I am a transgender woman. It is a parallel track to that of cisgender women, but I will never claim this to be the same track. I have never had a menstrual cycle, experienced pregnancy or lived my entire life subject to acts of blatant misogyny. But when you openly transition, you get the same cultural expectations thrown at you as our cisgender sisters experience.
My transition has been mostly stress-free since coming out in February of 2016. In private, I confess that one of the major reasons for this outcome is likely the fact that I just do not project as outwardly female as some of my transgender sisters are able to do.
My “sheroes” have always been butch lesbians. That's who I am inside and that's how I choose to live. I will never willingly out-femme Soulmate (privately she thinks that philosophy to be quite silly…) and will never compete with daughter-unit for public attention. If I could get away with the buzz cut to match my small breasts without looking like a guy, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
So when I go to work or synagogue, how do I dress? Either in a pantsuit or a respectable skirt combo of course. Some makeup without overdoing it, unless Soulmate is with me, in which case I go makeup free (she hates that too). Why? Because that's what the straight and lez women do around me, and I'm just trying to pay my dues. I'm different enough as-is: no need to overdo it.
Does this satisfy the majority of my critics? Nope.
“Ok look, we’re behind you, but could you change your voice? Wear heels and dresses more often? Grow out your hair? Be less assertive, far more deferential ... and remember the majority HAVE to accept all of this even though they think it is completely wrong. Dressing and acting like a mainstream woman will go far in helping everyone around you to deal with the changes, and, besides, no one is going to take you seriously as any sort of woman until you do…”
That's a snapshot of the first six months. The remarks are from professional women. It probably did not help that the majority of my starter clothes were purchased from Old Navy's “workwear for middle-aged lesbians” section, but I digress.
My failure to embrace the bubbly femme supposedly hidden inside me and refusal to modulate my voice has not earned me brownie points. Think of the final stanza and scenes from Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song for the full effect with the women referenced.
I have a teenage daughter. The rule I follow for my own transition is based on a simple question: would I allow her to dress or act in a certain way if she felt she HAD to in order to be accepted as a bona-fide woman? No, I would not. I would never tell someone how to live their life, but I would also never allow a gender stereotype to automatically trump reasoned choice.
Daughter-unit made the decision at an earlier age to forgo skirts and dresses in favour of pantsuits for synagogue and formal occasions. She asked me before the HRT kicked in how I was going to look and dress as a woman and fell in love with the Brooks Brothers collection I showed her online. She wears blue, I wear grey, and the grandmother has still not forgiven me.
The number one lesson I have learned from this experience is that the first year would have gone so much better had I adopted a style more influenced by drag queens outside the LGBTQ+ community. Straight Nation was prepared for that, and that says a lot in itself about how they really think. My preference for the culture and style of Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow as a trans woman has gone over about as well as the Hindenburg.
I suspect the majority of open lesbian and non-conforming women experience much of this too, but I gain the impression that those of us applying for the gender equivalent of a Green Card are supposed to be held to even more mainstream standards.
None of us in the transgender club do this in order to embrace a stereotype of any sort. We transition in order to live as we know we really are. It's just like being lesbigay; you know it from day one and there's no running away from it (they put the T on LGBT for those reasons back in the day).
The cisgender women in my personal and professional lives were raised as females and have the far better manners and social skills that I am struggling to obtain, but I personally did not do this to femme out and dress pretty. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it's just not me.
I am not trying to be a radical trans feminist by embracing my inner butch, but I do not mind anyone thinking that. It's good company, and I would be willing to pay those dues too.
Julie Chase is the pen name for a local 40-something trans woman. A graduate of The University of the South at Sewanee, she is proud of her alma mater for choosing to retire symbols of the Confederacy. Photo: Lea DeLaria via After Ellen