I am a contradiction.
All the best stories are, after all. (This is a lesson about literature that I learned from a graduate class on teaching Chinese culture, of all places.)
Usually such contradictions can't be clearly explained and that's why stories have to be written dancing around them, never quite saying right out what they mean, but leaving the reader to grok it intuitively. After all, paradoxes just can't be rationally explained.
But nevertheless, I'll try to explain what I've realized about how I see myself and how I want the world to see me.
Last summer, I read this article about transgender writer Nick Krieger. At the time I identified as transmasculine, as between male and female, and the way he described his identity really resonated with me:
There was just one catch. I wasn't physically male and at that time, didn't plan to be.I would say that I understand my body as being male, and that when others use language (“sir,” “man,” “dude”) to reflect that they too understand my body in this way, then I feel comfortable and at peace. I would also say that I literally see my body as being trans-male, meaning I see my chest scars, my hips, my dicklet – my maleness built on top of my femaleness, my body as a beautiful hybrid.
I also don’t see my body as being directly correlated with my identity. In the same sense that transgender men may have once had female bodies but didn’t consider themselves women, I now have a male/trans-male body but that doesn’t make me a man. I identify and probably always would have (had I known there were more options) in the gray area, the middle ground of gender, but when it comes to a culture that splits us up into only two categories, I’m significantly more comfortable on the not-female side, which the mainstream calls the man side.
Now, that is exactly what I'm pursuing.
I want, no, I need my body to be male. To lose the curves; to develop more defined muscles and a deeper voice; to have a flat chest, or rather, to have pecs instead of...those things. To grow facial hair and more body hair, if that's what it takes for people to see me as male.
Because that is what I want people to see. I want them to perceive my body as male, and to call me by male terms to reflect that perception.
But what I feel inside...that's not quite so clear.
I don't think I have ever understood myself as female, although the extent of my dissociation with femaleness has only become clear in the past year or so. (It's one year and eleven days since I was thrown onto this journey of gender discovery.)
When I was a child, I didn't mind being assigned female, because it didn't affect my life all that much. I got to run around in the woods behind our house and play kickball with the neighborhood kids and swim to my heart's content in the neighborhood pool. I read books and started to write; I rode horses and began martial arts; and I liked making doll clothes and cooking and baking. My parents gave me the message that I could do anything I set my mind to and my gender made no difference in that.
During my teen years, when social life normally becomes more important, I was largely outside of its influence (and therefore, the influence of gender conventions) because (1) I couldn't have cared less about this thing called "social life," and actually actively identified myself as "antisocial"; and (2) I was very nerdy, so the social life I did have was more driven by intellectual conversation and less by boy-girl drama. My friends and I talked about things like Star Wars, Star Trek, and science fiction/fantasy novels, and didn't care much about being attracted or attractive to others (aside from some angst on my part about being attracted to girls). Actually, I dressed more like the nerdy guys I was friends with than like girls of the same age - baggy pants, big T shirts and sweatshirts. In a way, being nerdy made me genderless, because there was no motivation for me to express gender, and I wouldn't be surprised if the popular set considered me somehow "not a girl" because of this.
It was during college that I first started to feel a disconnect between myself and femaleness. At the time, I voiced it in phrases like "I don't get women," "I don't have anything in common with them," and more misogynistically, "Women are shallow/ gossipy/ catty" and "All they care about is shopping/ clothes, shoes, and makeup." I found I had trouble making friends with heteronormative women; most of my friends were guys or queer girls. At the same time, dating straight guys and feeling the influence of their preferences was causing my appearance to shift toward the way heteronormative women dressed - flair leg jeans instead of baggy cargo pants, tighter tops and smaller T-shirts. I liked these clothes because I felt they brought me positive attention, from the guys I liked as well as people in general, but I kept on wishing I could wear what I wanted. And I started to wish that my body was different, and tried to diet and exercise my curves away.
The disconnect with femaleness finally broke the surface in 2011, when I told a date, "I'm not a girl." But that revelation didn't lead anywhere, as I quickly discovered that what he wanted to date was a girl, and so again I let my sense of myself be buried by what the person I was attracted to wanted. I didn't really know I had another choice. No one had ever wanted me any other way, than as the heteronormative woman I was so good at dressing up as, so I figured that's just what people had to do to get along romantically.
And then my life changed when I finally did find someone who could like me when I was doing me the way I wanted, and not putting on a show for the other person. I started to modify my body to be less feminine, more masculine; I started wearing "men's" clothing; I started to take a more and more masculine role in my romantic relationships; I dropped female terms one by one, tried neutral ones, and finally went to male ones; and eventually I started HRT to make myself physically male.
And yet, while it's pretty obvious now that I'm not female, and that I prefer to be masculine or male to the outside world, what I actually am inside is still a matter of question.
I should make it clear here that my story does not reflect that of all trans people. Some trans people have a very clear idea of their gender identity - as do some nonbinary people.
But I do not. It seems that since I like being perceived as male, because I want a male body, that I must view myself as male, but I don't. It may be because when I look in the mirror, or compare myself to other men, or find out that strangers still perceive me as female, I find myself lacking, not man enough. It may be that I feel like I still don't know how to act "like a man," or know what it feels like to be treated as a man by society at large. After all, it took 28 years of life experience for me to understand that I can't live as female. Might it not take more than one year for me to understand whether I can live as a man?
In the meantime, then, what am I to call myself? To the outside world, I still call myself a man, male, a guy, a trans man or trans guy. It is the role I wish to fill in society. Yet what sort of man am I? I am not cis. I am not straight. I defy gender conventions.
I was actually inspired to write this down by a bit in Julia Serano's Whippig Girl where she says that "genderqueer" and "gender-conforming" are not opposites. (This is one of the main arguments of her book, that things like "men" and "women," or "cis" and "trans" are not binary or opposites.)
They are not opposites, but they are two different options, among many. I am not gender-conforming; my gender is queer. A guy who is not sure he's a guy. A guy whose feminine past still shows through. You might say that I can redefine masculinity to fit my purposes and declare myself a guy no matter how much I like the colors pink and purple or how readily I emote, but I think watering these identities down makes them meaningless. Besides, why claim an identity that I don't feel is my own? I feel far more comfortable saying that I fall somewhere in between.
As long as you still see me as a guy and call me by male pronouns, anyway.