I’m in a bar on a date in the West Village. I’m twenty-two. It’s not that long ago.
It’s my fifth, maybe sixth date with Molly. Far enough along, anyway, that I don’t even think to dress fancy, just a nice T-shirt and a skirt.
After our second pitcher, I go to the men’s bathroom. I do this because I’m transgender and to most of the world I look like a man. Inside the bathroom, three tall white bros look up.
“You’re wearing a skirt, what the fuck?” says one.
“Yep,” I grunt and go to the urinal.
“We’re going to break your face off!” The same guy says, once I’ve turned around.
“Okay,” I say blandly, and push past them to the sink. I wash my hands and leave and I think showed those fuckers! I walk back to our booth and think They are fucking stupid. And I am really fucking great. I tell Molly what happened, she’s surprised I’m getting shit in the gayest neighborhood in the country.
Before we get another pitcher, I have to pee again. I look at the men’s room door and think oh right, that could have gone differently.
I look at the women’s room door. No, I can’t go in there. Then I think, well, those guys probably aren’t there anymore so—wait, no fuck it, so what if they are! I am not giving them power! I charge into the men’s room. I am brimming with gumption. A completely different bro is hanging out in the bathroom.
He is grinning cheerily and says to me, “Hey, you’re wearing a skirt!” Then he fist-bumps me. I pee and decide I am brave. Being brave is great. Molly and I drink another pitcher. I change into pants before we leave for her place in Jersey City.
On the PATH train platform, by the metal map stand, a drunk man is standing and pawing at a woman. The woman looks mildly annoyed. As the drunk man kisses her, he pushes her head back into the map stand. Her head makes a bang. Now the woman just looks exasperated. I yell, “Are you okay?”
Molly only has two years on me, but she looks at me the way somebody old looks at somebody very young and says, “I think she’s fine.”
That month, I read about a trans man at Cal State in Long Beach. He had gone to the bathroom on campus when a stranger appeared and shoved him against a stall and pulled his shirt over his shoulders and carved the word IT into his chest. I look on sites for more information, but I can’t really find anything. Only a few small news outlets and blogs are carrying the story, and they all give the same tiny amount of info.
I’m in line for a changing room at Century 21 in Lower Manhattan. My father is downstairs, running around looking at ties. I’ve just begun to take feminizing hormones after years of indecision, depression, and taking to heart phobic-advice that dressed as concern. This is the first time I am in a line for a woman’s changing room or bathroom. I’m in a skirt, and my hair and makeup are done. I move up in the line and none of the other women say a thing until a clerk walks by and says “Sir, this room’s for women only,” so I whisper sorry and walk away and put everything back.
After almost a year on hormones, I use women’s bathrooms without being bothered; I only get the occasional glare. I will take only glares, it’s lucky to go in and receive only glares, it’s lucky to be able to go in at all.
I’ve moved to a new neighborhood, and I’ve got a car in the city for a couple months before my sister comes to take it. One day, as I’m about to re-park it, a guy walks up to my car. My window is open. The guy looks drunk and his smile is huge. He says, “Hey! Hey! This is neighborhood policing! We see you all the time, you with the blonde hair, are you for real?” I say yes, I’m real, what do you mean? He leans into my car and wraps his arm around my neck and kisses me on the cheek and starts laughing. “You’re fucking good! You’re fucking good! You look good! You’re for real!?” And I say yes, what do you mean by that!? He keeps laughing and tells me his name, Andy, and in a small whispered voice I tell him mine, which I regret immediately, and then he wraps his arm around my neck again and kisses me again and then I leave. As I’m driving away, he calls at me and blows me a kiss; his smile looks big enough to swallow his face. The next day, an old man I’ve never met calls my name. He is upset when I keep walking so he lets me know this.
Days go on and I see Andy in the neighborhood, he runs after me and tries to hug me and kiss me again. It’s frightening and annoying but also kind of relieving because that means he hasn’t figured it out. It seems like nobody actually reads me as trans here, which is somewhat liberating, also terrifying. Some guys’ll hoot, one slaps my ass with his jacket, locker-room style—I want to tell them no, but my voice is deep and it still sounds pretty male and it’s usually a giveaway, so talking’s dangerous and so’s yelling. Estrogen doesn’t change your voice and I’m trying to re-teach myself how to talk, but it’s hard, it’s really fucking hard.
Months later, just before Christmas, my friend Emily turns in her thesis. To celebrate, she says, let’s all go out to this half-price happy hour. It’s at a bar in Midtown.
I show up with my roommate. The bar is crowded. Really crowded, crowded even by Friday-night-in-New-York standards, ten-minutes-before-you-even-talk-to-a-bartender crowded. And the vibe is bro-y, like really bro-y, polo shirts and orange tans everywhere. Some of our friends leave after just one drink, including my roommate. But I am a fan of drinks and the friends who’ve stayed, and I join them when we get a table. We drink more. I haven’t seen some of these friends for a while. A lot of them say I look good. They tell me I look really good. I blush, demur, I tell them thank you, I do that a lot.
