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Green light

Or: Some things I realized about men once I finally admitted I wasn't one


Emily VanDerWerff

Mar 02 2020

21 min read


Content warning: Assorted sins of the patriarchy, but in particular a discussion of rape. I will mark the section where that discussion occurs, so you can skip over it if you want!

A few days ago, I was standing at a crosswalk in downtown LA, waiting for the light to change. The lunch rush was just beginning, so a healthy crowd of people waited at the light with me. I was at the front of the group, alongside several other women, and we were standing in front of a group of men, of various ages, in suits. I was on my phone, trying to talk to my wife sotto voce, so as not to spill our every marital secret to all of these strangers.

The instant the light changed, one of the men standing right behind me, said in a voice that had enough force to it to feel as if it nudged me in the back, “Green light!” It was not outwardly hostile, though it was definitely rude. And yet it was hostile. The man was declaring all of the space between him and the crosswalk his sovereign territory, and we were in it. The sooner we exited it, the sooner he could cross the street and go about his business.

I cast a look back at him as I reached the other side of the street. He had the casual air of someone who assumes he is understood. I was going to say “loved,” but that’s wrong, because he very well could have wanted to be feared. But either being loved or feared is a form of being understood by those around you, a form of seeing that could be desirable to someone who is in a great hurry. He was otherwise unremarkable. Just another older white man in a neighborhood full of them.

When I was living as a man, I became very conscious of the idea of how my physical presence would affect others around me, especially women. I remember the first time I heard about the phrase “manspreading,” and I thought to myself that I did not do that. I was over 6 feet tall and around 100 pounds heavier at that point in time, but what I wanted, more than anything, was to collapse myself into something so small it would not inconvenience anybody. I wanted to be tiny. I wanted to not exist.

What I’ve come to realize now that I live as a woman and am mostly read as a woman is that for as much as manspreading was a literal, physical thing that happens in the world, it’s also a metaphor for the assumption a man (especially a cisgender, straight white man) is welcomed to make by society that he is at the center of whatever narrative he wants to be.

It is an assumption about space, both physical and psychological, a deep down belief that the space between him and whatever he wants is automatically his, and if you disagree, you’d better be ready to fight for it. If you are in that space, minding your own business, though, best get out of his way. He doesn’t see you.

Green light.

Maria Dizzia stars in What the Constitution Means to Me. (Center Theater Group)

I saw Heidi Schreck’s marvelous play What the Constitution Means to Me here in Los Angeles at one of its final performances. I didn’t entirely know what to expect from it. I knew it was rooted in Schreck’s own history with the US Constitution, which she gave speeches about to American Legion halls around the west to earn scholarship money. I knew it was mostly a one-woman show. I knew it ended with Schreck debating a high school student about whether Constitution should be kept or abolished, though I had no concept of how any play could possibly incorporate high school debate.

I should note here that Schreck is not touring with the play, though one of the high schoolers from the Broadway production is, as is its other main actor, Mike Iveson. (I saw Los Angeles high schooler Jocelyn Shek, who is new to this production, debate at the production’s end.) But the role of “Heidi Schreck” is now played by Maria Dizzia, one of those actors who is a constant delight. She’s terrific here, and Schreck has tweaked the script to allow for the fact that Dizzia is not actually her.

Before the show, as I stood in line for the bathroom, the woman in front of me said she had brought her teenage son, because she believed, deeply, that every white teenage boy in the country should see this play. (There is a special pride that radiates off of a white Los Angeles woman who is aware of her son’s privilege.) That was not quite what I was expecting to hear. From the Tony Kushner pull quote emblazoned on the play’s poster, I was expecting something forthrightly political, a historical polemic, an exegesis on national themes. I was not expecting something every white teenage boy in the country should see. And maybe the mom was right.

What the Constitution Means to Me is a forthrightly political historical polemic that doubles as an exegesis on national themes. But it’s also not that. It’s a very personal story about a woman in pain, because the maternal side of her family tree radiates with pain. It’s also about that guy standing at the corner and blaring, “Green light” because he’s secure that we’ll listen to him. This is to say that the play is about the epidemic in this country of violence perpetrated by men against women. Late in the play, “Heidi” rattles off statistics of women hurt or killed by romantic partners — just women hurt or killed by romantic partners — and they are dizzying.

