Alone in the Crowd: Alienation and Distancing

Two Experiences, One Effect

In this article I’d like to explore two other experiences; one interpersonal and one social. I’ve given these experiences the tentative names of ‘Interpersonal Distancing’ and ‘Affect Alienation’ respectively.

I’m grateful to my friend Meg Barker for suggesting the latter phrase and for directing me for further reading to Sara Ahmed’s The Promise Of Happiness, which I’ve begun but not finished reading. I hope that Ahmed will forgive me for lifting the language directly from her book!

I am beginning to believe that these experiences function together to create differences between the experience of some marginalised people and those of wider society in ways which are not fully acknowledged by existing theories of interpersonal/institutional/microaggressive discrimination.

Intention and Disclaimer

This is an attempt to describe experiences that I am surprised not to have found covered in blogs, articles or books. I don’t usually write in this way, but I hope I can either provide a starting point for discussion of this topic or, more likely, describe my experiences and views in such a way that other, more widely-read people can identify them as already having been covered elsewhere and can link me to those pieces. I would like to place this firmly out of the category of an ‘article’, which is planned, published and then cited, but describe it instead as a ‘living document’. Like all living things, it may grow, shrink, change or die over time, and I reserve the right to change any part of it at any moment. This is my first attempt at self-expression on this topic and as a result it will be imperfect (I do, however, welcome feedback, both on those imperfections and of course, positive feedback!)

I don’t mean to imply that the experiences described here are universal to all people fitting the same labels. I also don’t mean to imply that the experiences are unique to people like me; I can easily believe that other marginalised people have very similar or even identical experiences. I do, however, feel that my experiences are particular to and inextricable from my experiences of society as a transsexual lesbian who is also a radical feminist, and it’s from this perspective that I write.

To describe my perspective in some more detail: I’m a white, middle-class transsexual woman attracted more-or-less exclusively to people with some quality of the feminine, and I self-describe as both queer and lesbian. I have little-to-no experience of being disabled and, though dyslexic, I’m largely neurotypical. I am an anarchist and a radical feminist (who is happy to discuss radical feminism’s reputation and record of anti-femme, anti-sex-work, anti-trans, anti-BDSM politics; I am anti- none of those things, but I feel that radical feminism has valid critiques to offer of them all). All of this informs way I view the world.

This Article Is Not About…

The ways in which individual acts of discrimination can impact the experience of marginalised people, for example, transsexual women, have been widely written about and are to some extent understood. Likewise, there has been considerable writing, although perhaps less, about the ways in which systematic, institutional discrimination can do the same. And women of colour have talked about microaggressions for a long, long time.

It is not the intention of this article to further explore any of these three theories, although they do inform the article, and I’d suggest becoming familiar with the ways in which interpersonal, institutional and microaggressive discrimination can function before continuing to read this piece.

Interpersonal Distancing

A cisgender female friend and I recently discussed the ways in which we felt when in one-on-one and in small-group environments with men and cisgender people, respectively.

We found common ground in our experience of distancing ourselves, emotionally and sometimes physically, when in those environments, as a response to the knowledge that these people had an ability to win against us if they chose to use it.

That ability to win takes a variety of forms: my friend described her knowledge that most men, if they chose to, could physically overpower her. I described my knowledge that most cisgender people can, if they choose to, invalidate and ridicule my gender. Another friend talks about the social training that they feel men have to win an argument with them by deploying the kinds of competitive and debating styles which they have never learnt and don’t really want to learn.

We agreed that we performed this distancing even when with people who we were almost certain wouldn’t attempt to use this ability to win. We described the knowledge as something which, “wouldn’t go away,” and, “was always there”.

This is broad knowledge among many marginalised people, and I introduce it here in order that it may be considered in combination with…

Affect Alienation

On my way home from work I walk through a green space in which people socialise in good weather. The majority of these people are, as in most spaces, cisgender. For some time, I’ve felt an alienation when moving through those spaces, and I’ve only recently been able to put words to the experience.

In almost all social spaces, there are countless small exchanges which take place between people, most of them unremarked, for example, greetings, glances, body language and what kinds of behaviour are expressed – is it normative to read a book in that space, or do people remain upright and alert? Does this change when others enter the space?

