On Display: Navigating the Male Gaze As A Lesbian Trans Woman

The following piece is a reflection on my experience of the male gaze as someone who is read as a femme white cis girl, and how my increased public visibility compares to when I was presenting as a normative cis boy. It is solely a discussion of my personal experiences, and of course shouldn’t be considered a representation of all trans* people or trans* women. I am fully aware of my “passing privilege” and recognize that trans* women of color and those who don’t “pass” bear the burden of even more unwanted attention, discrimination, and threats of violence when out in public.

It’s a foggy San Francisco morning and I’m late for work again. I hurry out the door and I’m halfway to the BART station when I notice that someone on a bicycle has been following me. I turn around to see a guy in a dirty sweatshirt making the “I’m eating you out” tongue and hand gesture. Ewww. I’m almost tempted to tell this creep that I probably don’t have what’s he’s looking for, but instead I turn and walk faster towards the station. Once on the train, I grab an open seat across from a man in a business suit who smiles politely but then won’t. Stop. Staring. At first I try to ignore him, hoping that he’ll lose interest. When that fails, I try staring back, making sure that he’s aware that I notice.  Still no luck — this only seems to encourage him. I eventually give up and hide behind the pages of the magazine I’m reading for the rest of the ride. When we arrive, I get off the train and head towards my station exit. At this point I barely notice that the eyes of several men I pass by drift in my direction. Welcome to my daily commute.

It wasn’t always this way. I used to be invisible in public when I was read as a heternormative white upper-middle-class cisgender boy. Looking back, it’s a privilege that I definitely took for granted. I never needed to be as aware of my surroundings as I do now. I didn’t have to think twice before walking by myself at night. I could go out to a bar without worrying about unwanted advances from strangers. Before transitioning, my only experience with the male gaze was from the sidelines. Growing up, I looked on as my guy friends ogled and objectified nearly every attractive girl they encountered. In real life, in magazines, or on screen, the socialization that I experienced broadcast the message that women’s bodies existed for male consumption. During my years in the frat, I’m ashamed to say that I remained silent when the “bros” gathered on the balcony to drink beer and harass any female that dared walk in front of the house. Desperate to blend in and dealing with my own internal struggles, I said nothing. I thought that this was just the way things were. After all, the entire Greek System seemed to encourage the notion that female bodies were a public commodity. Case in point: an annual tradition at my university is an event known as the “Running of the Girls”, in which all of the newly accepted sorority members sprint from the center of campus to their respective houses, in front of crowds of drunk cheering men. I remember watching this spectacle with mild curiosity, but having no idea what it must have been like for the girls being put through this ritual.

Years later, I think I can relate to how these girls felt. I’m not always subjected to overt sexual advances, but there’s never a day where I don’t get stared at. And just to be clear, I’m not trying to say that I think I’m so attractive that strangers simply can’t resist checking me out. Almost all of my female friends have the same experiences. Whenever I discuss this with them, the near universal response is: “Welcome to being a girl. Get used to it.”  I’m learning from first-hand experience that women in our society, in particular those whose presentation is femme, are much more visible in public.

“Don’t dwell on it too much,” my friends tell me. “After a while, you won’t even notice the stares anymore. You just learn to tune that stuff out.” Maybe they’re right. In time I’m sure that I’ll adjust to the attention. But for now, the increased visibility really fucks with my head sometimes; especially as a trans girl who only came out last December. I’m lucky to “pass” as cisgender. I’ve never had to deal with hurtful or inappropriate comments from strangers (about me being trans, at least). I haven’t been “clocked” or misgendered for several months. In spite of all this, I’m still prone to the occasional bout of overwhelming dysphoria when out in public. (I suppose that these moments of anxiety are to be expected, considering that I take the equivalent of dozens of birth control pills every day.) When this happens, it feels like I’m back on Day 1 of the transition and I want to hide under a fuzzy blanket until the feeling goes away. I want to be invisible. The last thing I need is for people to stare at me. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate an off switch for the male gaze. It’s especially unnerving when I’m feeling anxious and I can’t determine what the stares mean.

At this point, I can tell the difference between a friendly smile and when a man is sexually interested in me. I know what a judgmental glare from someone who doesn’t approve of my girlfriend and I holding hands looks like. I also remember the looks of confusion I got when I first started experimenting with makeup and androgyny; you could see people trying to determine my gender. But often the stares are none of these. Not friendly, not sexual, not malicious; just blank. At first it really freaked me out, prompting my overactive imagination to come up with a dozen possible reasons for the attention. After talking to some of my male friends, I now realize that most of these blank stares are subconscious and unintentional. One trans guy described it to me like this: “I try to be super conscious and aware and not stare, but sometimes I don’t even notice I’m doing it. I’m just like Holy shit, who is that? Look at her! and then after a few seconds I realize what I just did and feel bad. Sometimes I feel like checking someone out is like a reaction that happens really quickly and can be hard to control.”  I guess that he has a point. To some extent, it’s human nature to stare. I’m guilty of it at times too, especially when I’m coveting a super cute outfit. And I’m sure it doesn’t help that my style trends toward bright colors, bows, and queer accentuated femininity. Can I really expect people not to stare when I dress like a 50’s housewife amid a sea of drab black pea coats?

Maybe it’s because I wear outfits like this

I haven’t only experienced this increased visibility when out in public. I’ve felt the effects of the male gaze online as well, but for an entirely different reason. I’ve tried to limit my online presence to primarily queer spaces, so I’ve been fairly isolated from the so-called “chasers”: men who are interested in me specifically because I am trans. However, a few weeks ago I discovered that my photo was being discussed on an erotic forum called “Tempting Transsexuals.” Sandwiched between the hardcore penetration images and close-up shots of genitalia was a  photo of me fully-clothed and sitting on a park bench. The person who posted the picture described me as “New TS Amateur Annika.” Apparently I was given the “amateur” label because although I have never been involved in pornography, the readers of that forum assume that it’s only a matter of time (because clearly all trans women’s bodies are there for their consumption).

As my hair grows out (since many straight men equate short hair with lesbian-ness) and the hormones continue to work their magic, I realize that invisibility is no longer an option for me. Fair enough; I can learn to tune out the stares like most of my friends do.   What really bothers me, however, is how much of an effect that male attention has on my mood and self-esteem, especially because I’m not even attracted to men. I dress and present the way I do because it feels comfortable and comes naturally to me. I certainly don’t do it to seek the approval of the male gaze. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel flattered when guys hit on me.  I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s a case of internalized heterosexism. It could be that it feels validating on some level, after years of hating my body and watching the boys my age obsess over the girls who I wanted so desperately to be. Whatever the cause may be, I realize that this need for straight male validation is deeply problematic and it’s something that I’m trying to be aware of. Though, I have to admit that the positive attention can feel empowering at times. It’s kind of fun to be able to get free drinks simply by batting my eyelashes, or having random strangers rush to open doors for me. Is it wrong to exploit the patriarchy for my own advantage while fighting to dismantle it at the same time? At any rate, I’m starting to realize that the male gaze is now a constant presence in my life.  Having now experienced public visibility from both sides of the societal gender binary, I can say that I had no idea just how different it would be. The increased attention can get annoying- but there’s no way that I would want things to go back to exactly the way they were before. Being a girl is too much fun!

Annika blogs at Transgender Express . Follow her on tumblr!

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I'm a 23 year old femme lesbian living in SF. Once upon a time, I was a USC frat boy ;) I ♥ music so please recommend your favorite artists to me!

annika has written 21 articles for us.


      • My apartment is right behind some frats, so yesterday evening, my roommate and I heard nonstop cheering for an hour while the ‘running of the girls’ was happening. We didn’t realize what the noise was from at first, so we checked it out and watched for a minute, but it was just really wierd…

    • Oh my FSM, that was really horrifying and terrifying and disturbing on so many levels. I also recognize that there are aspects of it that aren’t so terrible: the women who choose to willfully and happily engage in this performance, and the men who seem to be viewing it as a gift on the part of the women. DAng, I was in university a while back and the tone and content of the comments would NOT have been so “supportive.” But still, my first reaction is just, “Ugh, No!”

      Especially towards the end of the video, while off-camera men are boo-ing the women who aren’t running. Some of whom were patently NOT part of the “game” and very firmly stated, “I’m not in a house. I’m NOT playing this game,” in what I recognize as my own “don’t even start” voice. But my heart just plunged as the non-running sorority women, who weren’t “playing the game” by running, and were therefore letting the guys down, were boo’d and exhorted to pick it up because they weren’t satisfying their male audience. Just ewww. I even heard one guy say “You ain’t gettin’ it.” Now, I heard that both ways: “‘You’re not “winning.'” And, of course, “You’re not gonna get the dick.”

      But back in my day and to this day, frats and sororities aren’t exactly famous for attracting the thoughtful, the socially-aware and the considerate. No offense, Annika and other current or previous members of the Greek scene, but they were known for being prejudiced, narrow-minded, shallow dickwads.

