Perception Anxiety

Credit: ©2010-2014 Morgan Boecher

I often worry that others’ perception of my gender is like that of a computer monitor that has been left on the same screen for too long without a screen saver. When this happens, the screen that has been left up for too long becomes imprinted on the monitor, and a shadow of it covers whatever new screens you’re trying to look at. As my appearance continues to change, and strangers more often read me correctly as male, old friends and acquaintances – and people I don’t know but see on a daily or weekly basis – continue to struggle with pronouns, and many (but not all) likely still perceive me to be female, regardless of their intentions or knowledge of my true gender.

In an ideal world, this would not bother me. I know who I am, and others’ perceptions don’t matter. But this is really hard for me – I have struggled my whole life with a desire for outside validation. Indeed, we are social creatures, and seek confirmation of our experiences among our communities. An awesome transgender poet said: “I am not trapped in my body. I am trapped in other people’s perceptions of my body.” This resonates deeply with me. I frequently find myself lost in a background anxiety that I am not being perceived correctly by those who have known me since before I began transition – which is a lot of people. I have no control over others’ perceptions, but I like to believe that I do.

This belief that I might have some control over others’ perceptions of my gender drives me to try to ‘perform’ male in more culturally dominant ways, as if I have to prove my gender. I catch myself worrying that I’m too empathetic, express too many emotions, speak too quickly, embody too many aspects of female socialization, and often feel that I must continue to repress effeminate urges.

The other day I was in a coffee shop with a female friend of mine, and the barista referred to us together as ‘ladies’. I was totally thrown – what had she seen? Was it something I said? The way I spoke? The familiar way I was interacting with my friend? Was it my bound chest, sticking out like a neon flashing sign negating everything I know about myself? (Because man oh man does it feel that way every day, every moment it has my attention – or anyone else’s.) Or was it simply the barista’s familiarity with really masculine-looking queer women, and her brain lumped me into that category? Nonetheless, I took on that discomfort. I felt as though I had failed, and who was I, really, to have even tried? This is a manifestation of internalized transphobia: I’m clearly not really male unless I can make it ‘believable’ to other people by fitting perfectly into the ‘male’ box (whatever that is). This completely defeats the purpose of transition for me.

Transition is about becoming more myself, more whole, and less restricted by expectations imposed on me by the world. I had to eschew cultural expectations of gender to even begin this process! Here I am, in the midst of becoming more myself, and I feel pressure to conform. There are transmen out there who do make an effort to conform to rigid gender norms, and who succumb to misogyny and binary thinking (*cough* Chaz Bono *cough*), and while I think this is terrible and hypocritical, I can empathize. The desire to be seen is powerful, and our society has some really messed up standards for how to be seen as a man.

My desire to be seen as male has outweighed the freedom and authenticity that comes with being out as trans. I have found myself in many situations where I am interacting with one or more new people who are either clearly perceiving me as male, or who might  be perceiving me as male, and I have gone out of my way to avoid references to my past as female, or my present as in transition. I am so desperate to be seen that I don’t want any scrap of this feeling to be ruined by someone suddenly looking at me differently, seeing the feminine features remaining in my face or body that don’t represent who I know myself to be.

But part of who I am is that I am trans! Part of who I am is my past of trying to live as female! These are integral parts of me, and they are really hard to embrace in this period of transition. Too many people see only these parts of me, too many acquaintances know that I am transitioning because it’s unavoidable that they know, and too many people don’t know the parts of me that are rooted in my maleness. Everything has been out of balance for so long that I am now overcompensating.

I am still waiting to be my whole self. I imagine a future in which I am always read correctly as male, and feel a familiarity and confidence in this that allows me to be out as transgender as much as I want to be, that creates space for me to embrace my past and my femininity. This waiting that I am doing goes against one of my core life philosophies: my life is happening right now, not later, not when I’m done with school, not just after some upcoming deadline, not after transition, but now.

At the same time, I must be patient. Transition is hard. It frequently feels like I go two steps forward, then one step back. I notice changes in my body or in how I’m perceived by others, begin to rely on these changes, and then I’m unexpectedly misgendered, or look at myself wrong in the mirror, or try to imagine what the folks who work down the hall from me but who don’t know me think of my gender when they see me (I worry about this every time I pass them in the hallway, which is frequently, and still avoid gendered bathrooms in my building), and feel as though I’ve been deluding myself. Who did I think I was, anyway, trying to step out of the box I’ve been shoved into my whole life, challenging straight, cisgender acquaintances’ notions of what my gender is supposed to be. Clearly their perceptions must trump everything I know to be true. I hate that my brain tells me these things. I hate that society taught me these things.

Back when I was trying to live as a queer woman, I eventually reached a peace with my queerness where I was utterly unconcerned about what anyone thought of my queerness. I got to a place where I easily mentioned my girlfriend (when I had one) in casual conversation without a second (or even first) thought about how someone might react. What if I could get to this point with my trans-ness? What if I could just assume that everyone knew or could tell, so I could stop worrying about it? What if I finally just started using the men’s room two feet from my office door instead of trekking clear across the building (or two buildings over) to the gender neutral bathrooms, and let any confused colleague-acquaintances put two and two together for themselves? It feels harder this time, and scarier.

