Clara Barnhurst

Support networks are crucial. An environment of encouragement is the difference between success and failure for most any pursuit and life change; we need others to recognise our struggle. To validate it and affirm positive changes. Sometimes, we need others to kick us into action because the changes aren’t good. The people in the loop are the best equipped to keep us afloat when we can’t do it ourselves.

As important as that is, some dysphoria is only alleviated by strangers. People who don’t know who we are, what we are and just react to us in the moments we come into contact with them. We get important information from strangers like whether we trigger prejudice. We discover less threatening things as well, like whether our outfit works for us. Strangers provide unfiltered responses to our presence that those that know us best can’t give.

Of course, most unfiltered responses are neutral. We look for little assumptions: whether they choose to call me darling or mate, for example. These assumptions are flawed: many people just call everyone things that seem to be gendered on the surface. They’re not right for doing it, but a stranger taking your change and thanking you isn’t a fight worth fighting if you’re hurt. We just carry it away with us.


Whilst it’s true we cling to the bad more readily than the good, the unfiltered good reactions from strangers validates us in ways no loved one can. Thing about gender is it’s a shorthand: the better we know a person, the less gender matters. I’ve mentioned before that gender is literally the least interesting thing about me, and it’s true. The people who learn about me quickly lose interest in my gender because there is so much more to explore. Of course, the sociopolitical landscape of transness is a topic regardless but that’s more a product of my interest in sociology — I leave that door open and broach the topic often.

So gender isn’t important to the people closest to us. Apart from a few coded reference points like pronouns and diminutives, it doesn’t matter. Yeah we might be described in terms of our gender, as in some find me girly and others note that a gamer chick is unusual. But the things I do matter more than how it references to my gender.

To a stranger, gender is just a marker for how to talk about me. What pronoun to use as I pass by, what form of address to work with should we come into contact. If I need something it might guide them to offer me this thing over that, but the exchange is quickly steered away from gender once opening rituals are complete.

Early on in my transition I was given the pdf of Mascara and Tears, which said one thing I held onto: if you ask someone whether you pass, you just stopped passing to that person. Unless someone explicitly treats you badly, you have to assume you pass. Even to people that basically forget I’m transgender, my bringing it up lifts the veil and I temporarily fail to just be. Sometimes I need that; we all need people we can talk to. But that’s the price of it.

The paradox is we need affirmation. But we need affirmation from the people we know the least about and have the least contact with. Also, we don’t remember the affirming bits and favour memories of being treated badly. It explains why so many older generation transgender people would just burn their lives down and disappear: having even part of your life visible makes the kind of affirmation I’m talking about difficult.

At the same time, what our loved ones say matters. Their support and reassurance over time, their consistency, gives us that strength that strangers can’t. We all need people we can vent to. We all need people we can trust. We can’t trust strangers. And yet we rely on them.


The flip side to this is if we are unlucky and live in a place that is isolated or intolerant, our understanding of how safe we are in general changes. Early transition is a vulnerable time: we’re all finding out how to not get killed by some stick wielding thug. We’re figuring out how to mix with our own. Nothing makes sense and we all feel like we have some trait or another that makes us impossibly other. An indifferent town will make a more confident person than an intolerant one.

And that sounds obvious but there is this weird idea that we can just ‘own it’ and move on. I still don’t know what that means. Someone treats me like some kind of sexual predator as I try to pick up an order from a shop, and someone else tells me to just own it. Own what? My dehumanisation? My failure to pass? That lady’s disgust? What can I own that would make this better? I don’t get it.

Maybe they’re telling me to own my identity and keep that person’s behaviour from getting me down, but that stranger just told me what none of my nearest and dearest can: I didn’t pass. I don’t know how to disown my identity. If I knew that, I wouldn’t have transitioned in the first place. I didn’t choose this.

Resilience is probably the most important trait required; hone it. Don’t own people’s bad behaviour towards you, but don’t let it become symbolic of your day, month, or life. Don’t own it. Address it. Discard it.

There is no magic bullet solution here, but strangers are a thing we need. If you’re out and about and clock at trans person, compliment them on their dress or something neutral. If you’re feeling down, post that selfie. Head into public and hang out. What responses you will get! But if you want an honest answer, don’t ask if you pass. Ever.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

I feel a strong need for affirmations too. I'm a lot more open than I should be.

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