The Mainstream Biological Premise
I recently had someone friend me on Facebook with no attached message, no mutual friends, using a pseudonym and a userpic that was a cartoon and not a picture of her. So I opened her page to see if could recognize something about her. Immediately I saw five little userpics in her friends box and I was fairly certain that all or at least most of them were trans women. That was enough for my lax security protocol and I friended her back. Then I was struck with an odd sense of how uncanny that was—how was I so sure that her friends were trans just from 50x50 pixel pictures?
“Trans-dar” has become second nature to me, to the point where I don’t even know what cues I’m paying attention to. That’s how interpreting cultural cues like gender usually is. A 5-year-old will tell you a person in a picture is a boy and when you ask why they might say something that sounds nonsensical like, “Because he has hair.” Adults can be just as nonsensical with the common, “Because he has a penis,” even though the person in the picture is fully clothed.
You might have heard some tips for spotting a trans person (almost invariably trans women) in a movie or TV show. They suggest looking at hands, feet, Adam’s apple, etc. However, cis (non-trans) women have Adam’s apples too, they just tend to be smaller and less noticeable. As for hand size, there is way too much variation among both men and women for that to be reliable. Rather than being cues one might notice, those are things that are more often used to confirm the assumptions people already make.
I was once in a writing workshop led by my ex during which, I came out as trans halfway through. One of the other participants spent the remaining half of the workshop looking me up and down and at the end told me that it “makes sense because of your facial hair and your big-man-hands.” I had never thought of my hands as big, and explained that they are actually smaller than my mom’s hands. Then my ex jumped in and pointed out that she had as much facial hair as me and she wasn’t trans.
The reality is that that woman wouldn’t have ever noticed those things about me if I hadn’t disclosed that I was trans. And if I had told her that any other person in the room was trans, she would have found or imagined the same things.
Many cis people seem to find comfort in pointing out ways in which trans people’s genders are not valid. If gender is rooted in unchanging biology, then a cis person can feel secure in their gender. However, when confronted with the reality that some people’s genders don’t follow that line they are forced to question what makes them a man or a woman if not biology—at least until they can “prove” that trans people’s genders are merely clever forgeries.
Mainstream advice suggests looking for biological markers of a trans person’s assigned sex, looking for some sort of hidden maleness of femaleness. This appears to a response to common cis psychological insecurities around gender rather than how people actually communicate and interpret gender.
In contrast, when people talk about “gaydar” they are looking for cultural markers: clothing, gestures, hairstyle, language, etc. I realized that I use the exact same thing when identifying trans people. Having spent a lot of time in trans spaces I’ve become aware of a lot of hair styles, types of clothing, common language, etc. that are widespread among trans people. In this way, I’m not looking for signs of a hidden maleness or femaleness, but rather symbols of a not-so-hidden “transness.”
I do not “pass” as a woman, because I am a woman. I pass as cis. I am not “read” as a man, because I am not a man. I do get read as trans. In my life, I am almost always seen as a woman, the only question is whether I am seen as cis or trans. In the same way, I’m not looking for if someone is male or female – that is always consciously and often clearly communicated—but instead looking for if someone is cis or trans.
Even when I do look to various biological features, they often affirm a trans person’s gender rather than invalidate it. Trans women tend to have tall faces, which is currently considered feminine and quite attractive. Trans men more commonly grow out their facial hair, which is traditionally considered very masculine.
It’s important to keep in mind that this whole process is still guesswork. Some cis women are tall with long faces and a-line hairstyles. Some cis men are short and stout with full beards and wear baggy sweatshirts. We’re talking comparative likelihoods, not assurances.
When discussing visual cues that identify people as trans, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss what to do with that information. A lot of trans people have to deal with harassment from random people on the street who identify them as trans and feel entitled to intrude into their lives with inappropriate questions. They’ll ask, “Are you a guy or a girl?” or they’ll follow telling everyone, “That person is trans!” (only with less respectful language). I’ve even gotten the “So, um, pre-op or post-op?” inappropriate demand for deeply personal medical information. It should be obvious, but it has to be said: treat trans people with the same respect (or more!) that you would a cis person, don't invalidate their gender, don’t out them, and don't bring up whether or not they are trans unless they do.
Of course, that leaves us with a tricky situation. What if you have some valid reason to talk about trans stuff. Perhaps you're trying to do outreach to the trans community for a group you are a part of. Or your brother just transitioned and you’d like the chance to put him in touch with another trans person in your small town. Or you are trans yourself and just want to connect over the shared experience for a moment.
First and foremost, make certain not to say anything that could out them to others. If they are with folks who look like coworkers or family, perhaps just drop it for safety's sake. Even with no one else around, asking them directly if they are trans or otherwise implying that you know they are trans is usually considered very intrusive. Additionally, a lot of trans people have internalized the cis-supremacist concept that being seen as trans is a failure or that it means their gender is less valid. Telling a trans woman that you know she is trans, for example, can sound like you are saying you know she is “really a man” even if that's not what you meant.
The best thing to do is to strike up conversation, as appropriate to the situation. Then bring up trans related topics that are relevant to you, again, as appropriate to the situation. Mention the work that your organization is doing and toss in the stuff around trans people. Talk about your family and how your brother just came out to you as trans. Mention something going on in your life that relates to being trans. And if you’ve got the chance, mention these things to other people in the vicinity too. Beyond anything else, put yourself out there as someone available to talk to. Then it is in their hands whether to come out to you or not. And if they choose not to, be respectful of that decision.