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“You totally can’t tell!” Trans passing and appearance culture

January 22, 2018

I’ve been safely transitioned for a while, now. What I mean is, I’ve been on testosterone and looked like a man for long enough not to worry if I look the part. I am unlikely to be pointed at in the street, or harangued in bathrooms for my birth certificate. 

Frankly, if I tell people I’m trans, and they say something like: “You totally can’t tell,” I’m inclined to laugh, because I’m at the point where I think: “Of course you can’t tell. That’s the whole idea.” Some transition it would be if you didn’t look the opposite sex to the one you were born as, by the end of it all.

Insofar as there is an end to transition. It’s really an ongoing thing, with your brain continuing to change as you age, further and further away from what you used to be. This matters because our idea about transgenderism still appears to be framed by the idea that “a sex change” is a single operation, as opposed to years of rehabilitation into a new life, within a different section of society. It’s about finding yourself again, in this brand new context, and accepting that your world is changing.

I can laugh jovially about the strange old-fashioned commentary surrounding transgenderism because I am certain that I look the part, and therefore don’t need reassurance. In this world of political correctness, cisgender people like transgender people like me, and not the other, easily offended kind, because I come off as relaxed and open, with a sense of humour about it all.

This is the way most of people aspire to be and think the world should be, ideally. However, it can’t be stressed enough that this attitude is the privilege of people who feel comfortable in their own skin. I haven’t always been that way. It grew as I grew. People aren’t born made out of granite, we are all snowflakes, and some of us get hardened quickly, for better or for worse, while others stay soft.

Overcoming something difficult, like transition, gives you healthy coping mechanisms and realistic expectations – if you process them properly. There’s nothing like being trans for putting body woes into perspective, I find; I worry less about weight and perfect skin than a lot of cis people my age and generation. I’ve heard a lot, seen a lot, felt a lot. I am no longer fragile.

It’s important to acknowledge this difference in attitude that occurs, laboriously, as a result of this process. In the interim, there is inevitably a lot of anger and sensitivity. Comments which are poorly thought out are salt in an open wound. The open wound is not the fault of the person speaking; but they must take some responsibility for the salt, if only to say: “I didn’t realise that was salt, instead of sugar. I apologise.”

Trans people who get offended often are not unreasonable, no matter how they seem. We are allowed the same range of emotions and complexity as cisgender people, therefore are allowed simply to be uncomfortable in our own skin, and sensitive to any mention of it. As such, even something which is intended as a compliment can be a painful reminder of how far there is to go, both for the individual and for the community.

The flip side of “You totally can’t tell” is the implication that, sometimes, you totally can tell. Trans people prefer not to think about that. It’s bad enough to know that it’s true, without being reminded of it by others. It’s not just cis people who do this. Trans people do it to each other as well, even though we should really know better, especially those of us who are late in transition.

We live in a world that is, at its baseline, shallow. Transphobia in the media is inextricably bound with aestheticism; trans people (especially women) who don’t look the part are held to be more dangerous, more intrusive of female-only spaces, more aggressive and generally just the types of people you’d avoid in the street.

The transwomen that look and sound the part are more likely to be seen as women even by people who are determined not to see them as such, because we are all suckers for the evidence of our own eyes. It doesn’t matter how “aggressive” they are, i.e., assertive of their rights and opinions. For no good reason, they get an easier ride than people who don’t “pass”.

The transphobic behave as though to look trans is the ultimate sin. Not being trans. Not self-identity; self-identity without what they perceive to be the appropriate amount of follow-through. It judges people well before they are “finished” (simply, at to the point where they pass, or at least feel comfortable). This is about as fair as comparing the appearance of a 14-year old girl with that of a 24 year-old woman.

We are asked not to focus too much on the appearance of women and girls. Feminist theory says that we pay far too much notice of how women look. If your view is that transwomen have the same rights as women – or for that matter, that any gender of person has the same rights as any other – some attempt should be made to move away from the language of appearance when talking about trans people.

Inevitably, trans individuals will worry about how they look, that’s just the way of things. For everyone else, it’s worth thinking about whether it’s a good idea to focus so strongly on appearance and outcomes. Up to a point, being trans is about how you look. That’s the practical reality of it; you take hormones, you have surgery, you cut your hair, you look different. But that’s only a surface indication of what’s going on.

In another very real sense, being trans has nothing to do with how you look. It’s a complex fabric of emotions that come from a deeply rooted, deeply buried place; it is a unique, inexplicable, ineffable condition which effects each person differently.

This is the problem that gender-by-self-identity is attempting to solve; appearance can’t tell you much, without the context of time and subjective experience. The message behind transgenderism, which we tend to accept, is that people aren’t bodies – they’re people; and so, if we respect the reality of transgenderism, we should be less interested in how people look, and more in how they feel.


From → Gender Politics, LGBT

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