If you google “being seen,” you’ll pull up a near-infinite aggregate of motivational infographics and lists of quotes. Most of these quotes can be categorized as such: to be seen is to be vulnerable; to be seen is to be loved; to be seen is to be powerful; to be seen is to be understood.
As reductive as it seems, any (or all) of these usually ring true with the same certainty as a horoscope or a Hogwarts house.
None of them quite articulate what “being seen” actually means in practice, though philosophers, academics, romantics and life coaches have all taken the floor on it. But in doing so, they’re taking on the role of the “seer,” which, quite literally, places them at the direct opposite observational vantage of the “seeing” binary.
Not everything about me is as it seems.
I hit the winning combo in the genetic lottery: I’m both transgender and disabled (psychologically and physically).
When I was younger, my body felt like a foreign land, and I felt like a clumsy tourist. Every attempt at blending in was a laughable failure. I dribbled liquids down my chin, which before hormone replacement therapy was far too round to be butch and too doughy to be cut like a Kardashian.
Until I got orthotics and top surgery, I stumbled like a toddler wearing dad’s closet and looked the part, too. When I practised sounding more masculine, I also had to take into account how to sound like an average human and not like an alien emulating a human. It took time, and a lot of intervention, to become a naturalized citizen in my own body using accommodations; affirming undergarments, aesthetic and functional prosthetics, and all types of surgeries and therapies.
But for all my efforts, I am still not what one would call “passing,” which is the fine art of being discreet: to be “unseen”. In my wheelchair, in this body, I am hardly discreet, and I always catch someone’s attention, even if it’s just for a split second.
Let me break it down for you:
My face, semi-lopsided as it is (shout-out to palsy), teeters the board between “adolescent” and “bourbon barrel-aged,” and the small scruff of a goatee does more to obfuscate the truth than to give validation.
My shoulders play a similar balancing act (one tilts just ever-so-higher than the other.) My skin is buttery smooth, except for my hands: long and gnarled like a cypress in the bog. My chest is flat, but my legs bow inward like an archer’s perfect fantasy. The chair I sit in is svelte and petite, custom-measured to my ergonomic needs, and it bewilders people to see it fly on its own.
All that, and I usually have a large dog escorting me. Believe me, everyone notices dogs in public.
This doesn’t bother me so much, at least not anymore. I’ve learned to find love and excitement, not only for my body and all its idiosyncrasies but for the vibrant trans and disabled community (which each have more in common with each other than differences).
What stresses me out is anticipating how I’m being perceived by cisgender people and by able-bodied and neurotypical people. Our encounters may be incidental, and we may not even exchange more than passing glances, but in those few fleeting moments, I have an image to maintain, lest I disappoint.
I usually don’t have to wonder what people think when they look at me. Usually, the words just fall out. “I could never be in a wheelchair,” they murmur without breaking eye contact.
This kind of reaction could mean they’re afraid of me, or at least of what sitting in a wheelchair represents a loss of control; but it could also be a sense of awe: a confession that they don’t imagine themselves able to stay the course if something were to go awry. In either case, they just can’t see themselves living like me.
When I hear; “All right, man, take it easy,” any ease I felt prior seizes like a record scratch. I know that when I open my mouth, I have to hit the right pitch and say the right words with the right inflexions (the way a normal person would say them), or things just won’t be “all right” anymore. If I’m lucky, there will just be an awkward, “Oh, sorry, I thought…”, and I’ll nod.
They’ll see that I know how to fill in the blanks, so they won’t have to.
I mentioned before how the disabled community and trans community have more in common with one another than not. Both communities are filled with strong advocates for seamless social equity and ease of access to consistent and competent comprehensive medical care.
Both communities are also filled with the most vulnerable and susceptible to medical neglect, housing instability (stats for disabled folk, here, and trans folk, here), and police brutality (up to half of police brutality cases target disabled people, and many trans victims of assault are criminalized).
Speaking on my experiences as a trans person could easily be interchangeable with my experiences as a disabled person, or maybe one just can’t be true without the other.
I qualified for a power-assisted manual wheelchair due to the loosey-goosey quality of my joints. “Girl, why don’t you just get a power chair?”, the trainman asked while loading me up the platform. I couldn’t admit that sometimes I enjoy the freedom of propelling myself. I don’t have enough time to explain that, should I run out of battery and strand myself, I’d rather not hold my breath and clench while strangers touch and fondle my chair and graze sensitive regions of my body to extract me from my plight.
I don’t have the courage to correct him, to tell him that behind my cloth mask, I’m not a girl. It gets more even tenser when I draw even more attention. “Is everything alright?” “She’s stuck.” “Is he?” “I…” it takes a second to process; At that moment, the world stands still, “… think so?”
If I’m being perfectly frank, most of these encounters I’m comfortable sharing are benign. Very rarely in Meatspace does anyone out-and-out tell me “Fuck you, tr**ny” or “Just die, cr*pple.” (Online is much different.)
But “benign,” in the medical sense, doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t present like with the example of benign tumours, it just means that the problem isn’t “malignant” by nature. Benign masses still impose pressure on the surrounding tissue and cause stress in everyday life. Benign microaggressions still register on the day-to-day pain scale, and they are still symptomatic of an overall dysfunction and a chronic social disease.
None of these experiences feels like being “seen,” at least not in the way that the motivational quotes describe. What I feel is that to the outsider, I will always be “perceived” for what I may be rather than truly “seen” for who I am. The people who “see” me, the “seers,” are other queer people and other disabled people. They are the ones who understand what it’s like to be in this world; the ones who love and uplift each other with pride; the ones who feel the energy a shared power; the ones who are unafraid to be intimate in our vulnerability.