Welcome to a New World– How Society Treats You When You “Pass” and Other Oddities

Skimming Facebook this morning, I saw several friends posted a link to a BRILLIANT piece Jon Stewart did on the Caitlyn Jenner reveal. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to watch. I won’t repeat any of Jon’s commentary here, except to say that he rightly points out that, now that Caitlyn Jenner is presenting as female, she will be treated as a typical female (not in a good way) by the media covering her story. His presentation of this phenomenon is amazing. WATCH IT.

It got mehey-girl thinking about all the ways that my ability to “pass” as male has changed how people treat me. I am white, educated, and grew up middle class. I stand a little over 5’7″ and am in shape (though it is strange to go from being a “tall-ish, but big” female to a “short-ish, but strong-for-his-size” dude). In just the few short months that I have been in this phase of my transition, where I am overwhelmingly read and treated as a straight (SO F*CKING WEIRD. I HAVE NEVER BEEN STRAIGHT BEFORE), white male, I have noticed a pretty big change in how people allow me to move around in this world.

It turns out, male privilege is a thing. And now I have it. And that is totally, totally weird. I feel guilty about having it, but also realize that now that I have it, I have some enhanced ability to call it out and work to undo it. And so I shall. Here are some of the best examples of that privilege at work.

1. I am never afraid to leave my house alone. I am generally not the type of person who worries too much about my surroundings when I’m by myself. I am physically not really the type to be picked on, I usually have dogs with me, and I have lived in some sketchy places before (just ask my mom), so I’m used to that. But now that the world sees me as a man, I am comfortable by myself in most situations. I was walking around in a hoodie and sweatpants, with my headphones in the other day. I must have been looking particularly surly, because an older woman saw me and actually crossed the street to get away from me. Seriously– I have gone from “potential target” to “potential aggressor.”

2. I can exist in public without being a subject of commentary or criticism based on my appearance. I’m allowed to dress how I want, walk how I want, I don’t have to shave, smile, or engage in conversation if I don’t want to, and no one has anything to say about it. This is a stark contrast from the days when strangers on the street would comment on my outfits, or tell me to “smile more,” or catcall me.

3. I’m allowed to have body hair. This is a tough one for me. I never was really big on body hair before– my Nordic genes include the blessing of mostly-blonde fuzz, so I could be relaxed about shaving my legs and such without much issue. But I always felt pressured still to keep everything in check, for the most part. Now, I totally have the freedom to be as hairy as I want. I am still trying to make peace with this– after looking at yourself for 31 years with one standard in mind, looking down at hairy legs, hairy arm pits, and increasingly-hairy everything else has taken a lot of getting used to. Still not sure how I feel about facial hair, but it helps me pass, so it stays for now. Had I made similar decisions pre-transition I would have been labeled a “hippie dyke” or worse. Ridiculous.

4. I can eat and drink whatever I want and no one tries to make me feel bad about it. You know, because men are allowed more leeway when it comes to being in shape, or indulging. I’m not expected to “keep my figure,” and in fact, when I do comment about being on a diet or watching what I eat, other men respond with comments meant to make me feel bad or less-than because I don’t want a giant cheeseburger and large fries and Hooters wings and tons of beer all the time.

5. I have less sexual liability. I could literally sleep with as many people as I want to– male or female– and get zero push-back. In fact, I might even get props from other dudes. When I talk about sex, no one (except my doctor) reminds me to “be safe” or “be smart.” I am not judged negatively for talking openly about sex, or sexual partners.

6. I am not subject to “soft sexism.” Being asked to grab someone their coffee or to help clean up after a meeting/gathering/party no longer exists.

I am sure that this list will grow with time– after all, it’s only been a few months that I am in this position, and most people I interact with regularly know me as a trans person. More experiences with folks who don’t know will surely only expand upon the privilege I’m afforded. Meanwhile, folks like Caitlyn Jenner lose much of their individuality and become another “thing to be discussed” by virtue of their transition to female.

Our culture is very strange. Let’s work on that.

