“You used to be a male?”
I didn’t freeze in place, but my pulse quickened slightly. The woman before me could mean this with malice or she could mean it as some kind of misguided friendliness. Either way, it was not an appropriate inquiry to receive from someone working at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but I answered, “Yes,” because it was the pragmatic thing to do. Yes. Just finish processing my license renewal and gender marker change. Just change it from M to F. Please.
RMV Woman kept working, apparently seeing no reason to deny me, but in doing so, she smiled and remarked, “You’re so pretty, you’re very lucky. I would never have guessed. A lot of people come in and—” She didn’t finish the thought, but she gave me a look that said more than enough, and unfortunately she then barreled on. “Really, though? You really—? You’re very pretty. It’s wonderful. I hope you’re not offended— sometimes people are offended.”
I didn’t know if I was offended personally. I did feel offended on behalf of various other people. I did feel frustrated that the photo snapped of me was not flattering; I didn’t like the hint of a double chin, a trait that was mostly the product of being on testosterone therapy for three and a half years. I did want to end this conversation as quickly as humanly possible.
It did conclude, even though the temporary license I received first still said “M” by mistake and I had to run back and ask for that to be changed, too. RMV Woman assured me that on the actual license everything would still be correct. With that, I walked out into the sweltering summer heat as someone who might legally be regarded as an FTMTF. Because the fact of the matter was— I did used to be a male, by some definitions of “used to be” and some definitions of “a male.” But, by similar standards, I also “used to be a female.” I had thus been subjected to an experience all too common for many women, yet on the one hand, I had experienced very few of the other challenges that those women often encounter, and on the other hand, it had taken me work this morning (and this week) to achieve the appearance that garnered the pseudo-compliment.
Is this a typical experience of the average FTMTF? Should I call myself that?
I don’t know.
. . . .
I was born with genitalia of a relatively unambiguous nature such that the world identified me as “a girl.” I was raised accordingly, though my parents did not prescribe any gender roles or rules for me. I remember some occasional concern given to how I would be treated by people outside my immediate family on account of my gender, but mostly I remember an early understanding that gendered terms were of an essentially anatomical nature. Nowadays I know this is still not the best way to present it, but while it meant that I viewed sex and gender as linked, I also viewed gender as so identical to sex as to be barely worth the distinction.
Of course, this perspective evolved. My parents were soon not my only influence, and I learned things like “women and men think differently,” “women are irrational,” “sexual promiscuity is bad, especially for women,” and much more. As adolescence began, I also noticed how female peers received social and academic advantages if they acted happy, flirtatious, sexy, deferential, and non-opinionated. I had no inclination to force a good mood, to use sex appeal as a diplomacy tactic if I didn’t feel real desire, to suppress my goals in favor of others’, or to not say things I was thinking about unless it was genuinely a good time to keep my mouth shut. Consequently I found success in almost anything where I had talent and interest, but I was not a celebrated person, and in my peer group I was clearly regarded as incendiary, difficult, bitchy. I failed to see my disadvantages as a facet of patriarchy; I saw them as female weaknesses, and I saw myself as better than other young women.
The physical component did not go away either. Adolescence also brought distressing changes to my figure. I was already very short and I didn’t grow very much, so sometimes I was seen as childlike and sexless when I would rather not have been. I also did experience a very intense puberty in other respects, such as being among the first in my class to wear a bra, being struck by hellish acne, growing body hair that I was taught to hide, and generally filling out beyond the curve proportions that were regarded as conventionally attractive. I was infuriatingly jealous of my friends who were more appropriately beautiful, and in my queerness I was also in love with them. In this respect I saw myself as inferior to other young women.
So I was superbly intelligent. But I was ugly. That was my situation, according to myself. (I will briefly mention that my angst, though having legitimate sources, not only funneled into confused, misogynist outlets but also strikes me now as embarrassingly exaggerated given that I was white, not MAAB trans, and had no significant disabilities or deformities. If this had been otherwise, it’s very likely that my troubles would have multiplied.) By the time I reached the end of high school, I felt as if I were both “beyond” female in a positive sense— and tragically “failed” as female in the earliest physical definition of femininity that I’d learned. There was a lot of appeal in rejecting the label.
