There is a woman sitting to my left, and she is staring.
I look at her, I must have noticed her attention from the corner of my eye, or from that seldom alarm-centre in our brain that knows when we are watched. But she continues to stare, unwavering, at my face, brashly continuing when she saw that I had seen her, where most would glance politely away, disguising their curiosity, their interest. I avert my gaze for the intensity with which she looks.
We are chatting with a young Greek woman, wonderfully goth and friendly, who had coaxed us into the right metro when she saw us beleaguered and unthinking outside, who invited us to sit with her and her mother, made accommodations for our baggage between our legs. ‘You should always keep them close,’ she warned us, motioning that we should bring them over from where we had left them behind the seat, describing the dangers of urban Greece as our train rumbled toward its heart, delighting too in recounting the gun crime of Crete when we tell her we will venture there after. She was a little melancholic; she had just deposited her German boyfriend at the airport, counting down the days already until when next they might meet – we sympathise wholeheartedly, recalling our own year at distance between Germany and London, where six weeks felt longer than even the longest of childhood summers.
The young goth’s warnings amuse, but they also portend. There is a part of me frightened by the reading of an article some few days prior, detailing the harassment and abuse faced by trans women in the Athens metro, a part of me that has wondered about the danger. Perhaps that is the same part of me that keeps on furtively looking to the woman on my left, who keeps on staring, unabated, almost emotionless, as if she is entangled, or trapped. Bergtatt, in my adopted tongue: spellbound by the mountain nymph.
‘It doesn’t look good, does it.’
She wavers not for a second, a frequently endearing bluntness to matters of fact. ‘No, no it really doesn’t.’
‘It just looks like stubble, doesn’t it?’
I inspect my made-up face in the mirror, where the wounds from the suction-laser protrude all about my cheeks and chin in bumps. Not even the flattery of poor lighting seems to help.
‘Maybe people might just think I’m trying to cover up a skin condition? I mean, it is a skin condition…’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, scrunching up her face.
I frown at her, displeased.
The idea of Greece, and the imagined trespasses of Athens against trans women, lent for the first time a certain weight to the matter of ‘passing’ – of being seen not as a transgender woman, but rather simply a woman. I had been openly presenting in public for almost two years by this point, the majority of that time without the aid of hormones, or any particular interest in cosmetics beyond what was necessary to disguise my beard shadow. I had grown accustomed to the looks, the stares, the unsolicited attention that characterises the experiences of the other, the minority, when they dare to exist in the public sphere, to bear the colour of their skin or the cotton of their hijab, the weight of their frame or the gender of their body – lest one ever dare to inhabit plural transgressions! So used was I to embodying this other that, after several months, such glances often went ignored; so privileged was I to inhabit northern Scandinavia, wherein it was not dangerous for me to do so. I had experienced no real discrimination, and endured no abuse, beyond the distant vitriol of my progenitors, that I was capable of inhabiting a publicly transgressive space without fear for my health or wellbeing, capable of dressing to communicate how I wished to be understood.
Multiple others, however, helped to construct the idea that Athens was a place to be wary of – a host who advised against the taking of night-buses, a vegan café that would later echo the young goth’s warning (with regard to belongings rather than Cretan gun violence, which was thankfully absent after that first metro ride). It was with regretful ease that an already cautious mind could conflate the dangers of petty theft targeting tourists with tales of transphobic violence, to conjure anxieties of what might transpire were I not to ‘pass’.
We amble toward the beach, we are in northern Crete. We intend to enjoy the sun much as one ordinarily does in our last remaining days abroad, departing the depressing murk of our old windowless flat, and skirting the already-overrun harbour that has begun to buzz with German and Scandinavian as the summer season looms close, mirroring our apparently entirely typical northern European flight. Restaurant employees try and ‘catch’ us as we pass, or (often vocally) make a point of not doing so, both apparently ignorant of the modern northerly aversion toward unsolicited social contact, driving any vague inclination that might have existed away. We don’t pressure you! scrawled in vibrant capitals on signs that leer out, impossible not to notice.
