Guest Blogger

"Out" - divided by a common language

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 24, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: crossdressing, out, transgender

Editor's Note: Lena Dahlstrom lena_dahlstrom1.pngis a crossdresser from the San Francisco Bay Area who also performs under the stage name "Joie de Vivre."

During one of my first forays out in public while crossdressed, I was walking down the street in San Francisco when an extremely flamboyant gay man flounced up to me and shouted out, "Hey Mary, you're looking fierce! Work it girlfriend, work it!" (Yes I still remember the exact words.)

Now he probably thought I was extremely drab drag queen, since I was dressed the way an ordinary woman of my age would've been, and undoubtedly he meant well and was trying to be friendly. But I was absolutely mortified.

It had taken close to three decades to work up the courage to go out of the house while crossdressed. Up to that moment I'd been ecstatic that not only had I not been beaten to death by sticks, but that -- although I was getting the occasional stare -- for the most part people seemed not to notice the guy in the dress in their midst. That confidence was crushed in an instant. I bit back the tears and just tried to get the hell away from him as fast as possible.

Ironically, I've since discovered that LGBT spaces, ones that usually thought of as "safe spaces," were I'm most likely to get "read." In part it's because LGB are simply more aware of trans people, but I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that when it comes to how people think about "being out," the LGB and T communities are like two nations divided by a common language (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde).

In the gay and lesbian communities it's usually presumed that being out is a Good Thing, and anyone who isn't is someone who's quivering in the closet. At the extreme, anti-assimilationists condemn those who are "straight-acting" for not being visibly queer. Milder forms of this thinking are behind the disrespect bisexuals often get for supposedly being "unwilling to commit" and "closeted when convenient."

But in the T communities, being "visibly out" has far different connotations. Over at the My Husband Betty forum, we've had a serious discussion about what we've half-jokingly called the "rules of engagement" -- i.e. if someone sets off your transdar, do you greet them as one of the tribe? In other words, do you overtly or subtly try to see if they're trans too.

It's an issue gays and lesbians faced during the long years of needing to be discrete, and they evolved numerous subtle ways to identify each other without the straight population knowing what was going on: whether it was wearing red ties, asking if someone was a friend of Dorothy or mentioning you'd read "The Well of Loneliness." Sometimes it wasn't subtle. Crossdressing (in part or in full) to signal one's homosexuality goes back at least as far as the "Molly houses" in the early 1700s. All these were ways of trying to (safely) communicate to others who one really was.

Trans people have the same desire -- but the difference is that we usually want to be seen as the gender we're presenting ourselves. So for transsexuals being "visibly trans" means being seen as a trans woman or trans man, and for crossdressers it means being seen as a "guy in a dress," rather than being simply being seen as women and men.

"Passing" (or as I prefer to think of it: "blending in") is something that most trans people -- at least those who aren't gender queer -- have usually thought about a lot during some point in their life. In fact, some people obsess over it. (Ironically it's often those who are most likely to blend in -- those of us with bodies that fall far outside the statistical norms for the height and build of our desired genders end up just having to make our peace with that.)

Now there are some very logical reasons for wanting to blend in. The first is one that LGB people are familiar with: safety. Being visibly gender variant means being a potential target, and not just from transphobes -- homophobes don't bother to inquire about my sexual orientation (If they would they've find out I prefer women.) The few times I've been harassed, people didn't yell "tranny," they yelled "faggot."

Plus, higher percentages of trans people are victims of hate crimes than the LGB people -- at rates as high as 16 times the national average (a figure all the more striking because many jurisdictions still don't report hate crimes against trans people). So it is it any wonder we seek to avoid attention? Even if there's not a safety issue, constantly being an object of curiosity can just be wearying. Sometimes I just want to have an ordinary, boring day.

Another big reason -- one that lesbian and gays don't experience -- is how your identity is too often disrespected when you're "visibly trans." Transsexuals often are treated with double-standards when they're perceived as trans men and women. As Julia Serano talks about in her excellent book "Whipping Girl," trans woman who act "too masculine" are accused of really being men (or at least of having "male energy"), and those who act "too feminine" are accused of aping women -- "unenlightened" women at that.

