In-Gendered Empathy

by Max Sirak

Recently I embarked on an unexpected and enlightening adventure.

I went to Las Vegas with four of my oldest friends to see some music. The band, Phish, was playing for a four night run at the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena and we decided to meet up and attend. It also happened to be over Halloween.

For those unfamiliar, Phish is a four-piece band that owes its legacy to the Grateful Dead. Their fans are fiercely loyal and regularly tour with the band, traveling from location to location and seeing as many concerts as they can. This is because Phish shows are fun

They’re equal parts concert and carnival. Beach balls and balloons bounce around the room when the band plays. The fans are engaged. They dress up in costumes. They make signs in hopes of encouraging the group to play certain songs. At a peak musical moment, the crowd spontaneously begins throwing hundreds, if not thousands, of Glow Sticks around the venue. This is called a “Glow Stick War.”

The concerts are between three and four hours. There’s no opening act and always a set-break (intermission). The music is largely instrumental and is accompanied by one of the best light shows in the business.

In preparation for the trip, a group text emerged. There were all sorts of details to hash out. Flight times, hotel reservations, and Halloween costumes were all discussed. It was quickly decided we’d dress up differently for each evening.

Night one, Halloween proper, we went as Team Zissuo from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. Our choice was well received. Several people asked us if the interns got glocks.

Disco was on the docket for the second night. I was quite fond of my velvet-Purple Rain-esque shirt. I’d like to think I wore it well.

On night three, our gang decided to step it up. So we stepped out in “hippie girl drag.” And that’s what I’d like to spend the rest of the column talking about…

It Was a Tale of Two Sets

The night started with Wacker, my friend who supplied all our costumes, saying,“Have at it, gentlemen.” With a flourish, out came five different dresses and wigs and a suitcase full of accessories.

Having never worn a dress, I was at a bit of a loss as which to choose. So, I went with my gut. Lilac has long been my go-to for formal wear and I found myself following suit. The light purple halter dress was calling my name. As for accessories, I was drawn to a pair of periwinkle fairy wings and a matching boa.

The car ride to the show was uneventful. As was our walk through the MGM Grand casino. We five did turn some heads (I’d like to think is it was because we looked so damn good…) and I caught a couple gawks. My favorite was a mother who grabbed her smiling and pointing five- year-old son, hugged him close, and shielded his eyes.

Inside the arena was completely different. There, it was all “Hell yeah!” and high-fives, “Lookin’ good” and laughs. Again, like I said, it’s a festive atmosphere. People go see Phish to have fun and celebrate.

Set One

We had “floor seats,” which is to say, we didn’t have seats at all, we were standing on floor. It was crowded. It was hot. If you’ve never been to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, trust me when I tell you well ventilated isn’t a phrase I’d use to describe it.

Within the first ten minutes of the band taking the stage, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Hey,” yelled the girl behind me as she leaned in. “Could I get you to take off your wings? They’re blocking my view.” Not being one to like putting others out, I happily obliged.

The rest of the first set passed pleasantly. The music was great. Two observations danced through my mind while I danced to the music:

This is cool.

I wasn’t talking about the evening so far or what was happening on stage. I was literally talking about my back and shoulders. They were exposed. And as I, like all the rest of the people there, was dancing my face off in an 80 degree room packed shoulder-to-shoulder, I appreciated having mine uncovered.

This feels nice.

On average each square inch of the skin contains about 1000 nerve endings. And, because I dress in stereotypical “male” fashion, my nerve endings are usually relegated to the regulars – cotton, denim, or wool.

I’m not sure what exactly the dress was of made of, but it felt good. It was soft, slinky, luxurious. I’m not sure my skin had ever felt such things.

After about a hundred minutes of face-forward-funky-rock-and/or-roll the band wrapped up their first set. The house lights went up and all us floor folk began to file into the lobby to get drinks and hit the bathroom. On the way out one guy ambling next to me said, “Dude – you’re a genius. I bet that’s comfortable as hell….”

Societal Issues At Set Break

Our merry band of five split up during intermission. Two of us went to renew their booze. The remaining three bee-lined to the bathroom. I was part of the troika.

Up to this point, we’d all stuck together. And for good reason. I quickly learned there was a security and safety in our numbers.

Making our way to the bathroom meant venturing upstairs. There was only one way up and lots of people trying to use it. This meant there was a bit of a traffic jam. 

“After you, guys,” said someone else angling for the escalators. “Wait. I’m sorry. Is it guys? Ladies? I didn’t mean to offend you. Which pronoun do you prefer?” they asked, genuinely.

