I was stranded downtown at 2:47 a.m. I had lingered too long with someone I enjoy spending time with, and the subway was closed. It was too late to prevail on a friend for a couch to crash on. So I was stuck, far from home, with limited or no options.
This doesn’t happen to me very often, because I’m usually quite careful to avoid it. I have to be.
I briefly recounted this true tale recently to a stranger, a friend of a friend. He shrugged and laughed a little. The gesture stung, although I’m sure he didn’t intend for it to be hurtful. I guess, as a straight, white, cis man, the prospect of walking city streets in the middle of the night in club wear must not be very scary for him.
The intersecting classifications that influence my life experiences are a little bit different: I experience life as a queer white trans woman.
Having told him my story, I watched as he shook his head, donned a knowing smile, and chuckled at my expense. I could tell he was preparing to respond, to grace me with his superior knowledge and experience, and gain some social credit at the table by conveying his smooth learned confidence in the process. I read him like a book: He was sensing a teaching moment, a chance to demonstrate his wisdom to the silly woman in front of him, and he was about to tell me I had obviously missed an easy answer to my transit problem that night.
“Why didn’t you just take the night bus?” he asked. “It runs all night, and it’s just a regular fare.” I told him I’m not really comfortable with it.
“Nahhh, it’s fine. It’s all good.” He waved his hand dismissively. “The drunks aren’t that bad,” he chuckled, casually taking a swig from his pint of beer. Still gathering my thoughts, I hid my frustrated reaction behind a sip of red wine.
He talks a lot, and he talks very loudly. Louder than I do. This being a group conversation, my mind falls into a familiar routine: the social diagnostic. Am I talking too loudly? Are people judging me, sensitive to the qualities of my voice? Do I have the opposite problem, of being too quiet? Too submissive? I have to monitor my self-expression very carefully these days. He and I are operating under different social pressures and expectations, different standards.
I had it much easier for about 23 years. I was raised and socialized as a boy, and I was read as a boy everywhere I went. Sure, gender identity issues caused me stress as I intermittently grappled with my inner feelings not fitting the way I was living my life, but despite all that emotional strife, I would be remiss not to admit that getting to be a boy, socially, was the definite upside to the experience. I often presume the pre-transition experience might be worse for trans-masculine people designated female at birth, who have to live in a world where they are often misread and treated as women.
So by social protocol, this guy can talk loudly, interrupt a certain amount, and arrogantly presume his righteousness, all while remaining safely within the social “bro” zone. On the other hand, if I perform too many of the same behaviors, I would cross the “bitch” threshold, and thereby lose my credibility at the table. Besides, even if I could just govern my behavior according to his, between the two of us, the other women at the table would be drowned out even worse. And that’s just not fair.
Moreover, as a trans woman, if I violate gendered expectations for female behavior even a little bit, I must always fear that I’m going to face rejection of my gender identity by men and women alike. When a cis woman transgresses expected gender role behavior, people won’t say it’s because she’s “not really a woman.” Unfortunately, the behavior and expression of trans women are policed to an even harsher extent than women in general. (This is called transmisogyny.)
On the other hand, if I moderate myself too much, keep silent when I have something relevant and important to contribute, then I’ll just be playing into and reinforcing societal misogyny, which harms all women in the long term. I always have to walk this frustrating tightrope. So, I’ve concluded that the best thing to do in these situations, with a man dominating the discussion, is to deflect the conversation away from him … pass the metaphorical ball to one of my sisters, which I did in this case, asking my friend her opinion: “What do you think about the night bus?”
She began to answer. “I guess I try to avoid it. But if I were stranded … I dunno, maybe—”
Of course, he cuts back in. “I take the night bus, and I’ve never had a problem,” he says authoritatively. I Spocked him an eyebrow and paused for a moment, having another sip of wine, then looked around the table to see if anyone else wanted to respond. No such luck.
“Oh really,” I ask him, feigning surprise (for politeness, of course).
“Yeah. You just mind your own business, don’t talk to anyone, and they’ll leave you alone,” he said decisively. Well then.
“So you’ve never had a drunken man touch you without your permission on the night bus?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. What a surprise.
“How about unwanted flirting, harassment, making faces, calling out at you, talking about your appearance, harassing you for your contact information, that sort of thing?” At this point, I’m still maintaining a friendly conversational tone, because we’re all friends here.
“I had a gay guy hit on me once, said he wanted me to take him home,” he cracked a grin. “I told him ‘Sorry man, I don’t swing that way,’ and he left,” he chuckled again.
“Oh, so he didn’t come back again and challenge you about why you said no? He didn’t ask you where you were going that night or repeat his demand that you go with him? He didn’t try to sit or stand next to you for the rest of the ride, or follow you off the bus at your stop so he could keep asking you out with less of an audience?”
At this point he was drinking his beer again. I must have allowed him a full five seconds, an appropriate conversational pause, but it seemed he wasn’t interested in answering. Never one to suffer a conversational void, I saw no reason not to continue.
“You ever had a group of thugs a few seats back, debating loudly on the crowded bus about whether you’re a man or a woman? Talking about the features of your body, what you’re wearing? How you sound? Have you ever had a teenage boy try to get a reaction out of you by pulling your hair from behind?”
He shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Anyone ever tried to lift up your skirt or your dress, because you wouldn’t answer questions about what kind of genitals you have underneath?”
He shot me a smart-ass look. “Well I don’t wear a skirt,” he said. Are you kidding me? My features conspired to an unimpressed countenance, of their own accord.
“How about grabbing the crotch of your pants, then? Because I’ve had that too.”
“No,” he shrugged. His tone of voice was edging on frustration, as if he were impatiently waiting for me to make a point. The window of my patience snapped shut, like a steel trap.
“OK, so, is it possible then … Is it possible, perhaps, that the experiences you have had on the night bus may not entirely reflect what others can expect, based on different experiences and circumstances of their life?” Oops. Only upon hearing myself speak that last challenge, does it occur to me that at some point in the conversation I crossed over the line from polite and friendly to pissed-off and irate.
A few moments passed silently. Then, “I guess that’s true,” he said coldly. The table fell into an awkward silence. The friend who introduced us was embarrassed, and I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed for him or for me. It could even have been both.
“Anyway, that’s why I don’t ride the night bus,” I finished casually and with a smile, returning my attention to the glass of wine.
Just because I am a woman, and prefer to live as one, does not mean that I enjoy or prefer the way that women are treated in society. It does not mean I will not challenge limitations imposed on women, nor will I conform my femininity to societal expectations. Unfortunately, when any woman takes this position, it often proves unpopular with a lot of men. But I’d rather be unpopular than be wrong.
I guess I’m a bitch after all.