Getting Catcalled During My Transition Felt Validating — and Horrible

About a decade ago, I was walking the streets of my hometown in California's Central Valley. I don't remember exactly where I was going at the time or why, but what I do remember is the jeering group of men whistling at me across the street. Their words were indistinct and lost in my anxious mental haze, but I am certain there was profanity and sexual innuendo punctuated by the whistling and gawking. In an instant, an otherwise mundane trip from point A to point B gave way to an influx of complicated and conflicted emotions.

"It was affirming to be catcalled for the first time. But only for the first time."

I'm transfeminine, meaning I was assigned male at birth but am not a man. I'm also not a woman, but rather a femme-presenting nonbinary person. This experience happened early in my transition; it was in fact my first experience being catcalled. And this novelty brought a certain validation, because those men clearly saw me as a woman in that moment. But that validation was inherently tainted, because it came in the form of harassment — an outright psychic attack that ultimately reduced me to an object existing only for the gratification of men.

The major goal of many transfeminine folks is to be seen as "femme enough" to "pass" as a cisgender woman in casual interactions. There are many issues with this framing, but the main takeaways here are that it's not always a realistic or obtainable goal for everyone and that it allows only two options ("succeed" and be seen as a woman, or "fail" and be seen as a man).

Even so, it was a goal of mine for a long time. In some ways, I maintain this goal even now, if only for my own safety; it is a genuine health hazard to be visibly trans in public. Early in my transition, I readily internalized this narrative and gauged the "success" of my efforts based on how frequently I was perceived as a woman. For all these reasons and more, it was affirming to be catcalled for the first time. But only for the first time.

It was the first time, but certainly wouldn't be the last. Catcalling is just one of many forms of sexual harassment femme-presenting folks have to deal with throughout our entire lives, and the novelty wore off quickly. "Oh, they see me as a woman!" soon became "They see me as a thing they can treat however they want." And beyond that, I grew tired of being seen as a woman in the first place. Even outside the context of harassment, I'd really rather people not try to shove me into any box in the first place.

See, there's this assumption most cisgender people have that all trans people are just dying to be seen as the binary gender they present most closely as. And I'll grant it's not entirely without truth. We often spend so much time feeling invalidated and dysphoric that any validation of our identities, however imperfect, is welcomed. I certainly feel a bit of that every time someone assures me that I "pass" as female. But I also feel something else: a deep and abiding frustration with being shoved in the "woman box," often even after I've made my actual preference clear.

I rejected the gender binary pretty early in my transition. I knew I liked a lot of things socially deemed feminine: skirts and dresses and makeup make me feel nice, and so on. And for whatever reason, my body naturally craves estrogen and the effects it has are quite agreeable, even euphoric. But I've never really "felt like a woman." I've never felt like a man either, for the record. Frankly, I have always found the whole dichotomy reductive and baffling.

The problem is, patriarchal society doesn't let you reject the binary.

The problem is, patriarchal society doesn't let you reject the binary. Not in any meaningful way in day-to-day interactions, anyway. It's not common practice for people I meet to ask for my pronouns on a first meeting, but rather simply assume based on my appearance. The vast majority of legal forms still only recognize two options, and so does the average person's internalized preconception of sex and gender.

And there's a reason for that. The systems of power that govern our society benefit from sorting us into easily categorizable boxes. Power also benefits from being able to devalue one of those two boxes, making those of us who find ourselves within it easier to exploit, paying us less for our contributions and refusing to pay us at all for labor deemed "women's work" (housekeeping, child-rearing, emotional support, the list goes on). Ultimately, those of us who get shoved into the "woman box" are expected to be "femme enough" in all the ways that best serve the patriarchy. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back around to catcalling.

Catcallers will generally believe they are doing nothing wrong, even as they whistle, shout degrading obscenities, and make any number of remarks about the body of the (presumed) woman to which they feel entitled. When it first happened to me, I was nearly paralyzed in fear and shock. It was all I could do to keep my head down and walk away as fast as I could while my body felt as if it was alight with cold fire. My whole nervous system was warning me of danger, and not without good reason: catcalling can often presage even more violent and/or degrading behavior. Even if it doesn't, repeated exposure leaves deep and lasting emotional harm, and catcalling itself is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many and sundry forms of violence femme-presenting folks are simply expected to endure.

That's why simply refusing to accept the gender binary and being my authentic self in spite of it has felt like a radical act. These days, I don't give catcallers the satisfaction of knowing they've had any effect on me. I disregard them entirely and carry on about my day without so much a glance in their direction; they are beneath my notice and deserve to know it. We femme-perceived folks are all enough just for being who we are, no matter how well we do or don't conform to socially mandated femininity. We shouldn't let anyone tell us otherwise.

Jorie McKibbin is a freelance content writer with seven years of experience writing about a wide variety of topics. As a queer, trans, and autistic writer, they are particularly passionate about writing on gender issues and neurodivergence. Their work has been featured in LGBTQ Nation, Metro UK, and GameLand Media.