Mrs K is a writer, an author of two novels and many more planned but as yet unwritten ones, and she has a term that she uses to describe how a writer puts all her ideas into a big heap in her subconscious, then allows the subconscious to mulch them up into something worthwhile over a period of time. “Composting”, she calls it. I have been doing my fair share of composting over the last month since I returned from my trip to England with Andrea. I should really do a bit of a catch-up on what’s been going on the last month, but I’ll save that for next time as this thing has been fermenting for a while.
What I have been thinking about is the old chestnut of “passing”, or at least using it as the starting point for a few random thoughts. I have written about this a few times, mentioned it in passing (pardon the pun), commented about it on other blogs, but I’m not sure I have ever set down just how I feel about it for over a year. And there is no doubt that things have moved on dramatically for me in the last year. So where am I now? Do I think I pass? Do I care if I pass or not? Is there any value in passing? And a slightly tangential but probably key question; what exactly is passing anyway?
When I first started going out in public presenting as female in April last year, passing was hugely important to me. I was very nervous stepping out for the first time, and the overriding thoughts were of whether I would pass or not, because in my mind the real fear was that I would be called out by passers-by for trying to masquerade as a woman. This belief was aided in no small way by Mrs K’s firm assertion that I would be beaten up if ever I walked out in public “wearing women’s clothes”, as she put it. Of course that has turned out not to be the case (so far – fingers crossed). So my belief at that time was that passing was the way to avoid detection, confrontation and danger. And it was also my belief at that time that if I didn’t believe I could pass, or make a good stab at passing, there was no way I could ever have gone out in public, and I would have had to resign myself to a life of hiding my femininity in the closet, unfair and heartbreaking as that would be. Very pragmatic, me!
Although I have carried this part of myself for just about as long as I can remember, until relatively recently my dressing was confined to individual items here and there, and often completely dormant for long periods of time. There had never been an attempt to “pass myself off” as a woman, I had never even attempted to fully present as female. I always wanted to, but never did. Without going over old ground from the very early days of this blog, this was at least partly to spare Mrs K’s feelings by holding back on the true extent of my feelings, but I think a greater part of my reticence to cross the rubicon into transland was my own firm belief that I wouldn’t pass, wouldn’t look remotely feminine and not to put too fine a point on it, would look ridiculous. That would be much more upsetting that just never doing it. Then as I wrote about early last year, the urge became just too strong to resist and on 7th February 2014, alone and behind closed doors, I fully presented as female for the first time…
…and nobody was more surprised than me that I looked kind-of-ok. Nothing like my image now, of course, in fact I never went out in public in that big blonde wig, but still so much better than I could ever have imagined. It’s fairly difficult now for me to think back and remember just how amazing it felt to look at my reflection in the mirror that day, because when I look at the photos I took now I just recoil in horror. But it was an important stage I had to pass through, which is why those pages on the blog are still up (not linking to them though, if you’re that bothered I’m sure you can find them). But that day planted a seed that I might pass, which lead on to seeking out a group of similar crossdressers (as I thought of myself at the time) with whom I could meet up. I’m not even sure why I wanted to meet up because it was still to be behind closed doors, but I just wanted people I could talk to other than my wife, who wasn’t really hugely enamoured of the situation. The next thing I know I’ve got myself a shorter, more conservative wig, much more conservative clothing, and I’m walking into Tesco in a blouse and skirt. Passing. Or possibly not. But at the very least going unnoticed and unremarked-upon. That first outing was clearly the opening of the floodgates, and set the tone for all that has followed.
What has changed for me in the 14 months since that first outing is my attitude to passing, or at least my focus on it and how I relate to it. When I first started going out, I dressed very conservatively so as not to draw attention to myself. So conservatively, in fact, that Mrs K remarked that Kirsty dresses like a librarian – to her, Kirsty is a person other than her husband. In fact, by way of a quick aside, the last time Mrs K met Kirsty in person was July last year, at which point I still had a touch of the librarian about me so she still thinks I dress like that. Which I don’t. But anyway, in the early days all I wanted to do was go unnoticed. I’m not sure if that’s the same thing as passing, but that’s what it meant to me. As time has moved on, my position has changed somewhat.
My view now is that I present how I feel, and I feel female. So I present female. That is for me. I want to look in the mirror and see a woman looking back at me. I don’t want to see a man. I don’t want to see an androgynous inbetweener. I want to see a woman. I already feel like a woman, or at the very least like I should be a woman. Yes, I know I’m reinforcing the gender binary and all that, suck it up TERFs, but that is how I feel. In order to feel like a woman, I have to feel like I am being viewed as a woman. If you are a cis woman, would you feel happy for strangers to think you’re a man? I doubt it. Well I don’t like the thought of strangers thinking I’m a man either. It’s quite a hard thing to explain, even inside my own head. I do think of myself as a feminist, and I wholly support gender equality (and also based on race, sexual orientation, religious belief or lack thereof etc) but I think it would be a fool who believes that just because women and men are equal, this means that they are the same. Nobody should be prevented from being themselves, and gender should never be a barrier to achievement. But you can’t pretend that gender doesn’t really exist just because it’s inconvenient to your worldview. When you let dogma blind you to reality, you’re just another flat-earther. If reality doesn’t match up with your theory, it’s always because your theory is wrong. Reality can’t possibly be wrong. Genders exist. Trans people exist. Deal with it. Rant ends.
