We need support to be men

The author, big hairy scary man

This month there has been a lot of talk about support for alternatives to transition. In Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote about a group of “gender-critical trans women,” including several who identify as transgender or transsexual. In a reaction to the shutdown of the CAMH clinic, Alice Dreger talked about people who were gender non-conforming children and didn’t transition, linking to a book called Blood and Visions, a post by Debra Soh and an interview with Sarah Hoffman. Maria Catt wrote about her experiences taking and dispensing testosterone to female-bodied people. Joel Nowak hoisted a great comment by Juniper asking, “Where are the examples of (so many) people who have lived long and well WITHOUT surgeries or hormones?” 4th Wave Now expanded on Juniper’s post, highlighting the value of alternatives to transition in reducing the incidence of trans suicides.

We do need to hear more from examples of people who have successfully coped with gender dsyphoria without transitioning. So, let’s take a look at who’s represented in these articles:

  • Women who don’t suffer from chronic gender dysphoria (Goldberg, Dreger, Hoffman and 4th Wave Now)
  • Women who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning (Soh and Juniper)
  • People raised as girls who transitioned to living as men, then detransitioned (Catt and the authors of Blood and Visions)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, but are critical of transgender dogma and identify as male (the women interviewed by Goldberg)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, then detransitioned (Joel and the author of Third Way Trans)

These are all important stories, important voices. But there’s a population missing: men who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning. If people like Joel and Juniper are virtually invisible, people like me are actually invisible.

And yet our stories are hugely important. Most of the people I’ve mentioned have complained about transgender dogma, particularly as articulated by transitioned trans women, and particularly about the demands made by transitioned trans women for unconditional access to women’s spaces. Many have complained about the behavior of individual transitioned trans women, online and in person.

It’s very nice for transitioned trans women to be accepted (by some) as feminists. It’s absolutely essential for detransitioned trans women to be heard. But if what we’re looking for are alternatives to transition, we need to make space for people raised male to talk about how we deal with gender dysphoria without transitioning. And people need to listen to us, not just talk at us.

I’ve been blogging about this stuff for years, and for some reason I’m not mentioned by Goldberg or Dreger or Catt or Joel. I had some conversations with detransitioned trans men on Tumblr a few years ago, and they got very angry. I tried talking to the gender-critical trans women on Tumblr, and they ignored me. I tried to talk to Joel about this on Twitter, but he cut me off. I simply posted about my gender-related feelings on my own blog, and gender-critical feminists mocked me on their blog.

I don’t think it’s me, but let’s assume that it is. Let’s assume that I somehow came off as a huge asshole. Why am I the only one blogging about this stuff? Why haven’t Goldberg or Dreger, who are journalists, gone and found some male-bodied people who have dealt with gender dysphoria without transitioning?

I have a simple theory about this. It’s one thing to deal with women, even gender non-conforming women and detransitioned trans men. Boys are pretty safe, especially “pink boys.” If you’re willing to be flexible, transitioned and even detransitioned trans women can be seen as womanly enough. They’ve had hair removal and lots of female socialization. But it’s another thing to deal with men. Big strong hairy muscular men with deep voices, talking about sports or gadgets or hunting, some of us in dresses.

Third Wave Trans has written one of the wisest things I’ve read about this: many people, including me, have been traumatized by men in their lives. I’ve largely gotten over my trauma, but lots of people have a hard time trusting men. Some have a hard time even being in the same room with men.

I get this. I’m not asking anyone to go beyond their comfort zone. If some people are unable to relate to men without being mistrustful or hostile – or at all – I’m not going to demand that they do.
But someone needs to talk to us. Someone needs to listen to us. Someone needs to help us to be out and proud. Someone needs to tell the young trans women out there that they can be happy without transitioning.

Joel accused me of demanding “politeness.” I am not. I am also not trying to impose patriarchy or mansplain or dominate any discussions. To paraphrase the immortal words of stimmyabby, I’m not demanding anyone treat me as an authority, only as a person. I think it’s reasonable to ask people not to use us as insults to mock transitioned trans women. If you’re going to make pronouncements about what we should and shouldn’t do, you could at least ask us if we think that would work.

I am not writing this to criticize people for what they’ve written in the past, only voicing a plea for what they will write in the future. The bottom line is that if we don’t want all the trans women thinking they have to transition, or commit suicide, we have to make it safe for trans women to be men.

Do I feel like a woman to you? That’s me passing

Since the early days of medical transition, people have remarked that there are differences between trans people who transition and those of us who don’t. Often this is ascribed to a difference of essence: some believe they can divide male-to-female trans people into the “true transsexuals” who are essentially women with a destiny to transition, and “just cross-dressers” who are essentially men. I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” for this post, but there are similar claims made for female-to-male trans people.

Nobody has yet found a foolproof test for this essence of femininity or masculinity. What people use instead is a gut feeling: the supposedly real trans women just “feel like women,” even without making an effort to present as women, while the supposedly fake trans women “feel like men.” Many trans people stress these claimed differences. They argue that non-transitioners who look like “men in dresses” give true trans women a bad name and claim protections they don’t deserve.

My experience has run pretty much counter to those claims. I have met trans women who transitioned decades ago but “feel” like men to me, and trans women who have never transitioned but “feel” like women. I myself have never transitioned, but when I present as a woman anyone who doesn’t know me but knows I’m trans assumes that I transitioned long ago.

