Refusing to be erased – on being seen as a trans man

“You can’t be a man, you didn’t play with trucks as a kid!”

“Are you sure you aren’t just a butch lesbian instead?”

“Thank you ma’am” “Uh, I’m not a ma’am” “Oh don’t worry, you don’t look manly” “No, I mean I am a man”  “Don’t say that honey, don’t worry, you’re pretty I’m sure.”

This is just a small cross section of reactions I got when coming out as a trans man.  It is not an easy thing to live your whole life feeling like there is something deeply wrong, or to know that the way everyone sees you is a lie.  It is not an easy thing to wake up one day and realize it after years of not acknowledging it, you have the agony of so many years gone by where your expression of self was mysteriously discomforting or feels false.  Once you finally feel that click, if you aren’t someone who was well aware that you were trans from a very young age, it is liberating for a moment.  The acknowledgement of yourself is sweet freedom on silver wings, it fills you up with golden bubbles of giddy hope.  That moment is often heartbreakingly short before the icy cold dread sets in. You start to wonder who you will lose, who will leave your life, who may hurt you, if you will become another murder statistic if you start trying to present yourself as you are in a cruel bigoted society.  I was extremely lucky, I’ve only been assaulted once (for being trans at least), I lost very few friends, and my family struggled but have managed to come to some degree of acceptance.  I had to fight for recognition for a few years before I developed the infamous “passing privilege” though.  Now when I go out, people see my face even with my new long hair, they hear my voice, and to them it all speaks of man.  The years before that were true, were a hell though.  Once you have felt incredibly whole and at home with yourself when you acknowledge your gender, you have something precious that society can tear pieces out of with every misuse of pronouns or deadnames, with every slur, with every unfeeling comment.

I did play with trucks as a kid.  My favorite toy for the first seven years of my life was a big yellow dumptruck and I played with it outside incessantly.  I hated dolls and teddy bears, though realistic plush animals were something I adored since I had always loved animals.  I loved my StreetShark action figures. I hated going to a school where skirts were mandatory, and insisted if I must wear them that they be patterned with lizards or frogs and have hefty pockets built in for collecting rocks.  These things mean nothing to determining my gender, gender isn’t built by your toys or your hobbies or your interests.  But when I came out, my father cited my lack of interest in trucks to explain his surprise.  The fact that he’d apparently blocked out such a large portion of my childhood to get that facts wrong was irrelevant.  The message was the same, he would rather forget the markers that could have clued him in if we’re buying into binary gender rolls, and he needed me to justify the core of myself with childhood toy preferences to be valid in his eyes.

My father was the same person who asked me why I couldn’t be a butch lesbian when I came out as a trans man.  As the man who reacted with homophobia when I first had a girlfriend, it was clear what this meant.  He had come to accept I was something he didn’t understand, something he had prejudices against, but good god at least that something wasn’t transgender, and now that it was, he wished for the good old days where I was just a “mild normal queer”.  I tried to explain to him that I could no more be a butch lesbian than he could, since neither of us was a woman.  In fact, I was farther from such then he was, because at least he was interested only in women, whereas I had realized by that time that I was mostly gay.  I spelled out how in being a man who likes men, I was pretty much the opposite of a lesbian by binary gender and sexuality standards.  His response was to protest, “but if you were a lesbian you could still wear flannel”.  Yes father, because I would like to undergo societal prejudice, risk my life by being myself, inject my muscle with a big ass needle every two weeks, subject myself to extensive surgeries, and have to fight to even be seen by the people closest to me….because I want to wear flannel.  If this was about flannel I would have just bought out a fucking L.L.Bean.

A nice woman at school was selling cookies.  She “ma’amed” me, and I was tired of not standing up for myself, so I tried to correct her.  Instead of hearing me when I said I was a man, she tried to reassure me, thinking I was talking down about myself.  It didn’t occur to her that I might actually just speaking my truth, that my words might mean exactly what I had said.  It was easier for her to interpret some imagined hidden message and apply it to me than it was for her to just see me as I said I was.  I spent a week replaying the moment in my mind, formulating the perfect responses for next time to be more clear.  The only thing that usually works is outing myself.  If someone doesn’t want to see you as a man because they don’t fit their notion of it, no matter of insisting on it seems to help.  You have to explain you are a trans man, another breed of human in their eyes so they can justify why you don’t fit inside the boxes they can’t look beyond. So for the few years it took for me to develop a deeper voice and some facial scruff I was faced with a series of choices.  Either I could try and insist I was a man and not be believed, I could crumple inside with every “ma’am” or “miss” and have the words repeat at night until I wanted to disappear or die; or I could out myself, usually in public in the hearing of multiple strangers.  I didn’t know which of those were accepting, supportive, indifferent, or deeply prejudiced.  I saw trans friends dying every year of violence, killed by partners, acquaintances, family, and strangers.  I couldn’t know which passerby might hear me and be so offended by my very existence that I would be the next funeral in an endless procession of trans deaths.

These days my existence is happier, I am safer existing as I am.  I don’t have to make choices between my mental health or physical safety multiple times a day, I don’t have to justify my childhood toys or clothing choices to prove myself.  That spark of joy that shone so bright when I finally acknowledged this aspect of me has been fanned into a bright flame.  There are still shadows though.  My safety is contingent still on not being seen.  I am acknowledged now as a man, that is far more affirming then before.  My identity is respected and seen.  But my experience is not, because I am not just a man, I am a trans man.  I have a lived experience in fighting for manhood that a cis man will never have.  And my safety and comfort on a daily basis is contingent on my lived experience being a carefully guarded secret.  None of this can change until society does, and I fear for my new baby trans friends who are just beginning to come out.  My heart aches for what they might face, especially knowing the road I barely survived was one of the easiest paths to this end.  All I can hope for is those moments of joy and acknowledgment, that exhilarating feeling of freedom and truth on it’s vast silver wings, will be enough to carry them through.  Or society can change, one leap at a time we can stop with the assumptions and the stereotypes and the enforced gender rolls and the bigotry, until this life path is just as much a challenging but engaging climb as any other, and not a harrowing trip through the valley of death.  I still out myself when it might help, when it might change someones thoughts, when there is a chance it might pave the way for the trans folk of the future.  That choice is worthwhile for me, there is still something worth risking my life for, and it is a better world.

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