Life in No Man’s Land

When the media covers transsexual people, there is a lot of interest in the process of transition.  Julia Serrano covers their fetishization of transition excellently in her book Whipping Girl. I think we all know the tropes: we open with a picture of Joe as a football player in high school, then cut to Joe at the dressing table, becoming Michelle, putting on heavy makeup, pantyhose, skirt and heels, maybe using a wig, and then trying to “act feminine”. We see “Michelle” learning how to abandon a football-player swagger in favor of a dainty feminine swish; relearning how to talk, ending every breathy sentence with a rising lilt to sound like a vapid valley girl. It’s hardly a surprise that some feminists react to this kind of presentation by thinking that transsexual women are fundamentally phony.

Quite possibly the media’s coverage does represent some people’s experience, but it doesn’t represent how things were for me. I don’t really recall ever trying to change how I did fundamental things like my word choices, the way I move, and so on. I barely changed the way I dress—where I live, plenty of women wear jeans and t-shirts, especially young technical women. If I had to guess, I’d say that I may be a bit butch today, but not so much so that anyone would notice or comment, and before transition, I was probably seen a little feminine for my gender presentation, but again, not really enough for anyone to comment on it (to my face, at least).

Looking back, I think that there are aspects of my transition process strike me as far more interesting than the aspects the media focuses on. Before transition, when I had male gender presentation, although I assumed that I was doing so successfully, it would be fair to that I wasn’t always quite as successful as I thought—apparently my femininity showed through at times in various ways. Apparently, I was always at least a little androgynous. Once I finally began to deal with my gender dysphoria, I started taking spironolactone to block the effects of testosterone while I tried to work out what path I should take, and when I did so, it pushed my body further into the gender no man’s land of androgyny. Physical androgyny allowed me to adopt a gender presentation that offered little in the way of clear gender cues. As a result, sometimes I accidentally passed as female without intending to, but mostly I left people fairly confused. (Actually, according to some sources, apparently I occasionally unwittingly passed as female even before spironolactone, although I’ve never really understood what it was that people could have been seeing.)

Being very androgynous really messes with people’s heads. Some people just guess a gender and go with it, but others stare, and wonder, and stare some more; they want to know; they feel they need to know, but politeness demands they not ask. One particular incident sticks in my mind as an exemplar of the extreme androgyny experience. I was waiting for a bus wearing jeans and a baggy sweater. My hair was long but somewhat unkempt because I hadn’t had a hair cut in months (I was letting it grow). But mostly I looked pretty ordinary. I didn’t look like I was making any kind of statement; I didn’t seem like someone trying to win a goth prize or show how genderqueer they were. Instead, I just an ordinary person waiting for a bus. In my eyes, I was presenting as male, but my sense of my gender presentation was biased—I mostly saw (and tried to minimize) the male gender cues and discounted any female ones, but other people didn’t see me the way I did. Apparently it was possible to look at me and suppose I might be a fairly flat chested, slightly scruffy girl.  On this occasion, I noticed vigorous debate just out of clear earshot amongst a small group teenagers and I knew what they were talking about; me. It was a little unnerving, but it was also amusing. Eventually, one came over to me and asked me the time. I answered briefly in a gender neutral tone, and the teen rejoined the group to report that the encounter had been inconclusive. Another one came over and asked me if I knew when the bus was due, and I told her. Again, I hadn’t answered the real question they wanted answering. Eventually my bus came, I boarded, and as it pulled away, I gave them a shy smile.

After a period of androgyny, I began transition in earnest and for a short time spent some of my time presenting as overtly female and some not. I remember that switching gender presentations wasn’t fun because I far preferred to be perceived as female, but looking back on it now, what is so odd is how easy it was to switch from being perceived as one sex to the other. One time in the grocery store I saw someone I knew from work, where I had not yet transitioned. She hadn’t seen me yet, and so I changed sex right there in the grocery store. I moved my shirt from being tucked into my jeans to hanging over them, dropped my purse into a canvas shopping bag I was also carrying, and mussed my hair. And that was basically it. The transformation from girl to boy took seconds. Looking back on it, that’s just weird and almost implausible.

