I have been living full-time as a man now for a year and a half. I was raised a girl with aspirations of one day becoming a woman, and though I certainly no longer hesitate to credit myself with giving a convincing performance until my late 20s, living as a woman was, for me, really just a spectacle designed to distract both audience and actor from one of many deeper truths hidden beneath the veneer. Something about my experience of girlhood—and of womanhood—was always fundamentally different from other females living as women. I am a transgender person.
Despite knowing this about myself for as long as I have had memories of knowing that I had a gender at all, this isn’t the sort of experience that comes with a handy instruction manual. For a lot longer than is not the case, I didn’t have the vocabulary to frame my thoughts with, and without that framework, I faced invisible barriers every time I felt around for the words to describe my experience. For instance, I knew about trans women from an early age, but I didn’t even know that it was possible for trans men to exist until I was in my early twenties. And as if solely for the express purpose of complicating matters further, I have never thought of myself as either a girl or boy, woman or man. My subjective experience of gender has always been decidedly mismatched with my body. Something paradoxical, like being both female and male, while simultaneously being neither. I struggled profoundly with a need to understand and express this conscious experience, while also fighting to bury it and fit within the expectations formed on the basis of my body’s features and laid out for me daily by family, friends, and lovers. I have since arrived at understanding my own experience as a non-binary gender identity (masculine of center, but not male).
When I finally came out of the closet about this (when I felt safe enough to commit to staying out), I believed that being forthcoming and open about this aspect of my life would make things easier. I believed that the people who were closest to me would believe that if anyone knows what my gender identity is, it’s me. I believed that embodying the ambiguity I felt within, and projecting it outward to the external world, would create space within my social circles and support networks for me to finally be myself. I soon found out firsthand that who I really am upsets a lot of the people I cared about and was emotionally invested in at the time, even despite the fact that I was immediately happier overall and have remained that way ever since. Even despite the fact that I am noticeably more emotionally consistent than I have ever been in my life. I found out years after establishing inevitably much-needed distance from the people who were more invested in my continued performance than in my sense of well-being, that in fact the subject of my being transgender was the topic of a sort of informal debate club, during which decidedly cisgender people decided that, between my identity as a cisgender woman and my identity as a transgender person, it was my identity as a transgender person that wasn’t real.
I struggled with too many of these kinds of experiences with too many people, some of which played out in a distinctly hypersexualised manner that for the first time in my life I was able to assert myself against — sometimes much more vaguely or less committed than saying no, but nevertheless still being received as permission denied. I also faced continued violence of a completely different nature than I have ever faced before, as presenting myself as best I could as a decidedly gender-ambiguous individual (though still female-bodied, sometimes more or less evident) quickly became tangled with the experience of being perceived as a trans woman, and being targeted for particularly sexualised violence as if I am one. Many cisgender women can certainly relate to the experience of men approaching them in public, seemingly transforming right before their very eyes, from friendly and sociable to threatening and volatile, all within the space of 30 seconds, all because the sexual interest projected at them is not reciprocated back to the men who feel entitled to behave this way towards complete strangers. But there is a whole other complex at work when a man believes, with conviction, that he has just tried to make a pass at a man masquerading publicly as a woman.
I have now experienced both, and can say with confidence that transgender women are in far greater and more imminent danger of immediately and irreversibly escalating violence than cisgender women are in identical situations in public. If you’ve never believed it when a trans woman said it on her own behalf, because she “lived as a man” first (despite the fact that it matters that she lives as a woman now, while she’s telling you this herself), then take it from a trans man who “lived as a woman” first. Where a cisgender woman may be able to assert herself and exit the immediate danger of the situation, a transgender woman in identical circumstances behaving in an identical manner is far more likely than not to be met with being immediately physically brutalised.
Make no mistake. No one in the world would choose to be transgender if simply continuing to perform indefinitely as a cisgender person was in any way easier.
And this is where I get to the part where, after grappling both within myself and with the daily external consequences of outwardly projecting gender-ambiguity full-time, I decided to start keeping my non-binary gender identity relatively private, and begin living full-time as a man. It started when I moved onto a reserve. People in mainstream society generally have an inconsistent or unreliable degree of consciousness as to the existence of transgender people, and for the most part, this also holds true away from mainstream society. Some people read me as a woman in settler spaces despite my multiple prominent physical features that normally identify me to other people as a man, and the same is true of indigenous spaces. Likewise, most people read me as a man and a few particularly astute observers read me as gender-variant in settler spaces, and the same is true of indigenous spaces. However, there are (usually, but not always) distinct qualitative differences between how this plays out in settler spaces, versus how it plays out in indigenous spaces. Those differences led to my decision to live full-time as a man.
