The post that follows is a rigorously honest effort to understand how both my feelings about my gender (shame, pride, elation, comfort) and my gender identification have changed over time, before and after starting transition. In this post, I write my way towards a few interesting theses about queer shame as formative of my gender and of gender as a way of mediating and working through queer shame that I think represent real breakthroughs. I also attempt to understand how the result of my incoherent and changing gender history is a certain discretion around my female-identified past that might look strangely like denial or dishonesty. I attempt to explain how living in my reality now requires not publicly acknowledging certain aspects of my past. Shame is the thread that ties these meditations together. I understand shame as a generative force that can never simply be done away with, and am proud of the uses to which I’ve put it.
Approximately one year after starting testosterone it is hard, and indeed, astonishing for me to remember how not obvious it was to me that I might be trans, how using male pronouns did not initially feel natural to me, how I did not grow up thinking of myself consciously as a boy or hating feminine things, and even how, for I time, I saw the butch women I was with as the masculine ones in the relationship and thought that I had to appear androgynous because I was with them. (Some of these women, incidentally, are my facebook friends and probably think that either I or they are crazy now that they can see that I’ve transitioned). It surprises me that when I was in my late teens, in my “bi” years before I was in my first relationship with a butch woman, being “mistaken” for a boy made me feel traumatizingly embarrassed and ashamed – it felt far worse than being seen as queer or as a lesbian. When I was mistaken for a boy, I felt like I had crossed over some line into strictly forbidden, unthinkable territory. I was a freak. It wasn’t until after my first relationship with a butch woman when I moved to a (small) city with a lively queer women’s culture and its own drag king shows that I realized that masculinity could be a source of pride, something sexy, a gendered style that it could be safe and exciting to play and experiment with. At this time, I began to feel brave and thrilled and happy when I could look in the mirror and see something like a boy reflected in it and when I could defiantly project that to the world. I remember initially feeling self-conscious and a little afraid whenever I entered what I assumed to be a normative, straight space. I thought that people would challenge me or treat me differently – and certainly, I drew my share of stare, suspicious and hostile reactions, and the occasional verbal gay-bash – but the walls did not crumble around me and the world didn’t end. I had simply gotten over my fear and my shame. And, in a rather circular way, what helped me get over my shame at my masculine gender expression was precisely the masculinity I was discovering. The more uncomfortable I felt, the tougher and more confidently I tried to walk, the bigger I sat, the more of a defiant of a boy I became. Some of these behaviors have become ingrained in me now. Who knows to what degree the masculinity and eventually the maleness that I came into was some core part of my gendered being and to what degree it was the gendered form that my defiance of queer shame took. This association of masculinity, rebellion, shame-pride, and empowerment has certainly fundamentally shaped how I feel about my gender, and I think that, to some extent, it also explains why I identify partially with butch women and butch history. Cis-men, gay or straight, do not have quite the same associations and feelings around their masculinity as what I described above (they have others). But when a butch swaggers, looks unapproachable, or walks big, I get it, and I respect it.
What makes me different from butches (I think) is that, in some strange way, femininity is now what has become a problematic, thrilling, and shame-ridden experience. Femininity feels forbidden and dangerous and shameful to me for one obvious reason – because I’m trans. When it comes to my own gender, the possibility of femininity – female femininity – fills me with distaste and horror. There is, however, one group of men that also has to deal with complicated feelings around femininity – gay men. For them also, feminine expression has an aura of danger and shame… which might, with a certain unpredictable volatility, turn into camp pride. I can’t do it as a general way of being, but every now and then, I can let out a convincing camp flourish. In this way, I am exactly like many non-effeminate gay men, whose controlled release of drama queen moments is considered humorous and reaffirms their belonging within a gay community without permeating their behavior overall (they are not constantly feminine or effeminate, just for the occasional flourish or dramatic word). I think that, for me, there’s a kind of unstable transference between my horror and distaste for any expression of femininity on my body as a trans man, my identification with gay male feelings of shame around feminine expression and attempts to hide and to control it, and my attraction to gay male strategies of reclaiming feminine expression (my emulation of these strategies, on occasion, but more significantly, their erotic charge for me). My feelings toward femininity and strategies for dealing with it are thus a strange combination of butch and gay male, but cannot be fully understood as either one or the other.
