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Packing as Code-Switching: What’s In My Pants, and When, and Why

A guy walked in on me today in the bathroom at work. It was entirely my own fault; I was sleepy, and I had forgotten to click the lock on the single-stall men’s room. He retreated at once, but I had to wonder what he saw.

At a glance, I’m sure I looked no different from any cisgender guy using a toilet. There’s nothing unusual (as I often remind myself) about a man sitting down in the loo — we all have to do it sometimes, right? I could have been any man at that moment, my shirttails rumpled from being tucked into my slacks, my boxers down around my knees, and my tie dangling as I hunched over my phone. My coworker surely didn’t look long enough to register any details. Yet in the sheepish aftermath, I kept wondering: Did he notice the sock?

Yes, there was a sock between my legs.

Let me explain. When I go to work or to certain more formal events, I wear a packer, which is basically a silicone penis. Some packers are functional and may be used as an STP (Stand To Pee) device, or sometimes for sex. My packer is entirely cosmetic. Its sole purpose is to provide a realistic bulge in my slacks.

(Here’s a bit of irony: after going to the trouble of finding and purchasing a realistic packer, one that even matches my skin tone, I wear my packer inside of a sock. This is for purely practical reasons. It’s a lot easier to throw a sock through the wash than it is to scrub silicone, and while I only own one packer, I have plenty of socks to switch out while one is being washed.)

My decision about whether or not to pack for a particular day is usually a question of wardrobe. Wearing a tie and khakis? Put on the packer. T-shirt and jeans? Packer stays home. This means that in general, I am packing 100% of the time at work, and close to nil in my personal life.

When I first started packing, it was because I had just started work as a college professor. I was in the early stages of my medical transition, and though my voice had dropped and my binder kept my chest reasonably flat, I couldn’t yet grow a beard or even male-signifying stubble. I was nervous about standing in front of a class as my not-quite-complete self. My job is to be watched; I have to capture and hold the attention of a group of late teens and early twenty-somethings, and when they’re seated at desks while I stand by the board, their eyes are naturally at crotch height. I didn’t want to risk questions — or worse, whispers — about what was not in my pants.

Yet in my everyday life, I never think about packing. Even when wearing relatively tight jeans, I never consider what people might think of my decidedly not-bulging anatomy. I know that some trans* men use packers to counteract dysphoria, that simply feeling the weight of it helps to ease the profound distress that many transgender people feel when they’re stuck in a body that doesn’t align with their gender identity. That’s not the case for me. I don’t feel any more or less like myself just by wearing a packer; I would never, for example, bother to wear it when I’m at home alone. So why do I feel the need to do it in public, and specifically on the job?

As I transition, my masculine gender expression is challenged much less frequently, and then I start to question the steps I take to reinforce my presentation as male. Some things, like wearing a beard or a tie, I do because I like them. I like the way that facial hair and men’s clothing make me look and feel, and the fact that they are such strong signifiers of masculine identity certainly doesn’t hurt. Other things, though, like wearing a packer and a chest binder, have no intrinsic value to me. These extra bits of wardrobe are uncomfortable and inconvenient; I wear them not because I want to, but because I feel like I have to.

As I thought more about my trans* wardrobe this year, I realized that switching back and forth — wearing a packer to work, then taking it off when I go home and go out with friends — represents a kind of physical code-switching. I alter the dialect of my gender expression depending on the “listeners” around me and how comfortable I feel with them. This is especially evident with my chest binder. I wear it whenever I leave the house for any significant period of time, no matter who I’m with, but if friends come over to visit, they’ll know we’re close if I excuse myself to go change out of my binder and into a baggy shirt.

When I realized how much I was allowing other people’s perceptions to dictate what I wore and how comfortable I was, I felt immediately rebellious. After all, I told myself, what does it matter what students think of my crotch? They probably don’t notice anything. And aren’t there plenty of cisgender men with bigger chests than mine who walk around every day, unchallenged and unperturbed?

I made up my mind: I was going to stop wearing a packer to work. It was silly, I told myself, and was evidence of nothing but my own insecurities. I wasn’t yet ready to give up on the chest binder, but the packer seemed like a good place to start.

On the same day that I steeled my resolve, I met up with a friend and colleague, a fellow transgender male college professor. We were discussing “teaching while trans,” and he told me the story of a time when he had disclosed his identity to a group of students. Most of the students had been respectful, he explained, but one was visibly shocked, so much that she fell out of her chair. She looked up at him and burst out,

“So that’s why there’s nothing in your pants!”

