[A more personal post.]
I’m in grad school studying mental health counseling. Six weeks ago I started seeing clients for the first time. The experience has been amazing, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, overwhelming, exhausting… Basically it’s kicking my ass.
I am confused and tired. It is strange to be suddenly doing the work for real, after a year and half of training. I feel a bit like an impostor, of course. I find myself acutely aware of my age, feeling both painfully young and oddly grown up. It’s the feeling I like to think of as “7th grade all over again.” The grade/age varies a lot by school system, but you know when you go from being the biggest kid at primary school to one of the youngest and smallest at secondary school? I feel like that, or like the first time you venture into the deep end of the pool. I’m treading water, but I can’t put my toes down anymore. Shit got real.
I absolutely love working with my clients. It’s fascinating, exciting, moving, captivating. I really enjoy it. I find myself extremely awake and present during the sessions. There have been times I was totally lost, and times when we connected and some real work got done. My biggest fear right now is, will I ever develop the endurance do this shit 40 hours a week without keeling over?
I have a wonderful, very committed supervisor who has been giving me great feedback. I am learning to breathe deeply and not rush the process. Interestingly, she pointed out that I seem more openhearted with my female than my male clients. I still carry a lot of “boys don’t cry” baggage and it gets between me and deep empathy with another man.
Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing an emotion in real time. It is so weird; the reflex to swallow, repress, so powerful, and then it’s gone. Not really gone, but no longer accessible, bound to come back later. One of the stranger times: Alma and I watched the very important and heartbreaking film Broken Rainbow. I got through the whole thing without crying, though it hurt. Then a year later, we were discussing the movie one night, and I just burst into tears, absolutely no warning. It felt like the very same tears I swallowed in the first place. I am still letting go of all my backlogged tears.
Flashes of memories of learning not to feel: my father’s exhortations of toughen up, determination, learn the difference between pain and discomfort, stop crying. I think my dad picked up on my masculinity and he trained me the best way he knew how. He taught me that you have to be tough or the world will destroy you. As a young gender-variant person, I keyed into messages of masculinity with a secret intensity, clinging to them for dear life. Onionskin heart, I dismantle one wall and I find another.
My world is changing. It essential to face the world with an open heart. Love is far more powerful than fear. The more I open to the world, the friendlier the world becomes. Strange how my family has changed. What would be dad be like if he were raising me now? Now that he seems so much less anxious and reads the Tao Te Ching?
Brick by brick, I keep dismantling. I will not compromise love.
Sometimes I get sick with the fear and shame of not being man enough. Is my dick too small? Is my body too weird? Are my gestures effeminate? My line of work unmanly? What really sticks in my craw is the sneaking sense that as a transsexual, I am somehow permanently inadequate, a poor imitation.
Yet this sinking feeling and shame and fear lie at the very heart of what it is to be a man in my society. To be a man is, so often, to be terrified of failure. Men compensate with violence, that trump card of masculinity, towards ourselves and others. Homophobia, transphobia and misogyny are, of course, attempts to demonstrate that one is a Real Man. But there are many subtler examples. Overworking is also a popular cover for fear of being an insufficient man. Slow death by incremental alcohol poisoning in another. Preventable heart disease brought on by a steady diet of “man food” is an excellent example. I can’t count the number of times a man has told me that he just couldn’t live without eating meat at every meal. Yeah right. Many men would rather have high cholesterol than risk being seen with a salad.
On some level, we think we would be worthless if we failed to live up to the standards of masculinity. And because we all secretly know we already have, we desperately try to hide it. And because everyone is constantly trying to hide, each man fears he is the only one with a secret. It’s an absurd conspiracy.
I’m not trying to say most men are constantly trying to prove their manliness, though many are. What I am saying is that most men live with the dread of failure. It may assert itself often or occasionally, with a roar or a whisper. In any case the story is the same.
I have no prescription here, no solution, no path to healing. I have something rather humbler, with it’s own quiet power: I know that we are not alone. We are all in this boat together, a crew of stowaways hiding from ourselves. When you know that fear of not being man enough is at the core of what it is to be a man, you may still be afraid. But, at least, you can laugh about it.
Hairs decorate my chin, dark and delicate. My mustache is a gentle brush across my upper lip. Sandpaper scratch of stubble on my sideburns and neck.
I have been on testosterone for 4 years. Testosterone continues to shape the body across the lifespan, but I’m told that after 5 years, the puberty stage is complete. I figure at this point, what I see is what I get, more or less.
