Optical Gender Illusions: How to Truly See Your Trans* Friend’s Gender

Credit: Wikipedia.

I have entered an ambiguous time in my transition. Like the color of the tiles in the checker shadow illusion, how my gender is perceived is often entirely context dependent. In the checker shadow illusion, shown above, the tiles labeled ‘A’ and ‘B’ appear to be different shades of grey. In actuality, they are the exact same shade of grey. Our brain perceives them to be different based on their different contexts in order to make sense of the picture.

Most of us don’t think twice about strangers’ genders. We look at someone and our brain perceives them to be male or female without even a conscious thought about it, just like we wouldn’t think twice about the tile shades without prompting. Many people have gender expressions that match the cultural expectation of their gender based on these cues – a woman clearly expressing femininity in culturally dominant ways, for example. However, we often still perceive masculine women as female, or feminine men as male. Our brains pick up on a whole slew of often subtle cues, beyond gender expression and obvious secondary sex characteristics, to make a gender determination of a stranger: the shape of a the face, pitch of the voice, body fat distribution/body shape, bone structure, neck-to-head width ratio, hairline, eyebrow thickness, height. If these physical cues are not clear enough in and of themselves, other external cues come into play: gendered mannerisms, clothing and hairstyles (gender expression), and also, social context. With enough cues pointing to one gender or another, the brain makes a swift decision, and we interact accordingly.

For example, I have noticed that, at least recently, when I am interacting with someone who has never seen me before, and I don’t have to speak very much or very loudly, I am (now) likely to be read as male. I have enough ‘male’ cues for others’ brains to pick up on. If I am in a queer environment where it is more common for there to be more masculine-presenting women, and I have to speak loudly over a crowd, I am more likely to be read as female. I mention the volume of my voice because when it is quiet, I can speak in a lower voice more likely to be perceived as male, and when it is louder, the lower tones of my voice are often buried in the noise as I speak up. This cue can outweigh others, especially in addition to the expectation of masculine-presenting women. In each of these contexts, my gender expression and visual cues are the same, but the context is different, just like the tiles in the image above. Without the knowledge of my true gender, and also without the knowledge that they might be misgendering me in the first place, people rely on these cues completely without a second thought.

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Click here.

We are all really dependent on these cues for gender determination. It’s why, when a trans* person tells you very clearly what their gender is, if you perceive them to be a different gender, it’s harder to get their pronouns right, and it’s harder to truly see them as they see themselves. That said, with this awareness, we can train our brains to notice these cues and focus on different ones. Take the two optical illusions above. With the spinning dancer, as I look at it right now, I perceive it to be spinning clockwise. It is really hard for me to imagine how anyone could perceive it to be spinning the other way! But if I look off to the side and let go of this perception as best I can while trying to imagine it spinning the other way, I can sometimes get my perception to switch: suddenly I perceive it to be spinning counterclockwise, and can no longer imagine how I saw it spinning clockwise in the first place! In the second image, depending on how you look at it, you either see a figure playing the sax, or a woman’s face – it all depends on which cues you focus on.

Like the above illusions, when I look in the mirror, sometimes I can see two different versions of myself, depending on which cues I focus on. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘male’, I can see myself as I know myself to be, every week more aligned with my internal self-image. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘female’, I feel dysphoric and upset. It is hard knowing that this is what other people see when they misgender me, because it’s not who I am. I feel hidden and unseen. Just like how I can see the dancer spinning in either direction, just as I can see both the sax player and the woman’s face in the same image, I can be looking at the exact same reflection of myself on the same day and go from one vision to the other – sometimes it’s entirely dependent on my mood and how confident I’m feeling! This has been true for me since before I began any physical changes.

In one of my previous posts, Tips for Getting Pronouns Right, in point 3 I mention that you can practice giving your brain new cues to focus on in order to begin naturally perceiving a newly out trans* friend’s gender correctly. This is exactly what I am talking about in this post now. If you have a trans* friend who has told you that he is male, but your brain automatically perceives him as female, focus on the cues he expresses that tell your brain ‘male’. With practice, you can switch your perception to primarily see the sax player instead of the woman’s face. This is one of those things that you have to learn by doing it. That said, here are some additional tips:

1 – Find a way to connect your friend to an existing mental gender category. Something that helps me (a hypothetical example, not referring to any specific person): If I have a friend who has come out to me as a woman, who my brain has thus far perceived as male, I begin by imagining other women who have masculine characteristics similar to those of my friend, but who my brain still perceives to be female, and I work on adding my newly out trans friend to this mental category. Ultimately, this is what our brain is trying to do in the first place – it’s trying to place people into categories in order to make sense of our complex world.

