Clara Barnhurst

I try not to fall into making choices on the basis of what I might be representing. For a start, it’s a lost cause: no one person can faithfully represent a group of people. It brings up images of teachers reminding me that I’m representing my school or whatever club. Best behaviour. The basic association I have with representing a group is to be bland. Bland isn’t me. So when I showed up to play my part in a student documentary on LGBTQ+ mental health and social media, I ended up being my normal theatrical self only to think afterwards how many people I might be offending with my presentation.

Transgender women have a pressure to blend in. I’ve written about this in the past, and since my last meditation on female image, I’ve got to expand that to all women. Women are expected to look the part; blend in. Transgender people have the added pressure to blend into cisgender society, but women as a population are expected to conform to ideas of what women should be pretty much of the time.

When a woman says she has nothing to wear, that’s not what she’s saying. What she’s saying is she has nothing to wear that projects the particular image she wants that also works within the image that’s expected of her. Even with my fairly liberal taste, I play this game. I wear different clothes for work at the charity than I do at the pub. I go to a wedding with a different image than I do on a night out. I haven’t actually had to go to a formal job interview since transitioning, but I suspect my first go will be far too dramatic for the interviewer’s liking. Oh well, I have to show them what they want to see, but I have to be myself.


A back-of-the-napkin poll of whatever female friends were online at the time of this writing shows a similar attitude: there are rules about how we are meant to appear. There is a balancing act between what is expected and who we are as people. Most of these rules are unwritten, and we just get to learn through observation. On the whole, the folks I spoke with agree with me in that they would rather be themselves than fit into the mould of whatever is expected. We understand that there are consequences for that and we’ve decided to accept them.

This stuff is racing through my head as I leave the filming studio. It occurs to me that my normal tricolour big eye makeup might look to the uneducated as draggish. It’s definitely not drag, but it is big, theatrical and vibrant. In that way, it has some things in common with drag. This is a student film hitting a limited audience - though I’m seeking permission to link it in a future blog on the topic - but there will be somebody in that small audience that hasn’t knowingly met a transgender person before. I’m being presented in the film as a sort of girl-off-the-street type person, so I’ll be a first impression for some.


This is a problem because transgender women, including myself, find the conflation between drag artists, crossdressers, and transgender people harmful. Some use that fear of confusion to create barriers of entry to the transgender club - the previous blog says enough about how I feel about that. Bigots use that confusion to their advantage when trying to exclude transgender people from gendered spaces. I don’t want to feed that confusion with my makeup, but I quite like my makeup. I had fun doing it this morning. It’s typical of my general look and I am often complimented on it. I know it stands out, and I like that. I don’t want someone to get confused and think I’m a crossdresser, but I like my look and I’m not going to stop either.

What’s a girl to do with so many unwritten rules to navigate? A trans girl has the additional burden of not looking like a crossdresser or drag artist on top of the other unwritten rules. Even more cumbersome, the line between crossdresser, transgender woman, and drag artist isn’t very clear. When you have a theatrical style anyway that flirts with goth, it becomes harder to find the boundary. Plus you start stepping on the unwritten rules applied to women, generally. There’s no way to win.

It’s no wonder women decide to give up on the rules and just do themselves. There are too many to follow. An effort is made but there comes a point where the rules pull us in so many directions that, in trying to please everyone, we end up looking like nobody. We blend in so well we become unremarkable. Some transgender rhetoric pushes us to strive for ordinary. Ordinary draws no attention to oneself. Ordinary means nobody stops and looks. If they don’t stop and look, the odds of passing are higher. Nobody can notice whatever ‘tells’ a girl has if they don’t stop to look in the first place. Ordinary is safe. Ordinary doesn’t add fuel to the fire of whatever silly political manoeuvre is being made to block transgender rights. It’s an extension of the ‘good gay’ strategy employed by Stonewall in the 80s and 90s: we’re not all crazy and queer looking. Don’t forget the good ones!

In the end, I dismissed my paranoia. Too many rules. If someone gets confused, I can only hope they will be prompted by the film to go out and get more information. I can speak for some of transdom, but certainly not all of it. The harder I try to represent my people, the less effective I will be. Trying to be something for everyone ultimately means you’re nothing for nobody. So I’ll wear my bright colours, wear my big eye makeup, and on without apology.


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