Saturday, April 12, 2008

you must be your brother!

Last night I went to an alumni event organized by my college, and mingled and schmoozed with everyone. For the most part, there aren't any hiccups about me or my new gender presentation. Everyone I was remotely close with knows the score, and most of the next concentric ring has been filled in via the grapevine or facebook. All of the staff from the college who were working the event were new enough to have only known me as Eli, with one exception. And, of course, anyone that I meet for the first time has no reason to look at me funny at all. (Except for the alum from '81 who was being a little strange until I remembered my manners and introduced my sister, who, as my date, was standing next to me wearing a name tag as well- he gave a sigh of relief and said "Thank goodness! I thought she was your wife, and you're much too young.")

But then there was one gentleman at this event last night whom I haven't seen in a few years. He was a year ahead of me at school, which means we were passing acquaintances- in a school of 375 students, we all knew each other by name or sight at least, and I wasn't exactly an inconspicuous figure on campus, between my penchant for mohawks and being the chairperson of every committee I could join.

At any rate, I had no particular reason to talk to him, but he was standing by the door and when one of my best friends arrived, whom I hadn't seen in a few months, I accidentally stepped on his foot in my rush to get over to give her a hug. So I turned and said "Sorry...Cody, right?" and then mentally smacked myself because I knew he wouldn't really recognize me and I should've just apologized generically.

But y'know, I'm not really sorry in retrospect, because awkwardness is a small price to pay for not having to curtail my instincts to cater to my unusual experiences.

At any rate, he squinted at me for a second, looking back and forth between my face and my nametag.

"It's Eli," I said, just as his face cleared.

"Oh! You must be Emma's brother!" and he put out his hand to introduce himself.

Well, that's a new one on me! Though not unreasonable, I guess. Anyway, I was startled, so I blinked and said "Uh, something like that."

He blinked back at me, and then comprehension dawned and he (rather charmingly) flushed and said "Oh...oh! I'm sorry! So, how are you doing?"

A smooth recovery if ever I've seen one, and we made a minute or two of small talk that was only slightly above average in its awkwardness level. All in all, the best story of the evening!

---
Later, catching a ride home with the stampede-inducing long lost best friend, I had a chance to have a nice chat with her about the distinctions between the different kinds of compliments I get related to my transition.

I was telling her the story of being mistaken for my own brother, and she said something like "Well, you do look so good! Very manly!"

To which I said my usual "uh, thanks" and she, with typical forthright perception and sensitivity, asked "Is it okay that I say that?"

So I had a chance to expound a bit about the different kind of compliments I receive. The ones that are subtly or not so subtly judging my transition in order to pass judgement on my maleness are generally not my favorite. They typically come from a place of conscious or unconscious prejudice against transfolks, what Julia Serrano calls cissexism in her excellent book Whipping Girl. When someone says "Wow, you look just like a guy!" what they mean, whether they realize it or not, is "You, as a transperson, do not count as a 'real' guy, but I'm going to patronizingly tell you that you come awfully close."

The compliments or comments that are observations free of judgement ("Wow, your facial hair has really come in...I think you've got the same pattern as my boyfriend's!") are great- providing, of course, they come from a friend, or someone close enough to me that it's appropriate that they be commenting on my body. On a note there, it's astonishing how, as a transperson, my body is up for public discussion in a way that would be completely and obviously inappropriate for any other person, in any other context.

I guess because my body (and my awkward relationship to it through my life, and the way in which it influenced how I was perceived and thus how I was raised, etc, etc) is what sets me apart from non-trans men, it's considered fair ground for anyone trying to wrap their head around what it means to be trans. Still, I'd like to brainstorm more ways in which trans issues could be understood- ways in which The Masses could be educated about trans issues- while still respecting our (that is to say, trans people's) privacy.

1 comment:

Joanna said...

the only other time when your body and appearance become stotally public property is when you are very visibly pregant. Total strangers will ask you the most person details, comment on your appearance and actually come up and pat the belly! Being pregnant with twins just compounds this whole thing. Fortunatley I rather enjoyed it, but I know some privacy loving people are aghast. I pity that lovely man in Bend who is currently dealing with both of these issues on top of each other...
Cheers,
Mom