The Look List – A Compendium of Glances, Glares and Gazes I Get as a Visibly Trans Person

Trans people are used to catching stares, especially non-binary folks like me. When I presented as male, passers by would give me a neutral look. Their eyes said “Hey, you’re another human directly in my line of sight.” Granted, this was also likely a product of my whiteness. Post-transition, I receive a whole host of signals from they way I’m looked at. It’s not my fault I’m so aesthetically compelling. My inner taxonomy nerd compels me to piece together this compendium of glances, ogles, stares and sideyes that I’ve been subjected to over the years. Maybe it will be of use to other transfolks. You might be thinking – “She can’t read people’s minds from just the way people look at her.” Well, I’m not claiming to do that. I’m not a psychic or a mentalist – only an amateur translator of body language. So here it is, a list of looks I get as a trans person.

 

The Clock

When some baffled cis person checks out my body and my style, eventually concluding that I’m trans – they clocked me. They are trying to figure out – is this person, god forbid, one of those transgenders I hear about on the news so often? The ones that want to be able to use bathrooms and pronouns and join the military? This particular glare involves a lot of eye and/or head movement. The voyeur scanning every inch of my body. His eyes are thirsty for a detail – residual stubble, wide shoulders, large feet – that might give away my assigned gender. The clock is sometimes followed by further stares and glares (see below), or by such totally appropriate questions as “Have you had THE Surgery?” or “How do you people even have sex?”

Needless to say, getting clocked is an unpleasant experience. After all the clockings I’ve received, I now can fully empathize with the corpses of murder victims on CSI. Like body laid out in the morgue, every bit of me is scanned for evidence. I assume that this not only happens to to trans people. Cis men and women with certain distinctive features, such as amazonian cis women and diminutive cis men, may also be subjected to the Clock.

 

The Death Ray

The Death Ray is, simply put, a cis person attempting to murder me with their eyes. It is the unblinking glare of an individual filled with hate and malice towards all trans people. For a good visual reference, check out the look Jack Nicholson gives Shelley Duvall in The Shining before attempting to dismember her with an axe. When I catch one of these, all of my red flags go up. I will try to avoid the Death Ray wielder at all costs, and clutch my self-defense implement of choice, if one is on hand.

The Confused Ogle

Trans people are very sexy. Thus, people are always checking us out. The savvy ogler doesn’t care whether or not my hormones are store-bought. I don’t mind this kind of attention. Sometimes it flatters me. I am, admittedly, something of an exhibitionist. Unfortunately, the respectful variety of voyeur is exceedingly rare, especially amongst straight men.

When a less savvy ogler clocks me mid-check out, their expression quickly becomes a Confused Ogle. A sly glance at my ass or a thigh devolves into shifty-eyed bewilderment. It’s the expression of someone hit by a full-scale sexistential crisis. If his hetero masculinity is fragile enough, the ogler may mentally lash out against me for “Making him do something gay,” even though the Confused Ogle is the straightest thing he could be doing. Feelings of confusion and anger may resolve themselves into a Death Ray (see above) charged with self-loathing.

 

The Ally’s Beneficent Gaze

Receiving a Beneficent Gaze is more pleasant than getting Death-Rayed, but both leave a bad taste in my mouth. Here’s what it looks like. A cis someone clocks me. Her eyes brighten. Her mouth widens into a grin. She seems all bright and happy, yet somehow gives off an aura of condescension. My translation of this body language: “Oh aren’t you a cute little trans here out in the wild.” It’s as if she’s spotted a rare pokemon.

The Ally’s Beneficent Gaze annoys me because it’s meant to be comforting, but comes off as self-serving. “I’m one of the good ones,” the Ally conveys with this gaze, assured that the God of Trans has added to the number of Ally points on His Eternal ledger. Beneficent Gaze’s my be followed by awkward and disingenuous expressions of solidarity, such as “You know, I totally support the right of all transgenders,” or, “You look really good. Like, I can barely tell you’re a trans.”
The Comrade Connection

My favorite look from this list, Comrade Connections can only occur between two trans people. It’s when another trans person recognizes me as comrade, and sends a telepathic signal of fellow-feeling through eye contact. Comrade Connections exist in many varieties. Sometimes the eye contact is accompanied by the slightest nod of approval. Sometimes there are eye rolls, “Ugh, don’t cis people suck?” Many Comrade Connections are actually just two trans people aggressively checking each other out. As mentioned earlier, trans people are very attractive. Who’s in a better position to appreciate that than another trans person? Comrade Connections are often accompanied by expressions of validations, such as “Wow, I really like that dress,” or “Wanna get together later and violently overthrow cis supremacy?”

These can be tricky because not all trans people want to be recognized as such in public, especially if they are stealth. Thus, it’s important to pay attention to body language and keep things nuanced as possible when attempting a Comrade Connection.

 

The Seattle Side Eye

Here’s a region-specific look for you, from my present home city. It’s very difficult to catch one of these in progress – you could say that’s the point. Most Seattlites are too sheepish to give me an out-and-out glare. Getting caught mid-glare may tarnish their reputation as tolerant liberals, or even worse – it might trigger a verbal confrontation, something Seattlites avoid at all costs. Thus, when they think I’m looking elsewhere, they will covertly flick their eyes towards me in an expression of disdain. This is the Seattle Side Eye.

Most Seattlites are desensitized to trans folks – there are a lot of us here. Because of this, I get the Side Eye if I am deemed “too much.” Too femme. Too loud. Too slutty. As long as you keep it neutral and stay passive, the average Seattlite will look right through you. But once you start to stand out – that’s when the passive aggression begins.
So there it is, the Look List. It’s by no means complete. Have any additions? If so, feel free to leave a comment.

Why I Call Myself a Dyke: A Non-binary Perspective on Dykedom

Before attending my first dyke march I had something of a crisis. One question kept running through my anxious mind, keeping me from the place I wanted to be: do I qualify as a dyke? Traditionally, the term and its milder synonym, lesbian, applies to binary women exclusively attracted to other women. As a non-binary trans woman attracted to a broad spectrum of genders, I don’t fit this definition.  My fear wasn’t of getting kicked out of the march for not looking or acting enough like a lesbian. Rather, I was anxious about being a fake dyke taking up space in an event meant for true dykes, whatever that meant.

It hadn’t been the first time I’d had this internal back-and-forth on the subject. One of the first times I thought I might be a dyke came from an encounter with an image from a San Francisco dyke march. It’s of two trans women holding up a large pink sign which reads “Trans Dykes: Still Here.” When I saw this sign, I felt a sense of belonging to this term – “trans dyke.” There was something powerful to me about this sharp, one-syllable stab of a word. First off, it has a kind of outlaw allure I’m attracted to. Dykes are scary. You might fuck with a lesbian, but don’t want to fuck with a dyke.  The fact that it’s a reclaimed slur adds to its sexiness. Combined with the word “trans,” it nails home the point that trans women aren’t all straight. And then “Still Here,” accentuating that queer trans women are not a new phenomenon, but have been around for as long as the rest of the dykes. When I saw that sign, I recognized myself amongst this group of trans dykes. Even so, I still wondered – do I have a legitimate claim to a dyke identity?

There’s a case to be made against the kind of anarchism of identity these questions bring up. Take, for instance, the backlash against so-called “queer heterosexuals.” A 2016 Vice article provocatively titled “Can Straight People Be Queer?” kicked off this internet maelstrom. The article tackles the growing number of young celebrities (Lily Rose Depp, Jaden Smith, Young Thug) who have recently aligned themselves with queerness and gender non-conformity, yet appear to operate in society as hetero. The author seemingly endorses this, with reservations, “So go on. Have gay sex, listen to Arthur Russell, and watch RuPaul, straight people. Paint your nails and eschew binary logic…[b]ut if more people are going to call themselves queer, then maybe we need to think about another term.”

This article, understandably, angered a lot of queer folks. The anger is best encapsulated by a rebuttal to Vice’s piece on After Ellen, entitled, succinctly enough, “No, Straight People Can’t Be Queer.” The author of this article rightly pegs the issue of queer straightness as one of appropriation, “If we allow queer to be appropriated, we will surrender our identity and allow ourselves be bullied into a lie. Queer started as a slur. We took it back. We gave it power. We gave it pride. It’s ours.” According to the article, straight celebrities who adopt queer signifiers benefit from the cultural capital and attention it brings them, while eschewing the oppression true queer people face. This appropriation is thus an extension of heterosexual privilege that waters down queerness and disempowers queer people

The issue of appropriation is a key one when considering my own use of a dyke identity. In a sense, I am appropriating the term dyke from a community of binary, cisgender women attracted to other binary, cisgender women. Importantly, this appropriation differs from the case of queer straights in that I don’t possess any kind of structural power over traditional dykes. Maybe appropriation isn’t the best term to use. I’m retooling dykeness, retconning it to fit a new, non-binary narrative.

Traditional ideas of dykeness are saturated in binaries, as are the most popular sexual identities – heterosexuality and homosexuality both referring to “opposite-sex” or “same-sex” attraction, respectively. This is likely because the entire idea that a discrete “sexual identity” is a central aspect of personhood comes from nineteenth-century sexual science and psychiatry. During this time, psychiatrists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing created entire taxonomies of so-called “paraphilias,” which were used to diagnose anyone with non-normative sexual desires with a mental illness. Like most taxonomies they are full of dualisms – homosexual or heterosexual, man or woman, sadist or masochist. Reclaiming dykeness as a non-binary, queer transfeminine person frees me from the dualisms originally meant to oppress me.

My enby dyke identity falls in line with Judith Butler’s interrogation of sexual identity in Gender Trouble. In this book she takes apart the ways that cultural norms shape the ways in which sex, gender, and sexuality relate to one another. In approaching this institutional logic, she notes, “The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist”—that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “follow” from either sex or gender.” This is very much a criticism of logic she believes stifles and controls unruly bodies such as my own. Though originally meant as a critique of heteronormativity, it also applies to the cisnormative logic which circulates in queer culture – the same kind of logic which TERFs use to exclude trans women from lesbian communities.

We could just shuck the word into the trash bin of history with all the other outdated LGBT terms – i.e. “homosexual.” But, I’m just too fond of the anger and eroticism bound up dykeness to let it die in the hands of homonormative transphobes. I’d much rather expand the definition to be more inclusive, to catch up with our ever-evolving conceptions of gender. An identity should be made of latex, not concrete.

During that first dyke march, I felt a strong sense of belonging. A heavy warmth rose up in my chest as I looked around at the other queer bodies around me, decked out in glitter, leather, and hair dye, radiating fury and sex. That sense of belonging, an interior experience if there ever was one, is what qualifies a person for donning a particular sexual identity. It’s not something an outsider can scrutinize. To my fellow enby dykes out there, I’ll echo a sentiment I’ve heard in many queer communities: If you feel like you belong here, then you do.

A Queer Healing: Seeing Fever Ray Live

Note: In this post I use ‘Xe/Xyr’ pronouns for Fever Ray because that’s what’s listed as xyr pronouns in an Instagram post. I used this website as a guide in declining xe pronouns.

Eight years passed between the release of the first and second Fever Ray albums. Just from the stylistic and lyrical shifts, you can tell that there’s been a sea change in the life of Karin Dreijer. The first, eponymous album is haunted by longing and full of domestic motifs.   The song “Seven” from that album features the most striking of these images, “We talk about love, we talk about dishwasher tablets, illness/And we dream about heaven.” These lyrics mirror Dreijer’s own personal situation – in 2009 xe was recently married and raising two children. In an interview with the Guardian xe hints at the stifling environment of this nuclear household, “I was shocked at how society treats you when you become a mother. You’re basically supposed to cut your arms and legs off and stay in the house.”

Where Fever Ray  is shot through with longing and melancholy, its follow up bathes in an aura of exploration and ecstasy. The stifled desire of domesticity is replaced by a vibrant, unmistakably queer, sexual energy. Maybe the lyrics of “To the Moon and Back,” demonstrate this sea change best – “First I take you, then you take me/Breathe some life into a fantasy/Your lips, warm and fuzzy/I want to run my fingers up your pussy.” In xyr interviews, Dreijer discusses how becoming part of a queer, chosen family shaped the album’s themes of curiosity and freedom. That curiosity makes the album a refreshing work of queer art.

