Expect Problems

A transition blog.

I've been thinking about the complicated nature of relationships. And for a moment forget the "relationship = partner / girlfriend / boyfriend" thing. I mean relationships as in the way to define how we relate to anyone we're aware of. We have 'relationships' with everyone from our local cafe's barista to our parents to our sexual partners.

There are unspoken boundaries in all relationships. (Well, if you're lucky, they're clearly spoken and defined - but in most relationships we'll ever have they're definitely unspoken.)

We usually don't recognise them formally until someone crosses a line, and even then it may make us pause and go, "Hey, uh... is this weird?" to a friend. "Am I over-reacting?"

This wasn't a thing that happened often at ALL before I transitioned. It was very rare I saw men talking with other men about the appropriateness of something they had experienced.

I sometimes saw men discussing, "Hey, would it be weird if I said [x] to [female friend]?", but I now realise more often than not men tend to ask female friends this.

Those are the good men, I guess. But it's interesting that it's almost THAT way for men - asking if a specific action is okay.

For women, it's the other way - if we're "right" to find somebody else's behaviour uncomfortable.

The number of times I've had female friends post in safe spaces, or ask in small women-only groups, "Hey, uhm... can I check something with you? Something happened the other day..." is pretty big.

The other month a pizza delivery guy I'd seen once or twice arrived, and when I came out to get the pizza he looked me up and down and said, "You're looking really good tonight."

That was it.

I paused just a moment to process what he'd said then, "Thank you."

Another time, I went in to my local cafe and the manager/barista smiled as usual. "Hi, Elissa. How're you this morning?"

I hadn't told him my name.

He had learned it, as it turned out, when my housemate came in and somehow that came up in conversation, that he was "Elissa's housemate". Connections were made from there. "The redhead that always comes in here."

If you're a cis guy, I suspect these two tiny anecdotes sound like nothing.

But each one made me slightly uncomfortable, despite that in isolation and without the context of body language and situation neither one was overtly unpleasant. This wasn't abuse or catcalling or something very clearly about social power over someone.

Each time, I asked my girlfriends, "Hey, uh... so, am I overreacting? Because this thing that happened made me uncomfortable."

The thing is, the answer to all these is always "your feelings are valid".

As I thought more about it, here's what the outcomes of those two anecdotes were:

The pizza guy knows where I live. He'd been there maybe 2 times before. Not enough for me to be a regular, or enough to be social with me. But just enough that what he said, the tone of it, the precise wording, him staring me up and down and judging what I look like... it made me uncomfortable.

I haven't ordered from that place since.

My barista, I realised, I would gladly tell my name to. He never asks things outside the usual "waiting for him to make my coffee" smalltalk, and has never made even slightly inappropriate or sexual comments. Not even simple compliments.

So I still go there, and he still greets me by name - which I now find quite comfortable.

The thing is this: the actions of these two men are not, in themselves, creepy. What gave me pause in each case were specific aspects of their context, and my relationships with the people. Boundaries they crossed.

Often, it's hard to tell where these lines exist, and even now I second-guess what was clearly not intended to be anything other than a nice compliment from the pizza guy.

I am not saying that my feelings and my decisions in each case were somehow 'right', either. There's no 'right' or 'wrong' in a clear sense - just "do I feel comfortable continuing to interact with this person, or not?"

Depending on your relationship, this may be something you can simply raise with the person (friends taking liberties re: hugging or touching or talking about your body is a common thing here), or it may, as in the case of the pizza guy for me, be something where the only real choice is to stop ordering from that same place.

And the latter isn't always an option.


Power dynamics are a factor in all relationships. It isn't simply a male/female thing, either, but that's primarily the lens through which I'm discussing it, and the aspect of relationships I tend to notice most clearly, being that my gender presentation and the way people react to me has so clearly changed in the past few years.

Years ago, I read some advice for men that made sense. But now, being in that situation where instead of applying to me it affects me in the inverse way, it makes even more sense:

The advice was, essentially, this: let the person in the least powerful position take the lead. Always. Not sure if she would be okay with you hugging her? Wait until she does. It may seem easier to ask, and maybe that's fine, but essentially, you can't go wrong by just following her lead.

