People, on the whole, don’t like to change their minds.
Always, transsexuals were told, let someone see you full face before you speak. If they see you as a woman, your voice will be a woman’s voice. If they don’t see you — like talking on the phone — that choice may well go the other way.
We called this “persistence of gender, ” the idea that once someone gendered you, created an image of you in their mind, they find it very hard to change that vision.
The real problem, of course, isn’t usually with people you just met. Instead, it is with people who have known you for some time, people who have already pigeonholed you in their mind. They will tend to see you as just changing clothes rather than really changing your choices.
The old advice for transsexuals was to leave their current space, go someplace new to live as a woman, and then, at least a year and a half later, maybe to go back to their old home. This removal of encumbrances and assumptions allow transformation and separation from the past.
Today, most transpeople emerge in place, often keeping the same job, the same dwelling and the same connection to family. This is reasonable — why should we have to give up everything to move on? — but it does create problems with becoming new.
For me, the image of who I am to my family, especially my sister and her friends, is pretty fixed. This means that when I am around them, I am not a woman, just her brother in a dress. I find that hard and upsetting.
For well over a decade, I have worked to create separation, always referring to myself as “her elder sibling,” and using initials rather than my given name. I have been out in the family since the mid-1990s. I even helped her find the foundation I use recently, knowing the same shade would suit her too.
I am not ashamed of my past as a gender neutral, androgynous male. (I never really did “man” well, certainly not well enough to ever satisfy a straight gal.) My gender emergence isn’t about trying to break free from a false life; I started that process in the 1980s when I came out committed to gender play.
Persistence of gender, though, ends up requiring that you not send people into confusion, into a point where they have to change their mind about you.
People hate changing their mind so much that they often get angry when forced to do it, blaming the other person as a liar who fooled them, as a traitor who kept a huge secret, as a deceiver who made them look stupid in front of their friends and family.
As transpeople, we may just want to feel safe revealing all of us, showing our history, revealing the challenges that we have faced, marking how far we have come, but we know that to break persistence of gender we risk being hit hard by someone who feels we are hurting them by showing how myopic they have been.
Asking someone to change their mind is asking someone not just to question their beliefs about you, but often also shaking all their beliefs about who they are. Are they really heterosexual, or might they be more? Do they really know what they think they know about people they meet? Who can they trust?
These are good questions to ask, questions that allow us to examine and strengthen our beliefs by getting them more clear, but the person who forces those questions is often seen as a dirty dog.
I know why people hang onto their first impressions, why they like to imagine that they understand the world, that their memories and understandings are fixed and sacrosanct.
Getting stuck behind those mindsets, though, feels dangerous, diminishing and sad.
If we don’t allow space for transformation, don’t commit to seeing and respecting change, then we can’t really complain about other people who feel stuck.
TBB recently met a buttoned up military type, crisp and masculine, who talked about their impending emergence as a transwoman. “Once I looked into her eyes,” TBB said, “I knew that there was a girl inside there.”
One of the hardest things I do is hold open the space for other people to change, to support growth and healing in the world by everyone. It would be easier to write people off, to decide I know who they are and dismiss their possibilities, but doing that means I don’t bless my own ability to change.
I had become a new person;
and those who knew the old person laughed at me.
The only man who behaved sensibly was my tailor:
he took my measure anew every time he saw me,
whilst all the rest went in with their old measurements
and expected them to fit me.
–George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”
If you can’t change your mind, you can’t change your choices.
If you can’t change your choices, you can’t change your life.
If you can’t change your life, you can’t change the world.
It all starts by being in the moment, by seeing people as they are rather than as you expect them to be, by opening space for change.