Trans men - “the best of both worlds”?
A few days ago I read this article on Medium called Reasons To Date A Transgender Man. I was excited when I opened it, hoping to see articulated some of the stirrings I’d had myself about the unique position of trans men as partners, friends and colleagues. However, I was slightly surprised to find an account of why dating a trans man should be understood in just the same way as dating a cis man. The author recalls his date’s musing that trans men are “the best of both worlds”, and is hurt to have his painful experience pre-transition, trying to fit in with the gender he was assigned at birth, read as a benefit for someone else without recognition of that pain.
Of course, anyone dating a trans man (or any human being for that matter) should be respectful and understanding of the excruciating and complicated processes that their partner has gone through in becoming themselves. They should be aware of the triggers and traumas, and be careful to allow any trans person to define their own narrative. And I totally understand the author’s pain and reasons for not wanting to be seen as a ‘different kind’ of man.
However, at risk of having my words taken out of context, I want to say it: I don’t feel that trans men are the same as cis men. I am a trans man, and whilst I absolutely do feel like a man, I do not feel like a cis man. Below, I’m going to talk about some of my own personal experiences as a demonstration of the potential qualitative variance between a man who has lived as a woman and a man who has always lived as a man.
On 14th December 2014 I changed my name to James, but I don’t want to, and physically cannot, shed the years I spent on Earth before that. Everything changed when I transitioned, but I still had the same brain and same body and still lived in the same world, with the same relationships and in the same spaces. The electricity in my brain still fired down the same neural pathways. If I was to tell you that I am just the same as a cis man, not only do I feel that this would be untrue but I also feel it would denigrate those first 24 years of my experience and the formation of my character and value systems during in that time.
The early part of transition was for me, as it seems to be for many trans guys, a frenzied shedding of my perceived womanhood. I wanted to grow my eyebrows out, cut my hair short, use a stand- to-pee device at the urinal, wear the most masculine clothes, stop drinking prosecco, throw out the entire contents of my wardrobe, watch football, go the pub, grunt and never get misgendered again. I wanted to do all the things that would make sure I would be read as male. Not to mention that now I was finally able to be myself there was a whole bottleneck of forbidden fruits awaiting me - things that are in no way exclusively male but felt taboo when enjoyed as a woman - like farting. I swung hard masc, maybe even playing into a few male stereotypes and enjoying it. I loved it when people said things like “you really are, a man, you can’t multitask at all!” I was happy to take all the validation I could get, even if that meant using and abusing a gender binary I purported not to believe in.
But as time went on I realised that I didn’t particularly feel at home “as a man” either. That creeping discomfort was a massive inconvenience to my clean break with the past. I had felt so wrong for so long, I needed this to be the answer. Tentatively, I started to explore this grey area, toying with a non-binary identity, playing with pronouns. But I did feel like a man, it’s just that I didn’t particularly like how men are expected (or allowed) to behave and I definitely didn’t feel comfortable behaving in those ways.
And so we come to privilege and entitlement.
Most people can accept that men are socially privileged to some extent. We see these privileges reflected on every level, from career progression, political representation and domestic labour and parenthood. These privileges rest on a binary, codependent understanding of ‘manness’ and ‘womanness’. In the “traditional” (and by this I mean forcibly propagandised from the 1950s onwards) model, male and female identities and our expectations of men and women need each other to be a certain way in order to make sense:
(Image: four pages from 1970 book ‘I’m glad I’m a boy! I’m glad I’m a girl!” by Whitney Darrow Jr. captions read “boys build houses, girls keep houses. Boys can eat, girls can cook. Boys are strong, girls are graceful. We need each other”)
Thankfully, society has changed. Women have changed (see: feminism). But the spectre of these expectations looms large. When I was born in 1990 (just 20 years after the above book was published), society had started to learn that it probably shouldn’t be so brazen about it, but these ideas were still quite prevalent. And I was believed to be a girl. This amounts to the systematic oppression of my confidence, sense of value and perceived potential. I was built to serve someone else, to put someone else before myself, to come second. This is not how cis men spent the first 24 years of their life.
When I started to pass as male I noticed that gender inequality is alive and well. People are nicer to me. People act benevolently towards me. I get celebrated for doing basic acts of kindness. When I go to speak in a group situation, people stop talking. This is all very nice but is the effect of privilege.