      I’ll never forget the sorority sisters who did this “shame the geeks” thing every year. They’d gather around Sather Gate on campus and try to embarrass “geeky” guys with sexual innuendo, teasing insults, physical teasing such as taking their backpacks. It was just the worst of elementary school brought to UC Berkeley. They probably don’t do it anymore. I hope not.

      Sorry to lay it out so bluntly, but that’s what you’d hear from pretty much any thoughtful, sensitive, mature college student who commented on frat and sorority members. I mean, expecting them to be conscious and/or aware was out of the question. I think things have changed since society has changed and the Greek system has morphed along with it.

      I also had two awesome friends I worked with: both presidents of very prominent and upstanding frats. They both came out as gay later in life. And one is a major dude at LucasArts. The other runs some huge soul-sucking company, but I digress even further. I also have to say that frats and sororities ID do a lot of community service, but so did a lot of other groups, and their work hardly exonerated them from their degrading antics.

      Anyway, I have a lot to say about your well-written and perceptive article Annika. It was beautiful and really insightful. There’s just so much to say I have to take some time to think and collect my thoughts.

      Thank you again or sharing your wisdom and your experiences. You are so good at putting into words what so many of us have experienced. Much love and much respect. <3

  1. First of all, you look hella adorable in your little 50s housewife dress. I’d probably be staring at you just because I want your outfit.

    I think it’d be helpful if everyone could be put in a cisgender female body for a day, just to see what it felt like.

    • I can see cis-males getting a bit too worked up over that… I just think that people need to learn to respect everyone equally.

    • I feel like if Dante’s Inferno were written today, there would be a special level for cat-callers where they’re turned into women and forced to endure constant cat-calling from men. Just an idea.

  2. “Is it wrong to exploit the patriarchy for my own advantage while fighting to dismantle it at the same time?” Never! <3

    • True say. Given that women have been oppressed in countless ways since the beginning of recorded history: human trafficking, suffrage, unequal pay, objectification in the media, domestic abuse, etc., I say that there’s NOTHING wrong with fluttering your eyelashes to score some free booze.

    • I would disagree with that. I think it’s hypocritical to play into the patriarchy whenever it suits you. And it gives weight to the anti-feminists who say that feminists want special treatment, not equality.

      • Could not agree more. To the point, I feel guilty whenever I actually go before a man who steps back and “gallantly” waits for me to get on the train/go through the door/whatevs. It’s like benevolent sexism.

        • In some sense I don’t think people can really be blamed for doing things to survive according to patriarchy defined rules.

          A lot of the time, calling someone out on the street even for “benevolent” acts can directly threaten your safety. It’s like… I don’t judge folks for wanting to feel safe even if it means ignoring it and getting the hell out.

          Does that mean I think we shouldn’t be saying something about it? No. No way. We need people to be loud about it, but we can’t blame the victim for not fixing it or for not schooling annoying dudes every time they say “ladies first.”

          • I understand what you’re saying, but in this context I don’t think safety is much of a problem.

            “It’s kind of fun to be able to get free drinks simply by batting my eyelashes, or having random strangers rush to open doors for me. Is it wrong to exploit the patriarchy for my own advantage while fighting to dismantle it at the same time?” This is the part I take issue with. To be honest, I think it is wrong to play up to the few parts of patriarchy that perhaps benefit a woman while trying to smash it.
            I can’t get on board with the idea of accepting certain things about a system that we’re trying to oppose.

        • I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they’re just trying to be nice to other _people_ ; not just girls (although I have no idea what benefit going through a door first gives).

          Anyway, I always jump up to open doors for men who’ve done so for me – if they refuse to go through then SEXIST. etc.

          In one of my classes me and one particular boy would always block the exit while we tried to gallantly wave the other through…

          • > they’re just trying to be nice to other _people_ ; not just girls (although I have no idea what benefit going through a door first gives).

            I don’t treat everyone the same. Nor does anyone else. Being an in-your-face douchebag is plain uncool, but I’m almost as irritated by the white-wash of Political Correctness that people try to hide behind. It’s quite possible that I might be more prone to be nice to a cute girl than a drunk loud frat boy. Why? Because I’m bigoted against drunk loud frat boys and I like cute girls. That doesn’t determine all my behavior towards them, but at face-value, I like some things more than others. Other people are free to like or dislike what they choose to.

            I really think there’s got to be a line between acknowledging what we like and being a dick about it. I also think there’s really got to be a point where we can just own it and get on with our lives without people screaming in outrage on the internet. But that seems less likely. ;)

            FWIW I completely agree about door opening though. Seems like a canary in a mineshaft situation to me.

          • Hey JC,

            I think you’re assuming we don’t get it. We already know someone is a dick and not a feminist if they let a door shut in someone’s face. It sounds like your assuming (like most do of feminists) that people who don’t like sexism are confusing sameness with equality. They’re not.

            I suggest removing your own perspective and hanging back and watching the pattern of male behavior. She’s talking about a particular behavior that is markedly more prevalent in minority (black & latino) men, as well as *older* white males. It’s a woman and children first move, and it has little to to do with how the girl looks or their personal preferences, it’s a learned pattern of benevolent sexism. Not that it wouldn’t be just because the guy liked looking at whoever it was.
            Personally I still think men should offer their seats to women in heels as well as to wheelchairs, the elderly and pregnant women, but that’s because it’s an equality thing, not a chivalry thing. I’m a cis-gendered woman and when I’m in flats, I don’t expect that same behavior just because I’m a girl- that would be chivalry/benevolent sexism. I also give up my seat and let the elderly on first (or go really fast in front of them so there’s no altercation;)

        • I get that all the time too, though I end up feeling more annoyed by it than guilty, especially when the guy has obviously reached the door first and makes a specific effort to then hold it open for me. If you get there first, by all means, use the door! Just don’t slam it in my face. :)

          I try to hold doors open for other people. If you and another person get to a door at the same time I just think it’s polite to offer for the other person to go through first. Though I do admit it always feels a little weird/patriarchal/antiquated for me to go through first if it’s a guy. I guess it’s my own personal way of fighting patriarchy by getting a guy to go through a door I’ve held for him. Stupid? Possibly. But I do it anyway. :)

          • If a man waits for me to go first because I got there first, that’s fine by me. But more often than not, we’ll have been there at the same time and he’ll step back and wait for me.

            I always hold doors open for people coming behind me. I like it when it’s a dude :)

        • Being a (cis)male, I find it very frustrating on what it is I should or shouldn’t do. I was taught in the south by backwards bible beaters to always hold a door open for a woman, or to pull out their chair, or unlock their side of the car first, or even making sure that I am standing on the street side when walking next to them. I was taken aback when I hear that this was considered sexist, and then I realized that a part of it was. I got to thinking about it, and I decided that if women truly wanted to be equal, I would treat them as such. Then I got plenty of mean faces when I didn’t do it. A few times I was even scolded by total strangers (both women and men)! Seriously, cries of Chivalry being dead, and other such bullshit. I then decided that I would do what I felt like and not by any sort of “what you should or shouldn’t do” list of demands. I open doors for men sometimes if they are right behind me, but I might keep the door open for a bit longer for a woman, because I feel it’s just a polite thing to do, not by any sort of trying to lower them sexually than I. I feel no more above them nor do I even think of them anymore after that. Feeling guilty because you feel like a man has just asserted his dominance over you by holding a door or something is absurd only because, I guess at least from my own perspective and actions, the “right” way to do things isn’t clear cut, and just doing it because you just want to is by no means an act of superiority. Again, I do it for other males too, and I by no means feel superior to them nor inferior when someone does it to me. Shit, maybe I just haven’t looked too deeply into it because I feel like it is more common that I got yelled at for not doing it than when I do.

  3. Fuck the male gaze, it’s so…panting, slack-jawed and revoltingly omnipresent. You’re very darling, and brave, on the other hand.

    Don’t shy away from self-defense or reading The Gift of Fear (if you haven’t already)! It really helps with the feelings of powerlessness around personal safety you’re having.

    I must admit that it infuriates me that the consensus is “you’ll get used to it”. I’m a 31-year-old femme lesbian and nowhere near being semi-immune or unaware of it.

    There’s an interesting piece making the rounds on men and street harassment, and the thing that disturbs me the most is how shocked they claim to be at the degree to which women – all women, all the fucking time – are street harassed. It doesn’t compute. Are they not walking the same streets as us? Do we not live in the same towns? Because it’s not as if all the men who have ever harassed me did so when we were the only two people within earshot, or when only women surrounded us. That’s complete and total bullshit.

    Anyway, loosely related tangent aside, this was a great piece!

    • I’ve never gotten used to it, either, and I’ve lived in downtown Baltimore for 3 years. I wonder if people here just are nicer or something? I mean, I’ve definitely dealt with creepy dudes of the worst kind while I’m here, but it doesn’t happen constantly, like it seems to happen to people who live in cities like New York (and I got cat-called twice on my second visit there, within less than an hour of arriving, ugh).

      • It still is awful every time it happens, though. I just feel so small. Part of the problem is that I’m also an introvert, and I tend to assume I’m being more rude and stand-offish than necessary – so I give way too many people the benefit of the doubt. I’m trying to tell myself lately it’s ok to want to be left alone, and that I have the right to refuse to chat with anyone, even the well-intentioned.