I don’t dare spoil precisely how these facts dovetail with Schreck’s personal narrative — especially since the Broadway production of it was apparently filmed and will air somewhere at some point — but its structure is interesting to me, because it’s a bifurcated argument. In one half of the show, “Heidi” argues for ditching the Constitution because it is a document that exists mostly to tell you what you cannot do, rather than what you can, that our rights are defined via a negative. Such a document is necessarily a document that the powerful will use to prop up the status quo, and such a document didn’t really acknowledge the personhood of women, of people of color, of indigenous Americans, until long after it should have.

But the other half of the show is arguing for keeping the Constitution. “Heidi” might be able to point to all of the ways the Constitution is used to disempower and disenfranchise anybody who’s not a white male landowner (the folks who originally were the only people who really gained rights from it), but she can also point to how her life has more freedoms than her mother’s life and how her mother’s life had more freedoms than her grandmother’s life and so on. The Constitution might be a zombie document (as Dizzia argued in her side of the concluding debate), but that zombie provides a continuity that ensures progress, haphazard and stuttering though it may be.

What’s cool is that you don’t really realize this is what Schreck’s script is doing until after you’ve left the theater. The best pieces of evidence the play presents both for ditching and keeping the Constitution are largely within its text, and Schreck’s greatest success is finding a way to take family memoir and make it feel searing, important, and political. I spent a lot of the play on the verge of tears, not because it was particularly sad (it’s very funny!) but because within it, I felt recognized and understood. Schreck’s story of generations of women having slightly better lives than the generation before could have been said by me, pretty much verbatim.

But could it have?

Shortly after I left Constitution, I texted a friend that I was convinced I should write a one-woman show. The text was at least partially a joke, but it was also at least partially serious, in the way every writing project I propose is. It is, of course, the height of hubris for a woman in her late 30s with no formal training in playwriting or performance to become convinced she could write a one-woman show just because she liked another one a lot, but also, is it?

Since coming out to myself, I have occasionally felt terrified that my ambition is not really my own but a gift from others that they are now foreclosing upon. Because the world perceived me as a man, the world saw me making a beeline for what I wanted and said, “Here! Have the thing!” because I was tall and confident and looked like I knew what I was doing. And yet the longer I live as a woman, the more I can feel the way that my opinion is discounted, that I am subtly shifted to the side in conversations, that I am dismissed without being dismissed.

What throws me about this is how frequently I have realized that a lot of my learned social behaviors are ones I observed in cis women growing up and adopted as my own. My style when speaking in large groups, for instance, was often to try to form a consensus before saying anything of meaning, to guard against the inevitable blowback by reminding everybody that we shouldn’t have blowback. I have now realized that I got this skill from long years imprinting specifically on my mother, who is an excellent manager of people’s expectations and emotions.

Trans women often bristle at the idea that we were “socialized male,” and the paragraph above explains why we bristle. The more I do this, the more I realize that, shit, I’ve just always been a woman, even when I didn’t realize it. The people I modeled myself on were women. The relationships I treasured most were with women. Even the high school romances that felt most significant to me were very specifically super queer in that fumbling way two girls might start making out and swear it’s not a thing.

I don’t think I was socialized male, because I don’t think my brain really understood what was happening when the rest of the world was trying to socialize me male. The male bonding I took part in always threw me for a loop, especially when my friends, believing no women to be around, would start talking about women. The terms didn’t even have to be explicitly crude! It could just be standard, “God, my girlfriend is a bitch!” complaining, and some part of my brain would chip in, “Hey, Gary, she’s a human being.”

But I also don’t know that I can say I was socialized female, because the handful of times I accidentally ended up doing stuff with other girls, everybody I knew, up to and including me, would decide that the intense friendship connection I felt must be romantic attachment. I didn’t feel this with guys, and I was attracted to women, so solve for X. And I certainly took note of the times throughout my career that I attained new heights easily where some of my talented lady colleagues struggled.

What I was was an ambitious young woman, but an ambitious young woman that the world perceived as an ambitious young man, which is to say I was treated a bit like a shark. I got away with stuff, and I got stuff, because nobody quite knew what to do with me, but they could see I had some talent. They also read me as ruthless when I was anything but, and that either scared or impressed them.

