Helsinki Pride, which promotes the rights of sexual and gender minorities, is celebrated from June 27 to July 3, 2022. The theme of this year’s Helsinki Pride Week is “Encounters”. In this Design Stories column, social media influencer and trans activist Mona Bling reflects on the importance of a sense of security in everyday encounters.
A FEW SUMMERS AGO, I was waiting for a friend in Kaisaniemi, Helsinki. I was listening to music on headphones and browsing social media deep in my thoughts. Then I realized that a somewhat shorter presumably male individual in his sixties had appeared right next to me – too close, if you ask me – and was looking at me, smiling. I took the headphones off, as the man clearly wanted to say something to me. My first thought was that maybe he was lost and needed my help.
“Aren’t you a tall girl! How tall are you exactly?,” he asked, all the while measuring me with his gaze. Before I had time to say anything, the man’s expression suddenly lost all its warmth and he said: “Oh no, wait a minute, I don’t think you’re a girl at all!”
The nerve of this guy! First, he breaks the boundaries of my personal space and then he dares to question my gender.
“That’s right, I’m not a girl. I’m a woman,” is all I managed to say for being so dumbfounded and walked away. I texted my friend, saying that I’d meet them halfway. I wanted to get away from that person.
I’M A 30-YEAR-OLD WOMAN. I’m also a transgender person, meaning that I was assigned male at birth based on my external anatomy. I started my social and medical transformation less than ten years ago. Nowadays, most strangers don’t question my gender because I’m “passable”, meaning that my background as a transgender person is not visible on the outside.
However, somehow this older man managed to “clock” me, to identify me as trans. That’s, of course, okay, as I’m not trying to hide me being a transgender person, there’s nothing wrong in that. I speak a lot about transgender issues in both traditional and social media. I also wrote a book on the subject, and it will be published in the fall. I’m not ashamed of my background.
“Outside the home, few spaces are completely safe for a person belonging to a minority, and the more minorities you belong to, the greater the risk of being harassed.”
What should, however, be noted about that encounter on the street is that I, a trans person and a woman, was just minding my own business when someone came to harass me. My personal space was invaded, and my gender was questioned.
The unfortunate truth is that outside the home, few spaces are completely safe for a person belonging to a minority, and the more minorities you belong to, the greater the risk of being harassed. Even the most beautiful space can be unsafe, as lamps, sofas and vases do not protect people from harassment. People protect people from harassment.
I’m glad that safety issues are addressed in more and more places. At first, you might think that safety means having clearly marked emergency exits and ensuring that the fire extinguishers are in good condition, but safety also refers to something more. In addition to physical safety, there is also mental safety: a sense of security.
Anyone who has ever been bullied at school or work or has felt insecure in a relationship knows that being physically safe does not create a sense of security. The sense of security is created by things other than the physical roof not falling on your head or the house not burning down.
“One of the guidelines in the Safer Space Policy is that every person occupying a space must respect the physical and mental personal space of others.”
One way to increase the sense of security in any space is to implement a Safer Space Policy. It consists of various rules aiming to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in the space. One of the guidelines in the policy is that every person occupying a space must respect the physical and mental personal space of others. Other people are not to be touched without their permission, and everyone’s autonomy must be respected. The name and identity of other people should be respected. Others must not be mocked, insulted, degraded or embarrassed. If someone violates the policy, the space becomes unsafe. In that case, the person must be removed from the space, or the person must change their behavior.
Safety is such an important matter that many people who have it take it for granted. If you’re white, cis-gender (i.e., non-trans gender) heterosexual and – on top of it all – a man, the society has been built for you and you’re less likely to be harassed than the people who aren’t like you. As I said earlier, the more minorities you belong to, the greater the risk of being harassed.
THE MOST ANNOYING THING about the lack of a sense of security is that you get used to it. When you have to face, for example, microaggressions often enough (perhaps even on a daily basis) for your entire life, you become desensitized to them. Becoming desensitized does not, however, mean that you’re not affected by them. Minority stress is chronic stress that can manifest physically.
For example, when I was young, I was laughed at a lot by other kids. So, whenever I see a group of teenage boys, my stress levels skyrocket. The same thing also happens when I hear a group of girls whispering next to me – I imagine that they are saying nasty things about me. I also recently realized that I always listen to music in public places, because it prevents me from hearing the unpleasant things people might be saying about me. These are just a few examples of what happens when you feel insecure for a long time. It becomes a trauma that may take therapy and the rest of your life to process.
“In all encounters, we have the opportunity to choose how we treat the other person: with respect or contempt.”
The theme of this year’s Helsinki Pride Week is “Encounters”. The theme is good, as most of us meet other people on a daily basis. In all encounters, we have the opportunity to choose how we treat the other person: with respect or contempt. With an open or closed mind. With warmth or coldness. With love or hate. In my opinion, it’s particularly important for the people in the best social position, i.e., the white cis-gender heterosexuals, for example, to reflect on how they encounter people belonging to minorities.
Privileges come with responsibility. It doesn’t mean constantly having to be on your toes and afraid of blowing it but being aware that not all spaces are safe for all people. The space may be safe for you, but another person in the same space may experience things very differently. So, ask yourself what you can do to make the space safer for everyone around you. When a space is safe, it’s more comfortable.
Text: Mona Bling Images: Eetu Laine