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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Transition Thoughts & Reflections - Guest Post #3

All of us, who are transgender, will admit that we wished the general public was a bit more understanding of what it is to be trans.

We - those of us who are trans - all understand each other, right? Well, apart from a recent blog post I did, I would generally agree with that statement.

So, when I asked James if he would like to do a guest post on T-Central, he enthusiastically replied and asked for suggestions.

It was my response that so surprised me. No, I didn't understand. Here's a part of my reply:

....perhaps a little discussion about what has motivated you to do what seems so foreign to many of us....poisoning your body with T...taking a beautiful female body that we (speaking of the MtF's out there) wish we were born with and changing it into a male body....growing facial hair that we so hate....and perhaps most of all, lowering a voice to something that is so difficult for us to change. I don't say this in any way but out of respect for you and your feelings, so don't take it the wrong way. I think you would find a lot of interest in addressing these points besides those issues in your childhood, etc.

Now, I wrote that when the gender dysphoria was screaming inside of me. I was, perhaps, a bit emotional? But, it did make me realize that I do need to better understand my brothers who are transitioning from female to male.

First Jamie, Then James is his wonderful blog and it is so well written that one would think he is majoring in English Literature....which he is.

If you would like to contact James, you can drop me an email or, perhaps, we can get him to show up on the T-Central Facebook page, shown at the bottom of this page.

I'll let James take it from here..

- Calie

My Girlhood: A Very Serious Business

When I was born, the world suggested to me that I was a little girl. I took that suggestion very seriously. Bold colors startled me. Worms startled me. One year, I made a New Year’s resolution to not burp audibly.

Family trips, in particular, illuminated the self-policing that I imposed upon my childhood gender identity. A cousin and I used to borrow my dad’s video camera, write scripts, film ourselves, and exhibit our work at the end of the vacation. She invariably played an invented, comic masculine role and I basically played myself. We filmed music videos and sketches, tragicomedy and slapstick shorts. Our creative range stretched from complex improvised renditions of Shakespeare to thoughtful, existential appropriations of pop culture (such as our medley of “U + Me = Us” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart”).

My cousin’s freedom was stunning. It was one of the first things ever to make me laugh so hard I didn’t even care if I drooled or honked or knocked something over. Thanks to her influence, I found ways to be free with my laughter and my jokes and my facial expressions. I learned to dance with abandon and make noise. I learned to create Barbie characters who were silly or sarcastic, instead of simply smart and pretty.

The one thing that remained off-limits for play, however, was my gender. That performance was too serious to permit play. My gender performance obeyed a set of very specific rules. In hindsight, my personal gender boundaries from childhood don’t make any articulatable sense, except insofar as they were each designed to avoid any question, no matter how small, of my gender. Truthfully, neither my family nor my friends were particularly invested in a rigid template of femininity, and neither of my parents pressed me with gender norms in either direction. In fact, it was in the absence of external gender enforcement that I created my unspoken system of gender self-policing. As though I was trying to give structure to something that made me uncomfortable with its amorphousness.

I grabbed haphazardly at pop culture and young adult novels to generate this set of criteria for making myself the best girl I could be. I slept in a bra and tank top every night. I held my pencils with the smallest amount of finger surface area possible. I bought the smallest size pajama shorts that I could comfortably fit into, and I broke food into dime-sized pieces before eating it. I bought only women’s socks, women’s watches, even boxer shorts explicitly manufactured for women (Victoria’s Secret calls them ‘boxies’). The cute suffixes, the floral fonts, the style descriptors like “flirty” and “glam”—these were the only sure way to assure myself that I was dressing and acting like a girl. Barricaded in this version of girlhood constructed of toothpicks and gum, I was happy in most ways and I felt safe.

Twenty years passed from the world’s first suggestion that I was a girl. I met a queer theorist and I took her class. I met a butch lesbian and I dated her. I wrote several papers about gender in Shakespeare and scribbled one awestruck fifteen-line poem about my girlfriend’s genderbending. A tiny, hard ball of questions broke free and started rolling through my veins.