At the age of seventeen, I did reject it, albeit privately, and the next ten years were spent on an endeavor to define that rejection. First I explored the idea of being, more or less, a guy who was unafraid of femme presentation and uninterested in physical transition. Then normative pressures built up from others in my college trans community, and I explored the idea of being a guy who presented at least 90% butch and did intend to physically transition to something that most of the world would consider male apart from that which was contained in my boxers. Then I entered a relationship with a cis woman who abusively pressured me to embrace a genderqueer and eventually a female identity, using the logic that all of my attempts to assume a male identity were borne of misogyny. In some perverse sense, she was not wrong, but she emotionally and sexually damaged me in the course of trying to project her theory onto my reality. She also exploited me in other respects, so it was only natural to leave that twisted life with a fortified wish to make manifest everything she had denied me.
And so it was, as I entered a new relationship with the man to whom I have ultimately pledged myself for a very, very long while, that I sought a classical “FTM” arc again, and I hated my body. Though in the course of my past abuse I had finally learned the importance of feminism and no longer saw womanhood as some odious thing, I was still terrified of actually being a woman. And then— perhaps as early as 2012, but manifesting more strongly by 2014— I was suddenly in some circumstance with the love of my life, some circumstance with my social life, some circumstance with my activism, some circumstance with determining my real objectives before death. I suddenly felt eminently comfortable with a myriad tokens of that which most other human beings considered female. It was as if I had so many factors against comfortably identifying as a woman before, and now they were gone.
Framing my past in these terms courts danger. It would be all too easy for someone who professes feminism but repudiates trans people to take everything I have said and use it as fuel for their ideology. I have shied away from writing about my latest gender experiences for precisely this reason. Let me therefore say some things with utmost clarity:
- I have been describing a life path that did not work for me. It may very well work for other people, and in fact I have seen it work.
- I chose to be a man. I chose it as an act of survival and desperation. The reason I have now made a different choice is not that nobody should choose to be a man or that nobody should accept their natural inclination toward manifesting various concepts of “man.” My choice to be a man proved wrong, proved misguided, simply because it was not actually the correct choice for me to make.
- I need an entirely separate essay to lay out the exact psychological process behind my abrupt comfort with woman-ness, with female-ness, with femme-ness, with anything remotely on those ends of those false binaries. I plan to write that at some point. For now, the raw summary is that for many years I did not have that comfort, and now I do. It is also more than a comfort; it is a need.
With this understanding hopefully established— that is, the understanding that I am only, only, only describing what has happened in my life and not what happens in the life of any trans person assigned female at birth— I will at least enumerate some of the tokens that I welcome and crave. I do not consider these things to somehow be female or worth gendering in any precise way. But I am fully aware of how most other people in society would gender them:
- Allowing my breasts to be discernible, even accentuated
- Wearing clothing made of certain fabrics or cut in certain styles
- Wearing my hair in certain ways
- Wearing makeup
- Bearing children
I have written previously on the cost of femme— how wishing to have certain elements in my gender presentation affects expectations for other elements. But I am speaking here of the things I specifically do desire. Assume that things I choose under duress are still chosen that way; assume that I am performing femme “successfully,” i.e. as RMV Woman decreed.
It is odd for me to really group all of these tokens together so succinctly. Bearing children is, of course, only a biological process. It is not female, and it is not femme. And since I find the femme/butch dichotomy deeply insufficient, I am uncomfortable grouping my presentational choices together as if they are somehow linked, never mind adding childbearing into the mixture. Sadly, other people link all of these together, and it is that link I’m referencing.
I identified as genderqueer and genderfluid for a while over the past year or two, as I explored the tokens I had abandoned. To some degree, I believe these are still the most accurate descriptors for my person. I am not sure, but it’s possible. But the more that I have explored these aspects of my presentation and personality, the more that I have fully committed to that which many call femme, the more that I have run into a critical social conundrum.
. . . .
It comes down to choosing battles. Someone could have long ago asked of me, “Why abandon a male identity? There is nothing saying a man truly cannot wear a brassiere, lipstick, and high heels. There is nothing saying a man truly cannot be pregnant. Do you really mean to give up he/him/his over a matter of narrow-mindedness?”
