I’ve been on T for about five months now, and am regularly read as male in most spaces. I guess, though, that I still have trouble believing this is actually the case. I just entered into my second semester of teaching since I began transitioning. I considered saying nothing to the students about my gender and hoping they would see me as male, but, up until the first day of classes, had not made up my mind as to what I should do. For my French class, I introduced myself as “Monsieur [Last Name].” I checked their faces for surprise, confusion, or amusement and saw nothing, but I couldn’t tell whether this was because they were already reading me as male, or simply because they were being polite and respectful in spite of having initially seen me as female. I decided to play it safe later, by specifying that I used the male pronouns “he,” “him,” “il,” and “lui,” though I said nothing about being trans. Again, I saw no particular reaction on their faces, and again, I didn’t know how to read this lack of a reaction.
For my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies class, I felt constantly aware how my gender was being perceived. First of all, I was concerned that, seeing a male professor, students would think they were in the wrong class, or balk at being taught by me. When I began talking, though, I gradually became convinced that my students saw me as a butch lesbian. I’m not sure why I decided this. A couple female students said “we” while talking about women and “our” while talking about women’s bodies, and, for some reason, I felt that they were including me in these pronouns. And I suppose it just made sense to me that in a Women’s and Gender Studies class, of all places, a gender ambiguous person like me would read as a masculine woman rather than as any kind of man.
I decided, then, that I absolutely must correct this misapprehension and told them that I was transgender. At which point the room went suddenly silent with held breaths. So I asked them if they knew what that meant, and one student volunteered something about taking hormone pills. So I did a quick 101 of transgender vs. transsexual and FTM vs. MTF. At which point someone asked which one (FTM or MTF) I was. When I said FTM, several students made shocked and surprised gasping sounds, and one said that she had thought I was MTF. Which kind of delighted me. So then, I tried to make my transness teachable by saying a little about how being trans influenced my feminist subjectivity and giving an overview of different feminist perspectives about trans men. Overall, students seemed quite interested and reflective, it seemed exciting to be able to have a dialogue with young people around trans issues, and it felt like a good way to build trust and to model, for my students, how I want them to use personal experience to reflect on gender norms. But it did turn a bit, in the end, into Ask a Tranny a Question, with a couple students posing some personal questions that seemed to be of limited pedagogical usefulness. I had to tell one student that I didn’t feel comfortable answering one of her questions.
So I’ve created this huge opening now: if I want, and if it seems applicable to our discussion, I can discuss my trans experience in class; I can talk openly about forms of gender discipline to which I was subject as someone who was assigned female; and I can reflect on about differences I’ve observed in how people treat someone they perceive as female vs. how they treat someone who they perceive as male. However, I may not end up wanting to speak directly from personal experience. I’m actually quite a private person, and it’s not my pedagogical style at all to speak about my personal experiences as a professor, much less my trans experiences. This whole thing came about, however, because I’m trying to change my pedagogical style, since it doesn’t seem to be well-suited to my current institution. I may, then, have to discuss with my students how part of cis privilege is the presumption that trans people exist in order to tell cis people their personal narratives and medical history and effectively have no privacy. That is, if I can figure out a way to say this that is not too aggressive or defensive. After all, the students don’t mean to do harm; I am, ultimately, the one in the position of power; and I did, in a sense, open the door myself. The good news is that teaching by semesters means that each semester is an experiment in itself. I can gauge the benefits, this semester, of teaching women’s studies as an out trans man and of openly discussing prior female experience; and I can try, the following semester, teaching as a gay man, and see which seems more comfortable and more pedagogically valuable.
To backtrack a bit, though, I still don’t entirely know what gender students read me as prior to my disclosure. When they said that they thought I was MTF, I was initially delighted, since I imagined it meant that they initially saw me as male and thought I was disclosing that I wanted to be a woman when I said I was transgender (which would account for the breath-held silence – this would certainly be a surprising disclosure for students to hear a masculine-presenting presumably male professor make). This would mean, however, that the whole thing was a farce: I outed myself unnecessarily, and I really needn’t have worried that students (or anyone else, for that matter) sees me as female. Which makes me wonder what it would be like to teach an Intro to WGS course as a gay man without making public any prior history I’ve had with either femaleness or lesbianism. Of course, I also suppose there could have been some students who did initially see me as a butch woman, and correctly surmised that I was FTM when I said I was trans, but who remained silent throughout about this entire thought process. And there could even be students who initially saw me as an extremely masculine woman, thought that I was outing myself as having transitioned from male to female when I said that I was trans, and imagined that this male history was somehow the explanation for my masculine appearance as a woman… Who the hell knows?
After class, I went to a talk by a prominent queer feminist theorist, and sat in the front row, directly in front of her. Last year, when I was pretty close to identifying as trans, I went to one of her talks and, again, sat directly in front of her. At the time, I clearly interested her. She looked directly at me curiously, warmly, and often. She may have found me attractive; she certainly found me interesting; and she probably saw me as “the next generation” of queer female scholars. I can surmise all of this because I was accustomed to receiving such looks in queer and feminist feminist academic spaces, where was usually the only young, clearly masculine-identified queer “female” person there. Often, there would be both older, butch female scholars and young dykes present, but I am used to getting particularly warm and interested gazes, due to my evident masculinity, from older feminist scholars both queer and straight. It’s the “baby butch” academic phenomenon, wherein I am seem as the “next generation” of both queer feminist scholarship and butch academic presence (which, in my generation, seems to be dwindling), along with the erotics of being one of very very few masculine-presenting “female” people. It is nice to feel legible as a queer feminist scholar; it is nice when people are automatically interested in you because of the way you look (I’m also tokenized by another prominent lesbian scholar, who doesn’t answer my emails, but who makes a show of hugging me and calling me “buddy” in front of others at academic events); it is nice when you are welcomed as part of a legacy before you have even opened your mouth. The cultural capital of the baby butch queer feminist scholar is valuable currency in these particular circles (though it certainly isn’t in most academic settings).
This time around, my experience was completely different. I was invisible to the queer feminist scholar in question – just another man. This is not to say that she would have been disinterested or dismissive if I had tried to speak to her afterward; but simply that my appearance did not immediately mark me as an interesting and sexy young person within the queer feminist academic lineage (though, to be sure, even in the past there would often be an unspoken disappointment when feminists learned that my scholarship was more on the gay male side of things).
Many trans men (but not all) are saddened when they lose recognition from the lesbian community in which some may have previously had a home. Thus far, in social spaces, I am all too happy not to be considered a lesbian by lesbians. But in academic feminist spaces, this immediate sense of recognition and interest from other queer feminist scholars – many of whom I admire – is something I will have to mourn. It remains to be seen whether some other form of recognition will one day come to replace it.