T and Conversation: On Identifying Male and Reinscribing Traditional Gender Roles

by: Professor Xx

Dear Professor Xx: When did you first recognize that you are male and when did you start identifying as male?

This is sort of a complicated question, I think.  I know that I first acknowledged that I wanted to explore my gender a bit more when I was a senior in college.  This was that first time in my life that I had any contact with gender-variant people, and I felt the same spark of recognition that I felt when I started realizing I was queer many years earlier.  After a lot of talking, internet searching and hand-wringing, I realized that trans really was an identity I could own.

Thinking back before this “awakening,” things become much more hazy.  Memory is a terrible liar, and tends to shape itself to your current conception of self.  When I think about myself as a child now, I often picture myself as a little boy.  I know that I did “girl” things: I was a Girl Scout, I played girls’ soccer, I had to wear dresses on holidays, but my internal perception of those time periods is as a boy.  This past Christmas, I watched home videos of my sister and I opening presents as children, and what I saw when I looked at myself was a young boy with long blond hair in a red Chicago Bulls nightgown.  It was satisfying and strange at the same time, like I was reliving my childhood in a different body.

I didn’t always feel this way, however.  I kept extensive documentation during my transition of how I felt about my present and past.  As I allowed my conception of self to slowly progress from female to male, I was constantly looking back for clues to make me feel more secure in my transition.  At the same time, as a Women’s & Gender Studies student, I hated the idea of overdetermining the significance of the things I did as a child.  Sure, I liked to be the dad when we played house, but taking on masculine roles doesn’t mean I wanted to be a man.  And yes I far preferred “boys’” toys to those marketed to girls, but if that were the determining factor in being transgender, there would probably be as many trans people as there are cis people.  I still can’t abide the idea that being a tomboy is some sort of “proof” of being trans, because all that does is reinscribe traditional gender roles on to a situation that, in my opinion, should bust the shit out of those ideas.

No, in the way I’ve always experienced it, being transgender is all about an internal sense of self, separated from the physical trappings of gender, but closely tied to the physicality of the body.  Of course all trans people experience this embodiment differently, but I can say with almost complete certainty that even if gender didn’t exist, I would have had my boobs cut off, and I would still be injecting myself with testosterone.  My physical sense of self has always been tied to being strong, narrow, and flat chested.  I can’t accomplish all of those things (I will never be narrow-waisted the way many others are), but two out of three makes me pretty happy, and the other will always remind me of where I came from, so to speak.  These attributes also don’t have to apply to male bodies: there are people of all genders that are strong, narrow and flat-chested.

Growing up, I most certainly had a concept of myself that was female.  I know that I often felt a lot of shame about never being able to perform that role very well (honestly, I feel the same way about being male a lot of the time because gender is messy and obnoxious), and I often felt like I was trying to play a game where everyone except me had been given the rule book.  However, this never translated into me wishing that I could transition into being a boy.  I had no concept of what a trans person was and would never have even thought to consider it an option.  I can remember a couple of occasions where I wished I could go to sleep and wake up the next day as a boy.  The idea came from a complex mess of feelings related to the sense that I would never be pretty, skinny, or into make-up enough to be a “successful” girl, and the idea that I would look a hell of a lot better in the boys clothes that I admired but was too afraid to wear.  Still, I was proud of being a girl, enjoyed being a part of the lesbian community, and definitely never thought that I would end up spending the bulk of my adult life as a man.

My connection to those ideas of myself have faded.  When I try to get inside younger Professor’s head, I see a kid frustrated at being forced into a gender role that doesn’t fit, but I know that most of that is just my current self reading things on to my early life, trying to make sense of things.  I think what all this tells me, and the reason I’m focusing on this, is that gender really is incredibly fluid.  I feel very male now (there’s room to discuss intricacy there, but that’s for another time), but I’m actually happy to acknowledge that 10 years ago my gender was very different.  It reminds me that so much of gender is social, and the more I am socially accepted as male (which is now 99.9% of the time), the easier it is to become convinced that I always felt this way.  I want to fight that conviction, because it is one of the cracks through which the acceptance of privilege slips in and becomes a comfortable part of your life.  I am male now, but I was given the special gift of spending my childhood as a girl.  I don’t want to think or pretend any differently.

As for the process of coming into my identity as male, that’s a whole other (still evolving) story.

Professor Xx is a female to male (FTM) advice columnist for In Our Words, who pens the column “T and Conversation.” When he’s not training the next generation of mutants to save the world, he’s fielding your questions at tandconversation@gmail.com.  Feel free to ask him anything you like, as long as it isn’t abusive or too invasive, and he’ll get back to you.

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