On Queer Shame as Constructing Gender and Fracturing the Past

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.

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10 Responses to On Queer Shame as Constructing Gender and Fracturing the Past

  1. “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.”

    Oops, when I copy and pasted, your emphasis went away. But, this part gets to me, because I can relate so strongly to it. I have trouble sorting through my childhood. Did I feel like a boy? Like a girl? Did I have a gender? Why didn’t I refuse to wear those dresses/hair bows, if I was a boy? I don’t know if it’s because I was a sissy and liked to dress that way. Sometimes I think I must have (had) a good bit of femininity in me that I was able to live that way for so many years and not hurt. (I do say sometimes that, “I was a princess, and princesses grow up to be queens.”) But I also don’t know if it’s because I’m a very passive person, (though trying to work on that), and causing trouble sometimes hurts more than just resisting whatever is – being told you are a girl, these are your pronouns, these are the clothes you have to wear…accepting that was better than causing trouble – till it wasn’t anymore. But I wasn’t in horrible pain every day when I was thinking of myself in the terms I was given, and wearing the only clothes I was given. Even though there was that *thing* just below the surface all the time…..

    I do feel sorry for the boy in my old pics who was receiving female socialization. (And though you don’t have to, you can feel sorry for your boy in old pictures, too.) Even though he might not have thought of himself as male at the time. Or at least, not explicitly or fully, or in any way he could have articulated to anyone. I think to an extent, we – trans people who don’t fit the narrative – need to give our childhood selves a break for not knowing; for not doing as children what we needed them to do in order for us to look the most legitimate now. How could we have known? We took what we were given and did our best with it, at the time, with child minds. Because even though we might have more or less been fine with the way things were at the time, no one asked us. They told us. There was no choice. How is a child, whose whole life is based around following the rules, obeying authority figures, and not questioning, supposed to sort though these things, when no one even tells us that we may try out other clothes and pronouns, if we like? That our gender is whatever we say it is, and not what they say it is? They told us we were girls/boys, had no choice but to be girls/boys, and for awhile, we identified as girls/boys. I don’t think these two things – being told you are a girl/boy, and identifying as a girl/boy – are independent events. I am not saying that we would not have identified as our assigned genders for some time in the absence of coercion, but we can’t know what genders we might have chosen as children if we had known there were choices. I also don’t think it’s fair for trans adults to be held to ways that they felt (or didn’t feel) as children. People grow.

    It helps me also to think of myself as a child – girl or boy, no matter – as the kind of child who grows up to be a trans man. No matter what I was, or how I felt to be it, or what I thought of it at the time, the capacity to grow up to transition already was in me, and it’s not something that everyone has.

  2. Faggot Boi says:

    Thanks for this eloquent response SCB. I’m really compelled by your point that trans people shouldn’t be held to way they did or didn’t feel as a child. And I think this is pretty ground-breaking:
    “It helps me also to think of myself as a child – girl or boy, no matter – as the kind of child who grows up to be a trans man. No matter what I was, or how I felt to be it, or what I thought of it at the time, the capacity to grow up to transition already was in me, and it’s not something that everyone has.” There’s an incredible amount of weight put on early life transness as the justification of transition later in life. I like your emphasis, on the other hand, on capacity and growth as routes to transition. For many of us, it take a certain amount of maturation, learning, and experience to understand the possibilities available to us outside of our gender assignment and forced socialization. And there is nothing surprising about this when you consider that vulnerable, sponge-like, docile, and ultimately naive being – the small child – that is receiving gender socialization.

    If there was a greater understanding of capacity as the origins of transition, perhaps I wouldn’t be ashamed of speaking of my girl-identified past publicly. In this post, though, I think I was more interested in my new tendency to read my current gender identity backward into a past in which I know that it did not exist in its current form. Not necessarily for the sake of others, but simply because, for myself, it has become cognitively difficult to understand myself as someone who was one gender – and not one gender “hiding” in another gender – and who transitioned to another. How could I have been both of these things when I now am so clearly this one? But I suppose that this cognitive difficulty can’t be separated from the sense of illegitimacy conferred on the trans man who perhaps really was not a boy early in life. If it was commonly accepted knowledge that little girls can grow up to be men, perhaps I wouldn’t have this cognitive dissonance or this tendency to read my present backwards into my past.

  3. “But I suppose that this cognitive difficulty can’t be separated from the sense of illegitimacy conferred on the trans man who perhaps really was not a boy early in life. If it was commonly accepted knowledge that little girls can grow up to be men, perhaps I wouldn’t have this cognitive dissonance or this tendency to read my present backwards into my past.”

    I think that’s exactly it. For cis people, boys grow up to be men, and girls grow up to be women *without exception*. But just because that is the way cis people do it, doesn’t mean that is the way everyone does it. But even trans people grow up with that Law of the Universe, and it is unsettling to have first hand knowledge that it just isn’t true all the time.

    I feel like there are two (competing) motives when looking back at the past/childhood: 1) Tell the truth, to the best of my abilities; 2) Justify being trans. These aren’t easy things to balance. It involves a lot of cherry-picking, a lot of over-looking, a lot of playing-up. There was evidence, oh yes, but it was sporadic, and subtle, and if I were a woman, it would mean nothing.

    It was very important for me to have that consistency, too – boys grow up to be men, and I am a man, so I *must* have been a boy, even if it wasn’t apparent most of the time. I don’t know if I will always feel that way; I almost feel now that it’s not as vitally important as it used to be. But the main thing is, now, I was a child, and I don’t even remember it well, it’s been so long ago, but I am here and alive in the present, and how I need to live now is what matters now. When I was five, ten, seventeen – I needed other things.

