I’m currently re-watching Season 5 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and it got me thinking about how trans people are perceived by others. The link isn’t a particularly obvious one, I’ll grant you, but bear with me.
In Season 5 of Buffy, a new character is introduced: Dawn Summers, Buffy’s younger sister. Dawn quite literally appears during the first episode of the season, artificially inserted into Buffy’s life by some desperate monks. She is (or was) the Key: a ball of pure energy capable of granting access to a demon dimension. The other characters’ memories are changed to accommodate the idea that Dawn has always been a part of their life, and everyone perceives Dawn as a normal teenage girl.
Everyone, that is, other than those see things differently. On a number of occasions Dawn is approached by men driven mad by demon god Glory. “You’re not real,” they tell her. “You don’t really exist.” Buffy discovers Dawn’s “true nature” in a trance, and even Joyce (the girls’ mother) see that there’s something “wrong” with one of her daughters whilst suffering from the dehabilitating effects of brain cancer.
I thought about this just the other evening after I wandered into the ladies’ to check if a somewhat inebriated woman (who’d been in there for a while) was okay. It turned out she was fine and just about to leave, but she gave me a funny look as I walked in. “This isn’t the men’s, is it?”
I don’t think there’s a single trans woman who hasn’t had this experience, or something very similar. Many have to endure being misgendered every day. I’m very lucky these days: I suspect that I “pass” as a cis woman around 99% of the time. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m always gendered correctly: now and again, there are always those who mistake me for a man.
Those who misgender me are usually either drunk adults, or children. Some might think that sober adults are more likely to figure I’m trans and gender me correctly out of politeness, but I’m not convinced this entirely accounts for it. I’ve been misgendered a number of times in front of people who don’t know I’m trans, and they always greet such incidences with incomprehension and amusement. How could anyone be so stupid as to think I’m a man, they wonder? After all, I’m obviously a woman.
I figure that once you’ve assigned a gender to a person in your head, it takes a lot to overturn this. This is one reason why coming out is so hard for trans people, but it also tends to make life a lot easier for those who wish to successfully pass as cis women or men. Once people have got it into their head that I’m a woman, they tend to think that anyone who sees me as a man is mad.
In “Buffy”, people with mental disabilities perceive Dawn as different, as non-human. Buffy initially dismisses such people as mad and deluded. Drunks and kids aren’t (always) so harsh, but I do think that different ways of thinking affect the chances of perceiving something (or someone!) in a particular way. People who think differently seem more likely to see something in me that others can’t.
Here’s the catch. Dawn is percieved is non-human, but in actual fact she isn’t just passing as a teenage girl: she is a teenage girl. The monks altered memories and created a personal history for Dawn, but at the same time they made her flesh and blood. Buffy reassures Dawn that they are sisters: they share Summers blood. Dawn may not always have been human, and some can see this, but she now is human.
Similarly, the people who perceive me as male are misguided. They’re right in believing that there’s something about me that’s different, but they’re wrong in assuming that I’m therefore not woman. They see my transness, but can’t comprehend this. Sometimes I’m asked “are you a man or a woman”, but far more often my appearance is translated into “effeminate man”. To people who have always known me as a woman, this is very strange!
So there it is. “Passing” trans people are sort of like Dawn: the few who “read” us as trans tend to wrongly leap to the conclusion that we’re therefore not real (real women, real men, real humans, whatever)…but they’re so very wrong.