When I first began to contemplate transition, I was 19 years old and still waiting for my mustache. I squinted my eyes at the tiny hairs, sure that any day now, they would multiply and darken. The hairs didn’t come. Something was very wrong.
Life continued; two years passed. I got my first shot of testosterone. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that I needed to grow a beard. My mustache dream receded.
It’s a beard moment. My friends have them; the hip guys on the street have them. I was disappointed when my facial hair began growing in slowly, slowly.
I told my mom about my hirsute aspirations. “A beard?” she said. “I don’t know. We’re not a very hairy family.”
I look into eyes of my grandfather and great-grandfather, their perfectly smooth faces suspended in gelatin silver. No beards in sight. Just the occasional shadow of stubble in a candid shot of my saba.
I was extremely embarrassed to grow in my mustache. I couldn’t resist it; I liked the sight of that fuzzy shadow far too much. But who has a mustache like mine? I was afraid to look foolish.
I think it was Alma who finally put the idea in my head. I’d been looking at white guys’ facial hair, bushy beards in sandy brown. The image of “man” in my mind was dripping with racism. Nice beaner stache, my brother told me, teasing. I don’t think he had any clue how racist that sounded.
My eyes were opened. Suddenly, mustaches like mine were everywhere. Thin, perfectly formed mustaches crowning the upper lips of brown guys of all varieties. Strolling around the university on a sunny day, I see facial hair like mine on Latino, Asian, Native and Middle Eastern guys.
My legs are a forest of brown hairs. My arms are smooth, haloed in delicate gold fuzz. My mom touches my arms and says it’s a Sephardic thing. Staring in the mirror, I laugh when I remember that they used to call us Oriental.*
My people spent 500 years in the place where the Middle East collides with Eastern Europe. It’s a place of varied features, of thick black hair and soft fair locks, where gazes may be the darkest brown or silver-green as a still lake. Complexions come in rich shades of olive, brown and gold. Some men have long, thick beards; some have bushy, carefully groomed mustaches; some have a slender frame of hair at the edges of mouth and face; and some men don’t grow facial hair at all. I have always known this, but somehow in the rush of my American youth culture, I forgot. I have to look outside the mainstream if I want to see a person who resembles myself.
So I like my little mustache. There’s something slightly counter-cultural about it. I like that it’s a little unusual–and I like who I share it with. I’m not waiting for a white man’s beard anymore.
* Until the mid-20th century, it was common for white people to call the Jews of the Middle East “Oriental Jews.” It was not a term of affection. We had our own words. My people have always called ourselves Sephardim.
A man lives by a code, a quiet discipline of honor we learn first from our fathers and try to perfect for ourselves. We learn by example and by counterexample. I have studied the ways of my grandfather, who left, and my father, who stayed, and I have learned something about what it means to be an honorable man.
A reader asks, “What does it mean to ‘don the mantle of manhood’?” It means to deeply accept the responsibility of being a man.
To be responsible is to be one who answers what is asked of them. Responsibility is the practice of response, of making a reply to the conditions that meet us. The mantle of manhood is the emergent realities of life as a man, this man, in a particular place and time; to don the mantle means to intentionally accept these realities, to embrace them, and to employ them for the repair of the world. To don the mantle of manhood means that, finding oneself a man, one responds to that condition. There is no one answer. The common denominator is the condition of being a man and making the choice to reply to that condition with honor.
This weight is unchosen, neither earned nor deserved; it simply is. I did not make it, yet it is I who must hoist it, for it is I alone who can. I am answering, for I have heard the question. I did not create the meanings assigned to manhood–I just stumble into them like everybody else. But it is I who decide for myself, given reality as I observe it, how I will respond.
The only difference between a man’s mantle and that of anyone of any other gender is the differences in our lives. Honor is in no way limited to men. I discuss it here through my lens as a man, because I think there are some important particulars of that experience, and because I believe it is the task of men to ask our brothers to do better. For this same reason–our different selves and circumstances–there is no one mantle of manhood, but a massive Venn diagram of overlapping and non-overlapping experiences.
For me, it’s like this. People move around me on the sidewalk. People turn and listen when I open my mouth. If I lose my temper and shout and stomp and punch a wall, people and animals cower in miserable fear, though I have never touched them in anger.
My code is not a series of answers, but a series of questions.
If my voice and my strength can easily scare women, men, children, dogs, how will I conduct myself?
