Enduring unwelcome compliments was a skill I had to hone quickly when I started to present properly. I don’t mean the compliments you don’t believe and so shrug them away. Not stuff from friends or family actually thinking something nice about you. It’s quite common to be bad at receiving compliments generally, but I’m talking about random people that just say stuff in the street. And when you move on without acknowledging them or just say you’re not going to talk to them, they get offended. “I’m just trying to be nice, love,” they’ll say. Well, I think, maybe I don’t want your attention either way.
Around this time two years ago, I was verbally assaulted by a child at work. “You should take that wig off ‘cause you bald!” he shouted at me. I kept my composure as I fled to him chanting ‘baldie’ after me. Reduced to nothing by a ten-year-old, but there it was. I don’t know if I could endure that now despite being stronger and more secure in myself. It was a fragile time.
My solution? To go out to the local gay-ish pub and dance with strangers. Looking at it now, it drives home how desperate I was for validation. It worked: a few drinks and some random pairings on the dance floor banished the upset of the day before, but even in my weakened emotional state it struck me as weird how guys leaving the pub stopped on their way out to congratulate me. It happened several times throughout the night, and it was awkward each time.
Two years on and I don’t get randomly congratulated by gay men, but I don’t go into those bars anymore either. Part of me wants to go back and see what happens. It was a bizarre experience and one I only really untangled years later after experiencing the same in the form of misogyny rather than transphobia.
Thing is, people often feel like wandering up to a transgender person and complimenting them. I don’t know if it’s their way of trying to say they’re safe people or what, but it’s actually quite unnerving. As hormones have changed my face around and my general bearing makes my transgender status less obvious, I don’t have this happen anymore. The memory of being made to feel like the biggest sore thumb on the planet hasn’t faded.
The parallels with good old fashioned misogyny are pretty striking. People (men) just like expressing their opinion at women. The difference is I feel entitled to tell a man I’m not going to talk to them and walk on. Even when I do so, they feel entitled to berate me about how they’re just being nice. In the case of misogyny, the confrontation actually happens where with transphobia, the person just lets the ‘nice person’ feel like they’ve done their good deed of the day by harassing someone.
"I SHOULD BE CLEAR. YOU DON’T NEED TO BE TRANSPHOBIC TO DO TRANSPHOBIC THINGS."
I should be clear. You don’t need to be transphobic to do transphobic things. Transphobia need not be negative attention. As with misogyny, it can be any attention at all. Maybe everyone is just trying to be nice, but it’s unwelcome and hurtful. That means it’s transphobic harassment.
When someone tries to be nice in this way, it does a few things. First, it establishes that person’s supremacy: they’re in a position to judge another. Second, it highlights the target’s vulnerability: they are exposed in the street with a dangerous designation. Third, it forces the person’s presence on the target: there is no way for the target to extricate themselves without provoking their abuser. There is no favourable outcome from this circumstance, and misogynistic comments of the same nature work in exactly the same way.
"SO WHY DO I FEEL EMPOWERED TO PUSH MY MISOGYNISTIC ATTACKERS AWAY BUT NOT MY TRANSPHOBIC ONES?"
So why do I feel empowered to push my misogynistic attackers away but not my transphobic ones? I don’t know, but it could be that as a woman, I feel more empowered than I do as a transgender woman. It could also be that I’ve got stronger female role models; the course of action is more clearly mapped. Whatever the reason, I am more vulnerable when seen as a transgender woman than I am as a woman.
In either instance, I don’t want attention while I’m getting from A to B. I don’t want compliments any more than I want threats. I just want to get to work. Added attention and exposure only serves to make me feel less safe. I don’t want to talk to strangers unless I have specific business with them and I don’t care if they’re trying to be nice.
The random compliment appears to come from the same headspace as the dick pic. It’s this empowerment that men have to feel entitled to impose themselves on women. Cisgender people do that to transgender people. Not with pictures, but with compliments or random links to transgender issues. Questions about how one’s transness fits into whatever topic of discussion is at hand. Like the dick pic, it’s a reminder: I can do this to you. Here’s a thing, do something with it. And we’re then forced to deal with that thing, however it comes to us.
When a man I pass in the street starts trying to talk to me, says I’m pretty, asks me my name, and stands in my path, I am reminded about how my womanhood makes me vulnerable. When I tell him, however forcefully, that I don’t want to talk to them, step out of their way and walk on, their response is to shout after me. Just trying to be nice. You don’t have to be a bitch. Probably some lesbian. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid he won’t satisfy himself with words. I’m afraid he might have friends. I’m afraid I’ll see him again and how that encounter might go. Here’s a thing, do something with it. And I’m forced to deal with that thing.
What I would like is for men to just leave strangers alone and see me as just another passerby. Let me go about my business, move along, and if there are thoughts about me, let them stay inside his head. I’d like the same from cisgender people: keep your thoughts about how my transgender status figures into things to yourself. I don’t want to be told what a lovely lady I am. I want to be told nothing at all. Stop highlighting my vulnerability.