[Image description: Selfie against white wall. Main features: white skin, short brown hair, a white shirt, a black & white tie, round glasses, thick eyebrows, and red lipstick drawn off-center of subject’s lips]
CN: Street harassment, transphobia, misogyny
This is what I wore to the Proms on Saturday night: a normative shirt, slacks, and tie, with a pair of lips drawn on my cheek. I nearly wore a short black business skirt and heels instead, but decided against it at the last minute despite the hot weather.
On the way there, on the tube, a child pointed at me and yelled “Look!”. The parent “shh”d and didn’t say anything else. I smiled and said, “It’s ok”. The parent looked away and the child stared.
The child wasn’t threatening and they were probably more curious and excited than anything else, but the parent’s reaction had strong implications.
“Shh, we don’t point because it’s impolite.”
“Shh, we don’t talk about when people are different, we just ignore them.”
“Shh, if you draw attention to this they might have the nerve to talk to us and how awkward would that be?”
“Shh, yes I know men in makeup are freaks but it’s rude to point it out.”
Being a public object based on my gender presentation has been such a common, mundane experience for most of my life that I forgot all about this until I read Darkmatter‘s recent post about a similar exchange with a child and parent on public transit.
After a few years of obsessing over how the public read my gender, I’ve gotten very good at knowing how I’m being gendered and emitting gender cues so as to be gendered how I want. I know how to be read as a harmless girl who needs help, a hard woman who might cut you if you mess with her, a boring (i.e. straight) middle-class white guy, a flamboyant (i.e. gay) middle-class white guy, a scruffy queer, or a Is That A Boy Or A Girl androgynous mess. I know how to make a shopkeeper dance between “sir” and “ma’am”, “darling” and “mate”. Gender is so flimsy, I can collapse it with a step, a facial expression, a gesticulation, a vocal inflection, or the application of lipstick. You could tell me I’m wrong, but you’ve never seen the way people make space for “men” in public or the way they stare at “women”.
[Image description: a crudely-drawn graph of my experience with street harassment depending on my gender presentation. I had lots of violence as a femme “girl”, none as a “man”, and expect lots more as a “man in a dress”]
My experiences with street harassment as a “woman” were extremely common: constant aggressive “compliments” and invasions of space, occasional groping by strangers or being chased by lads for bantz, a couple of times being stalked and attacked. Once a man helped me carry some groceries for a block and did the “Don’t I get a hug?” line, and when I politely said no he grabbed me and held me against him while he pushed his face against mine. I yelled and beat him off me, and he followed me into my apartment building. That was a single experience which punctuates my long, dull history of street harassment from strangers; and that’s not saying anything of sexual and gendered violence I’ve gotten from people I know.
After nearly a decade of “womanhood” I changed my gender expression from hegemonically feminine to an attempt at hegemonically masculine, which took some six months to perfect. I kept it that way for six more months. That year of performing white masculinity gave me reprieve from the public gaze like a spell of invisibility, only broken when I dared to hold hands with a partner who was also read as a man. But hegemonic white masculinity—bland suits, blending in—felt wrong. It was an uncomfortable gender expression for me to perform and I’ve since moved to gentle-femme boy. The street harassment has resumed, a grotesque reflection of my once-again overt femininity. Will it be enough to dampen my femme expression, especially as my body continues to “masculinize”?
When will our comfort in public stop being conditional?