If being a man means when I speak, others listen, what will I say?
If being a man means being strong, what will I carry? What will I defend?
If being a man means I could walk out on my family, what choice will I make?
If being a man means a capacity for violence, how will I behave?
It is written, “For who will eat, and who will enjoy, if not I?” (Ecclesiastes 2:25).
We could also ask, For who will feed, and who will increase enjoyment, if not I?
Many have observed that men have a tendency towards social and emotional cluelessness. There are plenty of oblivious women and sensitive dudes out there, and nonbinary folks both unaware and keen. But overall, my own experience confirms the trend. In general, men are less perceptive and expressive when it comes to social cues and subtexts, emotions and relationships.
Why is this? Feminists often point to childhood socialization that emphasizes sociability and relationships in girls, while encouraging competition and toughness in boys. Other people believe that biology and human evolution explain the differences we observe. I’d like to point to a factor elided by these explanations. Quite simply, people just don’t tell guys very much.
I am the rare man who was raised as a girl. Like many trans people, I listened closely to the messages intended for my true (not assigned) gender, so I absorbed a lot of norms of masculinity. As a kid, I felt it was important not to cry and to fight with punches and kicks, not scratches. Still, I was encouraged to master the feminine art of relationships, and I had intensely expressive friendships with girls. I was just as perceptive, emotive, and socially astute as anyone else.
I have not become less open or perceptive since transition. Quite the opposite, actually. I find it much easier to cry and show other feelings, and I continue to enjoy deep, expressive conversations. I also find it easier to read and empathize with other people. I’m training to be a counselor right now–I am trying to talk about feelings and relationships all day long, for a living!
And yet, I find that I know far less about what friends and family members are feeling than I did before transition. Why is this? They don’t tell me. My own family members often communicate important feelings to me indirectly, by telling Alma. Nobody gossips to me, so I have no idea which of my friends are getting together and which are breaking up.
This was put into sharp relief by a recent conversation with Alma. She mentioned that she has a class with a friend’s roommate, let’s call him J. Alma said she was comfortable talking to him because she knows he has a girlfriend and is pretty serious about her. Here’s the thing: neither of us actually knows J. We’ve met him briefly and seen him at parties. Neither of us knows J’s girlfriend. But while I have nothing more than a vague image of J’s face, Alma knows his relationship status, the seriousness of said relationship, and even has a sense that he is a good boyfriend. How is this possible? Because our female friends told her. They know, because one of them knows the girlfriend, and she told them. It suddenly struck me what a massive quantity of social information is exchanged in all-female conversations. Meanwhile, when I talk with the guys in our social group, we talk about a lot of things…but we exchange almost zero of this type of information. J is a friend-of-a-friend to both of us, but while I’m not even completely sure I would recognize the dude, Alma knows a great deal about his life situation and his character.
This is just one example; the trend holds across many situations in our lives. This puts us at totally different starting places when it comes to social and emotional insight. Alma noted that when she interprets subtle social exchanges–like a glance or a tone–she is working from a lot of back-story, full of hints at what might be important and what that might mean.
Of course, this is very much connected to socialization and social norms. Friendships among men tend to look different from friendships among women. But I think it’s worth adding this into our analysis. It may not be so much a function of the perceptiveness, expressiveness and sociability of individual men, but rather of our social networks.
Feeling like a man. Many guys struggle with this elusive goal. For trans guys, the process can be even more fraught and confusing. How to grow into a man if you weren’t allowed to be a boy?
I say, before you are a man, be a boy. Let your boy-self emerge in the world. You won’t get to experience all the things most boys do. But you can have some kind of boyhood, perhaps a very queer boyhood, no matter your chronological age.
I was 21 when I really became a boy. I’d had an androgynous childhood in wild hair and overalls. I was raised in an open-minded household that didn’t impose strict gender norms. I developed a more and more masculine presence beginning in my teens. Still, I didn’t get to be a boy until later.
I was young when I transitioned, the last light of childhood still visible on the horizon. In retrospect, it was an amazing opportunity; I got to become a man at the same time as my peers. But for several years there, I felt distinctly behind. My friends were sporting new, fully-fledged beards; I was waiting for my voice to drop. I badly needed the chance to be a boy.
