Over the past few weeks I’ve had a number of discussions about what it means to be invisible. Many people who don’t fit societal norms do so in ways that are not visible. For those with certain diseases they are often assumed to be ‘faking’ their illness or disability. Many people automatically assume that they are being lazy or otherwise trying to leech off of society. For those of us who fall under the overall umbrella of LGBTQ* we are often invisible in other ways.
Someone who is bisexual is assumed to be straight if they have an opposite gender partner.
If a woman does not look like a stereotypical dyke it is assumed that they are straight.
A Trans* person who has passing privilege is automatically assumed to be a man or woman depending on their own presentation.
Some would see this as desirable, fitting in so perfectly with wider society. Being seen as ‘normal’. Being able to ‘pass’. Yes, for me ‘passing’ is somewhat important, but that is in part a by-product of being femme, or as my mum puts it, “a girly-girl”, when we’re joking about these topics. (I would point out that how I present, femme, butch or whatever variation wouldn’t matter to my mum.) This also means that I am mostly invisible, I am a woman and people don’t realize that I’m also trans. They don’t realize that I’m a lesbian. What does this mean on a practical level?
In terms of passing it means that if someone is using the wrong pronoun they are, in all probability doing it deliberately. They are being, as Natalie Reed coined, being a grue. They are being hurtful and insulting, intent doesn’t come in to play in 99% of cases. Often it is an internalized reaction. They have difficulty at a very fundamental level with the concept that one might be assigned one sex and gender at birth and later in life transition to the other, or present as one or the other depending on very personal circumstances.
Social invisibility also impacts in how we interact with people. When one is not obviously lesbian or not obviously trans* people will say things that, in all probability, they would self censor if they knew that one was a lesbian or trans*. This also applies, as I mentioned above to those who are bisexual. There is an automatic assumption that we fit the heteronormative aspects of society. This means that we are subject to hearing rather hateful comments about those who are lesbian or trans*. I have had a number of experiences where people are talking about gays, lesbians, trans* people in quite nasty ways not realizing that I fell into two of those categories. That said, I have also had a couple of pleasant surprised when people around me were talking about how it was not a problem that a woman who had transitioned had one a membership to a women only fitness centre.
Overall, this shows just how far we still have to go. Yes we are not a large percentage of the population, but not an insignificant number. One study, published in 2001 and updated in 2002 by Lynn Conway, estimates that there are 1 in 500 male to female transsexuals. Add in female to male transsexuals and those who do not want to transition and the absolute number grows significantly. What does this mean? Most people who fall under the general trans* umbrella are likely invisible.
Thinking of these people who are invisible, what happens when they are exposed to situations where deeply embedded attitudes towards gender and gender roles are highlighted? One example of this would be a situation in which people are asked to role play a situation or historical setting. In these situations men may asked to put themselves in the place of women and visa versa. What happens? Most often that men would take on the role of women in this situation is seen as humorous, as a joke. When the opposite happens, women taking on the role of men, it’s not considered funny, on the contrary, it’s seen as perfectly acceptable. This sends a message to anyone participating or observing that falls under the male to female spectrum that they are a joke. That they are not to be taken seriously.
For many of us who have transitioned, are transitioning, or at any point leading up to transitioning from male to female these constant messages can be quite damaging. The message is that if you transition you will be treated as a joke, not to be valued. Constantly hearing these jokes in media, on television, in print, from friends and elsewhere is one factor that can wear down those who are trans*. It can be the comment that is heard at just the wrong moment and becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back and the person hearing it snaps because they can take no more. It can be the event that leads one to think that enough is enough and that they don’t have the strength to continue with life.
It is up to all of us, regardless of whether we are cis or trans to be conscious of what we are saying. Conscious of the underlying assumptions and stereotypes. Being aware and not perpetuating these attitudes could save a life.