Hyper-vigilance in the Gender Machine: What It’s Like to Be a Trans Woman Who Doesn’t Pass 100%

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Did that customer just “sir” me?

When he said “Thanks man” would he have said that to a cis female or was that just for me?

Did that person just say “dude” to me in a gender neutral way or not?

Is my co-worker going to use the right pronoun for me at the end of this sentence? Is there any hesitation in their usage of “she” pronouns for me or is it natural, automatic?

Did that customer just include me in their reference to “ladies?” *internal leap of joy*

Pronouns are the primary fuel of the gender machine. The gender machine is the whole apparatus of gender, the constant way in which life on Earth is filtered through the lens of whether you are a man, a woman, or something else. The gender machine is omnipresent, though if you aren’t paying attention it can seem like it doesn’t exist at all. The gender machine is brutal and impersonal: you are subject to it regardless of whether you want to be or not. The gender machine is deeply metaphorical: it provides the foundation for our entire understanding of culture, pop culture, songs, movies, etc.

Before I transitioned, I only had a passing familiarity with the gender machine. I knew it existed, of course, and was obviously a product of it and regulated by it, but I didn’t really know it. I never paid much attention with occasional exceptions: being read as a male with long hair and ear piercings was sometimes interesting. Getting punished by my parents as a young child for wearing women’s clothes certainly made me aware of the gender machine and the rules of what boys are “supposed” to be like. My relationships with women exposed me to the gender machine a little bit. Being a husband made me self-conscious of my role within the gender system.  I had read a bit of gender theory here and there but didn’t really understand the gender machine on a super personal level. I was like the proverbial fish who lives and breathes water but doesn’t has a concept of water because it surrounds them 24/7.

But nothing prepared me for what it’s like to be a wrinkle in the gender machine, a nail that sticks out, an anomaly, a person who was first assigned male, raised male, and regulated as male but who eventually pushed back and bucked the system, who self-consciously rejected their position in the gender machine and chose another path, the path towards womanhood.

But violations in the gender machine are highly regulated by misgendering, transphobia, and enforcement of gender conformity. If you don’t look and sound “like a woman” then the gender machine will refuse to play along and you will get hurt. You will get “sirred”. You will get nasty stares as you walk out of the bathroom. You will be harassed, threatened, or maybe even violently assaulted or killed. The gender machine will attempt to chew you up and spit you out. You will be called “freak” and seen as less than human. You will be called slurs. You will be slandered as a pervert. Your sanity will be called into question. The gender machine has it especially out for nonpassing trans women and non-binary trans femmes due to the way masculinity and femininity is strongly regulated for those who are assigned male at birth. Any hint of a assigned-male person dabbling in femininity is brutally regulated so much so that trans women repress their desires for decades, or even repress them forever.

Does my adam’s apple stick out too much at this angle? I worry about this as I stand at the counter and adjust how I’m standing so the customer won’t see it right away. I maximally “prime” them with my available gender cues, minimize the cues I want to hide, and slightly adjust the way I’m standing and holding my head to hide my adam’s apple. But I know they’ll eventually see it. They always do. That or my voice will reveal my history of being exposed to testosterone. What will they think of me? Not how will they treat me. Most people are nice. But how will they internally think of me? “Oh, there’s one of those ugly trannies. Freak.” Or worse. My paranoia about this runs deep. It affects my relationships with people I don’t know extremely well. Many TERFs these days are hardcore TERFs but keep their opinions to themselves. That’s almost worse. The fake smile. The deference with the pronouns, but secretly thinking “You’re a man.”

“Hi, what can I get started for you today?”, I speak over the intercom in a strained voice, desperately doing all I can to avoid the inevitable “Sir”. Often I don’t get it. But sometimes I do. I wonder if I would get misgendered more if we lived in a time when the gender machine regulated gendered communication and encouraged “sirs” and “ma’ams” at all times. Nowadays, thank God, people more lax on the honorifics. I personally try to never use them unless absolutely necessary. What’s the point? They do practically no good and often cause much harm to trans and gender-nonconforming people. My voice is the Ur-factor in how I am perceived within the gender machine. It determines everything. Unfortunately, I know my voice is not perfect and still gets read as male to those unsuspecting strangers who might expect something else out of my mouth based on my appearance or dress.

