Last weekend, as I was waiting for a friend outside Indigo Café, a stranger came up to me and said something that absolutely made my day: “Excuse me, young man”.
“Young man”! Not sweetheart, or darling, or ma’am, or even young lady – none of the standard forms of address from strangers I’ve become so used to over the years – but “young man”. This meant that when that stranger made their quick gender assessment of me, they read me as male rather than female. They saw me as I want to be seen!
This was a pretty big deal for me. It was the first time I’ve been certain that someone who didn’t already know me saw me as male. I’ve had fewer people clearly reading me as female lately, but this was the first time I knew that I was being read as male. It was a wonderful feeling! I felt so affirmed and optimistic – it left me a lot more confident than I had been before.
Passing, or being fully interpreted as the gender you identify with, is important for a lot of trans people. In a world where we take mere seconds to assume the gender of strangers and allow that assumption to influence how we interact with them, it can be quite important to be seen as the right gender. When people get it wrong it can trigger dysphoria, reduce confidence and be generally damaging. Passing can also be necessary for safety in situations such as using gendered toilets.
For me this has been a big step in a long journey. I remember when I started at secondary school without the proper uniform, a few people initially assumed I was male. A few years later, when I discovered the wonders of online communities, I found that people often assumed I was male until I told them otherwise. I guess having a fairly unisex name helped with that! Back then, though, I wasn’t actively trying to be perceived as male. I knew I liked it when it happened, but I didn’t know why.
Now I know why and am actively trying to present as male. It turns out it isn’t as easy now as it was at secondary school. There you could tell someone’s gender by the type of shirt they were wearing. Plus at age eleven or twelve indicators like height and voice were less of an issue. Back then I was tall for my age and unfortunately I haven’t grown since. I’m pretty sure my voice gives me away, if nothing else does. I reckon I sound pretty feminine, and I have an annoying habit of speaking at quite a high pitch if I haven’t thought about it first. Now that I’m starting to be perceived as male, based on visual information, I feel more motivated to work on my voice and pay attention to that, but I think I have a long way to go.
Not everyone worries about passing. For some people, it’s not important at all. For others, it only matters in certain situations. For me it is important, but not as important as being myself and feeling reasonably comfortable. I briefly considered, for example, getting a ‘#menimist’ jumper, as I thought that would significantly reduce the chances of people thinking I was female – but such a fashion choice would go against too much of what I believe in. Since most of the people I regularly interact with know that I’m trans, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t completely pass. Still, it is nice to know that people are starting to see me for who I really am.
Frances O’Sullivan (GR. Columnist)