I was having drinks with a friend the other night, and as often seems to be the case with lesbians these days, we fell into a discussion about the relative prevalence of trans men now as compared to, say, 10 or 15 years ago.
My friend’s question was: why now? Why are there so many trans men, particularly young ones, at this moment in time? My first response was a version of the “backlog” argument I made a few years ago on this blog: trans men have always been around; it’s just that a more extensive physical transition was less available until recently, so many of them chose to live as butch lesbians. My friend didn’t buy it. Her arguments were: (1) It’s still expensive to transition, so it’s not like it’s that “available” now compared to 10 years ago, and (2) There have always been people born as women who identified as men and lived as men.
She’s right about both, I suppose--although I'm certain that hormones, trans-positive therapists, etc., are a lot more prevalent than they used to be. (Maybe are we wrong and there aren't more trans men, just more trans visibility? But I don't think we're wrong.)
Or, perhaps it is not about scientific or hormonal or surgical availability; perhaps it is about cultural availability. Perhaps it used to be the case that someone born a woman who identified as masculine didn’t used to have models for what a transition was like, or a community that would be accepting, or—and this is crucial—the internet as a trove of resources and potential connections. Perhaps this lack of “cultural availability” made it more difficult, because even though transitioning is hard now, maybe it was a lot more isolating back then. I feel like it had to have been. So I guess that's still a "backlog" argument, but a different kind of backlog argument.
Another possible explanation is that there has been a resurgence of gender essentialism—maybe it just seems way more comfortable and plausible to live as a gender-conforming man than as a gender nonconforming woman. As my friend told me, “Lesbians have never been in fashion.” True enough (although we have our flashes of hip visibility every now and again—see, e.g., Rachel Maddow on the cover of Rolling Stone). But it’s not like trans men are “in fashion” in a mainstream sense either—I’m hard-pressed to think of trans men with Maddow-level visibility. Then again, trans men are men, and often pass as cis men to everyone around them—and men have always been in fashion. So maybe if you don’t have a strong sense that you were born in the wrong body (I know that many people do—I’m talking about those who don’t), but you know you’re masculine, it’s psychologically more comfortable to be a guy.
I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer to my friend’s question, and I thought it was kind of an uninteresting question in the moment (duh—the backlog thing + scientific advances). But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a good question. Why now?
8/16/2017 11:22:27 am
I think it's gender essentialism. Why can't we live with the ambiguity of not having the same body that we believe we should have? In some ways, I find that transmen are reinforcing the gender binary, by saying that masculine = male and feminine = female. People can identify the way they want and do what they want to make themselves feel most comfortable, but I really wish that more people would accept the possibility of being non-binder or gender role nonconforming rather than male or female.
8/16/2017 10:00:38 pm
...but there are femme trans guys and butch trans women. I'm not saying that as some sort of hypothetical - I know many of them.
8/17/2017 06:27:05 am
I understand but I guess what I don't understand is the concept of feeling either "male" or "female." I'm nonbinary so I don't understand that concept of feeling like you are a specific gender. I don't believe in gender binaries so I wonder if people who do are just trying to fit into society's ideas of what male and female are - ie, wearing clothes that are considered traditionally masculine or feminine in our society. I'm not trying to deny the validity of their experiences but I guess I just don't understand it.
8/17/2017 04:36:54 am
I can only speak for myself. I lived as a lesbian for close to 30 years and have now transitioned to living as a man. Gender essentialism certainly doesn't help things at all. It really aggravates gender dysphoria and heightens awareness internally of how much a person is uncomfortable in the sex they were assigned at birth. But the biggest factor for me was information and knowledge. I lived as a lesbian because I didn't know or fully understand there was another option. And even once I realized there was another option I didn't think I could handle the social stigma of transitioning. I think it's a combination of things. It's becoming more accepted to transition culturally (though, still hard), there is more education and knowledge about what it means to be transgender now and yes, there are more and easier routes to obtaining the hormones and surgeries than there used to be. Just for the record, I am the happiest and most content I've ever been in life now that I can live my life as the person that I truly am. A binary transition works for me, but I fully support people doing whatever it is that is right for themselves. I could not live in the non binary world (yes, I did try). It was the most uncomfortable place for me to reside. I had to pick a side and male is what fits me best. I hope this helps some.