There are a ton of other little guidelines I'm sure that could be raised, but that one makes more sense to me than ever before, and is, generally, the one I'd probably dish out the quickest when men ask me about their interactions with another woman.

It'll be useful if more people do this, of course, but in the interim... I'm sure there'll be many, many more "can I run this by you?" conversations in the future, either by me or with me.

Every trans person had their own ways of coping before they transition. Some have "always" shown behaviour somewhat reflective of their true gender identity. I, on the other hand, got so mercilessly mocked as a child for any perceived non-masculine behaviour that in most situations lived by a rote-learned set of "masculine" behaviours - in retrospect rather superficial, almost toxic ones.

What this has meant is that the process of transitioning has meant jettisoning a lot of that behaviour. Which began to happen fairly quickly. It was wonderfully liberating to just... drop it. To act in a way that comes naturally, and to have people read it as "feminine" is more interesting than anything else. As much as anything else, I suspect a good chunk of that is that they're just auto-coding my behaviour as feminine because it's neither distinctly masculine nor feminine - but they see me as a woman.

Unsure about someone's behaviour? We tend to think of it as related to their gender, even if it absolutely isn't (and even if it "is", our concepts of gender are mostly social constructs, anyway - even though constructs can be as real as tangible things).

However, there's a flip-side to this for me: being fearful of ANY of my behaviour being or seeming "masculine".

I spent so long afraid of "seeming non-masculine", only to volte-face and be terrified of seeming masculine. Part of this was definitely a defence mechanism: I was scared of what'd happen if people gendered me wrong or clocked me as trans. All it takes is one or two horrible experience to make that a built in fear, even for those of us lucky enough to largely avoid those transphobic experiences.

But another part is just having so much baggage from when I was trying desperately to "be a man".

It's been a huge part of my life in the 20+ months I've been transitioning. And lately, I've begun to notice it shifting.

As I become comfortable just being me in a very true sense, I become less scared that certain mannerisms or interests or behaviours will be taken as 'masculine'. Because none of us are 'perfectly masculine' or 'perfectly feminine', no matter how strongly you identify as one of the binary gender descriptors.

It's nice to feel I'm hitting this point, because it affects everything. So many things, be they sexual, social, vocal or anything else, we fear are coded in a gendered way that doesn't "fit us", and in a perfect world that'd bother nobody.

This isn't a statement on gender identity, either - while I do identify strongly as female rather than a non-binary identifier, I am also sure that having serious conversations about not judging people for "gendered" behaviour that doesn't fit our assumptions of them is one that must be had.

For many of us, a binary gender is empowering and comfortable.

That doesn't mean we have to bow down to dangerously loaded concepts of how we "should" act as women, or men.

I guess I've known this for years, but it's nice to slowly build up the comfort to genuinely not care, as much of our coded gender behaviour is toxic.

Every time I found myself keeping quiet in groups, I realised on some subconscious level I had been internalising sexist ideas of 'women should be seen and not heard'. If men spoke over me, they had a reason.

And when men keep quiet, don't cry, don't admit they're hurting... same thing.

Gender assumptions can be toxic, and a dangerous thing for me transitioning has been how easy it has been for me accidentally take onboard anything I perceived as "feminine", even if it's something coded as such just to subdue and diminish us.

It's going to take me longer to fully excise this subconscious thinking, and it may never fully happen, but it's nice to see progress.

My own social anxiety never made much sense to me. It was so specific and so seemingly-random (pro-tip: it wasn't random; it was when I was treated in a gendered way or segregated from others in a gendered way) that I began to dismiss it.

Years ago I described it, and the stress I often felt, to a GP. I was told, it "didn't sound like anxiety or depression". I mean, she was right, but it didn't help much at the time.

Early on in my transition I used to tell people that my dysphoria was mostly physical. Because that's how I saw it. And while it is in large part due to my body being something I was so uncomfortable with, it's increasingly apparent the effects it had on my ability to be social.

There are so many things that were, I felt, "just me - just things I'm nervous about". Over time, though, as I transition and begin being treated in a way that seems natural, it's been amazing and delightful for me how many of these go away.

To get an idea of what I'm talking about, just the act of walking into a bar and ordering a drink used to make me incredibly uncomfortable.

Same with baristas or wait-staff at cafes.

