Not all trans men are created the same, and not all trans men are masculine presenting,or on hormone replacement therapy and/or post-op. We continue to have a problem in society and even within LGBTQ circles with separating gender identity with gender expression.
Conflating gender identity and gender expression are the largest issues when it comes to affirming transgender and non binary identities. Cisheteronormative society expects us to fit into the gender expression that is binaristic to their gender identity, when that is anything but the case and then pressures us to perform in a way we simply cannot perform.
We must listen to what transgender and non-binary people tell us about their identities just as cisgender people largely accept a cisgender woman labeled as a tomboy. Our issue with feminine presenting men as a whole has to do with femmephobia. With 46 percent of transgender people having reported harassment in a 2015 survey alone, it’s important for us to do what we can to dispel any myths that limit our agency to be who we are.
INTO spoke with seven transgender men who identify as feminine on what they want society to know about their experiences, and what we can all do to be better allies. Here’s what they said.
Levi, 15, He/They
Having my gender identity taken seriously is awful. I present myself in a variety of ways, ranging from the most stereotypically femme to quite masc. I sometimes bind, but not always due to my chronic illness and trouble breathing. When I don’t, I always have people ask why I’m not “just a lesbian.” Even from doctors and people who are otherwise educated on the topic, I’m constantly expected to not only look super masculine but also say things that display toxic masculinity. It makes me cringe every time, and it’s just as much of a façade to me as being a girl.
Whenever I have to explain my identity to people, I like to think of it as a teaching moment. Not to the transphobes, but other femme trans guys that don’t know that gender expression comes in a lot of different ways. It’s small, but I always wish I’ve had that role model and pretending that I am that person helps me keep going.
It’s a culture of toxic masculinity, and needing to be a “manly” man all the time that makes society fearful of men presenting as feminine because society sees feminine things as weak. Add that to transphobia, and it turns into discrediting trans men because the media has only shown us as really stereotypical men or as “going through a phase.”
People need to understand that gender isn’t just one of two options, or even one of three options. Gender is fluid, and sometimes it has no connection to how someone presents themselves. Just because dresses are viewed in society as more femme, doesn’t mean that there’s some intrinsic aspect to them that’s feminine. People can wear whatever they want and that doesn’t define who they are.
If you’re a femme trans guy, don’t be afraid to speak up about your pronouns, if you feel safe doing it. Not only is it such a relief when people gender you correctly, it’s also a great way to make gender nonconforming trans people more visible. But of course only do this if you don’t think you’ll be put in danger. Violence to trans people is no joke so use your best judgement.
Gabriel, 21, He/Him
I’ve been living as an effeminate trans man for over a year now, half of which has been spent on hormone replacement therapy. Being taken seriously as an openly trans man often feels like a hopeless endeavor, even if one were to perform masculinity above and beyond traditional standards. Rejecting that outward manhood, or being “feminine,” adds a level of skepticism towards your existence that makes interacting with trans-uneducated folks painful. In recent months, I’ve mostly been clocked as a gay cis man. While this presents its own challenges in the forms of homophobia and femmephobia, the absence of public transphobia has been a welcome relief.
It’s important to remember that, as trans people, we are generally held to much stricter standards of gender expression and presentation than cis people. Think of the variety of gender expression in the cis population. Is it not obvious that similar amounts of variety would exist among trans and non-binary populations? For me, as a trans man, to doubt that I am “actually a guy” on the basis that I am feminine, is as ridiculous as denying the existence of all other effeminate men. Gender and gender expression are two distinct things, and can be totally different from one another.
Unfortunately, millennia of enforced gender norms and ignorance cannot be overwritten in under a century. It’s hard for people to let go of ideas that they’ve been steeped in since birth and taught with complete confidence by those raising them. Having strict male and female norms is a huge comfort for many people, and the idea of being completely wrong about gender is often too unsettling to think about. Not to mention, since widespread misogyny makes femininity out to be a massive downgrade from masculinity, it’s often considered a mystery as to why men would “devalue” themselves that way.