For one thing, I do not necessarily mean to give up he/him/his. Pronouns are a sacred affair, whether for personal comfort or for political statement, and I still sometimes think that because I have fought for the right to be called him, I should not surrender it altogether. I will get back to that some other time. In the meantime, however, no, I also do not mean to give up an establishment of male identity simply because one can never ontologically qualify as male based on what you wear or what you do with your uterus.
I am giving up my attempt at maleness because I was not any better at conforming to all of its expectations than I was at conforming to all expectations of femaleness. Many people may find that one struggle is easier for them than the other, but I have not. I am giving up my attempt at maleness because it is too hard for me personally to be a man among misogynist men. Many people may find that it is easier for them to do this than it is to try alternatives, but I have not. I am giving up my attempt at maleness because it is too hard for me personally to be a feminist ally and still contend with my own instances of male privilege. Many people may be able to balance these things effectively, but it is beyond my own capacity. I am giving up my attempt at maleness because I am tired of it. Many people may not give up like this, and I genuinely congratulate their willpower, but I cannot continue.
On the flip side, someone could ask me, “Why accept a female identity? Not being a man does not necessitate being a woman. I thought you saw beyond the binary.”
I absolutely see beyond it, at least to whatever extent one person can overcome such conditioning. As I have said, I feel more comfortable identifying as genderqueer or something in that rough area. Even though my early aversion to some forms of prescribed feminine behavior was misogynist in its expression, I still certainly don’t want to identify as female if that will result in other people leaping to a huge number of conclusions about my interests, what I want to do with my life, my way of thinking, and so on. I also don’t want to say that because I have a great deal in common with cis women, I am one of them; I think it is preferable, ultimately, for everyone to question the gender which they are assigned, to deconstruct it, to rebuild it. I do not want a flat out binary female identity to suggest anything reductive about what “being a woman” could mean.
But reduction is a very key word in my situation. For better or worse, with the way that I generally present myself, 99% of all complete strangers are going to assume I am a woman and treat me however they treat women, unless I go around wearing a nametag that says I am not one, which strikes me pragmatically as a terrible plan in this day and age. For better or worse, if I ever get pregnant, have a child, and raise it while continuing to present myself as I currently do, then most authorities, institutions, and strangers are going to regard me as a mother, and as a woman by extension. The only people I can expect to gender me as neither a woman nor to pronoun me as she/her? They are either people who know me already or people to whom I could reasonably expect to explain my identity based on demographic factors that I learn in the course of interacting with them. These people are not the entirety of people I am going to meet in my life. This is a pure, cold fact of life that I have (re-)discovered over the past year, and I do not anticipate it changing within my lifetime.
So here is the heart of it. It would be wonderful, beyond wonderful, if governments, employers, and many more ceased using genders as criteria for identification. A simple “M” or “F” marker is meaningless other than to oppress, and even adding further options does not really help. Even with twelve options or a fill-in-the-blank, we would be left with the problem of having to conform to this identifier in some fashion in order to not have our identity called into question— just as we are expected to have our names, addresses, eye color, and fingerprints likewise listed accurately. Truly we should work on creating a society where identification in general is used only as an administrative tool and a source of celebration, not a source of policing and pigeonholing, but surely gender is the most troublesome classifier on basic documents today. Just about always, it lends literally no information of value other than a presumption of what pronouns the bearer prefers— and this assumes the gender marker is also what the bearer prefers, and this assumes that there is a direct correlation between pronouns and gender, which is a gross simplification. Regrettably, these are the conditions in which we live. They are the conditions in which I live.
In those conditions— while I have to identify myself to the state, to businesses, to landlords— I am going to run into exponentially more problems if it continues to say “M” on my personal identification documents while I continue to adopt so many tokens of what most people would label “F.” Pragmatically I have chosen to not fight this battle. I laud others who do. I cannot. I have too many other battles in which I am even more invested, and I need energy and time for them. I also find myself surprisingly unrankled by the prospect of having pieces of paper say that I am a woman. Even if I do not yet know what I am really comfortable being called on the whole, I certainly feel as if my life experience is close enough to that of a woman, or at least that of a queer, white, depressed, formerly affluent, currently working-class woman— if someone absolutely must reduce me to man or woman, it is woman that I would choose, even though I wish so greatly that this choice did not sometimes need to be made.
