Street harassment

August 17, 2009

IMG00115Scene: It’s lunchtime, Monday. Helen is wandering around the area where she works. As she nears a block of flats she spots three cis men – Real Men™ – putting up some scaffolding. Passing by, she hears the following exchange:

Real Man™ #1: Fuck, that’s scary.
Real Man™ #2: It’s a geezer, innit?
Real Man™ #3: Fu-ckin-ellll
Real Men™ #1 & 2: Hur hur hur


Street harassment happens. To me and to other trans women. Every day, everywhere.

It’s cissexist and trans-misogynistic. It’s hate speech and it’s violence.

Me, I’m fortunate: I have various privileges – such as white privilege, class privilege, TAB privilege, possibly even age privilege – which, so far, have protected me from the beatings and/or rapes and/or murders that have been carried out on other trans women in similar circumstances, where the verbal violence has escalated into something far worse than the familiar humiliation of the public ungendering that I experienced today.

Possibly the worst thing about it, in those moments when it happens and in thinking about it later, is the sense of helplessness coupled with the awareness of just how exposed, how vulnerable, how much of a minority we are. It’s depressing that cis people feel entitled to lash out with such casual violence in the first place – because, for them, there are no consequences for their hate speech. They’re not the ones who have to try to make their way through a life where they’re outnumbered by a ratio of thousands to one, a life where hostile scrutiny of their every move is the default.

I posted earlier today about this incident and took it down, rewrote/reposted it and then took it down again. I’ve been feeling alternately depressed and angry all afternoon – but I just don’t know if there’s any point in going on about it – whining/ranting on the internet changes nothing. I only wish I could think of something, anything, that could be done to practically improve matters.

12 Responses to “Street harassment”

  1. Rebecca Ashling Says:

    I’m not sure what can be done about this kind of behaviour except to appear calm and composed to one’s tormentors. In all likelihood, they don’t know that this kind of persecution is illegal in the UK, would be astonished (and indignant) if told that this was so, and would keep on doing it regardless. It’s utterly hateful and I really resent being on the receiving end but what can one do?

  2. Helen G Says:

    Rebecca Ashling: […] what can one do?

    That’s pretty much what I’m asking myself, too. I’m not convinced there’s anything practical to be done.

    The London Metropolitan Police have Community Safety Units in place, supposedly to deal with hate crimes. Not that I’d particularly want to have to go to the police about it, mind you; I don’t believe that the police are generally any more enlightened about transphobia than, for example, the construction industry.

    The problem is attitudinal, and unfortunately all the legislation in the world won’t stop cis people from making these attacks; who’s going to stop them? So I try and count my blessings: I wasn’t beaten, or raped, or murdered. Nobody died, y’know?


    “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.


  3. Rebecca Ashling Says:

    It would never occur to me to actually make any complaints about transphobic harrasment to the police. I know instinctively that I don’t belong to any of the categories of people they would take seriously. There seems to be an ingrained idea in this country that anyone who objects to verbal abuse is lacking in humour and a bit of a spoilsport. This attitude is, in my opinion, learned in school and tacitly reinforced by the teaching staff doing sod all about imposing civility. No, we’ll just have to make do with imaginary scenarios of grand guignol vengeance against whichever grunting hominid has opened their festering fetid mouth to biliously belch forth whatever their 1500 cc of solid bone deems appropriate.

  4. Jo Clifford Says:

    It is awful when that happens.
    It may help to remember we are not alone in suffering this kind of verbal abuse; whenever i speak about it to cis-women I am always heartened by the sympathy and support I receive from them – because they, too, have to put up with it every day.
    I try to fight back these days. i never get angry; I try to remain calm and friendly. I say things like: “Yes, I was born male. So what?” or “I’m proud I found the courage to become the person I needed to be”. I’ve never yet managed to add “And I hope you find that courage too” but it would be nice to.
    Such people generally objectify us to such an extent that they are often completely dumbfounded to find we can answer back at all.
    When I fail to find an appropriate reply I try to still retain my pride. As I have good reason to: five years ago I could barely muster the courage to be out on the street at all.
    But what’s interesting is that having discovered the capacity to reply, the frequency of these attacks has hugely diminished.
    All my good wishes to you in your struggle

  5. Helen G Says:

    Jo Clifford: I understand about cis women being exposed to street harassment but I think there is a fundamental difference in that it’s our very identities which are being attacked. I wonder how many cis women, if they were in my position yesterday would have been subjected to a flat-out dismissal of their gender identity, their very existence as women?