Those questions were twined tightly after two decades of compression. I tried to loosen one strand at a time, gently. Sometimes I would pull the wrong strand too hard and tighten the knot by accident, like the first time I thought I was ready to wear men’s pants out of the house. Three hours later, I hadn’t stopped feeling like everyone was staring at me and I’d forgotten why I wanted to wear them in the first place. I packed the jeans up (several sizes too big for me anyway, since I had guessed about my measurements) and wore a (somewhat ironically) more comfortable strapless bra and halter-top ensemble for a while.

What was I? I had lived for so long as a girl. Everyone recognized me as such; did that not mean I had been doing it right? If the discomforts could be balled up so small that I could avoid directly looking at them, then why not keep living that way? Why not continue to be easily understood?

Eventually, I realized that being recognizable as a girl was not the same thing as recognizing myself. In daydreams, I had never pictured myself with a face. It took photographs and mirrors to remind myself of what I looked like, because I honestly couldn’t call up a mental image of myself. There were whole swaths of my body I had never looked at. I quite frankly didn’t understand what my genitalia were for. They didn’t seem to have any point, except something vague about relationships that I didn’t think too hard about. I didn’t understand what sex was for, either, but it seemed to make most other people hungry. I lived for how it felt to sing onstage, but I never once heard my own voice and thought, Hey, that’s me singing. I had assumed in high school that the reason I liked Newsies so much was that I liked all the boys, but the line between liking the boys and liking to feel included in the boys was very fuzzy.

For years, my gender was a necessary process, the girl language I wrote on myself so that everyone (myself included) knew exactly how to read my body the moment they looked at it. In a way, I declared my gender as clearly as possible so that no one would look at me twice. Once I started asking questions, though, the toothpick-and-gum structure that was my gender couldn’t hold up for long. I was left with nothing for a while, until I realized that I had the power to build something in its place. Something better, stronger—something made out of my own bones and muscle, spit and fingernails.

I really do like bright colors. I really do care about hairstyles. I honestly would rather drink beers and play Risk than almost any other thing. I connected the wires that run from my crotch to my brain, and they’re both pleased to be gay. I take small bites of pie, big bites of toast. I pee with the men, but not in the urinal. If I walk into someone in the locker room, I’ll grunt, “Sorry, man.” If you’re sad, I’ll put my hand on your shoulder and squeeze. I buy my socks at Costco and the women’s ones fit me better. My gender is made of me.


  1. I rewrote Calie's comment to James:

    "....perhaps a little discussion about what has motivated you to do what seems so foreign to many of us....poisoning your body with estrogen…taking a handsome male body that we (speaking of the FtM's out there) wish we were born with and changing it into a female body….removing facial hair that we so envy and desire….and perhaps most of all, raising a voice from something that sounds so deep and melodious."

    One person's poison is another's ambrosia. It's hard to have an open mind on issues that are tied to such all-consuming and personal feelings. No, I'm not FtM myself and have no desire for coarse body hair growing anywhere on my own or my lover's bodies. But I have to believe, accept and understand that James does.

    James, great post. I especially related to your paragraph on photographs and mirrors, although in my case a male presentation would not change that feeling of dysmorphia. It's a subject I've been thinking long and hard about in the last few days.

  2. We are like drivers out on the highway concentrating on what is going our way not even giving a thought as to traffic going the other way.

    There is bound to be a certain reluctance to think about someone trying to attain all the things you have dedicated your life to removing and hopefully forgetting so it is hard for us to easily appreciate and accept the obvious attraction for these loathed characteristics. Especially so for someone who when changed MtF is not attracted to males.

    Perhaps we don't look hard enough but there do not seem to be so many visible blogs for FtM, I have a suspicion that you perhaps just get on with life more easily than we do. A small guy is going to blend into society more easily than a tall masculine looking woman with a strange voice.

