CeCe McDonald’s encounters with violence are far from an isolated experience. Transgender women face daily lives fraught with peril. “You have to be ready for anything,” says 35-year old Miasha Forbes of Brooklyn. Knowing how swiftly a benign situation can turn ugly, many trans women adopt strategies to help predict or preempt violence; like battlefield soldiers, they constantly gauge their environment, testing the threat level with a finely-tuned sensitivity to nuances largely lost on everyone else. That preparedness also means that in a Code Red emergency, they often respond with quick-thinking calm—as when once, Forbes found herself followed through a shopping mall by a pack of rowdy, flirtatious men.
“I stayed clear of them,” says Forbes. “But when I left the mall, they were waiting for me in the parking lot,” catcalling her from inside two cars, until they suddenly realized Forbes was trans, and turned furious. “You made me look at you! I should kill you!” one man shouted amid the slurs, claiming to have a gun. Quickly surveying the scene, Forbes managed to escape by heading down a hill separating the mall parking lots, where her assailants’ cars couldn’t easily follow. She walked in a zigzag pattern in case they decided to shoot. “I walked slowly, ’cause if I’m gonna die, I’m not gonna give them the satisfaction of running,” Forbes says, echoing an oft-repeated sentiment: That faced with extreme bigotry, preserving one’s dignity can become as paramount as one’s safety.
For 30-year old Mary Lynne Hayes (not her real name), who for years worked in the sex trade to lift herself out of homelessness, screening for danger and living by her wits was the name of the game. So when one night a would-be john pulled out a knife instead of his cash, she says, “I blamed myself. I felt like I put myself in that situation, which isn’t a good way to feel.” Even as her assailant began to anally rape her with a knife pressed to her throat Hayes managed to quell her panic, intent on exerting whatever control she could, keeping up a patter with her rapist in the hopes of preventing her own murder. “I was like, ‘Damn, if you just wanted some [for free], you should have told me!’ Whereas in my mind I was like, ‘Word, this is really happening.'”
Hayes’ traumatic assault meant that afterwards, she found herself quick to act at the first hint of danger. When once in a hotel room she rebuffed a client’s offer to pay her a mere 20 dollars—far short of her $250 rate—and he responded, “You do know that I could kill you in this room, and no one would know,” she was already calmly striding past him to fling open the door. “Rape! Rape!” she screamed down the hotel hallway, and the man fled, leaving her unharmed.
Chasity Moore, 32, has had to learn to anticipate a slightly different kind of menace, as a trans woman who is not only “passing”—she doesn’t look visibly trans—but also drop-dead gorgeous, and approached constantly by men. “I always say the girls who look like the stereotype have more fun, ’cause you don’t have to explain,” she says. “My troubles come from, nine times out of ten they don’t know. At some point I have to tell them.” That moment of disclosure can be a flashpoint for violence. So although Moore would like to be in a relationship, she gets anxious whenever a man sidles up with a warm smile.
“How long does the conversation go on before I tell them ‘I’m transgender?'” Moore asks. “I don’t want to have them think I was trying to fool them, and then they try to hurt me. It’s a scary situation.” She evaluates potential boyfriends carefully, in an old-fashioned slow-moving courtship with lots of conversation and no touching, and refuses to consider men from her own neighborhood, lest her home territory turn dangerous. “The finding love situation is a difficult thing,” Moore says. “You have to have a lot of boundaries for your safety.”