Any situation where I had to talk to shop attendants? Yeah, no.

In fact it occurs to me that the irony of it was my dysphoria meant that I often steadfastly refused to talk to a shop attendant, wasting time while my girlfriend got understandably upset at how much faster it'd be to just ask. I ended up engaging in some cliched masculine behaviour, for entirely the opposite reasons.

These days, it's amazing to me how much more confident I am socially. That just walking up and talking to someone if I need help with something is now so incredibly easy for me.

I still get the odd twinge of nerves, but it's dropping away so fast it's amazing.

It's as if a constant stress has begun to lift from my life.

It became apparent to me the other day, as I sat nervously in a bar waiting for a woman I hadn't met in person before, that being "nervous at a bar" was actually a rare thing now. That were it not for the specific situation I was in, I'd be quite comfortable there.

So while some of my privileges have sure slipped away as I transition, my ability to enjoy and make use of the freedoms I have in the world are better than ever - and it's the most lovely feeling I've had in a long while.

One of the interesting discussions I've had over drinks with lots of other trans people is the one that begins this way: "I have no idea how I didn't figure it out earlier." (Being trans, that is.)

I mean, in practice it's not surprising many of us took a while to figure it out. Media and lack of education about trans issues didn't help there. But despite that, it's, to me, morbidly funny how many things from my past seem like enormous glaring sirens screaming, "YO, YOU'RE NOT A GUY!"

It's usually a fascinating discussion - we run over the usual list of "signs". A lot of them I definitely had - I mention quite a few here.

It was the ones I didn't have that I began to focus on. I was desperate to "not be trans" that I latched onto everything that "wasn't me."

Now, in retrospect, when I talk to other trans femme people, so many of these things seem like something I could relate to, even if I didn't specifically have the experiences they're talking about.

So, here're two lists: the first is a slightly less verbose list of things, some from the above link, that I did experience... and a few that I didn't.

These aren't intended to be some definitive list of... anything. Instead my point is just that many of these, whether subconscious coping mechanisms, explicit results of dysphoria or whatever else did not and do not definitively "prove" gender dysphoria, being trans, etc. It's enough that in retrospect I realise I was in a desperate state of denial, but we all experience these differently, if at all.

So, firstly, A List Of Things I Felt or Did:

