Judging A Book By Its Cover

I’m lucky, I guess. When I am out and about I usually get gendered correctly. Shop staff call me madam, a dad called “Mind out for that lady” to his young children who were running about as I walked past, colleagues at work use the correct pronouns to refer to me. I still feel happy when I hear it although the degree of pleasure has diminished as it has become my normal experience.

I realize this experience is not typical for a trans woman. A big factor in my favor is that I don’t pay much attention to people around me: I have no idea if people are looking at me and rarely will I notice if they are talking about me. It’s a facet of my autism; I’ve never been particularly aware of other people unless I’m interacting with them and I can hardly begin to guess at how they perceive me. So I don’t think about it.

Many accounts from trans women that I’ve heard or read describe a catalog of negative reactions from people. Uncomfortable staring, misgendering, verbal and physical abuse. What causes such prejudice and hatred? It’s a fact that nobody is born with these feelings of hostility towards others: they are learned from parents, family, educators, peers and the media.

I’ve heard people in bars discuss whether another person there is male or female. Establishing gender, putting that person into one of two boxes seems important to them. It’s as if they can’t conceive of a world where everyone’s a unique person in their own right. They have to impose this binary on everyone they encounter. It’s that deeply ingrained. People who don’t obviously fit either category stand out: non-gender conforming individuals are viewed as dangerously other.

But where is the danger? I’ve encountered a handful of people — almost exclusively cis men — who felt somehow threatened by my existence as a trans person and I’m struggling to understand their reaction. I genuinely cannot fathom how anybody could see me as frightening (even without my makeup!). Is it insecurity on their part? Are they so firmly invested in the binary myth that they feel their own identity is inseparable from it?

Certainly their reaction can be shockingly visceral. It’s akin to confronting and challenging a deeply-held belief: the strength of their feeling is equivalent to how they might respond to, say, desecration of a Bible. In their cisgender, heterosexual world view there exist two distinct genders and there is no overlap between them. Anybody who doesn’t fit into either category, who disturbs this comfortable fiction, is a dangerous freak.

What might happen if we break down the doors of their perception and force them to confront reality? How could they cope with people in all their nuanced variety? They’d have to make more effort in their thoughts, no longer able to rely on simple stereotypes of male and female. No longer able to make snap judgments based on how a person looks, judging the book by its cover.

I do suspect that they fear losing their feeling of certainty about their own identity. They identify so strongly with a cultural model of man or woman that anything which blurs the lines between them causes them to question who they are. The security of their self-image is a house built on sand and the tide is coming in. Every encounter with somebody like me who doesn’t fit the model is another wave washing away the foundations of their belief.

In their irrational fear they attack, desperately struggling to maintain the integrity of their delusion. By subjecting us to ridicule or hatred they seek to diminish our importance, remove our influence over them. They have been conditioned so strongly to believe we are inferior that any suggestion they might share something in common with us makes them feel self-loathing. The very idea of somebody stepping outside one of their gender boxes raises questions they are ill-equipped to handle.

I don’t need people like that in my life. I have people who accept me and other gender variant people, and that works for me. As Strother Martin’s character says in Cool Hand Luke, “Some men you just can’t reach.” Well, I don’t waste my effort on them because I know who I am and that doesn’t depend on approval or even recognition by others. All the affirmative reactions I experience are effects of my identity, not its cause. This book is defined by its contents, not its cover.

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5 thoughts on “Judging A Book By Its Cover

  1. Reblogged this on bunnyhopscotch and commented:
    When I was a preteen, I dressed like a boy, just because boys’ clothes were more comfortable, and I was at the time exploring my own personal concepts of gender and identity. I faced some really terrifying and nasty confrontations in ladies’ toilets as a result. I was, and still am, a tiny, slight and fragile figure, and I behaved myself, minding my own business, but was verbally harassed by adult women, belittled and even shouted at. It was extremely traumatic. At the same time, I would see mothers bring their preteen sons into ladies’ toilets, badly behaved boys, and nobody said a word. I now realise that the abuse I encountered was less because they thought I was in the wrong toilet, but more probably because I just did not fit people’s physical-visual stereotypes, and they were somehow taking out their prejudicial rage on me. They identified me as ‘weirdo’ and unleashed their bigotted fears upon a hapless child because they were cowards, and too afraid to look into the mirror of their own unhappy anomalies.

    This post by Alex not only resonates in the context of gender / identity, but also contains reverberations in many more dimensions – wherever there is stubborn ignorance and prejudice, wherever people use subtle subversive tactics to belittle what and who they do not know, and do not wish to find out about.

  2. Hi Alex, I absolutely love this blog post, and I’m putting together this month’s ASDigest, a summer special which is concentrating on Autism positivity, and I’d love to feature this in the mag with your permission? Please email me and let me know if it’s ok with you xx

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