My main concern is with my glasses, because I’m materialistic, even in the face of danger, and these are the most expensive glasses I’ve ever owned. I’m not quite sure why my head hurts, but I know that the reason my vision is blurry is because my brand-new frames are in the middle of the road. I’m so busy worrying about scratches on the lenses that I barely miss the second punch. Barely. It wooshes past my head as I finally activate the reflexes that would’ve really come in handy ten seconds ago.
An hour earlier. I’m in my dorm room. Luke, the only person in my class who enjoys my company, has invited me to a night of drinking with some other students at my university in Southampton, England. I’m nervous because it’s going to be my first night out as a woman. Or as somebody trying to be a woman. Or as a woman in a man trying to look like a woman who’s been a woman all along. It’s the very early days of the transition, and I’m still not sure of some things.
I am sure that I’m annoyed with my hair. My widow’s peak used to bug me as a guy, but now it makes me downright terrified. I look at it and see a signifier that I am not female, not “really.” I’m hyper-critical of anything about my body that doesn’t conform to a platonic idea of femininity. My outfit for tonight: a bulky belt to widen my barely-there hips; ballet flats to minimize my height; and an billowy shirt that (hopefully) distracts from what I feel are the shoulders of Atlas.
Luke is picking me up and telling me I look nice because he’s a good guy. A conservative assessment of my look might be “convincing enough,” if you buy into the idea that I need to “convince” anyone. (Which you shouldn’t, because that reinforces the stereotype of transgender women “tricking” people. Except my goal is always to trick you. I want to utterly hide my Y-chromosome, and that involves a sophisticated level of illusion. Sorry.)
We’re walking to the pub. Everyone will be celebrating the completion and handing-in of a difficult essay that I have yet to even begin. Tomorrow I’ll go speak to the professor and leverage my “troubles,” then, after several deadline extensions give him a two-page polemic on why I think we should be allowed to cite Wikipedia in academic works. If you’re the type of person who can brave the embarrassment of coming out as transgendered, you’re the type of person who can believe she’s going to blow her teacher’s mind with eight-hundred double-spaced words.
None of that gusto is with me as Luke and I walk up Southampton High Street to our destination. I’m freezing, because I’m wearing a thin jacket out of fear that a bulky one may obscure the presentation of my frame that I spent so much time on. I’m convinced that a puffy coat will immediately signal to the masses that I am man and must be destroyed. I’m about to learn that it’s not my looks I should have worried about. Sort of.
Luke and I are talking about why I should, according to him, start listening to Russell Brand’s radio show. I guess we are talking pretty loudly, because I attract the attention of a group of youths loitering at a bus stop.
One of them calls out, “Oy, mate! What the hell are you wearing?”
I turn, see him pointing at me, and realize that I am the mate of which he speaks, and that he has noticed the huge disparity between my deep voice and my ladies’ garb. I’ve not learned to shift my pitch yet (I would argue that I never will, and that my upcoming emigration to the Americas is motivated by a desire to live in a place where my accent masks my guy-sounding voice), and so the playful banter with my friend has broadcast to everyone around that I would be a good target for some hooligan-ing.
I yell back, “What are you, twelve?” because I’m in a comedy program and think that a witty rejoinder will shut down even the angriest of hecklers, on-stage or off. It doesn’t work but I don’t know that yet. So I turn away confident that I’ve won. A couple of moments later, I get punched in the head by this boy. This adolescent. This child.
So I’m thinking about my glasses, and I’m lucky enough to miss that second punch. I hear a whoosh past my ear and think, “Yes, my mutant powers have kicked in and I have spider-sense!” (Ignore the fact that Spider-Man isn’t a mutant, yes, I know.) Luke has now entered the fray and is pushing the boy (a boy, a little boy) away from me and asking him (in very strong language) what his problem is.
