Beyond the Catcalling Binary: Street Harassment and Gender Ambiguity

Featured image from The Tourniquet Diaries by Sarah Derelict, ca. 2000, Jamaica Plain, MA.

Last week, I left my Amsterdam apartment to get breakfast in my neighborhood. I turned out on to the main street, filled with mothers biking their children to school, shipments arriving to restaurants, couples leisurely nursing coffee and pastries. My mind was elsewhere—drifting off with anticipation of my new class starting in the afternoon, my weekend plans.

A man passed by me, no more than a foot away, and caught my eye. Without missing a beat, he shouted in my face, “HANNAH?!”

Now, my name isn’t Hannah. This guy was not someone I knew and I was obviously really uncomfortable with him yelling at me on the street at 10 in the morning. I was put off, and moved along quickly without saying anything, because, what?

I arrived at the café and took a few minutes to collect myself over what had just happened. What had happened? Then it occurred to me, ah, Dutch!

He had been speaking Dutch.

And what he’d said, hane, was the Dutch word for male.

Well. My temper flared and broiled in a reactionary delayed response. I wanted to stand up and scream and throw my coffee at nobody. I replayed the scene in my head, the smug look on his face, the ease with which the word immediately fell out of his mouth. I fantasized about revisionist history: me, suddenly able to speak Dutch, tongue armed and ready to tell him to fuck off. Muscles great and lean, shoving his shoulders before getting a throw in straight to his smug face. Him falling back into traffic, a bicyclist clipping him and throwing him to his back. The flash of fear and remorse in his eyes as he lay on Haarlemmerstraat.

I had this visceral reaction to a single word, not even in a language I know, and by a complete and utter stranger. And why? Because it was violent, and threatening, and deeply confusing.

I am queer, and I am genderqueer, and I enjoy embracing fluidity in all aspects of my life, but I can also easily recognize the importance of embodying femme as part of my appearance and life. Femme can be really ambiguous and esoteric in the queer community and is a concept that probably deserves its own buzzfeed article or five or whatever. I try not to think about it too hard because I try not to pin down gender too much—as it relates to me personally, I seriously don’t care. Call it gender fluidity, or being agender, or whatever. Femme, to me, is a certain kind of flair, a playfulness. To embody indulgence in dress and expression is a fabulous way to move through the world that people of all genders can and have worked for a long time.

In some ways, femininity is something I feel I have been systematically denied. Wider society has a pretty narrow definition of “femininity” within cultural contexts. Each of us can conjure up an image of some ideal feminine form that our wider community or context values, and each of us will come up with a unique image. These images are equally “true,” as it’s culturally subjective.

Still, I think we can agree—those who practice certain femininities in public, as illustrated by numerous viral accounts recently, are subject to a degree of harassment that is terrifying. This is true for all women, cis and trans, because society views those bodies as public domain for assault.

I wondered why these narratives had long felt discordant to my experiences. After all, I’ve lived in several major cities my entire life. Was I privileged by certain aspects of my life within those cities? Totally. Having white skin and economic privilege does that. Still, did I feel safe navigating alone, my primary MO? Not at all. I hadn’t been able to put a name to the kind of discomfort I had experienced, the fear indoctrinated into me since I was very young, because it didn’t fit into the common discourse of harassment.

So being recognized, or assumed, or questioned to be “hane” in the way I faced wasn’t sexual harassment, as I’d been conditioned to think or warned that I would experience. This wasn’t an acknowledgement of and therefore entitlement to my femininity, which so often manifests for women as sexual harassment, but rather was a reminder of my failing to pass, refusing to pass, and embodying a disregard for others’ conceptualizations of gender altogether.

I’m not terribly upset about being misgendered, or gendered period. That’s something I have to understand will continue to be part of my life for some time. It’s more that I’m angry that the reality of the world continues to be that those who don’t fit narrow definitions of femininity or masculinity are subject to scrutiny, harassment, and discrimination, as has been my experience in Amsterdam, and often threats of violence, as is the case for many other gender non-conforming folks around the world.

I’m waiting for a shift in our conversations. I’m waiting for the mainstream, feminist conversation about street harassment to elevate narratives of trans and queer folks, especially of QTPOC.  I’m waiting for the outrage. I’m waiting for media coverage on cases like CeCe McDonald’s to turn into a conversation about the security this community needs on the street.  I’m waiting for the queers who will bash back with her, and for the education surrounding gender that will prevent this from happening in the first place. And, I won’t lie—I’m getting a little impatient.

About the Author: 

KC Chaviano is a student at Pitzer College, majoring in Human Sexuality. They fulfill at least 90% of your queer liberal arts feminist stereotypes.

KC Chaviano is a student at Pitzer College, majoring in Human Sexuality. They fulfill at least 90% of your queer liberal arts feminist stereotypes.

 A REALLY AWKWARD AUTHOR’S UPDATE:
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that there is a glaring factual error in this piece. Hane is not, in fact, a Dutch word at all—it’s the Swedish word for male. Lesson learned—fact check your translations. To preserve the integrity of the broader conversation, I’m maintaining the original writing of this narrative with this footnote. Either way, my feelings and reflections on the experience remain unchanged (although my perspective on editing will never be the same!).