    It’s great that you feel able to answer back; I wish I was as quick-thinking. Although, even if a suitable reply had occurred, I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to say it to a group of three cis men for fear of causing an escalation into physical violence.

    And there’s another element which I haven’t examined: the intimidation implicit in the physical presence of three cis men. Not only was my identity negated by their attack, but in the process their identities were reinforced.

    Finally, with regards to finding the courage to be out on the street at all, suffice it to say that I stayed in the office this lunchtime…

  6. I don’t know if it’s different here in Sweden but I rarely experience this kind of behaviour. There is also almost no wolf whistling or calling to cis women at building sites and the like.

    The closest I’ve come to being harassed because of my transsexuality happened during Stockholm Pride. I worked as a volunteer at Pride House and one morning as I walked there I passed “Hötorget”, a square in central Stockholm with stalls for vegetables, fruit and tourist stuff.

    There were very few people about that early, except the guys setting up the stalls. Suddenly one of them cried out: “Hello, Madame!Over here!” Several more took up the cry, or something similar. My first reaction was anger at the tranny taunting. But then I realized that no one made any reference to gender.

    Was I overly sensitive? Or was their behaviour just a reaction to the fact a tall, slim cougar was walking by? I chose to see it as the later. Which left me with two conflicting emotions. On the one hand anger at their sexist behaviour, seldom seen in Sweden, most of the stall holders were of Mediterranean origin. On the other hand I felt very satisfied at having “passed”.

    What I want to say with all this rambling is that it’s sometimes easy to interpret an incident in the worse possible way. After all we are often aware of looks and innuendos. But I’ve learned to instead put the most positive slant on them. And if any one have a problem with who I am, fuck them!

  7. Helen G Says:

    Caisa Viksten: It’s interesting how cis people’s reactions differ according to the amount of passing-as-cis privileges they decide to allocate to us.

    In your case, it sounds like you were being passed much better than I was – “Hello, Madame!Over here!” – and so you received a more typically (cis)sexist reaction.

    Whereas for me, because I obviously wasn’t receiving passing-as-cis privilege – “It’s a geezer, innit?” – the attack focused on ungendering me and erasing my gender identity.

    The ‘fuck you’ reaction – as I said to Jo in the earlier comment – I wish I could be as brave. But even if I was, I would still have been very wary about saying that to a group of three cis men.

    God, this is depressing…

  8. Crista Sadler Says:

    Yes indeed I feel you Sis.
    This happpened to me in the waiting room of my so called therapists. The staff only laughed while some “kid” about 14 ish was threatening to knock my fa$^ ot face in.
    I was trying in vain to jsut ignore her.
    ANd even though I am VERy ashamed of being intersexed and trand I quipped back:’ and proud of it”, after she called me a F in transexual…
    Of course her threats anger only increased.
    Needless to say I havent gone back to that clinic since.
    This was in the USA which is WAY behind the UK.
    I wish I could be in the UK.
    Anyhow yeah I dunno what can be done except IF society ever changed.
    Im not placing any bets on that one either way LOL

  9. Helen G Says:

    Crista Sadler: The intersection of oppressions you experience as a trans woman who is also intersex (forgive me if you self-identify differently) must be a heavy load to carry, so please don’t feel ashamed. You have nothing – nothing – to be ashamed of. You are who you are and there’s nothing to beat yourself up about. It’s those who treated you so badly who should be ashamed – your therapist especially sounds worse-than-useless; I’m glad to hear you haven’t been back.

    Sadly, your experience shows only too well the way that cis people feel entitled to judge us according to their narrow standards – and to enforce that judgement with as much violence (words and/or actions) as they please.

    I hope you have found a better therapist now, and that your transition will be less stressful for you.

  10. Crista Sadler Says:

    Thanks Helen,
    Honestly no I havent been to any thrapist not shrink since!!!
    Its been a couple of months and that clinic is the ONLY one in my region.
    So even though I struggle with depression and bipolar as well I know if went over the edge and hurt myself, that my blood would be on their hands.
    So that their Karma is negative is my comfort.
    I am currently getting support by talking out to whomever trans sister I can online.
    As really all we have is our community.
    And with all the infighting and seperatism we barely have that…
    Anyhow Wnough being a whiner, I just wanted to let ya all know your not alone in your struggles…
    ANd I have trasitioned fully except for the Surgery which I can not afford.
    Id chop it off my self except then Id be the laughing stock of the USA and everyone will me from the odd section of their newspaper/websites…

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