Is menopause a thing I am going through right now?
When I was 16, I began to question what it would mean to change genders. How could you tell, I wondered, what gender you felt in a given moment? What did gender entail? I wondered, too, whether an ideological disagreement with a gender binary was enough to put you outside it. I started to research how different people were approaching their gender questions, what the world of gender and sex possibility looked like.
I quickly found Hudson’s Guide and read everything. Because I started from a fundamental lack of understanding of even the basics of gender, I absorbed any opinion and advice I read. On Hudson’s Guide, this specifically meant some pretty binarist ideas about what it meant to walk through the world as a trans guy whose gender was acknowledged as valid. Still, Hudson is helpful for some things, and it was where I did all of my research on medical transition.
I was obsessive in my research during this period. I remember spending hours doing nothing but trolling the internet for the perfect answers to my ineffable questions. I couldn’t think about anything else. Still, somehow I don’t have a very strong recollection of my research into hormones and surgery. It must have been very quick. If people were posting their entire transition chronologies on youtube and tumblr at that time, I didn’t know about it. I must have looked at a couple of pictures, read that genetics dictated your likelihood of baldness and the density of your body hair, and decided that it wasn’t for me, never mind how appealing some of the other changes sounded. I was changing gender presentations every day at that time, and the idea of making intentional, permanent, gendered changes to my body felt senseless given the constantly shifting nature of my body needs.
That was it; I never looked back.
There were times over the years that I would wistfully watch someone else’s testosterone-induced transformation and wonder if I had made the right decision, but I would always quickly decide that I had. At the time—and in many ways still—it felt like a non-normative decision to make. I didn’t make the decision in order to be non-normative, but I have always taken special pride in the things that are true of me that set me apart. Many of the people around me had never met a trans person before, and the answers they were able to find from the internet and pop culture painted pictures I wasn’t in, so that meant that I was constantly asked to defend my choices and, by extension, to defend my gender. I lost friends as they got bored and impatient with the effort it took to justify my existence.
As I moved away from gender-switching towards seeking an understanding of my gender as constant, whole, and all-encompassing, the choices I had made despite all the pressure to do anything other than what felt right solidified into an identity, a badge I had to wear proudly so as not to lose it. I developed rhetoric and scrambled to spread it as I witnessed a lack of resources causing so many trans people to adopt the official narrative before their stories had even had a chance to unfold. Identity policing from in and outside of trans communities disheartened me, but also hardened me. I worried a lot about the exhaustion involved in pushing yourself beyond sanctioned existence and hoped for myself that I would find ways not to bow to the binary and end up medically transitioning to make life easy rather than honest. I adopted an anti-assimilationist ideology that I hoped would bolster my resolve if things got tough.
I never really found community, but I met individuals who understood what I was doing and why—people for whom the personal and the political also spiraled around one another. My ideal lifestyle involves my methods of survival and my political rhetoric refining and redefining one another until they become indistinguishable—until I am an angel dancing on the head of a pin—the perfect point of liberation. In reality, this has often ended up with me taking up my stance too extremely in my own life, forcing constancy and rationality onto my passions. Maybe my stead-fastness with my no-ho status was one of those times.
My first shot is tomorrow.
So what’s changed, and why am I allowing it?
Well, probably the biggest thing that’s happened is that I’m in therapy and I’m in a healthy relationship. I love myself more now than my 16-year-old self could have imagined possible.
See, when I was 16 and making decisions I was going to force myself to stand by for the rest of my life, I hated bodies. Now, don’t misread that. It isn’t that I hated my body (I mean, I did hate my body, but I didn’t especially hate my body) I hated all bodies. I thought all bodies were horrifying. In fact, I was in the habit of comparing my body to other bodies and preferring mine. This habit (and some choice reinforcement from my parents) caused a panic at the idea that anything might change about my body. It was beautiful as it was, but only because it fit a certain idea of what beauty looked like. My decision not to take T wasn’t just about not wanting to put effort into permanent changes that would only occasionally be right for me—it was about a complete terror that my body, with its high likelihood of hair going everywhere but the top of my head, would become disgusting.
