As I feared, taking male pronouns feels like the first big jump abroad a fast moving trans train. Once you’re on this train, it becomes increasingly difficult to take the leisure to sort out exactly how you feel about this or that aspect of transition, to sort out your precise motivations, and to sense your inner readiness before taking the next step. This is because taking male pronouns makes a very loud public declaration to people, putting you in the position, hopefully, of getting the male recognition you crave, but also forcing you to negotiate others’ perceptions, expectations, and opinions about your transness. To top it off, my fast approaching move to a new city to start a new job is forcing me to speed up my process and to make some rather big decisions more quickly than I might otherwise like.
I have to say that the process of changing my pronoun over within my queer social group has been very smooth. My friends have been really supportive, and after some initial slips, my two best friends say “he” loudly and with confidence, never ever messing up my pronoun. A bi friend of mine has also been really great, loudly referring to me as “he” in front of someone who didn’t know about the change the first time she saw me after hearing the news. Apparently, when told about the change, she said that she had been wanting to call me “he” for awhile. This has certainly helped me feel legitimate, since generally, I want to call trans men “he” before they actually start requesting this pronoun. My trans lover, who got me started on this whole thing by asking me the deceptively simple questions, “So why don’t you go by ‘he’?” has been the best. He began using “he” immediately, with an ease and an utter lack of hesitation that astounded me.
So really, everything is going as well as can be. I have had some really great moments, in large social settings, of feeling like I was finally publicly seen as male. It’s also been a relief to finally be able to interact with other trans men as a trans man, talking openly about transition, pronouns, testosterone, and misgendering. Before I was out as trans, I felt like I had to respect the privacy of my trans friends by not talking about transition, even though I had many transition-related questions on my mind. I have also been pleased to discover that nobody — not even my friend who identifies as transexual rather than trans, is completely stealth, transitioned ages ago, and considers his transition part of his private medical history — has tried to act like the gatekeeper of true transness, deciding whether or not I “really” qualify as trans. Trans folks on the whole have been really welcoming, but also understanding of the fact that my transition might look different from theirs. I’ve especially enjoyed commiserating with early or non-transitioning trans guys about how we are perceived, starting T, what pronoun to use at work, and other transition-related topics. Since many of my trans friends have already transitioned and read seamlessly as male, I have had to go out of my way to be around other guys who look like me and are guys and insist, with some success, on being seen that way. Talking to these guys makes me feel like it really is possible for me to be trans.
Every interaction that I have had with someone as a trans guy has made this identity more tangible, more present, and more true. For a while, I woke up every morning thinking, “I can’t believe I’m trans!” Now I wake up every morning and think, “Yup, I’m trans”. The end result of this is that it is feeling more and more impossible to be seen as male within the queer community alone. It is impossible for me to ignore or forget my male identification now. I have become acutely aware of the disjuncture when interacting with people who believe me to be a woman. In public, among strangers, this is unpleasant, but can’t really be helped. But with colleagues and friendly acquaintances, it is becoming increasingly difficult. More and more, I feel that if someone doesn’t know that I identify as male, s/he is interacting with me under false pretenses. On a practical level, not being out as trans to certain people makes it impossible to speak honestly to them about what I’ve been up to (figuring out how to be trans) to about my plans for the coming academic year (deciding whether or not to be out as trans at work). It just feels strange to be seen as one thing in one setting and as something else in another setting, or even as multiple things by different people in the same setting, as at a dinner this past weekend, when everyone to the right of me was calling me “he” and everyone to the left of me was using “she”.
The present is confusing enough, but what really makes me feel anxious and sick to my stomach is contemplating the future — my move to a new city and the start of my new job. Well really, just the job. This is a tenure-track academic job, in a college that values diversity, within a major city, teaching a pretty street-smart student body. Everybody is thrilled to have hired a butch lesbian woman of color, so it isn’t like some places in academia where even this form of queerness might cause some discomfort. However, I am still worried sick about what will happen if and when I tell them that they’ve actually hired a non-transitioned trans man. Being junior faculty fresh out of grad school is hard enough regardless. You have to step with confidence into the role of professor, learn the ropes of a whole new institution, navigate departmental politics, play the role of eager, friendly, hardworking junior faculty, do your job well, and please everybody. And I fear that some faculty members might be less than pleased to have to reconsider their assumptions, learn something new, make an effort to refer to me as “he”, and possibly embarrass themselves by messing up my pronoun and being corrected by me, a junior faculty member. My biggest worry is that, upon finding out that I’m trans, everybody will wonder if I’m mentally stable, question my ability to exercise authority in the classroom, and put me under surveillance to see if this is going to affect my job performance. This is different than being a trans student. As a student, you’re temporarily using an institution to gain credentials, so you find your mentors and stick to them, while avoiding those who are not on your side. A tenure-track academic job, however, is more like a marriage, and I will need to take care of each of my spouses to make sure that they feel good about my transition. The kind of confidence and charm that I will have to exude, the diplomacy and tact that I will have to exercise, and the sheer strength and steadiness I will need to have to withstand the stresses of being junior faculty along with the stresses of coming out as trans is daunting. It make me wonder if it is really worth putting myself through this strain and potentially endangering my standing at a job that I really feel very lucky to even have, just so that I can be perceived as male.
