Don’t be satisfied with just being tolerated.

A stranger is defined in relation to someone else. A person can be a stranger to one individual but someone else’s best friend. Maybe the stranger is a person you have not yet gotten to know or a person you, for some reason, do not want to get to know. Maybe you are afraid of someone. All people are strangers to each other in the beginning. It requires an effort to turn a stranger into an acquaintance, a friend, a loved one. Regardless of the similarities or differences involved in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, appearance, interests, skin color, age, sexuality…to be hostile to people one does not know, for no particular reason, seems undeniably foolish.

But maybe it’s not that the stranger is unknown that is frightening. Maybe it depends on the perceived differences between people. Differences accorded great negative importance, which therefore cause a need for building walls, for keeping one’s distance and excluding others. Consciously or unconsciously.

So there are many different ways to be perceived as a stranger. One way that is certain is to violate a basic norm. To become a breaker of rules, a so-called ”deviant. Then the environment reacts to you. Some with repudiation, others without. Some may react positively but as long as the norm is a rule, most people will spontaneously react more or less negatively to a rule-breaker. Even if he or she is quite harmless and inoffensive. When a stranger remains a stranger, or even is forced to remain a stranger by being locked out of social context, the risk is imminent that ignorance, prejudice and fear will thrive. A vicious circle.

But is it really safe and harmless to choose your own expression, your appearance, even if it happens to violate the social norm that attempts to regulate how we behave and relate to gender? No, it is not that simple. Since the day I took the first step outside my home ”dressed as a woman”, I’ve gradually learned that other people’s reactions to me as transgender is extremely varied. Everything from positive curiosity and appreciation, to patronizing glances, verbal attacks, insults, and even violence.

I am grateful that I have not myself suffered actual physical violence but have been close enough to the threat to understand that the threat is real. Some people are so afraid, so threatened and so provoked by an encounter with another human being who goes beyond their idea of what is acceptable, that they are prepared to resort to fists and kicks to ”defend” themselves and their fragile self-image. How should I otherwise interpret some of what I have been through over the years?

There was the male teenager who, when I stepped onto the local bus late one Saturday night, loudly exclaimed to his group of friends and other passengers ”I hate trannys!”

Then the time I was kicked in the knee just as I managed to get into a taxi to escape from a young man who was so provoked by my transgender presence.

Or the time a guard threw me out of a venue, not because I had done anything wrong, but because I made the other guests uncomfortable.

Or how generally, there’s all the hush-hush, pointing and glancing, and rejection of the exotic.

Fear builds walls and creates dangerous strangers. To constantly fight for the right to be yourself and allow yourself to fully develop as a person in the face of others who consistently reduce you to one particular characteristic is tiring. But there is a way out for those who can deal with the struggle every day.

Don’t be satisfied with being tolerated. Tolerance is on the condition of others. And in such a case, they set the limits and have the power. Instead, expect to be treated as an equal. Expect to be accepted and respected as you are. Be appreciated for who you are, and what you can do – no matter how you look or where you come from. Reserve your right to be given space, to make space for yourself, to exist on your terms rather than on someone else’s.

Remember that other people, just like you, want to be appreciated and welcomed rather than just tolerated and accepted. They also want to make a space for themselves in our shared society. It is therefore your obligation to give way to others, while at the same time being responsible for yourself, your rights and other people’s rights, and allow everyone to shape their own lives!


Jan-Olov Madeleine Ågren
Instructor at the Rättighetscentrum Norrbotten, an anti-discrimination agency in the north of Sweden.
Is an open transgender person who came out in 1990 but did not become fully open about their transgender until 2006. Fear takes time to overcome…”one’s own as well as others”.