It was 19th May 2013. I’d filled my car at the Sainsbury’s petrol station adjacent to its host supermarket where I’d just done my weekly shop, and had gone into the kiosk to pay. It was a Sunday morning, and things were very quiet — I was the only person in the queue. One of the tills became free, and I went to move towards it when I was barged out of the way by a middle-aged man. He walked up to the desk and produced a pile of coins, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’d pushed in front of me. “Excuse me? Why don’t you knock me over and trample on me as well?” I asked, sarcastically. Without looking up, he shouted “Shut your mouth, fucking queer!”
I was astounded. On this occasion I was wearing a short-sleeved tee-shirt, an above-the-knee denim skirt, black opaque tights, and flat pumps … nothing out of the ordinary for me, although admittedly unconventional for a man. And yet this sort of incident happens so seldom that I’m rarely prepared for it. The best I could come up with was to loudly and clearly confirm that the two ladies behind the tills had witnessed the event. Meanwhile, the man finished paying, and strode nonchalantly from the kiosk as if nothing unusual had happened. No-one knew his name, but he was a regular customer, and apparently had a reputation for being abusive both to staff and to other customers on the forecourt. One of the ladies at the checkout apologised on behalf of Sainsbury’s, and said they’d do everything necessary to help bring the man to account.
Having worked on harassment issues with the local police, I know they keep statistics on hate crime, so I felt duty-bound to report the event. However, whether or not I’d wanted it to, that automatically set in motion the full investigation process, involving in the first instance a visit from an officer and the taking of a statement. I was also asked how far I wanted to pursue it. Sure, I could have the full weight of the law thrown at this guy, ending in court if necessary … but why make an enemy when the possibility for constructive dialogue exists, from which might emerge a valuable exchange of views and a better mutual understanding? It’s not very often that the opportunity presents itself for this sort of resolution, and I wanted to take full advantage of it.
Two weeks later, I had a phone call from Damian, the police officer assigned to the case, to say that he’d been to the petrol station and viewed the CCTV footage of the event, and while he’d seen the man in question walk out of the kiosk, he unfortunately wasn’t able to clearly identify the registration plate on his motorcycle. However, the staff had told him– as they’d told me– that this guy was a regular customer, and if I were happy to wait, they’d catch him when he re-appeared … which he did, some six weeks later. The kiosk staff noted his registration plate, he was identified from the DVLA database, and Damian paid him a visit on 28th July.
I’ll call him Robert. Apparently, his wife was mortified when she was greeted at the front door by a police officer in full uniform asking to speak to her husband on a charge of hate crime. I’m told that she went upstairs, and refused to come down until he’d gone. Robert agreed to meet with me as an alternative to being dealt with in the conventional manner, but insisted that Damian be present … something of a climb-down from his self-assured arrogance at our previous encounter, I thought. I was also very surprised to learn that he was 70 years old … I’d put him in his mid 50s, although the motorcycle helmet he was wearing at the time had made it difficult to tell.
Damian scheduled a meeting for 1:30 p.m. the following day in the car park of the Sainsbury’s supermarket adjacent to the petrol forecourt, and asked me to confirm my availability. To meet in a car park? Absolutely not! I thought perhaps I needed to define more clearly the direction in which I wanted this process to go, so I hastily replied thus:
I rarely get to meet my abusers face to face — this is only the second time in 13 years it’s happened, and I want to get the maximum possible benefit from it. I’ve always maintained that I want the meeting to be a learning experience, maybe for me, maybe for you, but certainly for him. If he thinks he’s going to get away with saying “sorry”, then chuckling to himself at my gullibility as he drives off, he’s mistaken. I want to know what happened in his life to make him into the rude and arrogant person I encountered on 19th May. I also want him to realise the effect his insult could have on someone who’s spent their entire life battling with a stigma like crossdressing. And I’ll expect him to have researched the topic of transgender, and of crossdressing in particular, prior to our meeting. That’s the fullness of his apology to me.
I’ve given a lot of attention to how I want this meeting to play out. I’ve no intention of letting it be a soft option for Robert– if he doesn’t treat it with the seriousness that I believe it deserves, then you can arrest him on a charge of hate crime, and deal with him in the traditional manner. Please convey these comments to him, and if he still wishes to meet me, be kind enough to let me know when he believes he’s sufficiently prepared.
I heard nothing for more than week, so I sent a follow-up e-mail. Damian phoned me back a little later. “I’m not sure you can ask him to become an expert on crossdressing”, he said. “Why?,” I asked. “If he’s going to understand what he’s done wrong, he needs to grasp the key concepts.” I went on to outline the usual stuff — what it’s like to grow up being persecuted by one’s own parents, the fact that being transgendered isn’t a choice, a few statistics about crossdressing and the closet, and some anecdotes about crossdressing-related suicide. Damian agreed that it would be useful for Robert to know these sorts of things. “But you need to realise that he’s of ‘that’ age,” he added. “You mean an age where it’s acceptable to go around abusing people you don’t like?,” I asked. “Well, no. But he’s 70 — people of his generation don’t talk about things like crossdressing.” “Well, he started it,” I replied. “Frankly, I’d have been very happy if he’d kept his mouth shut.” So it went on, with my dismissing every call to adopt a more conciliatory approach. Eventually, I asked “What would have happened if I’d gone home and slit my wrists over this incident? Would you prefer to be dealing with a hate-related suicide? I wouldn’t have been the first, you know.” Game and first set to me.
