History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.
John Henrik Clarke
Toward the end of the last day of the inaugural New York Coming Out Transgender Conference, a young man stepped into the conference room and took a seat in the back row just as I was launching into the question/answer segment of my last “Discovering Your True Identity” workshop. He was noticed, as I was facing in his direction and because the room was only partially filled with attendees. I welcomed him, gave him the twenty-second synopsis of what we had been discussing, then continued with the end of the presentation. With only a few questions answered or comments fielded—the group broke early.
Who were left was a married couple who had come from Pennsylvania to see my lecture, and this young man who seemed content to sit in the back row studying the screen of his electronic device. I asked him if he had any questions or if I could help him in any way. His response, which catapulted us into a very thought-provoking 15-minute discussion, was this… “I have a few transgender friends. They want to know what needs to happen for people to no longer be ‘clocked’.” It was a brilliant query, in my opinion. This young man was speaking on behalf of friends who feel that all eyes are on them. And, that those eyes are appraising and judging them.
According to the Urban Dictionary, the definition of ‘being clocked’, in terms of the LGBTQ+ community, is “… for a transgendered person or crossdresser to be found out. Typically used when a trans person is trying to fully pass in a gender among people who are unaware the person is trans. Used for either gender.” This young man, Mohammad, wanted to know what needs to change in the culture and the mindsets of the populace so that his trans friends won’t be stared at in public places to make them feel they don’t belong or that they are unsuccessfully representing the gender identity and expression they align themselves to.
What could I say? I have, myself, been the recipient of “being clocked” while out in public. Or, at least, I had thought I had been clocked. In that last sentence is the kernel of the answer I needed to convey back to Mohammad. There is an action and reaction to consider. The human animal constantly processes the stimuli around them. That includes the people that move through their space. We are creatures that process our surroundings and categorize that data into buckets based on our understanding, experience, and knowledge base. It is most likely a hold-over from a more primitive time where our security and safety was a constant—where our senses were always required to be on high alerts.
I had noticed Mohammad immediately when he came into the conference room. I had made assumptions immediately about him based on his hair, clothing, timing, skin color, his posture, eye contact, body language, whether he was a threat, etc. Walking into a restaurant as Savannah in my cobalt blue Calvin Klein scuba material body con dress, I turn heads. Let’s focus on the action for a second. I walk between tables filled with patrons. Those people notice many things—my movement, the color of my dress, my above-normal-feminine-height, my red hair, my heels, etc. In both examples, I am conveying that noticing people around us is the way in which we connect, how we expand our circle of acquaintances, friends and lovers. It is, simply, how we meet someone new. Conversely, that same instinctual response to notice someone is for risk assessment for our safety. Or, it can just be for curiosity’s sake.
Unless the person is overtly leering, staring or glaring at you—as understood by facial expressions, body language, additional physical actions, time focused on you, or comments made—your perception of what you think they are thinking about you is largely a matter your learned expectation about what you think they are thinking about you. If you are self-conscious about your appearance, you will firstly assume anyone giving you a double-take or extended look to be negatively critical. If you are confident and self-assured, you may first think that the onlookers are admiring how well you are put together or how well you carry yourself across the public space. Then… there is the middle ground… the appraisal.
Onlookers may have never seen a person of your caliber and may have be trying to put you into one of their understood category buckets. That assessment takes a few seconds for some people…enough time that you may notice that they have noticed you. Are they necessarily judging you? No. They are trying to understand you as someone new they had not encountered in person before. The above are examples of the basic mechanics of how the brain works. How, as people, we assess and categorize new information and our surroundings on a continual basis, how we react to our surroundings based on our experiences and emotional leanings.
But, it didn’t answer Mohammad’s question of, “when will people stop clocking those who are presenting a gender identity outside their biology”, did it? The ideal would be that all of us would be accepted as we are, regardless of how we look or how we dress. That is the hope and want that fueled Mohammad’s question. Currently, we live in a culture that still largely adheres to the gender binary constructs of man/woman. Changing how we think about gender will come slowly, as next generations are more fully equipped to understand that the steadfast two-gender constructs should no longer be considered absolutes. Change will come as we have more exposure, experience, and enlightenment to new ideas of gender identity and gender presentation. As we better understand our differences, we will realize that we are actually very much alike. In the gap between the struggles of today and the hopes of tomorrow, those of us who do feel we are the target of scrutiny can do a few things… be proud and truthful to who you are, be aware that not every turn of the head is as critical—or as knowing—-as you read the gaze to mean, and be the person you want to be to the fullest. Eventually, as the gender constructs are torn down, “being clocked” will be reduced to just that general curiosity that all people have.