The alternatives, however, are either to come out further down the road or simply to have a permanent division between my work life, in which I am a queer woman, and my social life, in which I am a queer man. I can already sense the latter solution is going to be untenable in the long term. Originally, I liked the idea of coming out further down the road, once I felt secure in my job, had won the confidence and the liking of my colleagues, and had some sense of people’s background and level of education around trans issues. If I did decide to physically transition, asking them to use male pronouns as I was becoming physically male would be a very reasonable request (though transitioning before their eyes would be awkward regardless). But I have been warned again and again that what is most difficult for people, and what will potentially cause the most resistance, is having to change ingrained habits of speech and a settled idea of someone’s gender. Of course, they have certain preconceptions of me already that I will have to tactfully correct, but these preconceptions are based on the few hours that they spent with me during the campus visit and do not yet constitute an ingrained habit or a settled way of thinking. Nor do I want to leave a paper trail of contradictory gender pronouns as I move through my career. Ideally, the pronoun I choose to use this Fall will be the pronoun that I am known as for the rest of my professional life.
But the conclusion, that I have to go in to my new job and introduce myself as “he” immediately, seriously tests my resolve, because of the fears I outlined about. It makes me wonder if it is really worth it, why I need male recognition anyhow, and whether I am psychologically ready for this. Worst of all, it makes me feel insecure about not passing and not reading as male. In my darkest moments, I worry that this path — getting older, non-queer folks to call me “he” — is going to be fundamentally impossible, especially since, being gay and somewhat effeminate, I don’t exude “maleness” the way that butcher guys do. Sometimes it simply seems insane and impossible, a suicide mission in which I will willfully be jeopardizing my job and my mental health. When I am having these thoughts, I start to feel seriously dysphoric and to think that I must start testosterone as soon as possible because it is simply impossible for me to live my life looking the way that I do. I have friends who could give me testosterone today if I asked them, so I could actually begin my transition immediately… But that would also not be a great solution, since it would put me right smack in the awkward, pimply adolescent phase of not passing but visibly changing right right as I began the semester.
I may well want to take T for myself at some point, or simply to ease the difficultly of not passing and not being seen how I want to be seen. But I don’t feel like I can make this decision until I have tried social transition to the fullest to see what is possible without changing my body.
One problem is that I have the preconception that young queers will have no problem with calling me “he”, but older straight people, even educated and progressive ones, will have a lot of resistance to it. My transexual friend disagrees. He says that non-queer gays and lesbians are actually the worst, and that straight people can be pretty O.K. with social transition. And this may well be true. At the aforementioned dinner, I met a straight woman named Joyce in her early sixties. I liked Joyce, she was a cool lady with a lot of character, and she called me “he” and “him” loudly and with confidence during the entire meal. (As in “He’s going to move to X to be a professor, he’s so smart,” and “Get him a pork chop, he’s hungry!”) She started using male pronouns long before anyone else at the table used a pronoun for me, so she wasn’t copying my friends. It seems doubtful that she could think that I was a male-assigned man, so she must simply have thought that I was the kind of person who ought to be called “he” (and she was right). (I was wearing a bow tie, and one solution to my job dilemma that someone proposed to me was to wear a tie to work every single day). And reportedly, the response of one straight acquaintance without much background in queer and trans issues to the news that I was using male pronouns was simply “O.K., cool”, with no questions asked. I wonder if straight people live in such a gender binary world that it makes as much sense to them to call a male-presenting female-bodied person “he” as it would to call them “she”. Since gays and lesbians are familiar with a greater range of gender variance, it can potentially be harder for them to see a male-presenting female-bodied person as anything other than a masculine dyke called “she”.
My provisional conclusions are that:
– I can’t decide whether or not I want to start testosterone until I’ve fully socially transitioned.
– I need to talk to as many trans people in academia as possible.
– I need to talk to as many trans men about their transition and people’s reactions to it as possible.
– I need to tell not only my queer community here, but every gay, lesbian, and straight person I encounter socially so that I can be prepared to deal with a range of reactions by the time I start my new job.