How Do I Define My Gender if No One Is Watching Me?

Without a public eye, who are we?,

Credit…Laura Peretti


How Do I Define My Gender if No One Is Watching Me?

Without a public eye, who are we?

Credit…Laura Peretti

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When the world went into lockdown five months after I started taking testosterone, I thought it would be easier not to see people for a while. Maybe they wouldn’t hear my voice go scratchy or see up close the hormonal acne splattered across my face. Alone in my apartment, I imagined that all my difficulties in being seen and recognized as transgender-nonbinary would evaporate. No one would gender me except myself; my pronouns would be right there in the text box on my Zoom screen.

So I was surprised by how much my gender instead seemed to almost evaporate. No longer on the alert for how to signal a restaurant’s waitstaff that neither “he” nor “she” applied to me, or for whether colleagues and neighbors would use the right language — devoid of anyone to signal my gender to — I felt, suddenly, amorphous and undefined. It was as though when I had swapped my Oxford shoes and neckties for fuzzy slippers and soft sweatpants, I, too, had lost my sharply tailored definition.

After I podded with two trans friends, the only people I saw from closer than six feet were also nonbinary, neither men nor women. Among us, not only the once ubiquitous binary, but also any gender expectations, had vanished.

Where did my own gender reside, then, if not in sending signals of difference? My friends and I had long joked, “Gender is a social construct!” every time one of us needed shoring up after a messy encounter with the expectations of the gender-conforming heterosexual world. But without that world, we now added a rueful punchline: “Too bad there’s no more ‘social’!”

I would have imagined this new expansiveness would be freeing. Instead, it was at first disorienting. With the gender binary all but gone, what did it mean to be nonbinary? How do I define my gender when I — accustomed to how visible my gender usually makes me — am no longer being watched?

Wanting to understand how others were adjusting to the pandemic change, I reached out to Rebecca Minor, a licensed clinical social worker who works with trans youth. “What’s really struck me,” she told me, “is that removing the peer gaze has allowed for more gender experimentation.”

Ms. Minor is in private practice and estimates that 85 percent of her clients are transgender. She works with teenagers, who are at an age when they spend endless hours watching and being watched. Thanks to Zoom school, she told me, “the peer gaze isn’t entirely gone” — but now it can be controlled. “It removes that feeling that someone sitting in the row behind me might be snickering or looking at what I’m wearing,” she said. It removes, in other words, the policing of gender.

To be sure, Ms. Minor’s clients, who are predominantly white, have resources that have protected them in the pandemic. They have supportive families, health care and economic stability. I, too, am white and thus privileged. Like them, I live in the liberal Northeast. For them, as for me, the time at home has been something of a reprieve.

Ms. Minor told me about the change in one client, a young, white, trans girl who had been struggling in school both socially and academically before the pandemic. “What we’re seeing is someone who finally isn’t having all of their space in their head taken up by worrying about their safety, worrying about other people’s perceptions of them,” Ms. Minor said. In her place was now a star student who had been missing.

A similarly liberating shift happened for Tygra Slarii, a 29-year-old Black performer at a Minneapolis bar, The Saloon. Before the pandemic, Mx. Slarii came out as a woman and had gender-affirming breast augmentation. “That’s what it seemed like everyone was pushing for me to do,” Mx. Slarii said, because people kept asking: “So when are you going to have the surgery? When are you going to get your boobs?”

When Minnesota issued shelter-in-place orders, the extended pause gave Mx. Slarii time to question, and explore the complexity of, gender — and come out again, this time as nonbinary. “My body isn’t a tool for marketing my transition anymore,” Mx. Slarii told me. “I don’t think cis people understand how much their input weighs down on trans people, especially when it comes to transitioning.”

When, during the pandemic, Mx. Slarii pursued a second gender-affirming surgery, a Brazilian butt lift, it was an entirely different emotional experience. This time, the surgery was no longer a means of selling a narrative to be believed and seen; now Mx. Slarii’s body was simply their own.

That said, in recent months, trans youth have been under terrifying legislative attack. And as a group, trans people have been hit hard by the pandemic. In January, researchers at Columbia found that many lost access to gender-affirming health care. The pandemic has exacerbated social inequality and injustice across the board; 16.8 percent of trans respondents reported job loss. It is a population already economically and socially marginalized.

Each time another devastating statistic about trans pain emerges, I remember that trans pain is not the birthright of trans people, but it is foisted on us by a world that perennially refuses to let us define ourselves for ourselves and that too often cares about our visibility only as spectacle, not as recognition. Even we ourselves are not immune from this influence. We all internalize the narratives we grow up with.

So let’s also talk about joy. When the world reopens, I suspect that I will be perceived differently — my voice, now lower, will send different signals than it once did; my face now changed by hormones will be seen anew. I have been transformed by this time alone, in which I have had to shore up who I am without the gaze of others defining it for me.

We have all had to find our own paths over this year; we all learned more about ourselves. And have had to ask: Who are we, when no one is looking? Who are we, without what once both held us back and held us up? Whom do we wish to be?

I asked both Ms. Minor and Mx. Slarii what they hope we carry forward as a society from this pandemic time, and to my surprise they gave the same answer. What they wish for on this year’s International Day of Transgender Visibility is us to be able to see one another, and ourselves, with a more compassionate and nuanced eye. Not as what society tells us we must be, but as who we are.

To do that, I think, would be to truly emerge into a world made new.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, an assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College, is the author of “The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir” and the forthcoming “Both and Neither.”

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