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How to Talk about Transgender People

I have seen lots (and I mean101 LOTS) of positive outpouring of support for Caitlyn Jenner after her big reveal yesterday. This is heartening and gives me so much hope for the future for trans folk in this country, and eventually the World.

We can’t just talk about trans issues and trans people. We have to talk about the way we talk about trans issues and trans people. The ACLU did an excellent piece today that highlights why we shouldn’t let the conversation stop with discussing how fabulous Jenner looks, without also discussing how hard it is for 99% of trans people to ever attain that level of care.

I’m here to address how the words we choose when talking about trans people affects the tone of conversations and impacts the way trans people are seen by non-trans people (also called cisgender people).

Here are some tips about what to say, what not to say, and things to think about when you’re having a conversation about, or with, a trans person.

Vocabulary

This article does an awesome job of explaining relevant terms like sex, gender, transgender, transsexual, cisgender, sexual reassignment surgery, etc.

Friendly Tips for Interacting With Trans People

  • Don’t assume a transgender person’s sexual orientation
    Gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who we are attracted to. Gender identity is about our own personal sense of being male or female. There are straight and gay trans people just like there are straight and gay cisgender people.
  • Don’t guess if someone is transgender just by looking
    Transgender people all look different. They may or may not appear “visibly trans.” You should assume there may be transgender people at any gathering. If you meet someone and you are generally not sure what their gender identity is, you can respectfully ask them “What is your preferred gender pronoun?” See below.
  • Don’t assume someone is a he or she – listen first
    If you’re not sure which pronoun to use, listen to people who know that person well. If you need to ask the person what they prefer, start with yourself. “Hi, I’m Joe and I prefer the pronoun he or him. What about you?” If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, apologize with sincerity and move on.
  • Don’t ask what their “real name” is
    For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name is a source of anxiety. Respect the name they currently use. If you know the person’s birth name, don’t share it without his or her permission. Likewise, don’t share photos of someone before his or her transition without permission, and don’t ask to see any photos either.
  • Don’t assume everyone knows
    Be careful about outing someone. Knowing a transgender person’s status is personal. It is up to them to share it.
  • Don’t ask about a transgender person’s genitals, surgical status, or sex life
    You wouldn’t ask a non-transgender person about these issues, it’s just as inappropriate to ask a transgender person about these things.
  • Don’t offer backhanded compliments or “helpful” tips:
    • “I would never have known you were transgender. You look so pretty.”
    • “You look like a real woman.”
    • “She’s so gorgeous, I would never have guessed she was transgender.”
    • “He’s so hot, I’d date him even though he’s transgender.”
    • “You’d pass so much better if you wore less/more make-up, had a better wig, etc.”
    • “Have you considered a voice coach?”

Thanks for listening, friends! Be most excellent to each other.

Caitlyn Jenner’s Coming Out is a Double-Edged Sword

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that today1433176861_caitlyn-jenner-lg (1), Caitlyn Jenner made her debut in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair. In a 22-page feature, Jenner appears relaxed and comfortable (not to mention gorgeous– thank you, Annie Liebovitz) in her new skin.

First, I have to say bravo to Ms. Jenner. Coming out as a trans person is hard to do, no matter how supportive your family and friends are. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be such a public figure and have so much scrutiny directed toward you, during what is surely some of the most difficult time in a trans person’s life. Transitioning is a strange, long process that can, at times, be anything but graceful. Yet Jenner has handled the whole thing with ease.

Therein lies the problem. Jenner, as a wealthy, famous, politically conservative white person transitioning, has it relatively easy. Transitioning so publicly runs the risk of furthering the Dominant Trans Narrative, which is that the trans person has the means and the opportunity to medically transition and thus, a “trans person” is someone who has made physical alterations to their body and “passes” as their true gender at all times.

So, Jenner’s coming out is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, increasing visibility for trans people is a good thing. I mean, Jenner was a major household name for many years. We know her as an Olympian, a that person who was on a Wheaties box. An American Hero. Also, Jenner’s transition story shows a very real struggle that spouses, children, and friends can have when a loved one comes out as trans. Plus, having a high-profile, professional athlete transition in the public eye is amazing. This past year has brought transgender people some really awesome exposure via Jenner, Laverne Cox (who wrote an excellent commentary on Jenner’s big reveal here), Janet Mock, Aydian Dowling, and more.

