How People Respond to Me When They Realize I’m Transgender

Alex Boswell

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“Alex, I overheard some customers earlier talking about you, and for some reason, they were calling you a ‘she’, did you realize that?”

My new co-worker’s face expresses confusion but also some concern. Here it goes…

“Oh that, yeah, some customers are a bit stubborn. They remember what I looked and sounded like before I transitioned and they don’t talk to me often enough to get in the habit of calling me ‘he’.”

Her eyebrows raise, “transitioned? What do you mean?” I groan a little inwardly, knowing I have to say it.

“I’m transgender. I was born a girl, and I started transitioning into a male a couple of years ago.”

“Really?!”

Yes, really. And no, I’m not about to sarcastically reply with “I identify as an apache helicopter.” When I tell people I’m trans, or they find out through other means, “really?!” is the first instinctive response of most people. The tone is definitely the most intriguing part because it’s easy to tell when someone is uncomfortable with that realization.

My favorite version of this was when I was at a local bar after my graduation ceremony, and I got to talking with a young conservative voter. Somewhere in the middle of it all, he had mentioned his distaste towards the Canadian bill to “prosecute those who effectively misgender trans-people”, though that’s not what the bill is for. It was to extend protections against hate speech to be inclusive of discrimination against gender identity or expression.

It wasn’t until we were about to move onto another topic that I dropped the fact I was transgender. You could taste the tension in the air for a brief moment. Then it dissipated after he expressed a level of respect for having the conversation we did in the manner that it happened.

Normally, I respond with a small giggle to myself and a “yeah.” Sometimes the conversation evolves deeper after that, sometimes it doesn’t.

When people respond this way, it does kind of make me smile a little and gives me a bit of faith in humanity.

“I never would have guessed.”

This response gives me mixed emotions. Like the previous response, the tone matters a lot in determining the mix. Innocent surprise, preceded by “really?!” is usually a stress reliever and a laugh. In contrast, I have had people say it in a way that meant they were disturbed by my ability to “pass” as a cis-male.

My real response to this goes something like: “Thanks haha, I guess, good to know that the medicine is working,” with an overly dramatic wink.

Though I’m never quite sure whether I’m pleased about the whole “passing” thing or not just because of what it represents — privilege. It makes me remember that people do place some kind of worth on the male identity, whether subconsciously or not.

“That explains a few things.”

Co-workers respond this way when they realize they’ve never seen me use a urinal (I’m not one to risk my trousers using a Stand-to-Pee device). Though it has also come from people who’ve gotten to know me a bit and thought that I was gay because of the subtle feminine mannerisms I was raised with. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay, of course,” typically follows that line.

A response like this always makes me feel like the way I behave is a kind of mystery. It seems to be most understood by those (besides other trans people) who move into a different culture from the one they were raised in. Those who belong to a particular culture will, to a degree, always carry thought patterns or behaviors with them. That’s what I feel like being raised a different gender is like.

It is kind of funny to see them squirm a little when I ask, “Like what?” though.

“So wait… You don’t have a d**k?”

Look out, it’s macho-man to the rescue. Questioning the nature of my genitals nearly always comes from men who feel the need to suddenly become expert biologist alpha-males. Though I have had one woman say this to me, it was an appropriate question in the context of our conversation — we were interested in dating each other until this topic came up (pun intended).

She was no longer interested, which was fine; I wouldn’t want to date someone who placed that much value on genitals. No point in wasting everyone’s time.

Maybe I shouldn’t let what other people say get to me, or affect me emotionally, but sometimes it just does. While I don’t base my identity on a set of patriarchal values, it does kinda hurt when someone reminds me I’m not ‘cis’. When someone responds in ignorance like this, I usually mention something like:

“I don’t value my worth as a man based on whether or not I have a d**k. A man is more than his appendage I’m sure you’ll agree unless you’re just one giant d**k yourself.”

Gotta have a bit of humor.

These are often perfect opportunities to either educate or positively influence a person’s perspective on what it means to be trans. So if they are open to dialogue, this would be the time to have that kind of conversation.

“You’re so brave.”

People often say this to me when we’ve had a whole conversation about my life experience, or have read through my academic research.

The appreciation and respect I get from those who say this to me fill my heart with melancholic joy. It is heartening when they relate to my struggles for identity and personal victories in my journey. Still, it’s also sad because it makes me realize that others don’t feel like they’re being brave by being themselves too.

I have a lot of love for these people. It’s good to remind everyone that being their unique, individual selves is just as worthy of praise as my experience of life.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive; I’ve had responses all across the spectrum of love and hate. What’s important for me is to keep an open mind, and to hope they will, too.

Keeping an open mind is especially necessary if we decide to develop a relationship further, whether as friends, co-workers, or romantic partners. We all know that trust is the foundation of any good relationship, and I think having honest (if sometimes uncomfortable) initial interactions is a really good way to build that trust.

I try to remember that not everyone will have had the kind of liberal upbringing I did, and be immediately accepting of my identity — and that’s okay, too. Like the conversation I had with the conservative voter, it’s key to be able to view topics from other angles.

Diversity is essential because it exposes us to ways of life that we never experienced before, opening us to the possibility of seeing the world from a new perspective. From there, we can learn to treat each other with respect.

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Writing about human experiences and life lessons everyone should know about, but don't.

Los Angeles, CA
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