You really can’t avoid watching people when you go to a big transgender conference that includes all shades of people in the community: transvestites, transsexuals, androgynes, the curious, the significant others, the invited special speakers — and all of these categories may be further broken down into full-time, part-time, occasionally, male-to-female, and female-to-male.

Sitting in the Peabody Marriott bar this past Saturday night at the Tiffany Club‘s First Event in Boston, I was struck by how diverse my community is. While it’s sometimes tempting to self-categorize in separatist ways (i.e. — “oh gawd! I hope I don’t look that trashy,” or “I would never wear spaghetti straps with shoulders that wide”), it seems far more uplifting to see similarities in our stories and struggles to understand our identities. To me, thinking or writing “I’m not one of them,” is not helpful at all, and I think this elitist/separatist sentiment is one of the things that really got people riled about Susan Stanton’s recent interviews.

I didn’t get the chance to go around and talk to every single person about their life story and how it has brought them to this particular physical and material presentation, but I did get to talk to a lot of people and confirm the similarity in so many of our stories. Sitting in the bar, sipping on a Samuel Adams, it was fun watching people dressed up for the final evening’s banquet in their finest gowns (most of them, at least), and taking guesses on their stories and garb and gestures — Trans-spotting, if you will.

  • Miss Purple Dress, a little drunk, broad shoulders revealing a large, multicolored tattoo. Maybe she’s a police officer in her other life.
  • Miss Canary Yellow Strapless, wobbling around and going from group to group — probably a truck driver.
  • Miss French Maid, can’t tell if she’s role playing or just likes work uniforms — probably a CEO.
  • Mr. Tranny-chaser — how’d he get in here? Probably married with kids, down from upstate New York to get in touch with his forbidden desires.
  • Miss Plastic Surgery, perfect nose, puffy lips, anime eyes — gorgeous sequined dress but walking like a football player. Probably a computer programmer.
  • Miss First-Time-Out, the wallflower, tall, awkward, clutching her purse up to her chest, looking around to see if she knows anyone or if anyone from the real world who might out her is here. Probably a graduate student at MIT.
  • Ms. Happy-In-Her-Skin, the transsexual who isn’t in drag, but in normal mode with jeans and a sweater, little makeup, no bling. Easy demeanor, honest eyes, self-confident. Probably a video producer.
  • Ms. Stylish-Maybe-Transitioning-Maybe-Not, confident in her presentation but still grappling with her destiny, makeup and clothing and accessories perfect, but not overwrought. Probably a mid-level manager at an accounting firm.
  • Ms. Featured Speaker, nationally active, networking, confident, the gleam in in her eyes her most effective accessory. No probably’s about what she is because she is what she is.

Before anyone gets all up in arms about my naming these stereotypes, let me confess that I’ve been all of them–at least the ones who are still trying to find themselves, and I aspire to be like the ones who seem to have found themselves. I’ve worn the spaghetti straps and platform heels to a club many years ago in hopes that someone would see me for who I am. I’ve been the shy transvestite in the crinoline dress from the 1950’s, a wallflower afraid to be myself. I’ve tried on earrings too heavy and too gaudy for my face and seen nothing but elegance in the mirror. I’ve smeared on garish colors of eyeshadow and blush and lipstick and thought they were just perfect for me.

The trick to constructive trans-spotting is to see yourself as you have been and how you might be, to give thanks for your life no matter how painful it is, to avoid judging others who need different things at different times in their lives, to recognize yourself for having been some of those people, and to realize that you are at this very moment probably being discussed by someone who’s trans-spotting you across the room.

And if you do all of this, then you sit back and marvel at the diversity of the human experience.