Do I feel like a woman to you? That’s me passing

Since the early days of medical transition, people have remarked that there are differences between trans people who transition and those of us who don’t. Often this is ascribed to a difference of essence: some believe they can divide male-to-female trans people into the “true transsexuals” who are essentially women with a destiny to transition, and “just cross-dressers” who are essentially men. I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” for this post, but there are similar claims made for female-to-male trans people.

20151212_150145Nobody has yet found a foolproof test for this essence of femininity or masculinity. What people use instead is a gut feeling: the supposedly real trans women just “feel like women,” even without making an effort to present as women, while the supposedly fake trans women “feel like men.” Many trans people stress these claimed differences. They argue that non-transitioners who look like “men in dresses” give true trans women a bad name and claim protections they don’t deserve.

My experience has run pretty much counter to those claims. I have met trans women who transitioned decades ago but “feel” like men to me, and trans women who have never transitioned but “feel” like women. I myself have never transitioned, but when I present as a woman anyone who doesn’t know me but knows I’m trans assumes that I transitioned long ago.

If you talk to anyone who believes in this “gut feeling” and show them these counterexamples, they will explain them away with circular reasoning. A transitioned trans woman who “feels like a man” is an impostor who should never have transitioned, and people like me are just in denial and will change our minds pretty soon.

There is a simpler explanation for this discrepancy between “gut feeling” and reality: there is no essential gender. But the “gut feeling” is not always wrong. Where does it come from? If we examine it, what we find is a more subtle form of passing, one that works even if the observer knows whether the person is trans. There is no need to assume some inner gender; all the normal passing factors are enough to explain it:

Some people just get the luck of the gene draw. Shorter people with narrower shoulders and mouths, broader hips, smaller hands, feet and brow ridges, and higher voices tend to feel more “naturally” feminine, while taller people with broader shoulders and mouths, narrower hips, bigger hands, feet and brow ridges, and lower voices tend to feel more “naturally” masculine.

Age plays a huge role. The effects of hormones on secondary sex characteristics don’t stop at puberty. Trans women who transition early in life will have narrower shoulders and broader hips, while trans women who transition late, or never transition, will have broader shoulders and narrower hips.

Body modifications and grooming are as relevant for this “feeling” as for the better-known forms of passing. People who have committed to a transition are more likely to get surgery, hair removal and hair transplants. These treatments are just as artificial as wigs or heavy make-up, but often less noticeable.

One of the biggest factors is socialization. Mannerisms are just habits, and habits develop with experience. Someone who spends a lot of time around women and is treated like a woman will act like the women around them and “feel” like a woman, and someone who spends a lot of time around men and is treated like a man will act like the men around them and “feel” like a man. These effects are cumulative: the more time a person spends living in one gender, the more naturally they interact with others in that gender.

Some trans women have pointed out that their socialization was not like typical male socialization. I agree, but I don’t think they were socialized female, either. There are finer grains of male socialization: we are socialized as girly boys, nerdy boys, gay boys and others. When we get older we can be socialized as gay men. This means we are given the space, or take the space, to speak and gesture more softly, taking as role models softer men, gay men, or women. These differences may be felt by some as cues that we are “really” girls or women.

There’s another kind of socialization as well: trans socialization. I know a lot of trans women who socialize primarily with other trans women. This may be out of choice, or because they’ve been rejected by non-trans people, or because they’re afraid of being rejected or worse. If a whole bunch of trans women spend most of their time together, they’re going to wind up moving and sounding like each other, and like their ideas of women. If none of them have any significant female socialization apart from that, then they may not “feel” like women to other people.

Some trans people are just good actors or good mimics, and are able to move and sound like their target gender. Does that mean that they’re less “real” than other trans people? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes you have to fake it ’till you make it. Some may have a strong desire to sound or move differently from the way they did before. On the other hand, some may feel uncomfortable with any change in the way they move or sound.

Between genes, aging, body modifications, grooming, socialization, alienation and just plain good acting, there are plenty of explanations for why some trans women “feel” like women, some trans men “feel” like men, and some don’t. There is no mystical essence of gender, no “brain sex” required to explain this. If you’ve pinned your hopes on the idea of being a “woman trapped in a man’s body,” you may not like this idea.

On the other hand, thinking of this “feeling” as just another form of passing means that people who have some of these factors going against them may be able to eventually overcome them and “pass by feeling.” It also means that those of us who have some of the factors in our favor can decide whether or not we want to transition based on what works for us, not whether we “feel like a woman” to someone else.

