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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

Collapsing the gender wave function

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As with most of you, my emotional state is all over the place right now during this pandemic. However, being trans and having recently come out complicates the picture for sure. I’m largely doing fine, and staying at home is giving me lots of chances to experience euphoria. (Thank you, online shopping!) Nevertheless, not going to work and seeing my colleagues and students means I miss out on other, daily chances for affirmation and to further my social transition.

I feel very lucky that I came out when I did. Originally, I had considered waiting until May or even the end of June to transition in the workplace. Can you imagine dealing with that in this current situation? I probably just wouldn’t have, and I would have chafed and felt extremely … constrained. My heart goes out to all the trans people who were planning to come out and currently feel unsafe or suddenly unready to do so. Fortunately for me, I came out and transitioned in the workplace just before this all started. Even as the entire world feels uncertain, I get to ride that uncertainty towards, hopefully, a new certainty about myself. However, the most complicated part of my journey right now is wrestling with how staying at home affects my understanding of my gender expression and identity.

A Tree in the Forest

In quantum mechanics, the wave function is a mathematical description of this set of all possible states of a quantum mechanical system. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics hold that making measurements of the system “collapses the wave function.” (What, exactly, that phrase means—or even if it happens—is literally the largest open problem in quantum mechanics.)

See, it’s the observation of the system’s state that finally causes the wave function to collapse (this is what the infamous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment tries to analogize. Without an external observer to take a measurement, the state’s wave function remains in a superposition of all possible states.

That’s what my gender feels like right now, at least sometimes.

Identity vs Expression

A quick primer for y’all about gender identity versus gender expression.

Gender identity is what you feel, on the inside, about your gender. In many cases this is a simple noun: man, woman, non-binary person. For some people, it is much more complicated. Their understanding of their gender might be very fluid, queer, etc. There are many labels used to help people understand their gender identity.

My gender identity is “woman” or “female.” Gender identity, you see, is entirely distinct from one’s sex or one’s gender assigned at birth. It has nothing to do with your genitals, your chromosomes, or any physical characteristics. I am a woman now and remain so regardless of whether or not I have had medical interventions, changed my name legally, etc.

Gender expression (sometimes presentation) is how you present yourself to others. We use adjectives like masculine, feminine, androgynous, etc., when we describe this. Gender expression is most often associated with clothing and makeup (or lack thereof) but can also include mannerisms, speech, and other behaviours. We often make assumptions about someone’s gender identity based on their expression; alternatively, sometimes we make assumptions about their sexuality.

It’s important to remember that identity and expression are separate yet related concepts. Clothing, for example, isn’t what makes me female. I could be wearing very masculine clothes, and I would still want you to call me Kara and use she/her pronouns for me. On the flip side, someone else might wear dresses and tight clothes but want to use he/him pronouns.

But Who’s My Observer?

I don’t want to say that gender identity doesn’t matter when you’re by yourself. Of course it does. However, our internalized identities are influenced a great deal by how we interact with our society. When I was in the process of grappling with my trans awakening (if I may be so grandiose as to call it that) and coming out, one of the things I most anticipated was how this would change my social interactions. I was gradually changing the way I dress and act in spaces like my local yarn store, and then of course at work, and also even just moving around the city.

With isolation and physical distancing, along with the closing of non-essential businesses … I have fewer opportunities for people to see my new gender expression. Even interacting with colleagues and students by video chat isn’t the same. They can’t really see all the cool new looks I’m trying, or notice the makeup I might or might not feel like experimenting with that day.

So on one hand, these weeks alone at home have been a boon. They have let me shop online and try out new looks comfortably. I don’t have to make a tough decision about whether to take a chance on wearing a new dress to work and hoping it works for me for the whole day.

On the other hand, because I am alone at home so much, my confidence in my gender identity has not grown as much as it would if I were interacting regularly with people, in person, as Kara.

I’m a tree in a forest, and no one is around to hear me roar.

I Want to Be a Woman

I am a woman, of course. That is my identity, no aspirations needed: I am a woman. But I am also a woman in transition towards being her most authentic self. After spending so long living as a man, I have a lot to learn about what it means, for me personally, to live as a woman.

The trouble is, when I’m home by myself … very little has changed. I mean, I don’t have to worry about slipping out of the clothes I want to wear now when I take out the trash can or go for a walk. But it’s not like I’ve suddenly changed a lot about my routine. I still do all the things around the house I normally do. The truth is, my lifestyle just isn’t particularly gendered one way or another.

My HRT initial appointment was cancelled one day before it was supposed to happen. I was surprised by how that made me feel. Although I’m looking forward to the changes HRT will bring for me, mentally and physically, I didn’t think I was that urgently feeling the need for it, you know? Prior to this pandemic, I probably would have told you that I’d start HRT “whenever” and be fine until then. Now, not being on HRT chafes at me. Yet, I still don’t feel like I need HRT to feel like a woman, so why did this cancellation bother me so much?

Now I understand that it’s really just symptomatic of this larger issue: I feel stymied. HRT was one of many transition goals towards which I was striving. Now, most of those goals are literally unattainable in the near-term despite being eminently attainable mere months ago. Even when it comes to something like my wardrobe, which I’ve been doing a wonderful job at building, I can’t attain the goal of becoming comfortable in those clothes until I’ve had the opportunity to function socially in them.

Do I feel euphoria? For sure. But it’s momentary bursts from superficial things rather than the sustained satisfaction created by meaningful affirmation within society. That doesn’t make it any less valid or valuable. But it’s the difference between doing a massive workout once a week versus smaller workouts throughout the week: there’s a lack of consistency.

I’m stuck. I’m a woman trying to become a woman but with precious few options open to her when it comes to exploring her womanhood. Yes, I can talk to my friends. I guess I can work on my voice, and sit passively by while my hair grows painfully slowly. As previously noted, there are positives to this current situation, and I am doing my best to harness them and make progress in small ways. I am very much a pragmatist, and there is literally nothing I can do to change what’s happening, so I have to accept it even if it sucks.

But it still sucks.

Sum Over All Histories

One day this will end. I don’t want to play the prognostication game of predicting how, when, or through what series of events. But it will end. This is a crisis, not a new normal.

One day I will get to press play again and move forward along my gender journey. What will that look like for me?

It means wearing cute dresses and skirts to work and to play. Starting hormones and adjusting to the changes they bring. Finding a balance between working at my gender expression and simply enjoying my gender expression. Going shopping with my friends, getting their help with my expression, feeling loved and supported all the while. It means making new friends, or forging stronger friendships with my existing acquaintances, as Kara, and figuring out what it means and how to relate to people now that I finally get to be “one of the girls” like I have, deep down, always wanted to be.

I started a private Instagram account a couple of weeks into this pandemic. I didn’t want to overload my friends by texting them pics every time new clothes came in! It has proved a valuable outlet where I can document my transition with a controlled environment—sorry, rando Internet person reading this, but I don’t post everything about my life in public!

I want to end with a big shout-out and thank you to everyone who has been liking, and especially commenting on those photos. Same goes to everyone else who has sent me encouraging or affirming comments through other channels. Those are appreciated during the best of times. In these times, after reading this post, I hope you understand how much more they are appreciated. Please, keep them coming. You never know when you leave a comment if it’s going to be the one that I read when I’m experiencing a sliver of doubt or distress, and your gentle reassurance helps nudge me back on the sunny side of life. Your words have power, especially now.

Keep being kind to each other, and we’ll find our way forward.