Likewise, it seems like the current fetishization of trans men (most famously by Margaret Cho, who's bi) in some lesbian circles stems in part from trans men being perceived as deliciously masculine without the icky side-effects of being, well.. you know... actually men. (I can only imagine how these same folks doing the fetishizing would react if a similar disrespect was shown towards their own sexual identity as is shown in the implicit assumptions about trans men's gender identity.) As a crossdresser, I can tell you that the reception I get in some lesbian circles can be downright chilly, while gay men just assume I'm one of the boys.

Finally, there's a serious emotional component as well. I'd venture the most straight-acting "virtually normal" LGB people still would like to be do things such as be able to mention their partner when people ask about their weekend or to be able to put their partners' picture on the their desks. In other words, to be seen as the person they see themselves as. Trans people want that too. I see it first-hand with one of my best friends, who transitioned a few months ago and who's thrilled that she's met new friends who see her simply as another women. But when we're "read," we're seen as not who we want others to see ourselves as -- just as I was on the street corner -- and that can be emotional devastating.

Now don't get me wrong. These days I'm both regularly out in public and fairly publicly out -- most of my company knows I perform as drag queen. (Yes, I went from fleeing attention to seeking to be the center of it -- after those long years in the closet there's something extremely liberating about that.) Some of my co-workers also know that I also crossdress off-stage to express a part of myself that society deems "feminine." I'm on various online forums for trans people and I see how being closeted eats away at people -- particularly the vast numbers of crossdressers (probably ten for every transsexual) who make up the "dark matter" of the trans spectrum. I dearly wish my peers could step free of that closet.

But it's still tricky at times. For the reasons mentioned, the consensus over at My Husband Betty was that one not let on that you think someone might be trans, and even dropping hints that you might be trans (like gays and lesbians of yesteryear) could be problematic -- since the only people who would get the hints would know that they set off your transdar, that they didn't blend in.

It's also a widely-held belief in the trans communities that two trans people together are far more likely to get "read," (and three trans people together even more so), so there's an additional factor that the other person may react badly because of their fears about that. All of which is tragic in a way, because it leaves people isolated. It's not for nothing that people who disappear from the trans scene after transition call it going "deep stealth" -- and some of these folks who do quietly dip their toe back into the trans-world feel a fair amount of anxiety about their past being discovered, in part because they may not be out to their partners. These are problematic issues, and that's something the trans communities need to deal with.

However, these "rules of engagement" are, for better or worse, the rules most of us intuitively play by. They can be hard for LGB people to grasp -- particularly since their own gender-bending (whether it's being a full-time nelly or butch, or whether it's just for play on Halloween or at a Pride parade) is often done in part as a statement about their being gay, lesbian or bisexual. Likewise, these rules are often misunderstood as being somehow ashamed of who we are instead of recognized for what it is: just wanting to be seen as the person you see yourself as, and simply being able to live your life in peace. The difference for trans people is that not being "out" doesn't inherently mean one is "closeted."

Probably the best advice that came out of the discussion also was the simplest -- if someone sets off your transdar, just approach them and get to know them the way you would with any other person. If they're comfortable acknowledging to you that they're trans and they feel it's relevant, they'll do so.

If the guy on the street corner had complimented me on my outfit and asked me about my day in the way he would've done with someone who was born female, would I have guessed that he probably had read me too. Yeah, probably. But I would've gone on my way with a smile on my face instead of tears on my cheeks.


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Lena-

Thank you so much for talking about this. I'll be the first to admit that I never thought about the huge differences in "rules of engagement" in our community. Thanks for starting this important conversation and for a great post.

Lena,
As always, you are insightful.

I'm about as out as one can be at work. I have a picture of my girlfriend and me in evening gowns when we were at IFGE and I have had other girlfriends' pictures over the years.

