I am not a novelty item.

Story time!

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with a large group of people, most of whom I had not met before, and struck up a conversation with the woman across the table from me. I didn’t catch her name because it was loud in the restaurant, but I’ll call her H. We were all splitting some big margarita pitchers and having fun, and her questions about my split tongue moved onto a conversation about piercings in general, which was fine by me because I always enjoy talking about that sort of thing. I enjoy evangelizing about genital piercings when I have the chance, because I always want to make sure people know they heal very quickly when compared to a lot of other piercings and are often not as painful as one might think. So, since I was tipsy and H was friendly, I found myself talking about how genital piercings are great! And when she said “oh, well, maybe it’s different for men because your parts are larger, but with a smaller area I think it’s more intimidating for women to get those piercings,” it somehow made sense for me to tell her that because I’m trans, my genital piercing experiences were not the same as what most cis men would go through.

(Again, there were many very strong margaritas at our table.)

Her reaction was not really what I want to hear when I disclose to someone, but it wasn’t too surprising either: her eyes got wide and she said “REALLY? I never would have guessed! I couldn’t tell at all!”

Folks, let me be clear: I don’t feel complimented with someone tells me how they “never would have guessed” I was trans. Am I a carnival game? Do you go around guessing if people around you are trans or cis? Really? If folks are trying to be nice when they say this sort of thing, they’re failing. If you like how I rock my gender presentation, tell me! But don’t gush over how fucking cis I look to you because I do not want to hear it.

In that moment, I realized I was stuck in “trans ambassador” mode, which I tried to live in 24/7 when I first came out and quickly learned was a quick way to burn out on any interaction with clueless (even if well-meaning) cisgendered people. I try not to slip into that role if I can avoid it, but in a loud restaurant when both individuals in a conversation are drunk… it’s not an ideal time to have a Teaching Moment about inappropriate reactions to trans disclosure, and it was easier to just let her talk. So I got to hear stories about how surprised H was to know several trans women who were so beautiful and who you would never know were trans, a trans woman she dated who she considered her “bridge” between straight and lesbian relationships (yeah, I’m kicking myself now for not calling her out on that because it was pretty gross, but again: drunk! loud!), etc. etc. I’m pretty sure she was honestly being enthusiastic and excited, but it didn’t make me feel like any less of a novelty item. I doubt she would have liked it if I said “OH, you’re a lesbian! I wouldn’t have known at all! I knew someone who turned out to be a lesbian, and we were all so surprised!” but even in queer-land, etiquette seems to fly out the window where trans people are concerned.

It’s not that I’m particularly angry or bitter about this, but it was a weird moment. I really did just want to talk about how great piercings are and instead I felt like a tipsy science experiment.

Oh, and the best part of this conversation? I was one of four trans folks at our end of the table. Apparently she would have NEVER GUESSED it about any of them, though, so they were all spared the delights of this particular discussion.

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4 Responses to I am not a novelty item.

  1. Em says:

    I’m hoping for the most part her reaction was due to the biiig margaritas, but also when you’re ignorant of how you sound about things, you can sometimes ramble on and on without realizing the damage you’re doing. ^^;

    It’s sad to say this, but I probably would have mentally stalled or verbally tripped over myself if I realized the person I was speaking to was a different gender association that what I initially thought. I guess… it’s because I grew up around people who are cisgender (sorry if I use this terminology wrong!), or maybe people I thought were. That being said, if someone said something as insulting towards my gender “I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!” I’d be super upset.

    In general, I try not to assume anything about other people or their relationships if I can help it, but I still have those knee-jerk reactions of surprise when my assumptions are proven wrong. I hope that makes sense. >_<;

    • I think the booze can be blamed for some erasure of the brain-to-mouth filter, but maybe not all of it? Who knows. I think if I hadn’t been drinking I would have shut down instead of trying to have an awkward conversation and deflecting the weirdest comments.

      I understand people not knowing what to say when they’re dealing with something they’re not familiar with. And I actually either said or considered saying some things to trans people that would REALLY upset me now, in the period of time when I was just realizing that trans people existed and was trying to sort myself out. I actually came very close to asking someone I did not know about her genitals, and I still feel terrible when I think about that moment and am SO GLAD I did not do it. Jesus.
      I had no idea how gender-tact worked! So I try, I really do, to be patient. I know that many comments come from a place of clueless friendliness, but after a while they wear me down anyway and I let myself feel surly about them.

      A lot of the comments that I find the most frustrating/offensive to hear are a lot like the comments people make about other people’s bodies. I gained and lost about thirty pounds over the course of two years (who knows why; my habits didn’t change at all), and during the downswing I had customers saying “did you lose weight? YOU LOOK GREAT!” all the time and it was horrible. I know some people like that sort of feedback (a coworker was on a very restrictive diet at the time and loved hearing that) but I find it way too personal and wrapped up in a lot of assumptions about body size and good-lookingness that I don’t want anyone to make. Strangers don’t know about my flirtations with an eating disorder, they don’t have any idea what my relationship with my body is, and I think it’s really inappropriate for people I don’t know well to make those comments, even if they think they’re being friendly. I could have lost weight because I was fasting unhealthily, or because I was sick (I had a friend with cancer who got a lot of compliments on his weight loss and had to explain “no, it’s because I’m dying” several times), or for some other reason that wasn’t something to celebrate.

      I almost made that connection in the post but decided it was a bit long-winded, but apparently my long-windedness was just reserved for the comment section. =)

  2. margeaux says:

    If she said ” oh I thought so” would that have been better? Cuz lots of times people can tell. I don’t care one way or another, but usually I don’t actually say anything.

    • No, I don’t think it would have been better – I don’t think either option is a polite response when a trans person comes out to you. This isn’t a case where choosing the less-rude response would really win someone any points.
      I am skeptical of people’s ability to “tell” who’s trans and who isn’t; any sort of list of supposed trans signifiers is going to overlap with attributes displayed by cis folks as well, and usually just winds up being another form of creepy gender-policing.

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