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Secret Identities and In-Between Spaces

I’m a big mess of contradictions.

I think that from my last post this is probably clear. Some boys grow up to be very nice women who have no fashion sense. It happens.

I deal with the major manifestation of my paradoxical nature every day, though some days are stranger than others. I’ve had plenty of hassles because my legal name is still my old, male one (that changes in January—my name change hearing is set for the 13th), and I still have to sign the old name on a few holiday cards to family members not in the know. Also, some days my voice won’t work well, and it dips back into the male range. This always makes me think of that scene in Spaceballs where the protagonists catch Princess Vespa singing in a very low register, and Barf remarks, surprised, “She’s a bass!” Therefore I’m both embarrassed and snickering.

This is how my mind deals with the pressures of transgender life: constant pop culture references.

Another favorite piece of pop culture I found myself dwelling on back when I spent my entire life outside of work as female was that completely unbelievable transformation of Clark Kent to Superman—just by changing clothes and removing his glasses. Nobody ever caught on somehow. I mean, what if he lost his glasses one day? He’d be screwed! But what I’d do is I’d go through another miserable day at work with everyone treating and seeing me as male, then race out to the car and rip off the massive men’s pullover I was wearing. Underneath lay my secret identity: a women’s top in some girly color or other. And presto chango, male to female, just like that.

I did this while walking to where my wife works one day when she had the car (she works only a few miles from me, I like walking it when it’s warm out). I had on the usual underneath, a purple shirt with a deeper purple floral pattern. What? I told you about the fashion sense.

At some point about halfway there I couldn’t take it anymore, and knelt by the side of the road, took off the loose-fitting men’s overshirt I’d worn to work, and stuffed it into my bag. I looked around—only one person was staring at me with a WTF expression on her face. Close enough. I kept walking, feeling less warm and a lot less oppressively miserable.

A few minutes later I glanced at my reflection in a store window. A small-breasted, thickset woman with long brown hair stared back. Just three blocks before, I’d glanced into a car window and seen a stocky, long-haired, sad-looking man walk by. For a moment I felt this weird elation, like I’d just gotten away with something. I have a secret identity, I thought. Cool!

But then I thought, No, it can’t be that easy. Can it? I’d been taking female hormones for a little under five months at that point, and the effects were starting to show. My facial fat had shifted just enough, and I had developed the beginnings of some actual curves—which the fit of the women’s shirts showed off a bit. The big men’s shirts hid all that, except for the face, but back there at work most people didn’t think of me as anything but male (well, okay, there was that time I was in the men’s room and some little kid came in, then turned around and left, shouting, “There’s a girl in there!” but that was the exception, not the rule). Could it be that I’d hit a point where just a change of clothes completely shifted everyone’s perception of what my gender was? Was that my “Clark Kent taking his glasses off and loosening his tie” moment?

How embarrassing that my secret identity should just be, well, me.

That’s the thing, though. Clark Kent and Superman are the same guy. Yes, duh, we know this. But they’re similar in so many ways, so much so that there really isn’t a solid dividing line between them. Both are good, quiet, simple guys who have relatively straightforward ideals. On the surface, it seems like they’re opposites. But when it comes down to it, the difference is mostly in the way people perceive each of them.

As for me, I’d hit a point where I was so androgynous that all I needed to do was give people enough of a visual clue to put me in one category or another. What does that say about the high wall we think separates the genders, though? I feel like, instead of smashing through or vaulting over, I just sort of… slipped across one day, without quite knowing I’d done it.

Make no mistake, I’m glad I’m firmly on this side of wherever that line is in more than just personal identity now. It’s a wonderful relief from a physical and psychic pressure that had been eating into me for a long, long time, and it works for me. But the whole experience made me think, what if there is no sharp, easy-to-see line to cross? I thought, what if instead of two points separated by a high fence, gender is more like a vast, island-dotted sea?

And, in fact, I’ve met people who live their lives quite happily in this space. I may turn out to be one of them, though my body, brain and heart are all still working that out.

Huh. Maybe I’m less of a paradox than I thought.

8 responses to “Secret Identities and In-Between Spaces”

  1. Jesse Star Jesse Star says:

    Huh. FINE. I'll be first. See if I care.
    We all wear uniforms, costumes, and secret identities. It protects the inner self, it allows us to have special qualities that we save for few, rather then leaving them unprotected for all to see.
    Kudos, and welcome to the throng.

    • Avatar SusanJBigelow says:

      Hooray, first!
      It's sort of amazing just how many secret selves we can contain, sometimes. It's been very odd (and gratifying) dragging one of them out into the light, for me, and becoming her in full.

  2. Avatar Dani says:

    I'd been meaning to comment for a while but utterly lacked time, then I finally do carve some out and I see I've been beaten by half an hour!
    As we've discussed elsewhere, Susan, I've recently had experiences of not knowing where I am in relation to crossing that wall. I suppose I could understand it better if I were really trying to present differently in different places (admittedly I do a bit when actually at work and with my parents – that will be changing soon!) However, when outside of those two situations, dress the same and behave only slightly differently.
    I'm at that point where I'm alternately gendered, sometimes within the same situation. A week ago I was at the garden shop in Colonial Williamsburg and was gendered as male by one person, then, seconds later, gendered female by another who was present for the first. This past Saturday I was gendered female by a waitress at a restaurant in Durham, then male by the waiter who actually had our table. Subsequently, a cashier at a grocery used female pronouns referring to me.
    I sometimes feel like I'm just me and a bunch of other people are trying hard to figure out which box they can put me into.

    • Avatar SusanJBigelow says:

      I like your final observation–ultimately, it's all about how other people see us! I actually have gone out of my way to send off as many "female" signals as possible, just so it's a little easier for me to get along without anyone really taking too close an interest in me.

      • Avatar Dani says:

        That's the part I found so odd about it all. I didn't feel I was actively doing much to be perceived as a woman by others. Practicing my voice and the other non-verbal skills from my class at UNC-G was about it. And yet, it was clear that something about my appearance said "female" to many.
        It has actually made me feel better about transition. I had previously felt that there were so many things I would have to do to even have a chance at being correctly gendered. Now I realize that is untrue.
        Of course, I've also been less worried about how others see me so I see that observation in a different light. That's down to past experiences, however, that are unrelated but were a major factor in my life for many years.

  3. llxt llxt says:

    Very nicely reasoned Susan. I agree that gender (and sexuality) cannot possibly be as black and white as our culture would have it. It's probably more of a continuum but it is certainly convenient to have a small set of baskets in which to sort people.
    P.S. disperse wrote this. not lee lee!

  4. llxt llxt says:

    Let's face it-gender is not just a social construction-it's a useless one. Something left over from the hey days of religion and patriarchy and bad fashion. Yet, we buy into the paradox just like we do the "convenience" of online shopping and the "'meaning" behind Christmas traditions. Like any other relationship we're getting something out of it, or we'd walk away. But what? What is so damn comforting about waking up every day already knowing who we're supposed to be …?

  5. Avatar The Tailor says:

    Susan, thanks for pointing out something that I've always believed: that we are all walking paradoxes based on how others see us.

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