The black sex appeal of Professor Doležal

As I noted in my linguistics blog on Saturday night, there have been several comparisons between Rachel Doležal’s claiming of a black identity and transgender identity claims, and lots of articles condemning any such comparison. Most of those have been faith-based, along the lines of “Their god can’t be the true god, because it says in our holy book that our God is the true one.” But I study transgender phenomena from a skeptical point of view, and I’ve noticed some important commonalities. Of course race and gender are not the same thing, but we deal with them in similar enough ways that one can be a mirror to the other.

Rachel Doležal ca. 2002
You want to dissolve stereotypes …by wearing a black turtleneck in your artist publicity shot?
On Saturday I noted the contrast between the absence of African American English features in Doležal’s speech and the numerous African American features in her appearance, most strikingly of course her hair. I compared it to the many transgender people I know who have spent long hours and serious cash on their visual appearance with no thought given to how they sound. Now, for a non-linguistic angle, I’m going to talk about being sexy.

Maybe I’m reading the wrong blogs (or the right ones), but after three days I haven’t come across anyone talking about how sexy Doležal is. This is funny, because most women in the public eye (and most who aren’t) are subject to constant commentary about their attractiveness – or lack thereof. Here I am looking at her cleavage-baring blouses, her tight pants and tailored jackets, and her curve-accentuating heels, and everyone’s sticking to the script: skin tone and hair. It’s surreal.

When I went looking tonight, I did find two insightful comments that articulated what I was also thinking. An anonymous commenter on the “Toddler” section of the YouBeMom forum, of all places, wrote, “Rachel Dolezal was an awkward looking white woman and is now attractive as a light skinned black woman. Say what you will about her lies but her new skin and hair suit her.” Writer Calaya Reid had a much longer take which is worth reading in full, but here’s the key part, invoking Jessica Care Moore: “Maybe she’s trying to tap into her Black girl juice. Maybe she’s admitting what everyone knows and what everyone seems to want you to forget — that there’s a power to this thing of being a Black woman. That there’s some wizardry, some cosmic brilliance to this skin you’re in. There really is Black girl juice.”

I should note that I’ve only seen five or six pictures of “white” Doležal, and she was pretty young in most of them. “Awkward” wasn’t the word that came to mind, but I was definitely thinking “demure.” The publicity photo she used right after she graduated Howard in 2002 was a bit more sophisticated, but really didn’t do much to counter the impression of being a well-brought up Christian girl from Montana.

I’m not sure I need to say this, but it is definitely possible to be sexy as a white woman with straight blonde hair. You may have seen a few on television. Superficially it seems like it would be easier for her to go with her natural assets, but Doležal chose to dye and perm her hair to be a sexy black woman with utterly unnatural “natural hair.” Why?

I get the impression Doležal is her own hairdresser, so only she knows for sure. But here’s where her actions feel familiar to me as a transgender person, and as a transvestite in particular. Because I only feel like I know how to be sexy as a woman. I know what clothes flatter my body, and what makeup and hairstyle go with the clothes to make a sexy look. As a guy, I only go with what people tell me, but I never know if I’m doing it right. I constantly feel like I’m fumbling in the dark.

I could be totally off-base with this, but I get the feeling that Doležal feels like she only knows how to be sexy as a black woman. She knows not just the hair and the clothes, but the jewelry and the eyebrows. And when she’s tried to make it work as a blonde woman, she never knows if she’s doing it right.

The irony here is that if I achieve any actual sexiness as a woman, it’s superficial and it never attracts anyone that I actually want to attract. Sometimes it looks good in still photos, but I’ve been told by people whose opinion I trust that in person it feels false and disconnected from my true self, not necessarily because of gender. Meanwhile, I have on some occasions managed to be sexy as a guy, usually just by being able to relax, to be myself and to own my true sexuality. Of course, nobody can tell you how to act natural.

Again, I feel the same way when I watch videos of Rachel Doležal. The moment she moves, the moment she opens her mouth, the sexy black professor disappears and I see a scared white girl hiding inside. A profoundly unsexy scared white girl. But I hope that for her sake, she has also managed at times to relax, and to be as truly sexy as I have been. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Claire’s story

DSC00261My friend Claire is a trans woman who graciously agreed to share her story for this blog.