    We could do with more examples as well written as this to educate us. many of us will probably find it hard to comment on this post.

    Caroline xxx

  3. Agreed. I've been thinking all day how disappointed I am that this post hasn't generated more commentary.

    I think for some it may actually be threatening. Not just because James is going in the opposite direction, but because it's not even a direct parallel. For James, gender seems to be more malleable...the lines seem fuzzier...there seems to be more of a "fuck the rules" sentiment; whereas too often we find ways to squeeze ourselves into those strictly defined spaces and insist on playing by a set of rules that don't necessarily favor us. I like the freedom in this post.

  4. I love this post, and those last two paragraphs especially. Yes, when we decided that it's even possible to question, we never know where those questions will lead. I'm glad they've led you to a good place, a place that fits you well. "My gender is made of me." What a wonderful, liberating statement!

  5. You're absolutely right, Renee. I find my own biases surfacing from reading this, yet I need to shatter those boundaries and allow myself to believe that there are ways people go about transition that shouldn't surprise me, and I'm still learning to respect and even appreciate those who refuse to "keep it between the lines."

  6. @ Lori,

    I'm right there with you.

    A person whose opinion I respect said something recently that I've been turning over and over in my head:

    "If I feel myself getting defensive, I must be learning something."

    We all have our biases. Being aware of them is the first step to overcoming them.

  7. Also, it's weird moderating *your* comments on this blog.

    Also, I'm happy to see some comments in this space. I still wish more people would discuss, though.

  8. These are all really good points. First of all, I just want to say I'm grateful for the warmth of the response I've gotten from T-Central; it really means a lot to me that there's space for everyone to share their perspectives here.

    It seems really important to me that some elements of the experience of being trans--of not fitting into your body, of not recognizing yourself--really speak to a lot of people, regardless of which body they have.

    Renee's right: it can be very hard to relate when someone's gender expression doesn't play by the rules of our own. What really helps me is thinking about the stuff we have in common: We're all searching for what makes us feel like ourselves.

    Writing this guest post got me thinking about it a lot, so I wrote another post on the topic over at my blog. If anyone is interested, you can find me at

  9. I loved Caroline's analogy and the way Sonora Sage turned around my words.

    I really thought long and hard about putting that paragraph in the introduction I wrote for Jame. I was, indeed, emotional (actually somewhat of a wreck) when I wrote James back, responding to his request for "what to write".

    I want to make it real clear that this post is about James, and not about me, but I did think that my emotional reaction might also be the response of other MtF's.

    Calie xxx

  10. I realize that gender and sexuality are two separate issues, but has anyone ever known a FtM who's sexual orientation was not lesbian, before they transitioned? I may be showing my ignorance on this, but quite honestly, I have never seen or heard of any.

    Conversely, most, but certainly not all of the MtF's I have known or heard about, were heterosexual, before they transitioned. It seems that transsexualism is either unheard of among heterosexual famales, or at least extremely rare, while the opposite is true for heterosexual males.

    I think this difference in the MtF experience, from the FtM experience, may be the reason that this blog hasn't generated that much interest. Its not so much a matter of MtF's feeling threatened by the FtM experience, as they simply have a hard time relating to it.

  11. Melissa, I've known a few MTFs whose prior sexual experience was with me. Most seem to be young, but one was in her 40s. I think young MTF transitioners tend to be either attracted to men from the start or not have any sexuality to speak of, whereas most but not all older transitioners have been female-attracted.

    Interestingly, one young (30) MTF whose prior experience was with men is now attracted only to women. And even though core sex identity and sexual orientation aren't related, orientation sure can shift after transition!

    I know several FTMs and have met others, so maybe that's why I did not have such a difficult time relating to this post, even though it's not part of my personal experience.

  12. Oh, I forgot to say...I remember hearing a podcast from the BBC about two spouses of transitioners. One was a man who had been married to a woman who transitioned to male. That does seem rare, but it happens.

