The following piece is the tenth installment in “Dressing the Part,” a series exploring cultural issues and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy.
“Why do you identify as a femme-presenting trans man, rather than a woman with masculine tendencies?”
This question has haunted me since I started openly living as a gender-nonconforming man. It subtly implies a set of other questions: why do I insist that I’m a man? Why not just call myself a tomboy and re-focus my efforts on making society see that tomboys can wear dresses, too? Am I trying to opt out of misogyny somehow? Am I saying that having stereotypically masculine interests and behaviors somehow make me a man?
Before I could answer any of these questions, I needed to know why I was so sure I was male in the first place. Obviously, I had an inner understanding that I was a man — it just felt right somehow — but I did not want to “have a feeling” and leave it at that. Forget cis people and their rude, intrusive questions — I had to know, for myself most of all. Everything could be defined, broken down, examined. Gender identity was no exception.
I found the framework I was looking for in Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, which approached gender theory from a transfeminist point of view. In Whipping Girl, Serano proposed that all humans possessed a subconscious sex, “an unconscious and inexplicable self-understanding regarding what sex one belongs to or should be,” which had “nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression.” Subconscious sex was one part of gender identity. While gender identity was both “the gender we consciously choose to identify as, and the gender we subconsciously feel ourselves to be,” subconscious sex referred only to the latter.
Cis people remained largely ignorant to the existence of their own subconscious sexes because they matched up with their physical sexes. “If cissexuals didn’t have a subconscious sex, then sex reassignment would be far more common than it is,” Serano argued. “Women who wanted to succeed in the male-dominated business world would simply transition to male. Lesbians and gay men who were ashamed of their queerness would simply transition to the other sex. Gender studies grad students would transition for a few years to gather data for their theses. Actors playing transsexuals would go on hormones for a few months in order to make their portrayals more authentic. Criminals and spies would physically transition as a way of going undercover. And contestants on reality shows would be willing to change their sex in the hope of achieving fifteen minutes of fame.”
Trans people, on the other hand, experienced “cognitive dissonance that arises from the fact that their subconscious sex does not match their physical sex. This gender dissonance is usually experienced as a kind of emotional pain or sadness that grows more intense over time, sometimes reaching a point where it can become debilitating.” If someone tried to brush them off, the feelings of gender incongruence would return with a vengeance. “The more I tried to ignore the thoughts of being female,” Serano wrote, “the more persistently they pushed their way back into the forefront of my mind. In that way, they felt more like other subconscious feelings, such as hunger or thirst, where neglecting the urge only makes the feeling more intense with time.”
There were differences with how the two of us experienced gender dissonance — Serano’s was mostly physical, whereas mine was mostly social — but her overall experience suppressing her subconscious sex (say that five times fast) was eerily similar with my own. Once upon a time, I’d wanted nothing more than to be satisfied with the labels people tacked onto me: independent woman, assertive girl, masculine female, tomboy. No matter how happy I was to be seen as a “masculine” woman, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, that something was off, that that something had to do with how everyone kept insisting that I was a masculine woman.
Womanhood — even independent, singular, heroic, masculine womanhood — felt like a prison, an airless room where the walls were constantly closing in. The more I ignored it, the worse it became, until finally I realized that the only way to stop this feeling of incongruence from taking up permanent residence in my mind was to come out as a man. The problem wasn’t that society didn’t accept me as a boyish girl. It was that my subconscious sex was male, that I could no longer tolerate the cognitive dissonance I felt while pretending to be female.
Finally, I had an explanation: I was a man because my subconscious sex was male. I felt cognitive dissonance, or gender dysphoria, whenever I was forced into a “female” box — when I was misgendered, for example, or told that I “wasn’t really trans,” or invited to a ‘women’s-only’ space. It also explained why my female friends who exhibited so-called “masculine” traits fought so hard to be acknowledged as women; they probably got a similar feeling of dissonance whenever they were likened to men on the basis of their expressions alone.
