“But you were always so masculine.”
“You always acted like a boy, you even laughed at guy jokes.”
“There were no signs that you wanted to be a girl.”
Every late transitioning trans woman has heard these lines, and many younger transitioners have as well. Occasionally I’ll meet someone who says they were always so overtly feminine that everyone around them was just “well yeah, duh,” but usually the experience is that of surprise and bewilderment. So let’s talk about why that happens.
In my memories I was a very feminine child. I have no proof of this, but I remember being a very girly child. I remember being into dolls and cabbage patch kids. Nearly every show targeted at girls in the 80s also featured magic, which was strictly forbidden in our household, so I wasn’t allowed to watch shows like Jem, She-Ra, or My Little Pony, but occasionally I would catch episodes of Care Bears or Rainbow Bright and really liked them. I loved Tale Spin and Duck Tales, identifying hard with the female characters like Rebecca Cunningham and Webby Duck (also Kit Cloudkicker, but who didn’t want to surf behind an airplane?). In our church I always pictured myself in the women’s duties, and at home I was always more interested in the things my mom did than my father’s masculine hobbies.
As I entered into adolescence and public school, I remember having very overtly feminine mannerisms, in my speech and my gestures, especially in the way I moved and talked. I got excited about things in a typically feminine way, squealing with delight. I specifically remember that I used to walk with my hips, and sometimes I would swing them extra hard on purpose. I longed hard for pretty dresses, and had a massive passion for lingerie that I had to hide because people thought I was just perving on the models. Basically, I’ve always been high femme, from childhood.
My mother doesn’t remember these things, she rationalizes them away as “I didn’t enforce gender norms on you.” My peers, however, absolutely saw them. I was taunted and picked on mercilessly for this. It was generally assumed by the boys in my school that I was gay for boys, which then meant the few boys who were nice to me ended up turning against me when other kids would then pick on them for being friends with me. I quickly became a loaner, as the girls avoided me for being a boy, and the boys shunned me for being too much of a girl.
Eventually I learned that I had to hide these behaviors, for my own protection. I built a male personality that people would accept. I became an actor behind a mask, pretending to be someone I wasn’t so that the abuse would stop. I learned how to walk like a man, talk like my male peers, and what interests it was safe for me to explore (computing being the dominant one). It worked, gradually the bullies stopped tormenting me, some even became allies, and to keep it that way I kept the mask on.
When an actor performs a character, good actors embrace the character. Most of the time the actor is following a script but when the script falters, or is forgotten, the actor says what they think the character would say given the situation. So, too, it was for me living as a man. Sometimes the script was obvious, I gave my lines as they should be. Many times there was no script, and I just did what I felt like I was expected to do.
I wrote a bit in my coming out series about how I took on very male (even toxically masculine) attitudes and roles, not because I agreed with them, but because I thought I was expected to agree with them. I remember engaging in locker room talk, albeit very awkwardly, entirely because I thought that’s what I had to do in that moment to be accepted as part of the group. Not being part of the group meant risking abuse all over again, so I had to play the character.
I think this is how a lot of men get sucked into toxic masculinity, too. They echo the things that their friends say in order to stay in the peer circle, and then eventually those echoes become origins. I’ve heard from trans men that it’s really easy to slip into these positions, even tho they know that it’s wrong, even tho they’ve been victims of it.
Sometimes, the real me would show through though. Kat had seen bits of the real me when we were alone, I was more visible when I felt like I could let mu guard down. Small interests that would peek out, such as my fascination with Project Runway or watching red carpet events. It wasn’t a completely open door, but the curtains were pulled apart.
I think a great example is with Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report is a character, a satirical facsimile meant to poke fun at right wing ideology. It can be very hard to draw the line between what Steven Colbert the character thinks, and what Stephen Colbert the comedian thinks. Sometimes the script was very obviously a script and we saw just the character, many times what we got was Steven the person saying how he felt by making Steven the character present it sarcastically (also the opposite way), but there was also a lot of times when Steven the person would shine through.
Sometimes the things I would say were me peeking through, sometimes it was the character acting the way he was expected to act. It can be very hard to tell where those lines were drawn (even for me), because the illusion became so real. I go back now and look at things I wrote in my 20s and I cringe and feel repulsed, because these are not things I relate to, even tho I remember writing them.
Does this mean that the man that I put forward was a lie? Well… that’s complicated. It is impossible to say yes or no, because it wasn’t that black and white. When the Disney Parks cast member who plays Gaston is out in the park, acting the way Gaston would act, is he lying? The real Gaston would likely be quite heartless and cruel, deeply offending and possibly harming the guests that interact with him. He must embrace the role, but a lot of the real person still shows through. He is himself, through a filter of the character.
It also wasn’t a lie because I was that man. Over time, after I forgot that I was a girl, I also forgot that I was wearing a mask, it became part of my face. I wore that mask for 25 years, it firmly adhered to my skin. In my 30s the mask started to get a bit thinner as I became immersed in feminism and read more and more horrific stories from women being abused and discriminated, and began speaking out about this on social media. My inner misandrist came forth as I found myself relating to these stories more and more. One of Katharine’s friends commented on just how remarkable it was that I was so strongly of a feminist “for a man.”
