I now have the type of presentation and embodiment that allows me to pass much of the time as a young guy in his late teens (I am 31), as long as I don’t speak. When I speak, people will usually think that I am a masculine woman, will sometimes read me as trans, and will occasionally continue to see me as a young cis man.
This gender haze is an interesting space in which to live. Before I started T, a trans friend of mine whose body was not all that affected by T told me that one thing that drove him absolutely nuts was never knowing how he was being read or what he was passing as. It became something that he obsessed over, that he was always aware of. I was initially worried about the psychological difficulties of finding myself in similar space, but I’m relieved to report that, for me at least, it isn’t all that bad. I have gotten to the point where I don’t really care much whether or not I am passing, since, much of the time, I have no way of knowing, and there is not that much I can do about it anyway. (Now, not passing due to something I can control, like wearing clothing that clings to my body in the wrong way, is something that I do get upset about). Mostly, I just find it bemusing to try to figure out how others are gendering me. When people don’t look at me, for instance, I assume I’m passing; when they (especially straight men) do give me long looks, I assume that I am not. So, for a little levity, here are some of the paradoxes of living in the gender haze, anecdotally described.
I went to the Latino barbershop by my place to get a real men’s haircut recently, unsure of how I would be treated. After waiting for a while, I went up to one young straight Latino barber whose client had just left and explained to him the kind of flat-top I wanted. He said that he wasn’t good at that kind of a haircut and suggested I wait for T., an African-American barber who he alleged could do that haircut well. Since T. was a gay man while the other two barbers were pretty tough looking straight guys, I suspected that they just didn’t want anything to do with cutting this queer’s hair. So I waited and waited and finally sat down in the gay barber’s chair. The first thing he said to me (whispered near my ear, actually), after letting me know that I was making him miss Glee was “Are you really a girl?” Since the other barber had used female pronouns to discuss my haircut with my barber, I understood the question as “You’re not really a girl, are you?” and said, “No.” “Um-hum, traaansgender,” he said with gusto. He then proceeded to ask me inappropriate questions about whether or not I was going to “go all the way,” to tell me his fantasies of sex with a girl who looked like a boy, and to hit on me. A lot of what he was saying was not only inappropriate, but insulting toward the way I identified. Overall, though, I was happy enough to have a gay barber who flirted with me and did not think I was a woman to go along with it. By the end, all the other customers had left, and my barber was referring to me as “he” to the other bartenders, telling them I was his new boyfriend, and planning our wedding. I was slightly uncomfortable with the whole situation, but it was better than having a straight barber who thought I was a woman, and I was pleased with the novelty of being read as trans. I also got a really hot haircut that went a long way toward helping me pass as a young Latino guy.
Passing as a young Latino guy is not exactly a gateway to privilege, though. It also leads to some strange experiences for those accustomed to being perceived as female. At a gas station in a rough part of town recently, a group of African-American kids in their early teens walked down a narrow aisle past me and a white male friend of mine. Ignoring my friend (who was at the ATM machine), the girl nicely said “Excuse me,” and gave me flirty eyes, while one of the boys deliberately hit me on the shoulder with his shoulder, knocking me to the side a step, as he passed. The kid was not older than 14, but plainly, he considered me a peer and a potential male competitor. My friend, who hadn’t noticed any of this, asked me a question, and I thought, “Oh, great. Now they’re going to hear my voice.” I answered him, and we talked for a minute, as the kids hovered near. “Hey, young man,” I heard behind me. It was the kid, trying to get me to talk to him so he could figure out whether I was male or female. I ignored him, but he heard me speak to my friend. The next time I glanced at him, he winked at me, this time trying to assert his masculine power over me as a woman.
At work, I am out as trans to everybody, colleagues and students alike. It’s a privilege and a relief to be able to be seen the way I identify. There are certain colleagues, however, that just can’t get male pronouns into their heads. They know I’m trans, they know that I use male pronouns, and they have expressed that they are actively trying to use them, yet when they speak, for the most part, they unhesitatingly and repeatedly refer to me with female pronouns without even noticing that that’s what they are doing. On the other hand, a white student of mine who joined the class late and was absent on the day I announced I was trans always addresses his emails to me as Mr. X. It is a paradox of my life now that a student who doesn’t know how I identify should call me Mr. X while certain colleagues who do can’t seem to use male pronouns no matter how hard they try.
One way I know I’m passing is that gay and straight, male and female African-American students who I don’t know (yes, only African-American students. Why? I don’t know) compliment me on my shoes, my pants, and my overall style. They do it in a peer-to-peer kind of way, and I feel like they’re seeing me as a young guy their age who is inexplicably stylishly dressed up in a dress shirt, tie, skinny pants, and horsehair shoes. Now I dress this way because a) being a professor and being out as trans at work are both great excuses to experiment with men’s style b) wearing a tie helps me pass, and c) formal dress helps get the idea across to students that I’m actually older than them. In these cases, however, I can see that I’m totally failing at goal c. This tendency reached an apex today when I was tag teamed by a gay black guy and a straight black girl in the elevator who were both asking me about my shoes and complimenting me on my style. The guy started it off by calling me “man,” so I know I was being read as male. By the time I began to escape the elevator, I was followed by a duet of, “Mmmn, you look good,” “Bye, cutie,” “Cutie!” This was an amusing and not unpleasant experience, but jeez, these kids could have been my students! They had no idea that I was old enough to be one of their professors, and that that’s why I was dressed up in the first place!