Seeing Yourself and Being Seen

“What’s your name?” the proselytiser asked. She had cornered me at the bus stop and there was no one else around for her to target.

“Adrienne,” I said.

“Oh, Adrian? It’s nice to meet you.”

She proceeded to be surprised when I told her I was in university (“You look very young!”) and walked away after giving me a pamphlet I later recycled after looking up the organization.

While Adrienne’that isn’t my actual birth name, the mistake she made was similar. I wasn’t able to safely medically transition yet — I lived with my family and wasn’t out to them yet — and binding didn’t prevent me from being perceived as my assigned gender.

I tried to make myself look as androgynous as possible but the softness of my face and my high, clear voice immediately caused people to box me into ‘she/her’ territory. That incident was one of the first times a stranger had interpreted me as male. I had never seen myself as such, but being seen as ‘not female,’ albeit by someone trying to recruit me into a cult, was incredibly validating. When I got home that day, I looked in the mirror and although I didn’t recognize myself, I saw how I might eventually.

However, these few, scattered experiences only made me want to seek them out further, even if I was technically being misidentified. I obsessively searched up ways to better ‘pass’ as male — in a fit of pique, I donated my few once-coveted plaid shirts because I felt that they made me look like a lesbian instead of a guy. I told my friends that I wanted to switch from ‘they/them’ to ‘he/him’ to better fit how I wanted to be perceived. I came out to my family and they took it much better than I anticipated. Sure, my mother told people she was afraid that I would “infect” my younger sister behind my back, but she didn’t kick me out and she actually put effort into using my new name and pronouns. After some waiting and several consultation appointments, I received a prescription for low-dose testosterone.

Although I had figured out I was nonbinary in early adolescence, I hadn’t wanted to undergo HRT until the year before I came out to my family. In fact, I had previously decided that I was going to — mostly — live as my assigned gender since, at the time, I defined myself as “not male”. However, dysphoria with my body and discontentment with how I was perceived had come to a head and simply put, pretending to be a woman was no longer a viable option. I would be comfortable pretending to be a man, I concluded, since most of the physical characteristics I desired lined up with what people expected a man to look like. It was more than just about how others perceived me, though — I thought I would be genuinely satisfied with being perceived as male by both myself and others. I wasn’t wrong, but that satisfaction eventually gave way to unease.

Testosterone hit me like a truck, but in a good way. My muscle mass underwent noticeable change in only weeks, my voice in a couple of months. I started a co-op term several months after starting HRT and although I was initially perceived as female, people quickly picked up that I wasn’t. Since everyone at the office saw me as a trans guy, I felt more comfortable wearing nail polish, leggings and other typically feminine attire. I started to recognize myself as more than just a vessel. However it was a different matter for interactions outside of work and with my friends. My parents were not so understanding of why I wanted to “go back” to more feminine forms of dress, to the extent where my mother essentially asked if I was planning to detransition. So, I continued to maintain a more masculine presentation around them for both my own comfort and theirs.

As my body changed and I was increasingly got perceived as male increasingly more often and in more spaces, a niggling feeling in the back of my head steadily grew until my so-called ‘maleness’ was sometimes uncomfortable to inhabit. I switched back to using ‘they/them’ and being referred to with gender-neutral language with my friends, but I didn’t have that option with the world at large.

The world at large continued to declare that I didn’t exist and was sick in the head for thinking otherwise. So I did what I had been accustomed to doing and pretended. I stopped recognizing myself in the mirror as often, but I was used to that from before my medical transition. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as what I had needed to pose for, for most of my life and eventually I settled into a sort of limbo state of not-quite-ease-but-not-unease.

Time passed. After an extended leave from school, I came back with a new name and a significantly edited body. I had grown to realise that my issue with being perceived as male was not to do with actual maleness — after all, I was more than content when I was interpreted as a trans guy. Rather, it was that I was and continue to be perceived as a cis male when who I am is lightyears away from that experience and frame of mind. I had simply gone from one form of misrecognition to another more incorrect kind, even if it was an incorrectness I was okay inhabiting.

For the most part, I’ve given up trying to accurately present myself to a world that views me through a distorted lens. In cis-dominated spaces where I’m out as nonbinary, there’s always unsaid questions. ‘Does that mean you’re genderfluid?’ ‘What’s your assigned gender?’ ‘Are you really?’

When I appear more androgynous, I can sometimes feel people’s gazes and their speculation on what my genitals are. My family continues to think I’m a guy because it’s simply not worth the labour for me to explain and reinforce that I’m something beyond their binary thinking. In spite of all this and more, I feel like I’ve settled into something reasonably close to comfort with the identities I actually and supposedly occupy.

When taking back our term papers in a class last semester, another student noticed my mark when we were both talking to the professor. He slapped me on the back in that signature display of masculine camaraderie, exclaiming “Wow, good job!” My mail declares me as “Mr.” and “sir.” I go home and am referred to as a son, a brother. None of these match who I am.

Nowadays, on most days, I see myself in the mirror anyway.