Gender Identity

Being Trans In An Age Of Violence

by Dr . Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Trigger warning: description of transphobia, violence, and physical assault

I grew up in Northern Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and learned to think thru my body and not only depend on rational thinking per se. As an always gender non-conforming person who later found a home in naming themselves a non-binary Transgender person, I have always lived with a particular set of vulnerabilities.

I remember when I left Texas, land to which I still feel connected, and moved to Chicago, I moved throughout the city with a particular visceral reaction to almost every noise and movement.

I embodied a sense of fear and trembling because I knew I straddled the borderlands of gender and sex.  

After living seven years in Chicago, I moved to Denver where I experienced my first bit of gender harassment. This happened several times and each time it jolted me, but my person, my body, was never encroached with another person’s body. My bodily autonomy remained intact.

These events of gender harassment and bullying were always in public, in broad daylight, and even on public transit, and while these incidents jolted me, I never felt as though I lost touch with the integrity of my bodily autonomy.

September 28, 2016 in Little Rock, AR marked the day that my bodily autonomy was not only threatened but violated.

I flew to Little Rock to surprise my mother for her birthday, and I had ventured out to have a beer with a local Movement and Faith Leader, and fellow Transgender comrade. I arrived at her house, parked my vehicle, and we agreed to walk the short distance to a new brewery. It was a lovely day out and rush hour was starting to build. I commented on how I missed all of the traffic coming to this side of town and was delighted that I had arrived earlier than I anticipated. We had a lovely walk to the new brewery, had a beer and dinner, then walked back to her house. I jumped into my vehicle and started to make my way back home.

I decided to make a quick stop at a nearby gas station, because I needed to use the toilet. 

I exited my vehicle and started to walk the 100 paces or so toward the building. It was still daylight and the gas station was fairly populated with folks pumping gas into their own vehicles. I didn’t stop to think whether I was safe, or whether this was a questionable decision. I simply exited my vehicle and began making my way towards the door.

I heard a voice yell something and it didn’t exactly register, but then my neck tensed up and I felt goose bumps come over me as I heard the voice yell, again. This time the voice registered. My body tensed up at the slur of “faggot.” And, then my body began to respond to the energy that was like a force heading toward me.

I turned around to see an angry-looking man staring at me who proceeded to push and shove me out of the way and call me a faggot, once more.

I was non-reactive during the few seconds when my space and body was invaded. 

The incident was over just as soon as it had started. My brain went into survival mode. The neurons were firing and this was the message: Robyn, get back in the car and go home.

I drove back to my family’s house almost on auto-pilot. I walked inside the house, grabbed a glass of water, sat down in my chair, and not 2 minutes later moved into my room where I became paralyzed with fear. I was numb and felt the overarching reality of being vulnerable in a world entrenched in violence. I laid in bed not knowing what to do or who to text.

My mind was scrambled and I was finding it hard to locate my breath, that particular plumb line that keeps me grounded. After 2 hours of crying and paralyzed in fear, I finally texted someone. They walked me through what to do, and after texting the Faith Matters Network Team, I was able to move thru my fear and paralysis that had kept me numb for hours.

I am so grateful that the person I initially texted encouraged me to reach out to folks. 

I think I would have laid in bed all night numb and paralyzed in my fear with no grounding whatsoever.

I think when our bodily autonomy is threatened and / or violated, we no longer know how to trust ourselves in moments of panic and anxiety, nor do we know how to reach out to ask for help. I’m grateful this person was able to respond with a deep sense of care and compassion and encouraged me to alert my community.

This incident could have been a lot worse, and I don’t mean to minimize my experience by suggesting that it could have been worse. I share this story as fresh as it is in my mind, because I want to raise attention to the reality that Trans folks and gender non-conforming folks live with a great sense of precarity and vulnerability in an ongoing age of violence.

What we know is that marginalized people were not meant to survive the systems that are in place.  

And, here when I talk about surviving systems, I am referring to the overarching systems of the normative that require Trans and gender non-conforming folks to assimilate into a gender expression that is not their own. And, the South is a context where gender norms are not only expected but required. Just being in this space here in the South is a great transgression to the normative.

I tell my students that the normative will always fail us, and in this particular incident, the normative not only failed me but threatened and violated me. To think beyond the normative, beyond what is expected and required, takes the courage the imagine the difference of what can be.

I think thinking about the ways that imagination could be our salvation in the midst of living in an age of violence is one step to destabilizing the force of the normative. Transgender folks for decades have used our imagination to rescript our bodies, our gender expressions, our relationships, and our behaviors.  What we need now is to continue to leverage our imagination, so that we can continue to dismantle systems that carry with it a threat to our bodily autonomy.

When we are able to mobilize new contours of imagination that is rooted in a queer orientation, we will begin to see the eradication of violence against those who are counted as “other.”  When we are able to lean into our imagination, we will see the trappings of the normative and be able to unhinge from this system and lean further into a queer hope where Trans and gender non-conforming folks are not riddled with precarity and vulnerability.

This is not a single-issue moment for any of us.  

It is a call for Transgender, gender non-conforming, and allies to find a way to be united in light of our differences and build bridges with one another to help eradicate ongoing violence that threatens so many of us.

Photo via flickr user Steve Snodgrass