Austen Crowder

Mind the Gap, Cross the Valley

Filed By Austen Crowder | September 09, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: androids, gender transformation, male to female, transition, uncanny valley

The computing world often talks about the "uncanny valley" when discussing 3D effects in modern virtual worlds. 461px-Mori_Uncanny_Valley.svg.pngThe 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.


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I believe you are quite right, there will always be those who see us as other and attempt to lump us in some convenient catagory, whenn truly, we defy the catagories.

I chose to present as female, it is the "skin" I am comfortable in and feels right for me. But I am not and never can be wholly female, there will always be that male part of me. For convenience I call myself woman, the reality is just much too complex for two boxes.

Thank you for this. Your descriptions really put a finger on a lot of the discomfort I hear expressed about some trans people at certain times in their transition or who never "successfully" transition to an identifiable gender. I will definitely be sharing this piece.

rapid butterfly | September 10, 2009 9:00 AM

great post, Austen. I guess I'm probably in that gap at the moment too, on weekends. I admit I am in a way at least happy to be THERE, and not in the "man's man" box I was in for most of my life. Slowly I'm emerging out the other side. I get sir'd almost never on the weekends, and Ma'amed sometimes. You mention the "tipping point" and, like you, I'm finding a lot of it to be hair and how I wear it.

But I wanted to say, I think your connection with 3D effects is brilliant on another level. When I saw it I immediately thought of those of us who go to great lengths with such things as FFS, BA, etc. I respect the choices of those who do these things but, to ME, some of these faces, for example are on the wrong side of the line, and provoke in me the kind of unease or an analog of it that 3D renderings of a certain sort might provoke in others. To be fair, I think the same of a lot of the facial work cis women get, too...

thanks again for the post.

You know, now that you mention it I have to agree with your point on FFS. I've seen it done well, but there are these people who become almost parodies of women, high cheekbones and raised brows, and the resulting effect is discomfort for a viewer. I don't mean that in a bad way; one need only look at the post-mortem discussion on Michael Jackson's facial reconstruction to see that excessive plastic surgery can actually have a counterintuitive effect.

As for The Gap, it doesn't last long if you don't want it to last long. Trust me. It's nice for a while, but it sounds like you're still marching forward, and I'm sure you'll climb out of that gap real soon. :D

Angela Brightfeather | September 10, 2009 11:28 AM

Austen,

First off, I think you have to start by determining how much you care what other people care, about how you express yourself. If you don't really care about how they classify you or don't classify you, then it's the end of the conversation.

If, on the other hand you do care (as most do at some level), then you are of course uneasy about being able to be classified in either gender, as much as they are uneasy of being able to not determine your gender, and that feeling is passed along to you. In other words, sitting on the fence is not an easy thing to do, just ask any Bisexual person, who also gets pushed to identify sexually with one or the other sex.

But your referral to the imaging video was excellent and points directly to "that feeling" of uneasiness.

I showed that video around my office, including to some of the younger people who I know to be not as computer challenged as myself and have played video games from the time they were 5 years old, have comic book collections worth more than my savings account and speak in a "nerd" type language in the break room that is foreign to me.

They all seem to have had the same reaction. "Great video, great stuff, very impressive, but it makes me feel a bit uneasy." Voila! There it is. That common feeling that spans any generation gap and leads to enlightening conversations that you thought you might never have.

In discussing it with some of them they all agreed that while a bit "unsettling", people will get over it the more they see it and get used to the fact that it's there. Great point. When applied to gender diversity, I say the same thing and I have seen it work that way over the years.

The more that people know that they may be looking at a multi-gendered or diverse person, the more they will get used to it over time. For the most part, many of us have been calling that "being out there and educating" all these years, and to a large degree I think that today you would be hard-stretched to find someone who hasn't heard or seen something about us "gender different" folks. So, we may not have reached that point where it does not bother people to be able to put us in an appropriate gender box, but we are getting there I think. Which takes us back to square one. Do you really care what other people think?

Great post Austen. People in my office are still talking about it over lunch.

You make an excellent point on caring about what people think about a person's gender expression. For simplification, I made the assumption that people bothered by The Gap (I.E.: me) do care about what society thinks of them, and want to leave that territory as soon as humanly possible.

Before I started writing about LGBTQ issues, I spent an inordinate amount of time as a gaming columnist and sci-fi scholar. (No joke: that pretty much sums up my undergrad experience.) One of the "revolving doors" in science fiction, so to speak, is the perception of Other. You see it in first contact fiction, android and robot fiction, space opera fiction, dystopia fiction, cyberpunk fiction... the list goes on and on. Each sub-genre of science fiction deals with this basic concept in different ways: cyberpunk may examine the nature of the soul, and whether or not the virtual world represents some sort of spiritual plane; android novels attempt to define just how much flesh must exist in an android's body to qualify it as human; first contact pieces display prejudice and discrimination against new forces.

Of these, I find the cyber-narratives to be the most interesting, mostly because the premises outlined in these books are actually coming to fruition. It's one of my go-to metaphors in conversation, anymore; everyone has seen some sort of cyberpunk film, and at the very least can relate to different aspects of the new, web 2.0 culture. For example: fifteen years ago, people would be given strange looks if they said "I play in a multi-user dungeon over my modem with a bunch of people on the Internet." Today, William Shattner and Ozzy Osbourne appear in commercials for World of Warcraft. Like all things, familiarity trumps prejudice over the long run.

I guess, long story short, I'm trying to say that I do care what people think of me, much the same way I care about how people see videogames, or paper-and-pencil roleplaying games, or any other sort of so-called "dorky" pursuit. I have a vested interest in seeing trans visibility become as commonplace as a Halo player or a Wii sitting in the family room, and that only comes from people seeing trans people as no big deal.


(Re: Dorkspeak: it's a learned language. I mean, you can't just go from noob to 1337 without at least understanding basic internet memes, after all. ;) )

As one of your friends that still gets the gender pronouns wrong occasionally, I really think you're on to something. We met while you were in the Gap and still going back and forth. It's been an adjustment - especially with the name changes.

And it's gotten easier and easier the more and more feminine you've become. You're right - the hair had a big difference for me too; it was your tipping point for me.

As for the video - it took me until the end before I realized she wasn't real. I didn't get uneasy at all; I was too clueless.

For a better example of the uncanny valley, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-MOJJ5dLdk . The game is "Heavy Rain," and its coming to PS3 sometime soon. This is the game that got me started on the whole "uncanny valley" tirade to begin with. ;)

Thanks for sticking with me on the pronouns, though. It seems to get easier with each passing week. I think meeting a trans person in The Gap really makes switching pronouns difficult -- it's hard to unlearn old habits.

My tipping points were dual:

boobs and hair. The moment I had both down (within a couple months of each other) two things changed.

One was the most important: my personal confidence.

In social relations, do not discount the effect of personal confidence the way people perceive you.

The second one was more in line with what you speak to here -- I crossed the last bit of that line and now haven't much in the way of problems.