One of the Brotherhood
I am a trans-man who has settled down with a woman I hope to marry. She has a son from a previous marriage, and I am excited about being a stepdad. Life has been pretty good lately. But I got an angry e-mail from an ex-lover of mine this week that has me spun. I need to ask you if I really did harm this person.
This e-mail was from a femme (or I thought she was a femme) that I dated for almost a year. She lived in another city, and eventually we could not continue a long-distance relationship. I admit I also was not good at staying in touch as often as she needed to hear from me. I call her a femme because she came to our first date dressed in a vintage sheath with a cashmere sweater, a beaded hat with a veil, fishnet stockings, high heels, and makeup. She also told me she was a femme but not a lesbian and had been with other transmen in the past. I had deep feelings for her from the start. It was a passionate relationship, so much so that the breakup (which she initiated) hurt me deeply.
One of the things we talked about a lot was the fact that she felt very uncomfortable with the way men reacted to her when she left her house. If she dressed the way she wanted to dress, and felt attractive in her vintage clothes, she got sexually harassed. I was supportive and tried to help her find a way to feel safe in public and still be able to express her fashion and identity. I know how badly guys can behave around a pretty girl. To them she is advertising her availability. But that is not necessarily why women dress up. She might just want to feel good about herself or make a statement about her own interests or taste. At any rate, rough flirtation and a lot of pressure never got anybody a date with a pretty girl, not that I ever saw. I’m not sure why the art of being a gentleman seems to be vanishing.
Anyway. Here’s the shocker. After all of that, the e-mail says that in fact my ex is like me. She is a he, a transman, and has begun taking testosterone. I apparently made this process much more difficult by seeing “her” as a femme and by treating “her” like a woman instead of like a boy. His language is really angry. I am told that if I had been supportive and understood who my ex really was, it would not have taken so long for him to understand himself and begin to transition. But I don’t recall him ever telling me he had gender issues.
I am shocked. It never occurred to me that someone who was so pretty could be a man. She told me she was a femme. I treated her like what she looked like, who she told me she was. How could that be wrong? I feel so confused and upset myself. I don’t want to harm another human being. But clearly I have. I don’t know how to answer this e-mail. My fiancée says I should not reply, that it is a no-win situation. But I can’t get over the feeling that somehow I owe amends here.
If you do reply, I would recommend keeping it simple. Don’t get into an argument about whether you are at fault or not. You are dealing with someone who is angry, but also hurt. Addressing the pain in a comforting way might be more constructive than defending yourself against the anger.
You could say something like this: “If I did or said anything to make it harder for you to figure out your gender identity and make a decision to transition, I sincerely apologize. From personal experience, I know this can be a very painful and complicated issue. I would never deliberately do anything to harm you or any other transgender person. I know that many of us go through a lot of different ways of life before we transition. Nothing that happened between us will keep me from seeing you as the man that you are. I have nothing but positive and accepting feelings toward you, and I am sorry to hear that you don’t feel the same way toward me. I hope the process of transitioning will give you everything that you want and need. I also hope someday we can shake hands and you will accept my welcome into the brotherhood of trans-men.”
One reason why people always ask for pictures of transgender people from their earlier life is the amazing contrast that sometimes exists between the way we looked “before” versus “after.” I don’t like having people pore over those images because they often have comments to make that hurt my feelings. Cis-gender (non-transgender) people can have a hard time anticipating what statements or questions might do that; I’m not sure why it is so hard for them to be tactful toward us. But what is relevant to your letter is the fact that before I began looking like a bearded, tattooed, queer bear, I looked like a pretty girl with blonde hair and ample cleavage. I had one relationship in which, like your ex, I called myself a femme. I tried all kinds of different identities, looking for something, anything that would make me comfortable, a public persona that would help me to fit in or feel okay about my body and my intimate relationships with other people. It never seemed to work. I only transitioned when all my other options had run out.
