Essays

Why I Smile…

I smile because it’s part of my social jujitsu toolkit for dealing with situations where I’m misgendered, or I can tell they’re trying to figure out my gender, or they realize I’m a *trans* woman and trying out to figure out how they feel about it. When I see a woman giving me “the look” — the glance held too long, where I can see the gears turning inside their head, I give her the social smile that woman are trained to do automatically. It may look friendly, but as is often the case with other forms of woman-to-woman communication, there’s subtext: It’s the “I know you’re looking at me, and now you know that I know you’re looking at me” smile.

I smile at small children because now I can. No longer does smiling at strangers’ children make people presume I’m a potential pedo-creeper.

I smile because there is a casual camaraderie among women. By no means do I want to romanticize that — women can be just as aggressive and nasty as men, and far more micro-aggressive in ways that most men don’t even perceive. But I can’t count the number of casual conversations — in line at the store, in the woman restroom, etc. — that I never had as a man interacting with other men.

I smile because women are trained to smile automatically, practically instinctively. To be nice, to be pleasant. Of course I, like other women, learned the nuances of when and where to smile. Smile at a man you don’t know and he’ll likely think you’re sexually interested in him. Smiling in the street invites sexual harassment. (And even if you don’t smile, catcalls of “hey baby, looking good,” all too rapidly turn into, “why won’t you smile, bitch.”)

I smile because now society allows me a vastly widely range of emotions. In Norah Vincent’s flawed, but still worth reading book, “Self Made Man” (about the 18 months see spend posing as a man to try to better understand masculinity), at the end of the experience she had a nervous breakdown, which in part she attributes to the stress of trying to living within the emotional straightjacket of masculinity.

I smile because why the fuck not. Emotions are contagious, and with all the shitty stuff going on the in world, if I’m feeling like it, why not randomly smile and brighten someone else’s day. Of course, there’s a huge difference between feeling that one *can* smile and and feeling obligated to do so, regardless of how one is feeling. So I someone doesn’t smile back, I don’t take it personally. Maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they’re from a culture where it’s not acceptable (it’s notable that the thing that reliably identifies Americans overseas is how frequently we smile at strangers), maybe they just don’t feel like smiling back.

I smile because I’m happy. Despite all the trials and tribulations of being a woman, being a trans woman, in our patriarchal society, I’m much happier than I when I was trying to live life as a man.

The Trans Prime Directive

Since I seem to be in a meditation-on-all-things-trans mood tonight, let me talk about something I’m been meaning to talk about for awhile: the Trans Prime Directive — something that’s one of the ways being T is different than LGB, and makes it much harder to build a “trans community” the way that gays and lesbians (or POC) have.

I was checking out at a store the other day, and the cashier was pretty clearly another trans woman. Her build, her voice, the large hands, etc. like me, there’s a lot of tells, if you know what to look for. I’m sure she knew I was trans. But we never acknowledged that to each other.

Why? Because of the Trans Prime Directive: Thou Shalt Not Out Another Trans Person. It’s never written down or really ever discussed publicly (in fact the name was coined on a private forum for trans people that I belong to), but all but the most socially inept trans people instinctively do it.

So no knowing nod. No asking if someone is a friend of Dorothy, or likes RuPaul’s Drag Race, or they like softball. (Just to be clear I’m referring to ways gays and lesbians used historically to subtly find out if someone was also gay or lesbian while still flying under the radar of straight folks.)

Yes there are trans people who are out and proud — and more and more these days. But there’s also people who aren’t yet out of the closet, living in that gray area of gender non-conformity but with plausible deniability. Others transition and “disappear into the woodwork,” finally able to live their lives as woman and men, rather than trans women or men.

And one never knows which group a randomly-encountered trans person belong to. So we all respect the Trans Prime Directive. Which needless to say can feel a bit isolating at times, and harder to feel a sense of solidarity.

The Dark Matter Of The Trans Universe

Today is Transgender Day of Visibility….

I’d like to give a shout out to all those on the trans spectrum who don’t socially transition and therefore never go public for various reasons (most don’t feel the need to transition and are happy being “just a crossdresser” etc.), and often are deeply, deeply closeted — there’s probably 10 of them for every public transitioner, making them the vast dark matter of the trans universe.

Unfortunately many of them are looked down upon not only by society at large, but also too often by other trans people. Yes, I see you, and yes, you’re “real enough” too.

