ENOUGH: Transition Couldn’t Protect Me

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Transition Couldn’t Protect Me
T.L. Pavlich

I stopped driving for a ridesharing company after one night back in November 2017. On that last night, I drove a couple home from a night of drinking at a friend’s house on the east side of Cleveland. As I arrived at the pick-up spot, one man was already outside waiting, despite the cold. He got in quickly and sat in the back, scooting to the middle and peering down the driveway between the front seats.

“Kyle?” I asked.

“No, I’m Joseph. Kyle should be coming soon.” After a minute or so, Kyle appeared, tottering around the corner of the house with a near-full bottle of beer in his hand. He came up to the door and indicated that he wanted me to roll down the window.
When I did, he said, “I probably can’t drink this in the car.”

“No, sorry. It’s pretty illegal. I could lose my job.”

“Okay, I’m just going to finish this real fast” and then he turned toward the house, upending the bottle while he walked and finishing it before he’d covered half the distance back. Watching him stagger up the drive, I understood why Joseph had opted to wait out in the cold by himself. Kyle disappeared behind the house for only a moment before I heard the clanking clatter of the beer bottle hitting others already in the recycling bin.

When he came back, Kyle slid into the front seat and started talking, diving in as if we’d been mid-conversation moments earlier. He hardly stopped speaking throughout the twenty-minute ride. I learned a lot about him. He studied pre-law at University of South Carolina, my undergrad’s rival, but gave up on law school for some unspecified reason. He loves Nikki Haley and thinks she should be the next president. He’s not racist; he just thinks black people need to try harder.

Between all of these divulgences, Kyle kept commenting on my looks. “You’re a cutie,” he said after a baby-boomer-style soliloquy about how people are just too sensitive these days. “Are you gay?” he asked me.

“Uh, I’m pan”

“Close enough. Are you single?”

I laughed uncomfortably and said, “Yeah, I am.” I felt my anxiety rising; I’m familiar with this line of questioning. There seem to be only two requirements for men who feel entitled to my body: am I single, or at least available, and am I in any way attracted to male genitals. It doesn’t matter whether I’m interested in the person or sexually active or on the clock. At my last job, I even had a supervisee ask me these questions during their shift. Should I be grateful they at least ask this much?

Halfway through the ride, Kyle started joking about the #MeToo movement. “Anything can be sexual assault these days! How are straight guys supposed to know what’s okay, you know? It’s like,” he firmly placed his left hand on my right thigh, then took it away, laughing. “Oops, sexual assault,” he said. I made a noise approximating laughter, but I was deeply uncomfortable and beginning to panic. From his tone, I doubted that Kyle believed gay men could be guilty of sexually assaulting a man. “You know? Am I wrong?”

“I guess it’s confusing to some…” I said vaguely, quietly. I glance at my phone, hooked to the far left air vent, providing navigation. Estimated time until arrival: eight minutes.

I was driving at sixty miles per hour on icy roads. We were on the cross-town highway that’s always under construction and three-foot high concrete barriers rushed past the car on either side of the narrowed lane. I just wanted to get these guys to their drop off point without crashing or crying.

“I mean, you know, I get how like, grabbing someone ‘by the pussy’ is, like, kind of inappropriate. But it’s not actually sex. Where’s the line? It’s fine if I put my hand here,” he grabbed my forearm, “or here,” he moved his hand on my knee, “but like, what if I touch here?” Kyle grabbed the crotch of my jeans.

I would’ve gasped in surprise if I wasn’t already holding my breath. I felt a wave of gratitude that I’d worn my packer that morning, the silicon accessory that creates the shape and feel of male external genitalia. The last thing I need was for this man to find out that I’m trans. Maybe he would be fine with it, but maybe he would freak out and attack me physically or give me a bad rating on the app. Or maybe he would just go into another monologue, this time about how trans people just make their lives difficult. Or maybe he would begin a line of interrogation about my transition, about when I’m “getting my dick” or if I was horny all the time or the other usual questions.

He continued talking as I took in shallow breaths and anxiously checked the estimated time until arrival again. Just a few more minutes. “I mean, that’s so easy to do, to just accidentally brush up against someone,” he demonstrated by sliding his hand down my front. I stopped breathing completely, instead praying that he wouldn’t notice my unbound breasts. “And then what, your life is ruined forever?”

Joseph said nothing. I said nothing. This moment was too familiar. I just drove.

When I dropped Kyle and Joseph off, Kyle leaned over and hugged me, pinning me to my seat. I froze. It turned out that he lived around the corner from me, maybe a five-minute walk from my house. Before that night, I walked my dog past his house frequently. After that night, I changed routes.

