I feel as if I owe you all an apology. Maybe I don’t; perhaps it’s all just a big misunderstanding based on looking. I have been looking at you, and I’ll never say I’m sorry for that. But I know I gaze too long, and the wrong way; I’m one of those middle-aged white people who ends up staring even though she – they, I – don’t mean to.
Some trans folks used to call it clocking, or reading; one might call it gawking, although I always avert my eyes just before it gets to that point. It’s subtle, but oh so obvious to those of us who’re good at reading gazes, those who grew up different. I learned that way of reading when I was far too young, and by the time I was an older teenager, I courted those stares, invited them, egged them on, dared the gawkers to say something critical to my queer punk rock friends and me when we were out in public blatantly being who we were.
I still get those looks sometimes, usually from cisgender women when I least expect it – at the little theater that shows independent films in one of our area college towns, when I’m locking up my bike outside our not-quite-suburban mall. It always catches me by surprise, because I’m minding my own business, and this area always feels so ordinary, so safe. We live in a small college town in a progressive part of a so-called blue state in a region that’s known for its independence and community, its liberal views and values.
I hate being stared at as if the observer finds something wrong with me, and I’m sorry if I’ve ever given you that impression. I’m sure we’re all tired of that cliché about people disliking in others what they hate about themselves, but there’s truth in every saying before it turns trite from overuse. Anyone who’s paid attention in the United States in the past decade or three has seen the ridiculous number of right-wing male politicians and preachers who’ve made a career of publicly attacking those of us who aren’t cisgender heterosexuals, while simultaneously patronizing rent boys or playing with penises in tea rooms.
I’m loathe to confess to any commonalities with these ugly politicos, but I have to admit that I stare because I’m fascinated by gender-nonconforming folks who are more public about it than I. Another cliché: Some of my best friends are trans. Not literally true, but my staring belies my non-neophyte knowledge. The first time I understood that I wasn’t gender conforming, I was eight or nine years old. I had my first trans friends in high school, decades ago; I met my first transsexual woman acquaintance in a (mostly) lesbian social group in 1995, which was around the time I heard and saw my first out trans woman public speaker, activist and attorney Phyllis Frye, give a talk at my university. The idea of trans people was so new to the mainstream U.S. then, she made a point of walking around the room and touching each member of the small audience – shaking our hands, patting our shoulders. I felt entirely self-conscious about trying not to appear self-conscious to her.
More than 20 years later, I’ve done my homework – for a while I was reading so many memoirs by trans people, I became the go-to person in my workplaces for Trans 101 questions (not that any cis co-workers ever asked, but that’s another blog post). I have a gender nonconforming ex (they and I were in a relationship for seven years and lived together for five), many trans acquaintances, and one trans friend. When I visit the city where she lives now, we get together for Salvadoran Mexican food and talk about our exes, our jobs, our passions – in short, she’s my friend, not my trans friend.
But my own gender identity and how I negotiate it (or perform it, to use a perhaps outdated, perhaps too academic, term) in the world – that’s a whole different ball of string. In middle age, I’m still tangling in my head with gender, still in the process of figuring out how I can be who I am without those around me making assumptions based on external appearance: how I look, where I live, with whom I spend time, and what I’m wearing on any given day. What feels comfortable to me – no makeup, short hair and nails, loose natural-fiber clothing in primary colors – adds up to what my friends and I used to call WISS, Women in Sensible Shoes, and spells “Noho lesbo” where we live.
But that’s not who I am, and it’s safe to say that others make as many assumptions about me as they do about you, all based only on what we can perceive with our senses. I was bullied as a child for being gender nonconforming, I’ve identified as bisexual since I was in high school, and as an adult my gender and affectional/ sexual attractions have been quite fluid. I’ve been through periods of identifying as a lesbian and as a gay man, and finally settled a few years ago on the label girlfag as the closest description of who I am. I fear that some of you have thought I was making fun of you when I’ve said that my gender is “garden gnome,” but those little guys, with their bellies, caps, and beards, have come the closest visually to embodying the way I feel inside.
(And I’m not an “old-school” lesbian pissed off because the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was killed by crazy transsexuals. The situation was a hell of a lot more complicated than that, and those who’ve studied and written about the feminist music movement, notably women’s history professor Bonnie J. Morris, agree that a number of factors, including increased civil rights for LGBTQ people and the aging of the music festivals’ organizers and fans, have helped bring that fascinating era to a close.)
This may sound like bullshit, but I’m staring at you because you’re beautiful to me. As someone who grew into adulthood watching the public doors of sexual and gender identity, fluidity, and play stretch from Elton John and David Bowie to Boy George, Annie Lennox, and a host of British synthesizer band members wearing eye makeup – and then slam shut abruptly with the rise of the right-wing Republicans in England and the U.S. – I see hope in you and an entire younger generation that supports you. You remind me of my friends and me when we were young, dancing at grungy gay bars and getting into sexy, gender-bending costume every weekend for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But you have much more room to be who you are than we did, many fewer reasons to hide, and a new generation of parents who’re learning how to celebrate who you truly are instead of trying to crush the life out of you.
So please forgive my long looks, as they’re partly looks of longing. I’m admiring your style – your makeup and nails, your tattoos, your crew cut or ponytail, your butch shirt or your cute dress. I’m loving your courage. I’m cheering you on. And right now I’m sitting in my living room with my laptop, my throat tight, thinking of all that we suffer and survive, all of our resilience and fabulousness in this deteriorating nation of ours that values us less and less each day.