As time passes and my transition continues, both the internal and the physical aspects, I am able to spend more time in the mindset of my true self, and less time lost in anxiety about others’ perceptions of me. In these sweet periods of time, I am less phased by misgendering, because I feel grounded in myself, and others’ inability to see that is their mistake, not mine. I remember that I am growing into myself, and it’s a process. I remember that my good friends are growing with me, and their perceptions of me will shift over time. I can sink into the amazing feeling that, despite all of the anxiety I have described above, I am more free to be my whole self than I have ever felt before. I have access to an internal sense of grounding that was never there before, and a sense of an internal resource of joy and gratitude that is stronger than I have ever sensed in myself before. What I am going through now is one of the most amazing adventures I’ve ever been on – the journey toward my whole self, and in the face of so much struggle, I also feel more alive than I ever have before.

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2 Responses to Perception Anxiety

  1. kwixote says:

    As a cis-gendered, hetero middle-aged man, I am so glad you posted this, because it helps me to understand some things I have been having trouble understanding.

    As someone who never quite “fit in” growing up (probably more because of my mind than my body), and as a person of faith, I have always had deep empathy for those who feel — for whatever reasons — that they don’t fit into our cultural norms and expectations. I have also never been particularly comfortable with the rigid gender roles I was born into, which led me to consider myself a feminist at a fairly early age, which for me involves questioning patriarchy and my own white, male privilege.

    So when I began to learn several years ago of the phenomenon of trans people (yes, I had to learn about it), I was (and still am!) naturally sympathetic. First, it is clear that some trans people are in deep pain because of their position in our society, and I am always in empathy with any human who is in pain. Second, it is clear that there is a huge diversity of both sexual preference and sexual identity among humans, so why force people into roles they don’t want to play? This stuff is very fluid (see: Nature) and it’s silly to try to force people into pre-established categories. I think everybody should just be whomever they want to be. Just tell me whatever you’d like to be known as, and that’s fine with me.

    Still, even sympathetic liberal ol’ me didn’t understand everything about how this stuff works. So when you started this blog, I was happy — first, because you are being whom you need to be (yay!) and second, because it gives me a chance to learn more about trans issues. This blog also led me to great finds — like the “What’s Normal, Anyway?” strip above (which I ate up in one sitting) — which helped me understand more.

    But there are some things along the way that have still been hard for me to understand. Regularly, you speak with great feeling about being “misgendered.” I understand why you feel strongly, and I know you try to guard against what I’m about to describe, but you should know that when a middle-aged hetero cis-gendered guy like me hears that term, it sounds like an accusation: “misgendering” sounds like something clearly and obviously bad that I (or others like me) intentionally do to you. Intellectually, I know that’s not exactly the case: just as I am comfortable acknowledging my white, male, hetero privilege without turning that into a counterproductive defensive sense of guilt or shame, so too can I acknowledge my cis- privilege without feeling defensive or guilty. And in no way would I want to take that term away from you because clearly it’s useful for describing something you actually live — and I want very much to know what that is like. (If I could boldface that last sentence I would.)

    But if gender is so fluid anyway, why expect others to peg you to one particular boy/girl category in the first place? In this sense, “misgendering” seems to ignore the fact that gender (at least the boy/girl gender binary in the U.S.) is basically a social construct. When people at the mall “sir” or “mam” you, they’re not making claims about your essential nature: they’re just reading outward signs and doing their best to interpret them in a way that conforms to existing social norms — because that’s all they’ve got to go on. So if somebody’s outward appearance is different than the gender they internally identify with, the chances that I will “misgender” them are pretty high. So, when I encounter the term “misgendering” frequently, I feel a bit like interacting with trans people may be like walking in a minefield, with any little false step on my part likely to cause great pain on your part. That has been troubling me.

    So today’s post is really useful because, by sharing your own conflicted feelings about how sometimes your desire to identify as male can get in the way of your more liberational and complex, lived, trans identity as the full person you are. The fact that you question your own need to control others’ gender expectations of you makes me realize that when you speak of others “misgendering” you, you are describing a situation that is far more nuanced and complex than I read into your earlier posts. It’s not just a minefield for me — it’s a minefield for you, too! This living as humans seeking wholeness is never easy, but it is worthwhile. I really, really appreciate the glimpse into your life and experience that you have given me in your blog, and I look forward to learning more.

    • Thanks for sharing this! You say: “It’s not just a minefield for me — it’s a minefield for you, too!” Yes! Absolutely! I appreciate you sharing your learning process with this, and I’m glad my posts are helpful. Heck, my posts are helpful for my own understanding of my experience, too – putting things into words helps me to clarify my feelings, and it’s a bonus when others can gain some of that clarity, too.

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