The other day I was considering ordering a beer at a restaurant. Others at my table ordered before me, and I realized that the waitress was carding everyone, which hasn’t been happening as frequently in my life as I’ve gotten a bit older. Since my ID still has my old name, an old photo, and a big F on it, I began to feel anxious. Since I could be reasonably sure that I was more likely to be read as male in this particular context (but really, who the hell knows without having been ‘ma’amed’ or ‘sirred’ yet), would this waitress look at my card, then look at me, and question whether this was my ID, forcing me to draw attention to a personal matter? Or worse, would she then, in a moment of optical gender illusion cue-switching, call me ‘ma’am’, not just in that moment, but for the rest of the evening? I decided a beer wasn’t worth the anxiety, or the risk, and I put my ID back in my wallet.
What I want to point out with this story is that I felt anxious not about having to come out to the waitress as ‘transgender’, but about her no longer seeing me as male.
When I first came to clarity about my gender, it was not a revelation that I was transgender. It was a revelation that I was male. I don’t feel transgender. I feel male. If anything, my experiences trying to be female were more of a ‘transgender’ experience than my living as my true gender, since that was when I was living opposite – or ‘trans‘ – to the gender I truly am. In that regard, coming out and transitioning would be an end to my experience being transgender, not the other way around. Words are tricky, eh?
Today, I describe myself as transgender (or trans) freely, not because I have come to feel a stronger identification with the term, but because it is a useful tool. There is a widespread understanding of ‘transgender’ as describing people whose gender does not match the one they were assigned at birth, and it’s much easier to use a single word, rather than try to re-describe everything each time.
‘Passing’ is a common term among transgender people (and those who know and love us) used to describe the experience of being read as one’s true gender by strangers. I try to avoid using this term, because it suggests deceit. One has to ‘pass’ as male because one is not truly male – it implies you are actively fooling people. While, on some level, I do experience a desire to convince people that I am male, it is not to fool them – it is so that they can see my truth. I do not need to ‘pass’ as male. I am male. ‘Passing’ more accurately means passing as cisgender, because we live in a world where just about everyone is presumed to be cisgender all the time, just as most folks are presumed to be straight. It’s a hetero-cis-normative world.
I’ve got a secret for you: You cannot tell whether or not someone is transgender just by looking at them. If you didn’t realize this before, realize it now, and spread the word.
‘Stealth’ is a term often used to describe transgender folks who are read as their true gender by everyone, but who are not out as transgender. Again, I hate this term. Transgender people’s lives do not need to revolve around their medical or social history. We are not obligated to out ourselves to everyone around us. This again feeds into the idea that trans* folks are out to fool everyone, that we’re not really the gender(s) we know ourselves to be. I call bullshit.
A term that I heard described in the documentary Still Black was this: blending privilege. Those who are read as their true gender (and presumed to be cisgender) by everyone are able to blend in, to not stick out as gender non-conforming, and to not be plagued by the anxieties of frequent misgendering. Since there are many transgender folks who do not get to blend in this way, either due to lack of access to medical transition, no desire for medical transition, other physical situations that are prohibitive to being read correctly (one cannot change one’s bone structure, for example, which can be a subconscious gender cue), or whose gender does not fit the binary of male or female, the ability to blend in is a privilege. It comes with safety and sanity. I like this term a lot – perhaps I’ll start using it more.
When I was first coming out as male, I described my experience as similar to a break up. ‘Queer woman’ wasn’t right for me because I wasn’t a woman, but it hadn’t been entirely wrong, either. This process of transitioning , for me, is bit like breaking up with someone you still love, not because you’ve stopped loving them, but because it just isn’t working out anymore and there’s nothing more to try. There’s some grieving to do, but also new life ahead.
While the ‘woman’ part of ‘queer woman’ is wrong for me, the ‘queer’ part still feels right. Having lived most of my life as a queer woman, I have come to understand queerness as something greater than sexual orientation. In my experience, at least among queer women, there’s a lot more mutual understanding about oppression and solidarity. There is no (or less of an) assumption of gender roles, and there’s a whole different set of social pressures and expectations than there is among straight people. There are myriad more differences than just these, but it’d take me a lot longer to describe them, and I think I’ve gotten my point across. I grew up in the queer community, and I understand it. My queer community allowed the space for me to even question my gender in the first place.
According to really strict definitions, since I am male and am primarily attracted to women, you might think that’d make me straight – and there are many transmen who experienced queer communities prior to coming out who now call themselves straight, which is valid. But my identity has been deeply shaped by my queerness and my friendships with and experiences among queer women. You can’t take the queer out of me. I am queer, and expect I always will be. Therefore, I describe myself as a queer transman.
I still have a lot to learn about how my relationship to my mostly-female queer communities will change as I gain blending privilege as a man. I am at the very beginning of this journey. I expect I will have to do some grieving. It feels complicated and raw. I’ll probably write a post about it further down the line.