An immersive look into the transgender experience

An immersive look into the transgender experience
7:53 min
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How the three videos were shot

A portion of the footage is from cameras attached to the subjects and to the cameraman as he walked in front of the subjects. We shot the majority of the footage 15 to 20 feet behind the subjects on a camera with a zoom lens. A small portion of the street footage was shot as the cameraman walked next to the subjects while holding a camera.

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 Cait experience 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.

“It’s a known experience in our community”

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.”

Navigating public spaces

In the transgender community, there are two terms: “passable” and “clocky.” A “passable” trans woman is being perceived as cisgender. A”clocky” trans woman’s transness is visible to those around her. Four trans women explain why “passing” isn’t everything. Tarek Turkey/Mic

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.

The complicated conundrum of “passing”

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.

“I was grocery shopping, just minding my own business and a guy started following me through the store, creepily staring at me trying to make eye contact,” Ahzionae said. After leaving the aisle to avoid the man, he aggressively pursued her.

“This guy continued to follow me, and in that next aisle is where he started grabbing his genitals and looking at me aggressively,” she said. “He got really mad and loud and called me ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ and all sorts of other names. I didn’t even buy my food. I just walked extremely fast out of the store and headed home, wondering how the hell can some guys have such nerve. Everyone in the store looked as this happened. It was by far the most embarrassing form of harassment I’ve ever had.”

Ahzionae added that when walking in public, she sometimes feels compelled to suppress her otherwise bold style in order to pass and avoid the violence of others — a concern that many trans women carry on their shoulders.

Bianka G, a Bronx, New York-based Latina trans woman, said that while “passing” as a cisgender woman was once important, it’s no longer her goal.

“It hit me — I’m done saying what society says a woman is,” G said. “Let me tell society what I am as a woman.”

In the transgender community, G said, the notion of “passing” often coincides with the fear of being “clocked” or “spooked” — colloquialisms that have become pervasive in transgender circles, meaning that their transness has been noticed — visible, laid bare and open for dissection.

“It’s normally during the midday where it’s packed, where I start looking around,” G said. “I start wondering, ‘Why is she looking at me? Does she spook my T? Is she going to attack me?’ It’s normally in public places like trains and subways where I start doubting my confidence and I start doubting myself as a woman.”

For many in the trans community, “passing” has become an archaic and even offensive phrase, suggesting that trans individuals are deceivers and frauds, attempting to fool the world. The ultimate implication is that trans women are not real women, but are playing dress-up — and our femininity is merely a costume or disguise.

G recalls the moment when she left the pressure behind.

“I remember it was like six months on ’mones, and I thought I looked cunt boots,” G said. “You could not tell me I was not cisgender. I just came from the hair salon, I did a wash and set, had the curlers in and I was on the train. I was pumping it. I had my headphones on, skin was glowing.”

Two men eventually sat across from G on the subway, and began to stare at her.

“That’s a nigga,” one of them said, pointing at G. It shook her.

“He made it obvious that he was pointing at me,” she said. “I remember it was just like, even when I felt the most confidence and the most beautiful, even with my curlers in and all, I still got spooked. I realized you know what — I don’t care. I’m trans. I can’t hide who I am.”

Fostering healing and self-care

Two years ago, G began to attend workshops at the Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn. The organization, founded in 1974, offers self-defense classes for cisgender and transgender women.

“I learned about my rights, self-defense and I think it was a great way to start my transition of knowing who I am as a woman,” G said about her experience with CAE.

“I became a trans activist. I talk about my story, where I’m from, who I am as a woman, ’cause most of all, at the end of the day, I’m a girl. One of the girls, they say!”

When entering CAE, the “Trans Wall of Remembrance” is one of the stunning highlights of the space that’s decorated with touching and personal tributes to the many trans individuals who have died because of transphobic violence.

Jewel Cadet is working in New York City to help transgender women defend themselves. She teaches workshops focused on emotional healing from trauma. Cadet urges women to use their femininity as a powerful tool for self-defense. Tarek Turkey/Mic

Jewel Cadet, CAE’s program manager for youth and community empowerment, leads several workshops on violence prevention and emotional healing from trauma.

“We have our Trans Day of Remembrance,” Cadet said. “But for me, I remember trans people every day. I wake up every day thinking of ways to really center my thinking about safety for trans people. It isn’t something that we can only just do on certain days or only during self-defense class.”

Cadet, a cisgender woman of color, coordinates and manages programs that work with young homeless people. She works to ensure CAE is inclusive for trans women — and also for those who don’t subscribe to the gender binary.

For trans individuals who don’t identify as male or female — the agender, bigender, gender nonconforming, gender queer and nonbinary communities — the issue of “passing” is even more challenging to grapple with. Existing in a society that has been conditioned to believe there are only two genders can present a confusing and painful dilemma.

“As a nonbinary trans-femme person, navigating through public spaces can actually be pretty intimidating,” said Brooklyn-based Derek Du Jour, a 23-year-old stylist. “Especially because my form of self-expression is through my fashion and style.”

Du Jour, who goes by the pronoun “they”, incorporates both “feminine” and “masculine” articles of clothing into their aesthetic and presentation. They sometimes feel conflicted when moving through gendered spaces, like locker rooms and public restrooms.

“It affects me with my anxiety,” Du Jour said. “It just affects me in completing and doing normal daily tasks … when I have to use the bathroom I think about it sometimes. It’ll be like an hour and I really have to go, but my anxiety is still holding me back.”

Du Jour said when they are forced to present as either male or female, they are met with intense scrutiny.

“Some people will say nasty things and laugh at me and mock me and take my pictures without my consent,” Du Jour said. “People have always yelled things like, ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ or ‘Do you have a dick?’”

Du Jour’s experiences are common to many within the trans community. A 2016 survey of 27,715 people by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 59% of transgender adults have avoided entering public restrooms due to the fear of encountering violence and verbal harassment. When trans individuals are unable to access public bathrooms, they can subsequently face exclusion from work and education.

Destined to persevere

Amid the hurdles trans people face navigating life, we do find a way to move forward. Each day, we confront our fears by unapologetically stepping into a matrix of systems that attempt to strip us of our womanhood. Despite the countless misconceptions suggesting that trans people are mentally ill or confused, some of us have developed a powerful level of awareness and introspection, and are incapable of denying our deepest truths — even when faced with unrelenting ridicule.

Like so many of the trans people I spoke with, my desire to “pass” has gradually diminished. I no longer alter my voice or attempt to hide my transness. Instead, I try my hardest to be visible. I now make eye contact with those who stare at me. I implore myself to take up space and make my transness known, even if my doing so makes others uncomfortable.

Trans people exist in every corner of society. You will undoubtedly walk by us, work with us and share spaces with us, whether you realize it or not.

Yet for some cisgender people, there can be mental labor that comes with interacting positively with trans individuals. Affirming, loving and believing a trans person can mean challenging years, or even decades, of deeply ingrained notions about gender and sexuality. But once you’ve wrapped your mind around trans identity, you’ll hopefully begin to see trans people not through a too-common demeaning lens, but as forces of nature, destined to persevere.

CREDITS

Reporter: Serena Daniari

Editors: Kevin Dolak and Kerry Lauerman

Copy editor: Esther Gim

Director of photography: Tarek Turkey

Video producers: Serena Daniari, Sarah Singer and Tarek Turkey

Video editors: Alden Peters, Tarek Turkey and Leon Wu

Audience development editor: Kengo Tsutsumi

Product designer: Paul Chun

Product engineers: Julia Soper and Sarah Ganis

Product manager: Dante Doig-Acuna