On being a woman in the USA.

Lessons in Fear: Finding Balance as a Trans* Woman

Guest post by Fran Stewart

Fran is a dear friend and a great writer I was thrilled when she said she wanted to write a post for MMAS. I hope this will not be her last. ~Rosie

Image via Fotolia.com

Original image via Fotolia.com

I started my girlhood very late. I’d reached my mid-thirties by the time I realized there’d been a mistake. Up until then I’d muddled through life as the straightest, most translucently white suburban male nerd you’d expect to see. When I came out as a transgender woman, I had a lot of catching up to do.

Fear paralyzed me in the early days: will I lose my friends? My family? My wife? Would people laugh at me in the street? Would someone beat me up for being “a he-she?”

I want to talk about a different fear today, though. I wasn’t used to one of the fundamental assumptions most women make every day: I am now a target—not just for being a T or a lesbian, but simply for being female. Just as my salary automatically went down, my risk of rape, robbery, and general mishandling jumped.

My friends began to point out risks I took without thinking. I’d jog one block down an alley to my parked car instead of walking three on the street. I’d assume the friendly intent of anyone who talked to me. I’d walk whistling through dark parking lots at night. Growing up male in a small, safe town just doesn’t breed much situational awareness.

Some people, though, went deeper. “You talk to panhandlers? I’d never do that,” I heard. “You can’t just walk down a dark street. Stick to the lighted areas. Think of what might happen.” I heard a difference in the warning tone:  you’re not afraid enough.

Amidst the dizzying swirl of neoadolescent emotions, something about that message went against my grain. Not afraid enough? I was terrified to walk out of the house! I rehearsed for hours how to answer the phone with proper feminine vocal pitch. I cringed at every checkout line, waiting to hear “sir,” expecting a disapproving eyebrow raise, the look on every face that says I see you and I know what you’re up to. Now I’m not being afraid enough?

I related one story to a therapist: in a crowded public area, an aggressive panhandler stopped my wife and me in a paid parking lot. “It’s after six,” he said. “Street parking’s free! There’s a spot right over there. I’ll even hold it for you. I just ask you give me part of what the pay lot would cost.” I looked. I could see the spot he was pointing out. I agreed.

After moving the car, we gave him several dollars of the ten-dollar parking fee. “That’s it? That’s all I get after all the money I saved you? Come on! Screw you!” We apologized and walked away. My wife was upset at the risk I’d taken and my lack of awareness.

I explained my thinking: the street was busy—a plaza full of people. The man was polite initially and correct about the street parking. I felt I’d weighed the risks.

“You can’t talk to people like that. You can’t know what they’re going to do.”

“I don’t think so,” the therapist replied. “I’d never have done that. You can’t talk to people like that. You can’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t think you’re used to thinking about these things the way women do.” We discussed the event for half an hour; I left perplexed and frustrated at her flat denial of my reasoning.

I straddle a mental crevasse: for thirty-odd years I was reared as a man. I was an Eagle Scout. I had to fend off military recruiters in high school. I had no idea what lessons I should or shouldn’t have learned to be a healthy, normal woman. I looked to role models to learn those lessons. But this one still felt wrong. Was I missing something when I assessed the situation? Was risk assessment just useless for women?

As I asked more people, a divide emerged. Some friends adamantly agreed with the therapist: couldn’t I see how dumb I’d been? Some said I’d done okay, though unusual for a woman. A few said I was spot-on—women shouldn’t take shit from people for being women.

Then an activist friend, a sharp-minded New Yorker whose advice I’ve always prized, told me a story. She was at a subway stop late at night and a creep accosted her.

Without thinking twice she turned on him. “Are you serious?” she yelled. “Get the fuck out of here! What’s wrong with you?”

She chased him out of the station in a cloud of shame. “When I told my boyfriend about it he was really worried about the risks I take,” she said. “But this is me. I didn’t think about it—I just did it.”

This is the most valuable lesson she’s taught me: there are as many ways for women to look and act as there are women who’ve ever lived. Anyone who tells you there’s one right way is selling something you don’t need.

“You’re very lucky, in a way,” she said. “You’re redefining yourself. Choose what kind of woman you want to be—what bits of the old you to keep and what new stuff to bring on. Be your own kind of woman.”

So, years later, what’s the result? A new balance. I’m more aware of my surroundings in public. I’ve taken a great self-defense course. I don’t take my safety for granted. But I also feel strong in public. I consider my risks but then walk confidently. I smile at strangers. I do these things because that’s the kind of woman I am.

I feel sad to say that I’ve lived a charmed life, though I feel I have. I’m living the life everyone should have by right: my own.

franquote.png

Image by Rosie


Also by Fran Stewart:

Why I Am Out

Related: 

What Does the Asterisk in Trans* Stand For? (It’s Pronounced Metrosexual)


Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.

