Sense and sensitivity

“So a tran walks into a bar…”

I went to a comedy show last night, and the comedian didn’t make any jokes about trans people. I knew he wouldn’t – the comic, Jimeoin, doesn’t do that kind of joke – so I felt safe enough to go as me.

By “as me” I mean as Carrie, rather than in disguise. I should probably describe what that means in case you’re imagining some kind of Cupid Stunt or Lily Savage creature. When I’m out as me, I generally try to imitate what ordinary fortysomething women wear and dial it back a notch. Think of it like a golf handicap: because I’m trans (not to mention taller and heavier than most women) I stand out much more, so I need to be a little more sober in my presentation.

So for example last night I was in jeans, casual boot/shoes, a top and a cardigan. That’s about as dramatic as I get. Makeup-wise I go for the “hide my horrible skin” approach rather than smoky eyes and ruby lips; on top of my head the hair is simple, just short of shoulder length and undramatically blonde.

That doesn’t mean I don’t stand out, though. Last night’s show was in the new auditorium of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. The bar area is notable for being incredibly brightly lit, incredibly spacious and incredibly short of anywhere for people to sit. The few seats around the edges and every bit of wall space were already occupied, so my pre-gig G&T was sipped while standing in the middle of the room.

You know that dream where you’re doing something in front of an audience – in the school assembly hall, maybe, or at a big work conference – and for no good reason you have to do it in your underwear?

That’s my social life.

Everybody looks. Everybody. Some do it subtly. Most don’t. And they look in different ways. Younger women generally do the “oh, trans” look and get on with whatever they were doing. Older ones often double-take and then get on with whatever they’re doing or give you a really hard stare before getting on with whatever they’re doing. The oldest women couldn’t care less; they’ve seen it all before.

Men are different. Some look at you with open disgust. Some stare so hard you fear they’re actually going to dent your skull with sheer stare power. Some look at you in a threatening way, making it clear that they know they’re making you uncomfortable and that’s the point. And a few – bookish types, usually – give you the “oh, trans” look.

It’s an odd thing to experience when you don’t want to stand out. Bono from U2 famously and stupidly said that being famous meant he knew what it felt like to be a girl; but to be trans in a brightly lit public room gives you a pretty good idea what it might be like to be Bono.

You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

You say it best when you say nothing at all

I can’t say I particularly enjoy it, but it’s part of the territory. As is misgendering, which is when you’re called sir when you’re presenting as madam or madam when you’re presenting as sir.

Misgendering is a common tactic of anti-trans trolls, who delight in saying “you’re a MAN!” to trans women in the apparent belief that they’ve never been yelled at before. It’s background noise on the internet but when it happens from strangers in real life it’s surprisingly powerful.

I’m under no illusions that I pass as a cis woman. I’m 6’3” in my favourite casual shoes and I have a voice that makes Barry White seem awfully squeaky. But I’m still taken aback when, as last night, I hand over my concert ticket and the woman tells me where my seat is and calls me “sir”.

It’s hardly the bucket of blood in the film Carrie, I know. But it still knocks the wind out of your sails: it’s a reminder that the two lots of shaving, the agonising over what to wear, the carefully applied makeup, the three-times-attempted nail polish, the expensive wig and all the rest of it was completely and utterly pointless. You’re a heifer in heels, a dude in drag.

I’m not offended or outraged or overreacting, just thinking out loud in a blog post, but it strikes me that this is a matter of simple sensitivity.

I try not to use words or phrases that might make other people feel awkward – for example by assuming that they’re straight, or that they’re not religious, or that they share my political views – and if somebody in front of you is clearly presenting in a female way then surely common sense suggests that they might not want to be called “sir”. In such cases, surely it’s better not to use any term than to accidentally use the wrong one.

No offence

Getting it wrong, intentionally or otherwise, is what’s known as a micro-aggression. It’s a term feminists and trans people have borrowed from people of colour: Columbia professor Derald Sue used the phrase to describe “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour.”

When a commenter notes that a working class black man is articulate when the same wouldn’t be said about a white graduate, that’s a micro-aggression. If someone says an African woman’s name is too difficult to pronounce, that’s a micro-aggression. If you use the word normal as an antonym of gay, that’s a micro-aggression. If you tell a woman that you want to see the manager because you assume she isn’t the manager, that’s a micro-aggression. If you misgender a trans person, that’s a micro-aggression.

Individually, micro-aggressions don’t do much. But they’re like drops of water. It’s what they do cumulatively that matters. It wasn’t the individual drops that drove victims of Chinese water torture insane. It was that the drops just kept on coming.

Asking people to consider the words they use often results in people railing against “snowflakes”, especially in the columns of right-wing newspapers. Apparently asking people to be respectful to other people is a step too far. It’s political correctness gone mad.

As another comedian, Stewart Lee, said a long time ago:

The kind of people that say “political correctness gone mad” are usually using that phrase as a kind of cover action to attack minorities or people that they disagree with… [they’re] like those people who turn around and go, “you know who the most oppressed minorities in Britain are? White, middle-class men.” You’re a bunch of idiots.

Everybody makes assumptions, including me, and the language we use often reveals those assumptions: we may be unconsciously making assumptions based on people’s race, class, sex, gender, accent or any one of a myriad other things. Questioning those assumptions doesn’t cost us anything, and might just help make the world a slightly better place. None of us is perfect, but we can try to be a little bit better.

And as for political correctness gone mad… you really shouldn’t use the word mad either.