Nature or nurture. Fact or fiction. Man or woman. I have choices to make.
Two years ago, I told my mother over the phone that I was thinking of finding a therapist. I wanted to start taking testosterone to create a more masculine body for myself. "I'm thinking of becoming a man," I said. It was a lot to unload on her all at once. Her response: "Who do you think you will fool? You will never be a man. You don't have what it takes."
The message was clear. It has been clear since grade school. This is why we have separate bathrooms, men's and women's clothing departments, a boy's and a girl's locker room. Women cannot be men; men cannot be women. There are two sexes, we are told, and they are as different as Mars is from Venus.
"Real men are more assertive," my mother told me. This was her explanation of why I could not be a man. "Real men have penises," a male friend told me. This was his reason why I could not be a man.
"You're a lesbian, honey," a gay acquaintance told me. This was his confident assessment that I could never cross that line of sexual distinction. "God made us male and female," a cousin told me. "You'd have a full beard by 22 if you were a real man," said a classmate. "It's just a fact that men are stronger than women," my brother-in-law said.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the matter and the free advice I received usually didn't run in my favor. Friends and family may have been well-intentioned, even in their discouraging remarks, but ultimately it was my life and I would have to live it. I talked among my closer, more supportive friends. It slowly dawned on me that the question was not would I transition, but when.
Trans people often refer to that time just after you start the hormones necessary for inducing secondary sex characteristics as a second puberty. It's a lot like the first puberty, physically, with pimples and a cracking voice, soft hair that turns coarse, broadening shoulders and piles of clothing that become outgrown.
At least, that's what it was like for me. I wanted big muscles, body hair and a deep, baritone voice, characteristics that are now finally awakening on the surface. I marvel at how dark my head hair has become as the lighter shade of my childhood has been swallowed up by this metamorphosis. I've noticed my appetite rise, my body fat shift, the outline of an Adam's apple develop on my now thicker neck. In a recent photograph of myself among friends, I see what I have become: goateed face, arms spread wide, comfortable, loose. Smiling.
But there is also a social side to this new lease on gender, and I have to face up to it. Despite these physical changes, I am a geek in the guy world. I am walking into this bodily change filled with questions and insecurities. I have missed years of socialization, years of being to told to "take it like a man" or "stop being such a girl." I still gesture with my hands, speak softly, sit with my legs crossed. I don't know how to consider women anything other than my equals. I am able to keep the animation from my face and the emotion from my voice. But I still do not know the purpose behind the mask. In this second puberty I still hear a voice saying, "Don't ask why. Just do it."
I find myself relearning a lot of simple things that I already knew how to navigate as a woman. Within months of starting hormones, I was passing full-time as a guy. It began as approximation, trying to act as if I had spent years as a young male running the gauntlet of high school, perhaps more years of experience and socialization in college. I wanted to blend, fit in. I wanted to be one of the guys. I succumbed to pressures I thought I had already solved and risen above.
For the first six months I became -- and in a tense moment still sometimes do become -- homophobic, something I never thought could happen, since before I transitioned I was largely perceived as a lesbian. To compensate for what I believed were my many effeminate characteristics, I laughed at fag jokes and made sure to inform everyone that I was attracted to women. When out with more flamboyant gay friends, I felt the heat of eyes on me. I put distance between us when we sat on benches, worried that people would think we were together, or that I was too "faggy" by mere association with visibly queer men.
Most days, I feel 15 again, reinventing solutions for bolstering my self-esteem even though I know no person or orientation can prove to me that I'm a man if I don't entirely believe it myself.
What does it take to be a man? It's a question I haven't been able to stop asking myself since I began transitioning. The years of missed socialization and experiences still leave me feeling that I have much to prove: strength, courage, loyalty, camaraderie, savvy, intelligence, assertiveness. Yet, I don't entirely know what these words mean in their new context. So much about being a man seems to depend on not being a woman. How then, can I reconcile the fact that I used to inhabit a female body? I have choices to make.
