Have you ever looked at something and questioned what it was? Just standing there staring and wondering. Now just imagine that what you are staring at is a person and not an object. Then put yourself in that person’s shoes. How would you feel if people stared at you all the time? Standing there wondering whether you were a man or a woman. Do you think you would be able to handle it every moment of everyday? To make matters even more complicated put your own children into the equation. How do you think they would handle the staring?
Some people in this world spend much of their lives faced with constant questioning from other people as to their identities. Transsexuals have to deal with it every day. A transsexual is a person who is born with the sex organs of one sex but feels emotionally and physically connected to the opposite sex. Some transsexuals decide to have sexual reassignment surgery to change their sex organs, while others merely take hormones so they can pass themselves off as the other sex without actually changing their physical gender. Whether it is male-to-female, or female-to-male, all transsexuals question there who they are at some point in their life. They constantly deal with people staring and questioning their sexuality. Sometimes this even happens when their children are around.
Allie Lee, the protagonist in the autobiography, “Passing Realities,” has lived through many incidents where her gender was questioned or misjudged. She is a male-to-female transsexual who has two children. In her story, Lee describes her interactions with people in her every day life. One situation she discusses in her story occurred when she and her children were at an ice cream parlor. The man working behind the counter called her “ma’am” to get her attention to come to the front of the line to be served. As the man behind the counter called her ma’am her son turned to her and said, “Dad, he just called you…” Allie quickly responds back “shush, I know” (Lee, 1998, p 166). Here it is clear that she is considered a woman because of the way she looks. However, while awkward, this was not a situation where her gender mattered enough to make an issue about it. But even her children are not able to escape the gender binary. In the same encounter at the ice cream parlor the man working behind the counter later mistakes her son for a woman.
Not all of Lee’s encounters are so benign. In another incident, Lee went for an interview wearing a “her power suit, in burgundy with matching jacket and skirt” (Lee, 1998, p 168). After talking to the receptionist and sitting waiting for her interview to begin, she asked for the bathroom key. The receptionist gave her the men’s room key (Lee, 1998, p 168). Interactions such as this one happen often to people like Lee and somehow they learn to find strategies that help them make the situation less awkward. Personally, I do not know how I would be able to make a mistake like that less embarrassing.
Sometimes situations between people and transsexuals can turn hostile because transsexuals confuse people who follow the gender binary, and confusion can lead to embarrassment, which in turn can cause anger and hostility. Stacie Montgomery is a male-to-female transsexual who wrote a story, “Twenty Passings” about 20 different passings she has had with different people in her life. In the ninth passing she writes about dealing with a group of young men on a sidewalk. She recounts the story by saying,
As I approach, one of them looks my way. ‘Hey, young lady!’ He would say more, but I am suddenly under a streetlight, and he sees me more clearly. He is suddenly silent. My stomach turns icy, but I keep walking… I can hear the tone of his voice, though – he is angry… I wonder how close I just came to being in real trouble… Later I start to shake (Montgomery, 2002, p 241).
It can be easily seen that the interaction between Montgomery and this young man could have turned violent if the man was not so confused about her identity. However, rather than approaching Montgomery and perhaps harassing her or worse, he held his distance as he tried to figure out what he was looking at. His confusion gave her time to get away from the situation to the safety of her home. But it could have just as easily turned ugly. Montgomery surely knew this and must have considered when she returned home the dreadful “what if…” question. What if this young man did not hesitate, but instead came over to investigate his mistake in identity?
A person’s physical identity according to the gender binary is determined by their physical appearance. Transsexuals, such as Allie Lee and Stacie Montgomery, both questioned the gender binary because they did not feel comfortable, for whatever reason, with their biological sex. Their desire to be the opposite sex had its effects on them personally, as well as the people around them. Transsexuals may be different physically than they were when they were born, but it is most likely that you have passed one on the street and didn’t even know it. Instead of being afraid, people need to be educated so that if and when they do come into contact with a transsexual they understand the differences and do not become confused or hostile.
Lie, A. (1998). Passing Realities. In Riki Wilchin (Ed.), GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Publication.
Montgomery, S. (). Twenty Passings. In Riki Wilchin (Ed.), GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Publication.