[CW: transphobia and homophobia, including discussion of being called the t-slur and queer sex being akin to child sexual assault.]
Now, there is a long and honourable tradition in the gay community and it has stood us in good stead for a very long time. When somebody calls you a name... you take it and own it.
– Pride (2014)
What do you do when someone calls you a slur to your face?
Let me set the scene. It's Friday and I've just stepped off the tube and onto the platform at Bethnal Green. I'm wearing my new favourite outfit: pink cords and a t-shirt reading trans lives don't exist for your shitty opinion piece. It's raining outside so I'm eyeing up the bench on the platform, aware I still need to write a message in the card I bought earlier for the friend whose party I'm on my way to.
I'm nervous, but I'm nervous about walking into a room of people who I don't know. It's very different from the hyper-aware vigilance of not feeling safe. I have foolishly forgotten that there is any reason why I wouldn’t feel safe. It's less than an hour since I was walking down Charing Cross Road, feeling lit up with the joy of being in London. I love this city; I feel so alive when I'm here.
I’m listening to a Grace Petrie song with my headphones on. I’m thinking about the best words to tell my friend how proud I am of how hard she’s worked over the last few months to get to tonight. I’m not really paying attention to the group of four or five young men walking in the opposite direction to me down the platform. But one of them is clearly paying closer attention to the words emblazoned across my chest than I expect anyone to
"Are you trans?" he asks. He probably isn’t even twenty.
"As it happens I am," I tell him. The words are out of my mouth before I have a chance to contemplate whether or not it’s wise to say them.
He says it as he passes me. It takes a second for the words to hit; not as a gut punch but as a wave of numbness. Almost in slow motion, I see myself turn, raising my middle finger even as I walk away. It feels so stupid (so foolish, so dangerous) to respond and not just keep on walking; it feels so stupid (so inconsequential, so powerless) to respond with such an insignificant gesture.
But how are you supposed to react when someone calls you the t-slur on the tube platform?
It was the first time I've been called a tranny to my face. It felt different to being cat-called. There was no roiling shame curling in my stomach, no flush burning my cheeks. I barely felt anything, it was as though I had shut down and couldn’t process emotions. It wasn’t until I reached the venue of my friend’s celebration and they hugged me that I realised just how not ok I was.
But it felt silly that a tiny little slur from a stranger should affect me. Some trans folks, especially trans women and trans femme people, face this kind of casual transphobia every day. I feel it was naive – maybe even arrogant – of me not to be braced for something like this to happen. And it was just words, so I told myself that I should be able to shrug them off as easily as water off a duck’s back. Except ducks are at home in water, and the slur had been thrown at me to show that I wasn’t safe, that I shouldn’t feel at home on the tube on a Friday night.
My friend directed me to a space where I could breathe for a minute until I was ready to face the people and music and darkness that I knew I would enjoy, but at that moment felt overwhelming. I tried to pull myself together; I couldn’t let myself fall apart over this. It wasn’t a big deal. Except a friend I texted about it told me that I didn’t have to minimise it, and my girlfriend told me that it wasn’t silly to be upset about it, and that I should be able to expect to be safe from a hate crime on public transport.
Much later that night – after I’d forced myself to talk to new people, and ended up laughing and feeling so seen as I discussed polyamory and queer representation in mainstream media and access to PrEP with people who got it – I looked up what counts as a hate crime. Because that felt too big a word to use for something so trivial.
Trans Actual says that a hate crime is “a criminal offence which is motivated by prejudice towards a person’s actual or perceived race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or transgender identity.” This includes verbal abuse in public. Which, my girlfriend pointed out, if it was them being called the t-slur on a tube station platform, not me, I would definitely say was what had happened.
Yet I don’t think I can claim that word. I don't want to label what happened to me as a hate crime, but I think that’s because if I do I’d have to deal with the fear and the pain and the anger that would bring up. And right now, I can downplay what happened and keep those emotions at bay. I’m scared that if I let them in, I’m not going to be able to carry on as normal – and that’s what I’m expected to do.