So it’s not unheard-of for a pretty woman to actually be a handsome guy. There can be enormous shame about how we looked before we transitioned, though, and so many FTMs won’t talk about or reveal these images from the past. A lot of prom queens, cheerleaders, and high femmes are hiding in the closets of guys who currently prefer suits and ties. While many, maybe most, trans-men have always preferred a masculine way of dressing and acting, gender is a complicated area of human expression. Consistency is not a prerequisite for being an authentic transgender man. Not all of us took a straight and simple, conventionally manly path to transition.
There are also plenty of FTMs (female-to-male transgender people) or differently-gendered folks who were not born male (sometimes referred to as gender queer) who don’t choose to live as conventionally masculine people in their daily lives. I’ve met members of “the brotherhood” who are drag queens rather than drag kings, and others who love lingerie or eye makeup, or feel a need to let a little fey gesture or a bright, fluttering scarf convey what mainstream society calls an effeminate image. While some transmen dislike this inconsistency and feel that it will only confuse cisgender people about the authenticity of a transman’s male identity, others feel that there is room in our community for everyone on a spectrum of masculine and feminine expression. I think it’s a mistake (and probably outright hypocrisy) for any trans person to become a member of the gender police. People need to be themselves. Self-expression is much more important than public relations, in my opinion, and am more interested in studying the truth about how people feel about themselves and how they want to live than I am in enforcing a simplistic “one size fits all” way of being in the world.
But I digress. To return to your problem, I would have to emphatically disagree with the claim that you harmed your ex. I don’t see how your acceptance of “her,” i.e., taking a femme identity at face value, could make it more difficult for someone to transition. Unless you go over your memories and dredge up some attempt on his part to discuss this issue with you, and recall that you squashed that effort to reach out and get information or support, you did nothing wrong. Instead, it sounds to me as if you simply related to a person who presented themselves to you in a certain guise. You didn’t look below the surface because it was a very believable mask. Most of us don’t question the gender that others present to us, verbally and visually.
Maybe because sexual play was one arena where I could express a male identity long before I stuck any testosterone in my butt, I am conscious of sex play as a potential area where something other than the day-to-day persona can come out. So I ask all of my sex partners if they want to do a little gender play. You never know when a butch gay man is hiding a cute little Red Riding Hood character, or a girl in a black evening gown has a secret desire to be a sailor who gets gang-banged. To me, this is hot. I feel so honored and trusted. Sometimes I wind up in tearful conversations about long-repressed needs or fears about gender rather than having tons of gender-fucking sex. But in the long run, it builds a closer relationship because we come to know each other on a deeper level.
Who knows, however, if your ex was ready for such a conversation? You could have met with rejection or anger if you had brought up the possibility of enacting a daddy/boy fantasy, for example. Not all of my overtures get positive results. Some of my partners have been quite upset (“Do you think I’m effeminate?” says the butch gay bottom, revealing a fear that we can utilize during a session) or disappointed (“I don’t want to be with a man who is more interested in boys than he is interested in me” says the woman who spent an hour and a half getting ready for our date).
And maybe that just isn’t your cup of tea, so you wouldn’t have wanted to do that, anyway. Not everybody is willing to switch to different gender modes. If you are, for example, a straight man who prefers only female partners, a question like that could ruin the evening rather than open up new, exciting play opportunities. Would you have loved “her” if you knew “she” was really a he? Maybe not. You have a right to your own sexual orientation. Loving or desiring women is not the same thing as hating gay men. Being heterosexual is not necessarily homophobic.
I hope you and your ex can reach a better understanding so you no longer feel the awful burden of being the target of another person’s blame and anger. I’m sure it was hard for him to figure all of this out and decide to take testosterone. And I’m sure that his memories of the time he spent in a femme role are not easy to process. That’s not your fault, and there is no reason to take that out on you. But as a transman who has completed the process and gotten to a good place in your life, you can afford to be generous with someone who is early in transition, and reassure him that you don’t intend to embarrass or invalidate him now. You are a discreet person, and you are not looking to devalue or discredit his identity by bringing up the past. The important thing is for him to feel strong in his own male identity, and you can’t do that for him, but you could be a supportive friend—if he will let you.