When third wave feminism became the dominant voice and the recognition of trans women as women came forefront, the mask took a heavy blow, but it still held on. Every trans victory during the Obama administration formed another crack. Realizing I already am transgender was a mortal wound to the mask, a large chunk went missing, and bits and pieces continued to fall off. For seven months I continued to have to wear it, but now I knew I was wearing it, I knew where the edges of the mask lay.
We say transition never ends, because we are constantly changing, constantly becoming new people, and transition is so much more than the physical aspects of our bodies. Even now, almost two years in, I am still peeling away pieces of that mask. What’s left is pretty thin now, transparent, just echoes of the disguise, but it’s there all the same. Removing that mask also took some skin with it in some places, and I am still healing from that. The person I am today is radically different from the person I was three years ago, and the person I will be in three years will be just as different as now.
That doesn’t make the me of today any less valid than the me of tomorrow, or the me of yesterday. It’s still me.
This essay started out as a shower thought two weeks ago about actors and characters, but then grew into a piece about oppression and compulsive masculinity. This morning I got caught into a conversation in a feminist chat about the pressures and demands on women in terms of presentation and appearance. Much if the conversation was valid complaining about the ways women constantly attack one another for either being too much of a stereotype, or too little.
It then devolved into a long sequence of AFAB individuals, both cis and non-binary, talking about how they were able to shuck feminine stereotypes and step away from femininity. How they stopped wearing dresses and stopped putting on makeup, and how good they felt about themselves for standing up against feminine pressures.
The entire thing really rubbed me wrong, as there was a lot of unwritten femme-phobia latent in the conversation, but also because it struck me as so AFAB centric. To have that luxury of being able to choose to shirk femininity… what a tremendous privilege. As a high femme woman I spent most of my life hiding my true presentation, avoiding ever even hinting at my own desires for feminine attire out of sheer requirement for life. I never had the option to shirk masculinity.
If a female bodied individual dresses in masculine attire, such as a suit or even just cargo shorts and a t-shirt, they may receive dirty looks, possibly some homophobic slurs in deeply misogynistic cultures, but the majority of individuals will just think “Oh, she’s a tomboy.” If the person presents androgynously they will likely be labeled as queer/lesbian and receive abuse due to homophobia. In a deeply misogynistic household (eg, fundamentalist religions) they may be abused by their parents for this, but as long as they’re straight, it’s not a likely case that they will be cast out of their house (if they actually are gay, then that’s a different story, but that’s not because of their presentation). Harassed and frowned at, yes, but still granted the privilege of dressing male. Women have fought long and hard over the last century to earn that right.
There is no male equivalent to the term tomboy, there is no mechanism for a male bodied individual to present femininity in a way that isn’t immediately crushed through physical and emotional abuse. Boys who act feminine are immediately labeled as faggots and fairies. Gay men can get away with some feminine attire, by virtue of the fact that they’re gay and are expected to be effeminate, but straight men are completely refused this. Even the metrosexual movement of the 2000s had extremely homophobic undertones. Boys who wish to wear overtly feminine clothing such as dresses or lingerie are immediately classified as perverts and deviants. Even kilts… any man who wears a kilt will be very quick to say it’s not a skirt, because skirts are for girls, but kilts are for manly men.
I was never granted any mechanism to express even a tiny bit of who I really am. Doing so would have meant not only direct physical attacks from peers, but ostracization from my entire social group and my family. If I persisted in my presentation, I likely would have been thrown out of my mother’s house as soon as I reached adulthood, maybe even sooner. My father would have beat me for it. Both would have destroyed any feminine clothing (and in fact my mother did throw away the one garment she found, telling me it was inappropriate for me to own). Even after I finally came out as transgender I was frequently pushed back into the mask because my body still looked too male. My mother explicitly told me I was not allowed in her house dressed as a woman. I knew better than to wear a dress in public.
Trans women who do not pass know this abuse extremely well, we cannot walk through an urban center without having both slurs and physical objects hurled at us, or worse. There is a lot of talk about trans women being murdered, but what about all women who survive? They don’t get press reports, they don’t have their names passed around, they just go to the hospital. Regardless of our sexual orientation, we are constantly at risk, because while toxic masculinity will tolerate a woman who takes on male characteristics, even encourage it, it absolutely will not abide a feminine man, even if he is straight.
Over a year ago someone I was chatting with in a mixed gender trans server made the following observation:
- For trans masculines, transition is typically a journey of self discovery, gradually increasing one’s masculinity until it becomes obvious that they are not women after all.
- For trans feminines, transition is a journey of bottling up shame until the bottle becomes so full that they have no choice but to remove the cork and dump it all out before the bottle explodes.
If you are a woman or AFAB enby who chooses not to dress especially feminine, that’s great, that is your choice to do so and it’s awesome that you are asserting yourself against social pressures, but please do not take on a haughty pride for your choice. Some of us fought very hard for our right to be femme. Some of us even lost our lives for it.