Early in transition I was following a friend while driving. He’d been a pizza delivery driver for years and honestly drove recklessly at the best of times. I’m a somewhat more cautious driver, and was struggling to stay with him as he wove through highway traffic over the speed limit.
When we arrived at our destination this friend said to me “Jeeze, if you want to be a real man, you gotta learn how to drive.”
Beyond the fact that I had an excellent driving record, and he did not, this comment STUNG. This friend came to a better understanding over time, but he really didn’t see me as a real man, and this comment showed it. It’s a pretty common one for trans men to hear early in transition, and even occasionally later in transition, and it’s ugly.
There is no driving test for manhood. There’s no test at all – someone who identifies as a man is a man. Even if he’s a timid driver, hates sports, doesn’t drink beer, and doesn’t have a single chin hair. Being a shitty driver wouldn’t make me a man any more than having a penis would.
Many trans men experience pressure to participate in traditionally masculine activities or take on stereotypical traits in order to prove our manhood, even more than cis men do. There is similar pressure on trans women to perform stereotypical femininity. We see this in overt messages like that comment from my friend, and more subtly from articles and documentaries about trans people. Have you ever noticed how all of those documentaries include images of trans women putting on makeup?
I understand where the pressure can come from when it comes from people who really do care about us. Some of the pressure I got back then was coming from a loving place, even though it was seriously misguided. When friends or lovers suggested which mannerisms or clothing choices might be coming off as not so manly they genuinely were trying to help, since the assumption was that I wanted to be perceived as a man by the world. I did want to be perceived that way, but now I really wish the world would recognize us as the gender we are without conforming to arbitrary ideas of masculine and feminine. I want the world to see trans men as men and trans women as women and nonbinary people as nonbinary simply because that’s who we are, not because we perform gender in the way that makes cis people comfortable.
When this pressure comes from those who are not really interested in the comfort of trans people the reason is more insidious. So many people say they will accept us as our true identities as long as we uphold very rigid gender norms. It is crucially important to them not to really question the structure of cis-normativity, and as such their expectation is that trans men will wear traditionally male clothes, have short hair, have traditionally male interests, get our breasts removed and get phaloplasty surgeries. The fact that many trans men don’t want to do all of these things, that they’re not appropriate to our identities, is not important to them. The idea that a trans woman can be a woman without dresses or makeup goes against their deeply ingrained ideas of what makes someone a woman. That many trans people don’t want to medically transition in the ways they expect or at all is particularly disruptive to cis-normative societies, so these people advocate for medical requirements for identification changes, and infer that those of us who refuse genital surgery aren’t really who we say we are. They will accept us only if we try very very hard to be as much like stereotypical cis people as possible.
Those cisgender people who want to be truly supportive of trans and nonbinary folks have a simple job. Just accept us as we are. When someone says he’s a man, believe that he is no matter how pink the skirt he’s wearing is. When someone says their pronouns are “they, them” use those, no matter what haircut they have. When a kid tells you she’s a girl, believe her even on the football field. Gender performance is not identity, and I can drive carefully if I want to.