        • ME TOO; And note that introverted physicality matches physical profile of victim to predators and “angry stuck-up bitch” to extroverts. I have also learned that both will over-react to you standing up for yourself for those very same reasons-because they presumed to get away with whatever it was or because they’ve prompted themselves to think of you as more threatening than you are.
          think of this the same way black men get shot by the police. and ps, it doesn’t matter what the ethnicity of the officer is, it’s that black men are encoded as violent in our culture so it doesn’t matter what they are doing or who they really are. that’s the real effect of stereotyping, not hurt feelings in the abstract or annoying inaccuracies. it’s that stereotyping changes the behavior of the person who’s doing it, wreaking all sorts of havoc on the target group member(s). Because they were designed to excuse the havoc in the first place. That’s why they are almost always double-binds or employed as double-binds.
          And as an introvert, you’ll be preyed upon more because you’re more likely to be alone and to any predator, a woman alone=potential victim^2, ALWAYS.

      • Baltimore is definitely nicer than a lot of places. I’ve actually gotten catcalled more by lesbians in Baltimore than by men, too, for what it’s worth…

    • Well said. I Although I don’t feel like it’s as quite as threatening out there for most femmes as it is for some trans people, it is still rather unnerving. And to make matters worse, oftentimes to tell these ignorant men that you are only into women has the exact opposite effect of what we’d like it to.
      From my experience it’s easier to shut a guy down with mention of an imaginary boyfriend than it is to tell them you find the male anatomy repulsive! Though I hate playing into such heteronormative privilege.

      Men who say this isn’t going on are either A) in denial or B) gay (though probably mostly A). Unfortunately, this will probably never change.

      • There’s a website selling fake wedding rings for women who want men to leave them alone at the club. Because some guys don’t even take “fake boyfriend” seriously enough, you have to be MARRIED to have the right to be left alone…


        • I wear my mom’s old wedding ring when I travel alone. It’s stupid that I have to, but it saves me from a lot of bullshit.

          • me too. it helps, but the only thing that has really done the trick has been to wear my hear “up” in what looks like an old timey bun. suddenly it’s all “ma’am” and normal compliments.

    • No, if you’re male, you’re not going to notice the harassment that goes on all the time. You’re not in the line of fire. Eleven years of being an out-in -public trans woman have made me very aware of it. I can blend, but I’m not passable all day long. I get my share of both male admiration and scorn. It is tiring to have to have part of my energy always available to deal with aggression.

      When I’m back in male mode, I don’t see all of that. It’s underground in the same way that playground bullying is underground; the teacher will never see it. Men do not let other men catch them ‘gazing;’ that’s why it was such a shock to me to suddenly be the object of it. Sure, I knew it existed; I’ve ‘gazed’ myself, and I’ve watched friends do it. But nothing prepares a trans woman for being in those headlights herself.

  4. This is so interesting! When I was like, 18, I sort of enjoyed all the attention when I wore skirts/dresses but by the time I left New York last year I’d stopped wearing them altogether just to avoid street harassment, and if I was dressed up for a night out I wouldn’t go without a friend riding the subway with me. It’s really interesting to read about how it feels from a newcomer to this particular element of the female experience. thanks annika!

    • I hate that. I hate when I am wearing something magical and appropriate for the occasion or event, but know that on the street – say, the 6-block walk that comes with SF parking or public transportation – it’s something that’s going to incur a fuck ton of unwanted attention. I can’t femme down, either, it absolutely feels like surrender. Or control. Or being caged.

      • Yes, I am the same. I really like your comment, it put something into words I’ve been feeling for a while but unable to articulate…

        For myself, I’m a vintage girl at heart, I love 50s dresses and red lipstick. I find myself under pressure from certain lesbian friends to prove my queerness by dressing butch, and also having it implied by said friends that I ‘ask for’ the unwanted attention I attract. But at the end of the day, I feel that this is who I am, and it’s not inconsistent with my desire to smash the patriarchy into smithereens with a very large hammer. It’s like, it would be capitulating to both exclusionary queers AND the male gaze to stop being femme. So I won’t.

      • Soo true! I envy bois who can walk down the street with little notice as my high heels click along drawing unwanted attention from those I pass on my way to wherever it may be! I’ve toyed with the idea of butching it up a little, but a white tank top is about as far as it gets, lol. I feel a little lost without heels and mascara!

        • Bois and more masculine-of-center ladies get a different kind of attention, the more agressive kind. Threats and “You are only a lesbo because you haven’t tried my dick yet” kind. It can be quite scary. Do not envy it.

          • I can only imagine what that mist feel like.I mean no disrespect to more masculine presenting lesbians in any way. I’m sure it’s difficult to deal with unwanted attention from men in any capacity. I just think some men are more ready to accept that those women truly aren’t interested…though I could be totally wrong about that.

          • No need to apologize.
            Just don’t think that if you butch it up this will go away, it won’t.
            Like I said, it’s another kind of attention. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s different although unpleasant as well.

      • me too. I swore I would never do that to myself. and I do know very obviously butch women who get harassed too. it has nothing to do with the preferences of the woman- in the mind of a predator, you don’t have any preferences that matter.
        And what Jenny said…

  5. I agree with Fit for a Femme: you are lovely, and I’ve also never gotten used to that awful, suddenly powerless, naked, out-of-control feeling that results from unwanted male attention. Please don’t just tune out the stares–keep paying attention, keep talking about it, and keep–by being gorgeous, feminine, and wholly uninterested in that male attention–reminding the world that being feminine doesn’t automatically equal wanting to be desired by men.

    Also: that video made me throw up a little in my mouth.

  6. There was a hallway in my high school that you had to walk down to get to the cafeteria, washrooms and computer labs.Every day, no matter what time you walked down that hallway, the walls were lined with guys. Guys who just sat there and leaned on the walls, and waited. As soon as a female-bodied person entered that hallway (and especially if you were alone) she was subjected to the full brunt of whatever the guys thought of her. “Pretty” girls got hooted at and grabbed, whistled at and catcalled, for the whole 5 minutes it took to get down that short hallway. Girls who were not considered conventionally pretty got hollered at, barked at, or even had food and drinks thrown on them. With my short, spiky pink hair, and slim athletic build, I got “HEY LOOK ITS THE DYKE” and just about every other vile slur their small minds could dream up to insinuate that I was a lesbian. Worst part is, School administration either couldn’t do anything about it (Sad) or wouldn’t (even sadder). Is it really any wonder that I often avoid crowds of men, even though it means I am losing out on meeting new people, and possibly awesome new male friends?

    • i was lucky to not have a school like this but my friend who comes from a small farming town has told me of a similar hallway in her school where the boys would shout numbers, rating the girls who passed by.

  7. great article! i am so bothered by seemingly constant male gazes and cannot get used to it! furthermore, i hate having friends’ male buddies tell my friend they’re attracted to me and we’d be great together before they even know me!! arrghh! and then i feel like i can’t talk to anyone about it without sounding like i think i’m hot shit or something as if everyone hits on me, so i don’t get to express my dislike of all the unwanted attention. yuck! it’s frustrating. but anyways so i really appreciate this article. it’s too bad it means you’re experiencing some of the unwanted gazes yourself, but thank you for speaking about it.

    • I have to tell people I’m asexual in absolutely bar-none, black and white–ok COLORFUL– terms for them to take the hint. it gets really interesting what you learn about how people deal with and think of relationships and femme women when you do that. They have no idea how obvious it is that they’re creating their own problems.

  8. I have too many thoughts/feelings dealing with femme, dating femme trans* women who pass for cis, being built like a brick-house wearing men’s clothing and reading this…be back later I need to process this.

    • Heeeeeyooooooo I am back from processing!

      Okay reading your article hit home for me because I was dating a really attractive trans* woman at the time who was femme and was built like a brick-house, she was mightey-mighteeeey. It brought back a lot of memories because she was never used to it and I was. I would tell her, “that’s great so when are we going to have sexy time?” to change the subject. Anyway we went out to Adam’s Morgan in DC and the street harassment there was ridiculous! We were walking down the street pushing and dodging bodies of drunk undergrads from the DC metropolitan area and then a random guy decided to cup her breasts and lick her neck. I pushed him and he fell on some bikes. We ran away but left feeling so violated.

      For days she did not wear her beautiful dresses skirts, she pretty much stopped dressing femme. I missed it but I did not want to make her wear a dress and I was on a anti-man binge for a minute that was on the cray-cray full on non-fluid lesbian misandrist, lol. I got over it and my usual level of hate went back down to a normal healthy cynicism towards men/people/politicians, lol.

      Her mom got her a nice dress for her birthday and she gazed at it and sighed and said “fuck it, I’m too sexy for this bullshit.” Since then she never apologized for being femme and sees it as a source of strength. She even taught me that yes femme is powerful, dammit. She taught me a lot of things like incredible saddness BECAUSE SHE LEFT ME TO GO TO LA AND TRIED DOING A LDR BUT THAT DIDN’T WORK. Oh tangent, my bad *goes back to read the advice column about LDRs.*

      So yea a lot of feelings. Lots.