The story had a positive ending — the student kept taking courses with my colleague, and eventually told him how that disclosure had inspired her — but it also shattered my newly-formed resolution. How could I put aside my packer when I was now absolutely convinced that everyone was staring at my crotch?

That’s how it came to pass that this morning, at work, I was sitting on the can with a silicone penis, wrapped in a sock, dangling from an elastic strap around my waist.

The guy who walked in on me probably never saw the sock, and even if he had, it’s unlikely that he would connect the dots and realize that I am transgender. Yet the very fact that I was wearing a packer made me feel much less self-conscious about that embarrassing restroom moment.

I continue to wear a packer in my professional life because it acts as my armor of expectations. When I’m at home or with friends, I can feel very comfortable subverting expectations, especially gendered ones — but at work, I tend to save my fighting spirit for other things. I’d rather challenge students’ ideas about the materials they’re reading than upend their mental graphs correlating “manhood” with “observed penis.”

Sometimes I think that this makes me a coward. In a perfect world, maybe I would toss out my packer, and my chest binder too, and champion a fluid kind of masculinity. But then, in a perfect world, I’d be able to continue my medical transition to my preferred endpoint and render both packer and binder obsolete.

I often think of being transgender as living a compromise. My body doesn’t align with my gender identity; that’s a fact I have to live with. My transition is about making choices that let me express who I am, even imperfectly, and to do that I often switch the language of my gender expression according to who I’m with and what I’m trying to communicate. So for now, I’ll keep packing — it’s just another part of my gender code.

Transgender Day of Visibility and Being “Out”

Today is the sixth annual International Transgender Day of Visibility. The holiday, started in 2009 by Rachel Crandall of Transgender Michigan, acts as a happier counterpoint to the sobering Transgender Day of Remembrance, which mourns the lives that we have lost. TDoV is a celebration of trans* identities and an opportunity for trans* people to be open, to be proud, and of course, to be visible to the world around us.

Visibility is at the core of my speaking work, yet it has been a struggle in my own life. I think this is true of most trans* people. Some of us have too much visibility. We even have a term for it in our own vernacular: being “clocked” means being noticed or called out as transgender when one is trying to blend in. For trans* people who are trying to fly under the radar (note that I don’t say “pass” — I’ll explain why I hate that term in a later entry), visibility can lead to discomfort, fear, or even violence. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are especially vulnerable to hate crimes — put simply, for some trans people, visibility can be dangerous.

My struggle is with the opposite end of the spectrum: a lack of visibility. Broadly speaking, trans people are often invisible to the world at large. In 2015, most Americans know someone who is gay, or can at least name a gay celebrity; although trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have seen a flurry of attention in the past year, many people are not yet familiar with trans folks in their personal lives. Politically speaking, this is a challenge. The saying goes “you can’t hate someone whose story you know” — meaning that once we form a personal connection with people who are different from ourselves, it’s easier to understand and accept them. The opposite, sadly, is also true: it’s easy to hate (or fear) people you don’t know.

What this means for trans folks is that if people don’t know about us, it’s hard for them to empathize with us, or to resist the media caricatures of transgender people. This is why TDoV is so important for our community: the more people we can reach and connect with, the better our chances of gaining legal protection from discrimination and violence, which we sorely need.

But visibility also has a more personal side. Like most trans people who tend to be read as cisgender, I struggle with the question of when to disclose my gender identity. I don’t consider this “coming out,” because I have never been “in” — from the time I first discovered my gender identity, I have been very open and honest about it. The existence of this website means that my gender and history will never really be a secret, and I celebrate that. However, most people don’t Google me the minute we meet, so there are plenty of people in both my personal and professional life who simply don’t know that I’m trans. It’s not that I’ve kept it from them. It just hasn’t come up.

So when, if ever, do I tell people that I am transgender? My general policy is to be myself and carry on conversations without self-censorship. If something I say or do confuses someone, I’ll explain my gender identity; if it doesn’t come up, it probably isn’t relevant to the discussion. But what about days like today, when I want to speak up and identify myself even outside of a trans-related conversation?

In honor of Transgender Day of Visibility, today I started both of my classes by telling the students about my transgender identity. I gave them a brief introduction, then disclosed that I am trans and encouraged them to seek out articles or other media about trans* people, and to ask me questions if they are curious. I was met with a warm, positive, and curious response — a perfect TDoV outcome. I hope that all of my trans* and cis friends — and everyone reading this — will take a moment today to learn about trans* people, and share that moment with someone else. Spread knowledge, and stamp out hate — and let’s keep TDoV going all year long.