She had the look of a woman used to being looked at, even as she came into the room, sweeping her long black hair back over her shoulders. She is about sixty, and still striking. We started a conversation.
-What do you do?
-I’m afraid I am yet another academic.
“Oh, no,” I smiled theatrically. “Not another academic.”
Her specialism involves the cultural construction of gender.
-I’m trans. The cultural construction of gender particularly interests me.
-We must discuss it sometime.
I came out with my good line, When someone asks God, “What does ‘feminine’ mean?” God points at me. She said “Does he? Or she? Or whatever?” I felt put down. It is a good line. You look at me as if you might smile, slightly patronisingly, if a twelve year old said it- if the child had never before shown any sign of intelligence.
I don’t know why I mentioned trolling, or feminism, but I said how reassuring it was in this article to see a reference to how The volume and intensity of harassment is vastly magnified for women of colour and trans women and disabled women in trolling.
-Is it? she said, without assent. I felt this was like a challenge to an undergraduate, to back up her sources. I am not your student- and this is the only one of the three I have imagined any comeback on, even a day later:
-Yes. Trans women are particularly subject to misogyny, I should have said, claiming the word for mine, none of this “transmisogyny” rubbish as if attacks on trans women were in any way different, a word constructed as if to name misogyny from trans folk rather than at us.
“But you don’t like academics” she said sweetly. That still flummoxes me: anyone explaining irony, jocular and friendly though it was, looks a fool.
I felt bruised by this encounter. Conversation, I feel, should not be a joust, testing the other’s capacity. I was reassured walking today in the sunshine by the lake
(where a pair of geese flew round and round overhead, honking, and a drake chased a duck who only ever stayed a little way ahead of him. He got close and reared up in the water, flapping his wings)
by other people saying more than ‘hello’. “It’s coats off weather, isn’t it?” said one. “It’s really slippy here,” said another, smiling ruefully, indicating the steep, muddy slope. I smiled and assented, of course. Conversation is not for jousting but for establishing how we think and feel alike, how we fit together.
I don’t want, particularly, to classify that woman by one impression of her conversation, but might (as I try to imagine other people as real creatures, with different desires and methods) consider other possibilities for small talk. After establishing how we think and feel alike, we may laugh together, or exchange information, or sympathise; these things are more difficult after jousting. Though after a combative conversation, I might be better able to see the other as other.