The Long Stare: Being Visibly Queer in Public
The man’s widening eyes tell me what I call “the long stare” is coming: his gaze darts up and down Brett’s body, side to side to take in Sam and me, and then up and down Brett again. It’s creepy. It’s always creepy when this happens. I don’t know if people who give our family this eye treatment realize how gross and rude they are being or if they simply don’t care.
When I can, I will stare back at the long stare giver with my arms crossed and an expression that asks, “And what do you want?” Inevitably, the person will catch me staring back and then usually look away.
However, we are in the middle of walking through a plant-lined atrium on the way to my latest Herceptin infusion at the hospital, so I can’t do this. Brett’s heels patter with a pleasing loudness on the tile floor as I look back at the man.
He’s still staring at us, but now he does something I’ve never seen anyone do to us before: he goes up to someone he seems to know and points for her to stare at us as well. He is actually pointing and staring at us as if we are a freakish spectacle.
This man is wearing a hospital employee uniform, and the person to whom he points us out is in a volunteer one.
I come to this hospital regularly for surgeries, cancer treatments, and check-ups. I am at my most vulnerable here: unconscious in anesthetic oblivion, cut open, sewn up, recovering from procedures, filled with sometimes volatile yet vital medications, and staying here multiple nights while recovering from an infection once and twice from post-surgical sickness. Sam and Brett are here, too, for all of this stuff and have spent too many hours in this place that’s familiar enough to the three of us to be a second home.
Despite these vulnerabilities, today is the first time I’ve felt unsafe in this hospital.
Today is the first time I worry about my little family’s safety in being here. The man’s uniform indicates that he does maintenance for the hospital, so I know he would never be directly involved in any of my treatments. But the word “unsafe” floats across my mind in stark black letters.
My wife is gorgeous and a lithe 6’2. She’s spectacularly outfitted in a black and white clingy dress with ruching. Her medium-length light brown hair and makeup are perfected after many months of figuring out her look. She’s also trans.
We have done nothing in this atrium but be our usual selves by all holding hands and chatting together, things that would seem unremarkable in families where everyone appears to be cisgender but often attract stares for us. Welcome to being visibly queer in public.
If it weren’t for Sam’s presence, I would turn right around and ask the man what his problem was. I haven’t fought through cancer and to hold onto life to let anyone crap all over what and whom I hold dear. Instead, I take in the man’s physical details to report him to patient relations while Sam happily chirps away and bounces between my and Brett’s hands.
Mama going to the hospital so often can be distressing for our then-six-year-old boy, and I refuse to allow someone’s ignorance to upset him.
One of the reasons that I’ve felt we are safe at the hospital is all the staff we’ve dealt with during my various cancer things have been nothing but respectful to us. We’ve been stared at on occasion by hospital staff we pass in the hallways, but it’s never been more than a few seconds of the long stare and never before accompanied by pointing.
Until now, the most I’ve ever had to do is politely correct someone’s pronoun usage or say that Brett is my wife, not husband, and update hospital records to indicate this.
When Brett officially came out during my treatments, staff we knew gave us congratulations. Brett has received enthusiastic compliments from staff and once a bit of hairstyling advice.
“How do you do that with your hair?” Brett asked a chemo nurse as I was getting a Herceptin infusion. The nurse had fashioned a stylish twist to one side of her hair with a bobby pin.
“Oh, I’ll show you,” the nurse replied cheerfully. She took Brett’s bobby pin and deftly twisted the side of Brett’s hair in the same way.
Brett looked in the mirror in my chemo alcove with a smile on her face. She always dresses up as nicely and fashionably as she can on my hospital days because she knows seeing her like that makes me happy. Seeing her smile at learning a new hairstyle filled me with warmth that belied the chill of the Herceptin in my veins.
On our way back after the incident where I felt we were unsafe, we pass by the man again. This time, his eyes widen and then he deliberately looks down at the equipment trolley he is pushing and not at any of us. I realize he must have caught me looking back at him earlier. I feel vindicated.
Patient relations deals with my complaint promptly. I get a follow-up call the next morning from a kind lady at patient relations who is aghast at and apologetic for what the man did. Then I get another call from the fellow’s manager, who also apologizes and promises that she will follow up with all of her employees to remind them that they need to be respectful of everyone and that she will speak privately to this man in particular.
The hospital goes back to being a safe place for all of us after this. I hope that I helped make it safe for other LGBTQ people as well. Since I spoke up, my family hasn’t received a single long stare from any hospital employee.
More from Beatrice here.