  9. Ugh Annika I know how you feel about secretly being flattered by male gazes. I am not sure if it is internalized heterosexism, but it is definitely human nature to want to be desired. Even though most stares are unwanted, sometimes I feel that my attractiveness is affirmed when guys look at me–even though that shouldn’t be the case and my self-confidence shouldn’t at all be either boosted or hampered by my perceived desirability to others. My self esteem is not affected as much now as it was when I was “straight” (because back then I was always terrified that if I didn’t look super feminine then I would never be attractive enough to get a boyfriend) but it’s still something I notice, and I can’t help but feel a little bit better when other people seem to be noticing me.

    • I agree completely. When I was still riding the bisexual train and interested in attracting men, my self-esteem was entirely dependent on whether a man noticed me. I went out of my way (and my comfort zone!) to dress femme in order to be noticed. Even now though, as a lesbian and a comfortable-in-her-own-skin lesbian at that, I still won’t turn down a free drink from a man, or shy away from a little flirtatious behavior. Now that I’m not out and out seeking it, I find it hilarious and fun. ;)

      Everybody loves to be noticed sometimes. It’s just nice to be noticed in a way that isn’t demeaning.

      • Word. I feel you completely. Managing male-female social interactions (when the male is respectful and nice) is pretty amusing now that I’m sooo out and open about le gayness.

      • It’s weird you say that because, when I came out as bisexual (after previously identifying as straight), it made me feel a lot better about my not-entirely-femme appearance. Because while I was still into guys, I knew they weren’t my *only* options, and if I wasn’t femme enough or skinny enough for men it didn’t mean that I would be lonely forever.

    • I have the same thing – 90% of the time unwanted male attention is irritating/hilarious/gross but I occasionally feel, sort of, validated by it. I think in a way I almost feel like it proves that I really am gay because I like girls, not because I can’t get a boyfriend/there are no men out there attracted to me.

    • I feel like this too, I guess because I’ve been overweight my whole life and in my teens/early twenties I would just totally cover up in baggy clothes. The past few years I’ve been a lot more confident about wearing pretty dresses and such, and so in a way it is validating to get attention from men, specially since I’m so femme I don’t tend to get any from girls in clubs.

  10. When I was femme/female presenting for the short time after I moved from a small town to the big city of Vancouver, it’s almost hilarious to remember my reactions to some situations I was put in. In the small community I was raised in, you smile and say hello to everyone you pass on the street and if someone honks their horn at you it generally means they want to talk to you. One time I was honked at from a parked car I was walking away from and I turned around, waved at the person sitting inside of it, and ran over to the car to see if I knew the person. I stuck my head right inside the window and asked, “Do I know you? Where did we meet?” “Uhh… no” he said, seeming shocked, “I was just… being friendly…” I remember thinking this strange, there must have been a lot of people walking by that he didn’t know, yet would he be friendly and honk at everyone?

  11. Personally, and I know this isn’t entirely related to the main point about stares, but I’m just so f*king furious that someone would DARE posting a picture of someone they don’t even know on a damn pornography site. The implication that somehow all Trans* women or Trans* people in general are there for their consumption is sickening, infuriating, and makes me disgusted with certain portions of humanity. The fact that ANYONE would do something so horrible like that… Hell, I suppose my cynicism towards people is half-justified, if this is the sort of behavior one must accept.

      • AGHGH. I was trying to respond to Milo just above you. Sorry, that probably sounded like a really insensitive response to some incredibly shitty behaviour.

        Yes, I too can’t get over the fact anyone would be so disrespectful.

    • Chaser forums are degrading cesspools: the duplicity many of them express, about the people they are in relationships with (though they do not privstely consider them that way), and their steps to control their behaviour, and often their bodies, is sickening. I’ve encountered a few at work, and they left me wanting to scrub my skin clean after dealing with them.

      I’m disgusted someone did this with Annika’s photo, and the reality is that it’s not just an implicit objectification of trans bodies. They are quite explicit about it too.

      • When Annika described that experience it really struck a chord with me about chubby/BBW chasers. I’ve got a fashion tumblr and a lot of my photos have been favourited/reblogged by guys whose blogs are literally hardcore BBW porn and then me in my cute outfit in the middle of it. Or sometimes I’d check the blog of someone who followed mine and it’s totally blank but you can see who else they followed and its all plus-size porn, and I’m like oh my God someone just added me to their wankbank, basically.

        It really sickens me because I teach small children and I’m very concious of what kinds of images of myself I put online, none of the outfits I post are anything I wouldn’t wear to school, and yet someone is getting aroused by them. The sheer level of entitlement men feel is astonishing.

  12. Hmm, I was going to write a message about how I hadn’t really experienced this on a regular basis. That I couldn’t relate to this. But I started to think about the way I change my posture when I walk past a guy. I square my shoulders and my heart beats faster, expecting something and feeling judged. I assume the worst in them.

    It was never intentional, I’ve never even really thought about it. But it totally isn’t fair to the vast majority of men out there. Hmm, I’ll have to work on this.

    • Wow, I never thought about this until I read your comment, but I do the exact same thing. My heart speeds up and I try to project confidence when I walk by a guy (or worse, a group of guys). I just feel uncomfortable and wary around them. It’s totally a subconscious thing, too.

    • Yeah, good point. I usually don’t notice stares, but I make an effort to avoid eye contact when I walk past guys I don’t know so as to not make them think I’m interested/checking them out. Uck.

  13. I have very mixed feelings about this article as well. It’s well-written, and very much a relevant topic, so this is not at all a negative feedback on it. It’s mostly based on how this article is basically hitting my insecurity. I’m currently dating a femme girl and she pretty much gets unwanted attention from guys (and girls, for that matter) very often. I could be standing right next to her and people will still hit on her when we’re out and don’t even realize that I’m standing right there and I was just talking to her. It doesn’t feel very good for me. I’m by no means a butch; more like somewhere in the middle. But the invisibility that I experience when I am around her is brutal to my almost non-existent self-esteem. So to be honest, I’d love to get at least some of the attention you’re all getting, even if they’re “unwanted”. =\

  14. Ugh male gaze blows. I mostly avoid it because I usually don’t present femme, but I have other nagging thoughts before I leave the house- do I look too gender-atypical today? Will people stare because I look masculine of center? I dress the way I want to because it makes me feel comfortable, but it’s almost like it backfires when it causes people to pay more attention to me. It’s all just different kinds of suck. :\

    I’m sorry you’re experiencing this bullshit, but I hope you don’t let it stop you from dressing the way you want to, and the way that makes you happy. I thought this was a very interesting article that really helped highlight what it feels like when all of a sudden you attract male gaze without having experienced it before. I think a lot of guys don’t even realize what they’re doing and what it feels like to others.

  15. A good friend of mine (a man) will do the staring thing from time to time. But it was never me that noticed it. A female friend of mine (she’s straight–but does that make a difference? IDK) would always tell me that he stares across the bar at women and it’s weird. But I never noticed. I think we were probably staring at the same girl. Heh.

    It sucks that this is your experience! I can’t say that I’ve ever been the type of girl that picked up SO much negative attention. Hell, I didn’t pick up a lot of positive attention either. Hooray for my being soft butch? IDK. :P

  16. Thank you for this Annika. I’m so sorry that this is your experience but also really pleased that you chose to write about it- I think conversations about the male gaze and street harassment are super important. I know that it was a real feminist “click” moment for me when I was finally given the language to describe some of my experiences as a woman walking down the street- prior to that moment I’d been catcalled, followed, felt up, and ask to “suck the cock” of several men but had never considered myself to have been street harassed. I guess I thought that’s just what happened if you went out (especially by yourself, especially after dark). Writing that out it seems seriously messed up that I considered it such an inevitability and a non-issue. Of course knowledge that it is a valid issue doesn’t come close to making it stop but it’s something. I know this comment is more about harassment than strictly increased visibility to the male gaze but..uh..clearly I have a lot of feelings.

  17. Annika, from a Philly girl to a San Fran girl, you must learn how to give the classic ‘Bitchface’. This is an important look to master, no matter how femme-presenting a person is. The purpose of The Bitchface is to ward off unwanted attention (catcalls, lingering stares, gestures, etc.) from bystanders.

    To do this effectively you must tighten your jaw and glare at something straight ahead. It is crucial that you do not make eye contact. This is because once eye contact is made, you are at more risk of getting harassed as they now know they have your attention.

    The Bitchface. Simple. Effective. Important.

    (Of course this doesn’t fully protect women from men, but it can considerably decrease the negative attention one gets while out and about.)

    • Thanks I’ll have to practice this in the mirror! Although I must say that whenever I’ve tried to make a “tough face” before, my girlfriend just ends up laughing at me!

      • I think a good basic way to do this without making your girlf laugh is to just look seriously pissed off.

        Like, “my neighbors will not fucking stop listening to ICP at full blast until 4 in the fucking morning and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in DAYS” pissed off.

