I love stories that depict alternate realities, and there’s one I never stop thinking about.
After the “you can’t be handsome because you’re not a boy” incident, I invented a little game of make-believe that served as both a prolonged thought experiment and a valuable coping mechanism for the times when I couldn’t stand being a “girl.” It goes like this: there exists an alternate universe where everything is the exact same as they are this one. Only one crucial detail is different: In this universe, I am a cis guy.
What would I look like? Which personality traits would I tone down, and which would I deliberately exacerbate? What would my sense of style be? Would I have made the same decisions in life?
I didn’t come up with a name for my cis-boy self, because in my mind, we were the same person. The fact that I had a certain set of genitals didn’t seem to affect my upbringing, at least not at first. Both of my parents worked when I was little; for the initial few years of my life, I was raised mostly by my maternal grandparents, who taught me how to recite ancient Chinese poems and answered every question I asked them. Thus, when I started thinking about my cis male self as a four-year old, I decided that we couldn’t have been too different. We would have the same friends, the same favorite colors, and the same half-contentious, half-conspiring relationship with our younger sisters.
We grew up together. I always had a vision of what he looked like in my mind. When I discovered Abercrombie and Aeropostale at the mall and became a prep, he was in an emo/skater phase, complete with the swishy hair and too-edgy-for-middle-school T-shirts. When my early high-school wardrobe consisted of tank tops, shorts that were a little too short, and an abundance of Axe Body Spray … so did his. When I was buying Lilly Pulitzer dresses off of sorority girls on eBay, I imagined him as a frat boy with a large collection of pastel polos, seersucker critter shorts, and sweaters tied around the neck. After I moved to the Bay Area, I imagined him settling into a clean-cut yuppie look, all colorful chinos and fitted button-downs.
Thinking about aesthetics was a fun way to indulge in idle escapism for a little while. This game became significantly less fun, however, whenever I shifted from thinking about how I would look like as a cis guy to how I would be treated by society for daring to be myself as a cis guy. Shortly after the game’s conception, I determined that I probably wouldn’t be making decisions too differently as a boy. The real difference in how our lives unfolded, then, would be the way others perceived and treated me.
Frankly, a part of me hesitated to come out because I wasn’t sure if my life would have been better if I’d been assigned male at birth. The dominant narrative among trans guys is that the majority of us have grown up very traditionally masculine, but I was — and still am — extremely feminine by male standards. Had I been a cis male, I’m certain that I would have been endlessly shamed for certain aspects of my personality, such as my obsession with style, my preference for books over sports, my small frame, and my love for Taylor Swift. Hell, I was already shoved against lockers and called “queer” and “pussy” and “faggot” for daring to be gender-nonconforming (read: having short hair, insert egregious eye roll here) as a girl; I shudder to think of what would have become of me if I dared to, for example, wear a pink dress to school as a guy.
How many times would I have been harassed, beaten up, or verbally attacked? Would I have been so positively received if I’d started a blog talking about my feelings of gender with aesthetically posed pictures of myself?
As superficial as it is, my femme aesthetics are a big part of my identity. I have gotten away with being femme because I was perceived as female by society, and that’s something that is never far from my mind. If I love dresses so much as a trans guy, I’m certain that I would have at least had a fascination with them as a cis guy. I can easily imagine myself as a cis boy in middle school, with too many books under my arm and too great an interest in fashion. I can see my parents, who were lenient about my gender expression because I was assigned female at birth, spewing some very bigoted opinions about how I wasn’t supposed to behave a certain way because it wasn’t “manly.” I can see my sister, at least during the early years, being bombarded with nasty, piercing questions from her classmates about why her brother was such a queer.
I can all too easily see my cis-boy self questioning his sexuality, questioning why gender roles were so rigid, and eventually retreating behind a mask of toxic masculinity and self-hatred. I did this already as a “girl”, policing my actions and emotions until I was no longer so artistic or empathetic. And that was just me policing myself! Imagine how much worse it would have been if all of society were in on it, too.
When I think about my cis-guy ego as a twenty-two year old, I don’t know if he would be happier than I am now, given the way that we (often violently) punish men who dare to be feminine. I have personally witnessed my own cis male friends judge other guys and make egregious assumptions about them, just based off of how they’re dressed, how they style their hair, or how they walk. Men are punished so hard for any type of gender nonconformity in modern society. Identifying as a man while continuing to be femme continues to be a source of internal conflict and guilt, especially now that I’m out.
I am a trans guy, but I don’t have any goals of conforming to societal ideals of masculinity. I don’t want to lose my more feminine interests for the sake of being “more manly.” I like to think that my cis-guy self went to an open-minded liberal arts school, where he slowly unlearned all of his toxic masculinity and became unafraid to express his “feminine side.” I hope that he, too, would have turned to content creation to express his thoughts and introduce new perspectives to people.
I can’t know for sure what I’d be doing in that alternate universe, of course, but I do know that I’ll be celebrating femininity as a man in this one. I want to actively work towards a society where adults won’t tell their sons to “man up” for expressing emotions or loving certain types of art. I want to actively work towards a society where where kids won’t terrorize other kids for daring to say “fuck you” to gender conformity. I want to realize a future where I can imagine my cis-boy self growing up untinged by toxic masculinity, where he is proud of all his facets and sides.
That’s the kind of (non-alternate) reality I want to live in. ♚