I just got back from ten days spent celebrating the holidays in the town I most recently left (not the town where I grew up). I chose to spend Christmas there because that’s where the folks I consider family would be – my best male and female friend and my Pops. Going home to them had some significance at this moment, because it meant asking those who know me best to recognize me in my new, more male physical form.
With the new airport security regulations and scanning technologies, I was a bit worried that I’d encounter an awkward situation now that I’m being read as male while my identification still says female and lists my female name. My actual experience, however, could not have been easier or more pleasant. As I waited in the rather long security line, I talked to an older fellow who clearly thought of me as a young man about Nascar, boat races, and basketball (I knew nothing about any of these topics) until I got to the checkpoint. You can imagine my delight when, after scrutinizing my face as well as my (female) I.D., the security check-person said, “Have a good flight, sir!”* There was only one of the new x-ray scanners at the check-point, and I was not asked to go through it, nor did anyone open my carry-on to discover my packer or strap-on, so I was able to just glide through security.
My friends picked me up at the airport and we went straight to Whole Foods for groceries where, wouldn’t you know it, we ran into my Pops and her two kids. I only wanted to chat and say hi, but Pops immediately began remarking on my physical changes. First, she “she’d” me to her kid. Then, in the midst of a conversation about something, she said, “Yeah, it’s big.” I thought she was remarking on whatever we were discussing and responded accordingly, but she interrupted me to say, “No, the voice, it’s big.” She then walked me aside (away from the kids), and said gruffly, “You’re not gonna get any taller, are ya?” Clearly, she didn’t want me to grow much taller than her (size is a big thing for her, and she’s invested in always being the alpha). I said no, but that I’d probably just get a bit thicker, and she remarked that I already looked thicker. Then, she asked about whether I’d talked to my mom yet (I haven’t). The entire time, she was gazing at me with an expression at once warm, bemused, and wondering. Her kid interrupted us, and, after saying we should hang out soon, I escaped to continue grocery shopping. I felt a bit uncomfortable with the whole situation, especially since it happened in a rush in the midst of a very busy pre-Christmas Whole Foods, though I was encouraged by the warm way she was gazing at me. I definitely would have been upset if anyone else had approached me in this way, but since she’s my Pops, I suppose it’s her right. The day before, I had written her asking if she was ready to see her son, and she had responded, “I’m looking forward to seeing Sonnyboy. I’m sure I’ll have to take in the ch-ch-ch-changes he’s been experiencing,” so I suppose I should have considered myself forewarned. And I suppose a butch of her generation doesn’t often find herself in the situation of witnessing these kinds of physical transformations up close. But it did make me feel a little self-conscious and freakish for the rest of the evening. I kept looking in the mirror and, instead of feeling good about myself, trying to imagine what I must look like to someone who knew me before and was seeing me now again for the first time. Did I look like a girl who had freakishly sprouted a light mustache and muscles?
With the rest of my friends, however, I was able to have the experience of returning home as (physically) male, and slipping seamlessly into comfortable patterns of gendered interaction. It was especially great to see my gay male best friend. We have always gelled really well together, but it was particularly nice now to hear the matching resonances of our voices as I bantered gayly with him. I have blogged before about feeling that I was becoming butcher, and therefore straighter, as I strove to pass. It was really nice, now that I finally am passing rather consistently, to allow myself to relax and be a fag with a gay man who I know and love deeply.
On Christmas Eve, he, my best female friend, and I all went to a White Elephant party at the home of my best female friend’s sister’s large, white, Southern middle-class family. I was worried, in this context, about the embarrassment of potentially being misgendered. But my friend was awesome, she introduced me to everyone with the phrase, “This is X, he is visiting from Y.” I’m not sure if there might have been confusion without this introductory phrase. But with it, these heteronormative Southerners happily and confidently picked up on calling me “he,” with the grandmother at one point in the night referring to my gay friend and I as “the fellas”! It was novel and strange to feel so comfortable with how people were gendering me at precisely the kind of Southern family event that always made me intensely uncomfortable in the past. The icing on the cake was when, later that night, I realized that everyone there must have thought that my male friend and I were gay lovers. Throughout the night, I kept affectionately touching his leg and saying things such as, “He’s very sensitive to sugar, you know,” to surrounding straight couples. It was nice to see that, on T, being myself with my best friend allowed me to be seen precisely as what I am – a gay man.
I actually think that being a small, ethnically unidentifiable Latino/S.E. Asian guy is a boon to my ability to be seen as male. If I were at my current stage of transition but Caucasian, I think that Americans, experienced at reading Caucasian men, would know that there was something funny about me. But as an “exotic” outsider, no one is quite sure what I’m supposed to look like, how big I’m supposed to be, what my voice is supposed to sound like, and how I’m supposed to move and take up space. An extraordinarily young-looking, hairless, “cute”, feminine, small, chronically smiling, and not particularly butch acting Asian guy may seem funny to Americans, but this funniness could be ascribed to ethic/cultural difference rather than gender deviance. But maybe I’m wrong, since my Korean FTM friend has a great deal of trouble passing with Americans but believes he’d have no trouble at all in Korea.