One time, we were having a bake sale to raise money for the March of Dimes and I commented that I would really like the chocolate cookies, but they wouldn't like me. One of my co-workers commented, "Don't worry. They don't have any trans fats." I said, "Now that's something that is REAL important to me." Her and the others in the room just rolled out laughing when they heard that.

I pass well, but I know that I have a great deal of male energy left over and I have learned to accept it. Parts of my male past makes me who I am today. I'm not ashamed of it. (I can easily bet that comment will be thrown in my face countless number of times.) I don't really give a flying f---.

Every human being is unique and special. I am so happy that I have been given the experience to see life through the eyes of a man AND a woman. I consider it a blessing. Not many people are afforded this chance and some who are are blind to the advantages, or see it as a curse.

And yes, the "rules of engagement" are special for trans people. You can really piss someone off if they just sense you know. Thank for writing this.

Lena - thanks for this post, hopefully it will aid mutual understanding.

Parenthetically, my involvement with GLBs has been limited, and my misunderstanding of them probably equal to theirs of me. Worse, I was never in any TG or crossdressing scene either. I've attended a few TG meetings, and I felt as out of place as a pork chop in a synagogue. You're right, there are few TS people compared to, well, can I say "part timers" without giving offense? Probably not. I'd just look like some stuck-up elitist twerp. I mean Non-TS TGs anyway.

I've only really been "at home" with some of the younger lesbian set, who just seem like, well, the younger non-lesbian set to me. Ok, they drool when some Amazonesque beauty enters the room, but they certainly don't act like men. The older lesbian brigade, those of my age, avoid such as me as I'm a tool of the Patriarchy invading women's space. The younger gays talk to me with puzzlement, and then walk off as it's obvious I'm just a frumpy female old enough to be their mother (alas), and inhabiting a different world, like the girls.

I've truly never been a victim of face-to-face transphobia. Institutional, yes, via official letter, but never over the counter.

I know what homophobia is like though. My transition was unusual, involuntary (though welcome), an unusual Intersex condition changed my looks.

Less than 3 months after the first symptoms, and before HRT, I was walking the kilometre from where my car was parked to my workplace, when I was accosted by 3 drunks. Now I was wearing my normal male attire, stuff I'd been wearing for ages.

They didn't like such an obvious "Drag King", a "Butch Dyke" walking the street, and threatened to "convert" me by showing what a "real man" could be like. I remember the exact words, and the panic I felt. I ran, of course.

The day after, I went fulltime. Transitioned at work, before I'd written the memo or given formal warning, and with a wardrobe of a few cast-offs from a thrift shop. I'd only started practicing wearing female attire 3 weeks before, I thought I had 6 months at least. I'd only seen an endo once, and it would be 5 months before the first shrink appointment was available. I had no idea whether HRT, let alone SRS, would ever be authorised.

But I figured that I no longer passed as male, despite the build and short back'n'sides. I had nothing to lose.

And I've never had a problem since. No idea why. My face is OK, considering I've not had FFS, but my figure - Bleah. No Boob job either, and a 45" ribcage does not look good when you're only 5 ft 6. If I could just figure out why I don't attract attention, I'd market it and make a million. Or give it away, just to save lives.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 24, 2008 12:31 PM

Wow,

As a man who sees cross dressing Thai men daily I have a story to tell. (In Thailand they are called Katoey)

I had both air conditioners cleaned in the condo yesterday and two gents came to do the work with the supervisor who speaks English for my benefit. Both of the guys who did the actual work on the air conditioners inside and out wore uniforms for the aircon company and the super was a casually dressed 29 year old Thai man.

He referred to one of the fellows as Katoey and the fellow (who could speak no English, smiled and laughed as it is no issue in Thailand. I asked him why he referred to his worker as Katoey as he is uniformed dressed.

"But you should see him at night when he goes out. We all live in the same company apartment building and we all know one another well. He is Katoey, and he has a pretty ass."

"But," I asked, "You would never consider laughing at someone who is Katoey on the street would you?"

"No, of course not, I like girls, but he can like who he wants to."

"OK," I continued, "You would never consider striking a Katoey for being in the clothing of a woman would you?"

