Am I Not Feminine Enough to Feel Safe?

In a culture of fear, everybody looks like a villain

Posted Jul 20, 2016

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

A man watched as I walked down the long hallway at our local library. He was in his late 30s, white, wearing jeans and t-shirt. I felt his eyes on me as I turned into the empty women’s restroom. Passing the mirror, I looked nervously at myself. I am tall, wear my hair short, have had a double mastectomy so I’m flat chested, and was on vacation where I never wear makeup. My ears had been hurting, so I didn't even wear my normal earrings. And I always wear sensible shoes—that day they were my slip-on hiking boots.

I looked like my brother John.

And I had a frightening, first-ever thought: Would that man come in and harass me for using the wrong bathroom? Would he think I am transgendered because I don't look feminine enough?

I did not think about him coming in to molest me as a woman. Or rob me. Or even leave me alone. I thought only of the current threats against people who do not look or act or believe or be as others want them to.

I’ve been straight my entire life, although I’ve never been all that feminine. My favorite duds, now that I am retired, are jeans and a t-shirt, just like the man down the hall. Sometimes I wear my prosthetic bra, so my chest looks like it once did, but other times I just go natural, although those who don't know me or don't know my story may consider it unnatural. Mannish, perhaps.

Judging people because they are different from us has to be exhausting because it takes aim at everybody else in the world. Nobody is exactly like me or you or my brother John. We pretend to be similar, but peel away our layers of social customs and learned behaviors and you’ll have a pretty large chunk of society that doesn't conform. Or worse, that looks more like us than we want.

And in a culture of fear, the tentacles of judgment can strangle any of us. In this case, the target, an unintended but nevertheless direct hit, is a tall, flat-chested straight women in jeans and hiking boots with a small bladder. In a tiny, fleeting, and ultimately inconsequential way, I understood how my transgendered friends feel in a world that puts them in badly labelled boxes and shoves them as far back on the social shelf as they can.

What if that man came in? How could I convince him I was whatever he considered normal to mean? Show him my mastectomy scars? That might just prove I want to change the way God made me, because if the man was the scary person I was envisioning, he would know just how God works.

Here’s the thing, though. He was probably just a nice fellow waiting for his son in the bathroom or his daughter checking out books, not the threatening, evil monster I created in my mind. I was most likely jumping to my own conclusions based on my fears rather than information.

I don't know him, so I create who I fear he might be.

He doesn't know me, so I fear who he thinks I might be.

In such a loopy loop of misinformation and anxiety, it’s easy to make villains out of ordinary people. I’d turned him into a bad actor and turned myself into a woman named John.  

Still, I was relieved to see he was gone when I came out, imagined villain or not.

I began to breathe more calmly and went back to being my unfeminine but outwardly socially conforming self, feeling generally accepted and unthreatened in a highly judgmental world. But with a tinge of fear, looking carefully around at others to see how they are looking back at me.