Like a Deer in Headlights

the hot seat

Preparing to be interviewed can only take you so far. Then, you have to be there for it.

Last week in an interview, I was asked about the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation—the difference between who we are and who we’re into. In response, I paraphrased the end of an essay I’ve written about my marriage to another transgender man: “We transitioned to match our bodies to our feelings of already being men. Our sexual orientation is who we are attracted to.”

“But don’t people find that confusing?” she asked. Startled, I responded, “I don’t see what’s so confusing about that.” My interviewer flinched. I knew then that I’d screwed up, but felt powerless to fix it. My response to her first question had taken me years to formulate. But for the rest of the interview, she seemed rushed and not quite engaged in my answers.

After a human interaction in which I think I’ve said something wrong, I get acutely anxious. I call it “the posties,” as in, “post-event anxiety.” The first time I meet someone, or after a party, meeting, or training, I will inevitably go over anything I said that seemed to provoke a negative or surprising response. Even if the rest of the encounter goes all right, I’ll review the situation in my mind for days (even years) afterward, until I figure out what I’ll do next time, if there ever is one.

I’d made a pedagogical mistake in my defensiveness, one I learned back in my college days: don’t ever say that the solution to someone’s question is simple. It makes them feel stupid for not having figured it out, themselves, when you start off your explanation dismissively, by saying things like “simply do this” or “it’s easy to….” It’s not “easy” or “simple” to the person asking the question.

I kept thinking about that interview. I know I’ll be asked this question again, in some form or another. This interviewer was extremely polite; sometimes it comes out in a far more combative way, like “Why become a man just so you can date men?” Because it isn’t the same as being a woman who dates men. Isn’t that obvious? Evidently not.

When I panic, I’m not there: I’ve dissociated and one of my fear responses has been activated. I’m fighting, running away, shutting down. When I’m being interviewed by a woman who is halfway around the world, fighting doesn’t happen with fists or yelling, but with stonewalling and shaming. I’d panicked, and evidently panicked her, as well.

I need to prepare better answers to the questions that inevitably come up, but more than this, I need to be there for the people who are asking them. No amount of preparation can substitute for awareness in the moment.

Image credit:Pete Prodoehl/Flickr

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