Passing and credibility

You don’t have to hang around the trans world very long to encounter a message like “passability is overrated.” Many people go further and argue that passing should not be a goal. Yes, passing is overrated, and it means nothing in itself. But it does have value for other goals, and right now I want to focus on one goal in particular: credibility.

20140927_152708Activism needs credibility. Activism is all about convincing people. We want the public to believe that we deserve respect, that we deserve protection from discrimination and hate crimes, that we deserve access to bathrooms and medical care.

We also need credibility in our personal lives. Those of us who transition need others to believe in their transitions, to treat them as their desired gender. Those of us who don’t transition need others to believe that we can still be responsible members of society, that we should still be loved, and even that we don’t need to transition.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that attractive people have more success at convincing others. People pay more attention to attractive people (and here I don’t mean just sexually attractive). They also pay more attention to people who look “like us.” Maybe you think that’s not fair, it’s not the way things should be, and you’re probably right. We should work to make the world a more tolerant place. But there’s no point in ignoring the way that the world currently works.

The uncanny valley also turns people off. That’s the area where people have difficulty processing an image as a person or a thing, or a person or an animal. It’s also where people have difficulty deciding whether someone is a man or a woman, or “one of us” or one of them. The squirming depicted in Julia Sweeney’s “It’s Pat” sketches is a real-life occurrence. Again, maybe that’s not the way the world should be, and maybe we should change it. But we can’t ignore that the world is that way right now.

This is one reason why charismatic, attractive, passable people like Janet Mock and Chaz Bono are so popular as spokespeople for transgender activism. It’s also why such people are more readily accepted as members of their target gender. Again, that’s not the way it should be, but it is.

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…

Sunk costs and the non-transitioner

I’ve talked in the past about my choice to deal with my transgender feelings by coming out of the closet but not transitioning. There are several challenges to this approach, and tonight I want to talk about the challenge of sunk costs.

Why did I buy this lip gloss?
Why did I buy this lip gloss?
For those of us who choose transition, that transition quickly becomes the most important part of life. It affects almost every facet of how they interact with other people, every minute of their waking lives. It can affect their bodies in dramatic ways. It requires a huge investment of time, money and effort in mental preparation, practice, counseling, medical expenses, clothes, accessories, cosmetics and legal and government fees.

People who transition see those resources being put to constant use, and often can point to specific milestones towards a goal of being seen as “completely a woman” or “completely a man” (problematic goals, to be sure, but many people have them). Whether it’s a transition announcement, a hormone letter, a gender marker change, a gender presentation change, these milestones can serve as confirmation that the resources haven’t been wasted.

Sometimes we forget that those of us who don’t transition have significant costs as well. Many of us spend a lot of time practicing speech and body language, and a lot of money on counseling, soft body mods, clothes, accessories and cosmetics. But we only see that time, money and energy put to use when we do present as our target gender, and if we don’t transition that may not be very often.

In some ways I envy transitioners those milestones and those feelings of accomplishment. Since I decided not to live as a woman, being “completely a woman” or being seen as such is not a goal for me. In fact, I have no real long-term goal for my transgender activities, other than keeping my transgender feelings within a tolerable range. I have had short-term goals, like developing a passable voice or learning how to cover my beard shadow with makeup, but if I ever feel I have accomplished one of these goals, I find myself wondering what the point was. Why spend all that time practicing a voice that I use once or twice a month? Why spend all that time on makeup skills, and all that money on makeup and instruction, for something I don’t do that often?

This is what I call the feeling of sunk costs, and one effect of this feeling is a desire to put those resources to use. It makes us want to go out more often, to show off that makeup, that voice, to reassure ourselves that we weren’t spending the time and money for nothing.

A Sundress for Sisyphus

I was glad I had the day off Friday, so I could go shopping as a girl before hanging out at the Seedy Eye. I spent a lot of time on my makeup, and it paid off: only one “sir” and four “ma’am”s. I found a nice full skirt that balanced out my shoulders, and decided to wear it to the bar to show off.

As I was relaxing with Eddie and Kyle and Lisa over my first beer, the door swung open wide and a man barreled in, with several shopping bags. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with collar-length salt-and-pepper hair and a long shaggy beard, wearing what looked like they might once have been elegant silk robes, but they were dusty and torn. He waved at Gina and squeezed himself and his shopping bags into the bathroom.

“New gal?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s right, you don’t usually come on Fridays. That’s Sissy,” said Lisa.