  • I felt deeply uncomfortable in my own body, to a very small extent before puberty, and a very large extent once puberty began its damage to me. The discomfort followed me everywhere. Almost nobody ever saw me naked.
  • I felt a sense of discomfort when I was in a gendered environment. Any time we were segregated by gender in school, I couldn't shake this feeling that I was in the wrong place. Every time I went into a gendered bathroom, the sense that I was going to be 'caught out' and made fun of for being there was constant. Every time I walked into a men's room and a guy at the urinal glanced up at me, I had to fight blushing and discomfort.
  • I couldn't dance. I mean, my brain refused to let me do it. I got uncomfortable dancing in front of anyone. It took me until I was 27 and very, very drunk to dance with friends. And even then I did it maybe 3 more times in the following five years. I think the reason is the sense of much of dancing was gendered, even if it wasn't. That my body wasn't the shape that I associated with 'dancing'. I even used to vocalise it in that way, "If I was a woman, I'd dance. But it feels wrong with a male body." I said those precise words.
  • A whole different level of discomfort happened when I had to use my body in an explicitly "male" way. Sex was incredibly tough as it felt fundamentally wrong, no matter how attracted I was to my partner. I was so uncomfortable peeing standing up that I didn't do it often for many years, and didn't do it at all in public bathrooms until I was about 30 - and even then only if I was drunk and nobody else was in the bathroom with me when I began.
  • When my male friends asked me for relationship advice, advice relating to women, or something of that sort, I would get deeply uncomfortable. Like something about the question was wrong, or the context was wrong. I found relating to men in relationships with women was very, very tough.
  • This extended so far as to be the same in romance / romcom movies. (I wrote about that in a bit of detail here.) In short: I couldn't relate to the women, because either I wasn't trying to (or trying not to) or I was therefore trying to imagine myself with a guy, and for most of my adult life I didn't accept any attraction I did have to men. I couldn't relate to the men, despite trying, because... I just couldn't. It felt weird, but I kept trying.
  • I had enormous difficulty relating to male protagonists in media I enjoyed, unless they were incredibly a-sexual and androgynous; by contrast I found that I felt empathy much faster for intelligent, nerdy female protagonists. At the time, I wrote this off as me crushing on them.
  • I wore mostly androgynous clothing, of the sort my slightly-tomboyish friends would wear. Any time things got too masculine - suits, jackets, ties, etc - I found myself deeply uncomfortable. I avoided all situations involving such attire - black tie events, weddings, job interviews, etc.
  • I got along better with women than men. Very few of my close friends were male. Since transitioning, I've become closer to several men - so I think it was less "not liking men", and that I was trying to relate to them in a way that I found very tough.
  • I almost exclusively played as women in video games.
  • My interest in masculine stories tended to be ones where men related to men. It was something I had to do with some frequency, and I was training myself how to do it, almost by rote, watching other men - real or on screens. In retrospect, I was a terrible "man" - because all my behaviours were mimicked rather than natural. Some of my behaviour now could, of course, be read as masculine-coded. Nothing's as simple as "man vs woman". But that behaviour is now just things that are "me", which people can read however they like.
  • I could never imagine myself having kids. As I got older I began to realise that this wasn't true - I just couldn't imagine myself as a father. Once I transitioned and began to realise that I'd be a mother, suddenly the proposition of being a parent became a lot less impossible - I had gendered parenting (or, society had) to the extent that it felt like something that was never for me. Now, it's not something I'd entirely rule out.
  • Related to the above, I had a strange affinity for pregnancy. I wrote it off as a fetish, but it was always the idea of being pregnant; not being with a pregnant woman per se. It's... it's gotten worse since HRT. Which is frustrating.
  • I fixated on ideas of what things might feel like "as a woman". Not always sexual - some were sensual or every-day things. I wondered what hugging another woman would feel like, for instance. (In response to past-me's curiosity, squishy boob hugs are the best. Sorry you won't get to experience that for a long while yet...)
  • I (almost) exclusively enjoyed erotica that was written from a female point of view, and almost entirely lesbian. I never got into visual porn, as most of the 'lesbian' porn that I thought I'd like felt very false - and in retrospect, it was; it was staged for men.
  • The only exception to the above point was when erotica was about a guy going through forced feminisation. Now THIS one comes up a lot as a common theme amongst trans femme folk. It wasn't that the act of being forcibly turned into a woman was itself appealing, so much as that I couldn't accept that I was trans, so the only way I could imagine fixing my body problems was if somebody forced it on me. My interest in this has lessened enormously now I've transitioned.

And now, the next list - a list of things other trans femme people did or experienced that I never did:

  • [What I would have thought was] cross-dressing. Now, I did try this several times. The idea of wearing "women's clothing" appealed to me, but it felt wrong. I put on a dress with my narrow, boyish body and all I saw was a man in drag. There's nothing wrong with that, but... it wasn't me. It did nothing to assuage my body issues. In fact, it accentuated them. It took until nearly a year into HRT, with my body having become quite curvy, before I began to wear dresses with any frequency.
  • Disassociation. For many trans people, disassociation, whether mild or severe, is a coping mechanism adopted. It lets us have sex - I've heard several trans people describe simply 'detaching themselves from their bodies' by intent, or even imagining themselves as their partner, not them. But not for me. My lack of disassociation is neither a good thing nor a bad thing - it's just something my brain never did, for better and for worse.
  • Showed feminine mannerisms. I wasn't "camp", "girly" or however else people might describe it. As a child I was deeply emotional, but many people are regardless of gender. As I got older, I mimicked masculine stoicism, hoping it'd make me feel more comfortable. It never did. So the me of 5+ years ago would have read as a very emotionally detached, grumpy, bitter young man, rarely showing his feelings or admitting to any aspects of his sexuality.
  • A sense of detachment from my emotions. Many other trans people I've spoken to mentioned this to me. But as I've said, I was always deeply emotional, and when I was really close friends with someone (usually another woman) I was comfortable showing it. I rarely was, but I was still that highly emotional person, and those emotions always felt very much a part of me. Nonetheless, those emotions were there. The cold behaviour I showed wasn't me detaching from my sense of self; it was an act. When I cry, hug, get excited, squeal, coo over cute things now? That's just me. It's always been me. It may SLIGHTLY have changed a bit through hormone therapy, but mostly? It's just me feeling comfortable expressing myself. (Side-note: the only emotion I hated was anger. When I got irrationally angry, which I think I saw as a masculine-coded emotion... I felt deeply ashamed and hateful of my own brain.)