What has become of the male now that it is perfectly acceptable to see people of all genders cooking, cleaning, changing a tyre, building a house, working as footballers, chefs, counsellors, doctors, social workers? Sociologists have observed a “crisis of masculinity” which has led in some cases to a hyper-masculine social performance of manness and in many cases, a toxic sense of entitlement to women, power, space, esteem. My imagined path to maleness during early transition used this kind of roadmap. As I started to enter male spaces, I observed how to be a young man in 2014. The things I saw were: it is okay to be very loud in public. Insulting other men, and even your girlfriend can be a sign of affection. Critical discussion should be dismissed, avoided or laughed off; you don’t want to “take yourself too seriously”. It is, when there are no women around, okay to joke about rape, particularly if drinking beer and hanging around in large groups. Bragging is not frowned upon. And absolutely do not look anywhere but directly in front of you at the urinals.
As a person who was systematically expected to be small, accommodating, emotionally available and self sacrificing for the first 24 years of my life, it was extremely uncomfortable if not almost impossible to blend in with men and do justice to my own personality, even though I knew more than anything in the world that I was a man.
For me, those 24 years matter. From an identity point of view, they distorted and trapped and oppressed me. But as a human being, these are the years in which I became psychologically hard wired to navigate the world. I happened not to identify as female, but I was taught to act like a female, to anticipate life like a female, to take up space, attribute value to myself and others, move like, talk like, have the expectations of... a female. These experiences make me, in part, who I am.
Debate rages on about what that means, if indeed there is anything that definitive about the separation between males and females at all, and Cordelia Fine’s work is a great, in-depth exploration of this. Whether gender and sex do or don’t exist empirically, they are reified in the way that we socially condition children depending on whether we read them as boys or girls. This conditioning accumulates and forms systems of behaviours, values, movements, appreciations... essentially, personhoods, that orbit around a binary understanding of gender. This binary is socially constructed, but for those who were raised in its image (a vast majority of us), those constructions became a concrete part of our reality.
And so yes, I absolutely and categorically identify as a man. But I was raised as a woman. And even though I don’t for one minute celebrate the oppression of women, I did pick up a few life skills along the way. I learned to be vulnerable, loving, emotionally available, thoughtful, to anticipate the needs of others. I’m not saying men can’t be these things. I’m saying that quite often they are not encouraged to be these things as standard. And the things they often are encouraged to be leave them unable to form meaningful relationships, emotionally avoidant or dismissive and living double lives. 75% of all suicides are enacted by men.
So what does this mean for the difference between trans men and cis men? I’m not going to state that there are any hard and fast differences at all, beyond the obvious anatomical variables and processes. But trans men are uniquely positioned to pick and choose from the buffet of gender expectations. Becoming myself has meant allowing myself to explore both sides of the gender binary and to fill in the blanks that being brought up to be a man’s other half have left. Even nicer, I have become that man, who indeed was, my other half. The most incredible part of transitioning is the lack of rules - I am free to create my identify as a man piece by piece. And because I got here all by myself, against the flow of a cisnormative society, there is nobody who can take it away from me.
I feel that there’s something incredibly empowering about accepting the different route we took to manness. The fact that we spent years being raised and living as a girl or woman don’t negate the truth of our identities as men. Most sensible and self-aware people are beyond the whole “adult human female” debate (see: TERFs). And I also don’t think it’s necessary to discard those years. The skills we picked up along the way are a gift to men, they are the skills that cis men need to drag themselves out of this weird moment of loss, grief and entitlement that they find themselves in. Hopefully, one day all men will embrace the whole of themselves as emotional, physical, spiritual, thinking human beings. But for now, I think trans men might be one step ahead. And I’d like to think that in some way, yes, this does make us “the best of both worlds”.
*there are infinite variations on how each of our families may raise us in gendered ways, these are some words I would use to describe mine.
This discussion represents only my own experience and thoughts on navigating transness within myself and within my world.
We’re at quite a beautiful moment in social history where we’re seeing a whole host of different minority narratives, and of course, being trans, transitioning and living as a trans person are experiences that intersect with every other aspect of a persons life and moment in social space and time. Indeed, there are probably as many ways to be trans as there are to be a person.