Sunday, January 10, 2010

Radio Interview

This afternoon, I was interviewed by the local radio program "Information Underground" about my experiences as a transsexual woman and the impact that has had on my life as a graduate student and instructor. The interview can be heard here Information Underground January 10, 2010. The interview should begin playing immediately and my segment begins at around the 19 minute point.

Above are a couple of pictures of the outfit I wore to the interview. A friend that I had dinner with later joked "You sure look nice for your radio interview."

I know I've discussed this before but I do like to look nice. It's really just my personal style, not anything to do with my feelings about gender roles or how other women should or should not dress. According to Claudine Griggs (1998) in S/he: Changing Sex and Changing Clothes, "MTFs seem to dress in extremes during their transitions, often wearing stereotypic and/or provocative fashions, overdressing for informal occassions, and wearing clothes that are too youthful for their age . . . Many MTFs seem to delight in ultra-feminine clothes during the early stages of transition" (p. 14-15). Griggs also discusses her own fashion choices during her transition, moving from a June Cleaver-esque "initiation stage" of dresses, heels and makeup to a "rebellion stage" of faded jeans, sweatshirts and drip-dried hair.

I may be in my own "initiation stage" where I'm just so happy to be able to dress how I want, but I feel that too often people try to make to many generalizations about what being transsexual means. Just because one transsexual chooses to dress in a feminine style doesn't mean that every transsexual has to dress in a feminine style; likewise, just because dressing in a feminine style was for one transsexual just a stage in her development as a woman doesn't mean that it will be that way for every transsexual.

I guess only time will tell what it will be for me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Seeing Male and Female

The chapter "Toward a Theory of Gender" by Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna in The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle provides an interesting discussion of how people attribute gender that is useful for transgender women and men. The authors' main argument is that people use a schema when seeing someone as male or female, the schema being that you "[s]ee someone as female only when you cannot see them as male" (p. 176). When reading the gender of others, male is the default gender that is seen, and people try to eliminate all male characteristics before seeing someone as female. The presence of any characteristics designated as male identifies the person as male for most people, even when confronted with contradictory information. The penis is the most powerful indentifying characteristic and is often enough to override other characteristics.

The authors conducted tests to determine how people attribute gender to others. In the first test, participants where allowed to ask 10 questions to determine the gender of an unknown and unseen person, without asking "Is the person male/female?" Questions typically dealt with physical characteristics like height and weight with occasional questions about social perceptions of gender, such as clothes worn and having a job or not. Secondary sex characteristics, such as prescence or lack of breasts and development of biceps, were occasionally asked about but genitals never were, which was seen by participants as tantamount to asking if the person was male/female. The interesting thing about this test was the way people were able to adjust the information they were provided with to fit the gender they perceived for the unknown person, for example thinking that a person over 5'8" would be male and then adjusting that perception to include tall women when presented with the information that the person has protruding breasts and wears skirts.

The second test involved plastic overlays of characteristics, including short/long hair, body hair/no body hair, wide/narrow hips, breasts/no breasts, penis/vagina and gender neutral clothes/lack of clothes, over a neutral face. The test again found that characteristics identified as male or female were not enough to identify the sex of the figure; information was usually made to fit the perception of the figure. Being able to see the genitals of the figure produced interesting results. The presence of a penis was enough to override all other characteristics identified as female (long hair, wide hips, breasts, no body hair) but the presence of a vagina was not enough to override characterstics identified as male (short hair, narrow hips, no breasts, body hair). This supports the authors' argument that male is the default gender seen by people, with the male characteristics needing to not be present to see someone as female. These characterstics are, of course, determined by the culture and not biologically.

The authors argue that the working of this schema is the cause of the difficulty faced by transgender women in "passing" as female; as others examine the transgender woman to determine her gender, the presence of some male characteristics override more obviously female characteristics, like breasts, hairstyle and dress. "The relative ease with which female-to-male transsexuals 'pass' as compared to male-to-female transsexuals underscores this point" (p. 176). Because of the tendency to see male as the default gender, "[i]t is rare to see a person one thinks is a man and then wonder if one has made a 'mistake.' However, it is not uncommon to wonder if someone is 'really' a woman" (p. 176).

While this tendency may seem difficult to overcome, the authors also point out that first impressions of gender are essential; we often work to support our first perceptions of another person's gender and find it difficult to discredit that perception. It is even difficult for other people to see transgender women as men if they have never known them as men. The authors argue that the first impression is crucial for transgender women and men, much more important than trying to maintain the image of the "perfect" woman or man. "If transsexuals understood these features of discrediting they would (1) focus on creating decisive first impressions as male or female and (2) then stop worrying about being the perfect man or woman and concentrate on cultivating the naturalness (i.e., the historicity) of their maleness or femaleness" (p. 177).

I will be interested to test the importance and effectivess of first impressions in the next couple of weeks. While I have taught and attended classes as a woman in the past, this will be the first time I will be starting a semester as Lucy. In the past, I began the semester as a man and made the switch to living as a woman during the course of the semester; it may have been difficult for my students and classmates to overcome their first impressions of me as a man despite the fact that I began living as a woman. I wonder what impact only knowing me as Lucy will have on my reception by and interaction with my students?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Goal for 2010

I have one main goal for 2010 and it's a fairly simple goal. My goal is to spend more days this year living and dressing as a woman than as a man.

I spent a lot of time in 2009 living as Lucy, a month or so in the Summer and most of the last 3 months of the year, but I want to spend even more time as Lucy in 2010. I feel that making the decision in September to once again live and teach as a woman full-time will make this an easy goal to accomplish. I have other goals for this year, including looking for a therapist and doing as much academic writing as I can, but this is my main goal for 2010.