The meeting was eventually rescheduled for 19th August — exactly three months after the initial incident — in the restaurant of another supermarket closer to where I live. I arrived early to pick a seat with a good view of the entrance. Robert arrived a few minutes before the arranged time, accompanied by Damian. Almost before he’d sat down, he started making excuses — “I’m of ‘that’ generation”, “it wasn’t intended as an insult,” “it was a reaction borne out of surprise,” and so on. When he paused for breath, I pointed out that I have friends of all ages up to well beyond his, and who’ve always treated me with respect; as for the “surprise” idea, I imagine that most people seeing me for the first time would be surprised, yet only a handful have ever reacted abusively. “I can’t stop people thinking what they want to think, but most keep their opinions to themselves,” I said. “So what’s so special about you that I should take notice of what you have to say?” I pointed to the first paragraph on the list of notes I’d prepared [ref]. Robert realised that I wasn’t going to buy any of his excuses, and that he was in for the long haul.
There followed a frank exchange of views, and the trading of a lot of information. I jumped from one paragraph in my notes to another as the topic of conversation changed, but I made sure that I drew attention to them all. Slowly, Robert’s attitude changed. He started asking more questions, and predictably the key issue of choice came up; he was surprised to learn that crossdressing was compulsive. “Nevertheless, many experts regard it as a social phenomenon rather than an obsession”, I stated. “But I could ask you why you only ever wear garments of a trouser-like nature– is that an obsession, or merely a social phenomenon too?” Robert was quick: “But you must admit that it’s unconventional for men to wear dresses.” “Yes”, I replied, “and a hundred years ago, it was unconventional for women to wear trousers. They also weren’t allowed to vote, or to have access to good education. Should we adhere to outdated or pointless practices purely on the basis of convention?” These were all tried-and-tested responses from me, but were clearly novel concepts for him.
I took every opportunity to put the squeeze on Robert, and Damian allowed me to do so. So when he inevitably asked why I dress the way I do, I said “That’s a good question. I don’t have all the answers, but imagine this scenario. You’re in the middle of Ipswich. It’s a busy Saturday afternoon. You’re wearing a dress …” “I’d rather not go there”, he interrupted. I looked him straight in the eye, and spoke deliberately. “Yes– we are going there. You’re wearing a dress. Oh, and there’s a match on, and the place is heaving with football fans.” I let the vision sink in for a few seconds. “How do you feel?” The look on his face had already said it all. “Very embarrassed and uncomfortable.” “Good. That’s how I feel wearing trousers. So when I say that I don’t wear a skirt for your benefit, that’s what I mean.” Dramatic and effective.
The meeting went on for more than 45 minutes before Damian sensed it was a good time to draw it to a close. Robert shook my hand, and admitted that he now understood a lot more about the subject, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to politely acknowledge me if he saw me in public at any point in the future. He asked if he could keep his copy of my notes … I’m not sure why he wanted them, but it would be nice to think he was going to take them home and do some research of his own. Damian also asked if he could display his copy on a notice-board in the police station, and would I be interested in doing some work with the police to further their knowledge of transgender? Of course I would!
I phoned Damian that evening to get his impression of the earlier proceedings. Robert had got a lift to and from our meeting, and in the police car on the way home, he apparently couldn’t believe how misinformed he’d been about transgender and homosexuality, and how much new stuff he’d learned. Unless he’d been clever enough to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes — which I doubt –I regard that as a success. Damian himself had been anticipating confrontation, but said it had gone “a hundred times better” than he’d expected. Finally, would I be OK to drop the charges against Robert? “Yes, I think that would be acceptable.”
Coincidentally, I ran into Robert in the supermarket two weeks after our meeting. He called my name, bounded up to me and shook my hand, saying “I told you I wouldn’t ignore you if I saw you again.” He seemed to be taking a great delight, almost a pride, in letting everyone within earshot know that he and I were acquainted. A victory indeed.
Five Questions for My Abuser
- I wear what society has traditionally referred to as “women’s clothes” because they make me feel good about myself. I don’t dress this way for your benefit, and neither do I seek your approval; if you can’t be civil and open-minded, I’d appreciate you keeping your comments to yourself. But since you’ve insisted on letting me know what you think, explain to me why you believe that your personal opinion should be worthy of my attention.
- Crossdressing and homosexuality are not the same thing, and neither are they statistically linked – the vast majority of crossdressers are heterosexual. Your comment to me clearly indicated that don’t believe this – why not?
- My experience suggests that I get about the same degree of sexual arousal from wearing women’s clothes as the average woman does. Tell me why you regard this as a perfectly normal reaction for a woman, yet identifies me as a pervert.
- Between 2% and 10% of men are thought to crossdress to some degree, although one source has put it as high as 50%. For the vast majority, it’s not a “lifestyle choice” any more than one might “choose” the colour of one’s skin. If you think this is wrong, tell me why crossdressers would voluntarily subject themselves to abuse and harassment – and possibly put their lives in danger – on a daily basis?
- Crossdressing remains essentially a closet activity not because crossdressers have anything to hide, but because of the crass and insensitive comments the activity attracts from people like you. Are you aware that many crossdressers have been driven to suicide as a direct result of being victimised? How does it make you feel that, under different circumstances, your outburst could have been responsible for my death?