street encounters of a trans kind

There’s a man who frequently sits outside on the main drag of 36th Street in Fremont. He’s probably in his late 40s or 50s. People have told me he lives nearby; regardless, he’s sort of a day-time fixture around Fremont. He sits in a folding chair on the sidewalk, listens to music on his boombox, and usually has several newspapers or magazines. He used to balance rocks but hasn’t done so in a long time. He has his lucid moments as well as moments where he seems less lucid and unpredictable. Every once in a while, he talks to some passers-by, probably those he knows. I, and sometimes my friends, walk by him on our way to get afternoon coffee at Fremont Coffee. Lately, I’ve been walking past his station by myself and have had a few brief conversations. I can’t place the accent on his somewhat raspy voice; I want to say Slavic but I could just be projecting.

May 21st, 2013

After parking my Jeep, I walk over to Fremont Coffee before work. As I pass him, we say hello. Then he starts talking more to me. [conversation reconstructed from memory; wording vague, general idea there]

“You are a unique person. I know because I am a unique individual, so I can see into the [eyes/soul/??] of other unique people,” he starts, continuing, “and because I know my limitations, I can appreciate other unique individuals.”

He shakes my hand in that gentle way that people shake women’s hands. Then he kisses his fingers and blows an air kiss, saying, “I love you.” I wasn’t getting any creepy vibes from this; rather, it just seemed like a very platonic, joyful expression of kindness.

Then he asks, “you are transgender?”

** Pause **

Unlike street harassment, this had none of those vibes. And it’s a shame to have to point this out as a counter example, given how much more street harassment there is. Back before transition when I was presenting as genderqueer, read by others as “a guy in a skirt”, I remember getting a lot of disdain, side-eyes, negative double-takes, as well as downright nasty comments behind my back within earshot. Every once in a while, I would get a kind, beautiful, and affirmative comment from a stranger that seemed to somewhat make up for all the passive-aggressive and downright aggressive nonsense.

These days, I’ve been getting used to having double-takes and furtive glances of a different sort thrown my way. I can literally, viscerally feel that they are qualitatively different. Entirely different. I am being read as a woman–even though, to this day, I have still not fully internalized it (trans + grad student = epic impostor syndrome). As a result, I have been getting acclimated to dudes reacting to my presence with that sheepish, fumbling politeness they give women rather than the quick sizing up as potential adversary that many dudes perform upon running into one another, or the disdain that they hurl at cross-dressers and other gender non-conformists. (I’ve also been fielding glances from women-loving women, which have been so entirely new and so entirely lovely that they make me feel like I’m walking on clouds. I should write more about difference between man-glances and women-glances at another time.)

And I haven’t yet run into the situation where I’m read as trans and reacted to overtly and frighteningly negatively, as I had been so often in my genderqueer days. Or if I have, they’ve been mild, at least as compared to what I got pre-transition. In fact, part of me feels bad, and somewhat gloat-y, about stating this publicly, considering many of my trans sisters and genderqueer siblings routinely experience exactly this sort of thing. On the one hand, this was my reality for 20 years appearing as a gender-non-conforming individual. I have paid my dues, I think. On the other hand, I have a mild sense of survivor’s guilt.

More than anything, the process of transition has highlighted not what privilege I have lost. Rather, it has highlighted absurdly obviously the intersecting privilege that I still have: white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, neurotypical, and with freedom of migration/movement (i.e. to have been able to relocate to a very queer/trans friendly city, to be able to travel without problem) to name just a few.

Given this complexity, I don’t like to talk of my transition in heroic terms. It’s a bit of humility serving as a check against insensitivity toward others and against the wrong kind of pride. I know that my bootstraps, and my boots for that matter, are mostly not of my own making. I’d hope that I’ll continue to carry the memory of my past experience in order to empathize with my gender siblings.

In any case, the evolution of my spatial experience has been one of the surprising things about transition. It’s something I had not entirely expected to experience so deeply even though, duh, I’m a spatial scholar. It’s not as if I didn’t have a clue that things were going to be different; I just wasn’t entirely certain how they were going to be different. There have been fascinating surprises. My observations pertaining to experiencing and navigating the urban, social, and public realm have been fascinating and revelatory in profound ways exactly largely because they illuminate a tremendous infrastructure of mostly subtle yet pervasive gendered ways in which we react to others on the street.

Honestly, there has not been much of a change in the ways I personally approach walking the street, considering I was always on guard previously. As I frequently presented in an overtly visible gender non-conforming way, I have always approached the street with the standard sensibilities and precautions that many women did. It’s… you know… partially because I was always a woman (as an adult), even though others never read me as such. Curiously, being read as a woman, by which we really mean being read as a cis woman, I have until this point experienced less harassment than I did as when I was read as genderqueer or gender non-conforming. Maybe there’s some sort of lesson(s) here about cis privilege.

Informed by this complex, inner, personal web of mental machinery, connections, and now re-configuring connections — 20+ years of experience re-capitulated in a fraction of a second — I gauged that I did not feel threatened at all by this man’s question. Nor was I put off by it in the way that it’s rude and ill-advised to ask trans people about their gender status. Thus, complementing my political stance on the matter, I could fully express my trans pride.

** Play **

I smile and give him a single nod, “Yes. I am.”

“You are beautiful,” he responds in a way communicating not entitlement but, rather, as an affirming statement of fact.

I thank him for the kind words, wish him a nice day, and walk on to get coffee.

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