8/17/2017 11:08:32 am
So what was it that made you feel like you were male - was it that you felt you should have a male body, a penis, no breasts, etc.. and/or that other people perceived you as a female? I am trying to understand what this means. I always knew I wasn't female but wasn't male either - I don't really know what either of them mean or at least what it means to feel that you are one or the other.
8/17/2017 12:33:51 pm
It was a lot of things, some of which you mentioned. Being perceived as female felt wrong. I felt I should have a male body and be perceived as male. Some of it was cultural, in that I am much more comfortable in traditionally male roles, clothing, activities, etc. The most uncomfortable I felt, though, was when I was in between male and female. I couldn't go back to living as female and I couldn't stand being in between, so for me, there was only one direction to go. Male. I think some people are just binary and some are happy and at their best in the non binary world. Personally, i don't have to understand what it feels like to be female or non binary. Even after living as female for nearly 50 years I still can't tell you what it "feels like" to be female. I can tell you what period cramps feel like and what it felt like to have breasts, but none of that really describes what it feels like to be female. And at this point all I can tell you about what it feels like to be male is that it feels right. Whatever feels right is what is right for every individual in my opinion.
8/23/2017 09:40:44 am
I think some of it, also, is that the framework of transition and gender identity is the most visible, accessible route for female people in the queer community to work through gendered discomfort with their bodies, as well as discomfort with being relegated to second-class citizenship by virtue of being recognized in public as a woman. Within our culture, there's a really broad range of reasons why a person would start to feel that having female sex characteristics is a form of physical suffering, or that being seen as a woman by strangers is viscerally disturbing. I've noticed that AFAB people who identify as trans or nonbinary for a period of time, and then later identify as women, will often say that they felt a surge of recognition when they entered the trans community, like "this is my people". And then later, they often understand that the trans community was the only place where people were openly processing the types of issues they had with their mind-body relationship. So even though for them, identifying outside of womanhood didn't help or even made things worse, they might end up attempting to transition because no other route to healing was being advertised.
8/23/2017 10:49:40 am
I have a hard time understanding why people care so much how others perceive them though. If they know who they are, what does it really matter what others see? I have no interest in changing my appearance so others will see that I'm non-binary. I think it's giving other people too much power to care about how they see you. Everyone sees me as female, I know I'm nonbinary, that's it.
3/7/2019 07:10:22 am
I think it matters how others see you. For safety alone. Im intersex. I have a vagina and really fucked up titts (atrophy) I have always been masculine. I had a male typical puberty (I haven't had any estrogen or other female hormones, those I have had have been super low) I have had fluctuating male hormones since puberty. Im homosexual (attracted to women, always and for ever) I have always identitified as queer gender wise, until I moved to Finland. Because the way I look and act is different to the sex assigned on my ids papers, at school and work I have always been harassed and at times servely abused my whole life. Depression, suicide self harm, substance abuse etc. Right now I'm living in finland (have been in Finland for 4 years) I'm Australian. In Finland people don't know what I am. They ask am I male or female. They don't know how to treat me. Usually I'm ignored, left out, excluded or harassed. To others it is not clear what I am. And now that my t is really low I feel down and I feel I don't know what I am either. Basically if people see you as a freak they will treat you bad, if they feel unsure about your gender they will exclude you and harass you. Worst thing is transphobia on top of years and years of serve homophobia. Because it says F next to my name. As a teen I identified as butch dyke.. Then a bit later just butch. Now everyone being so confused about me has made me confused. I'm going to a specialist next week. Yes, I don't really care about other people like at all.. (I'm pure survivalist, thanks to childhood abuse) but it matter how people treat you.
8/23/2017 09:55:48 am
(Sorry for the double-commenting!) I just remembered another thing I've noticed is a lot of female people believing that there is an innate mental experience of "feeling like a woman" that's a requirement for being one. Most women whom I've asked have said that they completely lack that type of inner experience, and they identify as a woman more in the way that they identify as a person of a given ethnicity, or as a person who is from their geographical place of birth.
3/5/2020 12:28:37 pm
We didn't all come from the lesbian community, just saying. So, when lesbians get to talking about how they're losing "butches" try to remember that. Butch lesbians don't own female masculinity, they're just the ones people tend to think of first.
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