Many of these exchanges have qualities of, for example, gender and sexuality. Eye contact, for example, differs between people of different genders and people of different sexualities, and importantly is also based on the gender and sexuality which one person perceives the other to be. Krista of writes about eye contact between women who perceive each other to be lesbians, and its tendency to linger slightly longer than eye contact between straight women (I’m not aware of any writing about eye contact as initiated by people of other genders and sexualities, though I’m sure it exists!).

These exchanges, when they function in a way which is congruent for all parties, can act as validations and acknowledgements of shared humanity and experience, performing a function of social inclusion. When these exchanges don’t occur, or when they occur in a way which suggests that a marginalised person is being viewed as something other than they are, the experience produced is what I describe here as ‘affect alienation’.

The absence of an expected interaction can cause the person who expected the interaction to feel invisible. And if they receive the ‘wrong kind’ of interaction, then they can feel misidentified, for example, misgendered. One bisexual friend speaks of the feeling of being in a lesbian group and read/treated as lesbian, that they felt bonded in the group but that, “this thing that is bonding us isn’t quite what it is”. These experiences fail to achieve – or only partially achieve – social inclusion and result in a feeling of social exclusion, of ‘affect alienation’. To the person experiencing it, it seems as if they are on a slightly different planet to the other people around them.

I’ve also experienced preemptive alienation, which has some qualities in common with interpersonal distancing as described above. This experience feels like ‘armouring oneself’ before going into a space, in anticipation of alienation or microaggression; an emotional withdrawal which means that I don’t even offer the cues which would – were I not an alien – lead to interactions which function as acknowledgement and inclusion.

No Escape

It is normal for most people to occasionally find themselves in spaces where the social exchanges aren’t ideal or are incongruent. Many people will have travelled on crowded public transport and ‘shut down’ to some extent while in that environment. We are often able to deal with alienation in moderate doses, provided that we are able to return to environments in which we feel comfortable.

For some people, that simply means returning to social spaces where there are ‘people like them’. Others may only find comfort in one-on-one or small-group interactions in which they can relax.

But what happens when there is nowhere which feels comfortable? What about people who leave the world of affect alienation and return home to a world of interpersonal distancing? For many transsexual lesbian women, one or more forces of distancing or alienation are almost always in effect. Internalised transphobia and the already-fragmented trans* communities mean we may rarely or never experience societal, friendship or partner environments involving only other transsexual lesbians.

When in public we are aliens, and when we’re with friends, we are distant. I would like to suggest that the effects of alienation are cumulative and increase significantly when there is no relief from alienation. When preemptive alienation begins to become a way of life, we experience a radically different world.


If we talk about discrimination purely in terms of negative acts which occur in interpersonal and social contexts, we may be missing other subtle ways in which mainstream society further marginalises already-marginalised people.

As privileged / socially-included people (though of course, we are all both marginalised and included, at different times and in different ways), we should acknowledge that alienation may be an common aspect of marginalised experience, and when marginalised people express a desire for separatism, or broad-brush negative statements about privileged groups, we should understand the experience underlying this.

But perhaps more importantly, as marginalised people, understanding this may help us understand how we feel and that we are perhaps not depressed or unable to interact socially, but instead are coming up against social dynamics which force us to the margins. It may present choices to us in terms of varying how much we distance and pre-emptively alienate ourselves; alternatively it may just help us understand the choices we are making and the extent to which they are choices at all.

12 thoughts on “Alone in the Crowd: Alienation and Distancing

  1. Hi Lia,

    Thanks for the comment. 🙂 Yeah, I agree – it’s lose-lose. Oh, I remember that Shakesville article well! It made a big impression on me as it spoke to an experience I hadn’t seen written before. It was actually one of the inspirations for this post on the blog.

  2. Hi, I think this is really interesting. Can I perhaps suggest a recharacterization of Affect Alienation? Perhaps the sense of alienation the article describes is not merely the absence of some positive form of recognition/acceptance/understanding/etc., but, rather, is a response to being perceived as a danger to members of the ingroup. For, consider why much of the social behavior you describe in that section likely evolved. It seems implausible that subtle social queues developed because they provided all the members of a given community with a feeling of social acceptance. Instead, I posit that they developed as a way of distinguishing between people that are “safe” and people that are “dangerous” whereby the latter group represents those individuals who could be possible existential threats to members of an ingroup.