We crest the slope that then leads down to the beach, the waters calm and the occupants sparse. Construction work has been taking place all along the adjacent road, presumably in preparation for summer’s hordes, but they seem to have quietened their drills for our afternoon’s comfort. I reach for my partner’s hand as we descend, blissful and heady and even she relaxed, just as a man approaches where we walk, running. He sees the movement, how we take one another’s hand, the briefest moment of surprise succeeded by a toothy grin, the nature of which is undoubtable: lesbians! He even slows to a walk to enjoy the sight. I am quite sure he is harmless, and I find the bluntness of his glee amusing, but as he returns a few minutes later to stand and watch us play racquet-ball from the road, naturally incapable of not offering advice, my thoughts begin to turn. What might he do were he to see my crudely shaved armpits as I stretch high up to return the ball? Or if he were to hear the breadth of my larynx in my exclamations? In a world where it remains legally reconcilable to brutalise trans women in the ‘panic’ of uncovering their deception, it is difficult not to negotiate such scenarios in one’s head, even if they are unlikely to surface. I don’t expect the construction worker (albeit much more interested in the sport of two women than construction) would upon discovering my transgression boil over from mirth to homophobic rage, but the very appearance of such thoughts is enough to disconcert.
We didn’t swim that day, or play ourselves much tired.
My partner has noticed the staring, too. I would suspect it was difficult not to, so blatant was this woman’s attention. She nudges me and whispers in a more private tongue that perhaps I oughtn’t take off my necklace, glittering still in new silver about my neck – I understand her meaning. Perhaps it might help to better outwardly define a gender, perhaps I am too indefinite somehow, in spite of my stubble, my voice, and all the parts of my frame I know to be masculine. I recall a story my partner had once told me of a trans person who received a formal criticism to her boss while she worked for not being ‘gender-definite enough’.
I murmur agreement, and fiddle with the clasp.
Athenian reality seemed, graciously, unremarkable. By some novel combination of factors, I suddenly seemed almost invisible, all at once, and in an instant. Perhaps the bustle of the city proved a worthy contribution, the throngs of people in faceless amalgam, where focus is not so often pointed. Perhaps it was my voice, that having little practiced in months preceding settled resolutely a half-octave higher the moment we stepped out of the door. Or perhaps the hat was the tipping point, worn for the first time to shirk the sun’s ravages against vulnerable, lasered skin; that it was just one minor facet that suddenly completed a viably unmentionable appearance. It was a dramatic shift; it had been years now since I had received so little attention in public, since I had attracted so few glances. Indeed, the looks that we did receive, my partner wondered, more attuned and conscious to our surroundings than I, were instead those typical simply of the male gaze, accompanied on sparse occasion with comment or call.
As we descended from the slopes of the Acropolis one afternoon and wandered down one of its quieter, shaded sides, we met with an encounter that was to become emblematic of this new gendering of my body. We were approached by a charismatic panhandler, who we had not immediately pegged as such, snaring us in unsuspecting before beginning on a learned diatribe, attaching cheap bracelets around our arms to initiate the exchange, first hers, and then mine –
‘There,’ a cheerful and rich voice, ‘doesn’t your girlfriendboyfriendgirlfriend look good?’
The same beach again leads our desire, the warmest days of our two weeks the joyous send-off. We discuss German sociologists close to my partner’s field and familiarity, we wonder at the proposed idea that one ‘sees’ gender quite unconsciously, before one in fact sees the person, or any of their constituent features. Calls of ‘Señoritas’ from restaurant staff accompany the raucous murmur of speech and presence in the harbour, the poverty and despondence so closely adjacent where hounds and humans find accompaniment in their homelessness, the drumming of children begging for their bread – and I wondered that I might be placed in any danger or discomfort, as the dust of the NATO planes settles early one morning from their station not far off, to loose their bombs in defence of our whiteness1.
