I had a flood of deep introspective thought yesterday night, as I slipped into an emotionally vulnerable state in the dark, somewhere between exhausted and asleep. One of the things I began to think further about was what masculinity means, as I subjectively experience it. And the most immediate thing that occurred to me was that it is in negation to my femininity — I don’t know how else I could experience one without the other. But rather than an oppositional defiance of femininity, my masculinity is an expression of taking back everything that was taken from me by virtue of my femininity. A re-appropriation and reclamation of my deepest, most honest Self (especially the vulnerable parts). But this process hasn’t been intuitive. In fact, it’s been anything but intuitive, and though I’ve been gradually claiming more and more territory over my Self for two years already, I can’t even begin to fathom how much more work there is to be done, what I’ve been missing, or why it’s taken me this long to realize what exactly it is that I’m doing. And as I look back over all the body mods and ritual body play I have pursued, I suddenly realize I’ve already been doing this for ten years.
The most immediate thing that I have spent most of my life deprived of, by virtue of my femininity, is bodily autonomy. Quite frankly, I was raised to believe that my body is public property and that I owe my feminine beauty to all of the society that taught me this. This indoctrination occurred through every possible medium and at every level of interaction with society — from pop culture to the manner in which women are selectively depicted and addressed in mass media (such as in the news), and from my private interactions with my own biological relatives to non-verbal interactions with the general public. Even sexist structures within the justice system taught me that my body does not belong to me, that I am merely a witness to what happens to it until the age at which ownership of my body is transferred from The Crown to, essentially, whoever takes it (be that an act of civil marriage or a sexual assault). And especially in the event of a sexual assault, assuming I even survived it, every detail of my life is put on trial to build a defence for someone who is not held to the burden of proving that they had consent. Instead, the onus is on me to prove that he perpetrated the act and did so with a guilty conscience (i.e., knowing he did not have consent; mens rea).
I mean, let’s actually stop for a moment and think about that. The onus is on me to prove, in the instance of the man who raped me while I was passing out beneath him on his couch, that it wasn’t someone else, and that he had to know I wasn’t consenting. The court assumes that if I was passing out, I couldn’t possibly know with logical certainty that it was him (and there were no witnesses to either confirm or deny this testimony), and therefore, what? I can’t prove he knew he wasn’t fucking someone with their consent? The fact that I was so exhausted — neither high nor drunk — that I couldn’t even stay awake from one minute to the next isn’t enough, because I didn’t put up the fight of my life. What is this telling men? What have I told men with my body, in the context of their simultaneously occurring gendered indoctrination in this society? While I don’t believe that any of the lessons about femininity that I took away from my socialization process are actually true, I still struggled to find any way to express either my femininity or masculinity, that did not fall back into the same tragically fictitious social script. Coming out about my gender identity created the space for me to explore a more meaningful conception of masculinity and femininity, that rejects the social script entirely.
One of the ways (among many) that I have begun expressing my authentic experience of masculinity, through bodily autonomy (apart from my previous years of body modification and ritual body play), is by obscuring the shape of my body for the first time since I was a very young child. I don’t do it all the time, in all places. But over the past two years, I have completely phased out my multiple previous gender wardrobes. Prior to the beginning of my transition process, I had three wardrobes. I was constantly costuming and acting and performing a dishonest character. Playing a fake woman, I had more in common with a drag queen whose stage persona is a caricature, than with anyone else around me. I felt obligated, by virtue of my gender-indoctrination, to play this part no matter how much I hated myself for it. I convinced myself I would be safer doing that than taking my own body back and living in it authentically. And I’m happy to say that, now that I’ve been living differently and more honestly for the past two years, I was wrong. I feel authentic now. I have also gained a lot of weight, by virtue of a medication I have to take for the rest of my life now, to address my metabolism (which was, for a very long time, so slow that it’s literally remarkable that I’m alive). But the shape of my body has only changed in a few somewhat subtle ways despite all the weight gain. I’ve decided, since my shape stabilized, that I can live with that. I’m happier with a Buddha belly than I ever was as an emaciated, anorexic drag queen who lived a secret life as an actual woman off-stage.