The place is set up to be one-third bar, one-third restaurant, one-third dance floor. The DJ plays “What’s My Age Again.” I laugh and feel good, this is some back-to-middle-school time warp shit and it feels benign and warm. The next song is the motherfucking Bloodhound Gang. I’ve had a few and I get another. At the bar, in the interminable drink pipeline, a middle-aged guy next to me starts asking questions. Instead of answering, I ask about him, and he tells me about his life in New York, how he loved baseball, how he used to play, the neighborhoods he lived in. I smile and listen. He’s having a good time. It seems like men just need a couple of the right prompts to launch into their life story and not ask you more questions. As a plus, this guy’s actually fun to listen to. The drink comes, I listen a little more, I wish him a good night and go back to the table.
The bathrooms are on the other side of the dance floor from where we’re sitting and I start shakin’ it on my trips to the pisser. After a few of these, a girl stops me. She screams, “Ahhh! You’re amazing!”
“Whoooo!” I yell back. She’s cute, dressed simply. We dance for a bit. Maybe she’s into girls, I wonder? It seems like there couldn’t be a straighter bar in Manhattan but hey, you never know? I go back to the table. I get another drink. I start dancing standing up at the table. It feels fun. It feels good to dance like this. I feel loose and free, in a bushy-tailed way, like I maybe felt for a precious year or two in high school. Other people are leaving, it’s getting later. Soon we’re dwindled down to only a few people. Emily and her boyfriend are still there, with a couple friends of theirs I don’t know.
Now I’m back on the dance floor and I’m really drunk.
The cute simply dressed girl is there. We dance some more. God, I do love dancing. And it’s nice to dance as a girl, where no one even knows that I used to be a boy. The girl and I try to laugh and shout drunken things at each other—well, actually, she seems kind of sober—but it’s too loud. Then the DJ announces all the sexy girls need to get dancing on the bar. The girl grabs my arm and pulls me over, You need to get up there! she says and she leads me to the bar, where a stream of girls in tight clothes are getting up on the bar. Hey, I’m that hot now aren’t I? People seem to think I am. I am! Okay, so it was silly of me to think that cute girl might be gay, what was I thinking, but hey, girl friends! Girl friends I could use more of.
I’m on the bar. I’m dancing, I can see over everyone. This is fun. The crowd’s going nuts. When I was a boy, I’d just be off in the corner, going shit shit shit shit and now I am seen and I am here and alive and a guy in a white polo shirt comes up behind me and says Get off the bar! What? I ask. Get off the bar! He pushes me, not forcefully but not lightly either, and makes to push me again. I hop off the front of the bar. I look up. All the other girls are still dancing. The men in the crowd really are going wild. I look for the guy in the white polo shirt. I want to scream at him. I can’t find him. I circle the bar, and then again. This takes a while. I really want to find him. I want a scene. I want to be thrown out of here. But then I can’t find him, and I stop looking, and I get my bag from under a chair, and wait the ten-minute wait to cash out my card, elbows on the bar, eyes mute, staring into the bottles and the glass behind them.
I walk down 42nd Street, from 2nd to 7th Ave, and I piss in the entrance of a building on the way. Dimly, in the back of my mind, in my anger and sadness and shame, I wonder if someone is looking at me, the drunk six-foot transsexual with a face of rage, whipping her junk out right there on the edge of the lights of a Midtown bank.
The next day Emily texts me. She has pictures. She was there when I started dancing on the bar, but she’d left almost right after, so she didn’t see me come down. She e-mails me the pictures and I don’t look at them. I ignore them for a week then open them at the store where I work, at the info desk, in the morning, with no one around. And there I am. On the bar. In my dress. Next to all the other girls. I’m so unbelievably tall.
A month later, a state representative from Chattanooga, Tennessee proposes a bill to stop transgender people from going into bathrooms or dressing rooms. He says that if he saw a transgender woman go into a woman’s changing room, “I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry. Don’t ask me to adjust to their perverted way of thinking.”
His bill is pulled, but only because a legislative leader says, “we have more pressing issues before us.” He notes that he understands the representative’s “passion about the issue.”
It’s March, I’m still twenty-four, and I go out to a lesbian bar with friends from work on a Wednesday night. I am drinking a lot. A little before three, out of money, I decide to go home and I get on the train. Leaving my stop, my vision is jumpy going up the stairs to the street. I’m really drunk. I cross Broadway and go south. In front of a deli, right before I turn the corner, a guy on the edge of a group of young guys tries to get my attention. He’s short and slight and his eyes look wide and kind. I take off my headphones. “Can I walk you home?” he says.
“Oh, you’re nice,” I say. “Sure.” Why not?
We round the corner onto my street. He mumbles some things. He looks like he’s trying to work up the courage to say something. I’ll have to reject him, I guess. I should tell him I have a girlfriend. “Are you a woman?” he says.
Fuck. “Yes, I’m a woman.”
“You’re not a man.”
“No, I’m not a man, I’m a woman.”
We keep walking. There’s no one on the street.
“The guy around the corner, he says you’re a man, he says you’re a transsexual.”
