by Serena Daniari
December 29, 2017
As I peered outside of my dorm window at the crowded New York street, I reassured myself with a nervous smile. After weeks of applying a full face of makeup, throwing on the synthetic platinum blonde wig that cost three paychecks and almost making it out the door, only to turn around, I had finally mustered up the courage to do what I deemed impossible: step into the world in broad daylight as Serena for the first time.
It was August 2015, and I had only recently started my course of estrogen therapy. Although the physical effects were subtle, the emotional impact was immediate, and potent. As I glided my fingers against my bare legs, I could feel my skin was beginning to soften, and my body hair was thinning out. Instead of shaving my body and face every day, I could now do it just once a week.
As my body was in the process of visibly feminizing, I vehemently denied any speculation from friends and family about the possibility that I was exploring my gender identity and beginning to medically transition. Whenever my roommate, who shared a dorm room with me, would ask why I was wearing baggy sweaters in the summer, I would nervously laugh and tell him it was laundry day. In reality, my breasts were beginning to develop and I didn’t want him to notice. I wasn’t ready for him, or anyone, to uncover my truth. But as each day passed during that summer, it became unbearable to deny. By the end of that summer, I was tired of enduring the performative labor of presenting as a boy, and the unrelenting dishonesty made my bones ache.
So, adorned in a beaded halter top and a leather miniskirt, I walked out of my dorm for the first time presenting as the woman I know I am. I felt exposed and vulnerable, but also relieved to have finally shed the facade of maleness that had imprisoned me for my entire life.
As I cautiously made my way down Union Square West, vivid memories of being forced to wear suits at formal events and being grouped off with the boys in gym class flickered through my mind. While I was taking those first steps outside as the real me, it struck me that even though I had existed in the world for 21 years, no one had seen the real me until this day. I was finally creating a new life for myself, and I desperately wanted to be accepted and welcomed by the world. So I kept walking.
“Are you a fucking tranny?” a tall, middle-aged man who reeked of alcohol abruptly asked me in the middle of the sidewalk. I was paralyzed with fear, and was suddenly questioning my transition.
He towered over me, and leered with a wrathful gaze. Unsure of how to answer, I began to incoherently babble. And although I was standing in a crowded New York street in the bright of day, no one came to my defense. I was alone and visibly shaken, naively hoping a stranger would intervene on my behalf. I slowly glanced up and stared into the stranger’s eyes, hoping he would sense my panic and leave me alone. Before I could speak, he spat in my face and sauntered away, letting out a jarring laugh that still haunts me.
The terror I experienced on this first walk outside as a trans woman has never left me. I distinctly recall it when I hear footsteps tapping behind me. I anticipate it when I’m about to pass by a group of men. I realized that moving through my life as an out transgender woman would not be the I Am Caitexperience I had naively hoped for. It would be a grueling, lifelong exercise in survival.
After four months of consistently presenting myself as female in public, my skin began to thicken. Eventually, the staring, snide comments and laughter of onlookers became mundane, even tolerable.
It’s my personal run-ins with transphobia that led me to spearhead a project with my colleagues at Mic to document the realities experienced by transgender people in public spaces: while walking, commuting, shopping and living our lives.
Mic has produced a series of videos capturing the personal and often insidious moments of aggression and judgment directed at transgender people in public spaces. To capture this, a shooter walked in front of, behind and alongside four different trans individuals while they walked through the streets of New York, filming the ambiguous and ultimately universal moments where strangers glance at one another, with no idea what the other may be thinking. My goal with the project is to provide individuals outside of the trans community with a deeper understanding of the impacts of transphobia, and the nuances of trans identity.
In May 2013, Monica Jones, a black transgender woman and prominent activist for sex-worker rights, was heading to a neighborhood bar in Phoenix when she was approached by two men offering to give her a ride. After entering the car, Jones, a student at Arizona State University at the time, was repeatedly asked about prices and services — despite her assertions that she was not engaging in sex work. The two men, actually undercover police officers performing a sting operation, arrested Jones. She spent 15 days in jail. In April 2014, she was found guilty of “manifesting prostitution.”
“Some of the most pressing issues facing trans people are criminalization and threats of violence,” Jones said in a 2013 interview with the American Civil Liberties Union. “All around the country trans people are targeted for police harassment. Discriminatory policing and social inequities experienced by trans people of color have led to nearly half of black transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.”
