t do all those things in that job description, you say. Then you stop and notice that you have done many of those things or could easily learn to do them. The main thing stopping you is really your own fear. Be fierce, put yourself out there. Apply. The worse that will happen is you won’t get the job. You are already in that position. The best that can happen, though, is that you will get the job.

When I think about all this — the events that made me think about improving my life, taught me how to become fierce — it amazes me how far I’ve come. I currently have a dream job (yeah, the example above is from personal experience). I am married to an incredible woman who loves me for who I am, not who she wants me to be (pretty much a first after all the relationships I’d been in for the 48 years of my life leading up to that point). I have finally developed a writing practice and am working seriously on my first novel. None of those things would have happened if I hadn’t been fierce.

What can you do with your fierceness? What horizons lie out there for you to cross? I don’t know and you might not either, right now. But I do know that you have the tools and the audacity to make things happen. I can’t wait to hear about your new adventures as the fierce person I know you can be!

Educator, writer, LGBTQ+ advocate, avid reader. Novelist in progress. Website: http://janelleswritemind.com/ Empowering the LGBTQ+ community one word at a time.

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