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
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.
Also by Fran Stewart:
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