Strangers & Staring

I have a sabbatical next year for 3 months. 3 glorious months of no work and, right now, no plans. Recently, the idea of spending as much time as possible outdoors has crossed my mind. Nature fills me up and centers me so spending as much time within it seems ideal.

There’s a catch though when I look up travel destinations due to being a queer woman. For example, when I was planning a trip partially to Spain and Portugal last year a friend suggested I visit Morocco. It made sense being so close to Spain to take a quick trip. In my usual fashion, I looked up LGBTQ rights in Morocco:

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Morocco and can be punished with anything from 6 months to 3 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 120 to 1,200 dirhams.

Cross that off the list. Add in traveling alone as a woman and the research I have to do adds up. I would love to roam freely without fear but I think it’s important to talk about this other side of travel and planning. This includes traveling within the US. Since cutting my hair off I feel safer in some ways. I tend to be far more invisible in most crowds as I can pass as likely just being a short dude. The last time I was home, I went into a breakfast restaurant with one of my best friends. He’s Chinese American. Upon walking in, we were glared at by every single table we passed. It was bizarre to be in my hometown with a dear friend at a restaurant I went to growing up and be so examined. When we reached our table, my friend was floored “What just happened?!”. This never happened when we were together and I had long hair.

At the gym last night, I was on an ab machine finishing up a workout. I time my rest between sets so I often have my phone out on my lap to keep an eye on the time. As I was on my second to last set, I noticed an older white man staring at me a mere 3 feet away. I glanced up and made eye contact before shying away. When the time was up for my rest, I continued on feeling this man’s eyes on me the entire time. He began to pace still staring. My set finished and I started the timer on my phone for a rest break then I stared straight at him unwavering. I did not smile. I did not show kindness. I met the stare he gave me equally.

“Do you need something?”

He then accused me of texting: “Well I was hoping I could work in while you were texting.”

I cut him off: “I’m not texting. I’m timing my breaks. I have one more set left.”

I continued to stare directly at him. He tried to push again to work in on my set. I said no. I VERY rarely ever see men working in with other men and, if I do, it’s because they are often gym buddies or the gym is packed. The gym was not packed. This was not my gym buddy. This was someone who felt their workout and their needs were more important than mine despite me being on the machine. I wanted to sit there and text novels but I’ve still been conditioned enough as a woman not to be that much of an inconvenience.

When my last set finished, I stood up slowly and waited for him to approach before saying, “I cannot begin to tell you how truly creepy it is as a woman to be stared at by a man at the gym. I’m just trying to workout.”

He stammered that he wasn’t staring. I repeated what I said and added in, “Next time, say something. Don’t stare. It’s far less creepy.” I could tell he felt caught so I left it at that before walking away.

In Chicago, I was walking down a street filled with adorable, expensive boutiques when suddenly a man popped out of a shop.

“YOUR HAIR! Girl, you look amazing. Whoever cuts your hair is doing you so many favors. You are ROCKING it.”

A giant smile formed on my face while the feelings of not being comfortable with compliments grew. I thanked him and answered his question that “yes, my hair is actually this color.” As we walked away, I heard him comment to himself, “Ooof she is adorable!”

Humans are strange. Interactions with strangers have so much power sometimes. Since starting to nomad, I’ve been way more in tune with how those interactions go because they often are what keep me afloat. They might make up 80% of my human interactions for the day. I’m still learning how to navigate the world I live in safely and to provide a safe place for others. I hope I’m able to be a positive influence on those I interact with but I have no doubt I do things that make others uncomfortable. I’m sure the man at the gym walked away just as shaken as I was. Is that okay? Will that help him perhaps be better to others at the gym in the future? I’m not sure. Part of social learning is going through painful moments of getting things wrong so you learn to do them right next time. This has both positive and negative effects of course. Sometimes you learn to do things you shouldn’t and have to somehow realize you need to push back.

I’ve found that while I don’t get stared at by strangers as much these days with shorter hair that when I do it’s inevitably on either sides of the spectrum. It’s either folks complimenting me or deep, scary, unnerving stares by unsmiling men. Even if I smile, they stare back. I’d still take this new reality over my previous one of being touched, sometimes grabbed, and objectified to my face by the wide swaths of men I came across routinely. Pick your poison I guess :).


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