I put my $20 on the counter to pay for gasoline.
The gal stopped restocking cigarettes and said “Move to the next register, please, sir.”
Bang. Slap. Ouch.
There was no need for her to use a gendered honorific at all. A simple “Move to the next register please,” would have been fine.
Actually, there was no need for me to have to pick up the bill. She could have been nice and just asked me what I wanted, a simple $20 on pump 10.
But she felt the need to slap me. She felt the right to slap me. For all I know, she felt the obligation to slap me.
She had to tell me that she knew I was a liar, a pervert, a bad-thinking deceiver.
She had to tell me that she knew the real, sanctified truth, and whatever I showed in the world, she knew I was a “sir,” even if she spit the word out like a bug that flew into her mouth.
She felt the need to slap me. That was her version of customer service. She needed to dismiss and demean my presentation and affirm the holy primacy of puberty, the idea that somehow, my genitals defined me more than my choices do.
She must have had some assurance that slapping me was the right thing to do.
After all, she had been taught in school that shaming & stigmatizing people to enforce gender norms was not only permitted, it was encouraged.
And the odds are that her family and her church told her that they owned the truth of God and were empowered to impose it on others.
Now, this isn’t the first time I have had to deal with a slap like this, someone dismissing and demeaning my gender presentation. And odds are, it won’t be the last.
I know how to handle it.
The first question is to decide if it is worth making a fuss over. I have faced down some clerks with a gimlet eye after they did it and they backed off, but making a fuss is usually counterproductive, because the worst way to affirm your gender is to demand people acknowledge it.
Beyond that, it’s about how we handle it.
Was there some way that I failed in my presentation? Should I just have worn more lipstick, or maybe less? Should I have changed my hair, my clothes, gotten surgery, done something?
I have been out long enough to know that none of that would matter much. Puberty marks a body, and my bones were truly maled.
For a woman who looks like me, I look pretty good, well put together and polished. That is the essential challenge every woman faces, getting to the understanding that they are always going to be a woman who looks like them, and the only thing they can do is look good for a woman who looks like them. Short & curvy or tall & stocky, young & fresh or mature & seasoned, whatever the facts of how you look, that’s what you have to work with. Say the serenity prayer and move on.
Maybe I could have been more invisible. It’s amazing how many people dress to be invisible in the world, to just blend in. For women in their teens that may mean being invisible to the male gaze, but for women over a certain age, it means being invisible to the female gaze, other women who are always judging and often harshly.
Women, as Deborah Tannen reminds us, are much more “marked” than men, displaying many more communication signs. That marking shows how we blend in as one of the crowd or how we stand out. I have often told transwomen that the best way to be invisible is to appear powerless, as looking good, self assured and well put together can draw both scrutiny and disdain from other people who feel challenged by power.
But I was going to a business meeting and didn’t want to look abject.
In the end, all I could do was to try to put her slap in context. I knew it told me much more about who she was than about who I was, as I have spent decades doing the work to understand gender, the cultural attitudes around gender, learning about who I am and learning to own my own truth.
I knew she was being rude and oppressive, acting from knee-jerk reactions, being defensive and self-righteous. I knew she hadn’t done the work to know herself, know the world and know about the power of the human spirit over biological essentialism. I knew she was acting from a low and unconsidered place, so the best I could do was bless her and trust that she would mature or not, healing in her own way and her own time.
All that is lovely and grown-up of me, the obligation of the smarter and more gracious person to tolerate deliberate rudeness.
She may have been acting out her own fears and prejudices when she slapped me, but in the end, the simple fact is that I am the one who got slapped, I am the one who had to deal with it. She felt social permission to stigmatize and slap me, and I had to take the blow and be the bigger person.
This is the power of The Third Gotcha, that key lesson of stigma that we always have to be on the defensive, ready for the next time someone just chooses to slap us. It’s why we cannot relax and just slip into some pretty expectations that people will treat us with grace and consideration.
Others may not be able to understand why we have trouble trusting, why we are always tensed and ready for the floor to slip out under us, why we stay armoured, defended and with a broomstick up our ass, but a few decades of socially authorized stigma, well, it will develop those habits in a person, then go on to blame their failure on their essential nature, not on damage from the abusive stigma they got because of who they knew themselves to be.
I got slapped by a clerk in a convince store.
It’s something I should just dismiss and ignore.
But that slap is, as every slap is for people who have been marginalized and feared, a sharp reminder of a past full of stigma and abuse, full of prejudice that others feel is socially authorized or even sanctified.
It brings up our own stuff, from our desire to fit in to our own feeling of being unsafe in the world.
And we just have to rise above it. For transpeople, we have to rise above it not as a family or a community, but as individuals walking and individual path in the world, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps as it were.
And that clerk?
I am sure she believes she did the right thing in calling me out as a liar, someone whose deviant and twisted expression just shouldn’t be tolerated by right thinking people.
I am sure her choice just reaffirmed her belief that there is sickness in the world and good people like her have to do what they can to impose their real truth over an indulgent and perverted society.
All I wanted to do was pay for $20 worth of gasoline.
The stigma, shaming and abuse was free.