On the eve of New York Fashion Week more than ten years ago, I modeled in a kickoff event at a Chelsea nightspot. Afterward, between 1-2 in the morning, I traveled home alone on the subway. There, because he perceived me as trans, I think, a young man threatened me with physical violence.
I am a cisgender woman. But I understand how that night I may not have looked the part.
For the fashion show earlier in the evening my hair had been teased into a huge fluffy afro. I also wore yellow and blue eye shadow pure and bright as paint dabs on a mixing palette. What's beautiful on a stage under dark lights has very little chance of translating similarly under subway fluorescents. But my mind wasn't on what I looked like, for a change. Rereading Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God my thoughts danced around early 20th century rural Florida. Until the sound of peril dragged my attention back to early 21st century New York.
"Stop looking at my little brother!" a voice demanded. I turned to my left and then right. A small, dark haired boy wearing coke bottle glasses sat beside me. That was the first I had noticed him. I guessed he was "the little brother."
In sagging jeans, a baggy leather jacket and a bulky black cap, this person verbally aggressing on me looked as if their clothes were swallowing him whole. "Yeah, I'm talking to you," he followed up. "You freak!"
His hostility pierced. I tensed. For more subway stops than I knew I had been an object of disgust. Given I am a bisexual woman married to a man I found my sexual identity being visible at all rich. I am pretty sure this man saw a trans woman when he looked at me. Maybe he didn't; maybe he saw something else. There's no way now of being absolutely sure (and in that moment I wasn't anxious for him to identify his trigger). And frankly, it doesn't matter. He identified me as LGBTQ even if I can't draw a direct line between his malice and the specific group in our community.
I masked my fear with calm. My defense, simple. "I am a woman," I said.
"I should stab you for that." He cocked his head but otherwise remained still leaning against the double doors. I stood slowly and walked toward the doors at the other end of the car. What sense would it have made to engage in a confrontation verbal or otherwise? Especially since he might have actually had a knife. Thank goodness the train pulled into my stop. A man with salt and pepper hair also exited:
"I don't know what you are, but that guy seems crazy."
The irony of it all made me laugh uncontrollably. Uncomfortable, the middle-aged man quickened his stride up the platform. I don't know what you are. The phrase struck deeper than the other stranger's knife threat. Earlier in the evening, strutting down a runway, I was quite literally a model woman. On the subway after midnight, the antagonistic homophobe interpreted me as a sexual threat. The less openly hostile passerby only reiterated the fear my body gave rise to. Beside my big hair, the heavy make-up and my thinness the other factor that scripted me as a target in a public space -- rendered my humanity unrecognizable -- was my brown skin.
A few months ago the trans actress and advocate Laverne Cox of Orange is The New Black appeared on Katie Couric's daytime show. Couric closed the interview by asking Cox about the fascination with trans genitalia. Cox answered by explaining the more pertinent issues the trans community faces are violence, economic hardship and discrimination, which especially hit trans women of color hard. All of the other cis women I know who have been called out of their gender identity (wearing a hoodie I have been called "sir" in supermarket parking lots) have also been tall and black. This mistaken perception is made possible by how readily black bodies are perceived as imposing, scary and masculinized.
That's why I found Gabourey Sidibe's recent comments on Arsenio fascinating. Sidibe recounted that while filming the hit show American Horror Story: Coven in New Orleans she observed "trannies" regularly being harassed and arrested at bars around the city. Since, Sidibe rightly received heat for her comments and has apologized for them saying she did not know "tranny" was a slur. I take her at her word. Mainly because I don't think her concluding remark on Hall's show has been given the attention it deserves.
Sidibe claimed the discriminatory violence she's witnessed around New Orleans nightlife is "tearing our nation apart." I hear Sidibe saying here that the victimization of trans women wounds women of color at large, period. Irrespective of weight and skin tone, cis and trans status.
Last week trans activist and author of Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity and So Much More, Janet Mock appeared on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show where she gave a much more telling interview than her widely discussed exchange with CNN's Piers Morgan. The thing that touched me most about Mock on MHP was how much time and love the beautiful memoirist spent shouting out the African-American feminist canon. Besides opening her book with a Zora Neale Hurston quote, Mock explained that part of her aim in writing a memoir was to be a "Phoebe" for young girls, like the one she used to be, who are in need of a voice and image that affirms their identities. "Phoebe" refers to the best friend of character Janie Crawford, the heroine of Hurston's Their Eyes.
I can't remember that night on the train whether I had already started collaborating with my dear friend Tanya Simon on our novel inspired by the early life of Hurston Zora and Me. But part of the fangirl impetus behind Zora and Me included us creating for Hurston in our narrator the loving female friend that we found Zora actually missed in real life. Because of my experience my sense of sisterhood extends to trans women in a way it had not before. Trans women and cis women are each other's Phoebes. I am so glad that we're hearing more of our trans sisters' stories.