I'm sure I've forgotten some (maybe I'll update this later?) but these are the big ones. As you can see, there were a LOT of common "trans things" on my "yes" list and far fewer on my "no" list.

But the variation on these when I talk to other trans people is huge. Many people I know are, to use a phrase one of them used, "trans as fuck", and yet still barely had more than a few of the "signs" on my big-arse "yes" list.

When I was trying to make excuses for myself and I began to suspect I MIGHT be trans, it was this last set that I fixated on. "I can't be trans because I don't like wearing women's clothing", etc, etc.

Oh, poor past-me. You were so desperate to avoid making a hard choice.

Just do it. It'll be the best thing you'll ever do.

CW: Public attention from creepy dudes.

Most of my transition blog posts have been either general observations about an aspect of transitioning, or specific discussions of experiences I've had. This is... half way between the two. I'm going to describe it as if it was a specific, distinct event, but what I'll be doing is fictionalising something which has happened to me in some variation a small handful of times in the past year.

But first, for context I need to mention three things: I have a very mid-range voice. It's not very deep - so much so that during my pre-transition years I trained myself to lower my voice, out of fear I wouldn't seem "manly" enough (the irony of which once I accepted being trans hit me like a freight train). However, my voice isn't very high-pitched, either. So for a woman, my voice is... a little deep. Not enough that I wanted to do vocal 'training' to sound more like some person's idea of what a cis woman sounds like (in reality, cis women have hugely varied voices - many deeper and more resonant than mine - who knew?), but enough that I occasionally get self-conscious about my own voice.

Then there's my body.

I look feminine. A little tall, and "more tits than arse", but I have a fair degree of cis-passing privilege. This is, to be clear, a very good thing - at least from a personal safety standpoint. I get gendered correctly and rarely suffer much transphobia from strangers.

One final note before I begin the story: this is not something 100% unique to trans women. It's a little different, but very similar to stories I've heard my cis friends tell. Thing is (and this may surprise you if you're a cis dude) the core of this story is something that happens with enough uncomfortable frequency, in some form, that it's unlikely to be a thing your female friends will have told you about unless the subject came up. It can become not so much 'normal' as an occurrence that gets at least partly forgotten fairly quickly after it's over. It doesn't happen to everyone, either, but sometimes you're just unlucky and incidents like it happens a few times in a week.

You're walking down the street, minding your own business. You're not late for something, but still trying to walk with purpose. You look forwards and, if you ran into a friend, you'd probably get told you had a solid "don't fuck with me" or "resting bitch face" going on. One you've practiced, consciously or not, for a long time.

Then you hear his voice. "Hey, baby."

At first, you keep walking and hope he's talking to someone else. But no. He calls out again, "Hey, you with the [insert identifying characteristic here]!"

You keep walking, but out of the corner of your eye you can see him approach, and even if you're kinda used to it, your heart probably picks up a bit.

He walks up beside you. "Hey stop, I just want to talk."

You ignore him. You say nothing.

He is in your peripheral vision, walking along side you while trying to make eye contact. You refuse to do so.

Then his line of questioning gets more intense.

"Hey, stop walking, I just wanted to say you look cute," he might say. Or perhaps he thinks he's Not Being Creepy, and his line might be, "You look really interesting". Or even neg you. "You're kinda hot for a chubby chick." A back-handed compliment intended to make you even more off-balance.

You begin to walk a little faster.

"Hey, what's the matter? Slow down, babe."

Or, if you have headphones in (yes, this even happens with headphones in), "Hey, stop your music for just a sec - I wanna say something."

You think about where you're going. Without visibly reacting too much, you try to take stock of where you are. How close are you to your destination? Is the destination somewhere you'll instantly be safe? A friend's place? Is it one you MAY be safe, if he decides not to pursue you into earshot of others? A bar? A supermarket? Or is it somewhere he might just stay and talk to you, like a nearly-empty train platform you'll be waiting on for five minutes or so?