Turns out I developed an anti-cissexist, body liberationist theory out of a deep-seeded fear of bodies born of cissexism and body colonization.
Lucky for me, the theory holds water. Even luckier for me, it’s actually been helping me to liberate myself as a person with a body. As my fear and loathing of bodies has been eroded by my belief that all bodies are valid, worthy, and beautiful and that they should be autonomous, I’ve come to really, really love my body. And unlike my old “love,” which was based on the shaky foundation of stasis, this new love is firmly rooted in a love and understanding for all bodies that my 16-year-old self would never have thought possible. What this means is that I’m no longer terrified that my body might do the thing that bodies do best: change. I am not even perturbed by the idea that I might not like all the ways that it changes. I feel able to approach any changes that don’t excite me with the understanding that I have the capacity to find love, healing, or both.
This is all to say that when the question of whether I had made the right decision came back up for me recently and wouldn’t go away, I thought that changing my mind might be a betrayal of my politics. How could I continue to tell people that being trans didn’t require a cissexist understanding of how bodies are sexed, doesn’t require self-hatred or medical transition? How can I continue to argue that it is the world that must change, not us? I don’t worry about that anymore. My politics have always asked the questions, how can we counter a normative gender narrative? How can I keep from getting caught up in gender norms coming from anywhere but inside me? How can I live my life as a trans person whose gender is mostly a source of great joy to them? Taking testosterone does not stop me from asking these questions; it actually helps me answer them. It also doesn’t mean I have copped out to pressures to assimilate myself into the binary. That isn’t why I’m taking T, and my hope is that it never will be.
My entire exploration has been chasing an answer to the question, “what if?” So now I’m asking it again: What if I stopped allowing my fear of change to stifle my curiosity? What if it took people 5 seconds to decide which binary gender applied to me, instead of the two it takes them now? What if I took this hard-won love for my body and let it propel me forward? What if things could be even better than they already are?
I want to be clear now that this decision is not a reversal of my previous one. Rather, it is a continuation of my previous one. There is no moment in which I wish that I had started T earlier, no moment of my gender exploration that I regret. Indeed, I could not have made this decision at any point in my life before now, because I could not have made this decision out of anything but a deep, deep love for myself, my body, and my gender. It is not a concession to any of the forces that have tried to tell me my life was impossible. It is the decision to acknowledge and prioritize my desires. And I feel pretty damn good about that.
I’ll make a video soon explaining what the hell is going on, but right now I’m too exhausted to make any sense at all.
My transition started in about the middle of 10th grade, when I got fixated on the idea of going to school “in drag.” It’s important to note at the very beginning of this that I never had any trouble being a girl. I had a lot of issues with what my peers seemed to think girls could and could not do, but I knew they were wrong. I had at that point kind of plopped into the middle of an already-formed queer family that had awesome politics and was teaching me what it meant to treat people with respect for all of their identities, and they were an important factor in making me feel like exploration was possible.
So I bought some clothes from the men’s section and an ace bandage (cringe, I know) and a hat to hide my shoulder-length hair, chose a name, put them all on and went to school: It was a joke at first, but I started to take it more seriously as the day progressed. By the time I was with my queer family that evening and they were using the right name and the right pronouns and really affirming my experiment, I felt I had gotten more comfortable with the idea of being seen as a boy. All of a sudden there were so many questions.
I started to keep a journal specifically for gender exploration. I very quickly decided that intellectually I rejected the binary, but I had no idea what that would mean in practical terms. I’m not even really sure I knew what that meant in theoretical terms. Having come from a background of believing that anyone of any gender can do anything, it was very difficult for me to pinpoint what it would feel like to be a particular gender and what it might feel like to move among genders. Then I read Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook and interpreted Kate’s understanding of binary gender identities in a way that I feel is simultaneously her goal and not at all what she means and learned that man and woman are static, rigid words that describe opposite behavioral norms. Finally, I felt I understood what it would mean to feel like a man or a woman.
