14. Looking Over My Shoulder

My First Experience Walking Home in the Dark

Norah Vincent wrote an interesting book called Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again. It’s about a reporter’s experience taking on the gender role (and presentation) of a male in order to go deep “under cover,” as it were, to learn about male gender identity and culture. It’s a good read, I highly recommend it.

metamorphosis_walking_alone.pngEarly in the book she notices, quickly in her adopting a male gender presentation, that men and women treat walking in the dark differently. Generally, men never think about their safety walking alone in familiar, or even unfamiliar, neighbourhoods. Of course, that’s a generalization: men who live in dangerous neighbourhoods will have a different experience. But on the whole, particularly in Canada, men don’t consider whether its safe to walk home alone at night: it’s just safe by default. For women, though, even a relatively safe neighbourhood becomes risky while walking home in the dark: they’re acutely aware of which neighbourhoods are less safe than others. I live in a very safe city (well, collection of cities), but my female friends are quick to agree, “Oh yeah, there’s no way I’m walking home alone in the dark in [CityA].” And [CityA] is a rather safe city of approximately 300,000.

I had read about this, and was cognizant of the likelihood of my having to soon worry about these things; things which I never had to consider as a male. Men tend to give other men respect and distance by default, but that’s not true for women: women are often not given space or respect. It’s one reason that rape happens: it’s not about sex, it’s about power and control. I was also aware that I’d have to watch my back just being a trans person, irrespective of being a woman. Although the phenomenon isn’t as prevalent in Canada, hunting down a transperson and beating them up is viewed as an acceptable activity by a number of men. Here’s but one recent example.

But this post is about my first real experience being worried while walking home in the dark. It was late one night mid-way through our annual four-day conference. Because parking is now so expensive, I often take the bus to the university. However, due to the social activities, which are so central to professional life and networking, I didn’t get off at my bus stop until 11:30 p.m. The bus stop is about 1km from my home, and requires walking across the field of a school, through a dark path, up some stairs, up a street, up another dark path with stairs, and then 200m down my street to my home. This was my first time ever walking this route in the dark, even though I’d done it many times during the day.

I was in a dress, but I had put on my running shoes (in place of my heels). I do this because I know that my best chance to get out of a bad situation is to run. I’ll fight if I have to, but I’m an athlete and figure that I can outrun nearly anyone, if I have to. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to do that in running shoes rather than heels. Although, I figure that I could run at a pretty good clip in heels too: being a forefoot runner has its advantages. I’ve had a number of conversations with other women, and this is a pretty common strategy: it’s not that running shoes are more comfortable for walking home (of course, they are), it’s that running shoes make running away easier. Men: have you ever considered changing out of your dress shoes for your trip home because it’s easier to get away from a mugging? I doubt it.

Walking from the bus stop across the school field, I had an intense and surprisingly acute sense of fear. I’ll admit it, I was flat-out scared. There wasn’t anyone around me, as far as I could tell, but who knows what could be hiding in the trees or bushes at the outskirts of the field (or right where the path narrows to the first set of stairs)? Without trying to make it look obvious, every few seconds, I would check over my shoulder and around me. I wasn’t comfortable at all. I typically walk listening to music, but I removed one earphone so that I could still hear if anyone approached me (having very good hearing is a big bonus). I walked briskly, always ready to take off if I had to: I wasn’t going to wait to figure out what was happening before I started running.

Of course, nothing happened. But it opened my eyes: it’s time to start planning my routes home more carefully. I think this is another one of the “through the looking glass” moments in my transition. It also signals to me that I see the world through a woman’s eyes more than a man’s now.

Yours truly,