If You Want To Be A Real Man

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.

If You Want To Be A Real Man

9 thoughts on “If You Want To Be A Real Man

  1. AMM

    This also applies to cis men.

    I only recently started seeing myself as trans (that’s the phrasing that makes sense to me about me, YMMV), but I spent the whole six decades before then being constantly told what I had to do to be a “real man” or to not get called a wimp or a sissy or a queer or not lose my “man card” (I wish I had one so I could publicly burn it, the way people used to burn their draft cards.) And being made fun of and harrassed because I wouldn’t or couldn’t make myself behave in “real man” ways.

    I recently told my (female) therapist that male socialization is largely about socializing AMAB people to be assholes. Fortunately, for a lot of guys it doesn’t take, but they tend to feel guilty for being decent people and feel they have to hide it.

    Well, that!!

    One of the pleasures/benefits for me of transitioning to female is that I can (I hope!) leave all that crap behind.

    1. 1.1

      I agree that cis men get this, but the underlying question towards trans men seems to be different. All men have this fucked up expectation of masculinity in order to be taken seriously, but trans men have the added thing that people really believe we are not men – not just sissys, but NOT MEN – if we’re not stereotypical. I also suspect that trans women get more pressure before transition to be manly, or perhaps are more hurt by it, than cis men.

      I also agree that a ton of expected masculine behavior is awful. I don’t think all of it is toxic, but a ton of it is. I work hard to sort out what is toxic and what is not, so I can work to not do harm. I also have to work out what is being true to myself (short hair) and what is just shit that’s expected of me that I don’t actually care about or actively dislike (sports).

  2. 2

    Do you think this is less common for Cis and trans women? I’ve always perceived this as a man problem. There is some ideal of male behavior that women don’t have.

    Or maybe I’m just obvious as to how women should behave.

    1. 2.1

      I think it’s super common for trans women, but for cis women I get the sense it’s different. I dunno – I actually rarely felt pressure to be feminine when I was perceived as a woman, so how much my gender performance was policed as a man was sort of a shock.

    2. 2.2

      Of course femininity is policed, or we wouldn’t have a whole lot of discussions about stereotypes, but it’s policed differently from masculinity and differently for cis and trans women.
      Don’t forget that when people work in a binary, the only options are feminine and masculine and one of them is inferior, so when cis girls and women like male coded things, that’s a good thing*. Look at this kick ass girl, playing with Star Wars Action Figures and not some silly pink dolls! But boys liking dolls? We must stop that! What if he becomes gay or trans???**
      A very simple example: I am a cis woman, but I usually wear men’s retro briefs. I’m fat and the space meant for dicks and nuts happily holds my belly. Super comfy! Nobody bats an eye at that, but imagine my husband decided to wear some red lace…
      Though question: we have the same undies in different sizes: If he mistakenly puts on one of mine, his he then wearing ladies’ underwear?
      From what I know, for trans women it’s a narrow path to walk where you must be feminine enough to “pass” but not so feminine that you’re seen as a caricature of womanhood (cis women are of course allowed to be like that).

      *To a certain extent. Do it so much/well that guys feel threatened and you become a “fake geek girl”

      **Because apparently toys can make you one thing or the other. That’s why all boys grew up gay 150 years ago when horses were male coded, right?

  3. 3

    Congratulations to failing the manly man driving test. If we ever meet I might be comfortable getting into the passenger seat with you.
    I never understood why those men consider a laundry list of accidents, an innumerable collection of near accidents (usually prevented by the driver who was not a manly man) and a record with the police for traffic violations signs of being a good driver, but what do I know?

    To the larger point: You’re absolutely right: We need to move past considering certain looks or habits as signs of somebody’s “true gender”. I understand how they can be valuable and helpful for many trans people, but in the end “I’m a man because I violate speed limits” and “I’m a woman because I like pink glitter*” are just as silly as “I’m a man/woman because I have a penis/vagina”. Neither will truly liberate people.

    *though pink glitter is of course much less harmful than traffic violations

  4. AMM

    Okay, I see your point. Plenty of people were happy (gleeful!) to say I wasn’t a “real man,” but nobody seriously insisted I had to use the ladies’ room because of it, for instance.

    This brings up the related question: what do we trans people mean when we say we are a man/woman? Simply existing as a trans person makes the question “what is a man/woman?” a real (non-tautological) question for cis people as much as for trans people (and “other,” whatever that means.)