Interestingly, both aspects of my gender – my maleness and my gay femininity – ultimately have a lot to do with queerness, shame, and pride. I don’t remember being ashamed of my femininity before I became masculine. But once I did become masculine, even as I was dealing with shame at my masculinity by transmuting it into pride and, therefore, into a more masculine masculinity, I began to feel ashamed of my femininity. I am not suggesting that I should have, instead, gone to therapy in order to find self-acceptance rather than work out my feelings of queer shame through my gender. Gender is a viable and valuable way of working out and expressing all sorts of things – childhood conflicts, relations to the world, relations to social norms, strong feelings around queer and trans stigma, desires to project empowerment, toughness, strength, self-sufficiency, and fearlessness, as well as whatever their feminine corollaries might be (the fact that I can’t think of them at the moment shows to what extent I am wedded to the values culturally associated with masculine expression). One thing to point out is that my feelings of shame in my masculinity, and later, my femininity led me to go further into that gender, to throw myself into my shame, rather than totally closing it off or moving away from it. I don’t, however, see myself going fully into feminine shame-pride as I have into the masculine. Perhaps I have simply found the combination that suits me.
Another thing to underline is that I did not, as many lesbians seem to fear, transition because I couldn’t handle the shame and stigma of being visibly gender deviant. To the contrary, I learned to enjoy being gender deviant. It gave me a powerful charge and became an important part of my self-conception and my attitude toward the world. No. It was something else that carried me into transition. It was a gender identity as effeminate fag coalescing out of shame-pride in masculinity and shame in femininity as well as some other things, notably sexuality. Could it be that an identification powerful enough to give me gender dysphoria and make me transition could have emerged, in part, out of my ways of understanding and working through complicated feelings around gender transgression? Could my gender be one of queer shame’s flowers? Certainly, if I focus in on the feelings I have around gender and how they have changed throughout my life, it seems quite possible.
These feeling have intensified now that I have transitioned. Masculinity is obviously no longer a cause of shame but rather of a very rare and special pride. My masculinity is beloved to me. I treasure it. This explains why I feel so delighted when I look in the mirror and see how masculine and male I look. I still feel transgressive and defiant in expressing masculinity, as if I am mischievously poaching on the domain of others. But I identify as male, so masculinity is my domain, not that of others, and masculine expression, on me, now ratifies, rather than seeming to contradict my sex. And I do, in fact, feel proud of how well my gender expression accords with my body (that I may come across as butch and/or gay, but never female). I delight, almost constantly, in feeling myself to be masculine and male in my body and in seeing this confirmed in relations with others as well as in the mirror. This feeling of almost constant gender elation is what I normally call “feeling very comfortable in my body.” It also explains, in part, why I have not ended up being as effeminate as I thought I would be when I first started transitioning. I am not (yet?) ready to give up my delight in the feeling of masculinity to be effeminate.
Also, the feeling of shame associated with femininity has intensified. Now I don’t mean “femininity” in any monolithic sense. I can be gentle and sensitive and sympathetic and kind and all that business, as long as it reads as “sensitive man” or “sensitive gay man” or is balanced out by butch characteristics. In other words, as long as I don’t think it reads as “woman” or “girl” or “man who was once a girl.” Much of the shame is specifically around femininity as it is associated with femaleness, but there is also some fear of drawing attention to myself, of becoming the object of attack or hostility, or simply of not being taken seriously as a flaming faggot. I hadn’t realize how intensely I try to force people to respect me until I transitioned. I also haven’t found a way to be defiant, fabulous, and strong in femininity the way that camp queens and femmes are. This is why I admire them so much more than ordinary women and men.
Finally, I have now become ashamed of my female past. First of all, I find it unseemly to talk about it. I would be scandalized, for instance, if someone I knew made reference to the fact that I was once female and identified as a girl. I believe that, unless they know the person prefers otherwise, people should have the common decency to discuss a trans person’s past as if they had always been their preferred gender. (This is different than acknowledging that a physical and social transition has taken place, which is fine by me in private settings). I don’t really talk to my friends about how my internal sense of gender itself has transitioned.
But why not, if it’s true? For me, it’s very much related to my sense of dignity and authenticity as a trans person and a male. Even though it is true that how I came to be this trans person and male is a complicated story, I don’t want others to know or acknowledge they know exactly how complicated this story was. Let them perpetuate the fiction that I was always a little boy, even when everyone thought I was female. Because I fear that if they knew that I ever identified as female or as a girl, they might not treat me correctly – that they would treat me as a genderqueer or a butch or just female rather than as a trans man, for instance. My authenticity as a man or as a trans man might be questioned, and my sense of dignity would be undermined. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; I have told at least one person of my female-identified past, and I could tell others if I felt the situation was right. Otherwise, I feel that everyone should have the common decency of assuming, unless informed otherwise, either that a trans person never identified as another gender and that, even if they did, they likely don’t want this identification acknowledged.
