My spouse and I just returned from a week in the Shenandoah Mountains, where we spent our time split between pursuits in the great outdoors hiking and exploring caves, and time as two women exploring shopping and dining experiences. The area is rich in natural beauty while still having the proximity of the civilized world when wanted or needed. We did, while were there, notice some key differences between rural New England and rural Virginia in being transgender and in the experiences noted by us both.
Our first foray out was to do some shopping in the nearby city of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Harrisonburg is a typical middle class city in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley that has the added advantage of several large colleges within it's boundaries. As a result, the population draws a cultural distinction from two general repositories; those who are the local residents and those who are of or involved with the student or faculty body of the school systems present. The dichotomy is sharply distinct and the types of reactions and levels of awareness in being transgender are equally so as well as a result.
We decided to test the waters at a variety of demographic levels by taking up stores that ranged from J.C. Penny and Belks to the Good Will store down the street. In every store, I was treated with respect and dignity as a woman and with no qualms or question as to who I am. Dressing rooms or bathrooms were never a problem. I will admit that I may have had a bit of anxiety entering into one dressing room where it seemed a flurry of women were all in various states of dress and standing at the hallway mirror in various states of repose, but none questioned my presence and my own level of confidence was equally received in return.
Dinner that evening was at the local Red Lobster where the waitress seated us in a booth that was well visible to all of the other patrons. Not a single person, save for one, made enough visual observation to note any anomalous variances save for one. Interestingly, it was the wife of an elderly man who whispered into the ear of her husband something that led to his staring at me for most of the next 20 minutes or so with occasional giggling as was noted. Likely, his wife informed him that I was not natal female but... and this was the key take-away, he could not stop looking at me. It was never noted by my spouse to be a negative look but a constant one, almost as if in fascination and that he had to laugh off the dichotomy of something attractive but alien in his own mind. His wife could care less and never bothered to look again, and the young boy with them, likely a grandchild, had something muttered to him, to which he looked once and then that was it...no big deal.
The waitress was so very nice to us. She continually came by to check on us but it was not for the novelty, we could both tell. She comped us our coffees for the evening and offered to make us a complimentary one to go. She brewed us a fresh pot and because they had run out of those little cardboard holders, manufactured one for us out of folded napkins and scotch tape. She thanked us for coming in and looked directly at me when she said, "I really want to thank you both for coming in to dine with us tonight". I thought her remark to be so interesting that it led me to suspect that either she knew someone who was transgender or that she respected the courage I had to to be who I am. Either way, she made it clear to us in a positive way that our presence was appreciated.
A couple of days later, we decided to dine out at one of Harrisonburg's best Italian Restaurants. The nice thing about dining in upscale restaurants in rural America is in the fact that the prices tend to mimic what one would pay at an average chain back in New England; a fact that made the expense that much easier to bear! It was a late evening dinner as we had just come back from a long hike in the Shenandoah Mountains. Arriving at the restaurant in the cool and enveloping dark of an early autumn eve, we entered the restaurant and were led to a table in the main dining area and were seated. Two businessmen sat across from us talking of their day's pursuits. One seemed interested in my presence with a look I have grown used to as most women likely do and must become accustomed to. His note of the diamond wedding ring casually flashed gave him sufficient note to return to his conversation and dinner. The rest of the restaurant seemed to be made up primarily of couples of a variety of ages and one single woman dining alone. Interestingly, it was the older women who seemed to be the ones who gave us the most scrutiny. They would tend to draw their gaze equally between my spouse and myself apparently bored by their non-talkative spouses as they slurped away at their food. I wondered what they were thinking... were they friends? co-workers? lesbians? A moment of thought and even they too, returned to their own interests at their table. Of anyone there in that restaurant, we were dressed the most elegantly and there was some level of perception made of that fact by the women as they scanned what we wore. Tasteful and appropriate would be the only descriptors which would come to mind in place of the many women who wore a more haphazard and non-matching array of vestments.
It was the waiter who began to engage us in conversation as the evening wore on that really provided for a wonderful experience. We began to talk and in our conversation, it became apparent when I began to ask about alternative clubs in the area that the topic of being transgender came up. I explained of the challenges both personally and at a societal level of being different in the world and it was then that he identified of his own variance and how difficult it was living in the area as such. He confirmed that on the one hand, how the college brought in outside thought and forward thinking to a staid town with an older generation that had no conception of the LGBT realm. He offered to take us to a local club when he got off work later that evening which I thought was such a wonderful and warm gesture of friendship. But... after a day hiking miles in the mountains, my spouse was tired and I could see it in her eyes as well. We vowed afterwards, to come back one day in the near future, and to try to take this offer up.
All in all, what I noticed is two fold and divided between the younger collegiate crowd and the older, native population. Among the older population, I was more transparent than anywhere else, primarily because many had likely not seen a person who was transgender and could not even imagine it... so I was off the radar. The younger crowd generally picked up faster but was incredibly supportive when they did find out. Mostly it was the women in the younger crowd while the men, of all generations, simply saw an attractive woman. I was told that evening, that being GLBT in the city was more highly tolerated than outside in some of the backwater towns where unwelcoming stories could be told. It helped to be as passable as possible here and although every area has it's own temperament, and it's own heartbeat, each has its own levels of understanding, perception and a whole different set of triggers which one must be aware of.
It was also of note that in the times that I spent in my "male" mode, that I was mammed or given odd visual gesticulations in a number of instances. At one gas station, I was approached by a male attendant, while seated in my car with the door open, and addressed as miss. In another instance, a woman saw me exiting a men's room at a convenience store and stopped to look at the door, at me and then at the door again. She paused long enough to take care that she entered the correct restroom. I thought it was a figment of my imagination until my spouse brought it to my attention separately and asked, "Did you see that woman who just passed by you?". We both had a good laugh on that one. Interestingly, it is becoming more the normative for me to note this peculiarity in my guy mode than in my girl mode. One year ago, this was not so and the only puzzlement opportunities arose, if any, when I presented as female. Now the tables have turned and I find that I have crossed an invisible line which I never knew I was standing on until I was on the other side.
For us both, it was a wonderful and affirming experience and I am looking forward to the next generation of individuals who will be inhabiting our planet for they seem to be the ones who bring with them, the notions of tolerance and acceptance, to a wider degree than has been known in years past.