When I think about the leap in styles between the two Fever Ray albums, it’s hard for me not to think about my own mutations in the eight years between the release of the two albums. In 2009, I was in the closet as queer and trans. Not just to the outside world, but to parts of my own psyche as well. At the time I had a group of friends which orbited my college’s radio station, which I DJed for. We were all huge music nerds, of course. Often we’d get together at one of our apartments, drink, and put on our favorite albums of the moment. I was first introduced to Fever Ray at one of these hang-outs. The music mesmerized me.  There’s something paradoxical and untimely about Fever Ray’s music – it seems at once ancient and futuristic, pagan and dystopian. I personally connected with the loneliness captured in Driejer’s extraterrestrial wail. My first “straight” relationship had just ended and I was beginning to reckon with the shadow of my own queerness. And by “reckon with” I mean “try to numb myself to with as much booze as possible.” That album was the perfect soundtrack to the season of my repressed hedonism

Almost a decade later, and we are both out of the closet to the greater world as both queer and non-binary. Our journeys must have been utterly different from one another, but somehow our becomings synced up across space and time. Part of what made me fall in love with Plunge is its reckoning with shame. Struggling with shame has been a huge part of my own queer and trans journeys. Being brought up in a conservative Christian environment conditioned me to regard my body and desires as disgusting, sinful. In “Falling,” Dreijer personifies the emotion, “That old feeling of shame/She makes me feel dirty again.”  What’s xyr antidote to this shame? “A queer healing.”

 

When I saw Fever Ray at the Showbox this May, I made sure to get dressed appropriately beforehand. That is, I dressed like I was about to thrash someone around at a BDSM play party.  I got decked out in a black vinyl dress, iridescent collar, and dark violet lipstick. Several people hollered at me on my metro ride to the venue. The night was starting out well.

At the show I was greeted with a sign reading:

“FEVER RAY SUPPORTS EQUAL RIGHTS. ALL RESTROOMS ARE TRANS FRIENDLY AT THIS VENUE.”

This sign warmed my heart. Not just because I dislike being harassed while taking a piss. Fever Ray went out of xyr way to declare the space a trans-friendly one. It made me feel like my presence, as a trans person, was not only accepted, but treasured.

Fever Ray and xyr entourage arrived onstage like a squad of genderfucked Avengers. Unlike the members of a typical touring band, each of the six members had a distinct personality and fashion sense on display. One of the back-up singers, Gutarra, wore an orange muscle suit throughout the entire performance. The woman at the synths was clad in black goggles and latex. I imagined she could have just stepped out of a William Gibson novel. Finally there was Fever Ray, bald, face done-up in goth makeup, wearing pantaloons and a t-shirt which read “I love Swedish girls,” with the ‘Swedish’ crossed out in fluorescent orange. Xe resembled a time-traveling witch, making a pit-stop in the present to enchant us with xyr words and sounds. It was hard to tell if xe had arrived from the future or the past. As soon as xe stepped on stage, xe pulled a bunch of flowers out of xyr pantaloons and threw them into the cheering crowd. That set the mood for the night.

“An Itch” kicked off the set. It’s a track that centers the pleasure and discomfort of being desired, “I don’t understand, whoever I meet/They always reach out to touch me/ Imagine: touched by somebody who loves you.” This song led directly into an up-tempo rendition of “When I Grow Up,” one of Fever Ray’s most well-known albums from xyr self-titled first album. While the initial version of the song was solemn and haunting, on the stage it was transformed into a careening dance track.

One of the most exciting things about the show was how songs from the more somber self-titled album were transmuted to fit the brasher mood of Plunge. One of my favorite moments of the show was xyr performance of “Concrete Walls.” Fever Ray and two other singers harmonized with each other over bass-heavy synths, their voices digitally down-pitched so they sounded like members of an android doo-wop group. The song ended with an insane drum-and-bass rhythm break-down from Lili, the group’s self-described “drum alchemist.”

It was very heartening to see the whole group really enjoying themselves on the stage. There was a lot of off-the-cuff weirdness that made the show-going experience unpredictable in a very pleasurable way. Sometimes, there was synchronized dancing.  At one point of the the performers twirled across the stage decked out in a pair of diaphanous wings. There was an bongo solo during one of the songs. Another featured a heartfelt accordion performance.

Overall, the show fulfilled me.  Fever Ray bared their truths with jubilance and vulnerability, that I felt my own hard-fought truths affirmed. My anger was affirmed as well. It’s not been a comfortable year to be queer and trans, with an administration in power that is actively transphobic. Songs like “This Country” encourage me to be present with my rage at a political regime which is, for instance, set on making it easier for health insurance companies to discriminate against trans folks. The refrain at the end of that song is “This house makes it hard to fuck/This country makes it hard to fuck.” I couldn’t help screaming along to the lyrics.