I have been attacked for who I am my entire life. Whether verbal slurs, the sting of a rock on my back in the high school courtyard, or the humiliation of someone spitting in my face from the top deck of the bus, homophobic violence has been an ever present form of punctuation to what, otherwise, is a generally joyful life.
What’s worse than perhaps the abuse is the resignation in the fact that daily abuse is a typical factor in my, many of my friends’, and most oppressed minorities’ lives. Growing up with a constant barrage of verbal and semi-physical attacks being an unquestionable part of your day to day, you become hardened to it. You learn the quickest quips and the most direct come-backs to regular shouts of ‘faggot’ or ‘die of AIDS’ or ‘bender’, and these comebacks come to roll off your tongue as if you were ordering a coffee or saying hello.
But this time last year I was attacked in a different way. Heading back from a drag night my drag girl band and I had performed at, my boyfriend (who is also a member of aforementioned drag band) and I were accosted by some guys outside our front door waving around a bottle of vodka. The usual ensued: homophobic slurs from mouths whose attached bodies were emanating aggressive body language. So, we did what we always do: we yelled back.
Within seconds, a lone warrior from the enemy group leapt across the street and in one powerful punch to the right eye socket I was floored, spurting with blood in volumes I’ve never seen come from my body. By the time I had come to, the group of men in crisis had split the scene and we were left to clean up the mess and head to hospital. This occurrence, unfortunately, is not one limited to drag queens on dark streets in East London — countless friends have experienced much the same thing.
The news of the attack was met with the usual support, love, affection and anger from friends and family. Perhaps the most distressing thing was that while this bro with the fists got away into the night to enjoy another round of shots with his mates, my friends and I had to deal with the anxiety and anger a situation like that brings about for the following months. And, so, the labour of his toxic, fragile masculinity fell onto us: the already de-privileged folk.
At university I was, for want of not trying to sound like a big headed asshole, kind of known for the way I dressed. It wasn't always good — there was a phase where I wore nothing but a nun’s cassock and a dip-dyed wig, and another where I wore teeny tiny dresses held-back by body harnesses to my Veterinary Anatomy practicals (don’t worry, I quit the vet thing in favour of said dresses). But that was my thing: for as long as I can remember, I used dress as a means of provocation, as a means to visualise my queer subjectivity and show, if not scream to, the world that I am a present queer person who exists and should be taken note of.
I was thinking back to the way I was at university last week when I was in Topshop, holding a blue and white striped women's shirt with floppy cuffs. Old me would have snapped it up, along with a ton of other things that I would wear once and then exile to the back of my ethically questionable overflowing wardrobe. But holding this shirt, I was having a block, and it dawned on me right there in Topshop that I’d been having a year-long block. I realised that over the last year, my wardrobe had become monotonal: all-black everything, oversized if not drowning, and zero accessories. I’d even let my hair grow back to its usual mousy brown shade, instead of bleached blonde, blue, pink. I realised I could pinpoint the day I had stopped dressing how I wanted to dress, and it was a year ago, the day after the attack.
It seems blindingly obvious now, but there by the shirts in Topshop I let out a load of tears: tears that were representative of not only years of deep fear for my physical safety, but also of sadness for the fact that this punch to the right side of my face banged into me what the less violent of the daily attacks on my person were trying to for all those years. That I should be invisible, silent, unchallenging, ashamed, covered up.
I got to thinking more – about how myself and my friends who experience similar violence against their personhood have spent our entire lives protecting fragile male egos for fear of being hurt. We have all battled and battled with people who just want to keep us safe: caring friends and family who ask us sweetly "not to wear that". To which we defensively tell them that we are fine, and we can wear what we want, and the dicks who have a problem with us can shut up. But they don’t always. And when they don’t it’s frightening, and it hurts.
What’s more, it makes you believe that there actually might be something wrong with your behaviour, with you, and with the way you present. No matter how hard you’ve tried and how many years you’ve fought to just wear a fucking heeled shoe, you internalise, you mutate out of yourself and into the ‘acceptable you’, and you don’t really even notice.
My friend, Vee Maskimova, an activist with the East London Stripper’s Collective, who has also experienced abuse for the way she dresses, put it this way: “I think everyone should just mind their own business but we know that won't happen so I honestly just ignore the haters. They must be so unhappy if they have time to judge others – I don't have time to be a hater and neither should anyone. We have a short life to make the most of, so why waste it on investing your energy in others who treat you badly? It makes no sense to me. People should focus on their own s**t and just be happy."
Vee is inspiring in her approach, and it’s an empowering action to be able to ignore said haters. The saddest thing for me is that I feel the same, but every time I hear a stray yell, I still flinch, stay silent, and scurry to some doorway or alley to catch my breath.
After about four minutes at the shirt rail in Topshop, a sales assistant came over and offered me a tissue. I said ‘no, thanks’ and, while wiping away the tears: ‘but I will take this shirt.’
The irony of this being literally a blue shirt is not lost on me: I am a million miles away from where I was. But in that choice I decided to make a further choice to chip away at that internalised, wrong-put self-loathing and fear, and rebuild both the confidence and the wardrobe that will get me noticed once more. People often say “they’ll spot you for the wrong reasons”, but there are no wrong reasons, just wrong, homophobic people. You, whatever you wear, look iconic.