Laverne Cox has recently noted that when she first came out she desperately wanted surgery to make her face look more officially feminine (Facial Feminization Surgery or FFS), but now, when she can afford it, she no longer has an interest in the procedure.
Every transperson has experienced that “mask moment,” the impulse to erase their biology and history by concealing their old identity deep under a mask of some sort or another.
In my early days, I would get makeovers for “costume parties” I invented as an excuse for my own transgender exploration. I was clear what I wanted: to not look like me!
I would get beauty books by the likes of Way Bandy and Kevyn Aucoin which would all start with a description of how beauty starts from the inside and I would just skip that advice, trying to find instructions on how to use a trowel to plaster on the Spackle that would finally let me be pretty.
I’m not the only transperson who has gone through this mask moment. My drive was mild by the standards of some who use full face masks to achieve a feminine appearance. Just add a moulded body suit and you have a complete experience, even if the passing distance with these contrivances is usually very, very close.
One of the key questions is if transgender expression is about concealing the sex of a body or if it is about revealing the contents of a heart.
The “fooling people” narrative was extensively used when I was coming out, with “pageants” on talk shows that asked you to identify the fakers, separating them from the “real women,” for example.
As I worked through my first decade of being out and exploring my own transgender I looked hard at truth versus lies. I quickly understood that putting on any kind of false front designed to hide who I am just felt wrong to me, much more constraining than even the duct tape corsets that so many gals used back then in the days before Spanx.
My own expression was first a search for gender play, not concealing my maleness. That wasn’t fitting; I had never been any damn good as a man, and the more I shared with other women, especially femme lesbians, the more I understood our shared feelings and experience.
My big statements, though, in 1994 and 1995, were about the importance of moving past the current models that used compartments and walls to try and maintain an either/or stance, one where concealment was more important than revelation.
I adopted a deliberately gender neutral name, one that surprised a born female therapist named Tommie who, when she was taken for trans laughed and said “No transwoman would ever take such a masculine name! They like pretty names and the more of them, the better!”
As I dropped my own fears, relaxed and started to do the ultimate trans surgery, pulling the broomstick out of my own ass, I began to understand what the more mature transwomen knew: blending in was much more about attitude than about appearance.
It isn’t about how “flawless” your disguise is, rather it is about how clear your heart is, how comfortable you are in your own skin. People read our choices, our tension, our skittishness much faster than they read our sex.
This is as hard for transpeople today as it ever was. We know how to stay defended, know that we want to control every bit of our appearance in order to stay armoured and defended in the world. Instead of looking for ways to become more vulnerable and authentic, we look for ammunition to use in our battle, be that the claims of others that mirror our own understandings or the tricks of concealment that we can hide the bits of us we are not comfortable with behind.
We don’t live in a world where we feel safe just being us. People have been demanding we hide for years, keeping us closeted, and they are all ready to tell us we should drop this transgender shit and go back to being “who we really are.” We often come out at an age where we don’t have support for a second adolescence, learning how to drop our old, limiting defences and walk in the world effectively making the choices of a woman.
The process of mastering feminine expression always demands swinging the pendulum wide, trying a bit too hard before we find our own groove, that line between comfort and beauty which keeps us free and honest. Every woman knows she experimented with lots of looks and she still has them in her repertoire for those moments when a gown and heels are just the right thing.
It is the work of maturing, though, that gets us past our mask moment, that time when we want a flawless construction on the outside to shield confusion, fear, self loathing and hard work on the inside.
Ms. Cox understands this. She was forced to stand up and be herself, without reshaping her face into a mask that a plastic surgeon would assure her is more feminine, more attractive and more plastic.
What she found was a kind of authenticity and integrity which let her expression resonate even more powerfully with audiences than someone behind a mask could ever pull off. She knows how to use artifice, but she doesn’t let it replace authenticity, only augmenting it.
I completely understand the mask moment in the lives of transwomen. Who can’t imagine putting on the face (and body) or your dreams?
I also understand, though, that living behind that mask is never, ever all you dream it should be. You end up spending a great deal of time and energy policing yourself to avoid letting the mask slip, and you feel a kind of emptiness behind the façade, unable to share your deep emotions.
Worse, people never respond to the mask in the way you wish they would. They read something uncanny about the presentation, something not quite integrated, a bit of ragged edge between your choices. Instead of opening up to you, they keep their distance, sensing that you are not being open and authentic. If you need to keep things hidden, maybe even from yourself, then that tension tells them that they need to stay away and safe from you.
You can never create a persona that is more beautiful, more warm, more inviting and more attractive than you are inside.
You don’t live inside a movie where there are polished lines to read, second takes, directors to polish your performance, and others who know the script and will respond perfectly.
Instead, you live in a world where people improvise their performance in every moment, playing off all of the cues you give them, or worse, that you do not give them.
The mask moment seems compelling, creating our dream expression, but Ms. Cox understands that not having the cash for FFS was, in the end, a gift to her, a gift she didn’t want but one that forced her to do the inner work and become more present in the world, more beautiful, authentic and accessible.
Instead of learning to hide, she learned to show her own trans self, and that lead her to her strong self-knowledge and her wide acceptance.
This is the lesson that so many transpeople have learned, even transwomen who have tried to mask themselves well. It’s just a hard lesson to explain to those who are still trying to hide their own nature, still running from parts of themselves.