It’s about 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night. I’m sitting in the waiting area at Penn Station in New York waiting for a train home to New Jersey after an evening in Manhattan with a friend.
An older woman and her husband are sitting about 30 feet from me. I’m reading a book on my iPad and not really paying close attention until I hear the woman say to her husband, probably quite as not quietly as she’d intended, “See Marty? Look at how she holds her hands. It’s like a man.”
I peek over out of the corner of my eye, but the woman is oblivious to me as she reports her observations to her husband. I return my gaze to my iPad and listen more closely.
“You can always tell with the hands, Marty. That’s the giveaway. The hands.”
The woman does have a point. I have big mitts like my father did, and I generally don’t have my nails done because I do so much typing they tend to chip and get in the way.
There’s a zone many trans women live in, especially those of us who have lived our lives still in possession of fully or semi-functional testosterone factories between our legs, and particularly those of us who begin estrogen later in life.
It’s the zone where we’ll often pass through life unnoticed for the most part but a keen observer may detect us as trans. It’s the zone where even though someone might suspect that we weren’t designated female at birth, they’re not certain enough to risk a public comment that could be extraordinarily embarrassing if proven wrong.
That’s where I live, and it’s where a lot of middle-aged trans women live. It’s the grayish life space where you’re less likely to hear “That’s a man!” and more likely to hear “Was that…?”.
To be honest, it’s not such a bad place to live most of the time. It doesn’t usually involve being misgendered, and in some cases, realizing that a woman may be trans may even lead to increased courtesy in some circles. Most of the time it means trans women like me can expect to be treated the same way in our daily lives as those who began life with an F on their birth certificates, and that’s as much as a lot of us have ever really wanted.
It’s largely because of the social and cultural stigma associated with transitioning from male to female that trans women are scrutinized and vilified much more than trans men generally are. There’s an unspoken cultural agreement that being a man, masculinity and manhood, are goals one achieves, signs of strength and competence. Conversely, femininity and womanhood are traits, which are culturally defined as lesser, indicators of weakness and subservience.
Thus, those designated female at birth who behave and present like men are popularly considered ambitious and strong-willed while those designated male but present and live as women are often considered failed men who are unable to cope with the demands of being “a real man” and thus accept the “lower” status of women.
In the end, it all goes back to the woman in the train station. Had I been designated female at birth and wearing a men’s suit and tie, chances are she wouldn’t have noticed or cared.
Masculine affectations in someone perceived as female aren’t generally considered a problem, and often seen as even cute and sexy. But when a visibly trans woman says, does, or exhibits something that strays even a little bit from what’s considered the cultural norm for cis women, she’s defined as an imposter and by extension, a threat to those around her.
Just as some heterosexuals see gay and lesbian relationships as a threat to their own identities, so too do trans women have to confront not only men who see us as a threat to their own concept of manhood and masculinity but also women who see us as pretenders and interlopers in their territory.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, and as always, we’re going to have to teach it to the rest of the world.
For the most part, we’re just average, everyday women with unusual life histories. We’re not men who became or live as women because we were never really men in the first place.
If trans women can successfully make those two points to the world at large, we win.