You probably don’t remember me. There’s a reason for that, and it’s basically about power. Not, like, “oh, dude, you’re so powerful!”, but just the sort of basic, day to day power-differentials that exist, between all of us, in accordance with things completely beyond our control, that have nothing whatsoever really to do with us. Despite the extreme reaction you had to my momentary presence (or would you think “intrusion”?) in your day, and the fact that without this reaction I likely wouldn’t have noticed you at all, you had a lot more power to affect me than I ever had to affect you, no matter how expressive your response.
I was walking down West Broadway earlier this week, I think near the corner of Blenheim, on my way back home from running some errand or other. Although given who and what I am I never quite have the luxury of feeling unguarded, I wasn’t really feeling especially apprehensive about my surroundings, this being mid-afternoon in Kits on a sunny day, and there’s only so much attention a person can maintain in being prepared for harassment. You were walking towards me in the typical lazily-confident stride of entitled young men like yourself that seems precisely calibrated to say “I don’t give a fuck” but mostly just says “I really desperately give a fuck about giving the impression that I don’t give a fuck”, and were dressed in the typical shapeless t-shirt-and-cargo-shorts uniform that suggests exactly the same.
We were passing on the sidewalk, and you presumably read me for trans. You sneered, spat at me in contempt, and then after passing by and not having to deal with anything uncomfortable like “eye contact” or whatever, shouted a single word, twice, with increased volume and emphasis the second time.
That word was “disgusting”.
I wish I could shrug it off. I really, really wish I could. I wish I could laugh at you, or go for the easy reversal and just say “yeah, your casual bigotry is disgusting”. But that wouldn’t even be using the same meaning of the word, would it?
And I wish I could simply distance myself from it. Why, after all, should I particularly care about you and your shitty opinions, and how you react to me? But it’s not about just you, or your shitty opinions. You’re not even reading this. The fact that you felt it, the fact that felt entitled to say it, the fact that it hurt… all of that is about much more than you or I. And really, you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last, to make a similar effort to let me know exactly how you, and so many people like you, see me.
And I wish I could let it not mean anything. I wish I could just see it as some random, pointless, basically nonsensical expression of a similarly random, nonsensical and arbitrary hatred.
But let’s not kid ourselves: you meant it.
In terms of the basic affect on me, the immediate feeling of shame, insecurity, self-hatred, resignation and pain that went with it, that instant desire to simply vanish off the face of the Earth (and the accompanying terror at the realization that I couldn’t, and still had nine more blocks of eyes left to walk before reaching the security of my apartment), being reminded of my status in our culture as not only Other, but as something sub-human and horrible to be spat at… all of that wasn’t dependent much on what exactly you said. There were a lot of words you could have substituted that would have had the exact same impact.
But I keep finding myself coming back to that particular word. Not because I think you really put a whole lot of thought into choosing it, or because it’s any more or less hateful than the dozens of substitutions you might have made, but because I can’t shake the awareness that you meant it. That was exactly what you felt, and exactly what you said. I disgusted you.
Not in anything I was doing, or had done. It was what I was that you found disgusting, the simple, basic fact of my existence. I’m a human being, with a transsexual body, and that repulsed you.
This is who I am, though. This is the fact of my existence, and this is the body I inhabit. As much as people like you are all too easily capable of making me want to vanish, I can’t do that. I could kill myself, sure, and certainly a frighteningly large number of us do, and if enough of you said this to me enough times, I’m sure I eventually would. I’m sure that’s not your goal, exactly, but I doubt you’d much care if one day you happened to notice there weren’t any of us around anymore. But as long as there’s a me to encounter a you, this is what I am. This is my body. I am a transsexual woman.
I wonder about why that disgusts you, though. Maybe it’s to be found in the whole paradoxical relationship of disgust to desire, as annoyingly academic as that may sound. Maybe you saw me and you couldn’t help but perceive me in a sexual sense, in a sexual context, and therefore as a sexual threat. Maybe you worried about the fact that my existence suggests the possibility of my sexuality, and had anxieties about your own feelings towards that. That if “male” bodies can possess what you cling to in your passionately desperate masculinity as the traits of desirability, then the creaky, fragile system by which you hold together your sexual identity- masculine straight dude, the antithesis of “fag” (all too reliant on that opposition)- starts to fall apart. The cracks start showing. Or maybe you just couldn’t help but sexualize me the way you sexualize many young women, and immediately your mind started imagining what sex with me might be like, what might be in my pants and then OH NOES MAYBE A PENIS! Banish the faggy thought! Or maybe it was as simple as a basic revulsion built around fear that a transsexual body could have a sexuality at all, fear that there might be sexual possibilities outside what you’ve allowed yourself to understand.