We need to start teaching people how to think critically about the social structures in which they’re raised. Rather than indoctrinating children with ideas about how they ought to be, we must let them explore and find their own answers whenever possible. The greatest gift I have ever been given was the freedom to develop my gender expression as a child, without being forced one way or another. Diversity of gender and gender expression should be reasons for celebration, rather than defensiveness or hatred. Developing our empathy and emotional connection as a species is the only way for people to start understanding this.
For any people reading this looking for answers about themselves, I would highly encourage you to start researching why gender norms are the way they are. Read as much as you can about early human societies, evolutionary biology, world religions, psychology.Once you understand why you are held to the standards you’re held to, you can finally begin to let go of them, and let yourself exist.
Flor, 21, He/Him
I have always been a feminine person and that is what made me think I wasn’t trans for a long time. But when I did finally decide to come out I was determined to do this transitioning thing in the most authentic way for me. Because I had seen some trans guys in my surroundings who had become the toxic masculine men they once were so disgusted by, I decided that I would make sure not to change my behavior during my transition. Of course I changed a little as I became more confident and was seen for who I was, but that didn’t have anything to do with trying to be more masculine.
It’s wild to see how much femininity and masculinity are policed. Now that I am no longer seen as a feminine girl, but a feminine guy, things like greeting with a kiss that I am so used to is suddenly not okay to do when I meet other men.
The femmephobia I have experienced is mostly related to my trans-identity. People don’t understand why you would transition to being a man if you are not a “usual” or “normal” man. Maybe the reason I haven’t had that much experience is because at this point in my transition I only express my femininity like makeup and nail polish in safe spaces, with the exact reason to avoid femmephobia and confusion. Less obvious things like talking with my hands are ways that I do express my femininity in everyday life.
A lot of staying validated in myself is learning from people in my community, from seeing what I would like to do in the same way and what I definitely would not.
Society is starting to be a bit okay with cis (often white) gay men who express some femininity. I just have to keep on reminding myself that I am just as much a guy as them and that I don’t have to “make up” for my 17 years of presenting as a girl.
When I take away the trans-part of my identity, I am totally fine and confident in my femininity. Being trans just complicates things because people already don’t understand me and I feel like I owe them time to adjust to me being a man before I “femme it up”.
Coming back to community, they are the voice that validates me when mine isn’t loud enough and I am so thankful for that.
There are countless reasons why society is so against feminine men but the simple answer is that it scares people. Because in their minds, if we can’t divide the world into two groups who act exactly like we can predict, what can we even be sure of?
Femininity is seen as weak by society so that means I am perceived as weak and I am representing men as a whole as something that they look down on. But representing all men, is not my responsibility.
Society must learn that every combination of gender and gender expression is possible. But mostly that it’s such a fun thing to experiment with and I encourage everyone to do it. Because I am trans I got the chance to totally rethink how I wanted to present myself to the world but even if you are cis, play around with it, and see how it makes you feel. I got lucky that I had an accepting group friends that I could experiment with.
My gender-expression is affirmed by things I like while I experiment, what helps me love my femininity is that it is a combination of positive experiences. When I look in the mirror I remember how good it felt when someone complimented me on “that one thing,” and how confident I felt when I “went to that great party with that thing.”
Even if it has to be in private, experiment and try out different things and hopefully the positive feelings outshine the negative feelings society gives you.
Lukas, 21, He/Him/His
I have been out of the closet and living as a man for over a year now. Luckily, my family has been mostly supportive of my transition, and they are generally accepting of me. Being openly feminine seems to be harder for people to accept than me being trans. There’s this idea, even among some trans people, that you must prove yourself. That to be a trans man you must want to be masculine, and vice versa. Many trans men have negative feelings towards being forced into femininity, and therefore cannot fathom why some people would still want to associate with it.
I’m at a point in testosterone therapy where I’m generally passing as male, but it’s still highly dependent on what I’m wearing. Every day I have to choose: do I want to have a chance at being read as a man, or do I want to actually express myself properly?