Data published by the Home Office at the start of October report that hate crimes against trans people in England and Wales have risen by 11% the last twelve months and by 186% in the last five years. And in response to these numbers, Stonewall pointed out that they: “only provide a snapshot of the reality, with the vast majority of victims not reporting their experiences to the police. The Government's own statistics suggest fewer than one in ten LGBTQ+ people report hate crimes or incidents.”
It is incredibly scary to be a trans person right now. Sometimes I wonder if cis people – especially white and straight cis people – realise how much fear and fury and utter fucking heartbreak every trans person is carrying around right now. Some days I don’t know how long I can keep functioning like this, how long it will be until the weight of the grief and the rage breaks me. Sometimes pushing it down is the only way to keep going.
And anyway, what can you do if you experience a hate crime?
I don’t mean whether or not you should report it. I mean that if the disgust-laden words were intended to intimidate me, what I want to do is show that I am not intimidated. I will not make myself smaller. I will not shut up about trans rights. I will not stop taking up space. A world without trans people has never and will never exist, and how dare they try and make me feel unsafe in the city I love?
But I wonder if the numbness I feel is me trying to protect myself. I wonder if I did fall apart and feel everything I’m keeping at arm's length right now I’d find out that my words are all bravado and behind them I am terrified and just want to curl up and cry.
And I worry that a tiny, horrible part of me believes I deserved what happened. Because if I know being publicly trans is an act of resistance that will make some people uncomfortable – if I wear my heart on my sleeve, daring anyone to tell me that they know me better than I know myself – can I really complain about the consequences? (I can.)
Last weekend I took a Sharpie to the ‘trans men are perverts’ in the university bathroom and wrote that yes, I was a pervert – which is a term I reclaim in the same way I reclaim ‘faggot’ and ‘queer’ – and they could die mad that I’m having better and hotter sex than they will ever have. A few days later, when I discovered that someone had written on the toilet cubicle wall that if I’m a fag then I must be a child rapist, I wondered if it was my fault. (It’s not.)
Fucking tranny. I don’t remember what he looked like or what his voice sounded like. I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a line up, yet the words echo in my head. It feels like they’re trying to find a chink in the walls I have built to stop myself from breaking down. Yet are those walls serving me if I find it easier to blame myself for having the audacity to exist as a trans person without fear for thirty seconds than to believe what happened to me could possibly be a hate crime?
I need to face the fact that it was hate crime. And now I’ve admitted that, I’m going to go and cry.
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🍆 Cruising the internet
- My girlfriend got married in July, and I was their best man. It was honestly one of the best days of my life, and I got to write about it for HuffPost: "I didn’t have to hold myself back from kissing my girlfriend, even on their wedding day. It felt like tearing up the cisheteropatriarchal script for how relationships 'should' look and using it as confetti."
- I love using pop culture moments to give people sex ed they probably didn't get at school – like Anthony's first time bottoming for anal in this season of And Just Like That. And I love that I'm creating a job for myself where I get paid to write a piece for Mashable about why it's harmful to frame anal sex as something you do "for" your partner, rather than something you enjoy.
- There's been some Discourse™ about boundaries and rules in relationships recently (or maybe not so recently by the time this lands in your inbox). While I always recommend the Dildorks podcast, their episode about the difference between limits and boundaries is excellent and you should go listen.
- I finished reading TWO books in September. One of these was Imogen, Obviously* by Becky Albertalli, which I think is my favourite of her novels so far. It's a beautiful and important story about bisexual erasure, gatekeeping in the queer community, and why we need to stop intra-community policing of each others' identities. I feel very confident that Albertalli was drawing on her own experiences of coming out as bi, which I feel only made the book stronger and I hope was healing for her to write.
- Applications for the Gender Reveal's 2023 round of grants are open! They're awarding several grants of up to $1000 for community/art/organizing projects led by trans people of colour. Applications close on 31st October, so if you're interested you can check out past grant recipients here and apply here.
- Last week, fifty trans and queer people displayed banners reading 'We Exist: We Will Resist' and 'Queer Solidarity Smashes Borders' over the Thames at Vauxhall bridge. The beautiful and powerful demonstration was in response to the anti-trans and anti-migrant statements coming from the Conservative government, and I cried when I saw the video on Instagram: