(Familiar) Stranger in a (Not So) Strange Land

I used to be invisible.

In fact, I was invisible for decades but during all that time, I didn’t even know it.

I came to realize it one day when I was walking down the hallway at work,  just weeks after becoming self-aware of my true gender, wearing some new clothing I had bought only a couple of days prior.  Walking up ahead of me in the corridor was a coworker who turned to look back and then stopped as I approached.

She said, “This is the first time I’ve seen you wear shoes.”

It may not surprise you to learn that English is not her primary language.

I smiled and gently asked, “The first time I’ve worn shoes?”  “No,” she replied, raising her hands as if to erase what she had just said.  “I mean, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard you wear shoes that make noise.”

That was a watershed moment for me.  Her simple comment induced me to undergo a complete reflection and reevaluation of how I had presented myself throughout my life, and I realized that up until that day, I had been invisible.

During the majority of my life, my conscious mind didn’t know that I was a man but my subconscious sure did.  Couple that with the mirroring and witnessing that I experienced every day of my life, the constant signals firing back at me from the world around me that I was female (when in reality I was a man on the inside) drove me into hiding, but hiding in plain sight.

Like animals that blend in with their surroundings and are camouflaged in order to avoid harm, I had taken on a presentation that would help me walk through life as unnoticed as possible.

Clothing with plain colors, nothing loud, flashy or stylish, multiple layers to cover an unwanted body, quiet shoes to avoid detection, the same haircut year after year, no makeup, no jewelry (too feminine!), sometimes not even buttons or zippers were acceptable.  Anything to reduce the chances of being noticed, to avoid detection, and thereby avoid the number of interactions with people who would subconsciously send the social feedback that smacked right up against my inner self.

To be invisible.

Of course, when I was seen, I was seen as a woman and I tried my best to act that part. This went on for decades, managing as best I could to live as a woman, but subconsciously trying to stay under the radar as well.  When I look back on it, I wonder how I was able to keep that up for so long.

Now, things are different.  Now, I live fully as my true self and I am rarely, if ever, seen as female these days.  That’s been great – I finally feel like I’m fitting into the world in the proper context and I am more interactive than I was before, more noticed than I was before.

I am visible.

However, living life as a man and being seen as a man has presented a new set of challenges.  Whereas before I was repeatedly bombarded with social cues, signals and messages that grated against who I was on the inside, I am now repeatedly bombarded with social cues, signals and messages that I do not understand.

I went through adolescence living as a female, I was socialized as a female, and I learned the social cues, norms and expectations that come with being seen and treated as a woman.

Now that I am living as a man and being seen as one, I am lost in the land of social cues.

Compared to when I was living as a woman, now, men treat me differently, women treat me differently, gay men really treat me differently.  Not only do I not have a clue what these social cues and signals mean that I am now receiving as a man, I don’t know what social cues and signals to send back!

I feel like a stranger in a strange land, but then again, I’m really the same person in the same place I was before.

I know that I am not the first trans person to undergo a re-socialization in their true gender and I knew about this possibility long before I ever got to this point, but now that I’m in it, I’ve found it a challenge to stay engaged and interactive.  Similar to the way I managed it before, my reaction has been to hunker down, stay low and try to avoid detection.

I heard from a couple seasoned trans guys that this “awkward period” I’ll call it lasts about five years.

FIVE YEARS??!!!

I guess that makes sense when considering that quite a bit of socialization for adulthood occurs during adolescence, which seems to take about five years.  (I don’t have any scientific data to back up that statement, mind you.)

One of the guys pointed out that if I lay low, stay at home and try to avoid this uncomfortableness, it will take even longer to get through it.

Good point.

So now I’m a walking anthropological study and investigator all rolled into one, taking mental field notes and trying to interpret and draw conclusions about my social interactions.  I think I’ve bewildered some people with my social awkwardness or even lack of response (I’ve found it less scary sometimes to not do or say anything rather than risk doing or saying the wrong thing) but at least I haven’t seemed to really piss off anyone.

And with time and practice, I am sure that I will get to a point of being a familiar stranger in a not so strange land.  But I sure hope it doesn’t take five whole years!

–ATM

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12 Responses to (Familiar) Stranger in a (Not So) Strange Land

  1. Yes. I have been hiding since transition as well, and I am still doing teenage. Which is not ideal in my mid forties. I am getting through it, though.

