I suppose the title of this post reflects how I have been torn between two positions following a couple of incidents recently. One was a little more serious than the other, but both were examples of the same phenomenon and I’m not exactly sure how I feel about them.
The first example was something that I wrote about it a reasonable amount of detail in my previous blog. I was out with my friend Jonathan in the bar of a Belfast city centre hotel, and as we were leaving shortly after 10pm he heard a woman in the bar make a transphobic comment about me. I didn’t hear it at all, and Jonathan refuses to tell me what it was precisely that she said, but upon leaving the bar he enquired as to my state of mind in the mistaken belief that I had indeed heard the comment. I must admit that I slightly snapped at him because all it seemed to me that he had done was to burst my bubble at thinking I was going unnoticed and flying under the radar. On reflection, I suspect what happened was that with us having sat in our own cubicle at one end of the bar all night, I hadn’t walked past her booth so when suddenly she saw a six-foot-plus person in a skirt that was the trigger. I always have had an issue with my height, and I do think it’s responsible for her at least taking a second look. But as I wrote in my last post, this incident did have a significant impact on my confidence for a few days.
The second example of this happened the following Wednesday. I was sitting in the M&S Cafe at Sprucefield with Andrea and Michelle when Michelle piped up “That woman that just walked past was pointing us out to her daughter”. So in a similar manner to Jonathan revealing the transphobic comment the previous week, I had been snapped out of my blissful ignorance and good mood by the (to me completely unnecessary) revelation that I and indeed we had been read. So I snapped again “Well thanks for letting me know”. I think Andrea had been similarly unaware and I doubt that this news did much to improve her mood either. Although of course the woman in question could always have been pointing out my gorgeous sandals, or Andrea’s pretty new dress. So I came up with a rough guide on the spot for situations such as this:
If you hear a comment or see a look that is beyond all doubt a read, and I don’t mention anything about it, then it’s either because;
(a) I haven’t heard or seen it, in which case don’t mention it as I don’t want to know;
(b) I have heard or seen it, but I’m not mentioning it as I don’t want to talk about it, in which case don’t mention it.
So it was left as such and the conversation moved on to other topics. At least, it did while we remained inside M&S. Then when Michelle and I were leaving later after a bit of in-store browsing, she apologised again for having mentioned the read. And predictably, I got annoyed again “Michelle!” I said “You’ve just brought the subject up again! I don’t want to talk about it!” I feel bad for having done that, she was only trying to do the right thing.
My reaction on a gut level to this incident was considerably milder than it had been for the earlier incident with Jonathan. I think that there were three key differences in the more recent case; while it was indeed likely that we had been read it wasn’t completely certain; that if we had really been read there were three of us so it wasn’t necessarily me that was the “weakest link” (although it could have been); and finally that the woman in M&S was probably trying to be discreet unlike the woman in the hotel bar drunkenly and loudly spouting an indeterminate transphobic label at me specifically.
Now I want to make it clear, I don’t really think badly of either Michelle or Jonathan for mentioning these things, what I’m writing about is my own reaction to these revelations, and whether or not I’m actually right to prefer not to know. I think I was probably quite unfair with both of them, and Jonathan in particular was enquiring as to my wellbeing as he couldn’t imagine that I hadn’t heard anything. But neither of them did anything wrong per se, I’m more dealing with my reaction to what they did or said in good faith. I hope this post doesn’t come across as me venting at either of them because it’s not the case. It’s more just that these two things happened in relatively close proximity, and they made me think about things. And I always enjoy writing posts where an incident has set me off on a train of thought – much more so than “I went here and did this then went there and did that” style of posts. So really I should be grateful to both of them.
In a way it’s a nice straightforward “black or white” choice. If a companion believes I (or we) have been read, is it ok for them to tell me? Yes or no? I’m plumping for no at a very basic level, but with several reservations. On the side of no, my main thought is that it doesn’t achieve anything positive, but achieves several negative things. My ability to function in a relatively normal fashion while presenting female only exists because I am in the fortunate position of having developed a certain level of confidence in my ability to do that. It’s a virtuous circle. I go out, get along fine, don’t spot anything untoward, which builds confidence. This confidence then means that the next time I go out, I act in a more natural way because I’m not going round trying to second-guess if anyone thinks I might be a man. I’m not aware of other women walking round trying to check nobody thinks they’re male, so a trans woman doing just that tends to be a bit of a giveaway. Throw some doubt into that mix by having a little devil on your shoulder muttering “He’s read you. She’s read you. Look at her talking to her. Definitely talking about you” and so on, and that confidence can evaporate alarmingly quickly. And once the confidence goes, the virtuous circle becomes very much vicious. Walking about looking shiftily at everyone, expecting to be read, which then causes me to be read, with further diminishes my confidence, etc. So no, I don’t want to know if you think I’ve been read, because if I start feeling I’m being read constantly, then you know what will happen? I will be read constantly.
