The New Girl: Rhyannon Styles On Being Noticed By Men

ELLE's transgender columnist describes her first experiences of the male gaze and how it made her feel as a transgender woman

MOST POPULAR

The month of April marked five years since I began living as a transgender woman called Rhyannon, and three years since I began my hormone replacement therapy.

It has taken years to achieve a feminine appearance, but the visual effects of HRT are undoubtable. I'm particularly pleased with how my body has embraced oestrogen - my smoother skin, softer face and developing female body, completely reflect how I see myself.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

My changing presentation has affected my place within society too, particularly when being on the receiving end of men's gazes.

On a recent trip home to see my family, my stepdad turned to me and exclaimed, 'You look lovely' followed by a slightly hesitant, 'Am I allowed to say that?'

This was the first time he'd praised the beauty of the woman that stood in front of him. The first time he allowed his gaze to dictate his words. It marked a turning point in his mind that I'd crossed a line.

To some people I did appear as female; while to others I looked like a feminine man

How I see myself, and how other people see me, is always going to differ.

And no matter what changes I make, I can't expect everyone to come to the same conclusion or acceptance. But it has taken me a long time to realise this.

At the beginning of my transition in 2012 and before I started to take feminising hormones, my gender was hard to pinpoint.

To some people I did appear as female; while to others I looked like a feminine man.

I wasn't cool with being perceived as a femme boy. For most of my childhood I was shamed and abused for being too 'girly' and I'd internalised that pain, making my adult life and the beginning of my transition uncomfortable.

I'd made subtle changes to reveal my female identity to the world. I'd grown my hair long, began wearing padded bras and basic female clothes. This moved me away from looking like Ryan and into a new reality.

A reality I'd wanted for a long time.

For people attracted to femininity, I was alluring.

In spring 2013 I'd gone out dancing with a group of friends to a club called Vogue Fabrics in Dalston. I felt fabulous and totally me in a new black ASOS dress and red ankle boots.

Feeling the burn on my feet I decided to sit down and rest, when a man approached me.

I'd first spotted him staring at me through the disco lights and hazy smoke about an hour before. I'd never been looked at like this before as Rhyannon.

When he sat down next to me I was very excited. I hoped it might lead to something romantic - I was more than ready.

I'd first spotted him staring at me through the disco lights and hazy smoke...I'd never been looked at like this before as Rhyannon

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Without wasting any time, he leant into my ear and said in a very matter of fact way: 'I need to know if you're a man or a woman?'

I'd never experienced anything like this before so I didn't know how to reply, but I made the decision in a split second to tell the truth.

'I'm transgender' I said, biting my lip.

With my gender identity now out in the open, and my words registering in his mind, he got up and walked off and I never saw him again.

I immediately felt redundant, ashamed and confused.

I was still finding my place in the world, and a place within myself, where I felt comfortable.

This interaction and his actions reinforced an idea that the media often portrayed. That I was a freak and I would never find a man who would accept me. I was in limbo.

This experience marked the beginning of interactions with men that were different.

Before my transition I'd identified as a gay male, and I was comfortable navigating that courtship. I ultimately understood the rules, the pageantry and the sex.

The emphasis now though was on the feminine and not the masculine. There were two experiences which proved this more than anything else.

Leaving a central London bar around 1am after a night out, I began walking the short journey to the bus stop. I was alone.

My head was telling me to move fast. Out of nowhere, a man younger than me appeared in front of me and wrapped his arms around my waist. My immediate response was to grab my clutch bag tight to my chest, but this didn't feel threatening. He was so close I could smell the alcohol on his breath. After smiling at me, he looked me dead in the eye and said -

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'What's a girl like you doing on her own?'

I mumbled a response that I was going home, scared that my deeper voice would alarm him.

'That's a shame, I'd really like to get to know you more,' he said.

'Another time' I replied and pushed his arms off me so we could both go our separate ways.

As I continued my journey home I reflected on the experience. I didn't know if the man knew that I was transgender, or even if that mattered.

My thoughts also lead me to thinking for the first time, 'Is this what some men do to single girls?'

If so, I was now on the receiving end of this behaviour. And that made me feel like I had to be more cautious than before.

My next experience was a big lesson in personal safety.

Again, returning home from a bar late one night, I decided to take a short cut through a darker street next to a local park – which is something I wouldn't have thought twice about as a man.

As I walked down the path the sound of my heeled boots ricocheted off concrete walls.

In the distance I saw a figure approaching me, so I crossed over the road to be nearer to the street lamps.

The other person did the same. Alarm bells began to ring in my ears, I hadn't been in this situation before.

As I came within metres of the figure I realised it was a man. When I tried to walk past him he blocked me by stepping into my path, he was trying to manoeuvre me towards the bushes.

His side stepping happened several times, it felt like he was playing a game. The whole time his face was totally deadpan, I couldn't figure it out.

I knew that I was in a potentially dangerous situation when it was obvious that he wasn't going to let me pass. This felt even more sinister when he said to me, 'It's cool, relax babe'.

Rhyannon before her transition

My mind was racing, desperate to find a solution, ashamed I'd made myself so vulnerable.

A few moments later a couple walking down the street inadvertently came to my rescue - their laughing and chatting were enough to distract the man.

When I saw his posture relax I took it as my cue and darted around him. Thankfully he didn't attempt to follow me as I power walked home. This time I'd gotten off lightly – I was lucky.

It was clear to me he was acting on the correct assumption that I am a woman, my trans identity didn't matter.

I was shaken by that experience, and extremely grateful that I came to no harm. I learnt that as a young woman, I can't take those short cuts or risks late at night.

This was the beginning of learning how to be streetwise as a woman – I was thirty-three and not fifteen.

Perhaps I have been wrong in my previous ideas that I didn't experience male privilege. I wonder if the park experience would've been the same if I had a male appearance? I do believe that because of my female presentation this interaction was different.

I knew I didn't want to attract this type of attention or behaviour from some males, but it made me wonder if my upbringing failed to identify this risk.

This was the beginning of learning how to be streetwise as a woman – I was thirty-three and not fifteen

I grew up, conditioned as a man in society, so I had never experienced this type of attention from other males.

Although I didn't feel like it, I'd always been seen as the man, that was my place in society.

While growing up, my experience around men was different to my cisgender female friends and I think it's important to acknowledge this.

I will never know how it feels from that point of view.

And saying this doesn't invalidate my own experience of womanhood, neither does it take anything away from my trans, feminine identity today.

There are both differences and similarities in our shared experience as women on this planet.

I've accepted that life is different now, that the world has changed because I have changed.

Holding on to old ideas stemming from my male standpoint don't translate with who I am today.

After all, I'm the new girl.


The New Girl by Rhyannon Styles, is published on 1 June (Headline, RRP £14.99)

More from ELLE UK: