The computing world often talks about the "uncanny valley" when discussing 3D effects in modern virtual worlds. The theory is simple: as a computer's rendering of a human being becomes more realistic, viewers eventually reach a point where the image is no longer visually pleasing. For whatever reason, as these simulations pass "quasi-reality" and enter the realm of "almost-but-not-quite" reality, reactions to renderings of human beings can cause an unconscious sense of revulsion. Some would argue that this fact is driving the push for "artistic touches" in video games; a person rendered with all the detail the modern computing world can offer can make people uncomfortable.
A similar proposition can be made concerning the male-to-female transsexual's physical act of transition.
We can break down the process to a number of distinct stages. First, the initial "hormone high" that comes with finally starting an estrogen regimen. Next, the reversion to boyhood, and the compliments of unknowing people about your "wonderful complexion" or asking about your anti-aging secret. (If they only knew!) Then, the androgynous male, the androgynous female, the boyish girl, then finally female.
But there is a seedy pit in the middle of all these wonderful changes. It serves as a sort of proving ground for the transsexual, a void in a world of gender binaries. It can last for as little as a week or as long as you wish, comes with its own set of rules, and garners curious stares cast down from men and women of all walks of life. For those of you taking the journey, welcome to The Gap.
For sake of argument, this post is going to ignore genderqueer, intersexed, or other gender non-conforming expressions and focus exclusively on the male-to-female transition process. Also, the post will ignore all political efforts and exposes going on in our modern politick. I mean no offense by doing so; I simply wanted to make these facts known up front.
The Gender Gap
I went through The Gap in March and April of this year. If nothing else I learned that genderqueer is certainly not for me; I found the notion of being in between genders to be a discomforting and demeaning experience. Society's reactions, coupled with my own confusion, really put a damper on the whole notion of "defying gender boundaries" and "being unafraid of society's reactions." In that month, I existed in a strange void where the eddies and currents of gendered expectations slowly drove me mad.
For two months I flipped between the two sides of the gender binary at will. On weekdays I was a man - effeminate, but male nonetheless - and invited to the "man's table" in terms of friendships and work relationships. Here I was told the secrets of "What women want" (Hint to "suave" straight guys: you are doing it wrong!) and expected to conform to a standard-practice disconnect between emotion and action.
But on the weekends, I went out as a female, and was treated as such; my friends saw me as a woman, the people on the street saw me as a woman, and I saw myself as a woman. The disconnect between my actions and emotions disappeared; as a matter of fact, it was expected that I connect the two in common conversation. My daily experiences depended entirely on the gender of clothing I wore.
Some may say that this was a fantastic experience for me. Some may even go further and express jealousy for the fact that I could slip between genders so easily. I mean, there's a certain feeling of espionage to the whole deal: if I wanted to know about the super-secret world of men, I needed only throw on a polo shirt and march over to a bar for a round of poker and a beer. If I wanted to understand a girls' night out, I needed only throw on a blouse and my friends would sweep me off to a club.
The novelty quickly wore off, though, when I stopped trying to be one gender or the other and just went out in androgynous clothing. See, most people have an ingrained desire to treat someone according to their gender: call it chauvinist, call it misogynist, whatever. When you are in The Gap, gender is no longer part of the picture; you aren't female, but you are definitely not male. This can cause discomfort in a society that's not prepared to deal with deviations of the gender norm.
When I wasn't trying to pass for either I found people on the street to be a lot colder; many would openly stare at me, trying to figure out what gender I belonged to. This isn't to say they were looking strictly for a male/female answer; there are many different types of men and women, from butch and masculine to girly and feminine, and most people can be quickly codified as some combination on the spectrum.
Something about a trans-person in The Gap, though, creates an almost visceral unease in a passerby's mind: We're not really butch women, and we're not really effeminate men, but we sort of slip into this crack between the two, leaving said stranger with no framework upon which to judge our gender.
The Uncanny Valley
This reaction shows similarity to the uncanny valley theory. Much like the way humans have an inborn sense of what is and is not human, I'd argue that we have an inborn sense of what is or is not of a certain gender. Yes, we can train ourselves to no longer have that reaction when faced with the proper situation, and yes, we can expect tolerance for people who strain these gender boundaries. This is not always a successful prospect; my supportive friends sometimes flub pronouns, even when they don't mean to.
Comparing The Gap and The Valley makes me worry that there will always be this unease with the in-between stages of gender transition, and an ongoing confusion of pronoun usage, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
In the end, however, gender transitions are overwhelmingly successful. More often than not I hear of people talking about how one thing or another finally "tipped the scale" on their presentation; one simple change seems to act a feather on a balance, tipping things into the category of "acceptable gender presentation."
For me, friends said that getting my hair styled finally "tipped the scale," making it easy to call me a woman. And - wouldn't you know it! - the same can be said about the Uncanny Valley: just a little extra effort pushes the scale from "uncomfortable" to "convincing."
Perhaps gender perception is wired the same way we perceive what is and is not human. It would make sense that such a deep-seeded and I daresay historical dichotomy between the sexes could generate an almost instinctual desire to code gender into two columns. Things that are "in between" must battle out to the other side of perception, or else cause unease in people's minds.