Trigger Warning: trauma, sexual assault, street harassment.
No matter what I do, people are going to stare at me. On the metro, on the sidewalk, at public parks, and at almost every restaurant or bar I’ve walked into, someone has given me the side-eye. It was like this before I came out as transgender and it’s probably going to be like this until the day I die. I smile and wave at most passersby, but that doesn’t stop rude, invasive, and downright degrading comments and actions from breaching my sense of safety on a regular basis.
I heard one of my favorite insults of my life so far while walking from Baltimore Penn Station to Liam Flynn’s Ale House the other night. Someone called me a “crippled-ass faggot motherfucker,” and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. If I savor the bluntness and vulgarity of moments like that, it tends to soften the blow. It also helped that I was on my way to a Punk Rock Karaoke event in support of Chesapeake TWAC, which stands for Trans and/or Women’s Action Camp, so I knew that I had a safer space within half a block. It hits me now that laughing at a thing like that could have come at a high cost. The person who yelled that at me could have easily come up behind me and attacked me; it’s not like I could have outrun them if I wanted to. I might not have made it to sing a raspy rendition of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” by X Ray Spex, and be escorted to a chair by a friend of mine the second that a muscle spasm in my left arm threw my crutch to the ground. There is a good chance that, though I took it in stride, I got spastic in part because that comment got a bit more adrenaline rushing through my blood than I thought it did.
I learned from an early age that I needed a thicker skin than most people in order to survive. My earliest memories of going out in public are colored with adults either cooing and sobbing at my disability or asking intrusive questions to my parents like, “can he talk?” As I got older, the cooing and crying gave way to strangers coming up to me and telling me what and inspiration I am for being brave enough to get out of bed, and “can he talk” became people grabbing me by the shoulder and asking me if I knew where I was going. Sometimes, they don’t even ask, they just try to grab me and whisk me in the direction that they think I’m going.
If you’re a nondisabled person who’s even the slightest bit curious as to where a person with a disability is headed, take a deep breath and repeat after me: “It’s not my business unless they ask for my help.” Are we clear on that? Good, now let’s move on.
As a physically disabled trauma survivor and transwoman, the slightest non-consensual touch can push my panic button. Even if I look like I’m struggling to step up onto a curb, if I don’t know you and haven’t asked for your help, you have no place touching any part of my body. If you’re a police officer and you ask me where I’m going, my response will always be, “Am I being detained?” That’s right, Officer Friendly, it’s none of your business either, and if you touch me without consent, I promise you that I will make more noise than the sirens on your car. Too many transwomen and nonbinary people get stopped and suspected of sex work for me to think that a cop’s only motivation in offering to help me cross a street is to get a poor, confused disabled person where they’re going safely.
DC Metro police tend to like to ask me if I know where I’m going and strange, tipsy cis men always ask me if I’m okay every couple of paces I take on U Street on any given Saturday night. One polo-shirted frat guy put his arm around me as he asked me that question and said, “there are a lot of assholes in this world; I just want to make sure you’re doing alright.” A small part of me wanted to give that guy the benefit of the doubt and tell myself that he actually did mean well, but there’s another part of me, one perhaps more attuned to my survival instincts, that says I’d be taking too big of a risk in cutting him that kind of slack.
The week that I started Hormone Replacement Therapy, I opened for two poets named Denise Jolly and Natalie E. Illum at an art gallery called The Fridge by Eastern Market Metro Station in DC. The reading was the first in a hopefully long-running series called The Bodies Visible, which aims to provide a safer space in which people with disabilities and their allies can showcase their poetry and performance talents.
I left The Fridge and hugged Denise and Natalie goodbye in a swell of body positivity, confidence, and empowerment. As I walked back to the Metro Station, two men yelled, “How you doing, baby,” from across the street. I ignored them and didn’t so much run as gallop past them on my crutches. When I got to the station’s street elevator, another man, unrelated to the other two, stopped me and said, “I know someone who’s got crutches like that, not as pretty as you.” I pressed the down button and stared straight into the eyes of the elevator doors, planting the prongs of my crutches into the ground and listening to the man’s footsteps as he walked away. Once I got into the elevator, the automated voice said, “Please give priority to seniors and persons with disabilities before using this elevator,” as the doors shut behind me and I looked at my makeup-covered face in the reflective glass on the side panels. Right then, I knew for a fact that there was no going back to the convenient discomfort of male-presenting privilege.
Later that week, I ventured down to Busboys and Poets on 14th and V to open for Denise and Natalie again, albeit unofficially as this one was an open mic where Denise was spotlighting and Natalie was featuring. Denise talked about her #BeBeautiful project, where she posed nude on New York streets and subway cars and wrote the word “beautiful” in red lipstick across parts of her body which she’d been told were ugly or shameful. Natalie teamed up with Denise for a series of selfies where she also wrote, “beautiful,” in lipstick on body parts that she felt alienated from and posed in several situations where she’d previously felt unsafe or uncomfortable. I asked Denise if she’d write “beautiful,” across my chest and take a picture. She did, and I felt that same swell of body positivity and confidence as the last time I saw both of them. I walked back to the Metro Station that night with my head held high and my flat chest out with pride, the red upper edge of the letter U hitting an awkward wisp of hair on my sternum.
As I sat on the last train home, a large man in silver body paint and a full suit of what looked like an umpire’s uniform covered in tinfoil got on. He started talking, as people do sometimes on late night trains, but I thought that he was just babbling incoherently. He was a couple of minutes into his spiel before I realized that he was shouting directly at me from across the car, saying,
“You have listened to the voice of the devil who has told you that you are a man trapped in a woman’s body. You have listened to the voice of the devil who has told you that you are a homosexual. You are a servant of Satan, now repent that your body and mind may be healed by the power of Christ.”
I’ve had more than my fair share of religious zealots approach me and offer to “heal my legs if I repented in the name of the Lord,” throughout my life, but this was unprecedented. To him, I was a two-for-one special. To me, he was an obnoxious, self-righteous prick who was in no place to judge me. I looked out the window and flipped him the bird; I doubt he even noticed. If you’re a Christian, I have no major issue with you, but if you think that shouting at me and/or touching me in public because I’m a transgender person with a physical disability is at all helpful or even appropriate, I suggest that you go back and actually read your Bible. The parts about not praying in public and not judging others seem clear enough to me.
Whether you’re a bigot, a cop, an able-bodied do-gooder, a horny cis man, a religious fundamentalist, or some special combination of several stripes of malignant ignorance, you are not and never will be entitled to the bodies of women, transgender people, and/or people with disabilities.
If you are a woman, transgender person, person with a disability, or exist at any intersection of those identities, it’s a safe bet that you know what makes you vulnerable to violence, abuse, and subjugation. Do not let fear stand in the way of telling your stories and fighting back.