"Why is everyone staring at me?" my wife asked as we stood in a crowded mall in downtown Montreal last weekend.
Zoe and I had run off for our first ever weekend away sans kids in the twenty years we've been parents. And for the most part, we had a great time. We stayed in a charming little hotel in the heart of the city, slept until we felt like getting up, ate copious amounts of good food, and even stayed over three hours in a historical architecture museum without anyone related to us whining about how bored they are.
The one glitch in our weekend - the one thing that dampened our spirits for a little while - was all the staring. It seemed no matter where we went, people were looking at my wife. And not just a quick glance, but a long, drawn-out stare. Some without even trying to be discreet about it.
I don't think I notice it quite as much as she does. I think that's because I'm not someone who gets stared at very much when I'm out by myself. I fly under the radar as a white, blonde, able-bodied, average-looking, slightly chubby, cisgender (non-trans) woman with a tunic-and-leggings fetish. I don't draw a lot of attention.
But Zoe does, and we don't always know why.
Is it because she's tall?
Because she's beautiful? (She's so beautiful, you guys. I'm a lucky woman.)
Or is it because someone is trying to figure out if she's trans? And if that's the case, why? Is it a bad thing if they realize she is? Are they going to give her a hard time? What does it mean for her safety? For our safety? We never know. We just know someone is staring. It's unnerving.
I'm a people watcher. My eyes love to drink in diversity. But I've learned to be aware of how long I'm looking at someone (for the reasons stated above). It's okay to look. It's not okay to stare. When do I know I'm staring? When I've been looking for so long that I'd be embarrassed if someone were to notice and call me out on it. That's when you know you've crossed the line into Creepertown.
I learned from a young age not to stare at people. When I was 12, my youngest brother was born with Downs Syndrome. People have openly gawked at him his entire life. My mom and dad can't take him anywhere without people unabashedly looking at him.
When my best friend's five-year-old came home from the hospital after months of cancer treatments - bald from chemo, sick and frail and wheelchair-bound - everyone looked at him. A simple trip to the grocery store involved tons of looks, which he would pick up on and ask his parents about.
How do you explain to a child, who has already gone to hell and back, why people are staring at him? How is that fair?
Look, I get why people stare. We're curious creatures, and our brains have recognized something or someone out of the ordinary. We then try to process that, and it sometimes requires taking in more visuals. We make a decision on how we should feel about that something or someone, and eventually, move on. That's my laywoman's version of the scientific reason behind it. (I don't have a science degree. That may or may not be obvious at this point.)
But the thing is, staring is not comfortable for the person being stared at. And since a big part of being human is practicing compassion, we need to think outside of ourselves and our desire to satisfy our own curiosities. It might just be a few seconds for you, but the person being stared at is getting those few seconds from people all. day. long.
Do you know what that does to a person? I do.
By evening, my wife was starting to feel pretty insecure. "Seriously, Amanda. Is there something wrong with me?"
"No," I assured her. "You're beautiful."
"Then why do people keep looking at me?" she asked.
I didn't have an answer. So I did my patented super supportive spouse maneuver and snapped at her. "I don't know, okay? I can't know what other people are thinking!"
I was angry. Not at her, but at society. At the people who couldn't seem to find their politeness setting. The ones creating waves during our one weekend away together where we should feel happy and carefree.
We just wanted to have time away like any other couple, enjoying each others' company and reconnecting after so many recent changes in our lives and our relationship. She's just like you! We're just like you! I wanted to yell at them. The old couple at the table next to us at the restaurant. The group of guys at the traffic light.
But mostly, I was sad. Sad for her. Sad that some of us, like me, have it so much easier than others. When I'm not out with Zoe or my brother or someone else who stands out in some way, I just go about my life without fear of being singled out. Everyone should feel that way, but that's not the case.
Trans folk, disabled folk, people of colour and the plus-size community are among those who often can't look up without meeting someone's unwanted and lingering gaze, over and over, all day long.
I felt helpless to stop what was happening. My amazing wife, who is one of the bravest people I know for living her truth in a world that is not as accepting as it should be, had been having her confidence stripped down for hours. A little here, a little there, one stare at a time. The prolonged exposure to people's curiosity and possible judgment was taking its toll on one of the people I love most in the world, and I couldn't do a damn thing about it.
But now maybe I can do something about it. Because I have a blog. And I can say things on it.
When someone blatantly stares at the person I'm out with, I make a point of staring right back at them until they notice I'm doing it and look away. They get really uncomfortable. I feel silently victorious. If this happened in aisle 3 at the grocery store, I can pretty much guarantee it won't happen when we pass each other again in aisle 4.
It's probably not the nicest thing to do. I'm not out to shame people. That's not my bag, baby. I'm just trying to protect the people I care about, and sometimes I can't think of another way without making a scene.
So rather than glare at everyone whose eyes linger for too long with that slack-jawed look of curiosity, I want to provide an alternative: If you find yourself looking at someone who likely gets looked at a lot, smile at them.
Not a creepy smile, dudes. A nice smile. A warm, friendly smile.
I do this all the time, because my difference-loving eyes will inevitably find their way to a person who stands out in some way: a little boy with a disability, perhaps, or a Muslim woman wearing a beautiful headscarf. Some of the people I notice are likely the victims of discrimination in their everyday lives along with the looks they get, so I try to combat that with kindness.
And sometimes I'll say "Good morning" or "beautiful day, eh?" (just like that, which is very Canadian of me), or "I love your hijab. It's so pretty."
You know, like I would do with anyone else. What a concept.
I'm going to assume most people stare at my wife because she's beautiful, and stare at us when we're together because we are very much a couple in love (with great hair).
I want to believe most people are inherently kindhearted and curious in their looks, and hope the rest learn, through repeated exposure to diversity, that there's nothing to fear or judge. Different does not mean bad.
We can change society with simple changes to our own behaviours. For example, I know if Zoe had been met with a smile or a compliment rather than a stare last weekend, it would have made a difference to both of us.
And I definitely never stare down people who smile at her in aisle 3.
One small effort at a time. One smile at a time. That's how we're going to make things better for everyone.