I had an instructive encounter last night.
There was a new man behind the seafood counter at the grocery store. As I approached he was just starting to fish seven female lobsters out of the holding tank for two very particular French-speaking Canadian men. (They liked the eggs, one explained to a shopper who asked). I noted that my favorite salmon was on sale, and while I stood waiting for my turn, pleasantly anticipating a treat for dinner, I watched the seafood man work.
He was a large man, thick and solid-looking through the chest and shoulders especially, with heavy arms. His hair was grey and conservatively cut. His face was stony, and that and his forceful way of moving and the jerky fast rhythm as he chomped his gum gave him an air of masculine aggressiveness. As I often do I started making up details about his life: ex-marine, immune to tenderness, sometimes threatens his girlfriend with physical harm. His customer service, as he pulled lobsters from the tank and sexed them, was perfunctory at best, verging on rude, but the Canadians were manly men too, muscular and frank, and I sensed respect between the seafood man and them...that vibe of men being men among men which so often in my life I've had to bluff my through.
It was taking him a while to find seven females. Other shoppers came and went. By the time he handed the last bag of lobsters across to the Canadians there was only one other person waiting...a smartly dressed woman in her fifties. She had studs in her ears something like the ones I was wearing--mine were small silver disks with light green rhinestones, from the man-rack at the boutique but only barely--and her hair was not much longer than mine. (I'm growing mine out again, hoping eventually to go out in femme mode without a wig.) I was wearing regular man-clothes, khaki shorts and a t-shirt, but with my sparkly studs and soft hair and plucked eyebrows and womanish glasses I looked as femme as I ever have so far in male mode...I checked in the men's room on the way out.
The seafood man looked at the woman and me, standing close together. I had been waiting probably about three minutes, she about one, and I felt sure he knew it. His eyes flicked over my face, then settled toward her. "Next," he growled.
She glanced at me with a momentary smile, turned back to him, and said, "I believe he was first."
The seafood man looked at me again, staring into my eyes. His expression was as stony as ever, and, I suddenly realized, hostile. The expectant smile died on my lips, and I recoiled. I did manage to hold his gaze, but I felt threatened. His lips twisted with contempt, and in my mind I heard the word "faggot" as clearly as if he had spoken it. His eyes flicked back to the woman. He pointed a commanding finger at her, wordlessly imposing his choice, and she launched obediently into cheery talk, ordering lobsters of her own. (She did not specify their sex.)
I fled. I grabbed my cart and shoved it blindly down the aisle until I was out of the seafood man's line of sight, then stood trembling. The fortitude simply wasn't in me to wait through another long lobster-transaction and face that glowering face again and perhaps be passed over again, deliberately ignored, shunned, rejected.
I stumbled through the next several minutes of shopping in a state of impotent rage. How dare he judge and condemn me like that, with a glance! And yet I felt the judgment, instantly internalized the condemnation. I was shocked to discover how vulnerable I was to the force of his harsh opinion. When the young woman at the checkout smiled at me I was honestly surprised and absurdly grateful.
Driving home I imagined scenes where I complained to management and then he followed me out to the parking lot and beat the shit out of me. I wished abjectly for super-strength. I thought of weapons. In short, I worked my painful way through the helpless hopeless paranoia and revenge fantasies of the persecuted weak. It was a series of sensations I have not suffered through since high school, when I was bullied for wearing my hair long.
If you are a woman reading this, or gay, or both, or are in fact anyone other than a man being a man among men, you may be laughing at me now. You may be saying, now you finally know what it's like. Well, you're right. Go ahead and laugh...though I hope I have your sympathy too.
Around such men in the past I have been able to get by through various subterfuges...a beard, grunts and nods, a certain stance, forbearance to speak which was taken for assent. Now my mask is slipping. Several times now I have passed in public as a woman; now for the first time I have failed to pass as a man.
Tonight, after my weekly full-body shave, I plucked a few more hairs from my eyebrows, accentuating the arch. The metamorphosis inches on.