He doesn’t notice his eyes wandering across my body. He pauses on my sharp jawline, catching a glimpse of stubble so golden blonde you can only see it when sunlight hits it. His eyes travel down towards my breasts and then back up to my face.
Before I look at him in the eye, I take him in: his white face, his short cropped hair and the sunnies dangling from the buttonhole in his shirt. For a moment he holds my gaze, confused and hungry.
He waits for something to give it away – my voice, my posture, my expression. I look back. Am I the Minotaur to him – hairy and horned, muscular and violent?
In The Oppositional Gaze, bell hooks writes:
I remember being punished as a child for staring, for those hard intense direct looks children would give grown ups [...] Imagine the terror felt by the child who has come to understand through repeated punishments that one’s gaze can be dangerous. The child who has learned so well to look the other way when necessary. Yet, when punished, the child is told by parents “Look at me when I talk to you.” Only, the child is afraid to look.
Growing up, I knew I’d really done it when my mother would stop mid-sentence, leave the house and slam the door behind her. She’d be gone anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. Then she’d come back, take her seat in the lounge and summon me from wherever I had been hiding. I would sit down across from her and she would light up a cigarette and stare; her lips razor thin, her hands working ritualistically back and forth, ferrying the cigarette to her mouth. Smoke curling out of her nose.
Wilful, I would stare back; petulant, defiant, defensive, terrified. As insolent as I was, the act of looking back burned, every time.
For a woman to look back at a man – to hold the gaze of a man who is looking at her – it is both a challenge and an act of shaming. It demands of him the question: who are you to look at me?
On a train home one night, a man began to watch me. It was a type of watching that, by design, was supposed to fuck with me, to put me in my place. Slumped comfortably in his seat, arms crossed and legs spread, he looked at me like this was a theatre – like he’d payed for me to perform and he was here to get his dollar’s worth; he was the type who would write a bad review, no matter what you did.
I looked back at him, something that usually works to shame someone who looks, but he didn’t turn away. I held his gaze as long as I could before my anxiety consumed me like a wave. I went into my backpack, pulled out my sketchpad, and began drawing him openly. Caught in my gaze, he looked away. Unsatisfied and furious, I kept sketching. He shifted in his seat. He began glancing at me furtively. By the next stop, he got off the train.
Growing into my own artistic practice, I now realise that creating work from people on the street; of sketching them, of painting them; is one that is incredibly common. This is not just among my peers, who have readily confessed to sketching people in public as I do, but one look at the work of Adrian Tomine, for instance, and it’s impossible to imagine a world where he, too, is not snatching glances at the people around him.
To paraphrase bell hooks, critical black female spectatorship emerges as a site of resistance only when there is push back against the imposition of dominant ways of knowing and looking – when there is participation in a broad range of looking relations by contesting, resisting, and inventing our own gaze. This resistance comes from being conscious in the act of looking.
When that man watched me on the train, he was making explicit for both of us the act of his looking. I was the object to his subject. When I returned the gaze by sketching him, the subject-object relationship was not reversed, necessarily, but matched. Through my gaze as an artist, I was enforcing my agency as a human and asserting my reality as the centre of my own existence outside of his. Like Medusa, I was capturing him, turning him into stone.
The phrase is ‘to take a look’ because there is an act of taking. Whenever I have been caught looking at a subject I am sketching, I am wholly aware of the power exchange that happens.
Foucault, in adapting Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon – a disciplinary institution in which inmates are under constant surveillance, unable to tell when they are being watched and, as such, behave as though they are being watched at all times – expanded the implications of what the feeling of being watched does to us to our concept of society and to the ways we behave in public:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
In other words, to know you are being watched catapults you into a space of hypervisibility. The person who is watching you becomes a stand-in for the whole of society.
That feeling of being watched, if it is constant, means that you eventually police yourself; you become aware of your actions and any subsequent fallout that you may incur from them. You ‘watch yourself’ – a saying that my mother would give me if I was trying her patience.
A woman passes me at reception and waggles her eyebrows at me, telling me I’m handsome. On her way back out she catches sight of my curving chest and calls me beautiful, then handsome, boy then girl. Flustered, she has accidentally queered herself on me. I am now the object of upset, the thing she is attracted to and the thing that troubles attraction.
By virtue of my existence alone she has revealed herself to me and to herself. In a spiralling fashion, she is surprised by my body, then by her attraction to me. She suddenly must contend with whatever that surprise might say about her. Finally, like a gymnast nailing a complex finish, she realises that her surprise can be read on her face and she finishes with a cocktail of embarrassment and shame.