I drove down the block and parked. I couldn’t even make it to my house. In an instant, I was sobbing. It happened again. Why didn’t I say anything? I wanted to vomit. I wanted to punch something. Why? Why does this keep happening? I thought that would have stopped by now, that looking like a man would save me from this.

Five years ago, I began my medical transition from female to transmasculine. I never had the thought concretely, but I’d always assumed that once I transitioned I would no longer be a target of the sexual harassment and violation that plagues women. Instead, it’s gotten worse.

I’m not unaccustomed to experiences of violation or harassment. But for some reason, this experience pushed me to a new level of despair. Because it was the first time since #MeToo had begun trending? Because Joseph had been in the car but done nothing to deter his boyfriend, nothing to help me? Because I knew that Kyle saw no problem with his behavior? Because I knew exactly how the conversation would have gone if I’d confronted him?

Sitting in my car, halfway down the block that separated our homes, I felt I knew one thing for sure: it was my fault. I berated myself, interrogated my actions: Why didn’t I speak up? Why was I always silent? Why did I keep getting into these situations? Why was I so quick to blame myself? Why couldn’t I stop it? Why couldn’t I stop them?

Years ago, my then-girlfriend recounted the numerous times she had been assaulted, detailing multiple horrendous experiences. My thinking followed the conventions then. I wondered if she had been assaulted so many times because she’d made poor decisions. I wondered if she was responsible in some way—the places she went, things she wore, the company she kept. Could she prevent future rape by making better choices?

Parked down the street from my house, I wondered the same about myself. I wondered why I didn’t speak up in the moment. I wondered if I need to change how I walked or what I wore. I wondered if I should avoid the bars and parties and festivals where men always groped me. I wondered why, as a man I don’t know groped my groin, I thought, Say something, this isn’t okay. He needs to know this isn’t okay, but my lips were sewn shut.

Before transition, my experiences with sexual violation were limited to several instances when I was too drunk to consent. Yet even today I question whether it’s fair to call these experiences nonconsensual. I follow the familiar script: It was my own fault. I drank too much. If I really didn’t want it, I would have walked away. I was flirting with him earlier that night. Maybe I did want it and I’m just embarrassed now.

But since my transition, the nature and intensity of these violations has changed. Society at large is comfortable posing invasive questions and analyzing my body, and men feel entitled to my body in a whole new way. The instances have run the gamut, from strangers touching my butt unbidden to repeated, coerced assault. Men have grabbed my crotch when they learn that I’m trans, saying “just checking” or have told me how they’ve always wanted to “try a bonus hole boy.” Before transition, no one had ever grabbed me “by the pussy” but I’ve lost count of the occurrences since.

If I ever do flirt with a guy or have a tryst, he inevitably begins contacting me at all hours of the day and night announcing his need to use my body. If I turn him down, he will try to bargain, as if he’s asking to borrow my handsaw and not my body. “It’ll be really quick,” he might say, as if that’s an attractive offer. He’ll ask, “If you aren’t busy, what’s the problem?” or beg, “Come on pleeeease, I’m so horny!” Or maybe he’ll get angry, scary. Inevitably, he believes consent once equates to a lifetime membership to my body.

I wish I could say why this change has occurred, but any answer I have is nothing more than an educated guess, flimsy conjecture, and victim-blaming rhetoric based on the toxic masculinity we’re saturated with daily.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s something to do with my appearance: I used to wonder if I was never assaulted because I was an ugly woman. Or thought I avoided the attention of men before because I was so clearly a lesbian—a friend once told me I was “a hundred-footer”: you could tell from a hundred feet away. Now that I don’t present as a woman-loving-woman, maybe men feel like I want to receive their harassment.

I wonder if it’s because I’m too effeminate. Maybe if I walked or talked or dressed in a more “masculine” manner, men would leave me alone. Maybe I could make it stop by bulking up. Maybe I would be safe if I were better at performing the role of “man.”

Maybe it’s just something about gay male hookup culture that I don’t know about. Maybe I’m flirting unintentionally, sending mixed messages. Maybe I just keep landing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe it’s the trendy fetishizing of trans people. Or perpetual fetishizing of the Other. Maybe it’s just “boys will be boys.”

Even if I understood why this kept happening, experience and fear has taught me to be silent, compliant. Even if I could figure out how to seize control against the onslaught of invasive hands, I’ve used up so much of my energy fighting for the right to exist as a trans person that I don’t have any energy left to resist these violations. I don’t have the energy for still another fight.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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