It’s a beautiful sunny spring day and my friend and I are enjoying a lovely lunch at an eatery on Church St. When our server checks in to see how we’re doing he asks, “Can I get you ladies anything else?” I immediately look at my friend’s face; he’s clearly frustrated.
Not only does my friend identify as male but the way in which he presents himself through his style of clothing is very much masculine. He isn’t displaying any hint of femininity whereas I am sitting right across from him looking every bit a femme. So why is the server still calling him a “lady”?
When I respond I make sure to place as much emphasis on the male pronouns as possible. “Yeah, I’m good but he’s really thirsty and he would love another glass of water.”
Without a word our server leaves to get the glass of water. Do you think he got the hint?
As a femme I don’t read as obviously lesbian so I’m pretty attentive to how other people are presenting — when they’re recognized as queer or as trans and when they’re not. While I’m in no way downplaying the frustrations that femmes go through to be taken seriously as queers I admit that in many ways being a femme makes it easy for me to navigate my way through both the queer and straight scenes. Trans guys on the other hand don’t have it quite as easy.
Unfortunately the experience my friend had over lunch is a regular occurrence for most of my trans friends. They tell me they feel continually frustrated and disrespected when strangers refer to them using language that denies their chosen gender.
You’d kind of expect to find this kind of ignorance in straight venues, but many of my trans friends actually prefer to go to straight clubs and pubs as opposed to the queer bars because they find there’s less resistance to their chosen gender. There’s a no-questions-asked attitude — he looks like a dude so he must be a dude.
Meanwhile many queers are embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to trans etiquette, in spite of the fact that I’m constantly hearing that “trans is the new gay,” which might be better phrased “gay is the new mainstream.”
For the past few years gay has been the in thing in pop culture. You can see it reflected in television shows and in music. There are more and more queer artists to look up to, to feel a connection with, more and more celebrities who seem to be comfortably out and open about their sexuality.
TV is littered with gay characters. Shows that made a stir when first broadcast — think Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — are now in repeats. And love it or hate it The L-Word will be back for a sixth and final season next year. You may dislike the way gays are being portrayed on screen but at least they’re there. If nothing else gays on TV are a starting point with your suburban relatives about what gay life really looks like.
Trans people aren’t there yet. There are a handful of male-to-female characters — the very beautiful and sexy Anika in Entourage, Alexis in Ugly Betty, Carmelita in Dirty Sexy Money — but no trans men, as far as I (and the US-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 2007/2008 report on sexual diversity in primetime TV) can tell.
We live in a visual culture and no matter who you are or how you identify it’s comforting to have some kind of a reflection of your reality. It helps you to make sense of how you’re seen in society and it helps others to understand you, even if it’s flawed understanding. For the most part representations of trans men don’t exist, so lots of folks just don’t know what to make of them.
But in the queer scene it may not be a lack of awareness so much as active resistance. My trans friends have described feeling patronized when they try to explain their gender identity to fellow queers; they say they often get an eye-roll or “okay, whatever” in response.
To be fair it’s not always easy to distinguish between a trans guy and a butch lesbian. The lines get blurred between androgyny, butch and trans and it can be a little overwhelming, especially if you haven’t had much exposure to trans folks. What if you make the assumption that someone is trans and that isn’t how they identify? What if you don’t know which pronouns to use?
I’m no expert either but when in doubt you can always ask — or just avoid gender-specific language altogether. The important thing is that the effort is made. After all queer and trans folks are in this game together. Let’s play nice, kids.