"No, why would anyone do that?"

The Thai word for either "young brother" or "young sister" is "Nawng." They do not even linguistically discriminate between sexes.

Still, this was the young man who had fixed my jacussi a few months ago. I had to kid him for picking gently on his co worker. So I invited him to come and see me sometime and we would get into the jacussi together and see if he was a Katoey too.

His two co workers loved it when I called him katoey! He laughed with them. Why can't it be that simple for everyone? Natural, playful and serene?

Thank you for this post Lena, Waymon, Monica, Zoe I have learned from you all.

It's great to see a fellow crossdresser speaking up, Lena. We're part of this community, too. Many CDs hide behind closed doors, or stick to the somewhat larger closet of support groups and gender conferences, but there's a nice number of us who enjoy evenings out, shopping, and even travel, while crossdressed. There's no law against it.

The "rules of engagement" is a very important subject to me, especially in my genre of crossdressing. Each of us have to set our own rules. I don't go to clubs - I do my real-world activities 'enfemme' on my day off, instead. I practice compartmentalization- there are places I dine and shop in Anne mode, and many places I'd never go anyway but in male mode. 10 years ago, I passed, but that was too many pounds ago. There are some friends I hang with as Anne - most are TS- but I do "guy mode" when with other TS friends who are less secure with their passability or presentations - it's a matter of respect. I don't do my outings near my neighborhood or workplace, other than coming and going, and of course never anywhere near my inlaws. My wife and I have had "girls nights out" before, mainly for local GLBT community events or parties, but I am careful not to expose her to trouble. I'm nowhere near as freewheeling as I once was - before marriage, I dressed nearly all the time after work, and flew commercially enfemme - something TSA has made much more problematic - but I don't pass anywhere near as well as I did when I was 100 lbs lighter.

Generally, I recognize my passing issues - I expect to be read as male, but not recognized as my male persona - and if I run into someone I know while "out", I let them speak first and approach me. And there's other forms of communication: a few weeks ago, I was in a Sephora store enfemme (you have to shop for makeup enfemme, don't you?), and I suspected a clerk was T as soon as I walked in - she approached me when she was finished with her current customer, never saying she was T. I'd wanted to try out false eyelashes, and she helped me select a pair, and gave me the lesson on how to apply them (she did the first one, then had me do the second). When checking my purchases out, I thanked her for helping me, and she said "we girls have to stick together", and we each batted our eyelashes at each other and laughed. It's worked out that way for me here many times while out.

If asked about crossdressing when out in public, I reply honestly and with the same respect shown me. If someone is hostile, I walk away. If someone wants to learn, I teach, discreetly. I try to comport and act with manners and class, and use my decently passable femme voice, and that normally gets me by. I've only been hassled twice by authorities; once after using the ladies' room at the Toronto airport with an inappropriately (overly sluttily) dressed CD in tow, and once by TSA a couple years after 911.

Lena, thanks for a great post! You've given me a lot to think about.

Great post, Lena! As I said on the MHB boards, I always try to practice the "prime directive" myself when I think I see another trans person, and it would really bother me if someone *didn't* practice it with me. If anyone should happen to "read" me in public, I'd prefer it if they kept that insight to themselves. In the more than three years since I transitioned, not one person has said anything to me, or given me any kind of significant glance, to indicate that they've divined my history. Perhaps being 100% "blendable" is an illusion, but it's one that makes me feel good. I'm not saying that one negative experience after all these years of entirely positive ones would make my sense of security and self-confidence come crashing down around my ears, but it would most definitely not be helpful.

I've had to explain more than once to non-trans L and G people -- particularly in the last three years, when I was the first and thus far only "T" member of the LGBT Rights Committee of the New York City Bar Association -- that "out" can mean something very different to them than it does to me and other trans people, and that not being "out" about a trans history (or a trans present) does not equal feeling ashamed of it. The way I've tried to explain it is to say that to them, being gay or lesbian is usually part of their identity, something they have reason to be proud of, or at least no reason to keep it a secret. But at least to me, being trans was a process, not an "identity." The "identity" is being a woman; trans is how I got there. It isn't as if when I was a little kid, I thought to myself, gee, I want to be a transsexual when I grow up. No. I wanted to be a girl. (Preferably through some kind of supernatural intervention, but unfortunately that didn't happen!)

