Up until I was 21, my experiences with presenting as the gender I felt inside were entirely contained within the four walls of my parents’ house. And only when I was the sole occupant.
In the safety of that isolated space, I learned a lot about what would work and what would not, so by the time I began to venture outside, I already had some (albeit untested) idea of how to pass.
My early experiences of going out presenting female, rare and fleeting though they were, taught me a great deal more about what goes into the ability to “pass”.
In short: a hell of a lot.
Passing, for the uninitiated, is what we trans people call being able to look enough like the gender we feel inside to be generally treated as a person of that gender. Some people call the ability to do this “passing privilege”. Some trans people have complete passing privilege and the folk out there who believe they can “tell” a transgender person from a cisgender person only believe this because there are also many trans people who’s bodies simply do not afford them the ability to pass.
I know I’m very lucky with my body in that I’m quite short (for a male…I’m average height for a female), I’ve never been stocky, nor muscular and I’ve never had a great deal of body hair. Some might say I’ve always been quite feminine for someone born with a male body. Even so, there are any number of things which prevent me from passing which is why, like most trans people I’ve spoken to or read about, my initial attempts to pass were quite ridiculous.
If we look back at photos of ourselves when we were teenagers, most of us feel at least some sense of embarrassment. The teen years are when most of us are feeling our way through society’s expectations of us – how to dress, how to behave, what to say, how to style our hair, how much makeup to apply (if any). As we learn, we hone our skills at being able to know what’s acceptable, what’s not and we gradually establish how we ourselves want to present ourselves to the world.
Imagine having to go through all that for a second time. This is what trans people face when they begin their transition. For most of us, the early stages are embarrassing all over again, only this time – for many of us – we’re grown adults feeling our way through society’s expectations. The disdain we receive from the world around us is that much more severe.
Again, despite the consequences of suppressing my gender identity for so long, I know that in many ways I’m quite lucky in the way I’ve undergone my transition. Unlike some trans people who find that they have to go full-time very quickly for the sake of their mental health, I was able to gradually explore my gender identity, essentially revealing myself and learning about myself bit-by-bit such that by the time I began to present full-time, I’d spent close to 20 years essentially in training.
Having supportive people around me and never really giving much of a fuck what society expects has helped a great deal. Embarrassment is one emotion I simply don’t engage with.
That said, there is a big difference between not caring what society expects and being willing to deal with non-stop negativity.
Which brings us to my ongoing challenge of trying to pass.
I can only speak from the perspective of a trans woman trying to pass as a female and, though I know the trials of being a trans man are equally significant, I will focus on what I have experienced and try not speculate on the experiences of others.
When I finally found the courage to go out and buy my first womens’ clothing (at 21 years of age), much to CC’s dismay (because she is WONDERFUL and was helping me buy them), I gravitated toward the shortest of skirts, the tightest of tops, fishnet stockings, lingerie and heavy makeup. It horrified her because, as she put it later: if I was trying to appear like a woman, then this overt sexuality must be how I viewed women!
But that was not the case at all. The reason I gravitated toward all of that (generally risqué) stuff was because it was what I felt was the MOST feminine and the LEAST masculine of clothing. In those early stages, I was trying to retreat from the gender I didn’t identify with – that I’d been forced to live in and conform to since birth – and do it as fast as I could. I’ve spoken to a lot of trans women and people who work with trans women and this story is certainly not unusual for the initial stages of transition.
As a result of not only the risque clothing and makeup, but also the fact that I’d spend 21 years trying very hard to “be a man”, when I first started to presented as female, the comments came thick and fast from everywhere – from those who care about me and also those who very much did don’t. For me, of course, they were all to do with appearing too masculine.
“You walk like a man”
“Your jaw is too square”
“Your voice is all wrong”
“You look like Krusty the Clown”
“Your arms are too muscly”
“You stumble too much in heels”
“Your mannerisms aren’t right”
“Your makeup makes you look like a clown”
“No women actually do that”
“You look like a man in a dress”
“You need to sit straighter”
“You have no hips”
“It looks like you’re wearing clown shoes”
“Your chest is too big – you need bigger boobs”
“You have man hands”
“I can see exactly where your undercarriage is”
There are a lot more, these are just the ones which stuck with me. And almost every single one has affected the way I present myself in some way or other.
Did you note the clown theme? Yeah, there’s a reason trans women are so often the comedy relief in mainstream entertainment and a lot of it is to do with trans women in their early stages of transition trying DESPERATELY to embody this sense of self they have inside. OK, yes to be fair drag queens also bear some of the responsibility and I have seen many HILARIOUS drag queens. But still, laughing at the way a person looks when they’re so vulnerable and inexperienced in the world they’re stepping into really isn’t that funny is it?
If you look at all of the criticisms above you can see that this is EXACTLY the same stream of criticism young girls face as they grow up and develop into women. Of COURSE I know that this isn’t right and that society’s view of women is idiotic. I respect every single woman who has endured this bullshit and yet still grown into a functional person, but my brain-body alignment is idiotic too and I just wanted to look the way I felt.
Did I feel like an impossible Barbie doll shape inside?
Would I have traded my body for ANY female body?
No person has “the perfect body” because there’s no such thing. Everyone has flaws and I know this, but when you’re trans and every criticism feels like it’s shoving you back in that place you started, the place you’re trying to escape, the place where you’re “a man in a dress”, the need to conform to this idiotic set of standards can sometimes take over.
It’s a discussion CC and I have had many, many times – do we really want our daughter to grow up looking up to someone who tries to conform to all of these idiotic standards?
Well…of course not.
As I type this I’m sitting here in my jeans, mary janes, t-shirt dress and a Richmond Football Club hoodie (because of course), but I am wearing my wig. I have a teensy bit of eyeliner (no wings today) & a natural lipstick on. And though I’m not presently speaking, if I did, I know I’d be affecting as realistically feminine a voice as I could (which is to say not feminine at all).
…Freak…Man in a dress…
As I type this, I know I want to show our daughter and our sons a world free of the expectation girls and women have to either refuse to conform to or go mad trying to meet, but I wonder if I can be brave enough to refuse to conform to them myself.