This piece does have a video recording, so feel free to listen instead of read! There may be some differences between the two, and again, what’s below is meant to be told aloud so it may not follow grammar as tightly as it might.
I wrote this piece because I was invited to participate in the SLU Men’s Story Project in 2019, and I accepted because I’d never explicitly written about my own experience of masculinity. By then end of it I think I was more exhausted by the idea of being so firmly anchored to a gender identity at all, and more frequently introduce myself with an option of masculine (social description) or gender neutral (soul description) pronouns.
The woman at the cash register squinted at my ID and then at me. “What’s your birthday?”
She seemed curious to see how I’d react. A card declaring you had to have been born in 1994 or earlier hung in the backdrop.
“10/16/86. October sixteenth, 1986.” I said it two ways so it would sound more like I owned it and had my whole life.
“Yeah, we can’t accept this. You need to have a Massachusetts state ID.” Because checking my birthday info would have changed what state the ID was from.
What she didn’t say that I heard more often when people looked at my ID was – “Wow – you look like you’re 15. You sure this is you?”
I didn’t bother protesting or making a scene. No sense in turning suspicion about a fake ID into a complaint about an angry black man with a fake ID. I went back to waiting for the bus outside.
It was 2007 when I went from passing as a 21 year old woman to a 12 year old boy. I’d kickstarted my transition with the most drastic change I could make overnight, cutting my dreads off.
Let’s give you the full picture here: I have 6 months to start living as and trying to pass as a man in order to start hormone replacement therapy. I’m 21, so now I can legally binge my social anxieties away. I’m walking around with a god-awful haircut, and I’m between antidepressants.
I had had a pretty unsuccessful treatment with Prozac earlier that year, had made a silent attempt at offing myself the year before, and was about to start a new antidepressant that winter. Maybe not the most stable kid on the block, but I felt very sure that if I didn’t feel so tortured in my body every second of the day, a lot of things would start coming together.
I get to the end of the six months of wearing baggy clothes from Walmart and army surplus and I’m ready to get my reward for half a year of public shaming. I’m in my therapist’s office, and she starts telling me about how impressive it is that I’ve gotten even as far as I had with all the things in my life stacked against me…. And that she would not be signing off on a letter for me to start taking T for at least another few months to show I could take care of myself.
This idea she had that somehow I’d managed to be successful in spite of my life got to me. I found a new therapist and started taking testosterone unsupervised.
In a few short months after starting testosterone, I’d acquired a new second hand wardrobe to fit my now 5 inches larger waistband, and managed to get “sirred” for the first time since starting the whole transition process.
Getting sirred is a social marker when people you don’t know assign the masculine honorific ‘sir’ to you. It’s often a big deal in the transman transitioning process.
Shortly after starting testosterone, I started taking wellbutrin for my depression. This was a bad idea. Wellbutrin is sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s cocaine’ — it helps keep norepinephrine and dopamine available longer to stimulate receptors in your brain, so basically it’s designed to help make you feel like you’re winning life.
So, my now very cocky, over-confident, super-charged self was attracting attention from very different places and people than in the past. Not the angsty, quiet, emo kids like I’d hung with my whole life, but instead more competitive and cocky folks, and more people ready to fight.
A funny thing about going through puberty a second time is that it still sucks in almost exactly the same ways. I had already been a person who would do things like punch walls when I got really mad. It didn’t take long after transitioning that I learned that wasn’t an effective strategy. Being stronger meant what used to just hurt me now hurt me and left dents in some walls, are sometimes caused them to cave in. And I sucked at wall repair. Plus, now instead of it being some kind of funny, raging lesbian meme playing out in front of you, I was read as a raging black man, more fit to be detained than made the butt of a joke.
I got some of my most direct lessons about masculinity in this time.
1 – Know what you want, and then act like you not only deserve it, but already have it.And then take it.
I learned this one trying to get into my first men only gay bar. I was so nervous that the F next to “sex” on my ID would give me away I thought I’d throw up.
I don’t believe this rule should apply all the time, but if you want to “butch up”, a dose of this does wonders
2 – Accept your punishment
Another version of this rule might be – “Be a man about it”. In the summer before finishing up college, one night on the front lawn of my frat, I found myself put in a headlock by an older man who worked on campus. Now, if this had been anyone else, I’d have been up in arms and encouraged the person to seek some kind of action as a victim. But instead, I walked away remembering very little except that I wasn’t interested in adding any weight to his assertion that I was a trannyfag who should leave being a man to people who were born that way. The best argument seemed to be to suck it up, accept it, and prove him wrong.
Twelve years later, I don’t get carded much or eyed past the requisite check for a birth year. I don’t punch walls or start fights. Most folks I know can’t imagine me even raising my voice. I try not to be too presumptive, and I try to reject the idea that anyone has the right or wisdom to decide what kind of punishment I deserve, never mind give it to me.
For me, this idea of what a ‘man’ is is a package of stories, ideas, misconceptions, lies and fantasies. Masculinity is more a socially designed pattern than something absolute, real, or unique. I do believe that how masculinity is measured and defined can be changed by how people identify and claim their own masculinity. These false images put out from society have only come undone for me by meeting and spending more time with men who live quietly and responsibly, leading wholly unheroic lives in the public eye, but being champions in their self-identity by having the courage to seek out their most authentic selves. This is the kind of man I hope to be.