Other than the extraordinary experience of finally feeling authentically like another gay man with my gay best friend, the main pleasure of my trip was spending some quality intergenerational Father/Son time with Pops. Throughout the semester, I’ve been building, through text and email, my relationship with my chosen father. This homecoming represented both our first time together in the flesh since she recognized paternity and her first time to see me since I started T. I wasn’t sure whether seeing the effects of T on me would be hard on her – giving her something to mourn, as she had intimated in the past – whether she would recognize paternity as easily in person as in text, or whether she would actually take substantial time away from her own family to hang with her adopted son during the holidays. So, I was pleased that, after some initial scrutiny, she had no trouble absorbing my physical changes, and even more delighted that she proved willing and eager to make time for her Sonny. While I was there, we went out for drinks twice, she took me to her gym once, we had a father/son snowball fight, and she had me over to help with home repairs before I left town. Other than a couple explosions about how I was leaving her for “them” – a group of drunk straight dudes outside the bar – and about how, in spite of asking her to be my father, what she was (a woman) was “anathema” to me, she dealt pretty well with my transition. At least she didn’t seem angered, hurt, or saddened by it, and she was happy to talk about it and advise me on how to come out to family. If she lashed out a couple times at me, it was in a good-natured, albeit combative fashion. She may want to debate matters with me, but she is not invested in changing me, and she is never going to leave my side as a father and a friend. In fact, her New Year’s text to me read, “Hope things keep on truckin for you the way you want,” which I understood to be her first (oblique) words of support in reference to my physical transition.
One thing that gave me joy was her repeated expression of investment in fatherhood. She came up with two separate paternal fantasies while I was there. In the first, I was the love-child of her and an African-American girl she was fooling around with around the time I was born (she was about 17). This fantasy appeared to make her happy, as the girl was “really beautiful,” a “big love” who could almost have produced someone who looked ethnically like me (the girl had straight black hair), but who was tragically straight. In the second fantasy, she and I would go to Thailand together, skipping complicated Malaysia, the land of my birth father, and she would tell Thais that I was the son of her and her Thai ex-sweetheart, but that my mother had raised me in the Philippines, so I didn’t know Thai. I particularly love this fantasy because it shows her desire to reparent me to Southeast Asia (she studies Thailand) while usurping the place of my birth father and completely editing my mother (with whom I don’t get along well) out of the picture! But, most of all, both fantasies – and the fact that she came up with them unbidden – demonstrate her imaginative investment in the paternal fantasy and the fact that it is as real to her as it is to me. (She also joked that I had gotten my good looks and my cockiness from her). I guess I worry that I pushed paternity on her out of my intense desire for a father, and that she just played along out of pity. Good to see that this isn’t the case!
In addition to playing the role of my father, the trip brought home to me that she really does consider me a friend as well. She now talks openly to me about her relationships with women as well as with her female body – topics she shied away from when I was closer to being a student. She also revealed to me that, other than her lover and her sister, I was the only person with whom she had regular casual, intimate exchanges. If I still lived there, I have no doubt that we’d be drinking buddies, gym buddies, and home improvement project buddies – not as equals, but within a father/son dynamic.
At the gym, though, she did lead me into a very strange gender experience. Now I hadn’t been to a gym for years, had managed to avoid gym locker rooms since junior high, and had carefully arranged things so that I wouldn’t have to go into a locker room this time around. I had been looking forward to going to the sauna with her after the workout, but, not being a gym guy, didn’t realize that the saunas were located within the locker rooms and were gendered until after the workout. “What the hell,” I thought, “I want to relax in the sauna with Pops, who cares how it’s gendered,” and I let her sneak me in.
I only, did it, of course, because I thought I could pass as female, especially at the side of a large-breasted butch (that is, maybe they would see two gender-ambiguous people, look to her breasts and take them as confirmation, somehow, of not only her by my femaleness). This was an interesting situation in which to find myself, since I spend most of my time trying hard to avoid being mistaken as female! Reversing the tables and actually trying to pass as female was a real trip. What I wasn’t prepared for was how strange it would feel simply to be in an intimate women’s space. I instantly felt completely and alarmingly out-of-place. Women of all ages and body types were casually undressing, toweling off, and hanging out half naked. It was not hot, and I did not feel like a fox in a chicken coop. I did feel totally embarrassed and scandalized – women were undressing in front of me! I had entered their intimate women’s space! I was seeing female flesh displayed in the casual non-sexual manner reserved only for other females! All of this felt utterly wrong and criminal, as I tried simultaneously to look away and to disappear. Escorted by my Pops, who appeared to feel completely at home and at ease as she chatted casually with half-naked women, I eventually made it into the sauna, where she talked to a very in-shape trainer she knew who did not seem phased by my presence. When we exited the sauna, however, she dilly dallied by the locker as I attempted to hide from the increasingly focused stares. “Can we go now?” I hissed, trying to camouflage my low voice. “Yeah sure,” she said, “I just need to get our stuff out of the locker.” Increasingly panicked, afraid to stay, but also afraid to make my way to the exit unescorted, I waited for her to open the locker, fumbled my things out of it, took a deep breath, and dove for the exit, trying to look casually at ease without making eye contact.
It was not a bad experience, but it was certainly not one I’d repeat. Toward the end, I began to feel that it would be quite possible for someone to call security on me and that I would really not know what to tell them when they came. Aside from the danger, though, I just felt completely, uncomfortably, illegally out-of-place.
Pops apologized repeatedly and profusely for “traumatizing” me, even though I kept telling her that I had made that choice and that it wasn’t her fault. She mumbled something about needing to be more protective and even apologized at one point for not being able to pass in the men’s sauna, due to her enormous knockers. Sweet of her.
*Sans the older gentleman, this same experience was repeated on my way back.