Navigating through public spaces while being transgender
Written by Sasha R
Taking the bus, a train, and walking on the streets is something most of us do regularly, and it is usually quite normal and undisturbed – but only for the cisgender, gender conforming folk. For many transgender people, these seemingly menial tasks pose overwhelming obstacles that may put our lives in jeopardy. Whether it is on the streets, malls, or public transport, the binary way in which people look at gender can make navigating through each day quite harrowing. Think of something like having to meet a friend at a cafe, for which you have to take public transport. Easy? Not quite.
I am nonbinary (going by they/them pronouns), and to me that means not being a woman or a man. But when I board a bus, I immediately have to choose either staying safe because I am assigned female at birth (AFAB) and I “look like it” by joining the women in the front, or going to the back and risk being harassed by men. Sometimes I give in and stand with the women to protect myself, but other times I brave the situation and stand at the back, rarely ever being able to get out without at least five men pushing and shoving “accidentally.”
In Kris’experience (they/he), who is also an AFAB trans person, things are a bit different. When he takes the train, he’s being judged from both sides.
“As an AFAB trans person, I am worried of being assaulted in the ‘men’s’ space because I may not pass well enough. And I may actually get harassed in ‘women’s’ space since my expression is masculine. I have been groped in the General compartment of local trains in Mumbai, and beaten up in the ladies compartment because I was mistaken to be a man,” they say.
Once the train ride comes to an end, there is a ten-minute walk to endure yet again. Ashi (they/them) says that they have been ridiculed and jeered at every time they step out.
“Since I came out as trans, I don’t think there has been a single day in public that I haven’t been stared at (if not outright harassed) by people. They turn, look, call their friends, and share amused smiles with each other. It isn’t fun to be made to feel like a circus animal.”
After these three harrowing experiences, we finally reach the cafe, but it doesn’t end there. According to Rishika (they/them), there is a whole other lot of misgendering to withstand.
“A significant part of why I have stopped going to as many social gatherings, is getting casually misgendered. Just meeting for lunch somewhere means me having to be misgendered at least five times. I go to the bathroom – I’m misgendered. I interact to order a drink – I’m misgendered. Places are so gendered in ways many don’t realise.”
Kris adds that he avoids using public washrooms because of the dysphoria he needs to juggle with, and the very real risk of being harassed, and as a result often develop urinary tract infections (UTIs). Keith (he/him) recalls an experience where he was detained by the cleaning staff and security for using the men’s washroom, because he didn’t “look like a man.”
In other spaces, like malls and shopping centres, the judgement we are subjected to just because we choose to shop in the “opposite” section is immense. Ashley (they/them) shares their experience:
“After garnering up all my courage to go ahead and buy a cute set of boxers, the shopkeeper advised me to check out their cosmetics, skincare and nail polish collection, just because I bought only boxers. There was another time when I was looking through ‘men’s socks’ while the ladies were trying to usher me in to try out push up bras and panties, by saying things like ‘You will look really nice. You look so flat right now.’”
Vai (they/them) also points out that most registration forms have only two options for gender, which makes them and many others feel excluded, and often triggers dysphoria.
What would help public spaces become more inclusive of transgender people?
According to Kris and Keith, one thing that would help alleviate the pain of going through rigid binaries is the simple addition of a gender neutral washroom. Kris says, “If my college campus had at least one gender neutral washroom, I would definitely use that one, no matter the distance.”
Ashi says that there needs to be a sustained effort to highlight how pervasive gender is, and how little inherent value it adds to any context it is present in, and then present the man-woman gender binary in that light as a burden more than anything else.
And as they very aptly put it, “It is only when gender is no longer seen as an essential aspect of how people ought to be classified, that gendered spaces will disappear.”
About the Author: Sasha (they/them) is a nonbinary writer who believes in the power of community and the importance of representation across queer identities.