I wake up super early for work to placate the gender machine with makeup. I know many cis women across the world are pressured by the gender machine to wear makeup to work in order to be seen as “professioanal”, “hygienic”, or even “competent”, but I am pressured into waking up extra early to shower, shave, and put on makeup in order to maximize my available gender cues, minimize the negative ones, and ultimately reduce my chance of getting misgendered, avoiding dysphoria as much as possible. With my voice and my adam’s apple and my masculine features, makeup is a defense mechanism for me, a way to reinforce the gender cues I give off. But what I’d give to have the option to just wear a bare face but still be so effortlessly feminine that no one in their right mind would question my status in the gender machine.

Whether I eventually get misgendered or not depends on many factors, mainly to what extent these people are self-conscious regulators in the gender machine aka transphobic assholes. But it’s also ignorance. And not paying attention. But still. Regardless, the most common thing that happens is that people don’t gender me at all. I get greeted as female all the time but rarely depart as an acknowledged female. When others around me get pronouns, I often get none. Which isn’t too bad I guess. Could be worse.

My coworkers, or “partners” as we call them at Starbucks, are my literal life blood. Their acceptance of me as a woman and their automatic usage of “she” pronouns are my primary coping mechanism for dysphoria and misgendering at work. The small little genderings that happen through the day literally sustain me. It means so little to them, yet so much to me.

Life as a non-passing trans woman for me means constant vigilance within the gender machine. Professional pronoun detector should be written on my business card. Constant awareness of all things gender defines my worldview. When I am hanging out with cis males, I can’t help but notice their masculinity and define myself as apart from them, down to tiny little mannerisms like the small inflection they put on the end of a word, or how much space they are taking up. When I am around cis females, I can’t help but compare myself to them and get self-conscious about every little feminine detail that comes so naturally to them. Even hanging out with butch lesbians does little to make me feel better because even they are so dripping with womanhood that I can’t help but feel “less”. Such is life as a non-passing, late transitioning trans woman.

The gender machine is fueled by pronouns, and regulated by conformity. It is all around us. Even in today’s post-modern liberal society of increasing LGBTQIA diversity awareness, the gender machine is working harder than ever to regulate gender. It might seem like we are now living in a laissez faire world when it comes to gender, but don’t let surface trends fool you: The growing acceptance of trans and GNC people in society has done absolutely nothing to placate the gender machine. It is still hungry – it still needs to feed. It simply finds a new tactic, a new way of regulating gender, new rules, regulations, associations, connotations, expectations, etc.

Gender is still all pervasive, as any trans or observant person will tell you. Some gender theorists like to talk about a future, hypothetical society where the gender machine is no more. But that’s a thought experiment only. A fantasy. A utopia that will never come to be. All we can do is force the gender machine to evolve in small, hopefully progressive directions. But despite the gender machine’s dominance and finality being out of our control, we can as individuals take self-conscious steps towards understanding our place within the gender machine and working to make sure everyone feels safe as they can be within the machine. Respecting pronouns and reducing the usage of honerifics is a huge part of this and definitely something cis allies can do. Good luck.

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12 Comments

Filed under feminism, Gender studies, My life, Trans life

12 responses to “Hyper-vigilance in the Gender Machine: What It’s Like to Be a Trans Woman Who Doesn’t Pass 100%

  1. Such is our lives as trans women, but I feel a little less alone now. Thank you for this.

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  2. Kara Stanford

    I have to say…I cried reading this. Thank you for writing down what those of us who don’t pass are stuck living every day of our lives. Other lgbt people in my life tell me that passing isn’t important – it doesn’t matter. I want to scream at them because it feels like they don’t get it.