Maybe it has to do with your own gender. It was more than obvious from the way you presented and carried yourself that a tremendous amount of your self-worth was built on understanding yourself as masculine and male. Maybe I hinted, just a little too much, at the fact that something you consider so important really isn’t necessary. Maybe my intrusion into your world suggested the terrifying prospect that you yourself could be like me. Or even if not completely like me, that it was at least possible to live a life outside the rigid roles you’ve used to define yourself and your value as a human being, that there are other ways to understand and value oneself and live and be happy (banish the faggy thought). Maybe, reading me as “male”, you identified yourself with me, and were suddenly horrified by the thought of castration, or growing breasts, or being otherwise feminized (if this were a better world, or you were a better person, or we were a better species, that may have been a source of empathy for my own alienation from inhabiting a male body). Maybe it’s a misogyny thing… that you devalue women so much, perceive them as so much lower than yourself, that the tiniest reminder that your maleness isn’t completely carved in stone, that it could even hypothetically be taken away, is enough to repulse you.
Maybe it wasn’t about sexuality or gender at all. Maybe it was just how foreign and other I seemed to you. Maybe even monstrous. Surgeries, scars and pills. Strange configurations of the body beyond your knowledge or understanding. A contemporary Frankenstein. Maybe you read me as a product of scientific and medical artifice, something unnatural that shouldn’t really exist, instead of recognizing that my body is entirely natural, entirely human like your own, and that the abomination was constructed only in your perceptions and fears, not of my flesh.
Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was all of those things. Maybe it was more. I guess it doesn’t matter too much, but I’ll never stop wondering about it, because I’ll never really be able to forget about it. Even if someday I forget about this particular incident, someone, somewhere, on some sunny afternoon in the future, will come along to remind me: I disgust them.
And that’s true. The fact of me and my body is repulsive to many people. That probably won’t ever change within my lifetime. In a way, I could try to trick myself into imagining that that in fact gives me power over you, that I’m the one who has the power to cause such the feelings of those with such views towards me. But as I’ve said, you’ve probably forgotten, while I get to remember. Always.
Your feelings of disgust and contempt are fleeting. As soon as me, or some other trans person, is out of your sight, we vanish from your world. The whole existence of transsexuality might as well not exist for you except when you’re directly confronted with it. You’re afforded the luxury of living as though there isn’t such a thing, that the world is neatly divided into men and women, who have certain kinds of respective bodies, and inhabit certain kinds of roles. Your enjoyment of that luxury probably contributed to how much I disturbed you. But me? I never, ever get to ignore this. This is the gender and body I live with every single moment of every single day. And every time I leave my home, I have to try to remember, and emotionally prepare for, the fact that you, and your countless interchangeable proxies, are outside.
And while that disgust you felt suddenly being confronted with a brief, fleeting reminder that bodies such as mine happen to exist is fleeting, the feelings of worthlessness, shame, self-hatred, fear and insecurity inflicted on me by you and the culture that allows, supports and trains you, that lingers. That’s something I have to live with all the time. The reminders aren’t brief or fleeting, and they’re anything but rare.
We’re told not to be so over-sensitive. To not take things so seriously. To laugh it off. To distance ourselves from it. To not care about the random opinions of some random bigot. To grow a thicker skin. To stay in the safe neighbourhoods. To invest in the right clothes and right make-up and right lasers and right surgeries for the right face in order to “pass” and be invisible to your disgustable eyes.
If only it were that easy. But I can’t imagine what kind of callousness, or disconnection from reality, or massive amounts of money, I could ever have that could allow that. And even so, all I’d accomplish is insulating myself from a few of the more immediate reminders of what’s thought of me and what I am. But even if no one ever knew I was trans, or even if I could laugh off every instance of that hatred made manifest, nothing could ever erase the knowledge of what I am and how that is regarded. I would still be transsexual, and would still know what that means.
And I’m not so sure emotional isolation would be worth that mild level of security any more than physical isolation would. Cultural agoraphobia? No thanks. I’m a human being, and trans or not, I live amongst other human beings, connected to their feelings and perceptions. That makes me vulnerable, but that is part what living a life is. We live through and in relation to one another.
It hurts to be treated with disgust and contempt by people like you, but that’s because I’m invested in you, in others, as human beings. I don’t want to be the kind of person who stops caring what other people think and feel, no matter how much it hurts.
I only wish that you might have seen me as similarly human.