June 17, 2013
The Invisible Gorilla
In “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intentions Deceive Us” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the authors describe a test where they ask test subjects (college students) to watch a short video (about a minute) of two teams of basketball players and count silently the number of passes between the one of the teams (excluding those on the other team or between teams). During the video a person in a gorilla suit comes onto the court, thumps her chest (as gorillas do), and walks off. At the conclusion of the test, the subjects are asked for their count, and then asked if they saw anything unusual during the video. Surprisingly, about half of the test subjects don’t report the gorilla. This phenomena is known as “inattentional blindness”.
I am the gorilla.
I didn’t think I was the gorilla, but let me tell you my true story.
Over the last six years, Anh and I had travelled to many places, had many meals out (and many drinks), and in the course of our travels had met a ton of people. We were memorable. Anh would comment that people remembered me (I thought it was my sparkling personality) – maybe it was the fact that we were outliers as well. (I am pretty tall).
I had been very curious what would happen as we went back to these places post my re-transition. Two patterns have developed. One case is that the people will say “You cut your hair!”- followed by some combination of “Wow, you are gray!” or “I like it better!” or “When are you growing it out again?”. Others simply recognize us, and move on.
Only two times has there been any recognition that I was previously “Megan” and now “Michael”.
One case was with our dry cleaning lady – we have been going to the same local place in Seattle for the past six years. The first time I went back in to pickup, she said hi to me, and without giving my name she went to go get our order (I was by myself). I paid, and was about to leave, and she said to me, with a little wry smile and laugh – “You look different, and a different name too!”. She knew.
The second case was a restaurant in Vegas where we’ve gone at least four or five times a year, and got to know the staff by name. We were back last month with friends and they also had figured it out. Mrs. Wallent was now Mr. Wallent.
Back in Seattle, Anh and I were having a drink at a bar that we go to at least once a month. We had chatted with the bartender a bunch previously (because I have a sparkling personality) and talked to her a bunch about her wedding, their company softball game, and other mundane stuff. She also really wanted to know *why* I cut my hair. If the place is loud, and its not really possible to get out the whole story, I’ll usually say “Long story” and leave it at that. I gave her the “Long story” answer and we went about finishing our drinks. We got up to left, and almost were at the door, and she came up behind me and said “No, really – tell me why.” I gave her the 30 second summary – trans, sick, retransitioned, short hair, etc. She looked at me and said “Are you growing it back out?”.
The gorilla said no. Even when told exactly what to look for – she missed the gorilla.
I play pickup volleyball at a local club. I had started to play again last summer regularly, but then I broke my finger and then was sick and hadn’t played again till last month. One of the women that I had played with (co-ed), and who I had known in a passing way at work was there last week. Toward the end of the night, she said to me from across the net – “Megan! Hi, I didn’t recognize you with the short hair. Good to see you!”. I said hi back, and we went on playing. I had never thought that this was a likely outcome pre-re-transition. And, while I started to hear the haircut comment right away, after two months and tens of occurrences, I can add to the case history of Invisible Gorillas.
I don’t there is any meanness or lack of tolerance to any of this. More than anything, it’s an example of how people see what they are expecting to see. There is not expectation of gender fluidity – and people don’t see it when it happens.
Last year with the whole broken finger saga – the exact opposite was true. I had some sort of splint/cast/wrap on my hand for four months. People saw that immediately – and asked what was wrong with my hand.
One other anecdote – one of the last things that I had to update was my Nexus card (which is a trusted traveler program to go back and forth from Canada). To do this, I needed to go to the Customs and Border Protection office at Boeing Field. The agents who work in the office were the same people who were there two years ago when I went originally. When I went in to meet with them I had to tell the agent my whole story – I lead with “I have to do a name change – and updated passport, license and some other stuff.” After I told her the story, she said “I would never have guessed, I couldn’t tell that you were ever female.”