        Good luck!

      • I walk with a badass swagger and look like I’m on my way to beat the shit out of someone :D

        I can’t know if it really helps because I pretty much always do it, but it makes me feel better at least. I can’t remember having many problems while walking alone, it’s usually when I’m waiting at a bus stop or something that I get attention from creepers.

      • Yeah, I did this a lot in high school. When people around me are being douches, I roll my eyes and glare ahead. Either that, or get lost in music or a book.

      • Might I suggest headphones? I dunno, I’ve never been told that; perhaps ’cause I’m too busy pounding the pavement with my Docs. :/

        Being told to smile more would def piss me off. I would fire back with something like “IT IS NOT MY DUTY AS A WOMAN TO ALWAYS APPEAR HAPPY. I HAVE A RIGHT TO LOOK AND FEEL ANGRY SO IF YOU WOULD KINDLY BACK THE HELL OFF, THAT WOULD BE GREAT.”

        Being told that it’s not that bad would just strike me as sweet, dependent on the tone with which it was said to me.

        I dunno. I can tell that you’re angry, though.
        We all are. And so many of them don’t understand why.

        • As someone who has perfected the death-stare in public (and who just has kind of a “serious” looking face in general I guess?), the “Smile, it’s not that bad!” line infuriates me most of all. I always want to come back with something like, “Guess what, my MOTHER just died, asshole!” or “I just found out I have terminal brain cancer!” Because they don’t know. Somehow the attempt to control not just women’s looks but their *internal emotional state* is even more insidious to me.

          • Werrrd. I understand and respect your reasoning.

            I think you should act on this urge you have to tell them a tragic lie in response to le smile command. Fa real.

          • “Somehow the attempt to control not just women’s looks but their *internal emotional state* is even more insidious to me.”

            slow clap & standing o.

      • OMG the “smile” comment really ticks me the fuck off. It’s happened to me twice and both times, I actually just wanted to turn around and slap the guy in the face. One of the times I was actually irritated and the other time, I was just going to a job interview.

        Why should we be smiling whilst walking down the street? Is there something that I should be particularly happy about, enough to smile like one of those Joker fish from the old Batman cartoons, just aimlessly ambling along? (alliteration FTW)

        Another thing: why is it that women have to look happy or peaceful or contented, but men are totally fine to look as angry or creepy as they want? What is that?

        But I tend to avoid making a scene, so I just ignore them or roll my eyes. Like they’ll suddenly understand that telling a random stranger to smile is really condescending. Please. They probably think they’re being nice or something, which is even more bizarre than instructing someone on the street to smile.

        • Because a smile is an invitation to men to approach you, and if you aren’t smiling, if you’re in your own head and not caring about making him happy by smiling and looking his way, he feels it his duty to not only garner your attention with that comment (thereby giving him an invitation and opening to talk to you), but to get you to smile.

          I haven’t had anyone say that to me in awhile, but I’m pretty sure a HUGE smile while saying “go fuck yourself” would be fun!

      • Nothing NOTHING makes me angrier than “smile.” One time when it happened, I told them my family had just died in a car accident. Their answer: “Well, at least your beautiful.” What in god’s name is wrong with people?

        And to Annika: You don’t even know how much I like reading what you have to say. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse when I talk about these things but your perspective always brings something new.

      • Oh, I have *totally* been told to smile so fucking often by men on the street. I’m real good at putting my don’t-fuck-with-me city face on and it does deter a lot of bullshit. But the smile one always really, really pisses me off. Because of course women are supposed to smile and be pleasant in the face of unwanted male attention!

    • Part of the problem is when you can’t tell if the guy is a threat or not. I’ve always wanted to glare or yell “Fuck off!” or flip the bird at the guys who catcall me or won’t leave me the fuck alone in general, but I don’t know if they might react violently. So I tend to just pretend that I didn’t hear them.

      The problem is when you get someone who DEMANDS to be heard – I call them “aggressively friendly” because they usually pretend that they’re just making friendly conversation, but then won’t let you decide that you don’t want to talk to them – they keep running their mouth until they’re too annoying to ignore anymore. I had some guy like that today. He wouldn’t stop talking to me on the bus stop, though luckily when we got on the bus I was able to choose a seat next to someone so he wouldn’t be able to sit next to me. But he started doing the same thing to this poor woman who was just trying to read her novel, and I felt so bad for her. Meanwhile, he kept waving at me and I had to pretend not to notice.

      I couldn’t get angry at this guy, because I didn’t know if he might react violently – but ignoring him wasn’t working. What do you do in those situations?

      • I’m with you. Moreso when I see it being done to someone else, like I’d feel responsible to tell the guy to fuck off and leave someone alone, but will he turn around and attack me? Luckily, in Canada, it’s not like everyone walks around with a gun, but still, it’s disturbing to think how quickly someone can turn just for being called out on their behaviour…

      • My brother got beat up last week for telling two guys to stop sexually harassing some women, so yeah, it’s horrible. Also, like, WTF is wrong with some men that they will -violently- defend their right to objectify women and make them feel unsafe? It makes me so angry.

    • Yes, the bitchface is super effective. Maybe it’s a Philly thing? All I know is whenever it’s on, no catcalls. I let it drop? Catcalls start.
      So I second this.

      • Werd. That’s been my experience too, for le most part. I swear to fucking god, you say ‘good morning’ to a dude and next thing he’s asking for your digits. HELL NO YOU CAN’T HAVE MY DIGITS.


        reppin’ philly grrrlz

    • Yes!! I feel like I have totally mastered the bitchface. I feel like it’s working out okay so far, and thankfully I haven’t had any “you’d be prettier if you smiled!” comments yet.

  18. I’m guilty of staring at girls.

    But I just got a job delivering pizzas and the way men react to me has gotten to the point that my boss has told me that I need to start carrying a gun. I’ve had guys yelling at me, pulling up beside me, calling me bane and the like, even threatening to follow me home (and doing so, but I’m smart enough to lose them.)

    Men can be terrifying. And as a closeted genderqueer, even more so. I feel safer when I go out as Jude, but only a little. The world is not a safe place for female presenting people.

    • I’ve stared at girls before, too, but I try to do it in a way that doesn’t creep them out.

      I don’t know, I think that as Annika pointed out, there is a difference between the “I just can’t help but look because you’re so beautiful” stare – which as a bi girl I find myself giving to handsome men as well, it’s not just something that girls experience – and the “I’m objectifying you and trying to make you feel smaller” creepy stare. Which tends to be something that women experience a lot more than men, because we live in a sexist society where men have a lot more power. (Also, the fact that men are physically stronger means that men are more threatening to women than the other way around.)

    • Your comment makes me really angry. The fact that you were told to carry a gun… is f*cking ridiculous. You can only deliver a pizza if you’re carrying a lethal weapon!
      I feel for you.
      Also, seconded re: staring at girls. :]

  19. What about the “lesbian gaze”? As gay girls, do we get a free pass to check out other women, or not at all? How does that work? I know I wouldn’t mind attention from fellow lesbians.

    (Also, I’m deeply sorry about that porn site thing you went through, Annika. I was foaming at the mouth when I read about that. Such assholes.)

    • You wouldn’t mind, I wouldn’t mind, but what about straight girls? That’s where the line gets blurry, and sometimes I wonder if blurry lines best not be drawn at all. Is the “lesbian gaze” somehow less predatory than the male heterosexual gaze? So much complications.

      • you know what, I really don’t think the lesbian gaze is as degrading– first off because in my experience, girls are more discrete about it, but also because (this is just personally) I know what it’s like to feel objectified and so I try my absolute hardest not to objectify anyone else. Like I’ll see a cute girl and think “Wow, she’s gorgeous” instead of “Wow, those are some grade-A tits. Wish I could squeeze ’em.”

        • If you’re at the club, they’ll ask you to squeeze them. And if they can squueze yours.

          Straight chicks are so weird.

        • Thanks! One of those times when I wonder if I’m “really bi” is that I tend to just look at a girls’ face/clothes/whole person and think she’s gorgeous, rather than automatically zeroing in on tits or ass like a lot of straight guys do (not that I don’t notice those things). Of course, I don’t really zero in on particular body parts with men, either – I feel like when you’ve had to deal with a history of being reduced to an object yourself, you can’t really extend that same behavior to other people.

          • Hmm, I want to agree with you in theory there, but in actual fact I can’t help but (discretely of course) check out a girl’s body if I find her attractive. Part of my coming process was realising that I was staring. at. girls. all the bloody time, and it wasn’t because they were pretty. It was because they were hot.

            I think the difference between a guy checking out a girl and me checking out a girl is that there’s a certain type of guy who assumes they then have the right to talk to/touch said girl, and this attitude comes across as very threatening, whereas I’m happy just to have a little look and go on with my day.

          • I think those feelings of uncertainty are largely due the hegemonic position the male gaze occupies in our present discourse of attraction. Like, we’re in a space where objectification is THE way to visually engage with people we find attractive. Because the gaze is largely considered to be the only way to view an attractive body, other ways of seeing are marginalised. I thought about this when a dude friend implied I was a confused straight girl b/c I couldn’t specify whether I liked breasts or behinds more. His view was that unless I saw women in terms of the gaze, HIS gaze, I wasn’t really attracted to them.