I used to tell my wife when we were both college students that if we walked in to class late, she should just act like we were supposed to be late. For a long time, that attitude struck me as fundamentally masculine in a way lots of my other attributes were not. But now I realize that some intrinsic part of me is just a little shit, and she thinks it’s endearing. She sees a one-woman show and assumes that the world will just let her make her own one-woman show. She has received no evidence to the contrary so far.

What I’m saying, I think, is that I’m not used to being told no, and because some part of my brain is an over-eager 13-year-old girl who’s just so happy to be alive at long last, she hasn’t learned what it is to hear no either. She sees only the green light, and she’s always startled to realize that other people think they have more of a right to it than her. So I’m learning.

If you thought I was getting through this post without a Great Gatsby reference… (Credit: Warner Bros.)

Content warning: There is discussion of rape in this section. Please skip to the next horizontal line if you want to keep reading the newsletter without reading about this topic.

There’s a moment in Constitution when “Heidi” turns the floor over to Iveson, who takes off the American Legion uniform he’s been wearing to that point and tells the crowd a story about a time that he, a gay man, aided and abetted the actions of violent patriarchy, in extremely minor fashion. It was a moment that was over and done with in a flash, and he has no idea what came after. But even he, a conscientious objector to the violent patriarchy ends up corrupted by it. We all do.

The longer I live as myself, the more I hear these stories from my best guy friends — the times when they found themselves unable to stop the way the wheel grinds people down, or, worse, found themselves cheering the wheel on because they thought that was what you did. I am not immune to this very problem.

About a decade ago, a very close friend of mine fell asleep next to a very drunk young woman, and then he woke up in the middle of the night — when she was still drunk — and decided to have sex with her. This was the George W. Bush era, so the cops were reluctant to push the case after the woman reported him, and she eventually gave up. But I remember the way that I was most concerned with whether my friend would be arrested, not with the wellbeing of a woman I had never met. He was my friend, so wasn’t the thing that he wanted more important than her personhood? (If this sounds familiar to longtime readers, I have also written about it here, in a longer discussion of this specific topic. A note: I wrote that newsletter when still presenting male to myself and the world.)

My friendship with him eventually deteriorated, but it’s taken me over a decade to finally just admit that, yeah, he is a rapist, and even beyond that, he was a pretty lousy human being, someone who genuinely believed the pain he had suffered as a nerdy virgin in high school entitled him to something great in adulthood, though he would never have put it that way. And I’m at least somewhat ashamed that my friendship with him deteriorated for reasons other than “briefly investigated for rape.”

But I do not think the excuses I made for my friend were necessarily indicative of some masculine impulse to protect my bro at all costs. I think anybody raised in this very specific American patriarchal stew that we all are can be susceptible to saying, of a friend, “Oh, they’re not one of the bad ones,” when they very clearly are. (You do not have to look very far for examples of other women doing this.) Even now, in my relationships with other women, there are occasional moments when somebody sounds an alarm bell about a lady friend, and I excuse it because I like hanging out with her so much.

Constitution spends a lot of time discussing how the US Constitution is largely a “negative rights” document, which is to say that it does not tell the government what it must do but, rather, tells the government what it can’t do. Think of the difference between, say, women getting the right to vote — something explicitly and deliberately conferred on us (though the wording the Constitution uses is framed in a negative rights context!) — versus the freedom of speech, in which it’s assumed that we have a certain freedom, and thus, it’s up to lawmakers not to trod on that freedom.

The more I think about the play and the document it’s named for, the more I think this negative rights quality is the longest lasting legacy of the fact that the document was written exclusively by men. It is a document written by people who saw a space they assumed they already occupied and forgot that there were other folks who were also there and just waiting to cross the street. It is a document that blares, “Green light!” and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but it is a complicated thing if you are not one of the people who wrote it.

I have, since living full time as a woman, learned fear. When I encounter a man walking alone late at night, I bristle a little, not because I assume he means me harm, but because I can feel the way it would be so easy for him to not see me. My best guy friends are doing the hard work of learning how to take up less space, but even they are not immune to the moment when somebody is in the place they want to be, and they’ve just gotta get there now, now, now.

It’s not even that I feel evil intent from men I meet, because I don’t. But I lived among them for a long time. I know, deep down, how too many of them see me. I feel a little tingling at the back of my neck that is so many of their assumptions about what it means to be alive, what it means to be themselves, which is to say not what it means to be me. I can feel this in their politeness, even, in their attempts to be completely safe and nonthreatening. I can feel the way that if push came to shove, I simply wouldn’t matter in their eyes, and it scares me.

