In the middle crowded Halsted on Friday night, with the cheers of drunken Boystown filtering out from clubs and curbs and an escalator dangling surreally from a crane above the Belmont stop, I am thinking about all the ways I want to kill him. A heat is crawling up my neck and into my ears.
“What do you mean, drag queens scare you?” I ask. He’s bobbing along, hands in jean pockets, looking pleasant and sleepy.
“They just, I don’t know. They confuse me. It’s like weird.”
“You don’t know that they’re drag queens,” I say.
“Oh, yeah. I know. Some of them might be real women.”
“I meant they might be transgender or transsexual or genderqueer or… well you just don’t know.”
“Yeah, I just thought that one was a real woman.” He nods behind us, as if to illustrate some great point I’ve missed.
“Well, I mistook you for a real man,” I spit. “But I think I was wrong about that, too.”
I’ve made things awkward, as I sometimes do. And the woman I am with, who has brought this kind man, is asking why I’ve gone silent and pale all of the sudden.
Five minutes ago, this was my favorite place in the world- thousands of queers and queens hollering up and down a mile stretch of rainbow light posts and heavy dance beats, an entire neighborhood of stumbling genderfucks calling out to each other and bumming smokes. All over Boystown, scattered groups of trans women of color strut in silver and gold with pouting smirks and clicking stilettos, a needed reminder to those of us who have misplaced our sense of history in support of marriage of where the movement started and who pays for our insistence on conformity.
It is amazing to me that this lanky straight man can stomp into to this beautiful neighborhood and insult it in a matter of hours. These dangerously stylish trans women, weird him out, confuse him. They aren’t real women. They are drag queens. Gender garbage (as Riki Ann Wilchins calls it). And for reasons, I don’t know, he feels like it’s okay to make that known now, in the heart of Boystown. I look down at my tie and vest, the chain clipped in front of my pants. I feel my newsboy cap, tilted and dampened by the drizzle.
I am these “drag queens.”
Two nights ago, a man called me “sir” while inquiring about the time, and quickly apologized when he realized the mistake. The last time I went clothes shopping at my favorite thrift store, the clerk came over to inform me I was in the wrong section. I am the frequent target of confused “straight” girls who see my ties and vests as coats as costume property they can touch and tug, and I’ve been publicly assaulted three times in the last year by girls who decided they had every right to grab elsewhere (and lucky me, right? Because they are paying me the attention at all). The people I organize with are coming to me with stories about losing their friends over pronouns, about being accosted in front of public restrooms.
These “drag queens” are me. And they are not me, at all.
On the train ride home, the woman I am with urges my patience for her friend, advocates for education over anger, makes a strong case for the distance this straight man must travel in order to be respectful. Staring blankly out the window, I explain that this kind of patience and pain is the story of my life, is a blanket anecdote to almost every relationship I have. My mother has been afraid of me since I was four, since I told her to call me Patrick, since I put on a child’s tuxedo jacket and walked my best friend down a red hallway rug to say “I do.”
Most of the time, being visibly queer is one of my life’s greater gifts. It has informed my sense of justice, heightened my empathy, challenged my exercise of privilege, slowed my temptation to judge what I do not understand, and freed me from the drudgery of “normalcy.” Some people change the color of their shirt based on their moods, I get to change my entire gender presentation. I don’t have to dance like a girl, prove my physical strength like a dude, sport a dress, withhold tears, flip my hair in the right way, refrain from make-up, or do anything else dictated by gender binaries.
But then, it’s not always a game. I came into an understanding of my gendered self watching Brandon Teena get raped and beaten to death and by reading Leslie Feinberg’s accounts of cracked ribs and jail cell floors. And when I walk down a dark street alone in a tie, these images flicker through my mind. All it takes is one angry person, one out of control car of guys, one accidental encounter. I am small, I am female-bodied, I don’t know how to punch.
I know that these contradictions are not specific to me, and I know that race and class and citizenship infinitely intensify and complicate them. So when a white straight man comes into one of the few safer neighborhoods in the whole