            Personally I think this idea about tits and ass is ridiculous and only has as many adherents as it does because of the hegemony of the gaze… why should someone’s attraction be more ‘real’ because it’s directed at breasts rather than at a smile or flashing eyes, a witty remark or say a well-chiseled arm… or just someone’s overall beauty :)

          • “Like, we’re in a space where objectification is THE way to visually engage with people we find attractive. Because the gaze is largely considered to be the only way to view an attractive body, other ways of seeing are marginalised.”

            another slow clap & standing o.

            really, that’s why i find anti-porn feminism problematic. you have to legitimize that hegemony in order to believe the rhetoric. whereas, i’d say it’s equally appalling to wonder about the personal life of a stripper you don’t know as it is to objectify random body parts of people in public: you do it because you think you own them, not because you admire their looks or respect them as human beings.

    • This is a thing I wonder about. I feel bad when I catch myself blatantly checking a girl out, because doesn’t that just make me like those creeper guys who eye up girls all the time? I also sometimes look at visible queer women a little too long because something about them being visible is very attractive as well as wanting them to notice me so we can be like ” ‘sup fellow gaymo” to each other, even if only in passing.

      • I know that exact feeling! I always want to give a nod to a fellow queer, but I’m afraid I’m making them uncomfortable. :( Maybe I need “HOMOGAY” tattooed on my forehead?

      • I think the basic difference is that it doesn’t come from the place of being a historical, systematic way of keeping women in a certain place.

        Although when I check people out a lot goes through my head too. Am I objectifying this person? Why do I ogle X body and not Z body? Is that okay?

        • I agree. There isn’t systemic oppression that comes with the lesbian gaze.

          I’d also say it’s not predatory…and considerably less dangerous. Not only that, but people check other people out, that’s human nature. There’s just a line that can be crossed..that men tend to cross..and women tend to not.

    • I find that when lesbians check me out, I enjoy, because they often do it in a way that’s infinitely more respectful, than when men do it.

      My theory is that they know what it’s like, and that they may have to be more discrete about it, due to it not being in line with heteronormative behavior.

      • Yeah, that’s another thing that makes me more cautious checking out women – I feel a bit awkward checking out girls who could turn out to be straight, knowing how many straight people get so threatened when they get the sense that a queer might have any chance of being into them.

        Then again, heteronormativity tends to work in our favor in that sense – people assume heterosexuality of any girl who isn’t extremely butch-looking (and sometimes even then), and plus, straight girls often look at each other as a form of competitiveness. (Like Megan from But I’m A Cheerleader, that’s part of why it took me so long to figure out I was a queer – all the girls look at other girls, you never realize that they’re not thinking what you’re thinking!) So unless you’re blatantly aiming your eyes at her legs or ass, a lot of straight girls will just assume you’re admiring their impeccable fashion sense.

    • Any one’s stare can leave someone feeling naked, but the difference between the lesbian gaze and the sometimes leering looks that men can give is that there exists the feeling of one’s safety being threatened.

      Cis men have a history of hurting women (not saying they all do, damn) and therein lies the difference.

      • There’s also the difference in physical strength between men and women (on average), which isn’t there with same-sex encounters or with the reverse (woman pursuing a man).

        • Er, rather, it’s there with opposite-sex encounters where the woman is the creep and the man is the victim, but in that case the difference is in the victim’s favor.

    • men are in the power position in society and women aren’t.
      so men looking at women is nothing like women looking at women.
      (though there is room for oppressive power differentials between women as well, based on class/race/sexuality)

    • Yeah, this is what I thought during the article. I definitely check out girls a lot (I’m also a baby gay, so maybe that’s a factor?). Shortly after I realized I was gay, I suddenly developed a sympathy with teenage boys because I just felt turned on all the time. It was like the world suddenly became full of so many hot girls, and it was rather overwhelming. Is checking out girls bad? I try not to be obvious about it, but I also feel like it’s rather involuntary.

      This also made me feel rather sympathetic towards my sister. She has to deal with a lot of unwanted harassment (catcalls, staring) from guys on a regular basis. I’ve never had to deal with that, so I never really understood her point of view very well. Definitely a very thought-provoking article.

    • I’m so aware of how uncomfortable it makes me and most other women I know to have guys stare at them that I actually actively avoid staring at women most of the time, I’m very very concious of how it might make them feel.

    • Like…we can still participate in misogyny, we don’t get a free pass (just like any other woman) but at the same time it really pisses me off when people (especially men and straight women) say that queer women replicate the male gaze? Straight people don’t understand that not everyone who is attracted to women is a straight cis man.

  20. Wow, this article is so relevant to my interests right now. While my own situation is entirely different from yours, Annika, you really articulated a lot of my feelings about the increased random male attention I’ve been getting lately. Due to what I’m guessing is hormonal changes, I’ve gone from a very small B-cup to a large C-cup in the last year and men stare at my rack constantly and blatantly in a way that they just didn’t before and it’s freaking me out. For some reason, although I’ve been a fairly femme-presenting cis woman my whole life and am therefore accustomed to unwanted male attention, this new boob-centric attention feels different and I can’t always read what the looks mean. I, too, just want to run home and hide sometimes.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is thank you for writing this and I feel a tiny part of your pain. Also, that bleeding asshole who posted your picture on the trans* porn forum makes me want to invent a device that will let you stab someone in the face over the internet.

  21. Not to worry. When you hit 50 you will be invisible. I mean like… soooo invisible so as to be non-existent, totally lacking in worth/vaporized. The dudes will ignore you and shopkeepers will speak to you in a condescending tone as though you’re a wacky old catlady. Something to look forward to? :)

    • lol, I was so going to post this same thing, but was going to add the other option: gain 50 pounds. There are some traditionally gorgeous 40, 50, even 60 yo women out there, but most you get older and esp heavier, you are invisible. Mostly all young women are pretty, just from being young.

    • my gma says you can either be crazy or invisible when you’re old. you better believe i’m going to be crazy.

    • I was trying to explain street harrassment to my mum the other day and her reply was basically “Well why don’t you enjoy it while it lasts, when you get to my age it won’t happen anymore.”

      Very frustrating. Though not as much as my dad, who was convinced that any man who would harass women on the street must just be on cocaine. NO DAD THEY’RE HIGH ON THE PATRIARCHY.

  22. Good article.

    I can certainly relate to your conflicted feelings about enjoying, even seeking, cis-male affirmation. As you remark; the sense of fear and anxiety growing up trans instills in you doesn’t vanish entirely, even if you have passing privilege. I don’t think the effect of the male gaze will go away any time soon, but I’m glad to say I found this does. Even with the degree society reinforces that noise :)

    I think you can still enjoy men treating you respectfully and should. Graciously accepting a sincere compliment is just polite, and I accept practical courtesy but wouldn’t give ground on turnabout buying drinks or contributing my fair share where I’m equally capable of doing so. Establishing boundaries early on is important.

  23. I really appreciate articles like these, because it helps me understand/be more aware of people on a micro level, you know? Even though I try not to generalize, sometimes all you know is the generalizations until you hear true experiences. This is not at all sounding like it did in my head, but I hope you get the point!
    Thanks for sharing :)

  24. i loved reading this

    i used to get creepy men even when i was 12. but i live in a small town. since everyone found out i was “crazy” (used to be a cutter) and i conceived of my doc-martens-and-suit-jackets uniform i’m mostly ignored. which i’m okay with honestly.

    thank you for the article

  25. Yeah, it doesn’t matter WHAT you look like, I think a lot of men are going to do this shit. Because if you’re hot enough, they think you’re doing it for them and are therefore their public property to ogle as they see fit. And if you’re not – if you’re not good looking enough for them to fuck, or you present a challenge to them or their masculinity (i.e., you’re in direct competition with them for women and/or you present more masculine) – then they have to let you know that they’re uncomfortable with it or that they disapprove that you would even dare to exist. Like, I go to bars with friends and they get free drinks (not that I’d ever accept a drink from a dude stranger at a bar) while I get called “chunky” by guys passing me on the dance floor. THANKS, RANDOM ASSHOLE! There’s really no way to win with certain guys. And the moral of that story is that I hate bars.

  26. I’m a cis gendered queer femme girl and this is not something that I generally think about because I would go as far as to say that I don’t get stared at. until I actually think about it. Most of the time I wear jeans and t-shirts and I guess I just don’t get noticed. as soon as I put on a dress I notice people staring/ looking. In someways it’s a self esteem boost. in other ways I want to tell them all to fuck off.

    Also just because you’re not attracted to men doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel flattered when they find you attractive, I don’t think it’s hetrosexisum I think it’s human nature to enjoy flattery no matter who it comes from.

  27. You draw attention because you’re beautiful, simple as that.

    Anyone telling you otherwise is full of shit.