As I left the theater where Constitution had been performed, a man descending the staircase a few steps behind me was loudly complaining to his friends that the “stupid old woman” who had judged whether Dizzia or Shek “won” that evening’s debate had been too cluttered by her own biases to properly judge the outcome of the debate. “You’re just supposed to judge who did the best,” he said, “and not bring your own biases into it.” I noticed the other women around me casting looks over at him, clocking his exact location in the crowd. I did, too.

Often, I will walk home from the theater, but walking that far, in the dark, increasingly feels like a bad idea. I took the train instead, checking each and every person who stepped on and pulling my purse close.

Later, when I was almost home, I saw a single guy walking down the sidewalk toward me. He gave me the nonthreatening smile, the universal symbol of, “I’m just fine, and you’re just fine, and we can share this sidewalk, pleasant lady, for I am a pleasant man.” I smiled back, but I still got all the way over and let him go by. I was almost home. I could wait.


Annoying public service announcement: If you found this post at all edifying, will you smash that like or share button? It apparently helps me get “internet points,” whatever those are, and builds my #brand. Ty 2 all my lovely friends and subscribers.

Annoying public service announcement 2: If you didn’t back the second season of my podcast Arden, you still can! Because we met our original funding goal, the curious can still purchase our various perks over the next several weeks. If you’re interested in trans stories, told by trans people, well, this season (with two trans writers in our room — including me, obviously — and several trans people in our cast) qualifies. We more than met our goal, but every little bit you can spare helps, and we have some cool perks, including the ability to make me review some dumb bullshit in this very newsletter!

What I’ve been up to: I didn’t publish anything last week, a thing that is filling me with a creeping terror! But I have two big pieces that will hopefully go up this week, so be on the lookout for those. For one of them, I got to visit the Bon Appetit test kitchen! In lieu of my being able to share that piece, please enjoy this photo from BEHIND THE SCENES.

Read me: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this 2011 essay on Ulysses S. Grant by Adam Cadre (one of my favorite bloggers) for reasons that will become apparent if you read it. It remains one of my favorite things ever published online.

It's true that Grant was an outsider, and that Washington has always been very clubby. But Lincoln had been an outsider as well, and he'd found ways to co-opt factions and play them off each other. Grant, on the other hand, alienated one of the big cliques, a group of intellectual libertarians who came to call themselves the Liberal Republicans, to such an extent that they and not the Democrats wound up opposing Grant in the 1872 election. Their basic stance was that with the Civil War over, the United States could return to those fabled days when the halls of power had been the domain of virtuous men of ideas who governed with a light hand. Grant was emblematic of everything they opposed. He was a rustic man of very few ideas; to the extent that he had any kind of vision, it was of a centralized, homogenous country that was odious to them. Far from governing with a light hand, he had what they saw as an imperious style — as if the U.S. should annex the Dominican Republic just because he said so! hmpf! — and, oh yeah, his army currently occupied half the country. (Though some of the Liberal Republicans had been abolitionists, with slavery officially banned they wanted Reconstruction ended immediately.) And as for virtue, just look at that list of scandals. Grant certainly hadn't listened to their recommendations.

And he hadn't. Grant considered the Liberal Republicans feckless and effete (and the country seemed to agree: they got walloped in the election). Grant had thrown in his lot with a different group. As Hugh McCulloch, Treasury Secretary both before and after Grant, wrote: "For rich men he had great respect; for poor men, no matter how distinguished they might be by intellectual attainments, he had but little regard." In those anxious years before the war, it wasn't men of erudition or virtue whom Grant had envied, who seemed in an objective, undeniable way to be his betters. It was the rich. So that was to whom, even as president, he deferred. The problem is that the rich are, by and large, awful human beings. Awfulness is what capitalism selects for.

Watch me: My friend Film Crit Hulk has a new video essay that breaks down Star Wars scene by scene to explain why it works so well. I don’t like Star Wars nearly as much as him, but this is a really smart way to approach the YouTube video essay that I’m surprised somebody else hasn’t gotten to already. Check it out!

And another thing… Twitter accounts that combine some viral video footage with a variety of pop hits never fail to amuse me, and this is my favorite one of those in quite some time.

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This week’s reading music: “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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