Although it’s important to me to feel female, and to achieve that I need to feel that other people are viewing me as female, counterintuitively I try not to get hung up on how other people are viewing me. One of the wisest things that my counsellor Colleen said to me was “Never assume you know what anyone else is thinking”. This was in connection to a conversation about passing, and I had remarked about having noticed myself getting a few looks. She said, quite correctly, that I can’t possibly know what those looks signified, if anything at all. The person could have just been absent-mindedly looking in my direction. A man could have been checking me out (really!), or a woman could have been checking out my fashion choices. Men don’t look at other men in case it’s interpreted as aggressive. Women don’t really look at men in case it’s interpreted as a come-on. Men look at women to assess how attractive they are. Women look at other women for a variety of reasons. In short, women get looked at a lot more than men. So if I find that I get looked at a lot more when presenting female than presenting male, that is entirely consistent with passing. Just because the looks I get are higher in number and different in nature than those few that I receive when presenting male, doesn’t mean I have been read. Of course, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been read either, but unless someone overtly tells me, I can’t possibly know. I am Schrodinger’s woman.
Something else worth bearing in mind is that the very act of trying to assess if one has been read or not can in fact lead one to be read. Cis women are not in the habit of walking round trying to ascertain if anyone thinks they are in fact a man. So neither am I going to do that. I think that way lies madness. Looking at everyone for glances and micro (or macro-) expressions that give away that I have been giving myself away. No. Just no. And not only that, if I’m looking for signs of being read, I will almost certainly interpret completely innocent expressions as being signs of just that. To borrow scientific language, I have no control sample. I don’t know what an “I’ve secretly read you” expression actually looks like so I can’t possibly recognise it when I see it. So I might well fall into the old logical trap of I’m looking for something / this is something / this is what I’m looking for which is of course horrendously flawed.
I have written a few posts in the past bemoaning my lack of progress toward transition, or my inability due to circumstances to really contemplate that step. I don’t want to revisit that, and to a certain extent I have learned to live with the status quo. However I raise the subject again because a few people had commented that perhaps the way to go would be to employ “salami tactics”, where I transition one very thin slice at a time, none of which are in themselves earth-shattering. Essentially this approach to transition is to go from full male to full female via a sliding scale of androgyny. I recognise that some trans people are happy to view androgyny as a compromise, and preferable to full male presentation, but it isn’t for me. I am neither androgynous nor genderqueer any more than I am male, maybe even less so. I want to be viewed as female, and presenting androgynously isn’t going to achieve that. In fact, the thought of presenting androgynously is considerably less appealing that presenting male. Is that surprising? I’m not sure.
I know in my heart of hearts that many people will recognise me as trans. But I am also confident that many won’t. But even if people do recognise me as a trans woman, as long as they don’t treat me any differently than they would any other woman, that is all I can ask. In fact, if they do that, as long as they don’t actually tell me that they have read me as trans, my experience is completely indistinguishable from what it would have been if they hadn’t read me at all. As long as I am treated as a woman, as far as I can tell, I am passing and I am where I want to be. Oddly enough, this feeling can be broken every bit as much by someone attempting to give me favourable treatment as turning their nose up at me. It’s treating me differently to other women that bursts my bubble, and it doesn’t really matter in what way the treatment differs. Although I have been very fortunate so far in that I really haven’t attracted any negative attention beyond one sales assistant barely stifling a laugh when looking at me. Which, to be honest, was a lot less upsetting that the berk in The Stirrup restaurant in Haworth, who was in an incredibly clumsy and cack-handed way trying to demonstrate how he was making allowances for us trans girls. Which finally brings me on to my definition of passing.
In the normal sense of the word, “passing” appears to mean convincing others that you are cis. This seems to me to be an unhelpful definition, as it’s impossible to gauge. Unless you conduct a survey of everyone with whom you interact, how can you possibly know? So I take a slightly different view. For me, “passing” is when I feel like I am being viewed and treated like any other woman. Whether those people with whom I interact actually recognise me as trans is completely irrelevant, and I genuinely don’t care if they do or not, but it is how I am treated that matters. And with that definition, I pass a lot. Not always, such as that time in Haworth, but often. And that’s what matters to me. A trans woman is just another kind of woman. I will never be a cis woman, no matter how much I might wish I had been born that way, so going through life wanting to be taken for a cis woman is a recipe for constant disappointment, because I’m wanting to be recognised as something I’m not. But going through life wanting to be recognised as a woman? That’s eminently do-able.