    Have you read From the Inside Out? http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Out-Radical-Gender-Transformation/dp/0916397963/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1312939384&sr=8-2 It’s a collection of essays by trans men and other FAAB trans people. One essay, GenderFusion, the author speculates on who he might have been if they had only let him keep playing on the boys’ team, if his parents had only come to his mechanic school graduation, if they had only allowed him to have a normal marriage, divorce, and custody battle with his wife. The implication being that he might not have needed transition, or transition might have looked very different. Reminds me of a lot you say here about shame influencing gender identity, and the choices people make as a result of that shame.

  4. Faggot Boi says:

    Well spoken, SCB. Thanks for the book reference. I’ll definitely check it out!

  5. genderkid says:

    I loved this part: “Gender is a viable and valuable way of working out and expressing all sorts of things”. When talking about trans people’s genders, lots of people (including me) try to separate it from any other issues which might be going on in our lives –as if that were a way to give our genders legitimacy– when life just can’t be dissected like that.

    Also, I like the difference you point out between talking about one’s past inner gender(s) and one’s past social gender(s), and the very different motivations behind each disclosure. Actually I make a similar distinction when talking about my *present* gender: everyone knows I’m living as male, but few know my gender identity (which is not-exactly-male) because I think it’s too confusing and would change people’s interactions with me.

    This was an excellent post, though I can’t do it justice with such a short comment!

  6. Faggot Boi says:

    Thanks Genderkid. Your comment just inspired me to write a new post on the issue of disclosure.

  7. Kyle says:

    I can definitely relate to looking back on my childhood and young adulthood and rethinking it in terms of my current understanding of my gender identity. I was a boy for a time, until pressure from my mom and society caused that boy to go underground. We infused the girl with as much boy as we could get away with, that got us into butch dyke territory, which was pretty comfortable for a long time. Now I understand myself to not be cis-female, to have a strong male identity alongside the female. And I could probably play an endless game of ‘what if’ as well. What if my mom had let me express myself as a boy? What if the resources available now for queer and gender non-conforming kids now were available then? What if I’d allow my strong identification with gay men override my identification within the lesbian community?

    Lots of what if, lots of things to ponder about around my genders. I look at pictures of me in high school and I can see the defiance, sometimes a hint of masculinity, but rounded, packaged in the female. Pictures of me in my 20s make me cringe. Sometimes I look at them and think, wow.. what happened to me, to the real me? I feel real now, even though it’s a mixed up gender story to this day, I feel more real looking the way I do now, expressing my masculinity in uncompromising ways.

  8. anon says:

    Thank you for this honest and eye opening post. It helped me understand several things that I didn’t get so far-

    “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 didn’t get that specific butch brand of masculinity you describe, and how that carries into trans maleness. I’m gay and ftm too, but without a butch past. I have been male identified as a child, and because I wasn’t butch enough, and was shamed for that from an early age, I already developed shame about my femininity. I also developed shame about liking only boys, at a very young age, meaning I developed a pretty similar pattern of shame as gay cis boys. So the shame and defiance that cis gay men feel about femininity didn’t come as a surprise to me as I already knew it from experience all my life.
    When I met the first trans men with a butch background, especially when they id’ed as gay/fag, I just didn’t get how their brand of masculinity could be called gay/fag, as it seemed to be the exact opposite of what I had come to know as gay/fag identity and shame/defiance.
    No wonder that I constantly got into conflicts with trans men who had a butch past. They didn’t read my masculinity as masculinity because it lacked their masculine/butch defiance and was full of camp defiance.
    That you are now developing the same type of feelings around gay/fag/femininity is really interesting for me.

    Another thing is the process that I have seen so many guys go through from third gender female-ish identity to fully male identified with a “male” past. It makes sense the way you describe it and I really appreciate your honesty.
    I don’t believe in revisionism, and the need for a streamlined trans childhood. The same thing existed in the 80s when every dyke told about how she was a dyke in kindergarten. And people who didn’t have that kind of past felt compelled to make up stories about their childhood. Instead of displaing the full variety of sexual identity, everybody tried to be similar.

    I think one factor is that we are trained that the sexes are mutually exclusive. One can’t be both in one lifetime, we just have no models for that, though it happens in reality.
    And of course, as you said, if someone doesn’t have a unified sex, then their whole identity will be devalued. It’s impossible to think a man who has been a girl as a child.

  9. Faggot Boi says:

    @Anon, thanks for your comment. I’m really glad to see that my description of queer gender as a form of shame/defiance resonated with you, at least from the gay male/camp femininity side. It’s interesting, and makes sense, to hear about your misunderstandings with trans men who had a butch background and who carried that particular type of masculinity-as-defiance background with them. To clarify, I did have a sort of mixed history. I identified more as a fag in my past, and thus, had certain defiant feelings about my femininity (but these feelings intensified after I transitioned), but by virtue of being perceived as a masculine female (mainly because of how I dressed, I didn’t actually act all that butch), I also developed a sense of defiance around my masculine presentation. So I guess I am placed to understand both sides. Sometimes, in fact, I think of myself as “the missing link” between fag and butch!!

  10. anon says:

    @ Faggot Boi: Thanks for the clarification. I think what made me understand the butch defiance better was your description of it as a community experience. I have never been part of a community that developed a masculine defiance, I was more isolated.

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