“Let me guess, she’s going to come out in some frilly little-girl dress with petticoats?”

“What? Oh, yeah, that’s what I thought too when I heard that name.”

“Like the other Sissy who comes on Thursdays,” said Kyle.

“But no, she says she’s had that name for a very long time. Isn’t she going by a different name now, Eddie?”

“Yeah, um… Anna, I think.” He stared at my legs. “So, Traci, new skirt?”

Eventually the door opened and she came out. She had shaved and done a pretty good job with the makeup, but if you ask me the sundress she had on drew too much attention to her big muscular arms. Eddie got up and bought her a beer, and they came back and sat with us. Anna settled wearily on a barstool and smiled at me.

“Hi, I’m Anastasia, Ana for short. I’ve been coming here for a year, but I haven’t seen you.” She had an elegant European accent of some kind, maybe Spanish or Slavic.

“Hi Ana, I’m Traci. I usually come on Saturdays, but I got the day off today, and I bought this new skirt!” I stood up and gave it a twirl. Eddie and Kyle and Lisa clapped politely.

“Very nice, it balances your shoulders. And your nail polish matches.”

“I had some time before this place opened, and I liked the skirt so much I stopped in Walgreen’s and picked up this nail polish.” I dug it out of my purse and waved it around. “Plum pomegranate.”

“Plum pomegranate!” Ana made a face. “So are you transitioning?”

“Me, nope. I just do this on weekends. Blow off steam.”

“Your wife lets you walk around with plum pomegranate nail polish?”

“Nah, I’m going to wipe it off before I go home. She doesn’t mind a little residue.”

“Very accommodating.”

“She’s the best.” I looked down at my hands. “This time I got it on smoothly in two coats. Only got a little on this pinky.”

“Very good.” She looked me up and down. “So tell me something, Traci. If you are only out for three hours, why put on nail polish at all?”

“Good question. Sometimes I don’t feel like putting on nail polish. But it’s good practice.”

“Good practice, yes. But if you are not transitioning, why are you practicing how to put on nail polish?”

“Hm. Well, it will probably come in handy for SuperFemmeCon in August.”

“Are you planning to spend the whole time en femme at SuperFemmeCon?”

“I hope so, if I can get the lady to give the okay. Why do you ask?”

“Because everyone who goes to SuperFemmeCon tells me they go, spend the whole time en femme, and at the end of the weekend they feel tremendously let down and wish they could transition. Why go, if you will feel horrible afterwards?”

“Why go? I take it you’ve never gone?”

“No,” said Ana, sadly. “I’ve never gone. I cannot leave the greater New York area.”

“Wow. Old ball and chain really weighing heavily on you.”

Her eyes widened. “What did you say?”

“You know, the metaphor. Your wife, she’s like a ball and chain around your ankle.” I pantomimed dragging around a ball and chain.

“Ah, a metaphor.” She stared bitterly at her wine.

“Yeah. Well, SuperFemmeCon is fun. It’s a welcome change from the same old thing. Who wants to get dressed up in the same old clothes every Saturday night, same makeup, drink the same beers and have the same conversations with the same people?”

“Who, indeed?”

“I mean, doing the same thing over and over again is really boring! A gal needs a sense of progress. Improve the makeup, improve the clothes, take a voice lesson, maybe save up for a little laser.”

“And yet you said you were not transitioning.”

“Nope. Not for me. Uh-uh.”

“So why invest time and money into things that you will use maybe once a week?”

“Well… Maybe if I had laser I would go out more than once a week. Maybe I could swing a Friday every couple of weeks.”

“Would your wife like that? Would she want to spend that money on laser?”

“Well, no. Um…”

Suddenly a voice crackled from Ana’s purse. “Sisyphus, your time is up!” All of a sudden, her beard started to grow. We all just stared, and within thirty seconds it was the length it had been when she came in. She sighed and stood up. “Well, good night, guys.”

“Wait, your name is really Sisyphus?” I cried. “Someone named you after that guy…” She gathered her shopping bags, turned her back on me, and walked into the bathroom. After a few minutes she emerged in her old robes, with her face pretty cleaned up considering, waved sadly and went out into the night.

I looked at Eddie and Kyle and Lisa. “Someone actually named her after the guy who rolled the big rock up the hill forever?”

Lisa looked at me. “Here’s the deal, Traci. Last year, Olympus passed a package of transgender protections and benefits.”

“Olympus. You mean Mount Olympus where the Greek gods live, not the camera company. I think they’re out of business anyway… Never mind.”