So I decided to try it out. I would wake up in the morning, decide how I felt, and dress as that gender. I had boy days, I had girl days, I had no-gender days, and I had all-gender days. Whatever gender I presented, I would try to maintain for the whole day. I had a pretty definite clothing code to help people recognize what pronouns (and also, initially what name) to call me, but my friends weren’t really down with having to memorize all that. In retrospect, their reticence makes sense, but at the time I think I really needed it and it was hard to feel like I was learning anything about gender when I wasn’t being treated the way I wanted to be treated. My queer family continued to try their best to be respectful.
Over the summer I got a more androgynous haircut and had a lot more freedom to try things out. My parents, though I wouldn’t talk to them about what was going on, insisted that if I was going to dress like I boy, I was going to have to find a style that suited and flattered me. I eventually found one and settled into it, presenting less and less often as a woman, but still definitely holding onto that part of my polygender identity. I continued to switch for another few months, even as school picked back up. I decided it would be easiest for people if I had only one name, so I decided on Ian and had my friends help me to make sure everyone knew.
Through switching, I learned a lot of things. I learned how to make myself seem more male through walk, stance, mannerisms, speech patterns, and, most importantly, the way I held my face. I no longer really use the other things that make me seem male unless I think a situation requires it (like if, for my safety, I need to be read unequivocally as male) but I think that learning my facial structure was the single most important part of my transition. I discovered one day—while taking a sip from a soda can in front of a mirror—that with my jaw dropped, I instantly looked more masculine. I had read all of Hudson’s Guide and knew that the advice they gave was to clench your jaw, but I already have a really strongly-defined jawline and clenching my teeth just made my face look small. Dropping it made my cheek bones look higher and my face look longer. I was always a tight-jawed kid, but I now keep my jaw loose at all times. I encourage everyone to spend some real time in front of a mirror playing with the way they hold their face. There’s a lot you can shape about your appearance without actually changing anything at all.
I learned other things too, like that it was uncomfortable for me to be seen as a woman because my female-assigned body made it so easy for people to get locked into the idea of a woman. If they saw me as male, I could probably play with their perception of my gender, but once the idea me as female took root, I’d probably never be able to alter that idea, no matter what I did. Still, I wasn’t ready to give up certain things women did, like wear great clothing.
I also found that I was uncomfortable being a man because the only things I knew about manhood were the things Kate Bornstein had told me, and I really just couldn’t uphold the type of masculinity ze said being a man required. I kept those clothes too, though, for the days when I was feeling too lazy to dress androgynously. Androgyny was where I found I was most comfortable, but it is sometimes work to maintain it the way I like it. So maleness became the identity of exhaustion. It still feels really cool to me that I can be read as male, so it feels pretty nice to just look really masculine in jeans and a t-shirt, and that makes it a good backup, but it’s not the way I like to dress. I am always self-conscious when I meet someone for the first time and I am not dressed up in my andro-femmeboi clothing.
So, slowly, I came to the conclusion that I did not enjoy switching gender every day, and also that I did not like the ideas that led me to do it. There are men who are like me, and women who are like me, but I didn’t want to be either of those things. I wanted to be trans and I wanted to make sure that transness was always at the forefront of my gender identity.
So I guess you could say that my transition has included a social transition of changing my name and gender presentation and the pronouns I use and all that good stuff, cutting my hair, developing my own binding method (which I guess I forgot to mention, but yeah, I make my own binders), figuring out the shape of my face so that it looks more male without me having to do anything permanent, learning how to dress my body, learning what gender means to me, learning how to actually (to the extent that it’s possible) escape the binary, embracing the parts of me that people told me I could not take with me through transition, researching what other people did during their transition, coming to terms with the reality of my body, getting comfortable enough in my transness to wear clothes that could easily get me mistaken for a woman. There’s probably more, but this is a lot.