2 – Create a new mental gender category. For trans* friends who come out as non-binary, neither exclusively male nor female, I am trying to create a new mental category. With every masculine cue, I try to pair it with a feminine cue, and vice versa, to prevent my brain from auto-categorizing them as someone they’re not. It is imperfect, but really important for me to continue working on. I want to be able to truly see my friends as they see themselves, and this is the way to do it.

3 – Focus on explicit cues. Sometimes, when I am having trouble with my own perception of myself in the mirror, I focus on more explicit gender cues, such as my more traditionally masculine haircut, or how I’m standing. These can help bring me back. Not all transmen, for example, have these specific gender cues (haircut and stance), because not all transmen express their masculinity in the same way, so you have to figure out which explicit cues to focus on for each individual you are working on perceiving correctly. The cues are there, though, so look for them.

This is important work! Good luck!

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3 Responses to Optical Gender Illusions: How to Truly See Your Trans* Friend’s Gender

  1. julianandrews1 says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I was clueless on so many things until I took a Women and Gender Studies class as an elective. I watched the documentary Southern Comfort a couple of weeks ago and still think about the Robert and Lola. They were so smitten for each other! I noticed I felt uncomfortable at times when Lola, for example, looked like a man but had a pink silky robe on. Needless to say, the next time I feel uncomfortable I will create my on mental gender category. I am breaking away from the oppression my culture and society has bestowed upon me for the past 29 years!

  2. Good work examining how oppression acts in your life! I would suggest also considering *why* it made you uncomfortable when your brain perceived Lola as a man while she was wearing a pink silky robe. I bet there are plenty of men who do (or would) like to wear a pink silky robe, and still know themselves to be men. We are taught that femininity expressed by men in this way is somehow weird or bad, and that sentiment leads to lots of violence against both men who are more effeminate, and also transwomen who are incorrectly perceived to be men.

    An excerpt from this article really hammered this point home to me: http://www.originalplumbing.com/index.php/politics-activism/news-politics/item/718-the-suicide-of-drv

    “The transgender movement and their allies are super concerned about ensuring that this world understands that transgender women are women – the trans movement is unified around the idea that transgender women’s lives are at risk because there is a lack of social acceptance that transgender women are not men. The LGBT movement’s solution is to ensure that society understands that some women have penises – that transgender women are women and not, at all costs not, men. And, until this ideology finds widespread awareness, violence against trans women will persist.

    But doesn’t this suggest that there would be something wrong with a trans woman being a man? Doesn’t it perpetuate the cultural shaming of men who are feminine, or who fail to meet the social standard of manhood? Wouldn’t transgender women be safe from bigotry for once and for all if society stopped holding men to unrealistic standards of gender? If men were allowed to do whatever they want with gender, abuse against transgender women, on the basis of their transition, would cease because transgender women wouldn’t be betraying some sacred manhood. The idea that they might not even be men at all is an outlandish, illegible farce to our society at large. If men were liberated from their own privilege, and the illusion of their destiny in sex, the idea that trans women are actually women would become an accessible and legible truth.”

    To be clear, transwomen are *women*, but it’s when they are perceived to be men that they are most in danger, because it makes people uncomfortable – because that’s what we’ve all been taught – and some of those uncomfortable people become violent.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Kathryn says:

    Thank you so much for this! I’m having so much trouble getting my newly-out partner’s pronouns right. I hate to make excuses and I know that each time I make a mistake, it hurts them. Obviously thats the last thing I want. My partner is newly out to me and some of our friends, but not to the general public (which means my parents still ask about “her” with their old name). This makes it a little hard to keep the two straight in my head. I never want to misgender them, but obviously outing them would be absolutely terrible. Do you have any advice?

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