Sitting ten feet from me in this little Obz café is a very brave person. She types on her MacBook, sips her tea, and occasionally stares absent-mindedly out the window. Thankfully she’s not noticed yet, but I can’t stop glancing at her. She’s tall, slender, and suavely dressed, but what catches my eye is the way she carries herself with an air of impenetrable dignity – a characteristic I find both envy-worthy and inspiring. She’s transgender, and she’s not passing.
This woman is inhabiting what I term the “F*** You Space”.
I realise that remark begs for clarification, so allow me to offer some. She visibly inhabits that ‘space in between’. You know what I mean – the grey area where you’re neither one nor the other, according to social constructs of gender and sex. That space, which is commonly referred to as ‘ambiguity’ or ‘androgyny’, is often highly problematic for not only the participant but the observer as well. How often have you yourself turned your head without second thought at a passer-by because you couldn’t determine their sex? Ambiguity trumps most, if not just about all, of us. Even I find myself inadvertently staring at strangers, searching for clues as to which box I can put them in: “A butch woman? Or just an effeminate guy?” But, whilst nearly all do it, hardly anyone questions the reasons for doing it. It is, without a doubt, a distinctive challenge to allow a sexually ambiguous individual within our perceptual sphere without trying to decipher their sex.
What few realise (including myself until I studied it) is that it’s all a power play. The need to understand someone’s identity – be it their sex, race, economic standing, nationality, what have you – draws from a power hierarchy to which we’ve become highly accustomed. In order to know how we must interact with a particular individual, we must place them in the social pecking order. We’ve all noticed how our experience with someone, perhaps more so someone we’ve just met, changes dramatically once we find out that, for example, despite their ragged clothing, they’ve actually got a Ph.D. in physics and work at a prestigious university. Or perhaps, to quote the experience of one of my close friends, the fear that subsides once you realise the hoodie-donning Black guy approaching you on the pavement is actually a foreign exchange student who need directions. We’re conditioned to gauge our reactions according to what we ‘know’ about others, and as all this knowledge is drawn from stereotypes, it makes our responses as dubious and potentially empty as the supposed ‘knowledge’ that informs them.
To occupy that ambiguous space poses an unsettling threat to most people. It disallows their ‘need’ to socially locate you, to understand you, and it often incites upset, discomfort and even anger. Whilst most would never be able to explain why they’re so bothered, they’ll likely not question it. Outrage at ambiguity in sexual identity is rarely contested outside the safe circles of Queerdom, though even there it’s not uncommon to find defenders of binary-abiding (but that’s for another blog).
So, this transwoman, whose fluffy collar draws closed just under her Adam’s apple, and whose powdered foundation doesn’t quite hide her chiselled jawline and cheekbones, embodies for me the ideal: comfortably situated in the zone of ambiguity. And whilst one could argue she is simply in the process of transitioning and that this in-between state is nothing more than a temporary symptom of such, her carefree demeanour and confident strut in this public venue warrant nothing short of pure admiration. This transwoman reclaims the oft-overlooked space as if to say, “F*** you, take me as I am.”