For most of her life she had no body dysphoria. “The funny thing is in the very beginning, I didn’t care,” she told me of her male anatomy. But then things changed. “I transition and the only thing I want is it gone.”

Claire began her transition in 2013, and by most measures she was wildly successful. For a trans woman of color, even more so. Her family and friends did not reject her and got her new name and pronouns right most of the time. Her small business continued to prosper, and her customers all took her transition in stride. “Everything came easy to me in transition and coming out, so I lived in a world where no one knew unless I told them.”

Even after transition, she didn’t mind her genitals at first, but she began to grow dissatisfied with them. And then something happened that brought about a drastic change in her feelings.

Earlier this year, Claire went on a vacation with her new boyfriend. They had a great time, and everyone treated Claire as a woman. “I forget that I’m actually trans at times,” she told me. Then when it came time to board the plane home, the TSA was performing pat-downs on all the women at that checkpoint. She thought nothing of it until the screener discovered a bulge.

The TSA screener had apparently never patted down a trans woman, and was unsure of the protocol, but Claire reassured her that she was indeed a woman and belonged there with all the other women. Eventually the screener let Claire fetch her driver’s license from her purse, completed the search and allowed her into the boarding area.

“She did everything right,” Claire says. And yet, Claire was traumatized by the incident. She started crying, and despite her boyfriend’s best efforts to comfort her, she couldn’t stop. She locked herself in a bathroom stall until the last minute, and then boarded the plane home. On the plane she sobbed into a pillow to avoid disturbing other passengers, and cried until she fell asleep.

That was just the beginning. “Months of depression and suicidal tendencies from just one experience,” Claire says. Significantly, she developed intense body dysphoria, focused on her genitals, which she still feels months later. “I really despise that thing but I know I have to live with that. For the mean time.” She says that she is currently feeling better, but she doesn’t know if the depression will return.

Claire’s story, and similar ones I’ve heard from other people, have important implications for all trans people, and I will discuss it further in future posts, but for this post I want to let it stand by itself.

When my dad made a transgender movie

When I was a kid my dad, who was a sound engineer, told me how he had worked on a movie with an actress who was really a man. I believe those were the words he used. He said, “She looked and sounded just like a woman, but she had to take a break and shave around five o’clock.”

It’s hard to know how much things like this affect your thoughts, but the story stuck with me, and it was probably swimming around in my head when I started thinking that life might be a lot easier if I didn’t correct people when they thought I was a girl. It went in there with Holly Woodlawn’s cross-country gender change in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Princess Ozma, a girl named Patrice in my elementary school who bore an uncanny resemblance to a boy named Donavan at my summer camp, Bugs Bunny, and any number of madcap comedies where a boy disguises himself as a girl.

sombfa1Years later, after I developed a habit of wearing women’s clothes and came out to my father about it, I asked him for more details about the movie. He didn’t remember it quite that way. It turned out that the actress in question was Candy Darling, an associate of Holly Woodlawn’s in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the movie was called Some of My Best Friends Are… It was an ensemble piece about gay life in Greenwich Village, set in a single bar on a Christmas Eve, and was released three days before I was born.

When the film came out, Vincent Canby unfavorably compared it to The Boys in the Band, which I haven’t seen, while noting that it “may well be more accurate.” Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s not horrible. Candy Darling’s performance in the film was straight dramatic acting, unlike her campy performances in Warhol’s movies. And my dad didn’t tell me that she played a transvestite who was attacked for being trans.

I looked up Some of My Best Friends Are… last night and discovered that someone had put the scenes with Candy Darling on YouTube. My dad was right that she did pass well; I was a bit envious. I was also impressed at how well the director, Mervyn Nelson, captured the feeling of gender fog, even if it was a bit over the top. But I found the bashing scene very disturbing. I’ve never been comfortable with movie violence, but the fact that the character Karen was attacked in part for passing so well, in a bar full of men who tried and failed to protect her, was particularly upsetting.

Things may be better now than they were in 1971. More people are out of the closet, and gay bars are probably safer for transvestites, at least for those of us who are white and middle class. But for those who are poor or nonwhite, things are still dangerous. At least ten trans women have been killed this year in the United States. The character of Karen survived being beaten; how many people survived a similar beating this year?

If you want to change things, here are two ideas: (1) make sure everyone knows that you don’t think we should be beaten or killed, and (2) leverage intersectionality to make life safer for trans people who are poor, nonwhite, sex workers or perceived as “gay.”

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.

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.