Out of your Bubble
A year or so into my transition, I went over to a few friends’ new apartment for dinner. They were a (cis) lesbian couple I’d been friends with for years, and the night might have been simply enough lovely evening with friends, if it wasn’t for one thing which means now, years later, I still think of it.
I think about it because of their neighbour. She was a very straight, very cis woman who had just had her first baby. They’d apparently helped her with something not long before, and this particular night she happened to pop by and have a glass (or three) of wine with us.
As I mentioned, this was pretty early in my transition. I was quite lucky in the amount of cis-passing privilege I had developed very quickly – my body took to oestrogen running – but like almost anyone who’s been misgendered or clocked as trans in public, the fear of that happening had stuck with me. Still has to do this day – being misgendered is almost never a thing that happens to me, yet I still have low-key anxiety that it’ll happen.
My friends were, of course, supportive and had been from the start. But this random woman… I had no idea. She seemed very typical. She was confused by these two lesbians. She’d never really met any lesbians before, seemingly. She even asked the staggeringly awkward question of “who’s the guy in the relationship?” which, yes, it turns out still get asked of lesbians.
I made the decision to out myself. It was something I did then and still do now in a lot of social situations – I’d rather be open about who I am. If there’s going to be awkward transphobic responses, I’d rather it happen quickly and be dealt with.
The reason why this interaction stuck with me, though, was that her response to me coming out to her as transgender was by far not what I had expected.
I’ve gotten lots of reactions from people, from polite nods to genuine shock to them clearly having just had their suspicions confirmed, and of course the typical and uncomfortable non-compliment response of “Oh! I’d never have known!”
When I came out to this woman, she looked me up and down, furrowed her brow, then asked, simply, “Which way are you transitioning?”
She had no idea if I was a trans woman or a trans man. (I highly doubt the notion of me possibly being non-binary was something that entered her mind.)
As it’s relevant here, it’s worth noting how I was presenting at that time: very feminine. I was even then fairly curvy, wearing a dress showing some cleavage, with makeup on. Whatever anyone thought of me, it’d be hard to read my style that night as anything other than ‘very feminine’.
“I’m a trans woman,” I replied to her.
“Oh,” she said. “So does that mean you were… born a woman, and won’t be in future?”
This threw me even more, but I decided rather than correct her with the nuance of ‘being born’ a specific gender, I’d just ignore that and answer simply. “Born male.”
She didn’t seem surprised, in any way. Just curious.
The idea that she would have been entirely believing of the concept of me being a trans man stuck with me. She knew so little about the very idea of transitioning that the idea of someone with a (for lack of a better term) feminine body, wearing dresses, makeup and keeping long hair, might be a trans guy. It’s possible, of course – there are so many social reasons why someone may present in a way that’s not how they’d prefer to present. This, however, clearly didn’t come from a very progressive place of “I will not presume your gender on the basis of your body and presentation”; it was instead from a place of absolute lack of understanding.
I’m not a stranger to getting questions which showcase someone’s complete lack of knowledge of biology, bodies, hormones and transitioning, of course.
I once had a cis woman ask me if I could get pregnant.
Another time, a guy asked me “when I had my surgery”. At first thought he was just very rudely presuming I’d had lower surgery, but it quickly became apparent he presumed I’d had breast implants, and perhaps in even facial surgery to ‘look female’. The idea that hormones make trans women develop breasts same as they do for cis girls (and with as much variation in shape and size) was something he simply didn’t know, nor that someone with an androgynous face going on oestrogen might also end up looking quite feminine without surgery.
I don’t think about those questions, born mostly of ignorance as to hormones and biology, anywhere near as much as the woman who wasn’t sure if I was a trans man or a trans woman. I suppose because it showed a different level of ignorance – that the very idea of presenting in a way that you might feel comfortable despite your body had not occurred to her.
It made me realise how privileged my social circles had been, even before I had out trans friends, never mind realised I myself was also trans. I was used to people experimenting at least a bit with their presentation – men with earrings or eyeliner or even dresses (albeit mostly at parties), women presenting as butch as they pleased.
So even now, years later, I think back to that woman, because it reminds me just how little many people know about transitioning. Just how foreign the concept is, and how assuming even a baseline level of knowledge from people is likely unhelpful.
It made me think that even the inaccurate and problematic narrative of “born in the wrong body” was something she didn’t know, and how even that would have at least put her vaguely in the right ball-park, if not exactly totally on the money.
When you are queer or trans, it’s very easy to vanish so completely into a queer-literate, trans-literate and even poly and kink-literate spaces. So much so that it’s sometimes jarring to poke your head out of that and realise how how foreign all of this must be to people for whom the very idea of questioning their gender or even their sexuality, or the road map from dating to marriage to kids and a white picket fence, is foreign.