Property is theft!

// 2 February 2008

This is a guest post by Helen G, who contributed last month’s feature on transphobia in feminist communities.

What an inspiring and thought-provoking phrase. I even used to think I understood what it meant, back in the days of my youth. Woo! Yeah! Kick over the statues! Free the Omega 3! Or was I just being naïve?

I’ve been thinking about M. Proudhon’s famous slogan quite a bit this week. Since Monday evening, in fact. When my mobile phone was stolen. From inside my bag, which, yes, was properly closed and on a shoulder strap across my body. All those fine words, the intellectualising and philosophising seem to fly out of the window when one is subject to the theft of one’s own property. Or maybe I really am just a reactionary old git who has been forced to face up to her own denial of reality. Another more cynical train of thought says that, having lived in a big city for five years, I’ve been lucky not to have had my phone stolen before now.

Okay then. A story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. I left work at 5.30pm as usual and headed to the Tube station. No service: the District Line was down and anyway Victoria Station was closed. Okay then, so I have to find a bus from one of the adjacent above-ground bus stops that’ll take me to somewhere I can pick up the Piccadilly Line.

Needless to say there was a huge throng of people milling around, presumably all with much the same idea. Apart from these two guys who clearly had other ideas. So I’m in this crowd of people, the bus arrives and we all start to push forward, boarding the bus. Someone behind me is pushing me – no big deal, this is one of the joys of life in commuter-land and, anyway, we’re all moving forward, feeding into the bus. We’re by the door now and I’m being pushed more forcefully, to the extent that I’m now pressing up against the guy in front as we step up into the bus. Front Man now turns round and starts giving me a load of verbals, “stop frickin’ pushing him” and “who-the-frick did I think I was anyway”, blah blah. Which sort of took me a bit by surprise, “look mate, it’s busy, okay, we all just want to get moving…”

Front Man now changes his tack: “Oy are you a man or a woman anyway?” Which really leaves me stuttering, scrambling for words and pretty damn flustered, when Matey Boy behind me and to my right – in hindsight, by this point, he’s unfastened my bag, dipped his sticky little fingers in and stolen my phone – suddenly starts up, defending me. “Leave her alone, she’s all right, she’s not doing you any harm,” blah blah. I half turn, noticing that he has a newspaper over his arm but thinking nothing of it (camouflage?) when he suddenly says, directly to Front Man – “Oh the Tube’s working now” – he and Front Man hop off just as the bus doors are closing and the pair of them disappear into the crowd.

I was still feeling a bit rattled and without thinking I’m checking my pockets… and my bag… ohmygod my bag’s open… and then I realised my phone was gone. I also realised that, stupidly, I’d also got on to a bus going in entirely the wrong direction. By chance it stopped only a few hundred metres from my workplace so I got off and legged it back. I followed the correct procedure: phone the police, report the theft and write down the reference number to give to the cellphone company, who I phone next. The woman I spoke to at the cellphone company was really nice. The reality of what I’d just experienced started to hit me at that point and I was a bit upset, fighting back the tears – but she got the information, blocked and blacklisted the SIM card and the phone. A new one would be sent out to me in the next three working days and would I like to keep my old number?

And that was it: all over and done with in less than half an hour. The police and the cellphone company people had been lovely; calm and sympathetic, making sure I was all right. And I was – or thought I was. But during the week since the theft I’ve noticed that it really does seem to have affected me quite badly, and that’s been rather a surprise.

Two days later, I had a call from the bus company. The woman I spoke to wanted to confirm my travelcard number, where I was, when it happened and so on. She was polite and efficient but I think we both knew damn well that the chances of getting my phone back were about zero, maybe slightly less. Nobody’s going to stop Front Man and Matey Boy doing this day in, day out, indefinitely.

I’ve been surprised at how unsettled I still feel about it. I think the fact that Matey Boy actually unfastened the catch on my bag and went fishing around inside upsets me the most. It’s a form of violation, an invasion of my personal space and a lack of respect for other people which is frightening in its arrogance; as if simply owning a cellphone makes me a legitimate target. Property is theft, indeed.

I still wear the same bag on its shoulder strap across my body – but now it’s under my jacket – with the catch against my body, not facing out. I wear it to the front of me now, not the side, and I keep something in front of it at all times, be it my hand, or my umbrella, or my groceries in the supermarket carrier bag.

And as for using public transport late at night, well, forget it. It’s not going to happen. Bad enough to have my phone stolen at 6pm on a weekday, but all that transphobic ‘I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman’ rubbish as well? Can you imagine how it would be on a tube train at 10 o’clock at a night when half-a-dozen of Ver Lads get on, loudmouthed, tanked-up beer monsters? No, thank you. I think I’d rather just have a(nother) quiet night in. If staying off the streets at night is a good enough survival tactic for our beloved Home Secretary, then it’s good enough for me… And yes, I know that’s letting them win. So what? I’d rather be a live dog than a dead lion.

I’m writing this almost a week later and I still feel that I’m not dealing with what I feel I should be processing as a comparatively insignificant event. I had thought I was starting to get over it, after a fashion: having slept badly every night since, I was desperately tired by the end of the working week and on the Thursday I was in bed by half past nine. I think I must have been asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

And although on the Friday I was just too busy to really think about the incident, I’ve been constantly aware of where the replacement phone is, which, in itself has been a reminder of the event, in a strange way that I can’t quite seem to verbalise.

But when I got home from work on the Friday night, there was a letter from the local branch Victim Support in London, which, seemingly out of nowhere, triggered a huge wave of emotion within me. While filing the full report with the police woman on the Tuesday, I had told her about the ‘I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman’ distraction tactics, which then opened up the discussion to cover my GD, my transition and all the rest of it. The police woman had said at the time that she wanted to pass my details to a colleague who, if I needed, would be available to talk about this ‘hate crime’ (her words, not mine), which I thought sounded a bit strong – as I’ve said on many occasions, being on the receiving end of that kind of verbal abuse just goes with the territory when one begins living full-time in one’s ‘acquired gender’. That doesn’t make it any better, or less hurtful, and it certainly doesn’t make it right – but it just happens, a lot – too much, really, to label it ‘hate crime’. It’s just a fact of my life.

So I opened the envelope, pulled out the letter – and found myself in floods of tears. Which is really frickin’ stupid because I don’t see myself as a victim. The two men took my phone. That’s all. They didn’t take my bank card and clean out my account. They didn’t beat me up and leave me lying in a pool of blood. They only took my phone. It’s just a minor property theft, a low-level annoyance and some unwanted hassle. So I can’t possibly be a victim, can I? So why am I so upset about it? It’s something that happens to lots of people. Every day, every week, every damn year. Get over it, girl, ferfuxake.

And no doubt I will get over it. But the strength of feelings that this insignificant little crime has provoked in me, the range and depth of emotions I’ve been experiencing has taken me by surprise and I can only hope that talking about it like this will bring about some sort of catharsis. And I also hope that, anyone else who experiences this sort of crime and subsequently finds themselves a whirlwind of unexpected emotions will find some comfort in knowing they’re not alone in reacting this way. The important thing is how you process those feelings. More than ever, I have really appreciated the love and support of my friends.

Talking rubbish? No: talking matters. Sometimes it’s all we have – but sometimes it’s all we need.

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