Outsider perspective

I was talking with some trans men recently, and they said something to the effect of, “Nobody told me I’d be short!” Obviously, they knew how tall they were, both on an absolute scale and relative to the men around them, but they knew it in their heads. That didn’t really prepare them for the reality of going through life as a short guy. Similarly, nothing prepared me for the reality of being a tall, overweight woman, for the pain of walking in heels and the discomfort of the male gaze.

When I posted about my trans feelings back in January, one response was that I didn’t sound like a woman, that the feelings I wrote about don’t support any claims to “interiority,” and that I have an “outsider perspective.” The commenter assumed that I would claim this interiority because I identified as a trans woman, but the point of my post was that I don’t claim any kind of interior femininity. I do have occasional flashes of “insider perspective” on a woman’s life, but they come from the limited time I’ve spent in women’s roles, not from some essential “interiority.”

I’ve observed the same thing in other trans people. The degree of understanding I see in other trans women is proportional to the amount of real experience they have living in the world as women and interacting with others as women. And no, experience in support groups and “trans women only” spaces doesn’t count. I’ve never seen any evidence to support claims of inner femininity.

Maybe you say that I don’t see their inner femininity because I’m “really a man.” But think about the transmasculine friends I mentioned above. You can’t get much more of an outsider perspective than not knowing how short men are treated. If you believe that these trans men have always been “really men” too, why didn’t they know?

Not only do many trans people persist in claiming interior femininity (or masculinity), but many are willing to accept those claims – or even to claim them on behalf of other people. Not long ago a trans man told me that I was so obviously feminine that I should be making plans to transition. It wasn’t the first time people have told me that I should transition, or assumed that I’d already transitioned, or even assumed that I was born and raised a woman. Some have even assumed I was a trans man. None of them were right. People are bad judges of this stuff.

Even if you believe that trans women are and have always been women, and that trans men are and have always been men, you should be able to accept that many aspects of masculinity and femininity are cultural, and that knowledge of these aspects is very difficult to acquire without direct experience. Trans men who haven’t lived as men will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of masculinity, and trans women who have never lived as women will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of femininity.

Some of us don’t transition

In the past I’ve done verbal hygiene on the words “transgender” and “coming out,” and now I feel like I need to do some on the word “transition.” I have always thought of transition as meaning that someone takes on a new identity, with a new name and a new presentation, and a new gender marker to go with it. Almost twenty years ago I decided not to transition, meaning that even though I regularly feel gender dysphoria (a discomfort with living as a man) and transgender desire (a desire to live as a woman), I examined my options and concluded that I wanted to continue living as a man most of the time. Back then it seemed pretty clear to everyone what transition was, and I chose not to do it.

Maybe I'm transitioning to a new Centauri identity...
Maybe I’m transitioning to a new Centauri identity…
Once in a while when I tell people I’m transgender and out but not transitioning, I get a puzzled reaction about the “not transitioning.” The first time I recall was about ten years ago from Reid Vanderburgh, but I’ve heard it from several other people since. The general idea is that everyone’s idea of “transition” is personal. I can just decide that for me “transition” means not changing much of anything, so then I must have transitioned!

I guess this line of thinking is meant in a nice way, but there are a few things that bother me about it. The first is that it undermines its own claims to respect my definitions. In this view, I can have any definition of transition I want, as long as I transitioned. I am not allowed to define transition in such a way that I – or any trans person – have the option to not do it.

The second problem is that it erases very real prototype effects. Maybe Vanderburgh and friends will respect my personal definition of “transition,” but they have no power to compel anyone else to. Even if people do accept the idea, that means that nobody knows what I mean by “transition” until I tell them.

As I understand it, they think that I can talk about “my transition” and everyone will keep an open mind and not make any assumptions about what it entails. But that’s really not how anyone’s mind works. We always have an image for any category. If I mention “my dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a common breed like a yellow Lab or a German Shepherd, or maybe a pit bull or a Maltese if you know city dogs. If I then tell you I have a great Dane or a Bassett hound or a Chihuahua you might not be surprised, but you won’t envision one until I tell you, because they’re not prototypical dogs.

Similarly, if I mention “my transition,” you’re going to envision hormones, surgery and a name and document change, because that’s the common transition image. There are so many people doing it who are so vocal about it, that me saying, “I shave my legs more often now” is not going to budge the needle.

Finally, there’s a message I want to send: that you can be trans and lead a relatively happy life without hormones or surgery, and without significantly changing your gender presentation, name, pronouns or legal documentation. For me, the easiest way to say that is “I’m trans, and I decided long ago not to transition.” Take that away, and it makes it that much harder for me to say what I want to say.

The bottom line is that people have images, schemas in their heads for every category. That’s the way the mind works, and saying, “everyone has their own definition” doesn’t make it so. There are some things you can legislate about language, but you can’t legislate prototypes out of existence.

Short Skirt/Long Jacket

Short Skirt Long Jacket
a mind like a diamond knows what’s best
shoes that cut eyes that burn like cigarettes
playing with her jewelry the right allocations
putting up her hair fast and thorough and sharp as a tack
fingernails that shine like justice touring the facilities
a voice that is dark like tinted glass picking up slack
stays up late gets up early
a car with a cupholder armrest a car that will get her there
Kitty Karen
MG white Chrysler LeBaron
Hey! Ho!
uninterrupted prosperity
uses a machete to cut through red tape
smooth liquidation
good dividends

More or less…

Anticipation and gratification

I’ve gone out in public presenting as a woman a few times this summer, which gave me the opportunity to examine my feelings around those types of experiences. One observation is that what I’ve been calling “gender fog” has at least three distinct phases to it: the anticipation of a significant gender event, the event itself and the reaction to the event. I’ve never experienced one phase without the others, but the feelings I feel in each phase are somewhat different.


The anticipation phase is the most uncomfortable for me. I experience intense excitement, insomnia and difficulty concentrating on anything other than the upcoming event. I find myself planning and rehearsing and rehashing all the details: what I’ll wear, where I’ll go, who I’ll see, and so forth. On the day of the event, I may have shaky hands and low appetite.

The excitement may taper off as the event begins, particularly if what I’m doing is not all that exciting in itself. But the feelings of satisfaction and gratification may grow, even if my feet are hurting or strange men are making me uncomfortable.

After the event, I tend to feel a certain satisfaction. I feel particularly gratified if the event goes well, but usually I feel some gratification even if the event wasn’t particularly satisfying. I often replay the event in my mind, focusing on the most gratifying details: who said what, who did what, what looked good on me in the mirror.

In this gratification period I also find myself thinking about future events: what else would be fun to do? If I see a pretty woman on the street, I may compare myself with her, and feel a desire to be out there on the street looking just as pretty as her. If I bought new clothes, I usually try them on at home and think about when I could wear them in the future.

The gratification period is also when I think most about how “easy” the event was (often because I’ve filtered out the difficult parts in my memory) and how much fun (often because I’ve filtered out any unpleasant parts). I find myself thinking about the possibility of spending longer periods as a woman, or doing it more often. If it begins while I’m still presenting as a woman, that’s the time when I may do something unwise, like the time I went home to the South Bronx without changing first.

I’ve toyed with the idea of separating the notion of “gender fog” into two feelings: anticipation and gratification. At this point I’m leaning towards simply talking about them as two distinct phases in the gender fog process, but I might change my mind about this.