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When Mitch Graffeo entered Dupont’s Fab Lounge shortly before closing on Feb. 28, he hadn’t been to a lesbian club in more than a decade. Graffeo, 40, was only stopping in to pick up a friend, 29-year-old Jamie, at the conclusion of the gay bar’s weekly lesbian night. Graffeo and Jamie, both transgender men, were two of only a handful of men in a club full of women. As the lights went up, a group of women took a sudden interest in Jamie. Slim and boyish, Jamie had only recently begun to transition from female to male, and they wanted to know what he was.
Graffeo watched the women surround Jamie. “They were grabbing him, saying, ‘What are you, a boy or a girl?’” Graffeo says. “They were very interested and excited, grabbing his crotch and his chest,” says Graffeo. When Jamie asked the women to leave him alone, they closed in tight around him. Jamie “wiggled his way out,” and the two men funneled toward the door with the rest of the last-call crowd.
Once outside, one of the women refused to let her curiosity subside. “She jumped on his back a bit and put him in a headlock,” says Graffeo. Then, she reopened the line of questioning. “She was saying, ‘What are you, come on, tell me, what the fuck,’” Graffeo says. Jamie wiggled out again. The woman persisted.
When Graffeo stepped between them, the woman “tried to punch around” him. Graffeo pulled out his cell phone and announced he was calling the police. The woman grabbed the phone from his hand and used it to pound Graffeo in the head and neck. “She said, ‘You’re not calling anybody,’” Graffeo says. Meanwhile, “a second gal was just pummeling Jamie, hitting him on his head, his neck, his arms.” Soon, a car pulled up, and the women jumped inside. Jamie was left with bruises and a concussion. A week later, “he’s still purple,” says Graffeo. “He’s not black and blue, he’s purple all over.”
Graffeo had good reason to skip out on lesbian bars over the past decade—he hasn’t identified as a lesbian since he underwent his physical transition to male almost seven years ago. Jamie, on the other hand, only recently began the shift between outward identities—and social groups. To the group of women who attacked the pair, Jamie was a lesbian on his way to becoming a heterosexual man, and a prime target for ridicule. Graffeo, who is readily recognizable as male, was just a heterosexual man who got in the way.
The many transgender men who identified with the lesbian community before living as heterosexual men are introduced to a range of societal prejudices. As women, they are discriminated against for their masculinity. As transitioning men, they are harassed for their androgyny. But when society finally accepts them as men, they can be afforded social privilege. Last year, the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy published a study that found that post-transition, transgender men ended up earning more in the workplace, while transgender women saw their earnings fall by almost a third.
“From my experience—and I know a lot of trans guys who say this—it is pretty easy for us to slip into society, as easy as that type of thing can be,” says Graffeo. “And we hear that criticism a lot. But never has anybody ever said they transitioned in order to improve their status in life. That’s just how it happens sometimes.”
The social shift can breed resentment in the circles trans men leave behind. Rebecca Trinite, 27, a graduate student who raised the incident for discussion on local blog the New Gay, says the sentiment is a familiar one. “I think there is a general discomfort with gender ambiguity in any sense—especially with transitioning,” she says. “There are some women who think that trans men are trying to gain some type of privilege by becoming men, and there’s a big misunderstanding and ignorance there.” Trinite says she posted Graffeo’s and Jamie’s story in order to “let community members know that this sort of behavior was unacceptable.” A Washington Blade story on the attack was met with less constructive criticism. Wrote one commenter: “If you are so ashamed of being gay that you have to change your gender so that you can be ‘straight’ then why not go to ‘straight’ clubs? If you no longer identify as gay then why continue going to gay clubs? Lesbians are attracted to other women, not men who used to be women.”
Before transgender men can enjoy resentment over their male privilege, they sometimes endure more classic anti-gay harassment. Jamie, a man who looked too much like a woman for his assailant’s taste, fits the typical victim profile of violence against the GLBT community; Graffeo now passes as masculine enough to escape a hate-motivated beating. According to Chris Farris, co-founder of Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence, “the attack on Jamie was a hate crime. From my communications with Mitch, the case on him was probably not,” he says. “A hate crime is based on whether the motivation behind the attack is based on a victim’s actual or perceived inclusion in a protected group. The attackers probably assumed that [Graffeo] was not trans, so his assault was probably not motivated by any antipathy against the trans community. That doesn’t mean they weren’t attacking him for being a man, or because they perceived him as heterosexual, but that’s too soon to say.”
The scenario is unlikely. In 2007, the FBI recorded 690 bias-motivated assaults based on sexual orientation nationwide. Of that number, 422 were committed against gay men, 85 were against lesbians, and only eight were against heterosexuals. Though the FBI does not collect data on assaults based on gender expression, Farris says that in D.C., violence against gay women and transgender individuals is more likely to slip under the media and activist radar. “Most of the victims that have come to our attention and reached out to GLOV have been gay men,” he says. “GLOV has no way of knowing who a victim is unless we see a name in print or unless someone contacts us directly.”
But the skewed data do not mean that GLBT women are less likely than their male counterparts to be the victims of violence. Less sensational forms of violence within the community—domestic violence, verbal abuse, prostitution, and institutionalized discrimination—are more likely to affect gay or transgender women, and less likely to be reported in the newspaper.
Nobody knows the double standard better than Graffeo. Before transitioning, Graffeo says he endured 33 years of gender discrimination—as a woman. “I had a lot of experience with people being prejudiced against me because I was female,” says Graffeo. “I was told I wouldn’t be hired because they thought I was going to run off and get pregnant. I was denied loan applications for a house because I was female,” he says.
The discrimination began in childhood—“nobody likes a little girl who doesn’t act like a little girl”—and lasted up until seven years ago, when he transitioned with the full support of his co-workers and social circle. At that point, Graffeo re-applied for the home loan “with a male name and worse credit,” and was accepted. “Women are just given the raw end of the deal,” he says.
The Fab Lounge incident marks the first time that activists and media outlets have shown an interest in harassment he’s faced. “When I transitioned, I really didn’t change, but the world changed toward me,” says Graffeo. “I’m not particularly privileged now. Nobody’s throwing money at me. But the world does not dislike me anymore,” he says. “Now, I’m not expected to be a female, so people are satisfied with my behavior. It’s a bit boring and anticlimactic, when it’s all over.” Photo by Charles Steck