“So one of the first to claim benefits was Sisyphus. After all, he was cursed to roll the rock up the hill because he was clever and deceitful. Everyone figured he was faking it.”

“Fucking transtrender,” mumbled Kyle.

“Maybe he was hoping the hormones would make him too weak to handle the rock. But Hermaphroditus looked deep in his soul and found-“

“-that he had the soul of a woman?” I asked.

“No, silly. You know there’s no such thing as the soul of a woman. Souls have no gender. Hermaphroditus found that Sisyphus did not have strong enough dysphoria to qualify for hormones.”


“But Hermaphroditus did find evidence of mild transgender desire. So Sisyphus was given three hours off every Friday.”

“Just enough time to come in here, shave and have a glass of wine,” said Kyle.

“And then start all over again next week,” said Eddie.

Lisa shook her head. “Poor cursed soul.”

“Yup.” I looked down at my nail polish and my freshly shaved legs. “Poor cursed soul.”

On passing

In various transgender blog posts and articles you’ll come across the idea that it’s okay not to pass, that trans men who don’t pass are still men, and trans women who don’t pass are still women. You’ll even find plenty of arguments that it’s wrong to try to pass, or to use the word “pass,” because it’s connected with racist ideas of “passing for white,” or because it implies that trans people are not the gender they claim to be, reinforcing the “deceiver” stereotype and undermining the essentialist “trans women are women” ideology.

I get where a lot of this is coming from, and I’m sympathetic to it. I agree that the old culture of passing was fraught with misogyny and conformism, and that the “deceiver” stereotype has been part of a system of violent exploitation of trans people. I also agree that some people have a harder time passing than others, and that that doesn’t necessarily make them any less trans. I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if trans women were seen by the general public as a special kind of women instead of as “men in dresses.” And people who transition need to do whatever they can to make peace with their new lives.

I have several problems with this line of thinking, however. One major problem is that trans people, particularly those of us on the feminine spectrum, regularly face harassment and discrimination. Passing, particularly superficial passing on the street, can prevent a lot of that. Just last weekend I went out shopping. I think at some point my makeup must have gotten smudged, because I started getting funny looks from people on the street. Nobody said anything, but I imagine that I would have gotten more extreme looks, and maybe comments, if I’d gone out in a dress with no makeup at all on. Passing makes a difference to our safety. It’s fine for people to take calculated risks to show confidence in public, but it’s not fair to expect everyone to do that.

Some of the trans men I’ve talked to say that the safety issue is different for them, although no less important. They don’t get targeted so much for being seen as deceivers, but for being seen as women, and sometimes as lesbians. If they think they pass, they may go to places where they would hesitate to go as women, but where they feel relatively safe as men. Not passing exposes them as women, and thus as potential prey.

Another issue is that for many of us, our presentation is a skill, something we’ve worked at for years, an art or a craft. It takes time and effort to get it right, every time. We deserve to be proud of our work and to be appreciated for it.

Here’s one of my biggest problems with these anti-passing arguments: I didn’t start wearing women’s clothes because I wanted to be a trans woman. I wanted to be a woman. Not just any woman, but a pretty, sexy woman. (Give me a break, I was twelve years old.) I know full well that there are plenty of women who are admired and respected for being smart, thoughtful and caring, but those are things I can do as a guy. What’s the point of being a woman if I can’t be pretty or sexy?

I also know that it’s possible to be seen as a sexy, pretty trans woman. I’m open to that, but it’s not what I want when I feel my trans desire. The desire is to be a woman, and that means the kind of women I envied when I was a teenager: women who were not noticeably trans.

And yes, I know that many other trans women have made peace with the idea of being seen as trans, or not being seen as pretty or sexy. I say good for them, and I say that without sarcasm. But many of them have transitioned, and it makes much more sense to give up on that kind of desire when you’ve decided to live as a woman full-time for the rest of your life. Many of them are also older, and when I get older I will eventually make peace with not being sexy, but not yet.

So yes, it’s great to challenge the deceiver stereotype, and the pressure to pass, and the toxic culture of “passing tips.” But it’s also okay to want to be safe, to be pretty, to be sexy, and to be proud of our work.

The glamour of high heels

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago in response to a discussion about high heels and the patriarchy on Tumblr:

Yes, it is important to remember that high heels have all kinds of problems. In addition to the health problems mentioned, it’s hard to run away from predators in them. It’s hard to move nimbly at all, unless you have a lot of practice with them. Some people wear them every day and never manage to be graceful in them.

