Despite what you might see on social media, being a trans guy doesn’t always look like white shirtless bodies and surgeries.
A lot of my life’s work is devoted to asking people to look beyond the trans body and into the multi-faceted world of a trans person with my traveling photo project Transilient. The erasure of trans men’s narratives isn’t the only issue we face within our own community.
A shocking pattern that I’ve encountered while doing this work is how many of us are physically absent from other trans people’s realities. For six different trans women I interviewed with my project, I was the first trans man that they had ever seen or met in real life. When I asked these women why the masculine and femme communities weren’t integrated, they all responded in a similar way.
It’s not that these women reject trans men — on the contrary, they were very excited to spend time with me — but they described trans men as almost mythological and nowhere to be found in the rural areas where they lived.
There are few trans men depicted in mainstream media. Before I transitioned, my only exposure to trans men was Brandon Teena, the tragic victim of a sexual assault and homicide, and Chaz Bono, Cher’s son who transitioned publicly in 2011.
Today, the most visible trans males are hard-bodied models like Laith Ashley and Aydian Dowling, offering the public a body-focused view that prizes muscular men who can easily pass as male. Aside from the fact that so many trans men have different body types and presentations, our bodies are just one facet of us. The visible few also uphold a traditional view that masculinity looks one way. It isn’t the fault of those who are given visibility. To look a certain way comes with cultural rewards. I don’t think our lack of visibility will change until we can see many aspects of maleness and hope that redefines what it means to be a man.
Because of that lack of visibility, a lot of people — straight cis people and even folks inside the LGBTQ community — don’t know that trans men exist. They lack an education about our community, or are ill-informed, misunderstanding who trans men are, what we want, and how much those desires vary from person to person.
People’s ideas about us are a mixed bag. One might assume all trans men transition to become straight men while others believe that due to how we were “socialized” we align more with women than men. Others assume we all want all of the surgeries and to get on hormones. Some people within the community subscribe to the myth that cis men are the largest perpetrators of transphobia so we’d want to be seen as something different from cis men.
Being a trans guy should mean we exist in a wide-open space of masculinity however we define it on our own terms, but being a man of transgender experience can feel very confining. Most transmasculine people walk a tightrope of masculinity and segregation in various communities all the time.
Much of my transition has felt as though I am completely out of control of my own life’s narrative; claustrophobic yet isolated by both the straight and queer community. There’s been a strict code created for men which has bled into how trans men are perceived by the world. The code is physical and emotional. It says things like men are to carry themselves with obvious confidence, take up a lot of space, have a toned body connected to a penis, look traditionally masculine, get socialized as a boy, and express emotions in a restricted way. All of it holds up patriarchy. Nobody fits into it. Many cis men try to lead life on these terms, and frankly, it leads to living life with a lot of insecurities and pain. I think it leads to toxic masculinity and competition. Still, if a trans guy doesn’t possess or isn’t actively pursuing manhood that looks exactly this way, many straight cis people don’t see you as male.
If you own any one of these traits, or more, some of the cis portion of the queer community may read you as a traitor. I’ve heard people say trans males who act out of misogyny are “worse than cis men” because we “should know better.” Personally, I feel like that doesn’t tackle the way our culture teaches us to be, and sometimes excuses cis men. It could also be claiming that trans men shouldn’t behave this way because they are not men. On the other hand, some people in the cis queer community will dismiss your maleness altogether and chalk you up to being a “safe” person based on how one was socialized as a child. The reality is if someone is masculine they benefit from gender roles and patriarchy. Regardless of how one is read, people will pick up on these benefits, and it’s up to them to reject the inequality.
I have this recurring experience that happens when I out myself to a cis stranger. After I work up the courage to tell someone, “I am transgender,” cis people sometimes look at me and say, “Oh, so you want to be a woman?” This act of erasure — of passing – -is read as a privilege by some trans people as well as those who identify as allies.
When you boil it down, transmasculine folks’ transitions are viewed as being “easy” because of our assumed passing privilege and people’s personal views of our internal lives. Since physical violence and homicide aren’t as commonly directed towards trans men as towards trans women, trans men can be assumed to have it easy. The idea that passing is easier can be true in some ways — particularly when it comes to personal safety — but passing can also be incredibly lonely. When I am read as a cis man, it’s hard to not feel like my entire life has been expunged from existence.
