Coming out of having lived life as a queer woman, one of the realities of physical transition coupled with cis-normativity is an inevitable disconnection from some of the queer spaces I used to feel affirmed and accepted in. While I am still the same person I was, while I still have female socialization, and am culturally familiar with queer, mostly female spaces, even most queer folks have internalized cis-normativity. That is, even most queer folks presume everyone is cisgender, and so, seeing someone they perceive to be male in a mostly female queer space might feel like an intrusion by a cisgender guy, someone not so intimately familiar with the culture, someone representing gender oppression. I know this, because I’ve been on the other side – living as a queer woman, suspicious of men (who I presumed to be cisgender) at events aimed toward queer women. I, too, have had cis-normative lenses on for most of my life. While I would never expect my relationship with the queer community to remain the same in the face of an important life shift for me – even my relationship with myself is shifting – it is painful to face the inevitability of such invisibility.
Moving through the hetero-cis-normative world, where there is no space for your identity to exist, finding someone with whom you have solidarity as an outsider can mean a lot. This is no easy task, because, as I have mentioned before, you cannot tell whether or not someone is trans* just by looking at them, just as you cannot tell whether or not someone is gay just by looking at them. This can compound the feeling of isolation. Even so, this does not stop me – nor many other queer folks – from looking for fellow members of the queer/trans* community while out in public. For me, I’m always searching for scraps of solidarity, reminders that I’m not alone in the world. While you can never definitively know someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation without knowing that person, there are cues that I look for, namely some part of my own experience reflected in another person’s appearance or movements in ways identifiable to me almost entirely subconsciously. In the queer community, some folks call this ‘gay-dar’.
Riding the trolley to the conference center on the second day of the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference (PTHC), I spotted someone toward the front of the car who I thought might be trans*. What was remarkable to me was that this person also spotted me as a potential fellow queer/trans* person. As we departed the trolley, they came over to me and casually asked if I was headed to the convention center – a safe question, because chances were, I was either not heading there and wouldn’t know that there was a huge trans* conference happening and therefore wouldn’t think much of this question, or I was heading there, and would already be someone safely existing in solidarity. In this context, this person did not have to out themselves to connect with me. There aren’t always such clear, safe codes for finding such solidarity in public.
This interaction exemplified one of the more profound experiences I had at PTHC: being read as trans*. Out in cis-normative society, the options for me are either to be read as a cisgender man, or as a very masculine cisgender woman. One of these options partially affirms my gender identity while erasing my history and socialization, and the other makes me feel disconnected and dysphoric. Part of my striving to ‘pass’ as a cisgender man is because it is the lesser of two uncomfortable boxes I could be forced into. ‘Transman’ is never an option according to dominant culture, because trans* experiences aren’t supposed to exist, but trying to hide my trans-ness, trying to squeeze myself into a cis-male box, reinforces internalized shame about being transgender.
But at PTHC, surrounded by a majority of other trans* folks, I got to be both male and trans*. I got to be my whole self, for once. This experience offered me a taste of what I can only describe as trans* pride – ‘pride’ being the opposite of shame. It was the beginning of a new message for me to internalize, that it is okay to be transgender. Intellectually, I have known this for some time now, but deep down I still struggle with the internalized belief that I’m a subhuman freak.
In an earlier post I described some of the pain and angst that being misgendered can bring me. A lot of that angst comes from not wanting to draw attention to my gender situation, to my trans-ness, by pointing out that pronouns might be a complicated issue, even among friends. My internalized shame has led me to presume that it is somehow better to be misread as a cisgender woman, despite the intense dysphoria and anxiety that comes with that, than to be out as transgender. This is what society has taught me, even if I consciously believe it’s complete bullshit.
Right after PTHC, I went to the wedding of two dear friends of mine. In attendance were a number of other good friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen since coming out as transgender. It was inevitable that folks would get my pronouns wrong, and thus inadvertently highlighting my transgender status. But fresh out of my experience at PTHC, such misgendering didn’t bother me, because I wasn’t afraid to draw attention to my trans* identity by correcting folks. I was able to own my trans* identity without shame. What a huge relief! What a huge step forward for me!
Granted, the post-PTHC glow is limited. Last week a stranger on the street called me ma’am, and I’m still experiencing some of the effects of that moment, even though I’ve been called ‘buddy’ and ‘sir’ since that incident. As I move further in transition, I periodically settle into the knowledge that most folks are reading me as male, and then when someone misgenders me seemingly out of the blue, I question everything I thought I knew about my transition for the next week. In the past few days, I’ve begun to notice stares from strangers – I was recently in Boston, and twice had to glare back at strangers on the T (the subway) who each then quickly looked away. Have these kinds of stares been happening for awhile and I am just now noticing them out of self-consciousness after being ma’am-ed, or are they new?
Just today, an older man who works in a building adjacent to mine (but who doesn’t know me) stared openly at me as I walked toward and past him in a hallway. I stared back, and tried to nod ‘hello’ as I passed, but it was if I wasn’t a fellow human, my returned stare, a plea for human recognition, rendered meaningless, not worth acknowledging beyond his own curiosity. I felt like some kind of spectacle on display. This kind of dehumanization is what I am fighting against, and is what can lead to violence against trans* folks in other situations. This kind of visibility is not welcome. This is much, much different than being seen by a fellow queer/trans* person.
I dream of a world without so much gender baggage, where I can be my whole self and be fully seen everywhere. For now, though, I’ll keep toeing the line, and working on figuring out which boundaries I am ready to push.