aNewDomain — About 25 years ago, I met Lisa.
That wasn’t her actual name. It’s been so long that I don’t remember her real one.
She was a phenomenally beautiful blonde. About 25.
I never would have figured out that she’d once been a young man. Except for the fact that was the whole point of her being there.
Lisa wasn’t shy, you see. She trusted the prof, a fellow who she said had been helping her for several years. And the topic was edgy for the time, or maybe just for me – fresh out of the service and still unthinkingly conservative on a host of issues.
She cleared a lot of air right up front: “Yes, the plumbing works, and so does the electricity.”
She was a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and she was married to a man who knew all about her previous sex and didn’t really care.
She seemed … glamorous. And authentic. And she was graceful. I’ll never manage her poise.
So today I was talking to an autistic friend about the demands of trying to seem to be normal among a species of people we’ll never quite understand. That’s when the memory of this woman I knew for an hour in 1994 intruded. It was forceful.
I still don’t know what it means, but it does means something right now. It has to do with the concept of passing.
The most interesting part of that college room chat was that discussion about passing. Lisa passed easily. Maybe now we wouldn’t have talked so much about passing; if you present as female, you’re female. But that’s an ideal,
Lisa’s transition was early, before a male puberty could leave indelible marks on her body. She never got the broad hips, the deep voice with the accompanying Adam’s apple, or facial hair that would require many hours of painful depilation to conceal. Men who transition to female later in life can have real trouble passing.
But it isn’t just the body giving clues. Manners and mannerisms matter almost as much.
Lisa had gone through intensive pre-transition training. Lisa was raised as a boy. She’d learned to walk, climb, run, bike, talk, square off, laugh, cough, fart like a boy. But when she grew up to be a woman, all her mannerisms became incongruent.
First she dressed as a woman and lived as a woman, attending weekly sessions on how to walk and talk, how to look demure and how to avoid eye contact in situations where ordinarily she’d have made it. She practiced and learned how to dress, how to use all the equipment women keep in their bathrooms and toiletry bags, how to manage all the millions of things that go into being a woman in the modern world.
Girls have to learn, too, what society expects of women. That’s a moving target. Feminism is working, if slowly: These days, we’re a lot more accepting of women who do not play by the traditional rules. All in all, we’re more critical of patriarchy, and a lot less anxious about people who transition sexes.
That’s not at all to say that it’s safe for a woman who was born with male anatomy, but it is a little bit safer nowadays.
Girls learn what femininity is in the context of life. That’s how they learn how to be. Boys only really learn that in terms of the things they shouldn’t be. Both learn these things mostly implicitly.
There may be varying levels of explicit instruction, from mothers for example, but things like elocution lessons are largely a thing of the past.
This idea of training people to pass is what really has me caught up in my memory of Lisa now. Boys are not really explicitly trained to pass as men, or girls as women. There for sure is some feedback – punishment for being too feminine for boys, maybe, and a lot of conflicting and confusing punishment for girls when their expectations are seen as being too unrealistic, conflicting or changeable.
We folks on the spectrum of things sometimes get this kind of direct training.
We have to learn things like how and when to make eye contact, how to shake hands, what to do with compliments. I remember some feedback from my mother about how to walk through a room without looking arrogant or superior. Sometimes I felt superior but showing that would hardly be acceptable.
This makes me wonder about people I know. I wonder how much training they have in how to pass as people. Lately I’m binge-watching Dexter, watching the title character struggle to pass as human, all the while knowing that really he’s a monster.
Most people pick this stuff up as they go along through life. Dexter was really popular, though; I wonder how many other people identify with his struggle and his basic awkwardness.
There are a million little social rituals we spectrum people have to negotiate every day. Some of us, you know, are never questioned. They are so natural at portraying the self they’ve been assigned by society that they never have to think about it.
But some of us come to our roles a little later, absent coaches to help us adopt them.
I’m very grateful to that beautiful rock ‘n’ roll drummer all those years ago. Lisa helped break me open.
She got behind my defenses and confused me in a very productive way.
I only wish I could spend an hour with her now, just to catch up with her, just to let her know how much that talk meant to my ongoing quest to be a person.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
Cover image: Oddee.com, All Rights Reserved. Inset images of transgender women and girls, in order of appearance: M.lakeybanget.com, All Rights Reserved; Mulpix.com, All Rights Reserved; ShareGoodStuffs.com, All Rights Reserved.