Rude But Affirming Behaviors: A Transgender Woman’s Entry To Womanhood
It’s unfortunate that it took transitioning to really understand how women are treated as second-class citizens — and that this treatment is something that also confirms my womanhood.
One of the fascinating things about gender transition is that I now have a unique experience with how we as a society categorize people based on their perceived gender, and then behave a certain way towards them based on that categorization. I have my own experience of what it was like to move through the world as a man, with all the privilege, control and power that came with that — and now, what it’s like to move through the world as a woman.
What I’m about to say is nothing new for cisgender women, but for someone who is just now starting to experience these societal expectations and behaviors in my late-30s, it’s jolting.
I’d like to tell you about some of the more interesting interactions I’ve experienced where people have categorized me as a woman based on my perceived gender since I started transition, and how it compared with my experiences when I was perceived as a man.
To begin, I must say that many times, while I can assume the motivations of people I’m interacting with — and will tell you here what I think they are — I may be way off. We can never understand motivations based only on behavior. So while I think I can know why someone refuses to talk to me while they’re scanning my items at the grocery store, I can’t. Maybe they don’t actually hate all trans people like I’m assuming. Maybe they’re just tired. Maybe antisocial in general. Or maybe they actually can’t speak. Whatever their motivation, I can speak to how the situation made me feel.
One of the first times I experienced what I will call “categorization paralyzation,” (which occurs when someone can’t quite put you into a category, so they just pick the one they think fits best and jam you in so they can maintain the status quo for their categorizations), was right after I came out.
I had a friend who I was just getting to know and we were getting along great. We were going out for coffee, often, and when we talked we really connected. Then I came out. He was very happy for me and was wonderful about it. I texted him a few weeks after that and asked if he wanted to get breakfast. He didn’t text me back for a long time, and then when he did, said he was busy.
This happened about three or four more times; I would text, he would wait to text back but then say he was busy. Finally, after this had gone on for almost three months, I decided he must be too turned off by me coming out as transgender. Realizing this wasn’t a fair assumption to make, I decided to do the reasonable thing and just ask.
His response was something I did not expect. He texted a week later and said it wasn’t my transition, but the fact that he adhered to what is known as the Billy Graham rule.¹ His own personal ethic wouldn’t let him be with me, a woman, alone.
This was the one of the first times I had the pleasure of being gendered correctly. It was an amazing feeling to be seen for who I am, a woman. But this categorization paralyzation destroyed a beautiful friendship. He couldn’t understand where to put me, so he put me in the place he thought was the most honoring, which was to treat me like he’d treat any woman.
In his life, he doesn’t spend time with women by himself. (I have no judgement of him for this ethos as I don’t know why he holds it, however I do think that this Christian-based rule leads to the systematic oppression of women.) This was also the first time that I experienced what I call “Rude but Affirming” behaviors from people.
“Rude but Affirming” Behaviors
Rude but Affirming behaviors are typically behaviors displayed by people (mostly men) who end up putting me into the “woman” category in their mind, and treat me how they would other women, which ends up being sexist and demeaning at best.
They are rude, but as a trans woman, they affirm my entry into womanhood.
I want to say again that these examples of things I’ve experienced are only affirming because I am transitioning. Cisgender women go through these things on a daily basis (and have their whole lives) and they aren’t affirming, they’re just rude (or worse), and seem to be mostly behaviors born out of a patriarchal society.
As I started to get further along in my transition, “Rude but Affirming” continued to rear its ugly head. As my hair got longer, and my body was becoming more feminine, it was harder for people to clock² me from afar. One day, as I was walking through a park, a man, inside a truck that had tires far too large for its own good, catcalled me. Not in the regular way, but in the “I want to have sex with you right now” kind of way. Something that never had happened to me when I was perceived as a man. Rude, but Affirming.
