Blowback, or The Jenner Effect

A friend who prefers to be anon wrote this on FB a few days ago, and I thought it was important. In the midst of all the ooh la la about I Am Cait – which is doing some good, I think – there are a lot of people having conversations about transness more openly, and for those of us who are trans or who are partners to trans people – we get to hear a lot of them second-hand. 

And a lot of what people say can hurt, and I’m sure a lot of us are reeling with this kind of stuff, so to say: you are not alone. Take care of yourself. 

Conversation overhead at the next desk over (& some thoughts):

Person 1: Caitlyn Jenner, you know, I can get him wanting to be a woman…
Person 2: I always thought he looked like a woman.
Person 3: He is super feminine, too.
Person 1: Right?! I can see him dressing like a woman, but I don’t get wanting to keep dating women.
Person 3: Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Why become a woman if you’re still going to be attracted to women?
Person 2: As long as he still has his you-know-what, I guess? But then…

The conversation continued for a while; these are three folks in a different office who are always very friendly to me. This brief instance illustrates some experiences that trans people know too well and that I am often both privy to and shielded from (until/unless I disclose) because of what I look like. (I often find myself in situations where the cis people talking have no idea I’m trans and expect me to agree with them or validate them – and it always makes me wonder if they would have started talking to/with/around me at all if they “knew”):

1. Cisgender people of all stripes (this includes, sadly, many cis folks who aim/claim to be allies) feel authorized to scrutinize and weigh in on trans peoples’ narratives and bodies, and to describe trans people however they (cis people) please. In this convo, eg, using the pronoun “he” despite talking about someone – Caitlyn – who identifies as a woman, & framing Jenner’s femininity as fascinating or worthy of note (show me any woman ever on the cover of Vanity Fair who wasn’t femmed up? why is Caitlyn’s femininity more interesting than cis femininity? <– there is a long, pathologizing history of this vis a vis trans women). The implications of this Cisgender Commentary are more extreme for some trans people than others; but I can attest that this impacts all of us to some degree.

2. There are still many widespread misunderstandings and assumptions about gender / embodiment / sexuality and the relationship among the three. There is something many cisgender people find truly mind-blowing about those of us who are or have been fluid across boundaries of gender & sexuality (in all directions). These misunderstandings and confusions are often directed at or expressed about TGNC individuals (trans & gender non-conforming) in the form of anxiety. TGNC people become, really, used by straight, cis people to help them wrap their minds around the complexity of ALL of our genders and sexualities – and then we are tossed aside (still seen as the *real* misfits) once the cis person has figured out what they wanted/needed to know or discover about themselves. This happens more often, and more intensely and with higher stakes, to some trans people than others.

3. Personal note: I have become remarkably (eerily!) desensitized to everyday gender assumptions, body policing, and trans-related microaggressions – or at least to my own emotional response to them. It wasn’t until writing this down that I realized how many emotions I was just tamping down. We are saturated with gender; our society is truly obsessed with it. If I were to record every single gender-related instant over the course of the day, between bathroom selection and “sir”s and “he”s/”she”s and gendered jokes and locker rooms and how others interact with me and haircuts, the number would be extremely high. So, like many folks with gender non-conforming experience (though we experience these issues to varying degrees and in various contexts), instead of waiting for the world to change to be more inclusive of TGNC people I’ve adapted to try my best not to let these constant reminders alienate me.

My wife commented:  I feel like I’m so encased in protective carbonite at this point, I barely hear the dog-whistles, the micro-agressions, the idiocy, the ignorance, and sometimes the hate.

Don’t get me wrong, I pass (still) and that makes a huge difference (mostly). I 
know it shields me. But as trans-issues become brighter under the media spotlight and I see people I know on TV and hear people talk earnestly about it (mostly in ignorance but I’ll take the earnestness)… I just want to put another layer of carbonite on.

I can’t be the only person who transitioned years and years ago who thinks this, right?

And I added: I realized people wanted to ask me (often wildly inappropriate) questions, which is kind of how I became who I am. Because I never wanted, still don’t want, any earnest-but-otherwise-good-but clueless cis person to ask them if they’re sure they’re not crazy, about their genitals, to comment on how they might pass better, or the rest. I love you all. It’s been a rough couple of months, & while I want to believe Cait has started a conversation, the blowback feels pretty menacing right now.

So how are you, my lovely readers, dealing with all of this?

8 Replies to “Blowback, or The Jenner Effect”

  1. “How am I dealing with all of this?”

    I was completely out as a gay man from 1974 onwards. I only began to live as a woman several years ago. The former experience taught me that the best way to deal with hostility (or even micro-aggression) is to fight back – directly and, when appropriate, forcefully. The best way to deal with an honest lack of understanding is to engage in polite discussion. (You can sometimes put the two together, and follow a sharp retort with a little education.) Most of the time I see no reason to take a different approach as a trans woman.

    One practical consequence of fighting back is that colleagues watch what they say around you. After getting one verbal mauling, they think twice before setting themselves up for another. I realize that not everyone has the temperament for that sort of approach, but if you do have it you will find that it usually works well.

    Of course, you have to be out to do that. If you are going stealth, you probably can’t do much at all, as it would draw too much attention to you. In that situation there may be no alternative but to suffer in silence.