Why Shouldn’t Employers Want Trans Employees?

Elsewhere a friend of mine was asked to put together a presentation to business executive about “why should employers want trans employees?” Someone else aptly pointed out that the question is backwards: “Why on earth WOULDN’T you hire trans people?”

That said, my wise and bad-ass friend, Grace Alden, had a stellar response:

“First select for the skills you need, and work hard to NOT be selecting on things which should not matter initially, like gender, race, trans/cis-ness, etc. All incoming résumés should be shorn of identifying information, to the extent possible.

Once you’re down to the pool of people where any of them would theoretically work, and you’re looking for the best of the bunch:

Understand that we are desperate for income, and when we find it, we tend to be very loyal and to work hard.

Understand that because so many people treat us like crap that we will tend to regard you as a cut above the average just for treating us decently.

Understand that our presence in your workforce will flush out the bigots in customer-facing positions who have gone unnoticed but who have quietly and subtly damaging your business by leaving certain customers feeling cold. Those bigots are the ones who will say they’re “just not comfortable” sharing a bathroom with us, and once you know who they are, you can monitor their behavior toward other minority customers, especially trans people. Understand that those bigots are the problem, and that their targets are not the problem.

Understand that like LGB people, trans people are brand-loyal to companies which demonstrate that they get it. When you see a trans person working at a company and apparently happy, it tells you a lot about the company. There’s a reason that medical providers who treat trans people like human beings suddenly find that they are trans specialists because 50% of their clients are trans. You want access to a loyal demographic? Hire a trans person to spread the word among trans people. Take advantage of the fact that most of the market treats us like crap.

Understand that trans people who are still alive have been through a hell of a selection process. We are, on average, smarter, tougher, and more focused. Some of us are twits, but some of every group is twits. Hire on the merits you see, but be aware that if you’re hiring a transitioned or stable-middle-path* adult trans person, you’re probably hiring someone with effective life skills. It’s not that trans people are smarter or tougher, because we’re not; it’s that the trans people who are LEFT are smarter and tougher, on average.**

Hire us for the same reason you hire veterans. Yes, some of us are damaged. But if we past muster for what you need done, we are a better bet than average. We are not a sure bet, but nothing is. We just stack your odds positively.”

Grace has given permission to share this wherever it might be helpful.


* “Middle path” is a term we use on that forum for people who live lives in more than one gender, but either cannot transition due to circumstances, or more commonly have no desire to transition (i.e. they’re on a middle path between genders). “Bi-gendered” is another term that’s often used to refer this group within the trans spectrum.

** 41 percent of trans or gender non-conforming people surveyed have attempted suicide — 10 times the general population. Yes, living in a largely transphobic society IS that hard on trans people.

That Moment When…

That moment when… You’re in a class and although you assume you’re “visibly trans,” you have to decide to say “as a trans woman” because there’s a point that you can’t really make without outing yourself.

Again this is where being “out and proud” is different if you’re T vs. LGB — for latter it’s telling people who you really are, but for transitioning trans people it tends to focus attention on who you were (or at least who people think you were).

One of the things I enjoy about burlesque and BurlyCon in particular, is that it’s been a space where I’m accepted as a woman in the company of (almost exclusively) women. Last year’s BurlyCon was marred for me by some transphobic incidents — both the incidents themselves, but also that by calling attention to them I by necessity had to call attention to myself being trans.

Now I’m not one of those transitioners who plans to disappear into the woodwork post-transition. I’m proud to be a woman who’s trans. But there’s just some days where it’s just… nice… to have that not be the thing that defines me. To be just another woman.

Today wasn’t something that needed calling out. I didn’t have to raise the point I raised, it was just offering an insight that was a bit unique.

(It was a class on eye contact and one of the exercises was for everyone to walk around the room and hold eye contact far longer than normal as they encountered people. For me, I initially had to stifle an automatic defensive reaction, because “the stare held too long” is the reaction I get from people who are displeased by my gender, or at least are trying to figure out my gender. And while I don’t let that bother me anymore, it does mean I go do become much more watchful of whether the person staring poses a potential threat. At this point it’s more of an ever-present, almost unconscious continual threat assessment, just likes he ones I do without thinking as a woman being out in the streets at night.)

I raised this because I thought it would be a useful bit of gentle consciousness raising, especially apropos now.