It feels as though I am a walking blank slate. People can attach whatever story they want to me according to how they feel about men or trans people. I know all people do this to each other in our day to day lives, but it’s when people who are gifted personal information about me or understand what it means to be trans and still choose to write another reality for me that I feel absolutely powerless. Other trans guys who don’t pass, either by choice or circumstance, experience this narrative in another way. These guys are seen as men actively trying to change what it is be a man, or more negatively aren’t seen as men at all. These guys often get left out of the conversation and get pressured by society to transition differently.
Trans men can be complicit in this erasure too, sometimes policing one another and upholding traditional male norms. Quite often the norms are based around hormone use and surgery. I don’t think most men have a deep desire to uphold these norms. I feel like many people don’t realize there are other options. For trans guys, it could be harder to see another way of being male when the media focuses on a particular type of trans man. It seems like no matter how you transition as male, society wants to place you in a rigid box that disconnects you from your reality.
Since transitioning, I’ve felt that when I express emotions and opinions, it’s always too much. I am either not femme or queer presenting enough for many cis people, predominantly queer femme folk, or I have too many feelings, opinions, and am too demonstrative. I feel like they want me to challenge heteropatriarchy in a way that’s more comfortable for them, not me. It’s at times felt like I need to stay close to my “female socialization” in order to remain worthy of affection from certain people. We’ve all met the “I only date women and trans men” or the “ No cis men allowed” crowd.
However, at the same time, I’ve also felt as if I need to physically take on the archetype of a traditional patriarchal model of a man to be seen as worthy of affirmation by most of society. Trans male models and public figures such as Aydian and Laith were able to reach success not just because they are talented and driven, but because of how they look. Society also enjoys giving them a platform because they are “positive” and don’t express strong feelings on personal or social issues. Society makes it hard for men to talk about feelings or take a stand on issues without also taking away their power.
If you sit and think for a minute, how many famous cis men also are open with their emotions? How many men with a platform, trans or not, use it to make room for men who are not like them? When you’re a man of trans experience it’s already really hard for the mainstream portion of society to accept us and our ideas. Our culture likes men to be a certain way and if they stray from that concept it can make people uncomfortable. If a trans man pushes back on what it means to “look” or “feel” male he’ll have a harder time being successful.
Trans writer Thomas Page McBee has based his entire platform on challenging masculinity. He looks just like any other middle-class white dude in Brooklyn. He uses the traditional masculine presentation of a boxer while promoting his book Amateur. He may be fighting to be something different than the male norm but he still does physically box in a ring. He still visually and physically showcases traditional manhood. His body type, the color of his skin, and presentation has helped give him a platform to even start confronting maleness.
The general cultural understanding of maleness is what these men look like and what they don’t talk about. It’s my opinion that one has to look like a “real man” and regularly affirm their maleness to be taken seriously. In McBee’s case, he may be critiquing toxic masculinity, but he also talks about being a man a lot. His maleness is centered in the conversation. These trans male representatives are all gifted and are just being themselves in a world that sees them as credible versions of manhood. It’s not their fault but they are given opportunities and acceptance that many trans men are not. But they are also unintentionally helping to uphold strict ideas of maleness. This isn’t to say folks should be treated poorly for being themselves or should stop doing the work they do. The competition among us is not helpful and, I believe, has been taught to us through toxic masculinity. To change what it means to be male we need to be inclusive of all kinds of men and allow one another to have space within the definition of maleness. This includes the aforementioned kind of guys who fit into a traditional male mold.
These different male ideals given to me, one of which keeps me close to a past that feels dehumanizing and the other of which feels unlike me, butt heads in many of the communities trans men are a part of. This means there is little space to discuss the issues faced by the silent majority of trans masculine folks who don’t conform to the male ideal or conform to the “acceptable” queer political ideals of maleness. Many of us are non-white, impoverished, survivors of trauma, and don’t want our female socialization to be a factor of our worth. Many are straight, don’t pass, are fat identified, don’t possess a liberal arts education, or are disabled.