So today I went to the RMV with a piece of paper signed by my doctor, affirming that in his “professional opinion” I am female.
. . . .
Before I entered the RMV, just as I was at the door, taking out my earbuds, I had heard this question off to my right. It was from the man who held the door open for me. Unfortunately, my Spanish is not very good, so I shook my head apologetically, I said, “No hablo, sorry,” and I winced.
“Oh, okay,” the man said, following me in. It was rapidly apparent that whatever language I spoke was immaterial to his real point: “Beautiful, beautiful.”
I hate street harassment. I hate it viscerally. It has the power to ruin several hours or a day, for me. But any analysis I could give of this encounter should probably be deconstructed on racial grounds; I’m aware of the stereotyping of Latino men as libidinous cat-callers, and though I don’t deserve some kind of medal for reacting calmly to his behavior, I mostly hope others might understand that I’m only raising his ethnicity because it was relevant to how our conversation began and I can’t think of a good way (or reason) to fictionalize the whole thing and whitewash him.
In any case, I heard this word from him. “Beautiful, beautiful.” He said it a few times, and I found myself flustered. I said, “Thank you,” helplessly, just as I would eventually do with RMV Woman. I didn’t really want the attention, but I also found him much more polite than someone yelling hey baby as I passed them by. It also seemed awkward to suddenly be waiting for an elevator as just the two of us, getting into an elevator as just the two of us, but I was getting off one floor before him. During our very short journey together, he kept going on about how beautiful I was, until he held out his hand for me to shake and asked my name.
“Devon, I’m Sergio.”
“Nice to meet you, Sergio.”
By now I was still uncomfortable, but I was also finding a strange thrill. He may not have had the right to snare my attention like this, but I had the right to accept it or discard it, and I felt like accepting it. I am married, but this hasn’t constituted a barrier to flirting; my lack of real interest in this Sergio was likewise not a barrier to opening myself up to the experience of his own flirting. There are so many circumstances where I am sure I would not have been in the mood, and I would allow anyone else the right to not accept any of it overall. But for my part, I was intrigued. People don’t usually flirt with me. They don’t usually compliment my appearance in a serious, respectful way. I haven’t usually received sexual attention from strangers (subtle or not) in a context where I could really control my response to it. I decided to try here.
“You really are very, very beautiful,” Sergio said again. Then— as seemed inevitable— “Are you married?”
“Yes, sorry…” I winced again. I showed him my ring.
Promptly Sergio snapped his fingers, knowing he was going to strike out. I decided not to try explaining my polycuriosity in the span of thirty seconds to someone I had met under these conditions. I was ready to flirt but anything beyond that is a little beyond what my husband and I have quite arranged, and I didn’t know enough about Sergio to have my interest piqued. But we smiled at each other, and he asked, “Do you have any children?”
The other inevitable question. I said, “No, not yet.” Then the elevator was at my floor and I exited, telling Sergio to have a nice day.
I am quite sure I will never see him again, and I am not wistful about this. But I was amused and a little sad as I headed toward the hour-long wait in the RMV and the future conversation with the woman who thought I passed very well as what she considered a woman. I do not know what Sergio would have thought if I had told him why I was at the RMV in the first place. Would he still have thought I was beautiful? What if he knew that it had said “F” on my driver’s license many years ago?
What is the actual threshold at which people with a gender preference in their partners gain or lose interest?
Why do I live in a world where uninvited flirting from a man could feel more welcome and affirming than misguided, transmisogynist reassurances from a woman?
What am I now? What is an FTMTF? I know I am not that, but from certain angles, certain slants, some would use the phrase. Just like some would say I am a woman. Just like some would say I am not a woman. I think I am not anything. I am only becoming something. I am always becoming something.
Your blog reminded me of “Being and Nothingness” by Sartre who gave upper hand to individual existence over individual essence, it really demands guts to unravel your own life experience publicly.
As it happens, the post’s title and content connect very much to that book. For at least eight years of my life I have directed my actions based on existentialist principles, informed specifically by Sartre’s writing. I’m glad that came through here.