In a similar vein, I also have a photo of me sitting in the same spot, wearing the same clothes (well, almost). In one I’m presenting as a boy, and in the other I’m a girl. They were both taken on the same roll of film, and so weren’t far apart in time. To my eye at least, in each case the gender presentation is utterly unambiguous (which makes me cringe looking at the boy one), but what is odd to me now is how someone could flip between the two presentations with so little else appearing to change. To some extent, thinking about it now it’s rather mind blowing and hard to believe (perhaps in part because being able to move my gender presentation around was such a short lived skill—I had it only while I needed it and it atrophied once I had transitioned).

It wasn’t all fun. At the peak of my androgyny, I wasn’t always sure what people were seeing and so sometimes it was hard to know just where to go vocally, since I wanted to sound congruent with how I was perceived. Sometimes not knowing whether to pitch my voice down to make it sound more masculine would render me nearly voiceless and I’d only be able to speak quietly.

It’s also interesting to me that when I finally did transition and present as unambiguously female, the world reacted by breathing a collective a sigh of relief. The intrusive confused stares stopped and life suddenly got a lot easier. It’s odd when you think about it, from the media portrayal of transsexuality, switching your sex presentation is the big deal, where someone might legitimately worry about being found out or stared at. But looking back, the truth for me was far stranger, that changing gender presentation was something I could do in seconds, and the stares came when I didn’t present as female.

But even that isn’t necessarily the strangest aspect of transition; so far I’ve focused on the perceptions of random strangers, but I also saw hundreds of people on an ongoing basis as part of my daily life. They didn’t know me beyond hellos, goodbyes, and inconsequential small talk, but they got to see me transition. I went from “somewhat androgynous boy” to “very androgynous person” to “normal young woman”, and that too messes with people’s heads. People’s brains just aren’t designed for that to happen, and so it doesn’t. For the most part, they edit their memories, and that’s really strange to observe. After I had transitioned, a bank teller mentioned to me that she remembered my boyfriend—I had no boyfriend; the person she was really remembering was me. The same happened to a bus driver I knew. The clerks behind the counter at the local convenience store seemed to be utterly unphased, which freaked me out more than it did them. In the entirety of my transition, to my knowledge I only freaked out one person, a server at a McDonalds that I went to only very occasionally, who I think might have been a little attracted to the old me. She never said a thing, but I saw her double take when I returned as a girl. What’s weird though is that this reaction was the exception, not the rule.

To me, these are the aspects of transition that I find strangest—how you can slide from one gender to the other, through a very strange no man’s land, and in particular how it puts other people into uncharted territory of their own, and how they deal with that. I’d have thought that the strangeness of these aspects would be exactly the kind of thing that would arouse the prurient fascination of the media, but a guess not. A small mercy, I suppose.

3 comments so far

  1. Teri on

    Androgyny isn’t a very comfortable place to live. I never liked being called miss one minute and sir the next. I felt way more at risk than I ever felt just being a woman.

    I still feel I have a rather androgynous look. But that gets pushed into the female zone by attitude more than anything else. I tried presenting once as a guy last year and really got some uncomfortably weird looks and vibes from it.

    I think I’m capable of presenting in either gender and feel I could with little change other than where I put my gender attitude. I’m just not that comfortable playing the guy role. I think of going back for better work but… ya well not sure that’s such a good idea.

  2. […] I mentioned in my last post, if you read some people’s stories of transition, especially the kind of coverage you see in […]

  3. SG on

    “To me, these are the aspects of transition that I find strangest—how you can slide from one gender to the other, through a very strange no man’s land, and in particular how it puts other people into uncharted territory of their own, and how they deal with that. I’d have thought that the strangeness of these aspects would be exactly the kind of thing that would arouse the prurient fascination of the media, but a guess not. A small mercy, I suppose.”

    Reading Whipping Girl closely it becomes very obvious why the media does not pay any attention to it: The fluidity of gender attacks oppositional sexism and cissexist assumptions at their very core, and is part and parcel of why transsexuals can arouse such fear and ire. The truth is that transsexuality terrifies some people because it shows that their view of how gender works is a house of cards.

    If the media was to emphasize how transsexuals are capable of easily moving from one gender to another during transition, every cis person would have to reevaluate their view that they know the difference between real males and real females and that their cis gender is privileged above the “fake” genders of transsexuals.

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