If you talk to anyone who believes in this “gut feeling” and show them these counterexamples, they will explain them away with circular reasoning. A transitioned trans woman who “feels like a man” is an impostor who should never have transitioned, and people like me are just in denial and will change our minds pretty soon.

There is a simpler explanation for this discrepancy between “gut feeling” and reality: there is no essential gender. But the “gut feeling” is not always wrong. Where does it come from? If we examine it, what we find is a more subtle form of passing, one that works even if the observer knows whether the person is trans. There is no need to assume some inner gender; all the normal passing factors are enough to explain it:

Some people just get the luck of the gene draw. Shorter people with narrower shoulders and mouths, broader hips, smaller hands, feet and brow ridges, and higher voices tend to feel more “naturally” feminine, while taller people with broader shoulders and mouths, narrower hips, bigger hands, feet and brow ridges, and lower voices tend to feel more “naturally” masculine.

Age plays a huge role. The effects of hormones on secondary sex characteristics don’t stop at puberty. Trans women who transition early in life will have narrower shoulders and broader hips, while trans women who transition late, or never transition, will have broader shoulders and narrower hips.

Body modifications and grooming are as relevant for this “feeling” as for the better-known forms of passing. People who have committed to a transition are more likely to get surgery, hair removal and hair transplants. These treatments are just as artificial as wigs or heavy make-up, but often less noticeable.

One of the biggest factors is socialization. Mannerisms are just habits, and habits develop with experience. Someone who spends a lot of time around women and is treated like a woman will act like the women around them and “feel” like a woman, and someone who spends a lot of time around men and is treated like a man will act like the men around them and “feel” like a man. These effects are cumulative: the more time a person spends living in one gender, the more naturally they interact with others in that gender.

Some trans women have pointed out that their socialization was not like typical male socialization. I agree, but I don’t think they were socialized female, either. There are finer grains of male socialization: we are socialized as girly boys, nerdy boys, gay boys and others. When we get older we can be socialized as gay men. This means we are given the space, or take the space, to speak and gesture more softly, taking as role models softer men, gay men, or women. These differences may be felt by some as cues that we are “really” girls or women.

There’s another kind of socialization as well: trans socialization. I know a lot of trans women who socialize primarily with other trans women. This may be out of choice, or because they’ve been rejected by non-trans people, or because they’re afraid of being rejected or worse. If a whole bunch of trans women spend most of their time together, they’re going to wind up moving and sounding like each other, and like their ideas of women. If none of them have any significant female socialization apart from that, then they may not “feel” like women to other people.

Some trans people are just good actors or good mimics, and are able to move and sound like their target gender. Does that mean that they’re less “real” than other trans people? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes you have to fake it ’till you make it. Some may have a strong desire to sound or move differently from the way they did before. On the other hand, some may feel uncomfortable with any change in the way they move or sound.

Between genes, aging, body modifications, grooming, socialization, alienation and just plain good acting, there are plenty of explanations for why some trans women “feel” like women, some trans men “feel” like men, and some don’t. There is no mystical essence of gender, no “brain sex” required to explain this. If you’ve pinned your hopes on the idea of being a “woman trapped in a man’s body,” you may not like this idea.

On the other hand, thinking of this “feeling” as just another form of passing means that people who have some of these factors going against them may be able to eventually overcome them and “pass by feeling.” It also means that those of us who have some of the factors in our favor can decide whether or not we want to transition based on what works for us, not whether we “feel like a woman” to someone else.

Repression, resentment and rebellion

I’ve written before about how being in the closet makes us insecure and undermines our political power. There’s another aspect to it: we resent it, and we rebel. When we rebel, we can wind up hurting ourselves or innocent bystanders.

When I was younger, my parents didn’t want to help or support my feminine self-expression, and I got clear messages that the establishment – the universities I attended, the government, the local street gangs, didn’t either. Even the famous LGBT Center of New York told me in 1995 and again in 2000 that they had nothing to offer me if I wasn’t going to transition.

As a result I kept my transgender feelings and actions a secret throughout my teenage and college years. Coming out was a huge help, but even then I avoided directly telling anyone I didn’t trust. I repressed my desires, and the more I repressed, the more resentful I felt.

I didn’t really blame my family members who told me not to let anyone see me in a skirt, not to even talk about my desires. At times I agreed with them; sometimes I still do. But at other times it was easier to say to myself that they were wrong, and that they were holding me back.

The more that resentment built up, the more tempted I was to rebel. I felt alone and misunderstood, and powerless to fight even the LGBT Center, much less a gang, a college or the government. So my rebellion took childish forms, along the lines of, “You said I couldn’t do it, but I’m going to do it anyway! I don’t care if I get hurt. And I don’t care if you get hurt!”

I was lucky. I didn’t get hurt, and I didn’t really hurt anyone around me. Eventually, I began to grow out of this childish rebellion. After being out online for years and still getting work, I came to the conclusion that there are plenty of people who just want the job done and don’t care if I’m trans. I made connections with some people who were helpful, and the general cultural climate for trans people has improved.

Today I still have restrictions on my gender expression, and I still sometimes feel a desire to rebel against them. It helps to remind myself that they are my restrictions. I have thought through the pros and cons and made the decision to place these restrictions where they are, and I own them.

Unfortunately, those reminders are not always enough. This is why I need to manage my gender expression and avoid feeling like I’m restricting myself too much. Because restrictions and repression lead to resentment, and resentment leads to rebelliousness.