But it’s also true that I have become ashamed of this history. I find it confusing and absurd now to think of myself as ever having been a girl. I just can’t identify with it. It feels like another person’s childhood, another person’s youth. I can’t believe that those images were me, and I didn’t have a problem with it, not really. What’s even stranger is that I am fully capable of looking at images from the past or having memories from the past and feeling genuinely sorry for that poor little boy receiving female socialization or wearing girl’s clothing or thinking he was a dyke, even though I know that I didn’t identify as a boy at the time. On the other hand, the pictures of me pre-physical transition at the time that I identified as a fag which used to distress me because I thought I looked hopelessly unlike a boy now appear totally congruent to me. I can clearly see the trans fag in them, and they don’t inspire any shame in me (though they did before). What’s happened is that I now feel so clearly male, and so comfortable and elated in being, looking, and feeling male that I literally can’t believe I was ever anything else and can’t really remember what it felt like to be another gender. I know that it isn’t true, that I didn’t feel like a boy in my youth, and that I wasn’t a poor little boy who didn’t know he was a boy yet. But my past as a girl is so utterly incongruent with how I feel now that it really is much easier and more comfortable to imagine myself (and see myself, in pictures) as a little boy trying to be a girl. Even though I know the story of how this happened (because it is my story and I have written it down here), it is very difficult for me to hold the two parts of the story together in my consciousness in anything I can experience as a non-contradictory way.
I am also no longer really Third Gender identified. For the most part, I feel totally, unequivocally male, and this feels like a fantastic relief. I am a male with a complicated history, of course, and I don’t deny my identification with butch women, for instance, but I certainly don’t feel like some mixture of male and female or like some gender in between the two (even though, objectively, that’s what my body is). I do, however, feel like I am a different type of male than most cis men. I can sense that, though we may both be male, we have different histories and different relations to our genders. That is not to say I feel totally comfortable with all trans men, since trans men express widely variant types of masculinities, have a series of different histories, and have different emotions around their gender as well. We may not be the same type of male either, but we are at least in the same general category (though I may in fact, be and feel closer in my gender to certain gay cis men than to many straight trans men). So why do I no longer feel Third Gender? I think that taking testosterone and seeing my maleness reflected in the mirror and in the way people treat me has tremendously ratified my sense of being male. It has given me permission to feel unproblematically male, without fear, or guilt, or a sense of untruth. It’s too bad that I couldn’t feel this way without testosterone, but it’s also understandable.
Unlike with my history of female-identification, I don’t mind others knowing about my trans identity, and I don’t feel that it undermines my maleness or my dignity (though I know that for some people, it actually does – when they know I’m trans they see me as a freak or a female in disguise or a passing butch). Regardless of what they think , it gives me pleasure to show them what a good man I am – how handsome and good at being male – pleasure in making people respect my gender identity and call me “he.” It’s none other than my previous sense of masculine defiance carried into my physical transition. It makes me very angry, however, when cis people talk to me about my trans history or when trans people refer to it in the presence of cis people (angry, not ashamed). This, I feel strongly, is an enormous breach of privacy. I want complete and total control over if, when, how, and to what extent my transness is discussed. In my ideal world, then, everyone I interacted with regularly would know I was trans, but no one would talk about it unless I brought it up first. Other people, trans and not, unfortunately don’t have the same standards of behavior.
That’s why I articulate these thoughts in an anonymous blog. I don’t tell any of my friends about them, and certainly not my Pops (who I am trying to get to understand me more as a transsexual and less as a butch). I would never allow myself to be interviewed by those sympathetic researchers or journalists who want to tell a trans person’s story. Because I don’t want my trans story out in public, attached to my name. This is very sensitive information, and, in most cases, I would rather forgo sharing with a friend who may have had a similar experience that I once thought I was a girl.
I don’t think this is dishonest. It is the most honest way to get across the way I feel now about my gender. Because if I can’t even fully comprehend how my girl-identified past fits with my male-identified present, I certainly don’t think I can expect others to. Unless I treat them to a long verbal dissertation, which I would prefer not to do.