  2. I’m in still in the early stages of my transitioning. Going slow to try and preserve my marriage. Cait’s very public transition, thought wonderful for it’s education of the general populace and I think it’s well done for the most part, it has increased my fear level of my own exposure as a transwoman. Living in Alabama I have no legal protection from being fired for being transgender. It’s a very red state and I’m a blue pixel in a red sea. In times past I’ve had no issues going out, using the women’s restroom, no adverse confrontations thus far. But I fear with the attention that Cait has brought to the transgender community make my future outings more fearful for me. It’s hard not think I have more of a target on my back than I did before.

  3. Terri, that’s what worries me. I worry that the uptick we’ve seen in transphobic violence is part of it, too, but I obviously don’t know. There’s certainly been backlash in response to trans civil rights gains – the attempted bathroom laws all over – but I expect it’s because we’re winning, & will win, ultimately, which is why the losing side is so noisy right now.

    But take care of yourself. Be safe out there.

  4. Linda, that’s far more my style, but this is the kind of conversation you might overhear while out for dinner, too, or in the grocery checkout lane… and it feels kind of chilling. & That’s not the kind of situation where I’m going to interrupt. So you just stand there & try not to take too much in.

  5. @Helen,

    I can believe that it’s your style. (I have just read both of your books in the last few days.)

    I agree that it is harder to intervene if you don’t “belong” in some way to the group of people who are talking. I wouldn’t always intervene in such situations either. But sometimes I might. After all, if THEY can talk about US, why shouldn’t WE feel free to impose ourselves into THEIR conversations. Being nice, polite and restrained all the time won’t change the world.

    It’s nice to meet you.

  6. I can read an ignorant jerk easier than I can be read as being a trans woman. Of course, I can only guess about the second part of that, since I don’t go around with a clipboard, conducting a survey or census. I don’t waste my time trying to explain myself to ignorant jerks, either. I’m more than happy to give a Trans 101 lesson to someone who is sincere in their questioning, however. I’ve begun what have become a few good friendships by doing so, and, except for an occasional clarification, the status of my gender has never been a topic for discussion since. These people know me for who I am, not what I am. Cait can be Cait, but I Am Connie. Being confident in myself as I go about my life shows; I’ve become so aware of that since dropping my insecurities. Smokescreens used to mask insecurity can work to an extent, but there’s nothing like self-confidence for setting oneself free. So, while some may look at me and wonder just WHAT I am, I believe there is little doubt of WHO I am. If they care to know me better, the odds are that they will stop wondering about the “what”. I’m hopeful that they will skip the “what” question when they meet the next trans person with whom they make contact.

    Still, as I said, there are the ignorant jerks……….. In the midst of Caitlyn’s Vanity Faire reveal, I was having a pretty good day (not paying much mind at all to Caitlyn) until I was called “sir” by a barista. It had been so long since anyone had used that title for me that I actually looked over my shoulder to see whom she might have been referring to. It did shake that self-confidence I’m so proud to have, but she was the one left with an empty tip jar. Before I had completely recovered from that incident, I found myself in line at a meat counter, behind two women who were talking about Caitlyn Jenner. The woman who was turned around to talk to her friend made eye contact with me a number of times, but I must have been looking much better than I had earlier that morning, because they continued to go on about “transvestites” and such. I didn’t pass so well to the husband of one of the women when he jumped into the line – and the discussion. He then looked at me and asked, “Are you one of those, uh, are you like that Bruce Jenner guy? Without a beat, I snapped back, “Well, yes, but I really don’t like to talk about my gold medal.” 🙂

  7. I live in what may be one of the most trans-friendly cities and states in the U.S., but I’m also somewhat numbed to what might not even be called microagressions; more like socia reflexes. I was having coffee with two close friends yesterday at a Starbucks in a valley just a few miles away from where Cait lives. I’m almost certain Cait has shopped in that wealthy little “village” just off the 101 more than once.

    Like Cait, my voice is something I’ve done almost zero work on. I noticed when I was speaking (enthusiastically and passionately) yesterday outside on a patio people would glance at me and a few just plain stared. I’m rarely even openly read because I work hard on wearing clothes that blend into the mainstream of women’s fashions and I’m acutely aware of social cues like eye contact.

    That said, I’m never not aware of being myself. Things were actually easier when I was a “guy” during the day and a fully expressed hoochie mama at night. Now, I agonize sometimes about going to my 12 step meetings in a plainer form since I’ve trained them to call me by my male name, and lately, that’s less and less how I wish to be seen.

    My size (I’m 6’3″), that I used to think was an impediment to being seen as female is an odd advantage in terms of safety. I remember being rudely spoken to by a couple of bearded drunk assholes as a friend of mine and I stepped out of a coffee shop at 3:00am; I looked them in the eye and said something snarky back to them in my regular voice and they shut right up and moved on.

    I had a workmate talk about having two trans kids in his class the other day. He wasn’t hateful, but just clueless and socially inept as usual. I told him I have trans friends, and one of them, a trans guy who at that time was 6 months on T, came back and had to take classes using his female name. “I’m gonna get a few looks in the ladies room” he joked to me, somewhat sadly.

    My workmate shut up after I told him that.

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