Editor's Note: Lena Dahlstrom is 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.