    • anon is correct your pretty own it like may west did (google her if not sure what thats about ) if asked out/ hit on … just say why thank you for asking but i’m into just girls then smile if at a club .. and you like to dance, you could also say but we still can dance nothin gained if you do not ask girls to dance.
      also never claim an insult and when its clear it was one , just ignore it and become scarce. and stay smiling..

  28. Thanks for the great article, and i definitely agree that this sort of attention is not something i will ever get used to. Also, the mix of getting a little self-esteem boost but also making me want to hide myself away indoors. Weirdly enough i feel like i get extra male gaze when i am limping or ill or something. like injured prey. :/

  29. God, the porn stuff is just horrifying. I’m so sorry that happened to you, Annika. What the hell is wrong with people, that they would have the nerve to do that?

  30. Read this before taking the dog out on a long walk downtown tonight. The exact thing happened to me and with this article in mind I slowed down and considered my reaction. That kind of lurid catcalling/filthy and objectifying language is horrible to receive. And it is terrifying. It was still light outdoors and there were other people around, but it felt like a vice grip of fear in my chest. After that initial panic subsides, for me there is just so much anger.

    The right to comment about my body is just as much an issue of consent as any other sexual act. It is one thing, strange man on the street, for my girlfriend to remark about my breasts or request that I suck whatever she wants me to suck–you don’t get to talk to me like that. It’s not ok.

  31. Since Rachel said what I had been planning to (and probably better than I would have), so I’ll just say that you are an extremely beautiful woman and this was a very well written article, and something that’s actually been on my mind for a couple weeks now.

    It’s extremely uncomfortable when a straight man checks you out in such an everyday situation (and assumes you’re flattered instead skeeved), and even more uncomfortable when I mention I’m a lesbian and it’s somehow perceived as a green light to probe into my sex life and preferences.

  32. This is a really interesting perspective. I wonder if there’s also something hypersexual about summer? I feel like I have been objectified left and right.

    For me, it’s not the stares that are so invasive. It’s men talking to me. At me. Constantly.

    I have a common-sense rule that if someone doesn’t make eye contact, they haven’t invited me into their world. But men on the street don’t seem to believe in this concept. For me it is so insulting to have someone invade my solitude and inject their presence in my thoughts. It implies that they don’t think I have an internal world, thoughts, anxieties, feelings of my own. Like I should be flattered that they have been so kind as to give me something to focus on….

    • Yes! I hate that men think they have the right to continue trying to have a conversation with me when I have made it blatantly clear that I don’t want to talk to them. I ignore them, don’t make eye contact, put my headphones in or keep reading my book and they still keep talking at me as if we’re having a conversation. Are they that lacking in awareness that they can’t see how uncomfortable they are making me?

    • These guys are the bane of my existence. Also, the ones who tell you to smile – not just when I’m actually sad, but even when I’m just expressionless because I’m lost in thought. They seem to think women only exist as little rays of sunshine to brighten men’s days.

  33. As a butch-presenting lesbian I don’t get the male stare, unless it’s the “Is that a boy or a girl?” stare. I have seen it used on my many female friends though and it just disgusts me. I have a hard time even seeing attractive people until someone points them out, because I spend so much time NOT looking at people.

  34. not to be mean, but men will attempt to talk to/hit on anything that they think they can stick their whohahs in. its nothing to do with you. walk with confidence and pride. and ignore that bullshit.

  35. Hi Annika!

    I have to say that I am guilty of staring – at you actually … •hangs head• I saw you and your girlfriend at the SFO airport at the end of may when I was just arriving, waiting for my luggage and I recognized you from your Autostraddle articles and squealed a little in excitement… I felt like I was spotting a celebrity and then I noticed you noticing me noticing you … you know, and I immediately felt bad for staring, and felt like I should say something like Hi! I’ve read your things and thank you!” but the feelings of awkwardness were sort of going on this spiral because the longer I delayed saying something the longer I looked like an ass, the more I felt guilty about it, the more I kept looking in hopes I would find some opportunity to maybe say hi, and so on. I’m not a male though, and I don’t think I look like one either so •hopefully• it didn’t feel threatening… but yeah. In case you remember that at all, sorry!

    Also, the male stare… no you never get used to it. And depending on the mood I’m in I respond to it differently. When I’m happy I’m usually in my own bubble and can ignore pretty easily, or accept it graciously as a compliment I’ll probably miss when I’m old and invisible. If I am not in such a great mood and if eye contact is made, I’ll either do my bitch face (which I mastered in middle school, thank the lawd!) (and of which I have many – there’s the sort of deep stare with pursed lips, or the what the fuck are you looking at? face or the look you up and down and chuckle or snicker, that one is extra mean but effective …) If I’m in a shitty mood and someone on the street calls me “ssssssaaaabrrooooozzaaa” (I live in Mexico, slash this shit happened in the Mission too) I will go BA-fucking-NANAS and scream “SABROSA MIS HUEVOS CABRON!” but depending on how crowded it is and time of day that might not be the smartest thing.

    • No te preocupes, no me acuerdo nada de ese incidente- y de todos modos, las miradas de mujeres no me molestan :)

      My girlfriend and I probably looked a bit grumpy because we had just missed our flight to Miami and had to wait in the airport for like 8 hours. You totally should have come up and said hi though! The same goes for anyone else who recognizes me, I promise I’m nice :)

  36. Excellent article Annika!
    As a pansexual Woman of Transsexual History who is approaching 59 and also overweight (working on it though) I have been (in some cases pleasantly) surprised to find that there is still plenty of male gaze/attention/flirting to go around. Not nearly as much as the younger women face, because of the sad truth that older women (cis or trans) are overlooked and set aside in our society’s preoccupation with youth and beauty. I did go through the harassment and derision during the early stages of transition, and that was for me much more frightening than the current attention. While I do most often wear clothing and groom myself slightly “dressier” than the average woman in my age bracket, I don’t go overboard and I do dress fairly casual, “age-appropriate” and not over-the-top feminine. The dynamics certainly changed since I began passing all the time. I had one old friend (male) who drove me home and got our of the car, opened my door, and offered to carry my coffee and shopping bag. Several years ago, he sat in the car while I struggled carrying a 21″ monitor and thought nothing of it. Most people are much nicer to me now, but I also notice guys who never would have questioned my opinions, glossing over my input as though it carried less weight and even some talking to me about “guy stuff” that we used to discuss, yet staring at my breasts. It definitely is an adjustment. Being pansexual, I am equally happy receiving attention from males or females, but in either case, if it is of the pushy/unwanted variety it is upsetting. And yes, I do notice it more from males in general. I too get that sense that men seem to feel entitled to ogle us and that they hold us to the standard of “happy” and see us as looking good for them or to be attractive to them. Personally, I dress to look the way I want to look for me and no one else. Intelligence is much more of a turn-on for me than looks. I can empathize with Annika on the porn site issue. I did a Google search for the name I use in chatting in support groups and such on the net and found myself listed under things like “shemale escorts and models”… not likely as a grandmother closing in on 60 with too much sand in the middle of the hourglass figure and gray in my hair. I guess the most important message I have gleaned from the article and responses is that we all definitely see this issue and we sort of come to an understanding in dealing with it on a daily basis, and we find it disconcerting at least and dangerous at its worst. So what strategies can we employ to change that dynamic for all women? Love Autostraddle and these forums for the acceptance that Trans Men and Women find here and the usual reasoned responses which lead to exploration, rather than marginalization.

  37. It’s not really something you get used to, but it is something that you can’t let ruin your day. (Not to toot my own horn but) as a femme lesbian brick house, a sizeable amount of stares directed at me result in frustrating attempts to ask me out. When I tell them I am gay, they get lecherous, claiming to be the one man who can change my mind.
    If only they realized it is a matter of the heart, and nothing can change that.

    • Amen.

      Male gaze: the reason I’ve practiced lines like “That comment alone is enough justification for me to mace you in self defense.” and “COME AT ME BRO.” in the mirror just about every day since puberty.

  38. This doesnt relate for me, NZ isn’t really like that, i find straight bars wierd but then there are enough Gay bars to be at instead

  39. Now, whenever I feel threatened or get catcalled I shout/swear/witty quip (less of those, I’m normally too angry) back. If we never challenge this behaviour on the streets, it will continue. If we want to challenge patriarchy, we have to do it all the time, with everything we have, not just when we can’t get a free drink out of it.

  40. Great article, Annika, and I’ve enjoyed the comments here.

    Just throwing in my own experience: your conflict in enjoying male attention is an all-too familiar one. As a kid, I was a pretty obvious tomboy, and up until Jr High I was constantly asked (by adults!!) which gender I was. So, never being one of the “pretty girls” and always being considered ‘one of the guys’ growing up, I felt like I had to compensate my lack of femininity by giving in to the heteronormative rite of chasing boys. Looking back, it’s so obvious that I’ve never really been attracted to guys, but to feel validated as a GIRL I had to have boys like me, right? This also led to my self-denied homogayness, because for me to like girls, I had to be butch, and I didn’t want to be butch because then I’d be proving right every asshole who called me a “dyke” for having short hair or vindicating every inconsiderate adult who had to ask if I were a boy, despite having breasts by the time I was 10.