For many trans people, a walk to the subway station can escalate to violence in a matter of seconds, and often with little consequence for assailants. A recent study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 66% of LGBT individuals who reported their hate crimes received either “indifferent” or “hostile” responses from police.
“The police have stopped me for no real reason when I have been walking to the grocery store, to the local bar or visiting with a friend on the sidewalk,” Jones said.
According to a 2014 Columbia University report, trans women, particularly trans women of color, “are endemically profiled as being engaged in sex work, public lewdness or other sexual offenses.” The term “walking while trans” has been widely used in the trans community, and began to garner national attention after Jones’ arrest.
“It’s a known experience in our community of being routinely and regularly harassed and facing the threat of violence or arrest because we are trans and therefore often assumed to be sex workers,” Jones said. “There is a lack of understanding of trans issues and the needs of trans communities.”
Qween Amor, a New Orleans-based trans woman of color, shared how a recent transphobic encounter has ingrained deep traumas into her psyche. Amor said that while transgender issues have increasingly become part of mainstream political discourse, the issues of focus, like anatomy and surgery, are inconsequential to the harsh and often violent daily realities of transgender life.
A performance artist who uses public spaces as her arena, Amor told Mic how she was the victim of a brutal attack in November. While dancing on Frenchmen Street, she says she was accosted by a group of men, in an incident that began with verbal aggressions and escalated to physical attacks.
“They stole my equipment and proceeded to assault me,” Amor said. After attempting to flee, she sought refuge in Dat Dog, a popular New Orleans restaurant, while she waited for authorities.
Because of her career as a dancer and skin-baring attire, Amor said she’s often mocked by those who make assumptions about her.
“Living as a trans woman of color has made life so much more complicated,” Amor said. “It wasn’t until my transition that I truly began to understand oppression and discrimination.”
These stories prompted me to reflect on the measures I’ve taken to ensure my safety as a trans woman living in New York. After all, walking while trans and simultaneously keeping my physical and emotional well-being intact is a complicated craft that I, and others, have refined over time. Through repeated traumas, I learned how to make existing in public spaces easier.
At the start of my transition, I sported hoodies that concealed my face. On hot days, I opted for sunglasses with oversized frames. As for hair, side-swept bangs that minimized my heavy brow bone were essential. Years of living in the city has allowed me to develop an internal map that helped me assess which streets and neighborhoods were the safest to walk through at different times of day. Music became my protective cloak, and I blasted Whitney Houston’s greatest hits in my headphones as loud as I could to avoid hearing the vitriol others would spew at me when I walked by.
Eventually, I even went to extremes — subjecting myself to various agonizing surgeries to feminize my face and body. Over the course of two operations, I had my brow bone shaved, my brows lifted, my nose reconstructed, my cheeks and lips augmented, my mandible softened and my breasts enhanced. “It will be worth it,” I thought — after all, what I wanted more than anything was a peaceful and “normal”existence. But no matter what I did, the burning anxiety that came with anticipating ridicule and violence ate away at my self-esteem.
I was trapped in a constant state of paranoia and began to grapple with serious bouts of depression and anxiety that led me to seek hospitalization and psychiatric treatment on numerous occasions. For months, I would isolate myself in my apartment to avoid interacting with the outside world. I would only leave to see my psychiatrist, who eventually diagnosed me as clinically depressed. At my lowest point, I contemplated ending my own life on numerous occasions — even once attempting to in 2016 by consuming a lethal combination of painkillers.
While mental health issues aren’t gender-specific, the impact on trans individuals is disproportionately high. Approximately 6.7% of the general U.S. population experiences depression and some form of an anxiety disorder, while nearly half of trans individuals are affected by minor or severe psychological distress, a 2013 American Psychological Association report found. According to the report, over 41% of trans individuals in the United States are estimated to have attempted suicide — nearly nine times the suicide rate of cisgender Americans. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 40% of respondents said they have attempted suicide — about nine times the attempted suicide rate of the general American population.
Brandi Ahzionae, a Brooklyn, New York-based trans woman of color, said incidents of public humiliation against trans individuals are not exclusive to streets and sidewalks.