The Trans Experience Is An Integral Part Of Feminism
"My body now walks a path of dual narratives. I hold the history of trauma and patriarchy. I am also viewed as a man in public space."
I was on the South Coast, collecting wave data for a colleague’s PhD, when Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered. We were working early mornings and long days, sharing a room with other tired people. Things kept breaking down. It was windy and cold and internet reception was intermittent. Checking my phone meant a literal hill to climb and I was enjoying the rare window of isolation.
It wasn’t until I was on the train home, the carriage filled with sunlight from sky and ocean, that I read the words of my friends and women across the country. I was exhausted and it hadn’t been long since my transition. I had my field bag at my feet, heavy with wetsuits that hadn’t had time to dry.
This is an edited extract from As Beautiful As Any Other by Kaya Wilson (Picador, RRP $34.99), out now.
There are certain moments and issues that reach a social media flashpoint. Before then, for me, the last one had been the sudden globalisation of the #MeToo movement, when the collective voice found space for stories to be told. The stories we all know and bury, of when our bodies were breached. I had to log off and walk away then, from the drilling it did to my brain. I didn’t join in, not wanting to jettison my disclosure into the collective, fearful maybe that it would be a permanent record with only temporary impunity. A distance perhaps needed between me and expressions of womanhood.
Nothing was new for me in what was being said with #MeToo; these were all words I had heard before, spoken late at night, by fires on the beach, across pillows, inside embraces, through tears. To be raised with and by women, these are not secrets so much as whispers given in trust. The flood of disclosure was a rise against the weight of silence. The wrong of trauma experienced by the self was allowed to be more important than the protection of others. If only for a moment in time.
In my transition, there was a point where I felt like I was moving away from the camaraderie of shared experience and into a new type of other. I wasn’t sure where my space would be in a queer woman-heavy world with social cues of casual and ironic misandry. I was worried my transition would further exclude me. There were relationships I treasured which I was sure I would not be able to have begun as a man. Faces that greeted me, before recognition fell into place, were harder and less welcoming.
In the wake of Dixon’s death, there was a groundswell of anger being expressed. It was anger felt at yet another example of the gendered violence our society is reminded of over and over but never seems willing to amend. For me, things had changed and the threat of gendered violence from strangers was something that had effortlessly flown away.
I will always remember that first night, walking home late, when I turned the corner to a group of drunk men on a dark pavement. I felt my body tense, to be as ready as history had taught me to be, but all that happened was that they wished me a good night in a pal-to-pal kind of way. I felt so enraged, that it had been so simple. Memories from before, of nights walking home with narrower shoulders and a higher voice, feel faceless and sinister now. Memories of groups of men noticing me, of feeling the arousal of their interest. Memories of the groups that can circle you, with eyes from all directions, a comment, an invitation, a jeer, a challenge. The survival bravado you learn that means you can throw something back, while your heart is pounding. Now, as a man, there are still threats but they are rare, and public space has opened up to me in a way I wouldn’t have previously believed possible. The difference of experience is as stark as the difference between being greeted and feeling hunted.
The doubt we carry in the day-to-day experiences of oppression is destabilising. As our defences waver and we excuse away small behaviours, or they harden and we jump on a misinterpretation, the certainty we have in our own reality is eroded. Walking home and being treated with respect gave credence to all the times I wasn’t sure if the way I had been treated before was my fault, or just my imagination. To then know, with certainty, why things had changed, gave self-assuredness to my anger. What #MeToo did was affirm the realities of victims of sexual violence globally. Their shared experiences were shown to be real and worthy of condemnation.
Fear is the legacy of traumatic encounters. A quickness to fear and a delayed dissipation of fear are both effects of trauma on the brain and each time fear is felt, it becomes more ready to be felt again. That fear of men is a defining experience of those with less power than men speaks to the collective trauma that is patriarchy. The model of the interpersonal works on a societal level.
Most men do not see or feel the predation of other men and so late-night encounters do not leave the same kind of mark. The fear response is not strengthened in the same way, nor is it necessary. The fear expressed by everyone else seems to them unfounded and irrelevant. The account of their experiences appear exaggerated. The experiential divide between those wanting to be believed and those discounting their experiences is a dynamic that brings reality into question. Where does that emotion come from? Why is that person so angry? Is any of it justified?
Or, Are you really a boy? Is this just a reaction to something else? What are you so upset about? The trans experience is one that also needs feminism, that needs a support system devoted to believing and affirming our reality.
There are many ways I can interpret my own trauma and I continue to do so every day. There are times when it is impossible to forget, when it is roused by a gentle kiss on my shoulder from a girlfriend who loves me. I only have to be facing the other way and not know it is coming but my reflexive flinch comes from a body that can’t forget. I’m sorry I’m crazy, I tell her when she forgets her affections must come from within my field of vision and she says it’s okay but she can’t hide her hurt. This ready soldier of trauma inside me has been called relational, as it was sustained in ways that meant I grew with it. Prolonged periods of aversive stress, they say, repeated experience of violence, lack of control. I think of it as relational because the closer you get to me, the more it becomes a barrier between us. You must be able to trust to love completely.
It is not a leap to apply the same model to sectors of society and to our history. Those trampled on by patriarchy, who learn to flinch at minor provocations, can be said to be overreacting. We may not be reacting to a legitimate or direct threat but our collective corporeal memory reacts anyway. We have, after all, experienced prolonged periods of aversive stress, repeated experience of violence.