Let’s take a look at it from the other perspective. The most obvious question is; how will I improve my presentation if I don’t know when it’s failing or what’s causing it to fail? Am I just being an idiot wandering round thinking I’m appearing as a woman to all and sundry when in fact I’m blissfully unaware of everyone laughing at me behind my back? If I don’t think I’m being read, then I can’t take steps to improve my presentation. And even more than that, if I’m the brunt of an overtly transphobic comment or action, then isn’t it important for my own safety that I’m aware of what’s going on around me? Of course it is. In the context of this thought, I think now that with Jonathan’s incident, it’s better that he told me. Sometimes I need to know if there’s a risk that a look, comment, nudge and snigger might escalate into something a lot worse if I don’t take evasive action. This is particularly important in a situation like that evening where it’s getting a little later and alcohol is likely to have been involved. By contrast, I can’t really think of how I benefitted from the revelation in M&S that a woman appeared to have pointed three of us out to her daughter. On that evening, it wasn’t 100% clear that we had indeed been read, and even if we had been read, we were unlikely to be in any danger whatsoever as a result. So what did Andrea and I gain as a result of being informed that a woman appeared to be pointing us out to her daughter which *might* have meant that we were read? Nothing. We gained nothing. But it broke the mood and I for one got distracted from just enjoying our evening.
Of course, there is a third way here. One in which “passing” isn’t the key so much as authenticity. Mia wrote about this at some length on her blog a few months ago, and if you haven’t read that post I’d recommend that you do so now. She’s a much better writer than me. Anyway, while intellectually I can appreciate the thrust of the argument, on a purely emotional level it upsets me that people would see me as anything other than the woman I feel myself to be. I can’t train myself to feel otherwise, welcome as that relief would be. However, there are some elements that do ring true with me. In short, I think that what I try to do is strike a balance between passing and self-expression. Let me elaborate…
Following the incident in M&S Andrea, with my blessing, gave me a fairly short list of areas where she thought I might be drawing extra attention to myself. Things that people might be picking up on, other than my height which I obviously can’t do anything about. I actually found my own reaction to this list quite interesting. I wasn’t annoyed at Andrea at all, after all I did ask her for this help, but there were a few examples where I just thought “no, I’m not changing that”. I’m not going to go into details of what was said between the two of us, but there were a few things that she said that I thought that yes, she has a point and I can improve that. Most notably one mannerism I have which she says is very “gay man” and not at all “woman”. So I’m trying to eliminate that. I wasn’t even consciously doing it but there you go. However there were a few comments she made where I just thought, no I’m not changing. The key is that everything she said would probably push me further down the road of “passability” towards being as passable as possible. There was a list of tips and actions all of which would work in that direction. If all I was interested in was passing, I would be following every tip. They were all good and were all fair comment. However, at some points I have to draw the line and say that going that far would not be being true to who I am. So if one or two of my presentational or fashion choices run the risk of attracting attention that could be avoided were I to dress or behave in a slightly different way, then that’s a risk that I have to live with. I spend so much of my life an a male role, just feeling that I’m not being who I really am, that to then present as female but in a way that is still not consistent with who I feel I really am, well it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to me.
So where does this all get me? Probably not a great deal further on than where I began. In fact, I wrote a whole post about passing a month or so ago, so I hope I’m not retreading too much old ground in this one. I don’t think I am. That one was about whether or not I think I pass, how much I strive towards passing and my attitude to it. This is a little different, and is about my reaction to being told that I’m not passing, and indeed whether or not I want or need to know if I’m not passing. And on that subject, I have amended my prior “rough guide” into a flowchart. But the short version is this: If I might be in danger as a result of not knowing I’ve been read, tell me so I can take appropriate action. Otherwise, keep schtum.
Thank you for reading.