In spaces within the settler mainstream, people have always made apparent to me how they perceive my gender. In fact, if it wasn’t obvious before, let me just say it like this: with rare exception, they have always made this very directly apparent to me. Whether I was being misgendered by being read as a woman, misgendered by being read as a man, or accurately identified as a gender-variant person, there was never any room for doubt in my mind about how the person I am interacting with is interpreting my identity. More often than not, this would result in me offering a concise but revealing statement, because I desire, as I think most people generally do, for my gender identity to be honoured; the way cisgender women desire to be acknowledged with feminine pronouns and cisgender men with masculine pronouns. But this sort of interaction, which I cannot emphasise enough how commonplace, is also a breeding ground for conflict around the very notion that my gender identity is incongruous with social norms of gender. The conclusion that I have reached about this is that from the very start, this sort of interaction is inherently confrontational, and so as long as I continued to present myself externally as gender-ambiguous, I was going to continue to experience these interactions escalating into conflicts and sometimes even violence. If I could sum up this experience in a single word, it would be alienation.
But in indigenous spaces, by which I mean physical locations such as communities like the reserve I moved to, or ceremonial spaces in which the marked majority of people are of indigenous ancestry, people don’t say things to my face that indicate their confusion about my gender. If they felt driven by a need to know, they would talk to my family members when I wasn’t in front of them, and my family members would more often than not give them indirect answers or tell them to ask me directly if they wanted to know that badly (and at the end of the day, exceptionally few people did). It didn’t take much longer than a few months before my confusion about what was happening around me or in front of me, and the hurt that it brought up for me to hear my family members being interrogated about my body, began adding up to a transformative experience. I realised for the first time that I’m not going through being a transgender person all by myself. My family are going through it right alongside me.
It was one of those family members who I finally started to talk to about this, who said that I will be perceived in these spaces as a woman as long as I keep embodying, especially in my choice of attire, what is expected of women. She said that if I am more comfortable being perceived as a man, then I need to do what the men do. And she said that if I am making decisions that confuse people about whether I’m a woman or a man, they will make efforts to avoid gendering me at all so that they don’t hurt my feelings by potentially misgendering me. Suddenly, it was like a dense fog lifted. I soon found that I don’t necessarily disappear as a transgender person simply because I dress, dance, sing, and otherwise present myself consistently as a man. I can in fact be both, and in various ways, I am acknowledged as one or the other or even both at different times. I am respected as a man, and as a person who crosses the gender binary (a fact about my identity that is important within certain cultural contexts). I have found roles in the community that I can serve in, that positively affirm my sense of self.
Now that I have been living as a man full-time for a year and a half, away from the settler mainstream, my arrival for finite periods of time back into that mainstream has been received in qualitatively different ways than it ever was before. People rarely made eye contact with me before I began living as a man. I would often feel as if I must be invisible, because people would try to walk right through me in public, whereas now, they make eye contact and actively try to stop themselves from violating my physical space. I am no longer approached for sexual attention, either as a perceived professional or as somehow inherently sexually available, like I frequently was while living full-time as a woman, regardless of what I was doing or wearing. For the first time in my life, I can just walk around and not worry about a john pulling up beside me and creeping along for several continuous minutes with his passenger window rolled down while I deny him my attention. I can just walk around and not repeatedly disengage my attention from men who can barely keep their dick in their pants because I’m passing by them wearing a sleeveless shirt. I have room to breathe when I’m in public.
But there is another side to this new experience as well. I often notice women suddenly transforming in front of me from apathetic to alarmed or uncomfortable, if I look just about anywhere except at my smartphone, other people’s shoes, the ground, or the floor. I feel a conscious shift in how I am perceived by people in general, almost as if I have transformed from prey to predator. When people tried to walk through me before, they’d treat me with complete disregard, but now, if and when it happens, they act like we’re about to be in a fistfight over it. When I try to engage with women who perceive me as a man, I am much more frequently answered with suspicion, hostility, or volatility, compared to when I was perceived as a woman. When I engage with men who perceive me as a man, I am much more frequently met with either indifference or confusion about how my perspective is constructed so differently, compared to when they perceived me as a woman and met me with suspicion, hostility, or volatility. I’m suddenly forced to tip-toe around differences that once were a place of common ground between myself and women, while deliberately choosing to vocalise less and engage even more carefully with men than ever before, for every word I say to them needs to mean something now that each word takes up more space for both the men listening and the women watching.
I feel like I’m entering a state of emotional triage, both with women leaving abuse and the men perpetrating it against them, every time that moment when I’m perceived as a man becomes palpable. I can finally breathe, but there are everyday moments now that take my breath away for reasons I have never experienced before.