And perhaps this is my ignorance, or cis-privilege, but I can honestly say up until this point the whole issue of pronouns and gender hadn’t even crossed my mind. Seeing the honest distress on their face, and not really knowing the answer myself, I just smiled. “Dude – it’s cool. You’re good,” I said with a laugh. “Either one is fine.”

In hindsight, I see now this exchange was a prelude of things to come.

To the Men’s room I went. It wasn’t even a question. I’d always identified as a man and tonight was no different, attire aside.

Phish’s crowd is distinctly unbalanced. The ratio of guys to gals is probably 70-30. This means there was a line to use the bathroom.

(Here we need to take a sociology break. For those who don’t spend much time in men’s rooms, there’s an archetype who I’ll call “the Urinal Jester.” These are people who like to crack jokes or make conversations in crowded bathrooms, presumably to lighten the mood or pass the time and are usually found at sporting events or concerts.)

After waiting patiently, it was my turn to go. So, I stepped up to the urinal. Behind me, from somewhere in the back of the restroom by the sound of it, I hear, “Who – wee! There’s some boys in here who’ve seen some dicks tonight. I see one in purple, I see one in blue, I see one in green. How many dicks you think they seen?”

I froze.

No. I mean literally. It was instant stage fright.

I let my dress fall back down, did an about-face, and walked out through the crowded room, avoiding any and all eye contact.

My night had changed.

Second Set

I spent the rest of the concert, which amounted to roughly two more hours, stuck in my head.  I replayed the bathroom incident over again and again. I couldn’t let it go. I was half-heartedly dancing to the music, but mostly lost in thought. My mind had a mind of its own.

Thank god, there was no encouragement.

Positive responses and reactions embolden. Luckily, no one else in the crowded bathroom encouraged the Urinal Jester, which I’m guessing is what they’re always after with their antics, a reaction. Preferably laughter.

What would have happened if the Jester was encouraged?

Had there been a response, laughter or another comment, what would have happened?

Would it have escalated?

Would there have been shouts of “Leave ‘em alone!” or “Shut up!”?

Would it have turned confrontational?

Would it have descended into violence?

What would I have done?

What if I were directly attacked verbally?

Physically?

What would I do if roles were reversed, if I was a bystander and saw this happen?

Anything?

Then I shivered.

A tremendous chill swept over my body. Even though nothing about my physical environment had changed, I was still in the same stale, sweaty arena, still surrounded by the same thousands of people dancing but the way I experienced the place totally changed.

I’d never felt so vulnerable.

During the first set I was enamored with how good it felt to be in that hot room with my shoulders and back exposed. Now, I hated it. I was cold. I didn’t feel safe. All it took was one random negative comment. In an evening of positive responses, it was the single negative one that stuck and struck. There’s a line in David McRaney’s book You Are Now Less Dumb about this very phenomena.

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism?  A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days.”

One hypothesis of why this happens has to do with cognitive dissonance. All the positives align with and fit into the mental model we have about ourselves. So they slip by seamlessly. Negative doesn’t. Like a scratched record it replays over and over.

After The Show

As the house lights went up and the cheers of the crowd began to fade, we made our way out of the venue. Eventually, we found our way to a bar on the casino floor and ordered drinks. Wacker, who engineered our hippie girl outfits for the evening, raised his glass.

“I just want to say, I’m real proud to call each and everyone of you a friend. At no point during the discussions for the night did any single one of you raise any reservations.” He went around the circle pointing to each of us in turn. “Not the operations manager, not the writer, not the business owner, not the anesthesiologist. And that says something.”

Clink went our respective bottles and glasses.

Later that night, I found myself walking next to Wacker. “So,” he asked, “what’d you think?”

I proceeded to tell him what I wrote here in this column.

“It’s crazy, right?” he said. “All the things we take for granted. All the privileges we enjoy we never think about. This is probably the fourth time I’ve been out dressed this way. Can you imagine if this was your everyday?”

I couldn’t.

“Trans people need all our compassion and empathy.”

They say you don’t know what it’s like to be someone until you walk in their shoes.

I won’t sit here and pretend my couple hours out and about, in the umbra of Halloween, crossdressing at a carnival full of colorful characters, comes anywhere close to walking in a trans person’s shoes. At best, I might have tried on a pair and taken a step. Might.

But I’ll tell you what – Wacker’s right.

Kindness. Love. Respect. Empathy. To all the trans community.

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