What Does Gender Feel Like?

Not a day goes by that some trans guy, who just wants to enjoy his seven identical pairs of cargo shorts, doesn’t get asked by a cis feminist friend: “Why couldn’t you just be a tomboy? Why isn’t 21st-century, gender-role-busting, glass-ceiling-breaking womanhood enough for you?” This query is sometimes followed with: “Are you sure it’s dysphoria and not internalized misogyny? Aren’t you just trying to escape sexism?”

Nothing I say can improve on Daniel Lavery’s satirical essay “Did You Know Athena Used to Be a Tomboy?” (Have you really tried being the Tutelary of Athens?) Nonetheless…

First of all, my tomboy quotient is somewhere below “Sopranos” homosexual Vito Spatafore trying to survive as an honest construction worker in Vermont. (He hammers one nail in the freezing cold, says fuck this and goes home to get whacked.) Second, I don’t think anyone ever said, “Life is too hard as a mildly attractive middle-aged wife. What I really need is to become a short, balding gay man with no dick. That’s where the social capital is!”

But let’s leave the facts aside. Womanhood shouldn’t be a cult. You shouldn’t have to prove you have a good enough reason to leave–if indeed you were ever truly a member. This rhetoric reminds me of pressure to remain in a family or spiritual community where your needs aren’t being met. Preservation of the institution is the top priority, so your needs must be squeezed into their box or redefined as something different or unimportant. This approach treats transgender identity as an inferior state to be avoided, a last resort, an imposition on the people who matter.

We all adapt to life’s constraints and inequalities in imperfect ways. Our choices shouldn’t be compared to some ideal of perfect autonomy and objectivity. If anyone does transition for relief from trauma or sexism, that person is just as trans as I am, and their reasons are just as valid. Transition is an incredibly powerful assertion of self-determination over one’s body and sexuality, which can be healing for survivors of intimate abuse. There’s no reason other than transphobia to deny survivors that tool for self-repair. Same for autistic folks who find that one gender presentation causes less sensory distress or social overload than another.

Moreover, transition is a move toward something that fits right and gives us joy. It isn’t primarily a rejection of something else. Being “not-a-woman” is just the beginning.

What do gender congruence and gender dysphoria feel like for me? It’s the sense of daring, expansiveness, and hope when I’m in a men’s group and someone calls me brother, versus feeling the walls closing in when I’m in a group designated for women. It’s understanding why, since my tween years, I was filled with sentimental yearning for stories of male camaraderie and boys’ schools (extra credit if they were British and tragically homoerotic). It’s the sadness, shame, and confusion of being unable to identify with female characters in movies and TV. Was I too fat, too virginal, too immature, or too assertive to share that fundamental similarity that women expected from me? It’s my “aha!” experience in a meditative movement workshop at the 2015 Transcending Boundaries conference (“I’m attending for novel research!”). We started on one side of the room as our current gender and slowly walked into a transformation into any other gender we chose. When I became male, someone who’d been inside me all along suddenly came into view, and I fit into my body with new clarity and awakening.

What I’m talking about here is not certainty, or an unchanging nugget of maleness waiting to be freed from a shell of femininity. I am talking about the right to know what I know about myself in this moment, and act on it, without first having to disprove every other possible interpretation.

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