At each of the four NYC pride week events I went to (Trans Day of Action, The Drag March, The Dyke March, and The Big March) I saw a smattering of what, for the lack of a better term, I will call “people with beards wearing make-up and dresses.” Some were gay men, presumably cisgender. Others were either gender non-conforming, non-binary, genderqueer, or trans. I couldn’t tell by looking.
Some wore garish or exaggerated costume, some were in classic drag, and some were dressed in an outfit that would not have attracted attention if it was worn by someone else. I mean someone who “was trying to look like a woman is expected to look”. This last category, of mixed gender expression, is the most visibly jarring. Picture a masculine haircut, a trim beard, a little black dress, and pumps – or what Alok is wearing, above.
This is not an attempt at the air-brushed androgynous look. This openly contradicts the “rules” of passing. By showing a heavy five o’clock shadow or a beard they are not hiding or obscuring that they spent a significant part of their teen/adult life with high testosterone levels.
I’m used to seeing trans women all over New York (and there were plenty of trans women at the Trans Day of Action); but outside of queer gatherings I’ve only run into a handful of people sporting beards and wearing make-up and/or dresses. Playing with gender is like playing with fire. I wonder how often they go out like that, and how they handle the harassment on the street, in the subway, or using a bathroom. How often they get burnt.
I generally only get harassed using women’s bathrooms, dressing rooms, and locker rooms. Sometimes, someone on the street will say something to me, and I usually say something back as I walk away. Oddly, I feel more “seen” in those situations than when I am “Ma’am’d.” I rarely feel physically threatened. Mostly, I feel safe.
I’ve often wondered who my “opposite” gender equivalent is. Someone born male, but who identified with girls as a child. Someone who always preferred girl’s or women’s clothing to boy’s or men’s clothing. Someone who carries themselves girlishly. Someone whose gender expression is predominantly female, but whose secondary sex characteristics are male. I know they are out there, but I rarely see them.
No matter how many times I tell myself “You can’t tell someone’s identity simply by looking at them,” I want to do exactly that. I want the supernatural power to read people’s gender identity accurately, and to be read accurately in return. I want to see other people who identify as trans. I want them to see me.
I volunteered to do peacekeeping/marshaling at the Trans Day of Action (organized by the Audre Lorde Project). I’m much more comfortable at a demonstration when I have a job to do than when I just show up. Before the march, as the crowd was assembling, I was posted at one of the entrances to park. At 3:00 PM on a sunny Friday, Washington Square Park is pretty crowded – I was supposed to direct people to the gathering site, and intervene if anyone was verbally hassled. To pass the time, I watched people enter the park and tried to figure out who was going to our event. Were the two short guys with scraggy beards trans? What about the woman with the tank top and the blond wig? It was impossible. And the only person who got hassled (by a woman tourist from the mid-West) was someone with a beard wearing a dress.
Notes: Alok Vaid-Menon, who is a poet and half of the performance group DarkMatter, is one of the people I see often at political events sporting beard growth and a dress. Some of their writing is posted on their blog RETURNTHEGAYZE; I especially like “Why is Everyone So Afraid of Men in Dresses?”
The picture of a relatively clean-shaven Alok, which is from this Gay Pride weekend, comes with a story, which is posted with their picture on DarkMatter’s Instagram page.
Last week I said I wasn’t going to go to the main march, but I was asked to help carry this banner and I couldn’t resist: