I’m in a band. Often, we play to queer audiences, but recently we played a show to a straight indie audience. Lots of bearded white men in their thirties and their pretty girlfriends, if that gives you an idea. In this kind of a gender binary scene, I obviously had nothing in common with the straight ladies. But I’ve also never been the kind to hang out with straight dudes. I was always scared of little boys when I was a child: they were raucous, mean, and thoroughly unpredictable. As far as straight men go, I have only recently gotten over the idea that their only purpose in this world is to leer at me, act like they know everything when they know nothing, and yell “queer” out the window of their trucks. As an adult, I have, of course, met some nice enough straight guys, but until recently, I was convinced that they (the nice kind) were utterly boring and not worth talking to in the slightest.
At the show, I was wearing a muscle shirt over my flatly bound chest and a straw fedora, playing a very manly trumpet. Not to brag, but we put on a very good show. I have to say, I was surprised at the number of straight guys who came up to me afterward, agog with admiration, and called me “man”: “Great show, man,” “Hey man, I really enjoyed the horn playing,” “Sorry about your monitor, man.” One lesbian and one straight lady also called me “man” that night. I don’t think I was passing, and none of these guys would have been informed that I go by “he” and identify as trans or male, so I think they simply read me as the type of person that one interacts with on a guy level. I have to admit, it felt fantastic. So much so that I even started to think that maybe I wouldn’t have to physically transition if folks were willing to so consistently gender me male. Whether or not they literally saw me as male.
I’m starting to develop an appreciation for nice straight guys. Mainly because they have the power to extend male camaraderie to me. It’s actually a bit embarrassing what a sucker I’ve become. One manly hug (the kind where you clasp opposite hands first, then slap one another on the back with your spare hand), one casual “Hey man,” and a guy is golden to me. The good part of this is that I’m starting to get over my previous anger and defensiveness to appreciate the wholesome, nice, simple qualities of certain straight guys.
But I’m also realizing how weird it is to be becoming a man who has received almost no socialization from straight guys. My masculinity and maleness owe a lot to gay men and to masculine females, and almost nothing to straight men. At the Dollar General today, I noticed a young straight male customer comfortably peppering his interaction with the male cashier with “man,” “sir,” and “buddy.” I panicked for a second, realizing that I never interacted with men I didn’t know in that way (friends are another matter). I worried, suddenly, that I didn’t know how to be a man with other (straight cis)men; I was gripped with the anxiety of being merely an impostor. And, sure enough, as I was checking out, the cashier didn’t treat me the same way as the other guy, though he didn’t call me “Ma’am” either (nobody does these days). Now, I felt pretty good as I was leaving the house today. To myself, I looked satisfyingly male, and in a queer scene, I definitely would have been read as someone who had crossed the line over into not-female range. But this Dollar General interaction made me worry that, to other men, I would always just be a fake man, a woman who looked like a man, viewed with suspicion, because who knows how you’re supposed to treat someone like that anyhow? Certainly not with male camaraderie.
The interaction also made me realize that I still have a lot of built-up defensiveness around straight men, from years of having to stave off their unwanted advances, their pretend authority (I had a couple of step-fathers that I had tense relationships with as a child), their enraging dismissiveness, and their threatening physical presence. I know how to be both aggressive and defensive around straight men. I know how to stand my ground, take up space, and stride purposefully without making eye contact. But I don’t know how to relax and enjoy a moment of camaraderie with a guy I don’t know. All my male skills are based on competition with straight men, none are about relaxation and fellowship.
On the other hand, I am completely oblivious to female camaraderie. If I imagine the opposite situation: me with a straight female cashier, it is quite clear that there would be no shared female fellowship, and certainly no tears lost over the fact that the cashier didn’t treat me the same way as the woman in front of me. So where does that leave me? I feel at sea, isolated, a kind of third gender, in fellowship with no one.
One thing I notice is how new and uncharted this stage of interactions with cismen feels to me. I am in the privileged position of no longer having to worry that they will treat me the ways they treat women — by sexualizing, dismissing, and talking down to them. I know that not being treated this way is a male privilege because I did not always experience this. So I am able to let go of my defenses a bit to start to learn what male fellowship is like. But I need to remember that male camaraderie is neither the golden seal of maleness, nor the goal of my transition.
Most of all, I need to be wary of my tendency, at this stage, to look to cismen for male validation. If the only connection I have to a cisman is that we’re both men, that is a poor connection indeed. If he extends male camaraderie to me, whereas before, he would have sexualized, dismissed, or tried to dominate me, he is giving me a poisoned gift. If he withholds male fellowship because he doesn’t see me as male, then he is acting based on a transphobic definition of maleness in which I want no part anyhow. After all, the point of transitioning is not (and never was) to become like every other (transphobic, misogynistic) guy, but to be more myself. And really, after a lifetime of not fitting in with the girls, I don’t see why I would suddenly expect to transition into an absolutely average guy, beloved by other (straight) guys. So I have to come to terms with the fact that transitioning may not mean being liked and accepted by most guys. But, then again, I wouldn’t know what to do with that anyway, since straight guys have been so unimportant (or negatively important) in my life, and I am not transitioning to become one anyhow!
Regardless, one absolutely wild thing about transitioning is that it does transform the world around me in a way that amazes me every single day (and I have not even physically transitioned!). Sometimes, people treat you the same as before; it is your attitude towards this treatment that has transformed completely. Sometimes, they treat you in a way that validates your identity and feels amazing. Other times, they treat you as a guy, but not as the kind of guy you actually are. This is the strangest and the hardest to deal with, because on the one hand, you have won — you are being seen as a guy — and yet something about it does not feel right. I suspect that it will always feel a little alienating to me when people interact with me (straight) dude to (straight) dude, whether this is alienating in a thrilling way or in a distancing way. But the comforting thing is that, just as I am not socialized in how to interact with straight guys, most straight guys are not socialized to have healthy interactions with gay men that are based on recognition and respect, so we’re even. That is why it’s important for me to keep in perspective that I do not just want to be a man; I want to be an effeminate fag. But this is also why it’s important for me to keep in mind that, if I do physically transition, straight dudes might look at me not as a bro or a fellow guy, but as a despicable faggot. Which is why it is all the more important that I don’t get used to putting too much stock in (straight) male recognition and camaraderie. Though it still feels addictively great when I get it.
What kinds of interactions do you have with different kinds of men?