Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Four Inches, or To Stand and Bea*r It

I had only arrived back in Chicago less than six hours before my first instance of street harassment.  I was unprepared for the attack.  I wasn't particularly femmed up (having been recently at the gym) and I was only walking half a block from the door of my apartment building to the door of my car.  

The reason, then, for this particular assailant's atrocities may be accounted for in the seemingly insignificant distance of four inches.

* * *

It was my mom's birthday the day I flew home, and she was waiting for me at the airport.  As soon as we got out of the car, even in the relatively safe neighborhood of Edgewater, I could already feel Berlin retreating further across the Atlantic.  After living a month and a half in the German metropolis, I never once encountered a moment of transphobia on the streets (misogyny, yes, but at the very least those assholes aren't questioning my gender; they're just trying to overpower it).

Feeling unsafe is like the heat: it hangs heavily in the air with anticipation, just subtly making uncomfortable the possible recipients of danger, making us sweat.

Nothing happened when my mom and I went to lunch, but I already had to remind myself that I wasn't in Europe anymore.

* * *

After the gym I felt happy.  I exercised as much as I could in Europe, but I hadn't been in a proper gym since before leaving for the adventure.  It felt good to push my muscles again, to sweat.  I ran into a couple of friends, exchanged pleasantries.  I delighted in being once more on my university campus with its notorious Bubble: that which prevents so many of us from ever really being in touch with the outside world and whose existence normally I bemoan, but not today.  It isn't often that I get to be somewhere I don't have to worry about being attacked.

I was wearing an unremarkable grey athletic shirt, my now-beaten up old tennis shoes, and a pair of bright red track pants hiked up to my waist.  I had a cute floral purse and my mom's sunglasses.  In the weights room, I walked around the scores of pumping young men feeling femme and fabulous.  I wasn't wearing a bra so my socially determined sex was obvious enough, but I wore my gender proudly.

By this time I was running late for the birthday festivities.  I had to rush over to my new apartment to pick up my bike, pick up a pie for after dinner, and pick up my brother from the train station.  After circling the block, I finally found parking just a half block from my apartment.  I went up and grabbed the bike and awkwardly carted it outside toward the car.  I had to wait for the stoplight.  I looked over my left shoulder and saw two people crossing the street toward me.  They looked at me.

“Do you see that ass?” one of them asked her friend, indiscreetly. “He's got to be gay!” she determined, incorrectly with regards to both my gender and my sexuality.

By this point I was looking firmly ahead and not saying anything. Her friend must have thought her first comments were funny, however, so she continued.

“That is some chick shit!  And I thought I was crazy!”

“You are,” I muttered under my breath as I finally crossed the street.  I heard them still laughing as I carried my bike to my car, but fortunately they didn't follow me.  I got in the car.  I drove.

En route to the pie shop I tried to avoid the inevitable emotional backlash that always follows such encounters.  “It's okay, sweetie,” I said to myself soothingly. “They're just too ignorant to understand what it means to be beautiful.  Good for you for showing them.”

I bought the pie with a tight-lipped smile.  My encouragements weren't working.  As I stormed back to the car I already knew what to do.  

I drove the next few minutes furiously reciting my best rant slam poem.  I often rely on the poems I've written in the past to process similar events or emotions in the present.  In “Turkey Day” I rail against an unpleasant relative who would never admit to disapproving of my gender, not so kindly challenging this person to end their silence and just up and fight me.

I could feel my voice already growing hoarse as I screamed the lines I'd written three years ago.  My own anger terrified me. As I delivered all of my intelligent comebacks to my two assailants now, safely in my car and driving away, I found myself tempted to retroactively attack them with my uncut fingernails, with my fists, with words against their own minority status, but I quickly checked this last impulse as unproductive to my cause as well as others.

It wasn't that what they said was particularly hurtful.  I for one am quite proud of my posterior, and the fact that even in unremarkable workout clothes my gender was so apparent (it was, indeed, “some chick shit,” after all) is a testament to its realness.

What really struck me was that had I had a more stereotypically “female” body—had I had breasts—these strangers surely would not have greeted me with such a negative reception.  The meager four inches between the waist where a woman might wear her track pants and the hips where a man must wear his constituted a vast expanse irregularly bridged in their socialized understanding of the person standing before them at the crosswalk.  If the enormous importance of four fucking inches doesn't debunk the supposedly inherent and unshakable nature of gender in all persons (that same nature that unnaturally continues to misname babies and knife transwomen on the subway), I don't know what will.

* * *

Ironically, the person who assaulted me appeared to be a masculine-presenting female-bodied person.  The kind of person who you would think would get the ways in which gender difference manifests itself on a body.  Or who might be a friend and ally.  Or who might be under other social circumstances trans themselves.

I don't know.  It's all conjecture.  But something in me provoked something in them that they didn't want to accept as legitimate or dignified.  I know the problem lies in them and not with me, but in the meantime, I'm sick of feeling powerless over people who abuse me in public.  I never shout nor sass them back.  I never state all of the academically sound and emotionally impassioned things that might change their minds about me; even such an unmerited response of kindness could provoke them further, and my primary goal in such situations is my own physical safety.  I implicitly allow them to consider their degrading behavior acceptable one day more, when it is absolutely not.

So what to do with so much unexpressed anger? so much heretofore unrealized justice?

I recite another slam poem, I write another blog post.  I perform, I politicize.  I change the minds of the people I can in places where I don't have to fear for my health.

And today I bought pepper spray.

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