Understanding Transgender: Familiarity breeds acceptance

It surprises many to hear that I get very little hassle being out as a transgender person. Being trans can lead us to fear transphobia but I’m increasingly learning that attitude and confidence is key to tackling transphobia – both internalised and external. Over time, I have become more confident being out and, most of the times I am in town say shopping, or travelling to and attending conferences the occasions are unremarkable because there is no hassle to overcome – in fact I get a lot of very positive reactions truth be told. And for my part I have a basic premise for personal safety which is that I assess the safety of a situation by working out if a young lone female would be out in the same context. And this seems to work just fine.

That said, there are those rare exception occasions when a situation arises and last week threw up one such event. After a fantastic trip to London where I’d met the team at the Tavistock & Portman clinic for a conference on gender identity development in children and adolescents, and later had dinner with the doubly-fab-duo of Jane Czyzselska, editor of DIVA and Paris Lees , editor of META, writer and activist, I found myself on a train heading back to Newport in South Wales. I’d had to accept travelling by second class as it was a week day and I couldn’t afford the upgrade to first. It was late (close on midnight) and the train was busy, and working through the crowded carriages to get a coffee from the buffet car, I came into the path of a young man in his early twenties. He looked at me, slightly menacingly. He was one of those classic low education, low social status males that are prone to misogynistic comments with women and homophobic comments with men: I’d already figured he was likely to be transphobic. I’d read him: he tried to read me but I clearly confused him. He scrunched his face and looking at me slightly aggressively remarked “what the fuck?”.

I gave him square eye-contact and smiled at him. He pulled his head back and looked me up and down. I’d got my black ditsy short skirt, boots, pullover, big chunk of jewellery and was well rocking the whole grey/black smokey eye look: I guess the beard confused him.

He contemplated for a moment before sharing his conclusion with me,“you’d make a rubbish transvestite mate”
Holding the eye-contact I smiled and said “yeah, that’s because I’m transgender – I sit between male and female”
“Oh!” he remarks, then returning to his puzzled look offers his best guess understanding of what that might involve, “so you’ve er,, ..got like..bollocks then and er.. (then holding his hands up to his chest and cupping imaginary breasts) ..up top?”

Now that was kinda sweet really – I mean fair play to the guy, nice try – so as its late and we are both tired I nod a little and reassure him, “ yeah, something like that”.

I get my coffee and return to my part of the train for the long journey home. I sat there and recalled to mind an incident a few years back, before I came out. A transwoman was on a crowded tube when one of a group of four football lads drinking lager read her as trans. “Are you a bloke then” he enquired. His tone was open but it was an awkward moment. The woman was understandably unsettled. “Leave me alone” she said. He qualified his remark “no, just saying, fair play to you, you know, having the balls to do it, didn’t mean no harm”. At this point the trans-woman got more agitated and her tone more aggressive back to him as she told him to leave her alone and to stop picking on people. As he protested his innocence, this drew in the attention of his friends who took a less open and more hostile approach to her trans-status. The scene started to get ugly as the three other lads started mocking her “fucking tranny.. look we’ve got a fucking tranny on the train”. I was aware of my heart pounding as I calculated the point at which I’d need to intervene – I clocked the alarm chain and was running through a series of interventions in my mind in readiness when suddenly the train pulled into the next station and the woman got off. The lads mulled over the situation together – and the first guy reiterated that he admired her courage – yes, he’d been insensitive – and much as small children do he asked a question in good faith without realising the potential for offence. However, what struck me was that an aggressive response had escalated a situation. These guys were confronted with something they were unfamiliar with – how might it have been if they had previously learned about transgender, maybe knew a few trans people in their own social networks? How might it have been if she had the facility to educate them herself – to normalise the experience? Sitting there I remember how terrified I used to be when going out in grrl-mode – I remember how hyper-vigilent I would be, scanning the carriages for a ‘safe one’. Yeah – it takes a long journey to self acceptance and self-awareness to be able to face these guys off.

The next day had me attending a friend’s wedding. This had posed some interesting dilemmas not least of which is finding an outfit that retains the gender congruence whilst respecting the formality of the occasion. I go for the pink check dress and the military bolero jacket: it works.

The good folk of the Forest of Dean are not used to the cosmopolitan diversity we might know in London or even Cardiff so I get a few puzzled looks from the locals in the reception venue. No one gives me any hassle -I’d suspect because I give them eye contact and a smile. Unlike those early days I can now feel confident in my appearance, confident in my identity and on occasions like this I can just blag it: its one of those Donna Whitbread “these are your streets” moments. A large group at the party are from Liverpool and a rather attractive but slightly tipsy blonde approaches me and in her broad scouse accent remarks – “I’ve got to say you look bloody amazing” – which is nice. She’s joined by two friends and we have a conversation about being trans, being female, body confidence. And fashion. It’s clear from our discussion that many people in the group were unfamiliar with transgender and especially the genderqueer variety so seeing me has been an education. I gain acceptance and earn a degree of respect from this small crowd.

Reviewing a research paper* had me reflecting on this theme. People are unfamiliar with transgender and where there is unfamiliarity there can be hostility. But holding other peoples uncertainty and offering familiarity will I believe achieve acceptance. My experiences suggest this to be the case.
transgender activist grrlAlex in Cardiff

And the weird thing is I was never this confident or outgoing when I was trying to pass as male.

* Rye, B.J., Elmslie, P. & Chalmers, Amanda (2007). Meeting a transsexual person:
Experience within a classroom setting. Canadian On-Line Journal of Queer
Studies in Education, 3(1).

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