    So. I feel you. It’s a strange feeling, being appreciated by the opposite sex. For me, it meant confirming my gender and femme-slanting appearance, but at the same time, if I had realized my true self earlier, I’d have full-out gay a lot earlier rather than being in my greyzone of labelling.

  41. You know, I really appreciate you for writing this.

    The other day in Downtown Phoenix, I was accosted by a man on the street. I was sitting on my bus bench right after work, when I saw this man staring. He came, sat down and he uncomfortably started talking to me. I didn’t respond.

    He started touching me, tried to hug me. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. He was so big. Physically, I couldn’t fight or fend him off.

    It wasn’t until this nice homeless man came and told him to back off. The man ran away.

    I’m used to being hit on, as I’m sure most girls are. I’m attractive, young. You know, I have no problem with guys staring. It’s inherent. I can’t stop biology. I also like it. Well, I like guys and girls. So, it’s understandable why most girls on this site don’t like it…

    But, it’s when stuff like this happens that I get scared of people looking at me.

    • Just because they’re attracted to you doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t control themselves. Straight men being attracted to women is natural. Straight men making women visibly uncomfortable, invading our space, and treating us as sex toys is not. We’re attracted to women too, yet we don’t do this. Why do straight guys get a free pass?

  42. My god, I think that photo of you in the 50’s dress is adorable. I hate to say it, but I would stare at you, too! Although I would probably smile and give you some random compliment on your hair or dress or shoes.

    I absolutely LOVED reading about your perspective. Your experience is so valuable to all the readers of this site. It’s both scary and sad to read some of the other comments on this post. Keep writing with both eyes open – you are very eloquent.

  43. This is the main reason that I don’t wear dresses or dress up on a regular basis. The few occasions that I have in the past…I felt like a piece of meat. It is not fun.

    At a previous company I worked at years ago I always dressed in slacks and a button up to work. I wore glasses and little/no makeup with my hair in a pony tail. One of the women I worked with always said she wanted to see what I looked like “dressed up” because I was just too cute and I promised her that on my last day of work I’d do it just for her.

    The last day came and I wore a dress, hair down, make up, no glasses…she was thought it was great and said “if I looked like you I’d dress up like that every day!” Although it wasn’t a huge deal to me (I was there to work, not “look cute”), I appreciated the compliment. However, I did NOT appreciate the looks I got all day. One guy who I’d worked near for months and never exchanged words with actually came up and started talking to me and asking me if I was new there (accompanied by creepy stares). It was just too much. I also went to lunch with a friend and got more of those looks on the street. I wanted my damn pants back and now I only wear skirts for Halloween (even though that doesn’t stop the cat calls on the street) and Pride (covered in rainbows…kind of like a gay shield).

    It also annoyed me when I would be walking around with my girlfriend and guys would come up and hit on one of us. The thought that we could be a couple never crossed their mind. It’s a (hetero) man’s world. I don’t know. I have a lot of feelings about this topic.

  44. For me the interesting thing about not being invisible is when race enters the picture. Historically grounded and currently culturally relevant, men sometimes feel a certain access granted to black female bodies. We’ve always been hypersexualized (by EVERYONE); it was precisely our bodies that made use to justify slavery. So if you bring it up to date a little, not only do men try to flatter me by catcalling or hitting on me, but they add an extra dimension by attempting to physically touch me, my hair, or my belongings. In clubs, on the street, in subways. The idea of a distant gaze is not a reality for everyone. In this case, sometimes, my outer appearance gives people the right to be more intrusive of my personal space. And these days, it’s beginning to be both men AND women.

    What can you do?

    • your psychological space too: you have to justify or validate your existence by sharing personal information with complete strangers who don’t plan on thinking of you as more than a token or accessory. they tend to call it being your friend, because they think that’s the best you, as an object, should walk around hoping for: their curiosity.

      and you can also count on being thought of as invisible when you aren’t hypersexualized, because, well, that’s all that rings a bell with some people.

  45. Wow, this male gaze thing sounds terrible. I’m a trans woman who doesn’t pass most of the time, meaning that when I go out, I’m usually a boy. I look at people sometimes. I try to make it the least invasive I can, so it doesn’t look like I’m “ogling” people (not all the people I look at are attractive, anyway), but I guess it still comes across as staring. I used to rationalize by going “it’s not illegal to LOOK at people, right?”, but I guess after reading this article, I’ll do it a little less obviously, at least.

    By the way, the few times that I actually passed, I didn’t experience much of the male gaze, apart from the whistles of some construction workers, and I don’t even know for sure if those were directed at me. Maybe I’m ugly or didn’t pass as well as I thought after all, or maybe it’s because I don’t live in the United States and people are more polite here. I hope it’s the latter.

  46. I guess I too am guilty of the staring thing. Although it is half really liking your outfit, and half thinking how hot you are. :p I try not to be invasive about it, but sometimes it gets the best of me. Since I recently discovered my attraction to women, sometimes it’s realllly hard. As for the male gaze thing, I guess I am lucky b/c I have never really been catcalled by guys. Guys don’t check me out, I’ve never been hit on in a bar, or been bought a drink. I don’t think I am hot, not by any means, or maybe I just don’t notice. Close friends tell me I am pretty, but guys really don’t notice me at all. I don’t think I’ve ever been hit on by a guy in bar. I don’t know if that me just not noticing, or my insecurities getting the best of me. Maybe it’s b/c I am a BiFemme? And I’m too busy checking out the girls? :P People at my work do say tho I give off this stay away & leave me alone vibe, so maybe that’s it….

  47. Annika, when you reach middle age you will be INVISIBLE to hetero men and all teens/20’s. So cheer up, LOL!

    Your story reminded me of when my hubby (str8) and I moved to a very gay area. We were in a store and the clerk was openly looking my husband over. My husband kept turning around, trying to hide the front of his body, then the back, not sure what to do to stop this other man from staring at him. I didn’t feel at all sorry for my husband. I said, “Now you know what I have been putting up with since I was 16! Having men who I have no interest in whatsoever look me over like a piece of meat, even when they can tell I don’t like it. You just have to ignore it. There’s nothing else you can do. You can’t fight with every man who checks you out or you’d be fighting all day long.” He never came to like or really accept being ogled by gay men, but I never came to like or accept being ogled by str8 men.

  48. Thank you, Annika, for this article. I admire your joy and your candor regaring your transition.

    As middle age gets ever closer I have chosen to become invisible. I have chosen a more androgynous style and to echo what others have said here, it does make men uncomfortable. I have had a range of reactions from men, from admiration to disgust, and guess what…I’m far more happy this way than I was when I was trying to please “them”. I’m bi and while I still desire men here and there, I cherish moments of true mutual attraction over bits of cheap attention. Not to disparage anyone here, an ego boost is an ego boost. Enjoy it, ‘cuz you’re 40 sooner than you think :)

  49. I forgot to add that when you get to my age (37) you stand on the precipice of being desirable and not. If you are single, men start to act anxious that you somehow *want* them, even when it’s plainly obvious that you really don’t. Add a puritanical mentality and what you get is a whole lot of horny, paranoid guys. Aaaah!

  50. My first experience with the male gaze was on Halloween a few years back. I had been on hormones for all of 7 months at that point & was dressed up in a corset & heels to go see a Rocky Horror production. I had to walk several blocks from the nearest parking, it was freezing cold & I had no sweater so I was off already, the entire walk was through an area of bars with lines out the door. I was ok on my way but I had to go back before the show having lost my keys, that walk back was terrifying seeing all those guys look at me. I cried a bunch the next day & was off for months afterwards. I still avoid going out in anything short & noticeable, I stick to jeans & jean skirts or business wear & always either have a hat or hoodie when I’m wearing casual clothes.

  51. as a cis-female who prefers women’s company for everything, including sex, i have dealt with this male gaze issue. have hated it. shorn my head and worn loose clothing, whatever i could do to keep it to a minimum.

    i have transgender/transsexual female friends who tell me that they, like many young cis women first feeling their desirability, took this attention as a good thing. but the new of the experience gets old quick, fast and in a hurry as they find that the “gaze” says little about who they are as a person and much more about what they are as objects in the minds of those cis-males.

    and of course, did they ‘hook up’ with one of these ‘looky loos’ anything from being just a turn-on-because-its-weird to ‘you’re a what?!” dangerous pre-assault was the usual result. how much harder it must be on a woman loving transwoman! women, who like me, didn’t want the attention in the first place from cis-males. yet who feel conflicted because they are happy to at least be read as female. these same beautiful women are sometimes denied recognition as women by certain lesbians within the community.

    my nine year old daughter is transgender. she wants to be with women when she gets older. i worry about these cis-males and the close-minded lesbians she may meet.

    thanks for this insightful post

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  55. Thank you, so much, for writing this. As a cisgender hetero male, i am working to understand my male gaze, so i can curtail it, and at least be one non-staring dude in the dudiverse. I am learning so much from your article and the comments.

  56. Thank-you Autostraddle Insider for suggesting this from out of the archives! Annika wrote some truly amazing pieces.

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