Scenes from a Gender: Illustrated Moments of Trans Womanhood

I’m walking home from yoga. I’m wearing black cropped sweatpants, a My Bloody Valentine tank top, ballet flats. I have my hair up in a bun because it’s a hot summer day. As I approach my building, I pass a black SUV parked on our block. The driver exclaims: “Excuse me! Excuse me!”

“Yes?” I say.

“Ehm…eh…is this…is this Park Slope?”

“Yes, it is. What are you looking for?” He’s a Hasidic man, beard, 50ish, maybe 60.

“Ehm…I want to talk to someone…”

“Um, yes?”

“I want to talk to someone…about the gay.”

“Excuse me?”

“I want to know more about…the gay.”

I’m just too confused to do anything rational. “Well,” I say, stupidly, “I’m sure there are, um, online resources you could look into.”

He chooses to ignore this pearl of wisdom. “You live here?”

“Um, yeah.”

“In this building?”

At this point I should have just ran. “Uh huh.”

“Maybe I come upstairs and talk with you? You have time?”

“Uh, no…I don’t think so. Look, sorry, I’ve got to go.”

He stares at me quizzically. “You are a man or a woman?” Why am I still engaging with this person?

“I’m a woman.” I say.

“You have a penis?” he responds.

I turn around and stride purposefully home. I’m shaking.

Joan and I are in Berlin, looking for a bar to pop into for a pre-dinner beer or two. We choose a smoky old-school dive in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. Everyone’s older, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, talking, laughing. Not a smartphone in sight. I clumsily try to order our beers in my nonexistent German — with the help of some friendly locals, we’re eventually sorted out. We sit in a corner next to some very drunk grannies who befriend us. They ask us how we like Berlin and we say we love it. They even write us a postcard, in German. At some point, an older woman with black hair and a chilly demeanor, sitting a table away, says to us: “I don’t know vhy zay are being so friendly viz you.” We don’t know how to respond. “Zhey are never zis friendly.” She looks at me. “Are you a man or a voman?” she asks. I’m, once again, dumbstruck. “A little bit of both, eh?” she says. Then she says something loudly in German. The whole bar falls silent for a moment. The drunk grannies start shouting back at her, defending us. Not sure what they’re saying, but they shut her up. We finish our beers and thank the grannies and make for the door. “What the fuck was all that about?” I ask Joan. Back in Brooklyn, our neighbor Ingrid translates the postcard for us. At the end it says “Berlin is not Germany. New York is not America.”

We’re in a Greek restaurant in the Slope — me, Joan, our friends Carrie and Amy. We’re finishing off our dinner — I’ve had the vegetarian moussaka with lemon potatoes washed down with some cheap Greek plonk. Across the way at another table is an older dude and a younger woman. I catch his eye and look away. I look back some minutes later and he’s still staring at me. The younger woman is going on in a loud voice about something annoying. I can’t help but look back though I know I shouldn’t. He’s still transfixed, or something. This time I hold his stare. He says to me: “You know, you’re a very intriguing woman.” Carrie hears this and is momentarily flummoxed. “I’m very attracted to you.” he says. Carrie starts giggling. The younger woman at the other table yells: “Daaaaaaaaad! SHUT UP!”

We’re on our roof. It’s a warm July evening. We’re drinking wine and my brother, visiting from London, is having his usual beer. Joan’s ordered a pizza for us for dinner. When they call to let us know they’re at our front door, I offer to go downstairs and get our pie. I trundle down the four and a half flights of stairs. I have on short-shorts, a cami, bare feet. At the door, the pizza delivery guy is a bald white dude, not sure how old really. “Yeah, I rang the bell but no one answered so I called your number.” he says.

“Oh, that’s good, because we were up on the roof so we wouldn’t have heard the buzzer.” I offer.

“On the roof, huh? Who’s up there?” he inquires.

“Oh, me, my brother, my partner.” Little miss innocent. So ready to share everything with the world.

“Your brother and your partner, huh? Well, what good does that do me?” I’m taken aback but once again, unable to disengage.

“I’m sorry?”

“You and your brother, maybe you and your partner?” What the fuck is he talking about?

“Hey, you want I should come back later?”

Now I’m back to my senses. “Uh, no thank you.” I counter. I sign the receipt and give him back his pen as I’m closing the front door.

“I can come up to your roof later.” he proposes.

“No, that’s really OK, thanks.” I just want this to be over.

Through the last sliver of open door, he looks at me and says: “OK, then. NAMASTE.”

Later, I tell Joan if we ever order from that pizza place again, that she’s in charge of greeting the pizza guy.

Bishakh's work has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker. Her graphic novels Apsara Engine (from The Feminist Press) and Spellbound (from Street Noise Books) are out in 2020.

Bishakh has written 2 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. I loved this, and looking further I’m so excited to see you have graphic novels I can buy! Gonna send in an order this weekend 😊

    Writing that you’ve edited so perfectly it looks effortless ~ can’t wait to read more of your work, Bishakh!

  2. Six-foot social distancing air hugs, if hugs are OK.

    I haven’t had a nasty German woman shouting in a bar, but the other two are all too familiar.

    Even supportive interactions with strangers can be fraught with oof. I’m at the amazing Zankou Chicken in LA glorying in the garlic chicken. At the next table, a couple sits chatting. The man goes to pick up their order, and the woman turns to me and says that I look really beautiful.

    Which sounds nice, right? Except that—at least in my experience—woman never give that sort of generalized compliment to women they don’t know (friends yes, strangers no). Rather with strangers, it’s always something specific, shoes, hair, top, etc.

    Which means she’s trying to be supportive because she read me as a TRANS woman. Which in turn means that I’m visibly trans in a time and place that I don’t want to be.

    I appreciate the compliment and the support. But oof.

    • Air hugs gratefully accepted. And yeah, I’ve had the same ‘supportive’ interactions here in Brooklyn, where (pre-lockdown) Park Slope ladies, complete strangers, used to nod and smile at me on the street and I’d be like, “Do I know these people?” – and a friend suggested this was a case of cis ladies clocking me and being all like “You go girl!” or whatever, which, as you say, is both mildly affirming but also, oof.

    • Thank you so much, vensey! Yes, I’m @biche_bash on Insta. Also I have two graphic novels out this year, Apsara Engine from Feminist Press and Spellbound, coming out in August from Street Noise Books. Thank you again for your sweet words.

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