Being “read as female” on the street started happening to me a little over a year ago, just before I moved to New York from Portland, Oregon. This happened because I complained about it to my girlfriend.
“I hate how my hair curls at the bottom, y’know?” I said to Mikayla one morning, sitting on the edge of her bed, playing with the curling, frayed ends of my shoulder-length hair. “And I’ve tried everything to get it to go straight! Like gel, even molding paste, nothing works.”
“Do you have a hair straightener?” She called from the bathroom.
“Okay, do you have a blow dryer?” She was always cheerfully unexhausted by my naïveté.
“No. God, I should have known that.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “We’ll go buy them this week. I’ll show you how to use them.”
This whole interaction took place after I had lasered my facial hair off and gotten the hair on my head cut in a nice bob, and it was a week later, after Mikayla taught me how to use the hair straightener and make my frizzy, unkempt mane fall straight and flat down the sides of my face, that I noticed a palpable change in the reaction of people on the street when I went out in a skirt or a dress. I’d be curious to know what has made the difference for other trans people, but it appears that the line between others seeing me as a “girl” versus a “guy-in-girl’s-clothes” is hair.
(I realize that boiling down the latter’s category to “guy-in-girl’s-clothes” is somewhat reductive when reactions like “Is that a guy or a girl, I can’t tell!” or “That must be one of them transgendered people I’ve been hearing about!” could certainly be common, but for ease of use I’m going with “guy-in-girl’s-clothes.”)
The hair straightening wasn’t a light-switch change in people’s perceptions, but it was a definite tipping point. And now, a year later, the way that the masses of New York read my gender seems to frequently switch between “girl” and “guy-in-girl’s-clothes,” depending on the state of my hair. The gawking earned by the “guy-in-girl’s-clothes” look ebbs when I take care of my hair, and there’s no denying that when I lazily let it frizz and fray for awhile, it increases again. I wish someone had suggested I straighten my hair earlier. I suppose everyone I hung out with thought I liked it wild and frizzy. Stupid, respectful friends.
When I say gawking, I don’t just mean “staring.” There’s a specific gaze that is the gawk, a certain look when strangers train their wide, curious eyes on a person as they pass by on the street, on the subway, in the grocery store. For me, these eyes are sometimes accompanied by the phrase, “That’s a man.” Sometimes they’re accompanied by the yell “WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU WEARING A SKIRT?” or my favorite, “ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL?”
Most people aren’t that rude, of course. Most people just have those wide, curious eyes, like watching something fantastic on live TV. Gawking.
I find that gawking can be divided into two categories: When the gawker looks away upon a returned gaze from the gawkee, and when the gawker keeps looking.
The gawkers who keep looking, for the most part, have an unquenchable curiosity in their eyes. Sometimes they also give off confusion or bewilderment, but regardless, they seem to broadcast an unabashed inquisitiveness. (Though I guess in the past, they might’ve been trying to figure out what was up with the molding paste glistening in my hair).
There are some others, though, that tend to transmit an anger in curiosity’s place. “You’re wearing a skirt, what the fuck!” A guy in a Greenwich Village bathroom snarled one night. “I’m going to break your face off!” He didn’t, but people like him are the reason I have a pair of pants in my bag when I go out at night, just in case I end up going home late and alone.
And then there are the gawkers who do look away once the gawkee looks back at them, and they have a quality in their suddenly-averted eyes that I generally take for one of three things: embarrassment, surprise, or disgust.
I say those three specific things because that’s how I feel when I find myself gawking at somebody on the street—someone in a green penguin suit, for example, or someone with a disfigured face—and that somebody looks back at me. I look away and find myself a mixture of embarrassed (How could they have seen me gawking so brazenly?+), surprised (I never thought I’d see somebody look that strange_), and disgusted (How could someone end up looking so bad? as well as How could I stare so heartlessly, when I know this is how people stare at me?)
Of course, when I’m read as a girl, sometimes strangers still stare at me. But for the most part, I don’t feel gawked at. The eyes of strangers are generally less wide, less curious. Sometimes almost studious-looking.
Sometimes I find myself feeling leered at, sure. Sometimes I hear new yells, like “NICE OUTFIT, BITCH!” Or a friend and I see a group of men uncoil from unlit buildings on an unlit street and head towards us saying, “How you ladies doing tonight?” and we hurriedly walk away. (Nothing happened. The memory would seem cartoonish, if it hadn’t been so frightening.)
And sometimes, too, when I’m read as a girl, people smile at me for no reason. Sometimes a security guard politely points me to a women’s sign when I ask for the bathroom. Sometimes I hear a “ma’am” instead of a “sir,” and about a year ago, I was buying toilet paper at the Duane Reade when the bored clerk said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and I was shaking on my walk home with such an odd, complete feeling of happiness.
One of the (many) things that kept me from transitioning was the fear that I would never be able to pull off looking like a girl, that even if I took the hormones and bought all the right clothes that I’d just appear a tall freaky guy with boobs, like if Meat Loaf in Fight Club had put on a skirt. Crazy, I guess, what a person can tell themselves they’re unable to do.
And yet, even though a lot of the time I’m looked at as either a girl or a guy-in-girl’s-clothes, there are days when I’ve let my hair frizz and curl again, and I put on a pair of baggy men’s pants, and it’s impossible for most people on the street not to take me for a straight-up dude.
Doing this is almost like slipping on a veil. Every now and then, sure, someone on a subway platform or an elevator squints at me for a few seconds, but for the most part even fields of vision that I blunder right in front of carry eyes that look right through me, not acknowledging.
In more than one way, maleness to me now means being invisible. It’s nice, sometimes, I have to admit, though only in a novel kind of way, because soon enough I shave and straighten, put on the clothes I actually feel comfortable in again, and a tired-looking bank teller says “Here you go, ma’am.” I don’t always let it show, but I’m bursting inside. I forget the fear and I forget the gawking, I forget most other insecurities unrelated to gender. It’s only for half a second, but I can feel good about that for days, because there are few other beds of knowledge so fortifying than that of knowing you’re becoming someone you’ve always wanted to be.
One of the more frustrating things about transitioning, so far, is when someone—almost always a man—initially reads me as female, and smiles, and starts a conversation (this happens a lot in bars). And not too soon after he notices something—usually my frustratingly male voice—and the figures compute in his head, and his face falls. At first I’m on guard to see if he’ll be violent, as this is not infrequently how people like me are hurt and hurt badly. But so far the men have just looked embarrassed, or crestfallen, and I find myself embarrassed too.
I’m embarrassed because I know presenting to the world as female is a momentous task that, despite the aforementioned looks from strangers, I have just barely begun. I’m frustrated because I know these interactions will not get any rarer. I’m disturbed by the way I find myself wanting validation as female from these men. And I’m borderline-infuriated by the entire gendered system of how we interact with strangers, or even just how we look at them.
Soon after I moved to New York, I found my hair was getting frizzy again, even as I was blow-drying and straightening. I again complained to Mikayla (we had split up, but on good terms):
“My hair is freaking out! It won’t stop getting frizzy! I blow-dry and straighten it like you taught me to and everything!”
“Are you blowing it downward?”
I thought of how I had gotten bored with doing that and lately had been blowing my hair upwards, watching it fly around, pretending I was touching one of those huge silver balls of static electricity at science museums.
“No,” I laughed, “No, like not at all. That’s bad, huh?”
“Yeah, you definitely want to blow it downward.”
“Oh man!” I sat on my chair, laughing.
Seems silly now, all of this seems silly now, but it was only a few years ago that I didn’t have the guts to walk around a city in a dress, period. Small victories.