The negative thing about the very public nature of Jenner’s transition is that all of Jenner’s wealth and political capital buys her the best care, the best therapy, and the most insulation from the struggles that most trans people, especially trans women of color, experience every day. I will not speak for trans women of color, but if you’re interested, there is some really good commentary here and here.

Jenner’s transition timeline is not representative of most trans people’s experience– I worry that it creates in the general population an expectation that her transition is what transition is supposed to look like, and people who do not look like Caitlyn Jenner are not real trans people.

I hope that folks following her story recognize these things, but I am fearful that they do not. The reality is that trans women, particularly trans women of color, are murdered at an alarming rate. Trans people, particularly trans women, suffer from high rates of homelessness, unemployment, and harassment on a daily basis.

To her credit, Jenner has acknowledged, both in her interview with Diane Sawyer and in Vanity Fair, that her experience is privileged and that many, many trans women are not as fortunate. The fight is far from won, and I just hope, hope, HOPE that our society and all you dear readers recognize this, too.

We are off to a good start in 2015– but we have many miles left to travel. Thank you for joining the journey.

Trans* is not One Story

People ask me frequently what it feels like now to “be in the right body.” This question always throws me off some, for a few reasons. One is that I never really felt like I was in the wrong body, per se. Another reason is that I can tell this question is a symptom of our culture’s fixation on the dominant trans* narrative, that is, the story of a Person-Who-Always-Knew-Something-Was-Wrong. I bet if you ask most people to describe what it means for someone to be trans*, they will articulate some version of this:

Person is born. At a young age, Person begins telling the world “I’m not a This, I’m a That!” Person starts acting out on their desires to be a That. Person struggles with unhappiness until at some point, Person’s Parents pursue therapy/treatment, and then Person gets to live as they wish.

While that story line may indeed describe a good number of trans* folks, it is certainly not the only way to be trans*. It took me 10 years to realize that trans* means different things to different people, and that yes, you can still be trans* even if you didn’t think you were born in the wrong body when you were 3 years old.

I am incredibly lucky to be transitioning when I am. I have this realization almost daily– every time I see a news feature or a Facebook post, I realize how much more accepted being trans* is in most parts of the US today than it was 10 years ago when I first contemplated this whole process. At the time, I was living in TX and I knew exactly 1 trans* person. His name was Eli and he had, from what I could gather, a pretty tough go of it. His experience played heavily in my decision not to pursue gender transition physically for a long time.

But also a huge part of that delay was that I bought into the myth that there is only One Trans Story. In hindsight, it is of course pretty ridiculous to think that, as a queer person who had seen lots of different types of other queer people, that I believed that being transgender was much less fluid. But I did– and not really knowing any trans* folks, how was I supposed to know any different. I was, for the most part, okay with my body from a dysphoria standpoint. I wasn’t crazy about my chest, but that’s mostly because boobs got in the way of sports and other things I enjoyed. I am happy with the original plumbing I have been given, so no real issues there. My dysphoria exists in the smaller details– the amount of muscle I could build, the way my clothes would hang, the types of dress and mannerisms I was expected to have. It took a long time of getting to know a lot of other trans* folks before I realized that my feelings about my own identity were just as worthy of the trans* label as those young kids that go on Oprah to talk about being trans*.

I am grateful every day for the exposure that I see trans* issues getting in media. But I also wonder why none of that exposure really focuses on the variety of trans* experiences. I wonder if the reinforcement of the dominant One Trans Story isn’t actually, in some way, harming all those folks out there that might feel uncomfortable with their assigned gender, but don’t fit the mold of the Person-Who-Always-Knew-Something-Was-Wrong?

I am hopeful that the conversation will become more nuanced as time passes, as more trans* folks gain their voices and can speak to their experiences. But we are still a long ways away. So if you’re reading this, consider yourself exposed to a little slice of variety under the trans* umbrella, and please speak up if you hear someone saying that there is only one way to be trans*. 🙂