“Sometimes I feel like ‘male’ is an island I’m clinging to after being lost at sea.”
This is hard for me to write about.
It has been a year since I started working in a place where everyone (who didn’t already know I am trans) perceives me to be a cis man. I have spent a lot of time freaking out about this, and trying to understand and control my feelings about it.
I began taking testosterone because I finally learned how to listen to my body. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, the tightness in my chest, and the clenched muscles in my shoulders that my body needed to change, and that testosterone was going to bring my body and self into greater alignment. This continues to be true for me.
Since coming out and beginning transition in this way, I have been able to come alive in ways I didn’t even know were possible.
Once it became clear to me that I was not female, despite what I had been assigned at birth, and despite what I and others had believed and imposed on me my whole life, anything that put me back into that box was incredibly painful. My body braced against being referred to as ‘she’, ‘ma’am’, and ‘miss’, and uses of my previous name. My body held all of that pain. I dreamed of not having to deal with this, of finally being perceived as male, of not constantly bracing for misgendering and for constantly being put back into the ‘female’ box. I imagined a sense of liberation coming with this. I imagined it would mean I was finally going to be fully seen.
And then, after enough time on testosterone, people finally began to perceive me as male, and generally stopped referring to me as ‘she’, ‘ma’am’, or ‘miss’. My reactions were not quite what I had expected.
I remember the first weeks working in my new lab space, my body with a little extra concealment under a blue lab coat was braced for any interaction with new coworkers. Were they going to receive me and accept me as male? Could they tell my chest was bound? Could they tell that I don’t know (cis) male social norms? Would they suddenly start misgendering me if they found out I was trans?
Even though all signs pointed to their perception of me as male, I felt raw and vulnerable. I felt awkward. I felt a visceral fear of being returned to the time of constant misgendering, and a need for safety from that in order to heal.
I remember one of the first times a new coworker of mine who did not know that I was trans referred to me with ‘he/him’ pronouns. Instead of feeling seen, I was surprised to find that I still felt lost. These were the right pronouns used for the wrong reasons – the reason being that this coworker perceived me as male based on my appearance, not based on knowing who I am or truly being able to see me. This coworker used those pronouns because they placed me in a binary, cisnormative world, where their perception of my body = my gender = my pronouns, and came with a big presumption that I, like everyone else, was cisgender.
It made me think back to the very short time ago when people incorrectly used ‘she/her’ pronouns to refer to me for the exact same reasons. It made me think of dear friends whose appearances will almost always be misinterpreted in this way.
I learned that finally being perceived as male meant also being perceived as cis.
This is not liberation. I remain invisible, just in a different way.
[Side note: I want to take a moment here to acknowledge that being perceived as cis is something that a great many trans folks aspire to, for a variety of reasons, and that not all trans people are able to change their appearance enough to be consistently be perceived as cis. In many situations, being perceived as cis brings enormous safety and opportunity. It comes with privilege, which is a responsibility that I take very seriously.
As a white man commonly perceived as cisgender, even if I were 100% out as transgender, I will still have greater employment opportunities and a significantly lower chance of being assaulted, murdered, or generally disrespected than if I were not perceived as cis, than if I were transfeminine instead of transmasculine, than if I were a person of color, or of a different class background. I aspire one day to be able to be 100% out in my work environments, in part because I have the privilege of this requiring less risk while potentially being able to bring greater visibility and advocacy. Also, click here to see some ways everyone can support trans people who do not ‘pass’ as cis.]
This experience has brought up a lot of questions for me, like this little one: What does it even mean to be ‘male’ in this society?
In a recent email to a friend, I found myself writing the following:
“I still have some doubt about my gender. I do not, however, have any doubt about what I’ve done and still need to do for my body. I cannot imagine stopping T, or giving up on the idea of top surgery. For me, it’s visceral. But sometimes I feel like ‘male’ is an island I’m clinging to after being lost at sea, and I’m not sure if I’m just clinging to it because it’s the most solid thing I’ve been able to find, or if it’s actually the right place for me. … For now, for me, it feels safe, and more right than where I was before, and I’m trying to just be ok with not knowing for sure.”
It is terrifying to admit that I might have doubts about my gender. So often, any doubt expressed by a trans person is immediately interpreted as their being insincere, wrong, attention-seeking, or really anything but trustworthy, anything but actually trans. Any indication of doubt is used as an excuse to deny life-saving medical care, and to openly disrespect that person’s humanity, and to suggest that being trans isn’t a real thing. Uncertainty like this exposes trans people to violence.
I feel that risk even as I write and plan to publish this.
At the same time, I believe it is important to live my truth, and if my truth involves a little bit of doubt and uncertainty, then so be it. I do not want to pretend that I have it all figured out. I do not want to pretend that it is easy.
Right now, when I tell you that I am male, it means that that’s the best interpretation of who I am that I can articulate right now, and it is essential that you continue to respect that. I may have more certainty tomorrow, or less. Even as I continue to feel certain that I am not female, I may someday come to understand that there is a better way to articulate my gender that does not include ‘male’. It is also possible that I may grow more certain over time that ‘male’ is correct. If this makes you uncomfortable, know that it makes me even more uncomfortable than it does you.
Also know that that discomfort comes in part from oppressive ideas that we’ve all been taught our whole lives: that gender is supposed to be immutable, that trans people are only to believed if they have a consistent, doubtless story about their gender that fits into the binary.
Uncertainty is terrifying for me. The risk of being dismissed and disrespected for expressing any doubt only compounds the issue. But it is a reality, not only for me, but for countless other trans folks who are trying to find their way to wholeness and safety in a world that often makes wholeness and safety mutually exclusive goals.