For a long while, I felt like I had to accumulate “proof” before I could claim to be transgender and male. So I would compile lists, in my head or in this blog, of all the feelings, identifications, and experiences of dysphoria that justified me claiming trans. I would devise airtight logical arguments about why I must be trans, why I couldn’t possibly be female, and why I should use male pronouns. Now this is all well and good, but there was a strange way in which, even after building a fool-proof finalized argument about why I really was a trans guy one day, the next day, I would be assailed with doubts once again: Was I really absolutely positively sure? Did I really have the right to claim this? Was I making the right decision? What if I was wrong? What was so bad about being seen as a boyish female and going by “she” anyhow?
What I realized recently is that all of this hesitation and indecision stemmed from three sources: 1. Insecurities about not fitting the dominant transexual narrative. 2. Internalized transphobia. 3. The fear that it would be impossible for me to make a life as a trans man. This “Trans Empowerment” series is going to be about my process of working through these three internalized resistances to transition. I hope that it is empowering, not only to me, but to some of my readers to both think through and work towards liberating ourselves from the internal barriers that make it difficult for some of us to claim and inhabit “trans”.
My first obstacle to claiming “trans” had to do with coming to terms with the ways in which my narrative does not line up with the dominant transexual narrative. I was not “always” male or male-identified. I did not grow up thinking of myself as a boy or hoping to grow up to be a man. I do not hate the “female” parts of my body. From childhood through adolescence, I did not think that I was anything other than a girl. Sure, I was a girl whose alter-ego was a male elf named Philip. I was a girl who had recurring dreams, in college, that I was either a boy or a girl with a penis. I was a girl who was sometimes tough and brave and absorbed male socialization, and was sometimes sensitive and girlish. Really, my gender was all over the place, and, as a kid, I felt fine about that. It wasn’t till adolescence that gender became an issue to me. Mainly because, once I started middle school, social pressures demanded that I fit into the mold of “straight girl,” and I had no idea how to do that. I simply hadn’t been paying attention, and I had no idea what pre-teen girls were supposed to like, do, buy, and wear. I observed and copied as best I could, but I had a lot of learning to do in a very short amount of time. I spent my adolescence feeling self-conscious about what a poor job I was doing being a straight girl. I was unattractive, awkward, and nerdy, with an androgynous skinny body that never did mature into a “woman’s” body, and an inability to attract boys. Really, I was a late bloomer: I was pretty thick about anything involving gender and sexuality until a fairly ripe old age. It’s like I just hadn’t spent my childhood reading the same gender socialization books that everyone else had been assiduously studying.
In college, when I started identifying as bi, I also embraced androgyny. Since this was a “look” well-suited my body, I began to feel somewhat attractive for the first time in my life. Nevertheless, I had a grand total of three boyfriends until I “became” a lesbian at age 22. And my relationships with all three of them were pretty asexual and noncommittal. In fact, the word “boyfriend” might be a bit of a stretch, since, after the first guy, there was no public coupledom, no titles of “boyfriend” and/or “girlfriend”, and no presumption of monogamy. I just couldn’t stomach the idea of being a girl for a boy in a straight relationship. Being pretty slow, however, I didn’t realize that it was possible for me to be anything other than a girl until after college, when I moved to a small city with a thriving queer and trans population.
As I looked around myself in this new city, I realized, for the first time, that it was possible to have a female body and to be unapologetically masculine without being either a freak or an outcast. It was tremendously exciting to discover gender nonconforming people who were handsome and self-assured; who were an integral part of a thriving queer culture; who had close friends and no shortage of sexual and romantic partners. I was still, however, slightly out of sync with this culture. As much as I was undeniably attracted to butches, I also wanted to look like them. All that I saw around me, however, were masculine/feminine pairings. Although in straight settings, I strove to look like a boy, whenever I thought I might run into butches, I tried to femme it up so that I would have a chance at attracting them. So I would wear tight, androgynous clothing on my boyish body, creating a sort of boyish faggy girl effect that made it possible for me to not be femme but still be attractive to butches.
Throughout, I identified as a fag. This was the way I made sense of my sexuality and my gender in relation to those of my butch partners. But I was only a fag within the context of dyke culture. Elsewhere, I was simply a dyke. This began to change as I started having vertiginous adoring identifications with gay men. Gradually, my own identification and style shifted from boy to adult fag, but this shift was not legible to the rest of the world. I wore precisely what the David Bowie-esque futuristic Asian fag that I was would have worn, but in the stoic Anglo world of gender binarism, this read, once again, as androgynous, not masculine.
