What Street Harassment Is Like For Me As A Trans Woman

In Depth

Being harassed on the street by strange men is something most women are used to dealing with on a near constant basis. Trans women are no exception. It seems just as bad when we “pass,” and can be even worse, and definitely different, when we “fail” to “pass.” These are my experiences.

I’ve never not known overtly gendered harassment. As a child and as a teenager, it was heavily based on hatred and disapproval of femininity. At its core, it was misogyny, but tweaked towards a “non-female” target. I was gendered as male, but I was gendered, at best, as “broken male” “female like male” and so forth. So all of the abuse and harassment I received was certainly gendered. What it wasn’t was sexual. That’s an experience as a trans girl that I did not have, because only rarely did clothing style, hair style, etc portray me as a young woman. I am beyond glad that I never had to be 14 and deal with a 40 year old making suggestive comments. However, that would change when I started to attend university.

As I intentionally dressed more feminine, experimented with make up, etc, it was more and more common for me to by marked as female. The irony was, sometimes, especially after I joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), and my hair was closely cropped yet my non-uniform clothing choices remained the same, I’d be “mistaken” for a soft butch lesbian, and the harassment I received was homophobic, misogynistic, and sexualised all rolled up into one. They were infrequent, but they happened. As my experiences with the homophobic reactions of my fellow NROTC midshipmen led to my sexual assault and I finally resigned my appointment, I intentionally went much further femme. And the harassment continued.

The most frightening example of street harassment/catcalling I have ever experienced occurred in 2006, right after I graduated, and moved to Atlanta. I had not legally transitioned or medically transitioned, but I had socially transitioned and professionally transitioned. This was before my small testosterone spike, and I passed very easily with just light make up and my long, reddish brown hair. I was in a hoodie and jeans. Because, you know, it’s never about what we’re wearing.

I was walking from my apartment near Georgia Tech university to the grocery store when a very tall man began to follow me. I quickened my pace, he started following me, shouting out questions about where I lived, what I was doing, where I was going, wouldn’t I just talk to him. I walked even faster, but as tall as I am, he was much taller and he began to close the gap. At one point he reached out. I have no idea what he was reaching out for or why, but I bolted. I ended up at a Krystal’s fast food restaurant where I stayed until I ran into some off-duty cops who agreed to drive me home in their patrol car. It was one of the scariest experiences of street harassment I’d ever had.

But it wouldn’t be the last while I was presenting as female. I definitely had a reprieve (and again, this would be a difference from the experiences of cis women I acknowledge), when I moved to Korea and then Japan with my transition on pause. It was a return to male privilege, but my experiences as a woman were defining. It’s how I came to be involved in feminism. How I came to be involved in the Jezebel community and other communities like it. While I worked my way back into a financially solvent position whereby I might restart my transition, as I eventually did, I knew what would happen. I had no illusions about it. Yet I did it anyway, because I had no more choice in the matter, ultimately, than anyone else does in regards to living authentically. Trading one harm for the loss of privilege which meant dealing with another.

There have been many, many incidents since that day in 2006. The number over the last three years as HRT has affected my being read correctly even when a total “mess” has increased exponentially. So just in order to illustrate the level of harassment, I’ll describe a few major incidents which have occurred just in recent months, and what happens when I’m “clocked” in the midst of this harassment as I have been once just in the last month! And I’ll end with a description of what happened today, a pretty common incident. Note these are just two of the worst, plus today’s. Listing them all would take forever.

This summer, I was about as feminine as I’ve ever been, certainly by Japanese standards. I was heading to a summer festival which occurs in my area. I had my hair in my standard side pony tail, but I had some various hair doodads dressing it up, full makeup, in a pretty pink yukata (a summer kimono) and white sandals. There was no possible misgendering in that attire. The problem came as I made my way home. I was changing trains at a station, and it was getting very late. A middle-aged Japanese man approached me and asked if I was Russian. Then he made a couple of inappropriate hand gestures indicating both “sex” and “money.” Now, to those unaware, the implication here is both sexist and xenophobic (if not racist), because it presumes that any “Russian” (or Eastern European) woman in Japan is there as a sex worker. I responded by saying that no, I was an American, and I didn’t have time to talk. He asked me if I wanted to come back to his place. I reiterated, no, I was going the opposite direction, and I walked hurriedly away.

Fast forward to October, a halloween party, I’m dressed in a sort of 80s/Miami Vice/Pretty in Pink sort of pink dress shirt, blazer, and slacks sort of look. Not remotely feminine (but my face and hairstyle definitely were). While not exactly street harassment, an acquaintance of an acquaintance (dressed in full SWAT gear, no less) comes chats me up and then grabs my ass in front of God and everyone. So, I bluntly say, “Don’t ever do that again.” And my refusal to respond in any way but bluntly must have triggered something, because he takes another look at me and says, “Oh, you’re a dude. You should have said that, because I mean the only reason I grabbed you was because you look like a woman.” Essentially, by looking like a woman, I was asking for it, SURPRISE SURPRISE.

So I whip out my picture ID and point to the F. “I am a woman, and what you just did was sexual harassment, and would have been sexual harassment even if I was a dude! What the hell?” Then he started making awful he/she comments and asking if I wanted to step outside. Clearly, this is about the time I start thinking trans woman, outed by angry lecherous man = dead trans woman. Luckily, the party was run by friends, and they stepped in, and while he never was made to see the error of his ways, at least he was finally convinced, yes I was a woman, and if he came within twenty feet of me, he’d be thrown out on his ear. His entitlement meant that he kept asking the hostess to allow him to “apologise” to me. He just didn’t seem to understand that my space was more important than his “need” to “apologise.” Same damn shit, slightly different form. I ended up leaving with a friend, I just didn’t feel safe if he wasn’t going to be thrown out.

So finally, this morning. I’m at a 7-11, when I am asked by a non-Japanese man if I speak English. I say yes, can I help him? Yes, he says, he needs to know the way to the station. I’m sorry, I say, but I only pass through this area on my way to work, I don’t know. Could he not check GPS on his phone? That’s what I do. Immediately, “Oh, phone? Do you have a phone number I could have?” “Sorry, no, I don’t give out my phone number to people I don’t know.” “Well, I need help.” “Sorry, I have to get to work.” “Oh, well, really, that phone number… Do you live around here? Are you …single?” And I just lost it at that point. His tone, his body language, and his words had just gotten terrifying. I was in my car and ready to go, and I just said, “Dude, I’m a lesbian, and you are wasting your time,” put the car into gear and peeled out.

And that’s what street harassment as a trans woman is like for me. And probably for you, if you’re a woman, transgender or cisgender.

Image via Shutterstock.

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