“I Never Would Have Guessed”

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I don’t tell many people that I’m trans. Or rather, I don’t tell many cis, straight people that I’m trans. I don’t like the questions, the assumptions, the way it makes me subtly different in their eyes. I don’t like being the first or the only trans person someone knows. And I don’t like the surprise.

“I never would have guessed” is a response I hear pretty routinely when I share that I am trans. Sometimes this is a pure expression of surprise; other times, people seem to think it’s some kind of compliment.

This isn’t the worst response–it’s intended to be positive and it indicates that others are reading my gender correctly. I know many other trans people pray for the day they hear something like “I never would have guessed.”

Yet I really dislike hearing this. When I hear “I never would have guessed,” I hear that this person has a narrow, stereotyped idea of what it is to be trans, that this narrow definition mysteriously excludes me, and that this person has no familiarity at all with the trans community.

First, why the hell do people expect they’ll be able to guess? The shock at not having guessed suggests that the person assumed they would be able to guess who is and is not trans. I have no idea on what basis these people believe they can spot trans folks. I guess they believe that all trans people look, act and/or speak in a certain way. This is the very definition of stereotype.

And, why does their image of “trans” exclude somebody like me? Seriously, who are these people picturing? I can’t help but have the sinking sensation that when these folks hear “trans” they have a very offensive caricature come to their minds and can’t think beyond it. Trans = “man in a dress” to them? I don’t know.

I have a horrible feeling it is the fact that I seem “normal” to these people. This leaves me so offended from so many different angles. First, what the hell, trans people are normal. Second, double what the hell, why are you so wedded to your crappy limiting idea of who gets to be a legitimate person?

Then there’s the way this seems to be intended as a compliment. Talk about back-handed: “You’re so normal/gender-conforming/etc., I never would have guessed you’re that weird thing that you indeed are.” This is based completely on the idea that trans people are valuable only to the extent we resemble cis people. It’s a little pat on the head for conforming satisfactorily to cis-normativity and the gender system in general. I deeply resent the idea that I should be flattered for not seeming too similar to my own community.

The funny thing is, for folks who are familiar with our community, I am actually very a typical trans guy. Come on: I am a 5’5″ male feminist; I seem queer in a rather ambiguous way; I love riot grrrl music; my partner is a queer femme; etc. There’s a lot of variation and it’s hard to pin down, but there’s a certain style among young trans guys, and I definitely have it. I don’t know why or even how this happens, but my haircut, glasses, tattoos and clothes are all just…very trans. When I see pictures of other twenty-something trans dudes on the internet, sometimes I’m just scrolling through going, “That’s my haircut. I have those shoes. Wait, is that me?” People who actually interact with the community are never surprised to learn I’m trans.

Maybe the worst part about “I never would have guessed” is, how the hell do you respond to that? I usually just give a weird smile and slowly back away. I am tempted to ask for a detailed explanation of why they would not have guessed. Instead of implying all this weird crap, I’d like to hear the person actually admit that, for example, they assumed I was not trans because I am clearly male, or whatever. Then we could address the weird ideas they are carrying around.

Has anyone ever told you they never would have guessed that you’re trans? How did you respond?

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8 comments

  1. Mia (genderdrift)

    I’m too early in my transition to have gotten the “never would have guessed!” but I’ve seen other people get it online, on Twitter for instance.

    I share your concern in how it’s delivered. It always seems to be done like it’s supposed to be some big compliment, almost as if they’re saying “I never would have guessed you’d be one of those ghastly things, congratulations! You pass for one of us!”

    Bleh.

  2. pasunhomme

    I think it’s just the magic of testosterone, especially if you have a beard. Trans women are much more visible.

    While I understand how it may seem to be back-handed, I believe that when nine out of ten people say this, it has nothing to do with prejudice against trans people. It’s a genuine expression of surprise and validation your self-image and presentation. I mean, how would you like it if they said, “duh, I knew…no real men are that short and your beard is all patchy” or even “okay…well, how ’bout those Giants?” The question of how to respond is equally fraught for the person presented with the disclosure that you are trans.

    • rimonim

      Yeah, the way our society relies on testosterone-based cues is definitely part of it–most post-transition guys get read as male 99.9999% of the time. But I do know of trans women who also experience this.

      As I said, this is far from the worst thing someone could say–obviously somebody calling me fake would be worse. However, I have had plenty of people express surprise in a way that didn’t feel so back-handed (“Oh, I didn’t realize that!”).

      It comes down to the way it’s said like a compliment.

  3. Lesboi

    I’ve only ever gotten it online while playing games as a male character. My true essence comes through without the hindrance of seeing my face or hearing my voice to throw them off. I’ve told a couple gaming friends and they couldn’t believe it but it was cool. Personally, I think people mean this as a compliment and I would take it that way. Yeah, it speaks to assimilating and fitting in as your true gender but for many that is the goal. If your goal is to be visibly trans I don’t even know how to begin to do that. I suspect I might be visibly trans at this point since I seem to be confusing to a lot of people and also my looks have changed in the past couple of years so folks I haven’t told might suspect that I am trans.

    • rimonim

      I hear that–and actually, I did take this as a compliment the first few times I heard it. My goal is not to be visibly trans; I’m comfortable being read as male and leaving it at that. But on the occasions I choose to share my trans status, it just makes me feel so damn weird when people praise me for how well I pass. I deeply appreciate how easily I move through the world as a man. But when a cis person compliments me for passing, it creeps me out and it makes me wonder how they view trans folks who don’t blend in so easily. “I never never would have guessed” always sounds like “I never would have guessed you were one of those people.”

      • Lesboi

        I think a bit of it could be that most people view men and women as SO different that they find it very hard to believe that one could transform their physical form to the extent that they would not still have some outward hint of your original birth assignment, if that makes any sense. I think they find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t be able to pick up on something that clued them into the fact that you weren’t born a male. But, yeah, I do get what you’re saying.

  4. chivalrysundead

    So a few days ago when I read this I had never experienced this feeling, so I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it. But I just had my first run-in with it, and I must say you are right. This is easily one of the most frustrating “compliments” in existence. Thanks for sharing.

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