There’s a part of me that’s thinking about that single Tae Kwon Do class I took four years ago, and I’m considering slamming that infant (practically an infant, I could definitely beat up an infant) against a wall and punching him until I feel satisfaction. But there’s another part of me that just wants to get to the pub, that thinks fighting someone wouldn’t be very ladylike, that thinks maybe it wouldn’t be the best course of action to escalate things by whaling on a minor.
I shout at Luke that we should just leave. We get called faggots as we walk away, but that’s hardly a new experience for either of us (see: Luke’s aforementioned Russell Brand fixation), and I’m not really thinking about that so much as I’m focusing on the throbbing on my upper-forehead. Right in one corner of my widow’s peak, actually. I’m feeling around there and I think there’s a lump, as well as some blood.
Things are looking up, though, because now we get to arrive at the pub with a story, and whenever a bunch of comics gather together he (or she, but come on, statistically we know that it’s he) with the freshest and most exciting story gets all the attention. And so for a couple of minutes after we walk in I get to hold court, until attention shifts to Luke (the defender of the weak, and thus the star of the tale) and I am handed some ice in a napkin by a Scottish girl who tells me that this is “the sort of thing you have to expect, really.” Really?
She’s right, of course. The statistics for violence against transgender people are frightening, and there’s a Transgender Day of Remembrance that happens every year in November to keep track of our losses against a world that fears and hates us. But this is the first time I’ve had to actually live the discrimination in an empirical way, and it’s leaving me shaken.
Not too shaken to go out and party, though. By which I mean: follow the group to various clubs and bars; actively hate the loud noise and crowds of sweaty, drunk idiots; go home early in the drizzling rain accompanied by Luke, who’s annoyed that he had to quit before closing time, but who most certainly will not let me walk home alone.
When I get home (safely, thanks to Luke) I’m more worried about how quickly the lump (and subsequent bruise) will go away than about anything else, like how I’m going to have the confidence to go outside ever again. And that shallow concern helps me ignore the larger fears my encounter should have provoked. The next day I get up and get dressed and venture into the world with no problems, physical or mental. I figure that I must just not mind that much. It even feels a little nice to have my hate-crime all done and accounted for. I think I’m safe now, and I put the whole experience behind me. For a while.
Months later, I’m walking back to my dorm room with my girlfriend, Abby. I’m wearing a large coat she bought me in New York, and yes — my worries about big outerwear are about to be confirmed. We’re talking, as lovers do, but the conversation halts as we get closer to a seedy pub near campus. There are three older men hanging out front, smoking, and they leer at us as we approach.
There’s no violence this time. Not even a word spoken. But they each spit at my feet as I pass them. And I get home, take off that damn coat, tuck myself up in bed, and proceed to relive each ptooie over and over for the next week. Suddenly I’m scared to leave my room, barely able to work up the courage to go downstairs to buy food from the in-building market that will keep me alive for the next three months as I dive deep into agoraphobia.
I’m forced back into the outside world by my ejection from the university program (due to non-attendance of classes, obviously) and revocation of eligibility for student housing. I have to leave the nest I’ve built myself in my room. It’s terrifying outside, and I’m skittish and nervous and my eyes dart around, looking for danger. I can’t tell if I’m overreacting or if this is how I’m meant to live from now on, constantly afraid, always watching.
I want to be a strong, brave person, and refuse to give into the anxiety and fear that I feel when I think about strangers being able to guess at my past. But I make negotiations with the bigoted every single day, when I put on makeup before a short trip to the convenience store, or when I decide that the number one priority when buying clothes is how feminine they make me look.
I wish there was a nice message to this piece, something about being strong and remaining true to yourself in the face of adversity. But the truth is that when I chose to change gender I did so in a time when there were some who hated me for it. I have to make concessions to those people, and if it keeps me alive then I will do so gladly.
If a boy punches someone out of hatred, he’s definitely a villain. But that doesn’t mean that the person he punches is a hero.
Illustration by Elizabeth Simins for The Bygone Bureau