When I start to get discouraged, I always tell myself, “if cis people are able to be gender nonconforming, why can’t trans people?”
Society is fearful about men being feminine because femininity is still seen as lesser. Misogyny and homophobia are still pervasive ideas that are ingrained in a lot of people’s subconscious minds, and feminine men — both cis and trans — are seen as “betraying” their manhood by expressing themselves as such. Personally, it’s stupid, but societal change doesn’t happen quickly.
People need to learn that expression isn’t innately tied to gender. A person that expresses themselves in a feminine way isn’t always a woman, just as a person that expresses themselves in a masculine way isn’t always a man.
Fuck the haters, dress how you want, be who you want! You don’t need anyone’s permission to be you.
Danny, 23, He/They
Being a femme trans man, in particular, pre-everything transition-wise and not sacrificing my femininity for “passing”, I end up with a lot of experiences where I am read simply as a cis woman. And, even from queer people who use my pronouns and refer to me as a man, I tend to experience a lot of silencing and being spoken over by people who probably do not even notice that they do this to me and the cis women around them.
Online, my most negative experiences tend to be those that aren’t directed at me in particular, but involve coming into contact with the voices of other trans men who think femme presenting trans men who don’t “try to pass” are “transtrenders” or otherwise not “genuine” trans men. In some ways, I’m lucky, because the hostile world does not immediately read me as trans, or as a femme man, so I avoid a lot of malice from strangers, and I am currently in an academic environment that at least pays lip-service to accepting me, which is more than some other femme trans men can say.
I’ve encountered in my personal life a lot of cis and trans femme men who I really admire and look up to. I try to remind myself that if I think they are amazing, beautiful men, and I think that they are genuine and authentic, then I have no reason to doubt myself.
The cis-hetero-patriarchy needs women to be feminine, for femininity to be less than masculinity, and for men to be on board. There’s a lot of incentive, as a man, to be on board. So, when a man rejects that idea, an idea that is designed specifically to empower him, that is so much more threatening to the society writ large; it truly shows them that they cannot maintain their hold.
People need to realize that gender expression is not always about what someone’s gender label is, and that not all gender expression is an appeal to gender identity. Gender expression can be a way, particularly for trans people, to communicate to the world, their identity, however, gender expression, is ultimately about what someone decides. My gender expression is about what I like; in a perfect world, I’d like to be read as a man wearing makeup, but I know my gender expression tends to lead people to read me as a cis woman. It’s a choice I personally make with my expression, and other people make different choices, but gender expression doesn’t, in the end, dictate someone’s identity.
I want everyone to feel comfortable expressing themselves exactly how they want, and forget the world, but a lot of our “accept yourself no matter what” messaging from the LGBTQ+ community can leave people who aren’t able to do that feeling guilty, or like they should force themselves. So, my advice is this: know that what you feel is okay, and wonderful, and valid, and that you get to navigate the world at your own pace. If you don’t feel comfortable going all in, you don’t have to. What is good for you, though, is trying new ways to be bolder in your identity and seeing what feels good for you, and what you aren’t ready to do quite yet.
Zion, 22, He/They
I am constantly in a person battle between presenting as femme and being misgendered. I love femininity but hate being invalidated because femininity is considered a threat to masculinity. I am also aware of how femmephobia is tied to fatphobia. Having a body that is both femme and fat while being trans is a challenge that I don’t really have a solution for.
I’ve turned to sex work. I feel as though I use sex work to further encourage and validate my identity. I set the parameters for the language used to describe my body and people have responded well to that. This includes the community of sex workers that also help me validate my identity.
Societal space for feminine masculinity would mean a number of things.
- Admitting that femininity and masculinity are not fixed, predetermined or divine, causing a complete uprooting of how we think about and perform masculinity.