More examples of Rude but Affirming behaviors I’ve encountered include:
- People who come in for a hug without asking because when they greet people there’s a male greeting (handshake) and a female greeting (hug). And don’t get me wrong, I love hugs, and if those are your categories for greeting people (maybe reflect on the need for it first), by all means, you do you. You just need my permission at least once to make sure I’m OK with your hugging. When I was perceived as a man, this personal bubble was rarely encroached on as I was in the “handshake” category.
- Men who encroach on my personal space to explain something to me because they think that getting closer apparently helps them to get their point across. This personal bubble encroachment never happened to me before I transitioned, with the exception of someone purposefully trying to be aggressive. It happens much, much more often now when (it seems) intentional aggression isn’t the motivation. Again, this is a behavior that cis women have lived with their whole lives, and is terrible. But for a trans woman, Rude, but Affirming.
- Being asked if I need to “check with my husband” or “check with my spouse” before making a decision. Like when a maintenance person is in my home trying to fix my furnace/AC/electrical system, etc. Rude, but Affirming. (Cis women who have had this happen to you a lot, I don’t know how you resist the urge to punch these men in the face).
- Having the door held open for me, only to be slammed in my face. The man who opened the door first saw me from afar and perceived me as a woman. As I got closer, he perceived me as a man, and decided that the common courtesy of holding a door open for someone should be based solely on that person’s gender, and slammed it shut forcefully before I could go through it. (This was not a Rude but Affirming behavior, but gets at the same categorization paralyzation).
I could list many more examples of these behaviors which include weaponization of a woman’s body; putting the onus on women to explain themselves or their behavior; men trying to push their own fear of women onto women; and a myriad of other run-of-the-mill sexist, misogynistic, and potentially violent behaviors.
“It’s sad that as a trans woman, I reach for validation and affirmation from these terrible behaviors.”
I would have never experienced most of these behaviors from other people if I hadn’t transitioned. If people’s views of me and expectations for me remained male. But I transitioned so people could see me how I have always seen myself. And now, many people in society have placed new expectations on me as they categorize me as a woman.
It’s sad that as a trans woman, I reach for validation and affirmation from these terrible behaviors. It’s sad that a whole gender of people is categorized in a certain way, put in a box, and told to behave. That’s not to say that men don’t have a box too.
The difference, it seems, is that men created the boxes — and, from personal experience, theirs is full of power, control, and dominion.
There is no way I could have ever gotten to this point if I hadn’t transitioned. As a “woke” “man,” I understood the plight of women in society. I didn’t participate in terrible behavior toward women (or at least I didn’t think I did), and even though I knew it wasn’t true, I hoped no one else did either. But I didn’t understand how a patriarchal society really affected women until I lost much of the privilege that was based on my gender (see my Medium article Swimming Down the Sidewalk: Losing Privilege through Transition).
It’s unfortunate that it took me transitioning to really start to understand the second-class way women are treated in society. It’s also unfortunate that this treatment is something that confirms my womanhood. This is my daily struggle.
I don’t want to get my affirmation from a society that tells me I must meet this new set of expectations, and that I must stay in a new box to be affirmed as a woman.
One of the saddest parts of all this is that there are trans-exclusionary radical feminists (a.k.a., TERFs) — women, who would argue that it’s precisely because I haven’t had to deal with this terrible behavior my whole life that I’m not a real woman. Unfortunately, that argument leads to womanhood being based entirely off of the behaviors of men.
I hope to one day get to a point where many of my cisgender sisters have always been, to see and call out these behaviors for what they are: not just rude, but demeaning, harmful, offensive, and violent, and definitely not affirming of my womanhood.
We are women because we identify as women, and that’s enough.
¹ The Billy Graham Rule, also now called the Mike Pence Rule, is a misogynistic set of practices outlined in the Modesto Manifesto from 1948. The Manifesto aimed to “avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion,” leading to church sanctioned sexism for the last 70+ years.
² Clocking is when someone realizes I am transgender without my disclosure. For more on clocking, and why it can lead to unsafe situations for trans people, and to understand our current president’s endorsement of it, check out Clocking for Beginners.