Being a part of any new group often requires learning a lot of new terminology. You get on a trans-related board for more than a few minutes, and you'll see people toss around words like MTF, clocked, TERF, deadname, cisgender, dysphoria, stealth, passing, genderqueer, misgender, etc. Most of them you'll figure out through context. Some are inflammatory and can incite anger if you misuse them.
I'm not very active in the trans community, so I tend to learn these terms slowly. I just recently came across the term "clocked", and at first I mistook it to mean the person got punched. As it turns out, it means they didn't "pass". In other words, they were recognized as their birth sex instead of the gender they were attempting to present. Which, to be fair, can feel a lot like being punched.
Back in 2007, I dressed en femme to Nashville Pride in Centennial Park. I hadn't dressed out very much, and I was very nervous about going out in public that way. But Pride seemed like one of the safest places to do so. Now when I say "safe", I don't just mean I was worried about getting physically attacked (though it is a genuine fear), I also mean psychologically safe. Pride is a such an accepting, celebratory atmosphere that I thought I could handle it.
I wore a red-ish wig, which isn't a good color for me, but I liked it and this was a special occasion. I shaved my legs, wore a skirt, a girdle, blouse, and a lightly stuffed bra. I still wish I looked more feminine, but I loved how the outfit felt. It felt like me. It felt like coming home.
We parked as close as we could to the festival, but it was still a good walk across the park. On the way there, I passed several park-goers who weren't there for the festival. I could feel them staring at me. Whether they really were, who knows. But one thing I didn't imagine - I heard a child ask her mother, "Why's he dressed like that?" The parent replied, "Don't stare at him, honey." There weren't any other people around they could have been talking about. I'd been clocked by a child.
So my true self looks like a disguise, a disguise so bad a child could see through it. I didn't see how old the girl was, but she sounded young enough to believe in Santa Claus. A kid that young will believe that's the real Goofy at Disneyland, but a man in a dress breaks her suspension of disbelief. I think that says something about our society, and how early we push gender roles on our kids.
That incident was like a slow acting poison. The moment it happened I was hurt, but I let it go because it was a fun day and there was a lot to see and do. But ever since then, it's one of those things I keep remembering over and over. It is easily the strongest memory I have of that day. I can't fault the kid - it's their job to ask questions, and learn about the world. I bear no ill will toward the mother, who was likely caught off guard and didn't know what to say. There's no villains here. There's just me and my issues, my lack of self esteem, my disconnect between mind and body, and my inability to let little things go.
It makes me feel better to wear dresses. But it makes me feel worse to get stared at. My fears of being clocked outweigh the benefits I feel from dressing out. And that's why I don't.