The Annihilating Gaze
My dentist performs a breast exam
I’m lying on my back, head tilted toward the floor, when Dr. H. comes in to examine me.
“Soooooo,” he says, drawing the word out with a certain coy mischief. “How’s everything?”
He’s referring, I know, to my transition.
He’s loose around the edges, this dentist. He will say things you don’t expect to hear your dentist say. He teases, pushes playfully at boundaries.
And he’s very good at his job. Which is why I’ve been seeing him for nearly two decades, why I chose to continue seeing him even after I began presenting female.
“I’m good,” I say. “It’s all going really, really well.”
“That’s great,” he says. He picks up a tool, starts probing. “I’m really glad.”
As you move through a gender transition you make hundreds of decisions, many of them more or less impossible in nature. One subset of those impossible decisions involves the care providers and service people in your life. There are so many more of these people than you realize. From your physician to the guy who blows the water out of your sprinklers every fall. Your child’s piano teacher, their pediatrician. Your cat’s vet, your cat-sitter. The guys at the auto shop who swap your snow tires on and off with the change of seasons. Your dentist.
Most of these people you don’t really know personally. But you have a certain sort of intimacy with them nonetheless. They’ve handled your possessions, they’ve hugged your children. They know what’s on the inside of your house. They have peered inside your body.
The impossible choice is this: do you endure the awkwardness of coming out about an extremely intimate matter to dozens of people you barely know? Or do you bypass all of that and go through the separate ordeal of starting up with someone new?
When you have lived in the same smallish city for a long time, as I have, you tend to wind up with a set of people playing these roles whom you feel good about. You want, if possible, to stick with them.
So what you do is to come out. Over and over again.
Ahead of my first post-transition appointment with Dr. H. I wrote a letter to his office, explaining everything. Change of gender, change of name. I’d very much like to continue with you. Please update my records. I’m letting you know about all of this ahead of time so that you can be prepared and not surprised, so we won’t have to discuss the whole thing in person.
I was writing a lot of these sorts of letters at the time.
It always felt kind of like filling out an application: I kindly request that you to continue to treat me as a human being.
Which might sound hyperbolic.
But it’s really not.
Because you are never not aware, filling out that particular application, that it can turned down.
You are never not aware of what being turned down means.
When I showed up for that first appointment, Dr. H.’s staff was totally welcoming, totally appropriate. No raised eyebrows, no stinkeye, no stares.
They were just…neutral.
And in my world, being treated with neutrality is a reprieve. More than that: a gift.
I was only scheduled for a cleaning that day. No exam, no reason to interact with Dr. H. But after the cleaning was done I heard him out in the hallway.
“Of course I’m going to come in,” he was saying to the hygienist. “I want to get a look.”
And I knew. Right then.
Or…I should have known.
Or…I should have let myself know.
Because it was all right there. The preamble to my nullification.
But though I knew it in my gut, my mind wasn’t willing to face the possibility that Dr. H. was not going to be able to be the dentist that I needed him to be.
So I blocked the awareness from penetrating my consciousness. I pretended everything was okay.
He came in, sat down beside me. He said, confidingly: “You’re not my only one, you know.”
And there it was again. Embedded in the very structure and tone of that sentence. All the information I needed.
I should have known.
I did know.
But I couldn’t bear the knowing.
At the following appointment I have a full exam.
The hygienist who cleans my teeth is lovely. She chats with me about summer trips. She tells me about her pets. She treats me like she would any other patient.
Again: a gift.
Dr. H. enters as she is finishing. She gives him her quick summary. He settles on his stool, glances at my x-rays, then goes to work inside my mouth. He’s efficient, it never takes him long. He pokes at my teeth, chides me about using my mouth guard. He asks after my sons, whom he also sees.
The lovely hygienist takes notes in my chart as he works.
Dr. H. tells me everything looks good. Then he presses the pedal and starts to raise me up in the chair.
I notice, as he is repositioning me, that he is staring at my chest.
“So,” he says, “I gotta ask. Are those actual? Or is it just, like, padding?”
And I’m blind-sided. I can literally feel my jaw drop and hang slack. It takes me a moment before I can speak.
“You’re really going to ask me that?” I finally say.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “I mean, don’t you want me to?”
And I’m stunned back into silence. I think: hold it, I just confronted you about having asked me a completely inappropriate question and now you’re pushing even harder for an answer?
Then part of me is like, oh.
Part of me is like, okay, this is happening now.
My brain finally receives the message that I had not allowed my gut to send.
Dr. H. seems unperturbed by my astonished stare. He is apparently genuinely confused by my refusal to answer his question.
“At least I waited until I’d raised you back up in the chair,” he says. “I know people sometimes feel vulnerable when they’re lying back like that.”
I can’t even begin to figure out how to engage that statement.
“So,” I finally manage to say, “are we also going to be discussing your penis as part of this conversation?”
“Oh, I wasn’t even going to ask about down there,” he says. He waves his hand at my crotch, not seeming to grasp the fact that I was referring to his body, not mine, that I was trying to point out how invasive his question was.
“I don’t even want to know about that,” he says.
And I’m stymied once more, unable make sense of the distinction between the parts of me that I am apparently obligated to describe, and the parts which are too distressing even to be allowed into consciousness.