As a result, she oscillates between being apologetic and flustered before she hurries out the door. Women who queer themselves on me almost always go through this spiral of confusion and self revelation. They are ashamed to be attracted to me, so I, by proxy, am an object of troubled attraction.
Having my gender bend and shift through time, a look – and my relationship to looking – bends and shifts with it. Unlike this instance, most interactions yield no clear indication on which side of the gender-fence I am being placed. The absence of this crucial information puts me constantly at a disadvantage as, perhaps without being aware of it, all our interactions are contextualised by gender. For instance, where sustained eye contact from a man used to be most often about sex, it is now more likely to be in relation to violence.
It is late Saturday morning and I am on my way to town. The train is busy, but not packed. A man takes the seat next to me. I feel the hairs of my leg stroke gently against his. I feel his body stiffen next to me and he shifts minutely away from me in his seat. He gets up and waits at the door for the next stop. He makes a point to stare at me. I can see him through my sunglasses, out of the corner of my eye. A look from me would acknowledge this infinitesimally small, sexually laden communication. A look from me would almost certainly end in a fist to the face.
If only I looked how I used to. I miss that desirability capital that I had, if only to manoeuvre around the relentless demands of men.
To both men and women, I am a chimera, a gender hybrid, a technological leap, a freakish monstrosity. People look at me for longer and with very little shame now. I am a thing, to them; a puzzle they happened across that they use to keep their mind busy on the way to work. These days, when I catch them, neither men nor women look away. They stare like they’re in a stupor, slack jawed and hazy eyed. I pass them on the street and feel their eyes on me, that familiar burning as their gaze slips down my body and back up again. I will sometimes beat them away with my eyes twice, three times as they creep back for seconds and thirds.
Who are you to look at me? Who are you to look at me?
When women look, I feel isolated by their hostility. As I am, I am ostracised from the sisterhood. Before, when a man was stepping into our space or leaving his bags all over the seats, we would catch each other’s eyes and roll our own in a quiet solidarity. If I saw a girl or woman uneasy, I could signal to her with a look, asking if she wanted help and she would feel comfortable signalling back yes or no. Now, these interactions are grenades. To exist in this body is like to have all the passwords to a kingdom I am no longer welcome in.
It is strange to acknowledge it, but I could feel these shifts in the interactions as my shoulders stretched out and my jawline widened. They started noticing the thick, fine hair on my legs, my shaped, elegant nails. They noticed the light makeup and the product in my hair that keeps it swept back. They noticed the middle-aged-lesbian Birkenstocks and the frat boy chinos on my neither-of-those-things body.
Knowing what I do, when women look at me and I look back hard, I find it fraught. I know how I straddle the fence of man and woman. When I look back at women, it’s never a clear-cut. The linear line between underdog and overlord is corrupted. They have power over me, but they don’t know that. If they think I am a man, then I am that man on the train. I am threatening. If they read me as freak, then the power they hold won’t feel like power to them as they will fear me. They’ve unwittingly cast me as ‘the monster’ and my disgust at this role will only ever be interpreted as aggression.
Because of this, I am in a no-win situation. By not pushing back against the people who look at me, I feel complicit in my own victimisation.
My body is a site of constant mourning. Under a stranger's eyes, it is the site where my womanhood dies and my manhood miscarries. In the eyes of others, I am offered only narratives of the monster.
Coming into my gender transition felt like experiencing a siren song. The rocks were jutting out in the surf, sharp and apparent to everyone but I was compelled forward despite myself. I find myself still swimming forward, still chasing that song. No one knows really if there is something inherent in gender. We only know that – cis and trans people alike – there is something overwhelming and compulsive drawing us to the things we are. Being non-binary in one’s person feels like that satisfaction you feel when unravelling a jumper by pulling on a stray thread. Being non-binary in body feels like I am everything and nothing to the world. A god of body and gender, and a monster of the highest decree. I stand between strangers and they look at me, skittish, unsure, defensive and afraid. They see something in me, but they are not sure what. They want to touch my face and they are terrified of doing so.
It is clear, now. I am the Sphinx.
Fury is a despicable changeling creature birthed from the sulphur swamps of greater New Zealand, currently inhabiting the desolate desert landscapes of Melbourne’s CBD. It is not advised to read their guileful work as their words encourage restless sleep.