In recent years, as I began to take both my gay male identification and my attraction to gay men more seriously, I stopped feeling comfortable femming it up for butches. I just couldn’t wear tight, androgynous clothes anymore. I couldn’t stomach looking like anything other than a boy in any circumstance. Though I loved my Asian mullet, it made people see me as a girl, so I cut it off for an Anglo boy’s cut instead.
In the process, I stopped being successful at attracting butches. Everything was off, our approaches to dating, our genders, our sexualities, how we perceived one another… I wanted to be seen as a horny gay boy, but butches seemed to only be able to conceive of me either as a bro or as a lady. Serendipitously, at precisely this moment, I finally started getting attention from queer men, and the rest of the story you know from reading this blog.
What strikes me about this narrative is that my gender has always only existed in relation to my sexuality. When I was awkward and asexual, I also didn’t get my gender right. Lesbianism was initially attractive to me because it was a form of sexuality in which I was allowed to be something other than a girl with people who were something other than girls. Since my crushes on gay male friends had never worked out, lesbianism seemed to be my only entry into queer masculine/masculine pairings. But I had to sneak my sexuality into the back door of lesbianism, so to speak, and convince butches that my masculinity was complementary to theirs, not threatening. As, over time, I came into my gender and sexuality more, our masculinities were no longer compatible. Simultaneously, I realized that I was much more attracted to fag masculinity than I was to butch lesbian masculinity. I went from being into fag/butch pairings to being into fag/fag pairings (my female genderqueer lover is, without question, a non-butch fag, and I am still wildly attracted to her).
My passage through lesbianism, however, was neither a mistake nor a waste of time. It was a necessary learning process that taught me how to have a male relation to my female body, and how to navigate my evolving attraction to queer masculinity. As I emerge from lesbianism now, I do so with a knowledge that I lacked in my youth: I know how to relate to other men as a man.
So the strange paradox is this: lesbianism taught me to be trans — it provided a space in which I could learn to be something other than a girl and develop a “fag” sexuality — however, what it taught me ended up being incompatible with lesbianism. The other point of bemusement is this: while lesbianism provided a space where I could be trans without changing my body or my pronoun, now that I’ve exited lesbianism, I must change my pronoun and/or my body to be trans.
Not that I don’t want to change my body. But my relation to my body is not one of intense body dysphoria. One hears a lot about trans men’s hatred of the female parts of their body, especially their female-patterned fat deposits. But my body dysphoria is not (so much) about wanting to be less female; it is about wanting to be more male. Sure, the (slight) curve of my hips bothers me, and I have to wear clothing that hides it, but what I really want is masculine maturation: a thicker, more masculine torso, a squarer face, and light facial hair. The transition I envision is as much boy to man as it is female to male.
As an adolescent, I waited in vain to develop an adult female form. I just never felt like I made it through female adolescence to emerge an adult woman on the other side. I have never matured into any form of gendered adulthood, remaining perpetually just on the verge of adolescence. In this narrow, liminal space of pre-adolescence, I shifted from girl to andro to boy. As long as I was a bottomy, youthful boi (and this was quite a long time), I was happy with my body and my appearance. I scoffed at the heteronormative demands of maturation and had no identification with any adult gender. But in the last two years, I have internally aged a decade. Though I can still be playfully childish, I have also fully claimed adulthood, exerting the power to direct my life in line with my goals and ambitions, and taking on the responsibility to care for, advise, teach, and discipline others. I have evolved into a cocky top, Daddy-identified, occasionally curmudgeonly, with a lust for power and a hunger for respect. Looking younger than my male undergraduate students, then, does not line up with my desires.
My current body dysphoria is primarily about age and maturation. As I have fully come into my adult power, I have also outgrown my adolescent body. Transitioning, for me, is less about traveling from “female” to “male” and more about being ready to finally move through adolescence to lay claim to my adult body, which would be a male body. Since I have the Asian anti-aging gene, a baby face, a small and slight androgynous body, and a lack of defined male OR female secondary sex characteristics, I am always read as being MUCH younger than my age, when I am read as female, and even younger than that, when I am read as male. So here’s a paradox: resolving (some of) my gender dysphoria by using male pronouns is only intensifying my age dyphoria. And a point of bemusement: rather than moving from female to male or, on the other hand, being someone who never identified as female in the first place, I was a girl who became a boy, and I am now a boy teetering on the edge of adult maleness.
My challenge now is to believe now that my quirky trans narrative is still valid. That my age-based body dysphoria is valid. That, even though I have been a girl for most of my adult life, it is still possible for me to be a guy now. And that, even though many butch lesbians are “more” masculine than me, it is still valid for me to want to transition when they don’t feel that need.