“I’m a woman!” I say.
“You’re not a man? You’re not a man? The guy around the corner, he says you’re a man.”
“Which guy? Who?”
“The guy! You a man?”
“No! I’m a woman!”
“Can I walk you in?”
He knows. He’s now the one who knows, and when I think of telling him to go away, I think of what will happen if I anger this man who looks so unangered, so I say “Sure,” in a speck of a voice.
I stop at the stoop. “This is your building?” he says, pointing.
I say “yes,” and walk up the steps. He follows. I walk into the ground floor hallway and he follows. I turn and face him by the mailboxes. My apartment number. He can’t know my apartment number.
“I’m bisexual, you know,” he says. His kind look now seems wild and scared and hungry all at the same time.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I say.
“Can I suck your dick?” he says.
“Can I touch you?”
He looks ashamed and scared. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“No, you have nothing to be sorry about. Nothing,” are the words that come out of my mouth.
“Just let me suck your dick.”
“I have to go home.”
“Please just let me suck your dick,” he says.
“I have to go home,” I say.
“Just let me suck your dick.”
“I have to go home.”
He makes a grab for my crotch. He misses. It looks like he’s swaying. Maybe he’s drunk, or on something else.
He tells me his name. Before I can stop myself, reflexively, I tell him mine.
“I have to go home.”
He leaves me there, with the mailboxes to my left, the hallway to the front door ahead of me, and the stairs and the door to the alley on my right. I calmly walk up the two flights of stairs, go into my apartment, close the door, lock it, draw the chain, and then I fall against the wall and start screaming. My roommate wakes up and takes me into her room and I hyperventilate snot into her arms.
Why did I let him in?
A week later, I’m walking from my building to the subway to go to work. I walk past the deli, past random men, and one of them grabs my arm. “Heyyy!” Andy shouts. “My friend!” I don’t slow or break stride as I jerk my arm away and glare at him. “Hey! You don’t want to hug me no more?!?” He shouts after me. I shake my head. Of course I don’t yell, or say anything at all. I still can’t. No Andy, I really don’t.
I’m angry for a bit but then simultaneously, I’m relieved again. Because, of course, this still means he doesn’t know.
I’ve had nightmares most of my life, but the quality of them begins to change. In one of them, I’m sitting in a car in an empty parking lot, naked, and a man on the other side of the lot starts running toward me. I try to start the car and get away before he sees me, but I can’t do it, my arms will only move at a chunky underwater speed. My body will not respond to what my brain knows will make me safe. He gets to my window and reaches out his hands.
A few men in my neighborhood start giving me glares. One guy who’s always been genuinely friendly to me looks away when I smile at him. Andy appears to still not be in the loop. Once, in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts, as I’m about to open the door, a large man comes out, looks me up and down, and his eyes enlarge and his face opens like a flower and he starts laughing, deliriously, loudly, a staccato “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!” I’m confused for a second and look behind me but nope, he’s looking right at me and I—I have no idea what to do. I move past him and go inside. I can still hear him out there. I turn around and see him, he’s moved to the big picture window in front of the store and he’s knocking on the glass and gesturing to a woman seated inside, still laughing, mouth agape, pointing to me then back at the woman. What eats at me most, and what later I remember clearest, is the joy on his face. There’s no anger. He just looks like he’s having such a good time.
The year goes on, my drinking gets worse. In Canada—the country where I was born—they try to pass a transgender civil rights bill but it’s blockaded. They say it will enable pedophiles. One group comes up with a colorful graphic of a stick-figure man looking over a toilet stall at a stick-figure girl.
The state representative from Chattanooga who vowed to stomp mudholes in trans women is re-elected in a landslide.
The House of Representatives refuses to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with current protections, instead they strip out protections for immigrants, Native Americans, and LGBT people. I look on sites for more information, but I can’t really find anything. Only a few small news outlets and blogs are carrying the story, and they all give the same tiny amount of info.
I talk with a trans lady friend about the ambivalent terror of being harassed while passing. “It’s one of the most utterly depraved and psychologically damaging feelings I know,” she says, “because I feel forced to choose between the objectification of all women, and the mortification of trans women.
‘I hate it,” she says. “I hate it like I hate only a few other things in this life. I hate myself for feeling it. And I hate them for putting those thoughts in my head when I’m just trying to move around.”
This is not a full catalog of harassment, mistreatment or shame. But why all of this is connected for me is because when I think of the state representative from Chattanooga, or the stick-figure graphic from Canada, or the man in my building, or the three guys in the West Village bathroom who wanted to break my face off back when I thought I was brave, when I think of these things I come back to the picture that Emily took of me dancing on the bar, a head taller than all the other girls. A big boozed-up woman desperately clawing toward this fucked-up rotten caricature of what it might be like to lead a normal life. Who knew it was that easy.
Casey Plett has been a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and was a contributor to the Topside Press anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard. Her essays have appeared in Anomalous Press, Line Zero, and Cavalier Literary Couture. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada.
Illustration by Carly Bodnar