I learned how to be a woman in the eyes of dangerous men at a street corner in South Boston, on a warm fall evening in 2001.
I was 25 and it was two months after I changed my name and started hormones. I had grown out my blonde hair, and at 115 pounds and 5-foot-5 — three inches taller in heels — men voiced their approval on the street as soon as I started wearing women’s clothes. They told me how good I looked and asked me for my number, or told me to smile so I would be more beautiful. And I found myself flattered because these men saw me not just as the woman I felt myself to be, but as someone attractive enough to get their attention.
At the same time, I sensed that it took only a closer look for this appreciation to turn. My chest was still completely flat and I had to wear thick makeup because I hadn’t yet lasered the wisps of dark hair on my face. I was careful not to be alone outside in the dark. I either went out with friends or took a cab — thankfully I had enough money to afford cabs — whenever I needed to be out late at night.
That particular evening, my friend Max invited me to his art opening at a gallery, when I already had plans to go to the theater with another friend. He told me to come to the party after the opening instead, at his studio in South Boston, a mostly working-class Irish neighborhood that hosted a smattering of artists who rented cheap space.
I was still addicted to sparkles back then, those first few months of second adolescence. I wore skin-tight jeans bedazzled with bits of glitter, which shed and got onto everything, and a metallic silver jacket over a tight black sleeveless top. My foundation was thick, my lipstick bright pink, my angular cheekbones artificially rosy.
After a night of comedy at the Huntington Theater in the Back Bay district of Boston, I took a $10 cab ride to a part of town I rarely went to at night, where I was dropped off in front of an old factory building that was refitted to house artist studios.
But no one answered when I rang Max’s buzzer. And when I called him on my cell, Max apologized and said he’d canceled the party and forgot to tell me.
Max’s studio was upstairs from a brightly lit CVS, and there was a group of six or seven men, sporting crew cuts and leather jackets, waiting to cross the street. I turned in the opposite direction, but not before I heard one of them say, “Hey baby, why don’t you come with us?” from behind me.
I had an entire block of light from the CVS windows to walk through before my body could plunge into darkness, which I knew could either help me or hurt me. I feared the dark because there I was most likely to get beat up, but it could potentially offer me safety — in the dark, the parts of my body that might give me away as a trans woman didn’t show. As I walked those hundred yards to the next crosswalk and prayed that those men’s light would change, so that we could go in our opposite directions.
But light was not on my side. A moment later, a man blocked my path, and said, “Miss, my friend really wants to talk to you.”
I raised my head and looked him in the eye when I heard him say “Miss” — there was the promise of respect in that word, the promise that these men would see me the way I saw myself. Back then, I didn’t know yet that the chance of getting respect from the kind of men who would bother a woman on the street was slim. I hadn’t fully absorbed that this was not the kind of attention I wanted, that this type of attention could so easily turn sour — especially for trans women. When men approach us to express their attraction, they also stand to punish us for threatening their masculinity if they find out who we really are.
Were you to show him to me now, that man I looked in the eye, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish him from other men. I only have vague memories of his close-cropped hair, his light skin, the strong brow and jaw of a man like many others who have paid me some mind on the street. His face has joined the faces of those who I’ve ignored or walked away from over the years. But what I won’t forget is the way the wonder in his eyes squinted into suspicion, the way his toothy smile distorted into a scowl, as he shifted away and I continued to walk with regret.
“Dude! That’s a man!” I heard him shout behind me as I reached the crosswalk, the edge of light from the CVS. Then laughter, then slurs.
Light was still not on my side. The glowing neon man in charge of telling me whether or not to cross gleamed red. Somehow, I had the mind to know that running was not the right choice — running was how I would confirm who I was in the eyes of those men. The only way I could make them reassess my gender was to act like a woman who isn’t trans would act. I’d be that woman who is waifish and thin and strong-featured, who is only occasionally mistaken for a man. I’d continue to walk with calmness and confidence.
I remembered a trick from when I did theater and felt stage fright. I listened for my heartbeat as I waited for the crosswalk signal to change, heard it loud and clear in my ears, and told myself that if I could get it to slow down, I would be OK. I didn’t know if that was true but I wanted to make it true, because I also knew I didn’t want my heartbeat to stop. I forced myself to focus on that beat when the light changed, and to coordinate my steps in such a way that they would convey the calmness I strived for. An unknown force propelled me to believe that feigning calmness could save my life.
I was halfway down the next block, plunged into darkness, before I began to hear a rush of footsteps headed in my direction, interrupting the steady and increasingly calming beat of my heart. I forced myself to listen to that beat, to keep matching my steps to it, to will myself not to speed up even as the sound of running footsteps got louder and louder, those men giving chase, catching up. I saw a glowing green man at the end of the next crosswalk and walked calmly toward it, even when I saw it disappear and another man blink red — blink, blink, blink — as I came near. It was still blinking by the time I reached the edge of that cross, and I continued to walk to the beat of my heart until I got to the other side, just as the red man stopped blinking.
I kept walking, on and on. I heard the thumps of running behind me transmute into shuffles that scraped the sidewalk, slowly dying out until the sound receded into the darkness.
I absorbed the lessons of that night in my body. I learned how attention from men on the street could so easily turn ugly. I learned that hormones or surgery weren’t enough to protect me. I needed to shroud the terror and trauma of a trans woman who’s been called a man, a faggot, who’s been threatened with a beating and worse. I needed to shroud the collective memory of friends and acquaintances and members of my community whose lives have been interrupted or ended with violence. I needed to walk without betraying my history so I could be guaranteed a future, even though so many of my kind do not have that luxury. This was how I learned to be a woman.