I can remember the first time I ever felt afraid as a woman.
It was a twilight evening in June 2009, a month after I transitioned genders and came out as the real me, an awkward chick named “Ellie.” I was walking on the sidewalk along Second Street, in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis, headed toward my regular haunt, the Bulldog Northeast, or to my friends, just “the Dog.”
That evening I had selected a way-too-short skirt — the phrase “age appropriate” hadn’t yet entered my nascent female vocabulary. However, I instantly understood that the skirt was too revealing the moment I spotted a man coming toward me three quarters of a block away. For some reason, the man looked threatening — was it his age (mid-twenties) or clothing (urban) or demeanor (looking toward me instead of down the street), I don’t know — but it was enough to set of a giant, fat alarm bell in my brain.
Why the hell did you decide on this outfit tonight, Ellie? It had to be this skirt? This short?
The panic was palpable, but I thought there was nothing I could do. I kept walking, head down, purse clutched, hoping that the man would walk past me without incident. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. By the time the man reached me, he didn’t even give me a sideways glance as he passed by. .
Still, it was unregulated fear which registered that evening on Second Street. That was an entirely new thing for me — up until then, until I transitioned, I presented as a 5’10” well-toned white man who walked around self-assured and in control. With some very limited exceptions, no one was going to challenge me, and certainly never because of what I wore.
Now, however, things were different. I had a skirt on and delightful lacy panties underneath — the phrase, “easy access,” shot into my consciousness — and I felt incredibly vulnerable. I had never, ever, felt vulnerable as a man.
From that moment on, I became acutely aware of how women are often the subject of male domination, and in far too many instances, outright aggression.
The lesson was driven home six months later when I met a man for dinner at Nye’s — the old, cool one. We sat next to each other in a booth; it was his idea, not mine. Between the first and second drinks, under the table, the man’s hand started up my outside thigh, headed toward the edge of my skirt. I reached down and pulled his hand away.
“I don’t do this,” I said, with a not-so-much feminine pitch. “Keep your hands off me.”
The man smiled back and took a sip from his drink. “I’m just trying to have fun with you,” he said.
Ten minutes later, after the food had arrived, the man’s hand was again traversing my leg.
“Stop it,” I said as I yanked his hand away. “I don’t know what you’re used to, but this isn’t how I operate.”
The man smirked as he cut into his prime rib, now with both hands visible.
As we walked out of Nyes, with me leading — I wanted to get away as fast as I could — the man tried to stick his hand up the back of my skirt. I batted the hand away and yelled, “There’s something wrong with you. Don’t ever call me again.”
Thankfully, I never heard from the dude ever again.
Later, when I headed a small legal access nonprofit, I learned about domestic violence. My assistant — a woman named Jillian who I came to adore — taught me something powerful. I had referred to women who had suffered from domestic violence as “victims.”
“No, E,” she answered, using her pet name for me. “The right phrase is ‘survivor,’ because that is exactly what they have done: they have survived something awful and come out on the other side of it, hopefully.”
It was a lightbulb moment. Ever since then, “survivor” is what I have used to describe humans — mainly women, but not always — who suffer at the hands of abusers.
I wouldn’t know or understand any of this without me first being able to (finally) identify as female. It is amazing how one’s perspective changes when their station in life — and society— changes. What I was once totally oblivious to now shapes how I decide who I will allow into my intimate life.
Translated: To the extent that I date (trust me, it has been a long COVID drought), I am always wondering, What is this man really like? Will he try to control me? Is he capable of hurting me physically?
It is unsettling, but it is also reality.
Welcome to womanhood, Ellie.