  13. Like Veronica, I've known a few trans men, and their sexuality has split the divide.

    I think part of the difference, and I could be wrong but I'm not wholly making this up without some experience in the subject either, is that people raised women are generally scrutinized less for exhibiting certain "masculine" qualities. It's an attribute of sexism; since we live in a male dominated culture, anyone exhibiting male-like behavior is given a little bit of a pass.

    Knowing that, you can kind of see why lesbians are generally more mainstream-tolerated than gay men. And even if you don't identify as a lesbian, if you were born and raised a girl, you can play around with gender a bit more than boys can (i.e., tomboys, etc.).

    So I think it's more a case of trans men being able to explore at an earlier age with somewhat less stigma.

    I predict that as transsexualism becomes more understood and tolerated, and we see more trans women transitioning at a younger age, the whole lesbian trans woman phenomenon will start to reverse itself a little and we'll see a breakdown that's more in line with what we see in the cis population. In fact, I think we already can see that's true, with the few examples of early transitioners we do have available to us.

    As far as people not being threatened, well maybe Melissa isn't, but people are. I get into these discussions all the time and it's very clear that trans women - particularly of a certain generation and social disposition - have a very rigid understanding of their own gender and anything that diverges from that causes questioning, which in turn causes insecurity. And that's not unusual, because it's actually the same reaction we often engender in cis people, particularly of a certain generation and social standing, who themselves can only view gender in very specific ways and anything else causes their world to start to fall apart.

  14. Renee, I think you hit a lot of good points. I agree that gender variance is generally much more tolerated in female-bodied people. And I think what you said about feeling threatened by gender variance is very true, too.

    I count myself among the trans men who were heterosexual women before we transitioned, so we do exist! It does sometimes feel as though I'm in the minority, since the most-heard trans man story is the journey from butch lesbian to trans man. Maybe part of the reason those stories are more visible, though, is because it's easier to understand and explain someone feeling masculine their whole life and then becoming a trans man.

    The thing people tend to ask me is, "Why would you become a guy if you were just going to be a gay guy?" As Renee pointed out, it's important and sometimes uncomfortable to realize that people can be trans and not necessarily experience their gender within the so-called norms of feminine women and masculine men. I'm an effeminate trans man who kept his prom dress for drag. A close friend of mine is a pansexual, butch FtM. We both often have explaining to do.

  15. As Renee pointed out, it's important and sometimes uncomfortable to realize that people can be trans and not necessarily experience their gender within the so-called norms of feminine women and masculine men.

    It's funny because I think we understand that on a certain level. I mean, lesbian trans woman seem to be the norm (I often feel quite lonely, being one of the few het trans women around, at least in this particular blogging community), so the idea that sexual orientation doesn't follow automatically from gender identity is something we're familiar with. What tends to frustrate me, and what I was kind of hinting at earlier, is that we have a great way of rationalizing things that are necessary for others to understand us, but do not often make the leap when it comes to understanding those whose way is not our way. The insistence of labeling others as a means of reaffirming self is scarily common.

  16. "I realize that gender and sexuality are two separate issues, but has anyone ever known a FtM who's sexual orientation was not lesbian, before they transitioned? I may be showing my ignorance on this, but quite honestly, I have never seen or heard of any."

    I imagine most of the trans men who have children of their own or were in marriages didn't consider themselves lesbians, of whom I know a couple. ;)

  17. The trans man I know best was a very heterosexual woman (married with three kids, no less). He's now a very gay man. I went to his wedding. It was a lovely ceremony.

    This entry reminds me of one of the theses that Julia Serano puts forth: that we're so focused on the alleged difference between genders that we're sometime blind to the similarities. I don't know if that's apropos, but it's what came immediately to mind.

  18. Thanks so much for this. Talk about the deliberate performance of femininity is heartening to me - to know that other guys did that too. A weird sort of inverse of the "I always knew" narrative.

    (And I've never considered my sexuality to be exclusively female-oriented or male-oriented (even when I was in denial of the attracted-to-women bit.))


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