The Incredible Shrinking Phallus


Meditations on privilege

What I wish I had said

I got a promotion at my work and tonight was my final night of training. My trainer, whom I really like, is a young Puerto Rican guy who closes the store five nights a week. I’ll close it a night or two a week but during that time I have no real power but am the person who will get yelled at if it burns down.

We were in the office going over the absurdly thick packets corporate wants me to master, information on each department. Two people from produce came down and we were trying to stump them on questions about the department. One of them, a young White guy, goes “I’ve got a question for you: what do you do when a tranny wants to know where to go to the bathroom?”

My first thought was “oh shit.” And then, I kind of didn’t understand the question, because I thought “point her or him to the bathroom.”

I said, “well, you start by not calling her a tranny.”

“Yeah, I know,” the guy brushed it off, “but I’m asking ’cause one came in today and his hands were as big as my head and he said [in a dramatic voice, with a dramatic, sweeping gesture] ‘where is the bathroom?'”

And then I understood what was being asked was “how do I effectively police someone? Isn’t it funny that trans people think they have the right to go out in public when I’m going to read them wrong? Isn’t it absurd that they think they get to pee like you or I do? Aren’t I funny, and also smart for seeing through that?”

I said (while my trainer and the second produce clerk, a White woman in her late thirties/early forties) guffawed, “then you tell her where the bathroom is.”

He kept going, trying to dig himself out. “I know, I mean, here, the bathrooms are together, but what if one was here [pointing to one end of the store] and the other was there [pointing to the other].”

I said, “whatever that person is dressed as, that’s the one you direct her or him to.” The woman chimed in, “yeah, but what if I’m in the bathroom? I mean, hello?”

I said something like “then you are just going to have to deal with it for two minutes.”

They kept going, so, now that I understood that they were also asking “can I call the police on that person? I know what the right thing to do is, but what’s the legal thing to do? Is there some kind of loophole so that I can still make her life harder?”

I said that the law in Massachusetts is that whatever gender someone is dressed as, that’s the bathroom they use. (To my knowledge, this isn’t true; As far as I know, neither Massachusetts nor our city hasn’t passed a gender identity-inclusive non-discrimination law.) And finally they were satisfied. Because now they knew what The Man says.

But there was so much more I wanted to say.

As soon as I understood1 the word “tranny” coming out of his mouth, I wanted to say “I’m transsexual.” I wanted to say “‘tranny’ is what people shout when they kick our heads in; you shut your mouth.” I wanted to say “I spent years afraid to piss in public because of questions like that.” I wanted to say, “I still try not to pee at work because of questions like that.”

I wanted to say “as the manager here, [trainer], would you like to fill them in on our non-discrimination policy?” I wanted to say, “how dare you, [trainer], laugh at this, or you, [produce woman], laugh when I like you both and thought I could trust you.” I wanted to say,”Thank G-d I haven’t come out to anyone at work but instead go through my shifts with a weird, vice-like silence and with a higher-than-usual wall I maintain after a year and a series of promotions?”

I wanted to say, “You’re asking questions that don’t even apply in this store, and you know it; thank G-d our bathrooms are right next to one another and neither you nor anybody else gets to tell someone what side of the store to go to.” I wanted to say, “where do you get the sense of entitlement and privilege to think you get to think these things about other people? I wanted to say, “what makes you think you can ask these questions in the manager’s office, to me, whom you don’t even know?”

I wanted to say, “it makes me angry to hear you talk like that.” I wanted to say “it makes me feel small and sad to hear you talk like that.” I wanted to say, “it makes me feel guilty to know I am passing well enough for you to think you can say this to me.” I wanted to say, “it makes me feel sick that I’m using my passing privilege not to call you out.” I wanted to say, “It makes me feel invisible to hear you say these things to me.” I wanted to say, “I wish I had an ally here, someone to tell you to shut the fuck up so that I didn’t have to.”

I wanted to say, “it takes so much fucking guts for that woman to walk through her day to day life, how dare a person so small try to insult her after she has gone.”

I wanted to say, “what you do in that situation is treat another human being with a little fucking respect.”

I wanted to say, “you’ll have forgotten this by the time you leave this room, but for me it will be a pit in my stomach, and tension, another brick in my wall of self-protection for weeks and weeks. For me, it will be more shit I have agreed to swallow, it will be more punches I have pulled. You say these things casually because you don’t understand. And you don’t understand because you don’t care to. You make me feel sick inside, and you won’t even know it because telling you that you’re wrong costs me too much– will it cost me my job? Will this promotion disappear? I can stand up for her, but I cannot stand up for myself here. I’ll be wandering around for days feeling this weird distance from myself. And why? Because you wanted to make a funny joke.”

I wanted to say so many things.

1. I have an auditory processing problem. It’s hard for me to decode sounds into words, so I didn’t immediately understand what he said until I heard the context of the sentence.


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