- Be forced to study masculinity and its origin, and why we police it so much. (which has already been done by gender theorists)
- Allowing space for feminine masculinity would mean that anyone can be a man and most cishet men pride themselves on having the proper equipment and performance of masculinity, kind of like a code, that allows them into this strange and invisible social club. Cishet men bond and cling to their masculinity in ways that turn masculinity into a contest instead of an arbitrary bodily experience.
None of it means anything and simultaneously, gender expression is the most integral and non-performative part of our gender performance. Gender expression is not a critique of who one is. For example: blue jeans on a Monday does not mean you’re less of a man, but at the same time, gender expression is integral to the ways in which we express who we are.
Celebrate your body in everything that you do but be safe. Our bodies are just as revolutionary as those of our fore(trans)mothers and we need to join them in the war against our bodies, honor their memory and celebrate our own!
Ashley, 29, He/Him
My experience living as a feminine trans man is uneventful in everyday life. Previously where I lived it was extremely backwoods and the people were ignorant of LGBT issues. Although I was gay bashed a few times and had slurs thrown my way, it actually happened quite rarely. Now that I live in London it has never occurred. People don’t know that I’m trans and that helps quite a bit. When I’m dressed more femininely they assume I’m gay. When I’m not, they assume I’m straight. It’s quite easy for me to blend in regardless as small men aren’t expected to be overtly masculine and when a smaller man is — it’s often seen as overcompensation anyway. Online, specifically in subreddits, it is absolutely a struggle at times. Any post where it is suggested that someone is a feminine trans man or someone is dressed in an un-stereotypical style, it’s downvoted heavily. There’s also a spoken obligation to be masculine within many of the trans communities and although the moderators for the ones I frequent attempt to stop these things, people continue to express negativity towards femininity in a toxic way.
I don’t really tell myself anything that validates myself. I’m post-transition and my happiness validates me enough. My family and friends love who I am and I really can’t complain about that. I focus less on myself as a feminine trans man and more on myself as a person, a man, and a growing adult.
Partially societies problem with men showing femininity has to do with historical significance in the roles in which men and women differed. Hyper-masculinity saved lives once and so it wasn’t a behaviour which was particularly attacked to be modified by a changing society. And of course, people don’t like change. It’s often easier to live in ignorance than it is to evolve. Partially it has everything to do with the way we educate our sons and the priorities we, essentially, force into them. “Boys like blue, girls are weak and must be protected, be strong, be a man”. These ideals are instilled into boys as young as 1 or 2 when they begin playing with toys. Quite frankly it happens in utero when the sex is determined, gifts flood in for the assigned gender. And once that child is born it’s instantly inundated with the morals and ideology of the parents, friends, family, society etc. There are more nuances as well, but those two would be the first broad places where I’d identify hyper-masculinity origins and why it continues.
Learning about gender expression should be simple, allow people to express themselves as they see fit. Unfortunately, as I touched on above, allowing people to do that invalidates historical social evolution…or lack thereof. It’s a simple concept yet people struggle greatly in practice. Think about something as basic as the food you like. I can’t stand artichokes but to someone who adores them this simple difference in preference can be shocking. People even joke: “You don’t like artichokes? What is wrong with you, they’re delicious!” Harmless when brought down to this level, but when you get to something as nuanced and important as self-identity and indeed social/cultural identity it can also build in intensity. Someone can feel offended by the very existence of someone else and modifying that behaviour requires that you:
- Recognize and accept that your behaviour is irrational
- Recognize and accept that you need to change it.
Both of which can be extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. So, getting back to the question at hand people need to learn to live and let live, and that includes things such as gender expression.
I can only speak from my own experiences and from those I’d say my biggest advice is — be careful how much stock you put into what others tell you, myself included.” This is an individual process, regardless of how much support or assistance you get, in the end, you’re transitioning for yourself and rather…by yourself. People want to help but that doesn’t always mean they’re being helpful, and while it’s not always for malicious reasons, it doesn’t change that ignorance abounds and poor advice information floods the world. So be cautious, be careful, and don’t rely on others to validate you. You’re valid. You’re going to be okay.