7 responses

  1. wow. this one was really nice. and i do agree. its almost like making women live in a perpetual state of fear, when IF they want, they can overcome.
    i have written a little something you might like reading- http://cannesubhadra.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/woman-exploited/

    November 30, 2013 at 1:57 pm

  2. Reblogged this on Lost In Translation or Just Lost and commented:
    TDOR today. Time to really remember what life as a transperson involves.
    For some its worse than others.

    November 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

    • Fran Stewart

      Thanks, hon. I’ve been shedding my own tears over TDOR. As I said, I shouldn’t feel lucky to feel this way. :(

      November 20, 2013 at 4:03 pm

  3. Elizabeth

    Was risk assessment just useless for women?

    *blink* Are you saying that these women weren’t doing risk assessment? I wouldn’t have engaged the aggressive panhandler either. Because I have decades of experience (as a smallish, visibly female person) with aggressive male panhandlers, and that informs my risk assessment.

    The fact that these women’s assessment of risk was a lot more conservative than yours, and perhaps at this point had become automatic, doesn’t mean they weren’t doing any such assessment.

    Good for you for finding a mode that works for you, and you’re completely right that there is no one right way for women to look and act. But in this one sentence, you’ve come very close to calling more typically cautious women stupid.

    November 19, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    • Fran Stewart

      Elizabeth, thank you for your response. I started a reply, then started it again, and then I looked up and had written a page and a half. The very, very short answer is “No.” The slightly longer version is that I was totally bewildered figuring out HOW to do risk assessment as a woman, and that it’s screwed up that we HAVE to. I’ll post the longer-form response when I’m sure it says what I mean.

      Again, though, I’m grateful you gave me this considered, honest reply.

      November 20, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    • Fran Stewart

      Elizabeth, here’s the long-form answer I promised. I hope this better expresses my point.

      Imagine a scientist in a shark movie looking at figures on How Big The Shark Must Actually Be and saying “Well, that can’t be right!” just before the immense shark swims by the camera. I had to throw out everything I thought I knew. This highlights several problematic aspects of our culture.

      First, the gap between how most “men” (well, ‘people most culturally privileged through gender presentation and societal norms,’ but “men” is shorter) feel about public safety versus how many “women” (see “men”) feel. That’s a lesson for “men,” and was a lesson for me. It really startled me, and I really hope more men will ask the women in their lives how they feel about this. “What do I do that you’d never do, and why?” would be an enlightening place to start. Even though I was a really, REALLY sensitive “man,” I never got the sense of that weight from the “women” around me until this.

      Second, setting aside any woman’s specific assessment of risk, that there IS demonstrably good reason for women generally to presume higher risks in even the most benign public situations than for similarly situated men. That is miserable. That is screwed up. That’s grotesque. That’s not how half the planet should have to live every day!

      Third, and Rosie’s commented on this before, our society places almost the entire burden of mitigating that risk on women. Sure, “chivalrous” men are supposed to swoop in and save us when we’re in danger (which, though I prefer chivalrous guys, has TONS of problems of its own), but chivalry’s also implicitly the noble, heroic exception, and not the rule. As a “man,” I was told to “sack up” MANY more times than I was told to not be a douchebag. We value men who’re tough and decisive, and women who’re demure and patient. Folks outside the binary (even in MUCH less dramatic ways than me) get shunned, laughed at, and pushed to the margins, even today.

      All of that is a horrible mess, and many men and women seem unaware of, resigned to, or even happy with this state of affairs. I’m not, and I won’t be. I feel LUCKY to feel strong and safe, to feel that even in bad situations I can find an option and survive. That anyone on Earth doesn’t feel that way when they wake up in the morning is sad and shameful. That this many people are, justifiably, THIS afraid? That’s FUCKED UP. It boils up rage, sorrow, and righteous indignance in my heart whenever I think about it.

      Yes, I do have a problem with the (very few) people of both genders who told me “You CAN’T…” or “You must NEVER…” It was a sense that my own risk assessments were not just questioned, but frankly dismissed out of hand. At times I felt a strong implication that my interpretations were not just wrong, but dangerously insane. There’s a huge difference between such absolutes and “It scares me when you…” or “Have you ever thought about about…?”

      Especially for a therapist–”can’t” and “must not” are reserved in therapy for things like abusing children and suicide, and even then they’re risky words. That felt to me like her imposing her personal views on me, and abusing her authoritative position to do so. It felt scolding to me, and shaming: you’re not a REAL woman if you refuse to feel the fear I feel. That was a personal exchange between me and her. It wasn’t the common experience, but it was the one that pushed me over the edge.

      After that, I literally felt like I might be insane–I could not conceive of living in such constant fear of strangers, but that had to be wrong because someone with authority and power explicitly required it of me. The person who was judging my sanity was calling me crazy. That’s not therapy, that’s bullying.

      Nobody, woman or man, should feel they can TELL someone that they MUST be afraid. To me, that one statement sums up everything I learned—we all have a right to feel safe, and to BE safe. That’s not how it is, but that’s the world I want to live in, and the world I fight to create around me.

      November 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm

  4. Reblogged this on Note To Self.

    November 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

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