No Secret Handshake

I was BARTing to Berkeley earlier this week when it happened again – two women came onto the car with me and sat nearby, and whatever part of my brain processes these things* said “hey, maybe this woman is trans.” When I see people I read as trans I always have the strong urge to make myself known to them, to send some signal that says “Hello! I support you! I’m part of your community” but of course that’s a really complicated issue. I’ve had conversations about this with other people, cis and trans alike, who’ve wondered if there’s some sort of trans “secret handshake” that either exists or could be created, but I think  that outside of some very special circumstances (which would kind of have to be agreed on beforehand which removes the need for secrecy at all), there’s no way to do this without violating someone’s privacy, outing them, ruining their day, and/or endangering their personal safety.

I want to be visible to other trans people; this is a struggle for me at the moment because after years of not knowing how anyone would view my gender on any given day and struggling to get people around me to respect my pronouns… that part of my life seems to be over, for the most part. Very few people seem unsure about my gender and while it’s a relief in many ways, it also makes me feel invisible as a trans person in many situations and I’m not always comfortable with that. Part of my desire to reach out to other trans people comes from a desire to make myself known, and while I think that’s a valid feeling, if reaching out makes me feel better for a moment but causes problems for the other person, that’s no good. I don’t want to make the interaction all about me at the expense of someone else’s feelings or comfort.

Not every trans person wants to be recognized as such, or wants that recognition in every context. Plenty of folks want to be read as cisgendered, or would like as little attention, positive or negative, in public as possible. Trying to go against that is rude at best, and when you don’t know someone there’s no way to know what they’re comfortable with.

Depending on the circumstances, even people who are happy to be out may not want to think that a stranger instantly noticed that they were trans… as much as I put on the face of “trans ambassador” during my first few years of physical transition, there were days when I felt particularly fragile and might have been frustrated if someone had come up and said “hey, I think you’re a trans guy! Hello!” to me. One time… someone actually thought I was a trans woman and that wasn’t very pleasant for me, to say the least. I’d hate to make that mistake with someone. My comfort with being outed or known as a trans person can vary by situation; in general I’m happy for folks to know my history but at my last job, for example, I never did come out to my bosses or co-workers. Some customers even knew based on the same sort of mysterious trans-vibes I pick up from other people, I suppose, but even then we just kind of danced around the issue and talked about Trans March and the TEEI in conversation and rarely addressed it directly.

It’s also a major safety issue: not everyone who’s trans is out to other people, or out to everyone else in their life. Nonconsensually outing trans folks is a terrible idea because it can impact their personal safety/job security/etc. in a huge way. Plenty of terrifying assholes want to do serious harm to trans people, as we saw in my last post. And I think it’s always important to remember that it’s never okay to out another trans person unless that person’s told you that it’s all right to do so. And even then, I’d be careful! I’ve met people who know my history when I haven’t disclosed it to them, and in most circumstances that’s been really awkward. There are exceptions, sure, but I think “don’t disclose on someone else’s behalf” is a very useful ground rule to have in place.

So back to the women on BART: I did what has become my default response in situations like this and just tried to smile at them when they looked at me. Not a creepy-dude smile (I am so fucking paranoid about being seen as a creepy/intimidating guy now that pretty much everyone reads me as a man, but popular opinion seems to be that I remain thoroughly non-creepy), just a friendly one. And if people understand my message, which is “hey I’m trans! maybe you are too, rock the fuck on” that’s great, and otherwise I’m a friendly face, at least.

* Sometimes I wrestle with this. I worry that the cues I read that can add up to “possible trans person ahoy!” are just me buying into stereotypes. I am pretty sure that my trans-dar is calibrated oddly and I am wondering about many many more people than are actually trans, and maybe this makes it less problematic, but I still feel odd about it at times. I’d love to hear thoughts on this if anyone has some.
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