When I hear people who medically transition talk about non-medical transition, I feel like they often imply that it’s only a social thing. I want to be clear that I have done a ton of internal transition work as well. And maybe that’s because I didn’t start my process with a clear idea of what my gender was, but it’s not just about a haircut and some new clothes and a shiny new name to go with.
But I haven’t even addressed the question: Why no medical transition, Enoch?
While all of that transitional stuff was happening, I was dealing with some body dissonance, but I was only dealing with it some of the time. There were whole weeks when it felt like my head didn’t fit on my body and it was very distressing to me, but then there were all these times when my body was exactly what I wanted and needed. Because I was switching genders all the time, my needs for my body were changing all the time. Like I said, I looked at everything Hudson’s guide had to offer, including explanations and pictures of hormones and surgeries, I made sure to research my options thoroughly, and each has a unique reason for not being a good option for me, though underlying all of it is a fear of permanence. My needs are not permanent, but all of these options are, to varying extents.
T: Baldness and body hair run deep on both sides of my family. I have very hair legs that I’m extremely proud of, but that’s really all the body hair I want. Because baldness and hairiness are so prevalent, I know that they are beautiful, but they have never been what I have wanted for myself. Sure, I could get a deeper voice and bigger muscles and an even more male-appearing face—and those are things I do kinda want—but none of them are so important to me that they would be worth the effects that I don’t want. Besides, my father pointed out that no one on either side of my family has ever managed to grow a really great set of sideburns.
Top surgery: Top surgery was a no for three reasons, the first was that with my needs always changing, I knew that top surgery would be an inadequate solution; if I made my chest flat, there would be times when I wished I had the chest I have now, so I might as well leave it be. The second is that I had to become comfortable with my chest in order to be able to deal with the conclusion I had come to that I couldn’t get rid of it, so now I really like it and I use it in my genderfucking. The third is that I was not personally excited about the available results. It’s true that I looked at surgical options about 4 years ago and technology is improving rapidly. Every once in a while I will see someone’s top surgery results and feel a slight pang of jealousy, but for the most part I felt that the results were not exactly what I wanted and I didn’t need it enough to compromise.
Bottom surgery: Similar to top surgery, I was not excited about the available results. Also, I just really don’t need a penis.
A long time ago, during my dry spell, someone rather aggressively asked Micah why someone would transition from (presenting) female to (presenting) male only to then wear dresses or do drag or whatever this person seemed to have a problem with. There was a lot of throwing around of stuff like “why not just stay a woman?” and “if you want to be a man then you identify with a dick. A dick in a dress doesn’t make sense” (these are not direct quotes). I wrote that person a personal message about it because people were getting very aggravated and mostly sending that person messages about how unacceptably ignorant they were rather than helpful an gentle explanations, so the person was getting more combative and probably felt more and more justified in their ignorance. After all, they were just asking a(n obviously narrow-minded and affronting, but nevertheless earnest) question, and no one was trying to give them an answer. Too often, I feel, our explanation is, “I can do whatever I want.” Obviously that’s true, but it doesn’t help a confused binary-dweller to understand why I want what I want. There’s a reason I relish in genderfuck, and I’m not interested in keeping it a secret so that only I get to feel that joy. So here’s what I wrote:
It seems to me that you’re saying that you don’t get why someone who could easily be interpreted as a woman would say that they are not a woman, take steps to make sure everyone knew they were not a woman, and then wear a dress.
