‘It’s complicated’

I am constantly trying to find a place for my story, my life, in this world that regularly denies the existence of trans folks, both actively and tacitly.

Until I was 26, I had picked up on very few clues that my gender was anything other than that of a cis woman. I worked hard to be proud of my gender. I worked hard to break out of rigid expectations placed on women, real pressures that I felt – and still have internalized. I experienced both subtle and overt sexism as someone perceived as a woman.

So, even though it turns out that I am a man, is it fair to say that I know what it’s like to be a woman? What does such a statement even mean? What, then, of the fact that I feel like I’m only just beginning to learn about what it’s like to be a man? What does that even mean?

Welcome to my brain.

Part of the issue with these questions is that they are incomplete. For example, it turns out that for me, since I’ve come to understand that I’ve always been male regardless of whether or not I knew it consciously, I’m not actually just now learning how to be a man. I’ve been a man my whole life. All I have to do to be man is to continue existing. What I am actually learning about is what it’s like to be perceived as a cis man in our patriarchal, gender-role-obsessed society.

I don’t actually know what it’s like to be a cis woman, but I do have some firsthand experience as someone perceived as a cis woman, and treated accordingly, for better or for worse.

The truest statement is this: I know what it’s like to be a trans man. Actually, even more true: I know what it’s like to be me, as a trans man, both before and after realizing it.

There are no universal ways to be any gender, or to be cis or trans or something else entirely. I do not know, for example, what it’s like to be some other trans man.

There are some awful ways that some trans folks, particularly trans women, are excluded from spaces based on distorted ideas about whether or not they ‘know what it’s like to be [a particular gender]’. For example, many trans women are excluded from women only spaces because cis women have decided that because trans women lived any part of their lives perceived as male, that they do not know what it’s like to be a woman. What kind of woman is it, that they’re holding as some kind of universal standard? A cis woman. An impossible standard. Also, there are no, true universal standards of gender.

Just as I, a trans man, am a man no matter my socialization, so too are trans women. Cisnormative society makes no space for our experiences, and tells us we have to squeeze our lives into cis narratives. This is why I catch myself asking these questions, such as ‘do I know what it’s like to be a woman?’ – I am trying to squeeze my life into a cis narrative. It’s actually utterly exhausting.

I have internalized cisnormativity. To me, being a man and having gone to a women’s college are incongruous, and don’t make sense in a cisnormative framework. I am confronted with this regularly, as I find myself reluctantly concealing where I went to undergrad from colleagues who (probably) don’t know that I’m trans. I worry about situations where I will have to disclose – on a resume, or if asked point blank where I went with no easy way to avoid answering the question. I pretty frequently imagine how people might respond, and what I might be able to say in response:

Me: I went to Wellesley

Coworker or acquaintance: …Isn’t that a women’s college?

Me: Yes

Coworker or acquaintance: …But you’re…

Me: Option A: It’s complicated. [Attempted subject change and subsequent anxiety.] Option B: Well, I thought I was a woman at the time. Option C: I’m transgender. [Further, reluctant clarifications.] Option D: Yes. [Attempted subject change, subsequent anxiety.]

I shouldn’t have to clarify. I shouldn’t have to squeeze my life into a constructed framework that I will never fit into. Did I mention that even just worrying about all of this is exhausting? It takes up energy that I could be devoting to other work or play that would bring me more much-needed fulfillment.

Being perceive as a cis man is still very new and raw for me. I am working toward not worrying so much about these things, but it’s hard not to when I’m confronted with it in one way or another every day, just by trying to exist as who I am.

I dream of a world where not everyone is perceived to be cisgender all the time; where no gender or gender expression is privileged over any other. I know, it’s a pipe dream, but we’ll never get there if we don’t take any steps toward it.

Oh, what fortunate timing: I just heard this come through my earbuds: “If Jim can’t take his eyes off it, just imagine her reaction.” As I am wrapping up this post, a commercial just came on from the site I’m streaming music from. It’s about jewelry, possibly an engagement ring. Just pause for a moment and let all of the assumptions in that statement sink in: All women like jewelry more then men. Men should buy jewelry for women. Jewelry is only for women. Men should propose to women. Only straight people care about jewelry. No one other than straight, gender-conforming people exist/are worth marketing to. It would be one thing if this was only one of many jewelry commercials out there, with different types of folks being givers and receivers of jewelry in a variety of scenarios, but it’s not. If a commercial like this featured a gay couple, it would make the news. This is how queer and gender non-conforming people are erased every day. EVERY DAY. The ripple effects can and do build to violent tsunamis for some of the most vulnerable among us.

Just some things to think about.

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3 Responses to ‘It’s complicated’

  1. Well said!

    This reminded me of a recent problem I’ve been thinking about. So to re-cap I’m pre-HRT and in everyday life I basically present as androgynous, I’m only out to about 1/3 of my social circle. I have long purple hair, I wear jewellery and makeup but if I’m not making a concentrated effort then I’m perceived as male, an unconventional one but still. The problem comes from attending interviews or formal/semi-formal events. I’m going to do a blog post about it soon, maybe even tonight, but basically I feel pressured to pretend to be cis. Because trans people are just so invisible that I figure if I turn up in a manner that makes me comfortable I’ll be perceived as someone joking around or not taking things seriously. Like I expect they’ll look at me and think “Why did he turn up in nail varnish?” When in reality I just freaking hate having to pretend to be male so I do what I can to express myself in a way that makes me comfortable. In an ideal world people would understand I’m possibly trans and shouldn’t have to squeeze myself into a binary option that doesn’t fit.

  2. LeahLW says:

    In the first few paragraphs I imagined you as the guy from the double rainbow video going “What does it meeeeeeean?” It sounds like your mind is in mental acrobatics all the time, simply because society set up certain categories that now become obstacles for you to navigate, twisting and contorting and wrestling with…no wonder it’s exhausting.
    I tune out most of the gender-narrative stuff I hear about women on the radio, in print ads, etc. because it doesn’t fit who I am as a (cis) woman–so much so that (combined with not watching TV) I sometimes forget how prevalent the messages they blare everywhere actually are. Obviously they are conforming to our very narrow gender narrative but I hadn’t seen that as part of the continuum you’re talking about–not only do they not describe me as a straight cis-woman, they don’t describe a lot of other folks who identify as women. Their perpetuation of the false narrative that “these two (very stereotypical) gender categories are all that exist” reminds me of the religious right narrative being the loudest and therefore perceived as the “only”–and THAT comparison reminds me it’s my role to speak out against this and voice my own point of view and make space for others’ points of view that break down that categorizing. All while trying to avoid the FB commenters who are going to claim I’m hating on women who like pink and jewelry and makeup and men who like football…but since those narratives are over-represented, they can deal. 🙂

    Rambling! Thanks for another thought-provoking, honest post, Clark. Hugs.

  3. Jamie Ray says:

    We all have questions we try not to answer – if someone asks you where you went to college you can say “Massachusetts” and maybe that will be sufficient. You are not lying, you are just interpreting the question differently. If they say “Isn’t Wellesley a woman’s college?” you can say “Yes, but they allow men to take classes there.” – also true – I went to MIT (when I want to avoid a discussion about that I tell people I went to school in Boston) – and the guys were falling all over themselves to take a course at Wellesley.
    It takes a lot of energy to stay stealth – and you need to decide how important it is to you – and whether you want to be in control of the disclosure or risk being outed.

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