There is a mark on my life, a scar that seems to deepen with time. I recollect my father, whom I think had some inclination that I was pursuing a more masculine lifestyle, though I never actually spoke to him about it. I began hormones in the last months of his life and it had a profound, albeit unintentional, effect on our interactions.
As his body grew weaker with cancer and the subsequent operation to remove a large tumor, my own form began to fill out with muscle mass. He often commented with pride on how strong I was physically, bodily. But when I look back on our last months together I regret that I didn't allow myself more vulnerability. I didn't express sadness. I felt that I needed to distance myself from emotional feelings -- unless they were feelings of anger or force -- to prove to him that I would be successful in my ventures as a man.
I think it worked to some extent. Anyway, emotional distance grew between us, something I thought was expected of me. Instead of hugging and kissing hello and good-bye, we shook hands in a stoic manner. For some men this is enough contact, but it felt a little empty to me. Of all the attributes I wished to shed, showing affection was never on the list. I cherish affection.
It wasn't until my father's funeral, when my brother's voice shook with emotion as he read and his eyes welled and overflowed with tears, that I realized the sort of masculinity I was approximating was cheating me out of the best parts of myself. It takes some men a lifetime to feel comfortable enough to show affection with a hug and a kiss, and I'd readily allowed myself to believe I was less of a man for retaining this "womanly" quality.
I know that men and women feel different social pressures. "Regardless," as activist Raven Kaldera writes, citing his own intersexed body as proof, "Every time a line is drawn it passes through someone's flesh." I think about that statement as my own body changes. Do the lines pass through my flesh, or do I cut through my flesh to fit between the lines? Perhaps that's too crude a statement.
It took me a while to come to the conclusion that I wanted to change my assigned gender. I had felt for some time an increasing need to inhabit a male body, to live a male life, to be perceived as a male. But I never wanted to become a compromised or apologetic version of what I am: an entire individual, with an entire set of attributes and experiences, who has chosen to become a man.
I am not a biological male who has redefined his gender role as a sensitive man. I am a man whose perception and creation of manhood carries with it all he has learned as a woman. I am not the little boy who was told time and again not to play with dolls, who was teased out of the company of girls and received a one-sided explanation of sex or survived the hazing of my young male peers. I was the boy whose parents told him he would grow up to be his children's main nurturer, who saw his sisters struggle and succeed into adulthood, who heard many an inside joke about what does and does not make a woman tick.
I was the boy who escaped, to some extent, the expected braggadocio of male adolescence. If I fail to take my experience and socialization -- or lack thereof -- as an opportunity to escape the social pressures and conclusions faced by men-raised-as-men, then I ultimately fail myself and my family, friends and communities. I must find the courage, as other masculine people have found, to begin new dialogues, new ways of instruction. If I don't, I fail anyone who has the opportunity to imitate what they see in me.
I have choices to make. I am choosing to be a man as much as I am choosing what type of man to be. I am grateful for my contact with other trans folks, people who are able to demonstrate the variety of options available. I know many masculine women -- females who have chosen not to play the traditional feminine role. I have friends who have chosen not to take hormones or undergo surgeries and yet still identify and live as men.
I have read essays by intersexed people who know from experience the limitations of having only two options: "male" or "female." I have taken lessons from individuals who have chosen to live somewhere between the lines, committing completely to neither male nor female, masculinity nor femininity. All these identities and fluidities remind me that my choice to transition into a man is not the only available option.
Believing that every trans person has no choice but to be the opposite sex is convenient -- transgressions can be forgiven if they're biologically driven. Perhaps we like the assumption that he/she/se desires to blend entirely into the normative population. The person who transitions, we want to believe, will become, act and look like everyone else around us, and society will still be safe. We won't have to explore other options. We won't have to acknowledge that we choose to be the people we are, or that gender isn't policed by fate but by our own assumptions and insecurities.
I do not want my body to become my prison. I do not want my body to dictate my gender, or my gender to dictate my body. I do not want to make this simple; a simple story is one that has been cut to fit inside the lines. I don't mind so much if fact becomes fiction or lines blur between nature and nurture. "There are as many ways of being a man as there are men out there," a friend once told me. "You just have to decide what sort of man you want to be."