The Cis Gaze

I took off the dress, and put my suit, shirt and tie back on. “Perfectly normal young man,” said the psychiatrist, approvingly, finishing off the aversion therapy. I saw my body as wrong, so now I was an adult I hid it. My arms were too thin, my sternum too prominent. I did not enjoy team sports, only swimming.

The white gaze socially constructs Blackness, the male gaze objectifies women, through the power to control, but my view of my body as unmanly and therefore inferior and inadequate must have come from somewhere.

Here are some men, looking at art, and some of them are frankly ogling. Yes it’s culture, the technical skill and Titian in the forefront of innovation, with the ambiguity of a woman either covering herself or playing with herself, where the ambiguity is part of the artist’s skill and the value of the picture, but it’s also a naked lady. Other men look at naked men, also aroused. I wonder what Zoffany thought of that. I can see it as inclusion, with the man on the right above described and acknowledged not condemned.

I had come across Zoffany, or Zaufallij, before, but got this, Tribuna of the Uffizi, from Mary Beard’s documentary Shock of the Nude. That also had the artist Jemima Stehli talking about a series of photos of her, aged 39, stripping in front of men. Nobody is in control, so that the woman can be powerful and sexual and objectify herself and still be interesting, intellectual, all the other things that she also wants to be. At art school I was a feminist but I wasn’t happy with 80s black and white feminist simplification and especially the idea of demonising men. She claims the power, and some women, not all, have it, even though men tend to be larger and stronger, which can count for a lot. There is power in having what men want, though danger when men feel entitled to take it. The photos are taken from behind her, facing the man. One looks uncomfortable.

Now, others may see me as a freak, a cat to kick for the lowest-status straight male, and often I limit my attention in the street so I do not consciously notice if someone has read me and is shocked, amused or disgusted by seeing a trans woman, but after transition was the first time I started to love my body and see it as beautiful rather than malformed. There is relentless hostility seeking to make us an out-group, but it does not affect how I see my body. My body is fitting, doing what I need it to do, enjoyably. Valuing my character has been a long struggle, helped on by others’ regard, valuing what I was taught to denigrate. “Soft, gentle, peaceful… truth and courage” came from one man. Despising softness and seeing it in myself came from the culture, boys at school, so many influences until it was as commonsensical as gravity, and moving to value it was a hard, drawn-out process of which transition was only the start.

I have redefined the word- from “soft as shite”, a direct quote from someone, I remember where we were, who he was, in about 1980, to softness as strength, for healing and peacemaking. Others would change the word, to “squishy”- I remember reading that too, from a TERF- calling to mind the softness of a ripe peach and the squishiness of a peach that has gone off without ever properly ripening.

My glance of approval in the mirror, or a distressed “Oh God I look like a man,” seem to come from general self-confidence rather than any actual change in appearance. Others seem to have the same experience, sometimes feeling alright enough, sometimes desperately unconfident, which leeches into everything, including how we see ourselves.

We are seen, and despised, controlled, made to serve. There is the “male gaze”, conceptualised by and for feminists, where men define women, their regard showing their power and control, where men film women, male cinematographers and directors display women to male audiences, with women tagging along. The woman is Other, and Less, primarily emotional rather than rational because her emotions are denigrated rather than affirmed as a man’s are. Critical Whiteness Studies can adopt this concept: the Black person is Othered by the white Gaze.

I hardly know, for myself. I tried to pass as a man, to make a man of myself, for Being a Man was good and if I could develop particular traits, and strengthen my body- going out running until my tendon gave way, taking long walks with a rucksack filled with bricks- I might be OK. And that was based on denigration, of my natural traits. I too reject the black and white feminist simplification: if there was a Rightness in Men, to be affirmed by Patriarchy, it was not in me; I had to ape it as best I could. Now, stopping trying to ape it, attempting to find myself under the male act, value myself under the denigration I received, has some benefits and some disadvantages. Walking down the street I may be obviously queer in a way that I was not, wearing that dark grey suit and silk tie. And I despise myself less, so torture myself less, so my pain lessens, slowly.

Recently I attempted to use words to describe a process of acceptance of another human being as she is. What is our thoughtless attitude? To reject and condemn. This woman does that, which we cannot tolerate in the Quaker meeting. We would start with our Testimony to Equality, tolerating as we expect her to learn the rules by osmosis, and eventually get more and more tetchy as she should have had time to obey the rules until we make her uncomfortable and drive her off.

Doing that meant writing about the woman from the view of the powerful person who rejects, even while preserving his self-image as a wise, generous acceptor, before saying we must see it in a different way, and expand our concepts of normal and acceptable. She was hurt by my gaze, though I inhabited the gaze of the powerful person only to show that their view should be changed, to see her not as that unacceptable thing, but as within the range of normal and acceptable.

I suppose saying “Some see you as this” is threatening and dehumanising, reminding of rejection, even though I name it in order to bring it into full view, critique it and dispatch it. I was trying to be an ally, but I have been angry with allies before, and praised them. I should have been clearer. And, in part, it was me. I was uncomfortable with particular characteristics, before making the decision to see them as positive. It’s my process. This is the human being. Calling aspects objectionable as a way to make her pitiable, or to drive her away, is wrong. I will not do it, because I would benefit if I gained her perspective, understanding and companionship. But for me that has to be a conscious process. I see the exclusionary acts I commit without thinking, because now I am making an effort to notice them, in the hope that I will learn better habits, that inclusion through practice can become habitual. Writing, I observe that process of exclusion or inclusion in me and others, to call it out.

Lionel Shriver, novelist, wants to write any story she can imagine, without regard to “call-out culture”, wokeness or political correctness. {Content warning: there’s a nasty sideswipe or two at trans folk.} Um. Sometimes we want to tell our stories ourselves, resenting the privilege or luck that gives others platforms. Sometimes we resent stories of trans women who are always victims, or deceitful, or messed up, and want stories of our success. Allies have to be careful. People hurt, and feel justifiable anger.

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