A very confusing aspect of trying to determine how I experience masculinity has been the effort of trying to take back a sense of sexual autonomy. I looked back over the entire course of my sexual history, and felt like I had only ever been treated like an object whose sole purpose in sexual intimacy is to receive either a phallic object or an actual phallus. I thought about how vulnerable I have made myself, and to how many people I have bared this vulnerability, and how virtually all of them have acted upon this behaviour as though I wasn’t worthy of their vulnerability in reciprocation. I recognized that, when the tables were turned, I perpetrated exactly the same aggressions upon women who laid themselves vulnerable before me. I wouldn’t let myself become vulnerable to them. And in thinking about why this was, I realized a long time ago that I have simply never had an equal exchange with a sexual partner. The trust and vulnerability has only ever flowed in a single direction. The emotional repercussions on me were already apparent in my own mind — I would rapidly plummet into a depression, the depths of which are simply unfathomable. But it was only when I was able to identify the exploitative manner in which my sexuality has been accessed, or in which I have accessed someone else’s sexuality, that I realized where that depression came from. And that’s when I began to explore the very real possibility that I’m actually asexual and always have been.
I started to think about who I am attracted to and why. I began interrogating every structure of sexuality that exists within my own head. I have re-lived many moments with sexual partners, over the course of about a year of this constant self-scrutiny: the moment when I started trying to close myself off from the person who aggressed upon me for making myself bare and vulnerable — often almost immediately after intercourse began, and I could feel myself step back within myself and look, as if I was an observer living in my own body, rather than a subject. That moment could easily be defined in terms of a feeling of powerlessness. Defined by the inability to voice what I really wanted in that moment, instead of what was happening to me. The inability to take myself away from my partner (who was most often of the male sex). The inability to secure eye contact. The inability to stop the motion of their body in mine, and just hold them in that moment with me, in a kiss of their lips against mine. And the saddest part of this introspection was truly when I realized I had put many women in the exact same position with my body, because I knew no other way to engage, and perhaps they didn’t either. It is too easy to apply an understanding of this behaviour as finding sex aversive or unfulfilling, and therefore wanting to explore avoiding it all together.
Looking for ways to express my masculinity seems to hold promise of a resolution on the matter. It’s allowed me to assume a position of subjectivity with respect to my own sexuality. As with femininity and bodily autonomy (which I believe are a mutually reinforcing relationship, rather than mutually extinguishing), I don’t believe femininity means a negation of sexual subjectivity. But before I came out about my gender identity, I repeatedly found myself trapped in a cycle of laying myself bare, only to be denied sexual autonomy, and feeling myself close off mere moments later, as a witness rather than a subject. In my individual case, masculinity is the necessary step in a new direction, to reject this cycle. It also means redefining how I step into intimacy with another person. While still laying myself bare and becoming vulnerable to them, what I want and need has changed. Testosterone has changed my needs physiologically, and my changing emotional relationship with myself has changed my wants.
Interrogating The Male Gaze
Something that has been revealing itself at every step of the way through this process, is the male gaze. In every step of the way towards bodily autonomy and sexual autonomy, I have realized that I scrutinize everything about the way I experience my body and my sexuality, as if through men’s eyes. Every change in my body’s chemistry reveals another side of my genetics that I’ve never known before. And as every change manifests, subverting my ever-present femininity and bringing out another little sign of masculinity, I find myself constantly struggling with whether or not I should even feel comfortable in my own, slightly more masculine body. Or if I should feel insecure, or like I need to cover my body (even at a nude beach), or what a male partner would make of my sexual agency (and everything that entails). Even when men aren’t present, and even when I don’t believe I would engage men in my sexuality. Thus I find myself constantly interrogating the male gaze — what begins as a feeling that I ought to police my own body for the greater good, ends as affirmation that I am the subject of my own body and sexuality, just as every female-bodied individual is. I find myself working through the momentary condemnation of the male gaze to reach the conclusion that being visible as a gender-subversive individual is a means to visibly confront the unseen eye of the male gaze. That perhaps other people will stop and think about it too. And for now, I can live with that.