Acutely aware that my high-femme appearance did little to help my case, I emphasized the stereotypically masculine parts of my personality when I began my social transition. I am assertive, I stated. Most of my friends are men. I am interested in STEM fields. I prefer to be the dominant party in a romantic relationship.
Rookie mistake, trying to “prove” gender identity through gender expression. All it did was make people think that I was a “strong, masculine woman.” I knew better now. So how could I show that I was not a masculine woman at all, but a feminine man?
Gender expression is an overloaded term. Serano defines it as “whether our presentation, behaviors, interests, and/or affinities are considered feminine, masculine, or some combination thereof.” In my personal experience, this is also how we colloquially use the phrase. A single term with four dimensions. Confusing, but what part of gender wasn’t?
It would be ridiculous and near-impossible to come up with an “objective” way to measure each of these things — making an exhaustive list of all behaviors, interests, and affinities would be hard, and whether each one was “masculine” or “feminine” would differ based on an individual’s interpretation — so I simply relied on the traits that were most salient, a snapshot of my most current self rather than a complete picture of who I always was and always would be. This made sense, too; while my subconscious sex had remained the same, even when I’d tried to bury it down deep, my gender expression had certainly changed over the years.
Once I came out as trans, I no longer needed to rely on stereotypically masculine behaviors to overcompensate for being seen as a “girl.” I actively started questioning the way I moved about in the world, shedding a few “masculine” traits I’d adopted just for show while allowing myself to explore some “feminine” ones. Presentation-wise, I didn’t change much at all; pastel sundresses continue to dominate my wardrobe. Behaviorally, I continued to be assertive, but I also discovered that I didn’t mind having a good cry whenever I was upset, and preferred a romantic relationship where I was equal rather than dominant. That is, my presentation remained feminine, while my behavior became more neutral.
My interests and affinities, however, became almost entirely feminine after I started living as a man. My top hobbies include online shopping, tailoring dresses, going on photoshoots in pretty locations, and having lively conversations on Internet snark forums. I also generally enjoy both consuming and producing art with a feminine perspective more than I do art with a masculine one. My favorite musicians are female; my favorite paintings depict individuals in dresses, and almost all the fictional stories I write have lesbian protagonists.
I, at least currently, am far more feminine than masculine. I am a man fascinated, enthralled by, captivated by femininity — not a “girl who likes boy things,” but rather a “boy who likes girl things,” far closer on the gender spectrum to a cis boy trying on his mother’s lipstick than to a cis girl rough-housing with her peers. I was a feminine trans man far more than I was a masculine cis woman.
Why do I insist that I’m a man? — Because my subconscious sex is male. By “insisting” that I’m a man, I am simply acknowledging a fact that has been true all of my life.
Why not just call myself a tomboy and re-focus my efforts on making society see that tomboys can wear dresses, too? — I used this label in childhood because I didn’t have any better ways to describe my feelings of gender incongruence. Others used it to describe me in my early adulthood because they mistakenly believed me to be a masculine woman. I don’t call myself a tomboy because I’m not one; in fact, I’m the exact opposite. I do think that tomboys can wear dresses, though. Presentation is only one aspect of gender expression.
Am I trying to opt out of misogyny somehow? — No. I identify as a man because my subconscious sex is male, not because I’m trying to find a loophole out of womanhood.
Am I saying that having stereotypically masculine interests and behaviors somehow make me a man? — Not at all. Any man or woman can be arbitrarily masculine or feminine. As a society, we could do better at uncoupling masculinity from manhood and femininity from womanhood.
These questions no longer haunt me. Now that I know the answers, I’m happy to explain to anyone who asks. Ultimately, though, I hope that one day we collectively understand gender so well that there will be no need to ask such things at all. “We must stop projecting what we wish were true about gender and sexuality onto other people,” writes Serano, “and instead learn to yield to their unique individual identities, experiences, and perspectives.”
There is no right way to exist as a man or a woman (or both, or neither) in society. I look forward to a time when this becomes common knowledge. ✦