How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
I've been taking boxing classes for the last few months here in Chicago. I've always been interested in martial arts -- my dad has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and frequently invites large groups of muscular dudes to come wrestle him in my parents' basement -- but the choreography required in grappling has always been a little too complex for me.
I respect the hell out of it, both as a fighting style and as a self-defense mechanism, but I've always preferred what I saw as the more straightforward striking exercises. You see a threat, and you punch it. And you duck before it hits you back, feeling your muscles sing beneath your skin.
Though I thoroughly enjoy whaling on a 200-pound bag, I'm both not very good at it and not very confrontational, in general. I do occasionally lapse into daydreams about punching some vague anthropomorphized version of homophobia and racism in the nose, but the truth is, I'm kind of a weenie.
I don't like fighting with people, and the only punch I've ever thrown in earnest (in the D.C. airport, because we'd been up for days and I was tired of his face) skidded off my brother's hugely muscular shoulder like a fly on a windshield. I still apologized immediately, because hitting people you love in moments of anger is never OK to me, but he mostly just laughed in my face.
So when a dude tried to fight me this weekend in a bar, I was startled, to say the least. And, frankly, it shook me up more than I realized at the time.
It was a Saturday night. My dear friend El, who was visiting from San Francisco, and I had just gone to a hockey game at the United Center. The home team had won and we were feeling jubilant -- even some dudes in the rival team's jerseys calling me Miley couldn't kill our buzz. To celebrate, we decided to hit up a sports bar that I'd been to a few times with my housemate.
Eventually, after dancing in the basement for a few songs and trading our jerseys for tank tops, I decided to head upstairs for another drink. The whole place was packed, but I managed to worm my way toward the bar, where I made idle conversation with a few girls beside me who were drinking something violently pink. I caught the bartender's eye, ordered my whiskey ginger, and was waiting for him to come back when I noticed that the dude on my other side was leaning back into me, putting his drink (and by extension, my cat jorts) in some danger of spillage.
"Hey, sorry, can you just -- " I said, putting both hands on his flannelled shoulder blades and leaning forward. It'd be a big stretch to call it a shove. I probably shouldn't have touched him at all, but at the time I thought of it as the kind of glancing contact that happens in crowded bars after midnight or so. I don't like strangers touching me, and even I wouldn't have objected to that much contact from someone else if it meant avoiding a spill.
I certainly wasn't expecting him to whirl around and scream at me. "Hey," he said. "Don't fucking touch me."
I blinked at him. "I'm so sorry," I said, "It's just -- you were going to spill your drink." I gestured vaguely at the bar.
"I was here first," he said loudly. "That's my coat on the chair."
"I know!" I said. "I'm gonna grab my drink and get out of your way."
"No," he said, stepping up in my face and grabbing my shoulder. "Get out of here now, or I'll fucking kill you."
At this point, I still was mostly just confused, so I just stood there. "I'll be out of your way in just a second," I said, smiling at him. Next to me, one of the other women tapped my arm, oblivious to the guy beside us.
"Could you take a photo of us, please?" she said.
"Sure!" I said, turning away from the dude to face them.
He did not like that.
"You're a fucking man," he said, getting up in my face again, this time from the side. "You're a fucking cross-dressing tranny man. Do you wanna go? Do you wanna fucking go?"
The girls gave him a look. "Calm down, bud," one of them said. He grabbed my shoulder again.
"Leave," he said. "Fucking leave."
At that point, one of the girls, her mouth set in a grim line, grabbed his arm. "You're done," she said quietly. "You're done."
He shook her off. "I was here first," he said, sounding almost helpless. "And this fucking tranny came and--"
At this point, I was seriously considering just forgetting the eight bucks I'd dropped and going to find El. But I was also pissed. Not just about the name-calling, though he was clearly a douchebag, but about the fact that some stranger thought it was appropriate to try to use his size and physicality to try to intimidate me out of existing in what he deemed to be his territory.
In retrospect, it makes me think of all those sites with men taking up too much room on public transit -- this was probably the first time that guy had ever been checked for idly invading someone else's space. Maybe it was the first time he'd had a woman refuse to apologize for taking up space of her own. And it clearly made him furious, to the point of misgendering me and threatening me with violence.
So yeah. I was pissed. And he was still going.
"I bet you support Obamacare, you fucking cunt," he said. "So you can get your penis chopped off." At this point his tirade was straddling the line between horrifyingly offensive and kind of absurdly funny. Like, who brings the Affordable Care Act into a burgeoning bar fight?
At the same time, though, I was still furious. If you'll excuse the metaphor, so much of what women are taught to do with regard to conflict resolution is like grappling: It's often using your opponent's power to your own advantage until you can wriggle free. And I'm good at that. I'm smiley and non-aggressive, and I'm much more inclined to apologize and back down rather than take people to task, even when it's necessary. For once in my life, though, I wanted to throw a fucking punch.
"Aw," I said, cutting him off. "You're adorable!" I could see my drink on the bar, so I snagged it -- finally -- and turned back to him. At this point, he was blocking my way out, and didn't look inclined to move.
"What?" he said.
"So cute!" I cooed. "Like a little bunnycat! Are you sad, little bunnycat? Why are you so sad?"
His eyes widened, then narrowed. I'm actually surprised he didn't deck me right there.
"Well, see ya," I said, nodding my thanks to the girl and ducking under him. Then I headed for El to tell her the story. Though I still wasn't freaked out, I was starting to feel a little uneasy, like my skin was too tight.
"Can we leave?" I said, throwing back my drink. "I'm kinda done."
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, let's leave."
Again, even though I wasn't particularly shaken at that point, I kept chewing on what had happened. And what I kept coming back to was that I am damn privileged.
I mean, really. I was uncomfortable during the confrontation, but a part of me figured that if he had actually thrown a punch, it would have been his ass getting slapped with charges. The bartender, the girls next to us, the other people in the crowd, all probably would have stepped up for me. Because despite his attempted insults, I'm not trans. I'm a cis white girl, and I don't have to face that kind of overt violence very often, if ever. Some cis white girls do, but I've been lucky. I've been, again, privileged.
If I were trans, I wonder whether those girls beside us would have tried to calm him down. I wonder whether my drink would have ever gotten made. I certainly think the violence would have escalated, especially after I employed the condescending baby voice. The bystanders clearly thought that I deserved to stand in a space and not be threatened, but I wonder how far that perceived deserving goes, both inside sports bars and outside of them.
Trans people, especially women of color, face incredibly high risks of murder and assault. As s.e. writes, being alive while trans is dangerous, as is being alive while being a person of color or a disabled person or a person too "visibly gay." I was shaken and upset by that happening, but I knew I wasn't in life-threatening danger.
I chose to walk into a sports bar full of bros, I chose to advocate for my right to stand in a space without it being invaded, I chose to escalate the fight by calling the dude a bunnycat. I chose to throw a proverbial punch rather than eel my way out of the situation. I did it all without any fear for my life, because I'm used to living in a world where I don't get overtly threatened with murder on the daily.
Not everyone has that option. Not even close.
Kate's on Twitter: @katchatters.