Catcalls are part of life. I go most places wearing headphones so I’m largely unaware of them but at least once a week a man’s voice pierces my music, I look, and it’s some guy gesturing at me from his car. Sometimes, if they’re on foot, they go so far as to get in my path so I have to notice. In their scariest moments, they follow me a distance. Readying myself for harassment is part of my internal preparation to go out.
I’m fortunate that transphobic harassment isn’t part of my normal experience; It’s not something someone chooses but given the option, I’ll take the misogyny. The rarity of transphobic assault for me makes even the smallest moment matter. The people I know that endure more frequent abuse understand my upset but it’s clear the incident is small compared to what could happen. Trauma is relative.
When it does happen, the normal response is to wonder what went wrong in my presentation: voice, face, clothes, walk, posture… what went wrong? A dissection of the moments leading up to the attack. Everyone tells us that we’re not responsible for the abuse we receive, but here we are blaming ourselves anyway. We’ve internalised transphobia as a culture and it’s hard to feel like being clocked isn’t some failure on our part.
“Excuse me, are you all women?” A drunk woman interrupts the inane exchange with her friend. We were at a local goth festival and emerged to find dinner before going back in. They wanted to know where the gig was.
“What the fuck else would we be?” I replied and started walking off. My fiancée tried to confront them. My friend went very quiet. I felt bad for them. At the time I assumed some of that threat I felt was to do with me — why wouldn’t I feel threatened by that? The incident was mild but enough.
Mild moments make the danger feel real. As with the catcalls, that the person accepts your rebuke and doesn’t pursue is luck. The event reminds me that I’m not entirely safe and the next person to accost me might not be so idle in their attention.
"ALL THIS DANGER AROUND ME MAKES MY ATTENTION GRABBING SENSE OF STYLE, OUTGOING MANNER AND WILLINGNESS TO SHOUT DOWN THE MORE ABRASIVE OF ATTENTION-GIVERS RATHER INCONGRUOUS."
All this danger around me makes my attention grabbing sense of style, outgoing manner and willingness to shout down the more abrasive of attention-givers rather incongruous. Truth is, I don’t know how to be anything else. I did try to blend in. I did try to keep my mouth shut and play the part. For about a month and even then I was awful at it. Truth is, being unobtrusive felt more false to me than dressing like a boy. I am what I must be.
What stands out in hindsight about our drunk woman’s question is I didn’t do the micro examination of my universe. I didn’t look for whatever ‘tells’ I might have had. The dysphoric spiral didn’t happen, but my concern for my company kept me from noticing in the moment.
It’s hard to know when transphobic abuse downgraded to your average catcall in my emotional responses, but that drunk lady made it clear that it had and I wasn’t internalising these moments anymore. I wish I knew how that happened because the lesson would empower everyone else, but all I can say is it’s an internal process I wasn’t aware of. A few months before I fell to pieces. And then I didn’t.
So what happened? Feeling better in myself helps. Feeling like life is stabilising, not feeling in danger at home, and that the transphobic incidents were rare spring to mind as the main contributors to the shift. It’s easier to feel confident when you’re not under attack all the time. Abused people internalise their abuse. Whatever we survive, we make it our fault somehow.
"HYPERVIGILANCE AFTER A TRANSPHOBIC ATTACK IS THE SAME RESPONSE: WHAT DID WE DO TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN?"
I constantly remind my more vulnerable friends that they are not responsible for their ill treatment, but I know that when I was in that space I blamed myself, too. I felt complicit in my own psychological abuse at the hands of my ex; that I enabled it somehow. Hypervigilance after a transphobic attack is the same response: what did we do to make this happen? What can we do to make sure it won’t happen again? We don’t need people to blame the victim here. We blame ourselves.
On my way to work not so long ago, a man gave me a funny look as we passed. Once we had gone by each other, he shouts after me, “Dude looks like a lady!” His friends laugh. I keep walking. Of course I heard it and it’s unlikely they were talking about anyone else, but he was just some jerk on the street. I didn’t self examine; I figured he must have noticed my bright green hair. It was certainly on my mind, having only done it that morning.
I shared the incident with some friends as I walked via text and was treated to a shower of concern. “Are you alright?” When asked, I did have a moment to take stock. Yes. I was. He was just some idiot, I knew I didn’t look like a dude. I couldn’t imagine why anyone might think I did, and I was secure in that. I didn’t even think to examine my feelings about it until asked.
Is this how cisgender people react to that kind of comment? The couple of cis friends I spoke with about it said probably that is how they would be, or at least one possible reaction. Two incidents without a hypervigilant autopsy of the self doesn’t mean I’ve come out of that pattern, but it’s very encouraging.
Catcalls remind me that things are a little more dangerous than it might be to others, but I don’t feel responsible for that danger. Transphobia is the same, and the process of externalising that abuse appears to be the same as it is for misogyny and other forms of systemic abuse. At its core, we need to blame the abusers rather than make it our problem. What I wear, how I do my face, what my hair is like… none of this makes me the cause of my abuse. It might take a long time to believe it, but that’s the first step.