Saturday, December 15, 2007

what can you say?

What is there to say to people who make unknowingly loaded comments? On the mild end, there's the regular patron at the library where I work who said, six weeks ago, "hey you've got some fuzz going!" stroking her chin to indicate my nascent beard. I replied, a bit sheepishly, "Well, it's wintertime, gotta keep the face warm!"

Fine. But when she says "You didn't do it last winter!" what do I say? I didn't say anything at all, but what is the acceptable combination of "I'm a later bloomer!/Beards weren't in last year!/Actually, I couldn't grow a beard last winter because I didn't have enough testosterone in my body." No response was really needed there, since I'm not accountable to her (or anyone!) for my facial hair or lack thereof. Should it happen again, I'll probably respond with some sort of gently self-mocking comment about being a late bloomer. But I'm not used to knowing when to be comfortable with familiar/friendly teasing, and when to be defensive. She certainly didn't even intend to tease, I'm sure, and had no way of knowing the history and hard-won context of my facial hair, and why I might be touchy about it.


Then there's the uncomfortable comments that aren't teasing, that are meant to be compliments...except the person issuing them somehow can't see what a bigger and bigger hole they're digging.

So what can you say to the person who isn't a close friend but certainly isn't a stranger, when they start saying uncomfortable things? What about when it is someone you'd think of as a friend, though not a close one?

A month of so ago, a good friend of mine was in town just for a night (let's call her LongLostFriend), and was out on the town with some other friends of ours- I met up with them at a downtown club, and they were all drunk as skunks and mostly adorably so.

At one point, one of the girls started in with the particular brand of questions and statements that drunk people ask and make when they're trying to hit on you but pretending they're just being friendly. I don't even remember, now, what this girl was saying, but a few lines stick out.

"Your name's Eli? All the Eli's I know are tranny boys!!"

Me: "That's nice. It's a good name."

Her: "I LOVE tranny boys! I date tranny boys and butch girls and they're so dreamy!"

Me: "So, I think I'm going to go find my other friends now!"

What was going on there, and what to say? Was she trying to suss out whether I'm trans? Just trying to make conversation with the ambiguously queer guy? How to say "Gosh, those are some offensive, fetishistic over-generalizations you're making there. If you're trying to hit on me, you're going about it the WRONG way!"

Later, standing outside with the friend I'd come to see(LongLostFriend=LLF), I had to navigate ANOTHER round of uncomfortable conversation. Another friend of hers was there, someone I'm not close with but whom I've known a long time, since my first year of college. And this woman (let's call her LeftHandedComplimentGirl), who hasn't seen me in a long time, launches into monologue about my appearance, clearly intending to be complimentary, but stepping further and further out of line with each successive comment.

"Wow, Eli you look so good! I haven't seen you in such a long time, you're looking really...good! You look like a guy! Like a guy-guy, not just a trans-guy! And, I mean, I knew you when, I remember what you looked like! You are a much better looking guy than girl. You have muscles!"

This last comment she punctuates by, rather frankly, feeling me up- running her hands over the lines of my pecs, over my tight t-shirt. Which I put up with rather good naturedly for about 10 seconds. Meanwhile LongLostFriend, noticing that this other woman is out of line, starts agreeing with her but in a neutral, appropriate manner. "But seriously, Eli, you do look really good. You're so handsome."

And there was the difference between the appropriate and inappropriate compliment- it lies in the content, the context and the delivery.

The well-meaning girl was just like the well-meaning gay men who say similar things: "Wow, you look so hot these days!" I can do without the lefthanded compliments, "you look so good!" and the implied, elided transphobia that I inevitably fill in silently. ("...for a transgender!") Why do these people think they have the right to comment on my transition? That's what it is, not a compliment. It's a judgement on my masculinity, on whether I've successfully made myself up into the kind of guy they don't expect "tranny boys" to be able to look like. There are all sorts of evaluations tied up in there that I'm not interested in hearing, and that they don't really have a right to hold me to.

This in contrast to the compliment from my friend which, like the similar words I hear from my family, I will accept gladly. They are close to me, they have a right to comment on how my personal appearance has changed. They are not surprised, or in judgement, and they are coming from a place of affection and support.

But what to say to the other people? How to tell them that I don't want to hear these things from them? The fact that they were dunk and I was sober put up a definite roadblock. You can't reason with drunk people, I've found- it's hard enough to explain to a sober person why their words are offensive. Drunk people get twice as defensive twice as fast, and often can't follow the line of reasoning anyway, so why bother? That's probably a big part of the reason why I employed my smile and nod and keep-the-conversation moving techniques.

But I also just don't want to engage with these people, and that's where I worry if I'm doing a disservice. I know it's not my responsibility to engage with them- I don't need to lay my body down as a roadblock every time someone comes barreling down the Transphobia Interstate. But how is anyone going to be educated and know to stop saying such things if I don't step up sometimes? I can't leave it all to the allies. And to them, I'm an authoritative voice, as their token trans friend, and a friendly face. They'd probably actually listen to me.


And then there are the flat-out offensive remarks, uttered by a non-trans person who believes himself to be surrounded by non-trans people, and their casual cruelty? Last night at a bar, my sister and her friend mentioned that they'd both gone to Smith. And a guy in the group says "oh, Smith? Were you there when all that stuff with the transgender people was going on?"

Slightly awkward pause.

"You know that TV show, the documentary?"

Someone replies "Oh, you mean TransGeneration?"

He brightens. "Yeah! Did you know her?"

More awkward pause.

He says "Uh, I mean, him? uh, gir? shim? whatever! Haha!"

Awkwardest pause yet. I sip my beer, and I feel curiously blank, though there are words like Closeted and Beard and Ugh, Moron running around the edges of my brain.

The three people in the group who know that I'm trans exchange uncomfortable grimaces. The other three people in the group who don't know I'm trans but who have some tact exchange a different set of uncomfortable grimaces. The dude continues

"Anyway, I just love male to female transsexuals!"

So, not just awkward, but confusing, too! Really, what IS he talking about? The Smith student on the show was FTM. My sister and the other Smithie start to answer "Well, yeah, there was some overlap...I knew Lucas, who was one of the guys in the show...I was in the background of a scene..." and then someone else offers CaptainOffensive a beer, and the moment fades. No worries.

Later, after CaptainOffensive leaves, his friend, the other Smithie, who has known me for years, leans over and says "I'm so sorry!"

And I explained that, well, sometimes I just decide that I'm not going to interrupt an enjoyable evening to school someone about their offensive rudeness, even when they clearly need it. It was an energy that I just wasn't willing (or ready, on the spur of the moment) to expend.

Now I'm not sure that was the right choice. It was an uncomfortable moment for all of us, and I didn't make any move chide the guy. I needn't have outed myself to do that, though I could have. I could have said anything from "I think "him" is the word you need" to "Y'know, I don't really think it's appropriate to refer to anyone with mocking, made-up pronouns like that" to "gosh, do you only say such offensive things about trans people when you think there aren't any listening to you? because guess what? I can hear you!"

I guess I wasn't a very good trans ally last night. I didn't step up to educate someone during a teachable moment. Neither did I let the stinging words sink into my skin and burn for the rest of the evening, so I guess that's one small victory of my own strength that I can claim. Huh. Maybe next time.

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