I’ve seen that with our newfound privileges as men also comes guilt, so when folks criticize us and silence us, quite often we abide. This privilege for us comes in many forms, whether it’s feeling safer when we walk home at night, purchasing pants with pockets, being allowed to have body hair, or not being held accountable for keeping rape from happening. At one point this guilt looked like me hanging out on social media all day calling out anyone’s assumed sexism, racism, and queerphobia. I slipped into a very dark depression and even became hyper-vigilant of myself. I was hard on everyone around me because I felt so guilty to be changing into something that people despise. This isn’t to say people’s anger with white men isn’t valid; it is, but I did internalize it.
This internalization was paramount in me becoming the person I am. Focusing on other people’s actions made it so I didn’t have to sit with what was going on with me. I faced a lot of loss when I transitioned, including an unrelated loss to suicide of a non-binary person who was one of my biggest supporters, and it was all too much for me to handle. I was angry at myself and the world around me for things that were not in my control. While I still address issues when I see them, my entire existence isn’t devoted to trying to change people’s language and views. My anger didn’t help anyone. I did what toxic masculinity teaches, and responded in an aggressive way that didn’t give people in my life room to grow, change, or honestly hear me. Part of my anger really came from a place of feeling like I didn’t belong. I felt ashamed to be gaining privileges and more safety in the world and was furious that so many white cis men around me didn’t see their privilege, let alone try to be better. The guilt for me is very internal these days and much less than it once was.
To be honest, I feel a bubble of guilt attempting to form inside of me as I write this article. While part of me knows my feelings are valid and I should be able to share them, another part thinks I am taking up too much space and should just be quiet. This, admittedly, is a symptom of how I was raised. I was raised in poverty, by abusive addicts, and the world viewed me as a woman. A big part of me thinks I am safer if I don’t question things or stand up for myself. It was a hard chapter of my life but thankfully I realized, no matter how much of a cop I was acting like on the internet, I wasn’t going to ever like myself unless I forgave myself. I also don’t like cops, so I needed to stop acting like one. I don’t understand how I thought policing was the opposite of white male behavior, but I did. In retrospect, I wish I had the tools and support to have been softer with myself. Mostly though, I wish I had felt like I could safely express my feelings of guilt and shame to my community and loved ones.
The exclusivity in maleness and the guilt surrounding privilege is the perfect storm for depression and pain. With the confining ideas surrounding trans male identity and the lack of representation for our community, it is no surprise that more than 50 percent of trans masculine youth have attempted to commit suicide. Trans men are in need of visibility and support. It’s imperative that trans masc people start being part of the conversation and accepted for who we are and how we see ourselves. Seeing the varied brands of maleness each trans man owns as being simply male is an extremely radical and helpful thing we can all do for each other. The separation between bad cis male behavior and good trans male lived experience is responsible, in my opinion, for maintenance of patriarchal ideas. For instance, when I came out as trans, my manager at the chocolate shop where I worked told me, “I don’t see you as male because you are too sensitive to be a man.”
Early in my transition another trans guy I knew that hadn’t started hormones yet told me that I was “wasting my testosterone prescription” by not working out and building muscles. On the other hand, people have tried to erase my voice when it comes to trans matters because of my passing ability. To them, I wouldn’t know the first thing about feeling oppressed. This attempt to punish trans men for not being “real men” or in some circles “too much like a cis man” affects everybody who doesn’t look or behave “right.” These stereotypes have been adopted by the transmasculine community, where the desire to be accepted by certain standards of attraction by a specific group means that we bolster the haphazard rules about what people need in order to be accepted as male or female. Those observed as “not man enough” or “too male to” are rejected somewhere by some group, and the realities of transmasculine people who do not obey given stereotypes aren’t accepted. We aren’t given access to spaces where we could potentially change what it means to be male.
I hope one day culturally we can establish that maleness and femaleness truly are constructs. Many believe that “gender is over” — for me, that just isn’t true. Maleness is very real and at the moment very exclusive. We have to throw out all of the old ideas about men and not have them consistently correlate with toxic masculinity. When people try to control our narrative or exclude us, to me, it seems like visualizing new models of manhood is a threat to patriarchy. Therefore, a threat to everything and everyone touched by it. We need to be given the space to help shift masculinity — and to help ourselves thrive as human beings.