My body has changed with the exploration of my trauma, within a therapeutic environment where I am believed, I am listened to, I can express the emotions that come with my experience. The reflexive readiness to flee, or freeze, abates at times. In day-to-day life, when I am in control and I am safe, things are quieter inside me.
The rejection of a reality, to say you must be less afraid, must feel what you feel less, is just as damaging as the instructions of authority, to be less drunk, less attractive, less frivolous. Less raped and murdered. Be less. It undermines the reality that this is a threat that exists outside of you.
The data shows that Australia has a low homicide rate for all genders. More men, however, are murdered than women. Women are over-represented as victims killed by their partners. Men are heavily over-represented as perpetrators of violent crime. If murder is the endpoint, men should be the ones to be most afraid. Statistically. If you look at the facts. But for men, murder is an isolated extreme that most do not need to contemplate. Men do not imagine themselves to be the victim, nor do they imagine themselves to be the perpetrator. A violent rape and murder feels random, and a reaction like the outpouring after Dixon’s death feels further disconnected from the event. The exasperation directed towards men feels wrong, as it was, after all, just one man who raped and murdered Dixon.
For women, male violence, aggression and sexual intimidation are regular occurrences that require management in an average life. There are highly visible steps between a comment, a grope, a coerced act, a violent act, a rape, a murder. There is a scale of being subject to someone more powerful and entitled than you. Women feel much closer to victims of sexual violence because the distance is very little. They know it could happen to them and it does.
The cumulative scale of testimony in the #MeToo movement gave credence to the voices of women. It started to feel like women were being believed. I’m not sure, in the time since, that that has been honoured. But, back then, it felt like something was changing.
My body now walks a path of dual narratives. I hold the history of trauma and patriarchy. I am also viewed as a man in public space. There is a kind of horror I experience in being seen as someone to fear and a deep empathy with those who, at a glance, may fear me. I go to lengths to demonstrate that I am safe and sometimes that means leaving a space or walking away.
In situations I have been raised to fear, I sometimes hear my body underneath and wonder, What if they knew? I do still fear rape and the threat of it is amplified by a transgender disclosure, because through some eyes that disclosure reduces me to the body of a woman or less. I say reduce because that is what it is: a reduction of respect. And rape is inescapably integral to the history of violence sustained by trans bodies.
We all like to think we can choose the men around us. Safe men are trusted. Good men are recognised. When a young, white, attractive feminist who messages a friend when she is nearly home is raped and murdered in a public park, the illusion of safety is shattered and the message women receive is that you can never be safe, no matter who you are or what you do.
Men are also often blind to the million everyday decisions women make to protect themselves. From the casual mention of a partner to get-home-safe messages and plans and over-budget rideshares — the constant algebra of who to trust. When a man addresses a woman’s safety after a murder like Dixon’s, he may think it was the park that was unsafe, or that her circumstances were in some way unusual, or avoidable. Be safer, he says, avoid the park late at night, as if she doesn’t contemplate her safety on every walk home, in every circumstance. When there is no room left for change, no behaviours not already mitigated by fear, the instruction is still somehow to squeeze into a smaller space.
Hyper-vigilance comes from a history that is worthy of both rage and respect. The circumstances in which women respond to me with fear now are clear to me because I know what is happening. I also know what I am doing when I am the one to sit at the opposite end of the train or cross the road so as not to pound the pavement behind a woman walking alone.
It is tempting to reassure; there are trans guys I know who have declared in moments where they are being assessed as a threat, I have a vagina. I understand where they’re coming from. In transition, there is a grief at losing the common-enemy intimacy and a pain at being seen as one of them. It is possible, at times, to regain some of this intimacy with disclosure. I know in my life, when I disclose to women, I can feel something lift, revealing trust under- neath. Disclosing to women can be a statement of I’m with you and that trust can even be worth the I’m one of you misinterpretation. My disclosure to men that I feel safe enough with has more often been to prove a point, usually a feminist one: I know what I’m fucking talking about.
For the people who saw themselves in Dixon, who were empowered enough to step into the ring, it was a moment where the anger could be spoken together. The concert of what we collectively allow and collectively say held a moment of unison for her. There is always an element of racial affiliation and media bias – other deaths have gone less noticed – but she came at a time when we were questioning the kind of future #MeToo was forming. Dixon wore vintage clothes and made jokes about gender equality.
She was the #MeToo generation and she was raped and murdered in what we view as a violent act of misogyny. Change was not yet concrete enough for her to survive, nor for the police to change their script of advising women to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings. The change was there in our response, where voices were raised louder and longer and with righteousness.
The expression of anger is uncomfortable for men who don’t understand it, and for women who have been taught not to express it. It takes self-esteem to feel entitled to rage, to turn the inward raging of shame into something external. It takes something extra to rage out loud.
I know that when I walk home late now, my fear lies latent and less often roused. There is a healing in that. I am less afraid, because I am a man who is less visible, less attractive, less raped and murdered. On the streets, the threat has almost disappeared for me, and that is something everyone is entitled to experience.
Kaya Wilson is a writer and tsunami scientist based in Australia. His non-fiction writing blends essay and memoir to explore universal themes of identity, gender and origin. Kaya‘s work has been published widely including by Pan Macmillan, Brow Books, The Guardian and Overland.