Meanwhile he’s still talking, telling me a story about some other patient of his, a woman who is having breast augmentation.
“I’m totally going to bring it up with her when she comes in next,” he says. “Are you telling me she wouldn’t want me to?”
“Of course she wouldn’t!” I say, flustered. “Or…I have no idea what anyone else would want, that’s not the point!”
I can’t make sense of what’s going on. I especially can’t make sense of why this all feels so weirdly familiar. This exquisite panic. I mean, this is new for me, right? Being sexually harassed as a woman? Why would that feel familiar?
All I know is that I have to get out of that room. Somehow. I have to escape. Without getting….
I start to get up out of Dr. H.’s chair.
He looks at me with annoyance.
“So, you’re really not going to answer?”
I’m finally on my feet.
“I take estrogen,” I say. “You have that in my chart.”
He looks satisfied.
I feel sick to my stomach.
“He’s just like that,” the sweet young hygienist says softly to me as I’m walking out. She can see that I’m upset.
“He’s sort of inappropriate at times but he doesn’t mean anything by it.”
But if you’re reading this, call me. Let’s get coffee. We should really talk.
As soon as I got home I started processing it all with a girlfriend.
She said: “This is something that happens with great frequency. To women. Being placed in positions of subservience and shame.”
“I know,” I said.
“It is a rite of passage,” she said. “A fire you walk through.”
“Honestly,” I said, “I felt like I was understanding something so deeply. Something I’ve always known and experienced in certain ways, but have never been undone by in quite this way.”
I said: “I had this weird sense of joining a sisterhood.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
And yet, I told her, there was also something more. Something I was having a much harder time sorting out.
Some women, when I talk with them about my transition, make the sweet but terribly inaccurate assumption that my experience going forward will essentially mirror their own. For better and for worse.
You’ll never have to buy drinks for yourself again!
Someone actually said that to me.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. Which is that I will never move through this world in the same way she does.
People notice me.
They have reactions.
I activate their shit.
For what it’s worth, I don’t inherently object to this visibility. I believe, deeply, in my right to publicly occupy my full self, in all my messy complexity.
The point is, I don’t have the option of not being visible.
The point is that it is exhausting, and often frightening, having my full, messy self be constantly an object of scrutiny, a target of curiosity and scorn, fetishistic desire, rage.
Which is why, in spite of my better judgment, I do in fact occasionally succumb to the enticing but dangerous fantasy that I can move through my life being treated like any other woman.
Sometimes, especially in settings that feel familiar and safe, I let my guard down.
That’s what happened in Dr. H.’s office. I let myself think that he was actually seeing me as the person I truly am.
Stupid, stupid girl, who allows herself to believe such things.
So what did Dr. H. actually see when he examined me?
Not a woman. Clearly.
What he saw, I believe, was what so many people apparently see: a de-masculinized male.
Which, apparently, freaked him the fuck out.
So he did what he had to do in order to soothe the anxious tremors that my existence had set off inside of him.
He dismantled me.
With a single question.
At first, that question seemed like a sort of perverse validation of my identity. Like…he was treating me the same way he would treat any other woman.
Are those actual?
Not a question you would put to any other woman.
Are those actual?
Consider that question.
What it means. When asked of me.
I’m not being asked if I’ve had a boob job.
You understand that, right?
You understand that this is a completely different question?
What I’m being asked is this: do you even have the parts that would allow me to sexually objectify you?
I’m being asked: what sort of a pretend woman are you anyway?
When I was a child in elementary school, the deepest insult hurled between boys on the playground was a single word: woman.
There was little worse for a boy than being called that.
I suspect that every insult ever traded between men in the history of men is, in essence, an accusation of femininity.
Dr. H.’s question was nothing more than a sly variation on this trope.
He harassed me as a woman in order to attack what he perceived to be my deficient masculinity.
No wonder it felt so familiar.
But at the same time I was flummoxed because I could no longer locate within myself the presumed masculinity that was under attack. I’d stopped thinking of myself as a broken male, had finally come to understand myself as an intact woman.
That old playground taunt had nowhere left to land.
So he had to take it that extra step.
He had to also make my femininity itself into a fakery.
It was really kind of brilliant.
You’re certainly no longer a man, he said, but there’s no way you’re an actual woman.
The sum of your parts adds up to zero.
Good luck with that one out, kiddo.
And he’s not my only one, you know.
We get asked all the time. About our tits, our cocks, our cunts.
Shit gets so boring.
I mean, we get it. You’re uncomfortable.
But really, do we have to keep going through this?
Could I perhaps persuade you to consider asking a more interesting question?
What’s it like?
Try that one on me.
Ask me about the annihilating gaze.
About the nullifying question.
Ask me what it’s like to be rendered inexistent in the eyes of another.
Ask. But have patience.
Understand that I’m going to need a moment before I respond.
Because I’m not used to being asked this. Even though I think about it. All the time.
I’ll need a moment to examine you. To see if you’re for real.
I invite you to you can watch me as I do this.
Watch as I study your expression, as I try to get a read on how you are perceiving me.
Watch as I balance the hope of understanding against the risk of humiliation, the possibility of personhood against the threat of non-existence.
Watch as I assess my odds.
You will see it in my expression: I know that they’re not great.
But even so.
I will close my eyes.
I will breathe deeply.
And then, hoping against hope, I will tell you.