There are a few things here that it might be helpful for you to understand:
a) Society says that only women can wear dresses, but that doesn’t make it true. Anyone can wear a dress, and it doesn’t make one a woman if one doesn’t interpret oneself as a woman while wearing the dress. There’s no reason that men can’t wear dresses as men, it’s just that there’s a taboo against it. Lots of people are interested in playing with or breaking that taboo and claiming dresses as clothing that everyone can wear.
b) You should probably just think of the genders of trans folk in the same way you think of the genders of cis folk: as the only gender they’ve ever had. While this is a simplification of what’s actually happened in the lives of many trans people, it’s a good place to start. You can see how a man can wear a dress and it doesn’t make him a woman, right? Well, think of a trans man the same way and you’ll be able to see that it doesn’t make him a woman either. Add to that. You can see how a man can wear a dress in the hope of being read as a woman without it meaning he’s a woman all the time, right? It’s the same thing with trans men.
c) There is a difference between being a woman and people thinking you’re a woman. Has anyone ever asked you what makes you think you’re a woman? Have you ever thought about why you’re so certain you’re a woman? My guess is that you haven’t, and that’s fine. There are two reasons I would guess at that make you think you’re a woman, and one is valid and one is a social construct. The socially constructed reason you probably believe you’re a woman is that you have a vagina. Society tells you that vagina means woman, but society also tells you that only women can wear dresses, so I think we can agree that a lot of the stuff society tells us about gender is wrong. The other probable reason you think you’re a woman is that you just feel it, and that’s totally valid. You should never feel you have to present evidence of your gender to anyone; you should simply be able to declare your gender identity and have it taken at face value. Your gender is intrinsic to you. It’s the same with trans people. Our genders are intrinsic to us, but, because they are not the genders people expect us to have, we are often asked to present evidence of our genders and this is where you see a lot of trans folk bringing up stories about how they hated this that or the other thing that they were expected to do or like or wear because of their gender. For some reason, these stories—often rooted in sexist understandings of gender—help people to believe us. They’re also usually the only language that folks have to describe their feelings, and they’re almost always not the whole truth. Usually, if a person tells you that they knew they were a boy because they hated playing with barbies and they wanted to play with trucks, what they mean is that they hated the way they were interpreted when they played with barbies and thought that if they played with trucks, people would read them the way they wanted to be read. Probably if they had been able to be read the way they wanted to while continuing to play with the barbies, they would not have hated it so much. It isn’t the toys that mattered; it’s the gendered meanings of the toys combined with people’s misunderstandings of those individuals’ genders that mattered. So now if we apply that back to dresses, think about the way that women are read wearing dress versus the way that men are read wearing dresses. Very different, right? Some people who can easily be seen as women wearing dresses (and can therefore easily be interacted with in the way that women wearing dresses are generally interacted with) prefer to be seen as men wearing dresses in order to be interacted with as such. They might have been uncomfortable in dresses when people saw them as a woman, but they’ve recognized that their objection is to the way they’re interpreted and treated rather than to the garment themselves.
Our foremost concern was to think about the kind of relationship we wanted to have with our child. I realized when he talked about Queer Camp as his best Safe Place that I was jealous. I wanted US to be his best safe place. We may never be that, but we could make a decision that we wouldn’t be part of the hard part of his life.
So we had to stop wanting an outcome for Ian that reflected our own world view and work instead to understand and support the vision he has for his own success. If your child’s vision of success includes the ability to shave, perhaps a show of support might be to learn more about the current gender reassignment technology and support research to make it safer and more effective. It would show your concern about hormones and surgery is honestly rooted in concern for his health and not rooted in resistance to his identity.
My mother in an email she sent to a parent of a young transguy.
What I love so much about the entire situation of this email is that my mother sent it as an afterthought after she spent an hour on the phone with these parents trying to help them figure out how to find comfort with their child’s identity even though their child’s gender and body needs are completely different from my own. My mother never had to come to terms with her child’s desire to medically modify because I have none, and I presume that this mother does not have to deal with understanding her child’s desire to live outside of a recognizable gender binary. Still, there are basic tenets of respect and affirmation that any parent should learn and at this point, I feel that my parents have them down. Both of my parents have worked so hard to understand my identity in all its non-binary glory (and through that work, I think they are really able to process a huge range of gender possibility) and they are wonderful examples to any parent of a trans child.