But yeah, it’s complicated…

Thank You All

Thank you everyone, I’m so touched by your support.

People often ask whether I’m excited. Excited, terrified, something like that…. Mostly it’s been exhausting.

A friend of mine said that transitioning was like simultaneously planning her wedding and planning for the arrival of her first-born child —and running a marathon everyday to boot. She was only half-joking.

So having you all help celebrate a major milestone with me means a lot.

If you know any other trans folks who are transitioning, let them know you’ve got their back. It’s inherently a bit of lonely road, one spends a fair amount of time locked up with your thoughts and feelings.

If you know any other trans folks who are post-transition, let them know you’ve got their back. They’ve made it through the fire, but they often face a whole new set of challenges.

If you know any other trans folks who aren’t transitioning, let them know you’ve got their back. In some ways they have the most difficult path. I should know. For a number of years, I lived the middle path. Not because I was repressed, but because at that time I was truly and bi-gendered. And being bi-gendered or gender queer, or even an plain ol’ crossdresser is fucking hard. Maybe it’s a kiddie-coaster in terms of ups and downs compared to what transitioners go through, but there’s a big difference: at some point I get to get off the road. They don’t. It’s a ride they’ll be riding the rest of their lives.

If you know any partners of trans people — regardless of whether the trans person is transitioning, or post-transition or non-transitioning — let them know you’ve got their back. Of all the people, they’re the ones who are the most overlooked, the least respected and the least supported.

In the Wake of the Pulse Massacre

Dear cis/straight people who’ve remained silent,

Among those few who’ve spoken up, I’ve often heard that they felt like they didn’t know what to say, I get that. When someone’s parent, someone’s child, someone’s sibling or even their dog dies, we often don’t know what to say.

That’s why there’s ritual phrases: “My condolences.” “I’m sorry for your loss.” “I’m there for you.” Phrases that we say without thinking, without hesitation in the aftermath of other losses.

Imagine someone murders your parent, or your child, or your sibling, or even your dog. And no one says anything. Imagine the place you go to feel safe being violated. And no one says anything. Imagine knowing that it’s all too possible that someone you love, or you yourself, might well be murdered, in your refuge of safety. And no one says anything.

Yeah, it’s like that. And the silence has been deafening.

I get it, everyone processes tragedy in their own way. Some folks try to distract themselves, some folks withdraw. I get that you might need to get off Facebook for a bit.

I get that you might not have the energy to reach out individually to the LGBT people you know — I know I haven’t. I get that offering your condolences to an LGBT person might trigger emotions you rather not deal with right now — I know it has for me.

But honestly, how hard is it to take a moment to offer your condolences. Even getting on Facebook for a minute and making a quick post that you don’t what what else to say, but that you share our grief, that you’re with us.

Because a lot of us need to hear this right now. To know that someone else shares our pain. To know that we’ve not been abandoned. To know that we’re not alone.

P.S. I’m sure some of you are pissed off and defensive after reading this. If you are, ask yourself why are you so upset about being asked to do for us, what you routinely do for others. Just think about that.

Mourning Pulse in Solitude

Being both bi and trans, I feel very similarly:

“But the horrible thing about “passing privilege” is the closeting, the erasure. And never have I felt that so keenly as I feel it today while I mourn Orlando….

….It means I feel alone a lot.

I feel alone today in this household of straight people. Sympathetic straight people, yes, allies, yes, but straight people nonetheless.

I feel alone when the queer community talks about fighting back against homophobia with kiss-ins. Kissing my partner produces no hateful response from society (a privilege). So…where is my resistance? I must be doing this wrong.

That’s where the guilt enters in. The deep, deep isolating guilt that comes from internalized bi-phobia.

Am I allowed to feel this devastated, this full of rage?

Am I gay enough to be this upset?

Am I appropriating the grief of real gay people?

It hurts. On top of the pain and grief of loss, on top of the “that could’ve been me, that could’ve been my friends”, on top of the psychological terror, there’s also the sinking feeling of self-doubt.

Thank God for the radical queer community, the people who helped me heal from some of my guilt about not being “gay enough”. They came through for me in the past, and they are coming through again, reminding me of who I am. Reminding me that I count. Reminding me that I am enough, that my emotions are valid, that my existence is resistance, that I deserve to be here.”

– Biphobia and the Pulse Massacre