I went to a department store today to buy some button down shirts. When I looked around for fitting rooms, I saw some across the store by the women’s section. After a moment of looking around further and not seeing any others, I headed for these fitting rooms, thinking their placement was a little odd if they were the only ones, but that it ultimately didn’t really matter. As I approached them, my trajectory clear, a sales person called to me and said the men’s fitting rooms were on the other side of the store, prompting me to re-examine the other side of the store, where I did find another set of fitting rooms.
Now, on the one hand, it was relieving to me to be read as male and addressed as such. Even though more people read me as male than not these days, I am misgendered enough to be constantly on guard and anxious – particularly in public places like shopping malls and department stores – bracing for stares, or for sales people to be really awkward and curt with me (you know, more than they may usually be), or to sense the potential disgust and dismissal of passing dude-bros (who usually ignore me, like they do everyone else (at least, everyone who they do not perceive to be female and feminine)). I brace for these things even if they seldom happen, because I have been thoroughly taught what the world thinks of people who do not fit clearly into the gender binary. It is relieving to see that I am fitting in, because it helps me both to feel seen, as well as safe.
On the other hand, I am so, so tired of constantly being confronted with these choices: Men’s room or women’s room? Male security guard or female security guard for your pat down at the airport (or even for your entrance to a music festival)? When folks casually talk about relationships, and make general statements about men not understanding women, or women not understanding men, which side am I supposed to be on? (And where to queer people fit into those conversations about relationships, huh?) What of pro-choice movements being only for women when transmen can get pregnant, too? What of saying that same-sex couples cannot have biological children when some transwomen are capable of inseminating their cisgender female partners, or some transmen can carry their and their cisgender male partners’ children? What of folks who are neither male nor female, or who feel that they are both? When people say ‘men’ or ‘women’ they really mean ‘cisgender men’ or ‘cisgender women’, and it’s implied that trans* people’s lives and experiences are irrelevant. It’s literally killing us.
Even though I know myself to be male, which is one of the options in the male/female binary, I do not fit into the gender binary constructed in our society. I am a man with a female perspective. I am a man with uncommon anatomy. We have so much gender angst in our culture. So many people try to talk about what it means to be a ‘real’ man or a ‘real’ woman. There is so much gender policing everywhere. Men are supposed to be tough, stoic. Society teaches us that violence, sex, and dominance are together the epitome of masculinity. Whether or not we consciously accept these messages, they become embedded in our psyches.
The dressing rooms in that department store weren’t labeled ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ – it was just assumed that women would be shopping in the women’s section, and men would be shopping in the men’s section, and anyone who didn’t fit into that very narrow, rigid categorization wasn’t worth acknowledging or accommodating – or worse, deserved to be policed. I struggled with this especially before I realized I was male. It was years before I had the confidence to spend time looking for clothes in the men’s section, even though I had zero interest in anything in the women’s section. I internalized those rigid expectations so deeply, that even though I consciously dismissed them as ridiculous, I still feared being ‘caught’ looking for or buying men’s clothes while I was supposedly supposed to be a woman. Even though I now know myself to be male, this is still ridiculous.
When I realized I was male, it was not a revelation about how I fit into culturally dominant ideas of masculinity. It was far more indescribable than that. It was a recognition that a deep sense of incongruence that I had felt my whole life actually had to do with my gender, not some other failing of mine. It was a realization that on some level, I had always expected others to interact with me as if I were male, while also always knowing that they would not, and having to carry that conflict around without having a name for it, grasping for other reasons for this feeling of conflict. But what does that mean, expecting others to interact with me as male? I can’t tell you, because I’m not even sure myself – it was not conscious.
What I can tell you is that my maleness is not rooted in violence, sex, or dominance. It is not rooted in the fact that I always liked toys that dominant culture considers to be ‘for boys’. It has nothing to do with what hairstyles I like, what clothes I feel comfortable in, or whether or not I like perfume or cologne. I know plenty of men who are way more feminine than I have ever been, and who liked ‘girls’ toys growing up, who like to cross dress from time to time and love the color pink. These things do not make them any less male than they know themselves to be. My maleness is rooted in my brain, and my knowledge that I am male. Nothing more, nothing less.
So when people attach gender to all of these outside things, and try to separate and categorize, it fuels a huge amount of conflict. For me, I find myself in internal conflict, which I described above somewhat, as well as in a previous post. In a culture whose definition of ‘male’ excludes my experiences as a transmen, as a man who has life experiences of a woman, I will never fit in. For others, it leads to physical violence.
In my post discussing different uses of terminology, I said that I don’t like the term ‘passing’, when used to suggest that trans* people are only pretending to be the gender that they are. I have been thinking on this further, and realized that I have been, in fact, trying to pass. But I have not been trying to pass as male. I have been trying to pass as cisgender, because I have internalized the idea that this is the only way to be seen and accepted as male. I have been taught that I must assimilate to cis-normative society, where everyone is presumed to be cisgender until proven otherwise, and if you are other, then your existence doesn’t matter and isn’t worth noting.
If you are reading this, I encourage you to start trying to notice every time a conversation, news article, or TV show separates gender into male or female, attaches expected behaviors and attitudes to each, and presumes everyone is cisgender. It’s everywhere, all the time, just about every time anyone talks about anything gender-related. When my identity is left unacknowledged at every turn, the burden falls on me to declare that I exist, over and over and over again. I frequently post articles about trans* people on social media, not just out of a sense of advocacy, but because I am screaming to the world “I exist!”, because these articles are the only ones that acknowledge my existence, and my humanity. It’s also part of why I write this blog, to claim my existence as a transgender person in a culture that would prefer I do not exist, and as such, pretends that I don’t in really harmful ways.
As a final note, I would like to add that all of this rigid gender policing is harmful not just to me as a transman, not just to folks who are neither male nor female, but to anyone who experiences their gender in more nuanced ways, which is just about everyone. Even if you are cisgender, I’d bet if you paused to think about it, you can recount many instances of feeling pressured to behave in some way that did not feel natural to you because of gendered expectations. The gender binary hurts us all.
It doesn’t have to be this way.