We have evolved and survived – we being every living creature on this planet – through expert pattern recognition of things that matter most. For a bacterium, perhaps a chemical signature, for a bat an auditory echo, for an antelope, stripes moving the wrong way in tall grass, for a human, maybe a facial expression or the face itself. In fact our senses are all designed for pattern recognition, to know food from poison, welcome from warning, friend from foe, mate from challenger.
But for us as humans it has become incredibly complex. An actor is not really threatening you; their terrifying violence will become beans on toast as soon as the camera stops or the curtains close. And we thrive on novelty and invention, so the challenge of the unfamiliar is always with us. Sometimes we lose and a real danger is not spotted: insecticide toxins, environmental disaster, over-confidence is a dangerous place, early experiments with radioactive substances. Sometimes we win, and a new invention raises our game, an unexpected relationship becomes love, a crowded room of strangers becomes a welcome.
Military technology that deflects radar enquiry (stealth) removes pattern from the response. Signals are absorbed, scattered and confused. You don’t get back a clear picture, or any meaningful picture or signature at all. It’s better than being ‘under the radar’. Its purpose is to confuse, to be invisible, so that an infiltrating mission, aggressive or surveillance, can go undetected.
As a borrowed term, I am very uncomfortable with adopting it for living as a transsexual woman. I am not intending to deceive anyone, but neither do I want to stand out. I want to adopt normality, not invisibility, and as trans* people do gain more acceptability in society, the fear factor will reduce. Being ‘found out’ is not something I want to happen. I want the conversation always to be:
‘You’re trans, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
In other words, my pattern has been noticed but it means I am friend not foe.
But this is a very difficult one indeed, because being trans* is not like being gay or lesbian or bi. I do not need another trans* person in order to have a relationship that is normal to me, whereas being gay or lesbian does. So I may need to be openly lesbian whilst not openly trans*. Being trans* is a diagnosis that has treatment to make you as un-trans* as possible. I used to think I had to live as if I was a man, because of my physiology and social expectation, but that is history. It is over; done; finished.
My male features, some of which I can do nothing about, like hand size, large big toes, a broader ribcage, will always make me noticeable. So I really do understand the grief a younger person feels, that correcting their genitals and torso, even their face, may still not be enough to assert without explanation, their own gender. If it didn’t matter to anyone else, it wouldn’t matter at all. But can I really ever be the object of desire to another? A frightening thought.
We present patterns to those around us, and they recognise and respond. I cannot make my big toes slender, but you can let it be completely OK. I don’t need stealth, you need to adjust your pattern recognition response. Being trans* is normal, not disconcerting or repulsive. The trouble is, I am in charge of myself, but I cannot change society around me except by slow, if vocal, influence. I am living now, today; tomorrow will not do for social acceptance.
Under the radar?
We do live with pattern recognition, and society assuredly has not adjusted. Most of the time I am just flying under the radar. I get on with life, I make myself look as normal as possible, whilst expressing my personality and individuality. I do a good job at work, I meet lots of people in many different settings. Being transsexual is not an issue. Until …
‘There’s that man in drag!’
As I left my flat a few evenings ago, a young man (isn’t it always?) in a car, announced this loudly to his friend. He was announcing his insecurity. His pattern recognition (maybe he has been around since I moved in, and remembers the earlier days) still says: ‘I know what to do with man, and I know what to do with a woman. This person confuses me. They are only in my book of shapes as a man in drag, and I have no better understanding. I feel safer by alerting my friends to something I don’t understand, rather than saying nothing because it doesn’t matter.’
As always, this young man spoke about himself, not me, but yes, I did find it offensive. And disappointing. Why was I being mis-identified at all?
I have no need to avoid this person in future, because the problem on one level isn’t mine at all. But if I could wave a magic wand, and become an attractive woman, would I? Well, maybe I would, just to avoid the hassle. But being stealth-configured to avoid hassle, risks the accusation of deceit, and frankly, I should not need to hide anything.
A lot of popular software applications, from this blog to games, offer alternative ‘skins’. The same thing underneath, no change in functionality or rules, just pink instead of green, flowers instead of camouflage. As an alternative to stealth, adopting a different skin, is perhaps feasible. I am what you see, and I want you to recognise that this is only a skin, and that yes, we have all chosen these presentations: I, as a transsexual woman with my style, and you, as a cis-person with your style. Or as a lesbian with your dyke style, another with a femme style, and so on.
So instead of stealth, in place of acting, and renouncing fear, throwing away the pattern-recognition manual for gender, I want you to know that inside I am exactly what I say I am. And that my skin is my familiar garb, not for you to question, but to understand why I wear it.
My ribcage does not make me a man. My dress is not drag. Ask me and I will be straight with you, and explain as best I can. But I will not hide just to assuage your prejudices. I did not choose this, just as you did not choose your gender – or your shoe size.
Well, this is what I would like. I am horribly aware that even for me, there are those I counted even as friends who ‘don’t know how to relate to me’. Even my wife and daughter don’t know, so have distanced themselves to a safe place for them. Yes, me, a threat to their normality: you can’t be my dad so you can’t be my parent. You can’t be my man, so you can’t be my partner or lover. Pattern recognition has destroyed my family, and there is no stealth imaginable there. If anything, living before realisation was stealth, and I have renounced it.
All around the world, every month, trans* people are murdered for being unfamiliar to the pattern-recognition handbook. Stealth would present a constant fear of being discovered, the radar points too low, the unwillingness of society to learn new patterns is not there. They are hated for being different. I am lucky. Very lucky.
Out in my skin
I can’t get out of my skin, I own it. But this is the bit I also choose. I choose for taste, but also for acceptability, not to hide, but to present. Some have a problem with it, but I don’t. Stealth? No. Discretion? Maybe. I am confident in my skin. But see me beyond it, because that’s where recognition really lies.
Related poem for reflection and fun: Patterns