The following piece is the first installment in “Dressing the Part,” a 12-part series exploring transgender spaces, cultural issues, and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy. I’ll be publishing every Wednesday until October 21, 2020.
I am a man who has no interest in looking “masculine.”
When I came out as transgender, people assumed that I’d want to “dress the part” — cut off my hair, shop in the mens’ section, start hormone replacement therapy, and generally do everything in my power to “pass” as male.
I did none of these things. You still wouldn’t be able to distinguish me from a cis woman on the street — I look the same as I did before anybody knew I was a man. While I do have physical dysphoria, especially around my breasts and hips, it’s selective and not triggered by the femme clothing that I choose to wear. There’s an immense amount of joy that comes with putting on a dress each morning, feeling the skirt swish against my legs, hearing the click-clack of my heels hitting the pavement at just the right tempo, my ponytail swinging back and forth like a compound pendulum. Why would I give it up?
It’s frustrating that we assign so much meaning to style. Well-intentioned people often ask me why I wear dresses if I “think I’m a man,” as though my colorful frocks are a threat to my masculinity. Other trans guys have shamed me for “presenting female,” as though my colorful frocks are a threat to their masculinity. But my dresses — and my assortment of heels, rose-gold iPhone, long hair, and vibrant lipstick collection — contain no femininity in and of themselves. They’re just objects that I find pretty, and their role in my life does not make me a woman any more than short hair, slacks, and a button-down shirt would make me a man.
In the year since I’ve come out, I’ve stopped questioning the validity of my gender. As far as I’m concerned, if cisgender men can wear baby pink and fluffy skirts and still be seen as men, then there’s no reason that I can’t do the same.
Admittedly, though, I love playing devil’s advocate. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a bit that I’m still questioning. Does my affinity for feminine aesthetics mean that I can’t be a man?
The very existence of a femme-presenting trans man completely separates the notion of gender from the set of experiences based on physical sex. When divorced from physicality, “gender” becomes an abstract concept that contradicts itself at nearly every turn. Gendered social roles, beauty standards, and behavioral traits vary greatly from context to context. What’s considered “masculine” in one environment can be “feminine” in another.
From there, stuff gets slippery. Without primary and secondary sex characteristics as a baseline, what is “man”? What is “woman”? Why do these words even exist in modern society, if the same things that make one person a “woman” can make another person a “man”? Are we rendering the word completely meaningless when we say that I, a person with two X chromosomes, a vocal range between 165 and 255 Hz, a womb, and a vagina — who wears dresses and heels and has long hair — am a man?
Is this a bastardization of language? A dulling of precision? The first sign of societal collapse?
I don’t think so.
First of all, the definition of “sex” isn’t as rigid as we think. According to the Intersex Society of North America, about 1 in 2000 babies are born with genitals so ambiguous that hospital staff have to call in sex-differentiation experts. And that’s only with visible differences in genitalia. There exist babies who don’t have strictly XX or XY chromosomes, babies born with both uteruses and testicles, babies with androgen insensitivity syndrome that gives them the physical traits of a woman with the genetic makeup of a man, and so forth.
Even when you take intersex people out of the equation, there are women without breasts or wombs, men without testicles, women with testosterone levels in the “male” range, men with high-pitched voices, and women with facial hair. Even if we tie gender to sex, there’s no cut-and-dry, one-or-the-other differentiation.
Second of all, like feminists love to say, gender is a social construct. Society is created by people, and people’s minds are changing all the time. If we as a society agree that a “man” is a human being who identifies as one, no prerequisites required, then we’ve collectively changed the definition of “man.”
We’ve already begun doing this. In California, transgender people can change the gender markers on their driver’s licenses, social security cards, and U.S. passports without medical interventions or court-ordered recognitions. Nonbinary genders are legally recognized in several U.S. states. And, when it comes to language, both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary recognize the singular “they” as grammatically correct.
If I have the ability to legally change my gender without needing to change anything about myself, it’s safe to say that we have societally agreed that I fit the definition of a “man.” Thus, in the current context, it is perfectly reasonable to call myself a man, no matter what I look like.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy for me to come out. When I was still in the closet, I often wondered if I was “trans enough” to call myself a trans guy. Was it appropriate to claim that label for myself if I looked nothing like a “typical” trans person?
Everything else lined up. I couldn’t stand my breasts, and I’d been dreaming about getting both top surgery and a hysterectomy since puberty. Hell, I used to wait for the clock to turn to 11:11 every day as a teenager so I could wish for a few more inches of height, some extra muscle mass, a deeper voice, angles instead of curves. My atheist self made a case to any higher power that would listen.
The physical distress was nothing compared to the social incongruence I felt. So-called “feminine” traits — softness, emotional expressiveness, a desire to take care of things — actively made me uncomfortable, especially when placed upon me. I exaggerated how brash, assertive, and (over)confident I was so that I wouldn’t be seen as a “girly girl.”
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, queasy and drenched in sweat, with the blankets tangled up so tightly around your body that you had to thrash and struggle to free yourself? Ever been in a too-stuffy, weird-smelling car, lurching along the road while a song you’ve heard too many times plays on the radio? I felt like I was in both of those scenarios at once when people assumed that I was a feminine person, or expected me to play a feminine role.
I wanted people to see beyond the dresses, beyond the heels and the makeup and the long hair, to who I really was: a masculine person who just happened to like womens’ clothes. There was no higher compliment, nothing that made me want to skip through a field of flowers more than being called “mannish” or “pretty much a guy.”
What did that make me, then? I knew that “masculine-of-center femme,” the label I’d been using to describe myself, was a cop-out. Could I actually be just … male? I often thought of myself as a guy in a girl’s body, but aside from a few parts that could easily be covered up, I didn’t necessarily feel that my body itself was the problem. The authors of every transmasculine memoir I read emphasized how much they hated looking feminine; I relished it at every turn.
Eventually, I realized that gender wasn’t about looks or conforming to stereotypes. It was an innate sense of knowing that I couldn’t quite explain on rational terms. I emphasized stereotypically masculine behaviors — played “the guy” — in social situations because it forced people to affirm that I was a man. But those behaviors, and that validation, did not in and of themselves make me a man. Gender, after all, could not be quantified once divorced from physicality.
As for the dresses … well, each guy was different, right? Some guys liked cars, others liked anime. Why couldn’t my thing be feminine fashion?
I left the closet not long after. All of a sudden, everything became calm and smooth. Gone was the nagging sensation that I was lying to everybody. Gone was the blistering need to prove myself to anyone, anywhere, about how strong, capable, and talented I was. Gone was the tendency to take every little criticism as an affront.
For the first time, I gave myself permission to actually feel things, to hold nuanced opinions, to explore interests that I’d once deemed “too girly.” And for the first time, I could clearly see the world and who I wanted to be in it.
I am the best kind of man — capable, indomitable, resolute — in chiffon and lace and pink seersucker. Aesthetic is aesthetic; it has nothing to do with gender, and I’ve come to peace with the fact that much of my life will consist of education, respectful discourse, and explanation.
There will always be detractors, and non-believers, and people who are just plain assholes. The most airtight arguments and most heartfelt emotional appeals won’t convince people who don’t want to listen. But that’s okay. Doubt does not invalidate existence.
I am a trans man who loves dresses, and I’m not any less trans or any less a man for wanting to look a certain way. I exist, and I’m here to stay. ✦