    By exhibiting certain social behaviors that are in accordance with accepted norms, individuals demonstrate that they have reached some level of socialization. This signals that they are likely not a threat, for if they were a danger to others, they would likely have been ostracized in such a way as to preclude such social development. However, as soon as one begins to transgress these norms, it raises the subconscious question of what other social norms the person willing to transgress, the implication being that they might violate norms prohibiting harming members of the ingroup. Thus, when a member of a transgressive community such as the transgendered community (or those partial to using prohibited mind-altering substances) enters one of these spaces, I posit that she is immediately perceived as a threat, at least on a subconscious level by the members of the ingroup–a perception that is subtly communicated through how they interact with her.

    In this way, affect alienation and interpersonal distancing represent two prongs of the same social phenomenon. On the one hand, marginalized groups pick up on the fact that they are perpetually in danger given the ability of others to “win” in social situations, especially in cases where “winning” would take the form of physical dominance. And at the same time, they are perpetually being perceived as dangerous by members of the ingroup of society. Thus, they perpetually exist on the wrong side of relations structured around the mitigation of existential risks which is psychologically straining to say the least.

  3. @Jesse: I’m so glad you posted this comment, and thank you for going to the effort of bringing it over to the article here on WordPress.

    I think you’ve done something here I almost always insist on doing myself, which is to ask the question: “Who does this benefit / what work does this do?”

    I like that, in your framing, both behaviours are about distancing. Marginalised folk engage in self-defence via emotionally and physically distancing themselves from people with more power. And societies distance themselves, in a distributed, low-key way, from transgressive ‘others’.

    I think it’s interesting that it’s individual marginalised folks distancing from individual powerful folks because those powerful folks are threatening; and that it’s society as a whole distancing from individual transgressors – and this is the bit that is exciting me as I think about it – because transgressors are threatening.

    That power, as an individual, to threaten/subvert/smash the overculture just by being me is, I think, is something which gives me energy as a queer. I wonder if recognising experiences of alienation to be experiences of being identified as a possible subverter is a way to draw energy from the experience of alienation rather than being dragged down by it.

    You’ve given me lots to think (and perhaps write about) – thank you!

  4. I found your article very interesting and insightful as well, however, I would suggest changing the format of your blog. Maybe it’s just me but I always find it is really difficult to read white font on a black background. Just a suggestion though!

  5. Thank you for explaining Affect Alienation so succinctly. As an extremely femme woman I constantly receiving that glance of recognition and a sense of “sister solidarity” from straight women, which is lovely, yet misdirected and makes me feel almost as alienated as the looks from queer people who either look through me or go so far as to look at me with disdain when I am in a queer space.

    However, may I suggest that the look of recognition from lesbians or other queer, but not transgendered/transsexual/trans* identified people, towards yourself and other transgendered people is not always because you have been mis-identified, rather a look of recognition that you are also queer in the broadest sense of the term and probably also understand Affect Alienation. I find the strongest connection to be with my transgendered friends as we are always mid-identified and furthermore, when corrected, people often argue with us or ignore the mistake they have made, which makes myself, and them feel alienated.

    Not knowing any other femme women, I find my transgendered/transsexual/trans* identified friends understand me the best (despite my being so clearly cisgendered), so though my looks of recognition towards ttransgendered/transsexual/trans* identified and queer identified people are often misconstrued as straight-girl gawking, may I suggest a sense of understanding and recognition amongst the queer community that at one point or another in our lives we have found ourselves alienated (most from the straight community, myself from the queer community).

    I think what upsets me the most, and upsets many of my transgendered/transsexual/trans* identified friends is that those people who have been marginalized by society and struggled and often failed to find their niche are so blatantly and deliberately alienating towards those people who do not fall into their categories of “clearly identifiable gay cisgendered” people.

    Surely the queer community should be the one place where one could find compassion and a sense of belonging, yet it is my straight cisgendered friends that are the most “accepting” of my transgendered/transsexual/trans* identified friends. Perhaps since they have not ever struggled with their own identification they simply see that of others as a non issue and are able to look beyond gender/sexuality to the person; really this is the best kind of recognition, that glance shared between two people that realise they have a common interest, beyond the bounds of the obvious.