    For myself, as someone whose innermost self has no gender, “I am a woman” is about being recognized and treated as female in the way that just about anyone who is seen as a woman is recognized and treated. Every woman, from the crazy cat bag lady on the corner to the first lady, is referred to as “she”, uses the ladies’ room instead of the men’s room, and lots of more subtle things. That’s what I feel I ought to have a right to (at least, once I start living as a woman.) Join your lesbian encounter group? I’m okay with being excluded — as long as my being trans isn’t the _only_ reason I’m excluded.

    I’m not a trans man, so I can’t speak for you or any other trans man, but it seems like the same sort of demand ought to be reasonable. There are plenty of cis men who don’t drive like maniacs, so not driving like one shouldn’t justify invalidating your maleness. For that matter, there are men — men who see themselves as men and are seen as men even by transphobes — who like to wear dresses, or make-up, or any of the other things we usually think of as “female,” so a trans man doing those things cannot reasonably be used to invalidate his maleness.

    1. 4.1

      AMM said:

      This brings up the related question: what do we trans people mean when we say we are a man/woman? Simply existing as a trans person makes the question “what is a man/woman?” a real (non-tautological) question for cis people as much as for trans people (and “other,” whatever that means.)

      From my perspective, speaking as a trans woman, there is no universal, truly viable answer to this question other than gender identity is as one lives it and is as one experiences it. Revealingly, there is no universal agreement among cis people as to what constitutes man/boy, woman/girl, male, and female. Ask a feminist in Boston how they define those terms and you will get a different answer from the way an Eastern Orthodox Christian in Surgut might answer. There are as many ways of being a woman or a man as there are people who identify with those particular social placeholders, regardless of whether we are referencing trans people or cis people.

      And really, this is at the heart of why trans people scare the shit out of so many cis people, particularly those cis people of an authoritarian bent who tend to obsess over drawing hard, impermeable boundaries around everything: trans people reveal that the categories of sex/gender which people assume to be drawn so solidly are in reality, negotiable, nebulous constructs which are as variable as the human beings they describe.

      Will that satisfy cis people with a gavel to slam or an effigy to burn? No, because their central concern is with the control and manipulation of others, but that is the reality which surrounds these social placeholders, regardless of whether cis gatekeepers are willing to admit it or not.

      But yes, we could draw an arbitrary boundary if we collectively chose to do so, and because personal lived experience is so widely ranging, we’d be drawing that boundary right across the lives of countless people and we’d foster yet another group of collectively censured gender outlaws.

      Of equal importance is that the consideration of this dualism ultimately leaves non-binary people out of the discussion, and with that omission, directly impacted by the social, institutional, and legal ramifications of existing as unrecognized outliers.

      I don’t mean to sound like I’ve taken to arms against you in writing this. That’s not the spirit in which I have written this. I’ve found myself contemplating similar matters in the two decades since I’ve transitioned and I find that it generally results in a kind of cognitive Möbius strip where I circle around upon myself without solution and I ultimately call into question my own right to exist. It is a cognitive trap laid down by an ever present demand by cis people that trans people justify our very existence. Cis culture takes every opportunity to designate trans people as frauds born of emotionally unstable whimsy and perverse debauchery. This is always the unspoken objective of a collective call for the crystallization of boundaries and the refining of definitions of social placeholders. Always.

      I now refuse to play this game. The rules of the game, by the underlying intent of those who created them, are designed to destroy and marginalize, starting with undermining a trans persons’ sense of self from within. All oppressed groups experience internalized oppression. We are all encouraged to call into question the validity of our lives and our right to exist. We are encouraged to see ourselves as untrustworthy, unstable inferiors deserving of judgement by our supposed betters.

      My own answer is this: who I am comes from the patterns of my life, the depths of my heart and the fabric of my being. If you can not respect that, then you trespass upon my very being. In that act, it is evident that a call for conversation and refinement of social placeholders is not sincere. This call for conversation is a manipulation to further marginalize and undo my existence. I will defend who I am with my life if I must, but I will not cede the very ground of my being to you.

  5. 5

    If you’re an… *ahem* “enthusiastic” driver and you drive the same way when you’re leading others as you do when you’re by yourself… you’re a jerk. Don’t make people weave in and out just because you do. Don’t run that yellow just because you can. It’s one thing to do these things when you’re by yourself. It’s another to expect others to do so as well.


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