    This is Mississippi. I have to maintain the same level of combat ready alertness I did in Iraq, just walking to my classes or the grocery store.

    Anyway, thank you.

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  3. Your story is my own, though I worked at Bestbuy. I gave up… well maybe that’s not completely correct. I lost hope, I had hope of one day just being one of the girls. Of maybe then settling in to being a full fledged woman.. Then I stopped drinking. And I realized the truth. I was far to old to ever be considered “one of the girls”. And my entire life had been destroyed by depression, gender dysphoria and alcoholism. I would never be a responsible woman with a career and a family of her own.

    Though I have given up hope, i have not stopped my transition goals. I have no faith that they will amount to anything. but they might. I guess.

    My advice is to never give up hope. Once you do, you may not get it back.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What is the pronoun machine experience in Finland? Because there are no gendered pronouns in Finnish.

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  5. Remember when we first were learning to drive? I heard a lot of you don’t drive, let alone operate a stick-shift. As a teen when I first took the car out with my dad sitting next to me, I was scared to the point my muscles were almost cramping. It was like the first time I dared to walk fully dressed and in makeup and without a friend for protection in broad daylight from my car into the museum and look at the exhibits. My girlfriend and I selected that because usually people keep to themselves in such environments, yet I could be moving around and it was unlikely someone would start in with me.

    I remember I was at the Student Center and a girlfriend went to get her stuff from a locker while I went to ask for coffee-of course dressed like any female student, at least as close as I could come. It was all I could do to croak, “May I please have a cup of black coffee.” The guy behind the counter did not ever bother to look up.

    Now I drive and get to work, listening to the radio, hardly remembering having driven. I speak, rattling off words in female vocal range and style having reclaimed a “hidden” voice I had suppressed as a matter of survival.

    NO ONE passes 1000% straight out of the gate. But like driving, with time, certain muscle memory fixes itself–at least for me–within us. Like tying shoes. Like someone asks me to spell a word and I have my hand write it. I can’t always tick off the words.

    We ALL start off as non-passing . . . every one of us just as we start off non-driving.

    I submit the following video and I worked for a while with this therapist and I did so because even 43 years after I began transition, I STILL have dark moments–PTSD which still come up, but there are grains of truth in what she says, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtYqMB2e3jo&t=21s

    Passin takes time like learning to play a musical instrument or acquiring a special neuromuscular skill. If it were easy, EVERYONE would have done it.

    I will confess there were times I was in tears at how awful I believe my presentation was, but for almost all of us it gets better. Small success story–I got to the point where I could pass stealth in TERF environments.

    It gets better! Stay with it. Don’t give up, That’s what they want you to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mackenzie

    Can you please check your privilege you beautiful (yes I can see your side photo, c’mon now) almost cis passing trans woman? Your experiences are valid, but this barely even scratches the surface of what it is to be a non passing trans woman, and as one (like, actually cannot present female because it causes unwanted VIOLENT attention everywhere, amongst a host of other reasons) I can say this is not at all my experience and I feel in fact, glazes over all the horrible shit I go through. Please stay in your own lane and recognize that.

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  7. This made me sad. I would say, I am in the same boat as you, though I am not fully out, so this feels like a doom laden barometer–I also started at 30. On the positive, I like your writing and therefore have creeped your videos because you often cite your issues with your voice. Honestly, it’s not that bad. I think it sounds pretty.

    I do agree with your comment about our cultures flirtations with nonconformity, it is pretty skin deep. But, we can change that, I hope.

    Fianlly, I hope your experience imporves. I like VH’s car analogy.

    You’re awesome and beautiful. Thanks for your writing 🙂

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  8. Pingback: In Response To “Hyper-vigilance in the Gender Machine” – Mackenzie Writes Things

  9. Pingback: Gender Perspectives, Vol. 19 | Valprehension

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