  2. The best thing about this is my son and I are going through puberty together. Awwwwwkwaaard.

  3. Aran says:

    I used to feel invisible, too. Even though I dressed the part of a woman & did wear feminine clothing & jewelry, I used to make myself invisible in other ways. I would blend into the background by not speaking up or by just going along with the crowd. I have nearly always been overweight, which is a very good way to make yourself invisible.

    When I found my true self and started dressing the part, I felt invisible, too, because I knew I was a man but very few people saw that. People just saw a masculine looking woman. I hated that even worse than being invisible the other way. I wanted to scream at people, “I am a man. Why can’t you see that?” Fortunately, hormones have helped my gender presentation a great deal. Nothing like a beard that screams “MAN.”

    I am a 15 year old 42 year old, and understand completely about misunderstanding social cues. Sometimes, I don’t know how to respond to women. I just don’t get it. I love that gay men look at me differently, but wish that lesbians would not. What is a boy to do? I’ve been on hormones 2 1/2 years and hopes that it doesn’t take 5 years, either.

    • Yeah, I don’t get women either, which surprises me considering I was in their space for so long. I guess that at the time, I spent more time with men than women anyway, but still…

      So you’re saying that after 2-1/2 years you’re still learning the social cues? hoh boy

      Thanks for the great comments.

  4. Denise says:

    Hi Andy,

    Your story about your co-worker who was unable to express herself because English was not her native language got me to thinking. I have noticed that folks from different countries speaking the same language have communication problems because they lack the context in which words can be used; the old saw about the Americans and British – two peoples separated by a common language comes to mind.

    I feel that social cues are the same way; the same cue performed by a man can take on a different meaning when performed by a woman. These cues were always there right in front of you, just not directed at you thus not requiring any kind of response. But then there are others that are reserved for those in the same gender club, these are harder to detect prior to transition. And of course there are sub-groups including gay and lesbian that have a dialect of their own. Though I was raised by wolves (men) I could only ape their movements and parrot their comments for I lacked their motives, I had confused imitation with understanding. I now know the difference affording me the understanding that I don’t know men as well as I thought. This was actually a great surprise to me!

    Looking back I can see that I have become more refined in my understanding of social cues to the point where I feel confident in most situations (I haven’t been exposed to all situations), but I figure it’s more like 3 yrs with deep immersion to get comfortable but you’re more polished after 5. Now I know why my therapist kept pushing me so hard to engage life in as many ways as normal, it exposed me to as many experiences as possible in the shortest amount of time, the Cliff notes of puberty if you will.

    Your comment about the anthropological study was dead on. It’s been an amazing experience to have lived in both gender roles,

    Denise

  5. Elizabeth says:

    This post is so evocative for me for so many reasons. First off, here are many literary allusions within your writing that remind me of so many important discussions about important ideas (hey, what else for someone who studied literature for years?!) in my head — but also make me realize (for the umpteenth time now) what an amazing writer you are.

    The bigger issues that really strike me are that of basic existentialism (figuring out how we all relate to one another, and achieving — and/or feeling comfortable with? — a sense of self) as well as dealing with a sense of “otherness” that so many may feel at different times of their lives. You have a unique way of connecting these issues that works so well, and while I don’t have anywhere to go with that right now (sometimes I’m just OK with having a strong if undefinable reaction :-), I appreciate how you state this here. Besides connecting and relating important feelings within your trans process, which you do so eloquently here and in so many other ways, I appreciate the illumination you constantly provide me (as a non-trans person who would never presume how you or anyone else feels).

    • Thank you Liz for your comments for two reasons. First, because you said such nice things about my writing (and I do not consider myself to be a writer) and second, because now I know what “existentialism” means.

      I would imagine that there are plenty of non-trans folks out there who have had similar feelings, which you mentioned in your comments. I have had (non-trans) people tell me that in different times in their lives, they, too, have felt invisible (maybe that resonates with you?) for different reasons. And, I have had two non-trans people, one straight woman and one gay man, tell me that they either are struggling or have struggled with social cues. For the straight woman, she is middle-aged and now finds herself in the dating pool after recently divorcing her “high school sweetheart.” She is learning the social cues and signals that she never really paid attention to because she never really dated in adolescence or adulthood. The gay man talked about his learning curve with social cues that he experienced when he came out in college and entered the gay community for the first time.

      Anyway, thank you again for your insight and kind compliments.

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