Riding a bike in heels is fine, especially with flat pedals.
Riding a bike in heels is fine, especially with flat pedals.
But there is that fantasy. When I’m sitting by the window and I hear heels clicking on the pavement below, I imagine a slim, elegant, sexy young woman outside on her way to an editing job at Conde Nast, or a fancy cocktail party. I imagine myself in those heels, strutting down the sidewalk, turning heads, instead of sitting at my computer grading homeworks or debugging code.

And then sometimes I get a chance to put on my own heels and go clicking down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village. At first I feel elegant and sexy and I see men and women looking at me, but are they looking because they think I’m elegant, or because they think I look silly? Are the heels making too much noise? I want to go faster but I can’t without worrying about slipping or losing my balance. Watch out for those cobblestones! One of my heels just got stuck in the subway grate. And then my feet start to hurt. I have to walk even slower. Can I still look elegant with my feet hurting so much? Fortunately the creepy guy who was following me and saying “hey baby” seems to have given up and gone away.

So I take the shoes off at the end of the day and my feet are sore for days. I’m glad I don’t have to wear those every day! I would get used to them to a degree, but never completely. Imagine if I had a job where they expected it? But in a few days I hear heels clicking outside my window again and I don’t think about how much of the attention was unwelcome. I don’t think about how physically painful it was to walk in them. I don’t think about how limited my movement felt. I just think about how elegant and sexy the wearer of those shoes must be.

The disconnect doesn’t just apply to the person who’s wearing heels. I fantasize about dating or kissing elegant women in heels, but I know plenty of women who wear heels that I have absolutely no desire to kiss. I’ve been on dates with women who were sexy, even elegant, but distracted and uncomfortable in their heels. I’ve been on dates with women who were sexier and more elegant in flats. I’ve gone on long, romantic walks that wouldn’t have been possible if either of us had been wearing heels. And I’ve had fabulous sex with women who’ve worn heels maybe five days in their entire lives.

That disconnect between fantasy and reality is a perfect example of glamour. It’s a fantasy that persists, sometimes in the face of massive evidence. It’s important to acknowledge it and examine it, but a massive guilt trip is not the way to stop it.

Soft body mods

Many people who have transgender feelings deal with them through body modification, or “body mods.” Some feel better if they see in the mirror a body that looks more like the gender they want to be; others feel better if they are treated as the gender they want to be, so they change their appearance in order to increase the chance that this will happen.

Hair removal is a soft body mod
When we think of transgender body mods, the first one that comes to everyone’s mind is “the surgery,” meaning genital surgery. There are other surgeries that people talk about, and the modifications that happen with hormone use. There is long-term hair removal through electrolysis. Finally there are the toxic modifications produced by the “pumping” of silicone and other substances into bodies by exploitative quacks.

The body mods I’ve described are permanent, or at least very hard to reverse. There are short-term grooming procedures like makeup, clothing and wigs, which can be removed within an hour. In between are medium-term changes that Helen Boyd has called “soft body mods,” which don’t last forever but are hard to reverse in the short term.

Helen tells a story of meeting people in a bar near a trans convention and knowing instantly that they were cross-dressers, even though they weren’t cross-dressed at the time. She noticed things like pierced ears, sculpted eyebrows, lack of facial or body hair, haircuts that could work for either gender presentation, clothes that look similar to men’s clothes but were cut for women, and long fingernails with clear polish. Lots of non-trans men have one or two of those things, but relatively few have more than two.

Many non-transitioning trans people are careful about their muscles: not too big for male to female people, bigger for female to male. We may also try to gain or lose more fat in the places that look right for our target gender presentation, even though many people say that targeted fat loss doesn’t work.

There are also behavioral changes that affect how our bodies are perceived. Some of us try to walk or stand or hold our arms in a way that minimizes signals of one gender and highlights signals of another gender, and we may try to modify our voices to sound like our target gender. (The extent to which we succeed is a matter of debate, but it’s clear that some of us try).

These behaviors and postures are temporary changes, but if they become routine they can change our muscle memory and “bleed over” into our other gender presentations. If this happens with influential people, it can be copied by others. This could be part of the origin of the movement and vocal patterns we see in some gay men, that are stereotyped as “swishing” and “lisping.”

Body mods are not always permanent, and they’re not always obvious. Without being permanent or obvious, they can affect the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves. And they’re not all cheap; many of them represent a significant investment of time, money or both.