And it isn't as if I'm ashamed of that history, ashamed of having gone through that process. After all, many people I know are aware of my history, and I still work at the same law firm I'd been at for 10 years at the time of my transition. I don't usually lie about my history, but I don't go around announcing it. I don't keep a picture of my pre-transition self on my desk! Perhaps if disclosure didn't matter at all to anyone, didn't have the effect to a lot of people of moving me someplace outside "class woman" in their minds, I'd do it more often. (Although never in casual encounters in daily life; why would I?) But I've seen the way people look at me after they find out change too often -- even if only subtly -- to want to "out" myself unless it's necessary. It would kind of defeat the entire purpose of this enterprise. Which, as I said, was to be, to live in the world as, and to be perceived as, a woman. Not a transsexual, or even as a transsexual woman.

Donna

Lena, an excellent, excellent, article. Very well said.

Donna, an extremely good point. Thanks for making it.

As an FTM, I'm never recognized as trans. (that's not a brag, BTW; just how it works for guys) But having spent most of my life living as a very visible dyke, it's been a significant adjustment that gay people can't recognize me as queer. You know, the "I know that you know that I know" look you give each other which acknowledges you're both gay without saying a word.

I have to remember that if I spot a dyke, and I look too closely, all she sees is a guy who she thinks is giving her the hairy eyeball, and not someone who had been a part of her community.

What a great guest post, Lena!

Thanks all. It's something is a source of a fair amount of inadvertent miscommunication between our communities.

@ MonicaH - FWIW, I'm always annoyed by the "male energy" comments -- it presumes that sort of thing it targets are somehow a gender-specific traits that only men possess. Yes, there certainly can be ways that someone (either a trans woman or trans man) can display privilege/blindspots from their birth gender -- attending IFGE for the first time was an eye-opener for me in this regard. But the behaviors it's often used to critique -- talking over people, not listening, etc. -- I've seen displayed in women as well as men. Maybe not as frequently, but it's society, not biology, that deems particular traits masculine or feminine.

@ Robert - I think if society was more relaxed about seeing gender as a spectrum -- though Thailand isn't necessarily the trans nirvana it's portrayed to be -- probably trans people would be less uptight about being read. But... Even in that situation I think my point still stands: most trans people would prefer to be seen/treated as their desired gender, not as trans gender. I'm pretty open at work -- most of the company knows I do drag, a smaller number know it's not just for show. But still, if I were to show up en femme to work (not that that's actually likely), I'd prefer to be treated as a woman not as a crossdresser. (Showing up in drag would be a different matter, since drag is about gender bending.)

@ Zoe - Part-timer doesn't bother me as long as it's used to refer me presenting en femme part time. Others' mileage may vary. But yes, it can be tough to make those sorts of distinctions without the specter of the trans hierarchy -- "all trans people are equal, just some are more equal than others" -- but that's a whole other discussion.

@ Polar Bear - Thanks. Actually, I've enjoyed your writing as well. Sadly, there are very few public faces of crossdressers. Aside from a variety of other reasons that crossdressers need to own, I do think there's, at best, a blindspot that many of the trans advocacy organizations have. For example, there was an event locally to brainstorm ideas for trans education, which started at 6 p.m. Not a big deal for transsexual to go to after work, but for someone like myself, it meant there was no way to attend as my preferred gender (whereas it would've been doable with a 7 or 7:30 p.m. start time). At worse, I've found the leaders of some organizations that purport to represent trans people to be even more distainful of crossdressers than the general public. But that's another discussion too.

FWIW, your approach to passing issues and how you react if someone asks about crossdressing is very similar to my own.

@ Serena - If you have any follow-up questions, just ask.

@ Rory - I've heard similar things from other trans guys I know. For some it took a bit getting used to.