My partner wanders to the shoreline as we reach the beach, to let the waves lap at her feet as she walks, while I burn my soles pleasantly on the warmest sands. The distance between us, she would later tell me, let her spy on any attention I might receive in satiation of her own curiosity, but the glances were minimal. We find a space to settle down and undress to swim, the both of us donning slightly outsized trunks, her a bikini top and I with chest bare. We wade out, she is terrified of the tiny fish swimming about our feet that leads us both to hysterics, I amuse with my poor swimming. ‘It’s not swimming if you can’t swim more than about thirteen metres,’ she laughs, trying to teach me as countless dozens have before how to float while my body instead insists on nothing other than sinking.
We lie down in the sun to recover from the cool, pale skin gleaming behind layers of sun factor 50, basting away the droplets of water. Now, with bare chest, lying down or playing more racquet-ball, attention again seems all but lost – perhaps it is with will of imagination to see my growing breasts as muscle, though the thought confounds my partner, or perhaps no one is simply interested, at all, too relaxed in the sun. But there are always looks, a lesson well and firmly learned. Perhaps it is some manner of self-censorship, I wonder – that whether I wore a bikini top or not would broadcast whether my nipples were allowed, or not, for public consumption. The entire weight of my gender carried on so light a cloth; a small strip of fabric enough to tip that unconscious, instinctual assessment –
Androgyny. The thought strikes all at once, novel and playful. It must be.
We dress, we slumber up from a sandy cocoon, embroiled by the southern sun. We ponder back up the small hill, in search of food, in search of a worthy penultimate meal before we patronage again the little vegetarian place the following, final night. ‘Ladies – we have all this seating, all the way out to the end, you can see over there,’ the man points, but we wander on, in search of somewhere Italian, and clearly reimbued with gender, for I am clothed, again.
It isn’t the sort of androgyny you normally think of, I wonder. It isn’t the effortlessly cool look of those that breathe ambiguity, the non-binary chic, the ‘fuck-your-gender-norms’ I won’t tell you what I am, no – it was an entirely different androgyny that I was growing to inhabit. It was not an ambiguity, but a rolling definite; shifting between woman and man as easily as taking off a shirt, as quickly as moving from one person’s perspective to another. With the exception of a noted few, who see through the illusion, who hear the hollow of the mountain nymph’s back behind her outward beauty, who spy the cow’s tail from beneath the cloth, those who are uncapable of deciding intuitively that I am either one or the other, my body is engendered definitively. It is not my body that is ambiguous; it is the objectivity with which it is seen.
We find our Italian, a somewhat isolated cove in the dreaded conglomerations of the harbour, we chuckle in private as the waiter brings over the wine list and asks ‘Who’s the boss?’ (Who is the man in this relationship?), and we eventually meander the short distance back home, full and relaxed and content. Only a day remains, but we think not on that then, not really; there will be more board games to play, more cards, we can still forget the three return flights, for a moment yet.
The staff at the last restaurant we pass before we turn off try and coax us in, I smile and shake my head as he starts speaking, which seems to confuse. Good evening ladies, uh, gentlemen.
She doesn’t look again, the woman to my left. She talks instead to the older men sat adjacent to her. The necklace sits in my pocket, out of sight; perhaps now she can believe the stubble, the broad shoulders. In spite of all of the gender nestling within my low-cut top.
We make it to Oslo, two-thirds of the flights behind us. As I walk through the security gate, I am beeped into the new spinny machines, freshly installed, those that image your body in 3D for any anomalies, beyond just metal. I have read about them before, their befuddlement with trans bodies, I am delighted to try – I step out the other side, and sure enough the screen highlights in alarming orange a patch all about my crotch.
‘Did you put it on the female setting?’ I ask, amused, intending to explain, but she bustles me back in to try it again.
‘Yes of course!’
1Upon returning home I found incidentally the same article regarding trans women in the Athens metro – it was an article on refugee trans women, those far more likely to be subject to violence than I ever would be.