Our appearance encodes many things about who we are. Some of these attributes are mostly beyond our control and so obvious that we take them for granted, for example our age and gender. Some are more nuanced and are the product of our personal choice and self-expression, for example our dress and our mode of speaking. These are the attributes we choose to adopt and show the world in order to define who we are and how we want others to see us.
When we engage with another person, all of this information comes to us in a flood, but our processing is so well developed that we make sense of the data in a heartbeat. It is this speed that gives much of the information the quality of ‘taken for grantedness’, the phenomenon that the information we gather is encoded with meaning that changes the way we see, think and interact with the person in front of us, without us being aware of that. We rely on this mechanism to tell us what the appropriate pattern of behaviour with a given person is. Just like the information about their appearance, this behaviour is also spread across the spectrum of highly obvious to the incredibly subtle
Sometimes however we meet someone whose appearance is ambiguous (or perhaps entirely contradictory), and the process that informs how we should behave with this person is thrown into disarray. What personal pronouns to use, where you look, your body language and what you say all suddenly become less apparent.
The most obvious attribute that we take for granted, and which informs the mode through which we engage a person, is their gender. Quite how much the way we engage with people is encoded in gender only becomes apparent when we meet someone whose gender is ambiguous. The experience can be deeply unsettling, either because as humans we are programmed to be at least wary, perhaps even rejecting of, the unfamiliar or because our sense of decency and compassion for our fellow person means most of us want to engage respectfully. When we’re unsure of precisely how to do that, it make us uncomfortable.
But these moments, as unsettling as they might be, are moments of truth and clarity. They are the opportunity to learn something about ourselves and the way we build society and culture. They are the opportunity to change those structures so that they (and we) are fairer and more respectful of others. As such they are important and precious.
My own insights into just how much of a role gender plays in simple human interactions began three years ago when my best friend came out as a trans’ woman. We have been friends since we were teenagers when we rode mountain bikes in the hills of the Peak District. We remained friends into young adulthood as we tried to find our way in the world. Like anyone else, our respective journeys have been challenging and at times difficult but we have always been friends and that was always a deep comfort to me.
There was always something about my friend that I couldn't explain. I felt it through the nature of our friendship, which contrasted strongly with my experience of other friendships. We were close but not full disclosed; emotionally connected but not physically so; caring but also slightly detached. I never imagined this unexplained thing was something as painful and significant as the fact that they were living the first, and arguably most challenging, half of their life in the wrong gender.
I cannot imagine how difficult the lived experience of gender dysphoria must be, but I am now more empathetic for it and conscious of how we behave differently with different people based on these unspoken variables. None of which is not a judgement or commentary on anything other than the differences that exist and the importance of being respectful, sensitive and empathetic to the humanity of the person in front of you. Meeting anyone who helps you achieve this is a treasured moment.