Content Warnings: street harassment, survivorship, transmisogyny and rape mention
I just finished painting my nails before writing this— a vibrant pink shade. This is a fairly ordinary act for me. Since moving to Michigan nine months ago, my understanding of my gender has changed significantly, and my presentation has changed along with it. I’m still not sure what my gender is exactly, but I know it is something outside the binary. I occupy a unique space in terms of trans experience, I’m AFAB (assigned female at birth), and in my late teens I transitioned to appear more masculine. At the time I had a fairly strong male identity and my bearded face and now-flat chest finally felt like home. They still do mostly, but I’m not a man anymore. I focus now on wearing what makes me feel cute and clothes that make me happy. A lot of these things are “women’s clothes.” Moving from a liberal city on the west coast, I haven’t thought much about how this change might affect me until a few weeks ago when I was walking home from the bus stop. A red muscle car slowed down beside me, and a man not much older than I am leaned out to yell slurs at me before driving away. I won’t repeat what he said, but it was clear that my gender presentation was somehow offensive to him.
The floral leggings I was wearing are very much outside of the expectations people have for their perceptions of my gender, but it makes me happy to wear them; they feel much more like home than any of the khaki’s and muted polo shirts that have made up my past wardrobe. But now my home doesn’t feel quite as safe. I think twice now before I dress or walk through my neighborhood by myself in daylight. I am fearful in ways that are new to me—even as someone who was socialized into constant vigilance against the stranger rapist, even as a survivor myself. For the first time I feel like the general public is hostile to my very existence, in ways that I never felt as a female-presenting AFAB person, when I was transitioning, or as a man. I am struck at the many, more hostile ways this situation could have played out, and how little power I had to protect myself.
Street harassment is an act of violence. It was an intrusion on my body and although I am not wounded, I carry the impact of it with me. Street harassment is about power, the same way that rape is about power; it is meant to let me know my place. My nail polish is not only a statement about my gender, but now it is also an act of resistance. I am still scared, but I refuse to let this intrusion on my body ruin the things that make me feel like myself. I refuse to accept the authority of a stranger over my agency. I refuse to let him take my power.
Many trans women I know have these fears daily, and I don’t want to share my story at the expense of theirs or conflate our experiences. Trans women and other AMAB (Assigned male at birth) non-binary people’s experiences with transmisogyny and other acts of violence are much more pervasive and severe than my experiences with trans bigotry or this particular instance of street harassment. I am extremely privileged that I have not been subject to transmisogyny, and that this particular act of violence that intersects with transmisogyny was not severe or physically violent. I am privileged in the ways that I can claim these particular, visible strategies of resistance. They are not more valid than the choices of other trans people to try and protect themselves from this violence by presenting in ways that conform to society’s expectations. These are choices of survival. When our bodies are not our own and the world is hostile to our existence, choosing survival is an act of power and self love. We all resist in our own ways, sometimes that is just staying alive.