  6. @Anonymous: I’m sorry the format’s tough to read. :/ I actually find light text on dark background easier to read, because the way my dyslexia works means that dark text on light backgrounds dances around and it’s hard to keep my place. But I know that light on dark causes problems for many people too – possibly more than the dark-on-light styles.

    Some possible solutions:

    • If you’ve got access to an RSS reader like Google Reader, then you can read the full posts on there via the RSS feed for the blog, although that doesn’t give you access to the comment stream
    • In some versions of Firefox you can click View, Page Style, No Style and you’ll view the basic page text
    • In some versions of Internet Explorer, it’s View, Style, No Style

    If none of these changes work and the page stays inaccessible for you, please let me know in the comments to the new accessibility post and I’ll see if there’s anything I can do on this side.

  7. @Femme: Hey, thank you for this comment. I know I largely skipped over the experience of femme invisibility in the post; in some ways, femme invisibility’s a kind of marginalisation I’m still aspiring to. I remember reading a whole bunch of articles about it a while ago, so sympathies, sister. :/ I like the alliance/alignment you describe between cis femme women and trans* folks. That’s something I’ve felt to exist as well.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve avoided cisqueer spaces, maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky, maybe it’s because I haven’t been out for all that long, but I’m glad that I’ve never really had those alienating experiences in queer space, which has always been a rejuvenating place for me. I’ve heard so many others’ accounts of cissexism and femme shaming in those spaces (including yours) though that I don’t need convincing for a second that it’s common or even the norm.

    For me, I find “having struggled with self-identification” an almost insurmountable gap of experience between me and those who haven’t. There’s a kind of easy way of being in the world that I find almost painful to be around in its insouciance, as a thing that feels far out of reach. That, and the distancing effect I described, means that where I have straight cis friends they’re almost invariably women because at least there’s common experience under patriarchy there to build a bridge between us.

  8. This is really interesting.

    I wonder if its got any relation to “the gaze” – that you have a perception of how the other person sees you, in terms of your characteristics (gender, cis/trans, colour, sexual orientation) and you feel like you have the weight of that carried around with you. When you are with others who share your marginalisation, that weight is removed, so they see you as you are rather than through a lens of expectations.

    Because we live in patriarchy/heteronormative/whitecentred/cis society, it is the straight white cis-male who is the norm, deviations have that weight of othering, which has to be broken to “see” the person properly. Within close communities people relate to you as a person with characteristics, but in an anonymous space (a park for example) the first signals of someone you see are what is visible so you react on the basis of social narrative about characteristics you can identify.

  9. @mhairi: The gaze – of which I really like your description, I think it absolutely captures it – is part of it, I think, as is cultural alienation. I think those both sit alongside the more interactive qualities of alienation, like unoffered eye contact, mis-gender-coded signals and unexpected distancing (too near or too far) between bodies, among other factors.

  10. I’m an autistic trans woman, very early in transition so I’m still usually seen as a weird male. The description of the sort of back and forth contacts that one loses with alienation was interesting to me, because I think I’ve never had it, probably because I’m autistic. But you gave me a sort of vivid picture of what I’ve been doing without and I see how it’s desirable.

    I’ve been been a bit terrified lately at the thought that the social problems with being autistic and trans may be cumulative and I’m not really sure how I’d handle that. But realizing what I don’t have in terms of belonging strengthens the sense that I have that I may have less than usual to lose by transitioning.

    I do recognize the description of that social micro-back and forth stuff a little from my life. I have it in a limited fitful way with other Autistic women. I guess it’s reasonable for me to hope that that will if anything increase as I become more obviously a woman. It’s interesting to speculate on why that group recognized me as one of there own so comparatively easily even become I knew I was a woman. Certainly we respond to all kinds of socialization differently so it’s not hard to begin to see an answer.

    So thanks for the article; it was helpful to me. I hope my responses are theoretically helpful in return.

  11. This is my first time reading your blog and this post just described my life from my mid teens to my early twenties (now).

    As a person that is black, female, and queer I experience this alienation and distancing all of the time. When I am around people and I am not sure of their identities I tend to distance myself from them. I feel like I can never really relax unless I am around people who share a history similar to mine.

    Thanx for this post.

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