He repeats himself, this time sounding a bit more intense.

Then, finally, he escalates. He reaches out to put a hand on your shoulder.

This is where the story diverges a bit, if you're trans. Or, more specifically, if you're me. I know trans people who, when they hear this story, fully agree. Others less so. But either way, here's the thing:

The "you" in this story didn't respond. Didn't tell him to go away. To leave you alone. To fuck off. (Though, for the reference, saying this is like responding politely to a spam email - it rarely does more than qualify as engagement, and a reason to continue talking at you.)

"You" didn't respond... because once it's clear he isn't going to leave you alone, you worry what his response will be if he begins to suspect you're trans. He won't be hitting on you then. Will he scream the T word in your face and leave? Worse? What if, in this variation of the story, his friends are across the street, watching with amusement as this unfolds?

Or what if he's already clocked you're trans, and he's just fucking with you, waiting for a chance to say something abusive?

These things are all going through your head, and the whole time your heart is racing faster and you're asking yourself: will things be better or worse if I talk? What if I'm polite? What if I'm terse? What if I'm rude?

If you're very lucky, you never get to find out. After what seems like an eternity he'll say, "Fuck you bitch, I just wanted to talk!" or maybe "Fuckin' bitch! I just gave you a fuckin' compliment!"

Or maybe not. Maybe you'll be walking down the stairs onto a station platform with this guy following you.

But that stress - "Do I talk or not?" is made so much more intense when you fear, however irrationally, that somehow just talking, even a few words, will give you away.

For many of us, even if we haven't been misgendered or clocked as trans based on our voice for years, this kind of thing sticks with us. We are literally silenced by our own fears.

This event I'm describing? It doesn't "need" to happen often. Once or twice to this extent is enough. Enough that when you hear that initial, "Hey, baby" or similar being called from behind you, across the street, or from some dude standing half in your way with a sleazy grin on his face, your heart picks up and you pre-emptively begin to go over all the things I mentioned - where you are, where you're going, if he's alone...

These incidents make even otherwise-comfortable situations suddenly nerves-inducing at best, scary at worst. Once I heard someone calling out at me and approaching from behind, and I all but panicked before realising it was a friend who was running up in excitement to say hi.

When you ask for advice from other women, the most common response is... "you get used to it."

They're talking about the first part of the experience, of course, not the trans-specific fears that go with it, but that doesn't make it any better. I doubt it's much less scary and gross and uncomfortable for cis women than it is for me. This is something which we tell ourselves to just suck up and take. To get used to.

There's no training to deal with this, cis or not. Nor should there have to be. The practical part of my brain thinks that some useful tips of the psychology of dealing with Creepy Dudes Who Think You're Fuckable would be a useful thing for someone to write. But the idealistic part of me would rather, instead, that men are taught to respect personal space.

It'd be a huge shift, though. Trust me, I know - I spent my teen years feeling deeply uncomfortable as I was pressured to be assertive. Be strong. Be sexually forward. Mocked for the slightest "non-masculine" behaviour at a shitty public school. I've seen the social environment put that means certain boys grow up to be That Guy Who Won't Take No. I was there, and now I'm seeing the effects. I reckon I could even tell you, retrospectively and with reasonable accuracy, which of the dudes I grew up around have done this to other women - and genuinely thought they weren't doing anything creepy or wrong.

Because before anyone calls out, "Not All Men", no SHIT not all men. But it doesn't take ALL men. Just that one dude, out of literally thousands you pass every day in a major city like mine, is enough. That one incident happens, and it may not happen again for months, years - or even never - but you begin to look for it. It affects how you walk. How you behave in public. Where you choose to walk.

It feeds into other parts of your life, too.

You may wake up, like me this morning, having just had this precise incident play out in a dream, leaving you unsettled right from the beginning of your day.

When I go out for coffee today, I'm going to be thinking about that. Paying just a little more attention than usual to who I can see on the street and what his body language says, despite the fact that in all probability I will be ignored entirely by everyone but those I directly address.

Those small handful of creeps? Their behaviour has fucked up my Monday, a full few months after the last of them tried to "hit on me" in public.