Graven Images

This is a pretty old picture of me (from 1997). A more up-to-date picture can be found over here.

The Story of Dave

Initially, when I created this web page, I didn't have any pictures of me on it. Firstly, I'm rarely pleased with pictures of me, and secondly, I would rather that my web site be appreciated for what it has to say than for my image. But this past summer, I returned from a cruise with some nice pictures taken by the ship's photographer; within a short period of time, I'd scanned them, and put them up on my web site.

Until recently, this picture was accompanied by the following comment:

My friend Dave saw this picture and said, "frankly I think you look better as a man", which I think is code for, "you're a pretty ugly woman."

Oh well.

People have been sending me e-mail telling me that Dave is an asshole, or that he needs glasses, or that he's an asshole that needs glasses. And I admit, this made me feel pretty good. But I haven't really told the whole story.

A few months ago, I put up a bunch of pictures from my cruise, and shortly thereafter, I received the following e-mail from my friend, Dave. Now, I should point out that Dave only recently found out about my gender issues, and he hadn't actually seen me presenting myself as a female. So here's what he wrote:

Good pictures from the trip, although frankly I think you look better as a man. The effect is pretty convincing however. Perhaps if I had/have a chance to grow accustomed to it, or had met you first in female form... Probably it is a bit like people who wear glasses. If you always see them with glasses on, they tend to look not as good when they take them off. (or, at least different)

I also later spoke to another friend about this e-mail from Dave, and I learned of some other comments that were made (more on this later). So I added my comment about Dave beside this picture.

Dave Responds

Some time later, Dave and I were exchanging e-mails, and he included the following post script:

P.S. Thanks for putting my comments on your web site completely out of context.

So I responded:

I saw [our mutual friend, A.,] this past weekend, and she suggested that you were a bit offended by the way I did that. So let me apologize: I'm sorry. I'll take it off the next time I do web maintenance.

But, if I may be so bold, I don't think my representation of your comments are "completely out of context." With all due respect, I have the strong impression that when you wrote "you look better as a man," that was short-hand for "you make a pretty ugly woman."

But maybe I'm wrong.

His response came pretty quickly, and I think he has a lot of interesting things to say:

I really don't want to make a big deal about what you put on your site. I was a little worried because [another mutual friend] said that you had received a bunch of mail related to that comment, people I don't even know thinking that I was a big asshole. The only thing that I object to is that in my mail message to you, I did say that I preferred you as a man, clearly referring to your appearance. However, I followed that up with the idea that it is what I am used to, and how I am used to seeing you.

I think if you had put that whole idea on your site, followed by your interpretation, then I wouldn't have minded. I think, then, that you would have got e-mail from people who still thought I was a big asshole, but you might also have got e-mail like this:

"Gee, maybe you should accept what your friend says at face value. Maybe he has trouble accepting the new you, and it isn't that he finds you ugly as a woman",


"Gee, maybe your friend is actually gay, and he really only finds men attractive, but didn't realize it until he saw you both ways",


"Gee, do you think you're projecting your own anxiety about your appearance onto your friend's comment, rather than just reading it for what it is"

I don't think any of those hit the truth, but they would be better than people thinking that I am some sort of idiot, out to destroy your self-esteem.

The truth (or as close as I can get my brain to admit the truth) is that my perception of you is definitely coloured by knowing you as a man for much of my life.

Watch Your P's and Cues

Like I said, I think there's a lot of interesting stuff to discuss in his note. But here's the salient part of my response:

Likewise, I don't want to beat a dead horse, but let me be more blunt.

What you're talking about is very common in TG circles. Much has been written by TGs of gender cueing and how an assumption of gender will cause people to see TGs in a certain light. I personally know many TGs whom you would never suspect to be TG because their appearance fits in completely with their preferred gender (in TG parlance, this is called 'passing'). And yet, these same people still have problems with co-workers or old friends whose views are filtered by an old gender paradigm. Gender paradigms cause us to ignore things that don't fit in those paradigms.

On this topic, there's an interesting segment from a book called From Masculine to Feminine and All Points in Between:

It is the cueing that you project, the subtle and not-so-subtle signals that you send which will be the deciding factors in how others attribute your gender.


Kessler and McKenna, in their book Gender, assert that most of the work is done by the perceiver. As a displayer, you can create the initial gender attribution with your public appearance and present talk.

However, after that point, the gender attribution is maintained by virtue of two things: (1) every act of the displayer's is filtered through the initial gender attribution which the perceiver has made; (2) the perceiver holds the natural attitude (e.g., gender is invariant). In short, there is very little that the displayer needs to do once she has provided the initial information, except to maintain the sense of the "naturalness" of her gender. Passing is an on-going practice, but it is practice by both parties.

Anyway, I finished my response as follows:

Gender cuing works in two directions. People who "read" me as female won't notice that I have a deep voice or large hands or hair on my arms. On the other hand, people who've always known me as male have been relatively oblivious to the many physical changes that I've undergone.

So, I expect that you and [the other members of that circle of friends] will probably always see me as male, and I don't get too bent out of shape about that. And when I received your e-mail, it fit in with that expectation; no big deal.

Later, after I'd been informed that you'd told others about my website pictures and described me as "a pretty ugly woman", I felt hurt and I think that hurt changed my perception of your e-mail.

And, I guess, here was the real rationale for my comment. I'd felt hurt, and I figured that making Dave into a villain on my webpage seemed like good revenge.

Dave isn't an asshole. I know this because once he was aware of where I was coming from, he quickly offered an apology:

Hmmm, while I don't remember specifically saying this to anyone, It is quite possible. I am really sorry about that, and I can't think of any possible excuse for saying that to anyone, about you. I truly don't think that you make an ugly woman. Probably I was trying to make some sort of stupid joke. Again, I am really sorry.

Here We Go Again!

Shortly thereafter, Dave and I met for dinner, and we had a good time. Dave asked some really thoughtful, intelligent questions, and I was happy to answer them. Afterward, I got an interesting e-mail from him that included the following thought:

I thought a bit about what you said about gender cueing. I think it is definitely true. When we were sitting at dinner, I was reminded of that picture with the old hag, and the beautiful young woman. You can only see one of them at a time, but in your mind you can flip back and forth between them. I had some of the same experience with you at dinner. I think that there is a kind of binary thing in my mind (and I think most peoples) with regard to a person's gender. I imagine you would like people to just experience you as you. Unfortunately, there is a big gender thing. I found myself able to mentally see you as feminine, but then suddenly something would snap me back.

Okay, reading that over, it sounds a little confused, but I hope you get something out of it. Just don't put on your website "I think this means Dave thinks I look like an old hag". ;-)

Copyright © 1997 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated December 14th, 1997.
Quotations from my friend, Dave, used by permission.

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