My first intentional forays into masculinity were burdened with an excessive weight of fledgling manliness. It’s no coincidence they were also my first attempts at being an adult. I was 18 and suddenly noticed my friends were growing into young men and women. I realized I didn’t want to be an androgynous teenager in messy dyed hair and a hoodie forever. I felt an enormous pressure to assimilate to the extreme gender binary of the adult world. So I started shaving and combing my hair. I took out the five studs that decorated my ears. I searched thrift-stores for tweed coats. I learned to tie a tie. It was an awkward time.
A few years later, when I started testosterone, I became a boy in earnest. I stopped trying to be a “real man.” I got a mohawk and traded my polos for undershirts. I was very much a boy-version of myself as a teenager. I reveled in the frenetic energy of boyhood. I listened to loud music and I bitched about the system. I sharpied heart-shaped anarchy symbols on desks and walls. My attitude was irreverent and carefree. Alma and I had just gotten together, and the energy of the experiences fed one another. We rode that crazy wave through the first year of our relationship, staying up all night, smoking cigarettes on the way to the bus-stop.
It lasted a couple of years. Then that frenzied boy energy began giving way to the solidity of manhood. Now I inhabit a cool, steady masculinity. I am a young man.
I couldn’t have gotten here without my sojourn as a boy. It was brief and it was wholehearted. It was what I needed. I let myself off the hook for awhile. The length and the timing don’t matter. What matters is that I was my own boy-self, for awhile. I treasure all that I learned in that fleeting time when colors were brighter, rules were suspended, and so much was possible for the first time.
It wasn’t easy to allow myself to be a boy. It was embarrassing and strange. But if I hadn’t done it, if I’d just brushed by boyhood, I would have have been doubly betrayed. First denied a boyhood by my family and community; then denied a boyhood by myself. Transition created a strange portal in which the ordinary laws of time, space and society receded. A kind of spiritual boyhood became possible. By allowing myself to be a boy, I healed some of the great rift of being trans.
This may look really different depending on your age and your life situation. But I think we can give ourselves the gift of boyhood at any time. You can give yourself permission to be a boy, and discover who that boy is. You can embody your own boy-energy. You can inhabit masculinities that are youthful, new, emerging.
Of course, if you feel no need to be a boy, that is perfectly fine. I only urge you not to refuse yourself the chance, if any part of you wants it. That way, when you are ready, you will don the mantle of manhood with confidence, bathed in the glow of endless summers, secure in the happy knowledge that you were a boy once.
Another dream that has stuck with me over the years. I was 7 or 8 then. In the dream, it was evening, and I was at home. A person came into the house. They looked like my mother, by they had a shaved head and were wearing a red flannel shirt. I was frightened and confused; I ran to the person, and they held me in their arms. I was crying. “This is who I am now,” the person said.
A few years later, my mom came out as a lesbian, and my parents got divorced. I chalked the dream up to a premonition about what my mom was going through.
Something didn’t sit right with me, though. As I grew up and started addressing my own gender and sexuality issues, it bugged me even more. What did it mean, and what did it have to do with my own identity? Did my mom’s sexuality somehow confuse me about gender? I didn’t think so, but the dream seemed to imply otherwise.
Last night, the dream came to mind again. I suddenly saw its true meaning. My mom never started wearing men’s clothes or acting masculine; she is comfortable as a woman. The person in my dream, I now see, looks exactly like me around age 19. That androgynous figure was never my mother–he was me. He came with a message I wasn’t ready to hear yet.
I even own that red flannel shirt.
In my circles, it’s commonplace for women to express greater comfort around other women. Is it socially acceptable for a man to say he’s more comfortable around other men?
In class recently, we watched a video of a group counseling session. At one point, a male group member said he had difficulty trusting the group. When pushed by the facilitator, he noted that he had an easier time trusting men than women. This particular group had three or four male participants and ten or so female participants. In context, he was saying he found it easier to be emotionally vulnerable with men. I have noticed that many people feel more comfortable discussing personal, upsetting matters with others of a certain gender.
During the discussion, one woman in my class made a dismissive remark about that moment in the video. Basically, she made a joke to the effect that she felt uncomfortable when he said that, that perhaps he disliked women, and that she would have wanted some distance from him. Another woman chimed in along the same lines. They shared a laugh.
These comments got under my skin. As a man, I am used to women saying they prefer the company of other women sometimes. I completely accept it. Many women have had bad experiences with men, while others just feel another woman will be more likely to understand them. At the crisis hotline where I volunteer, I don’t work a single shift without a woman calling and asking to be transferred to a female volunteer. It doesn’t offend or upset me in the least–I know it has nothing to do with me.
I acknowledge that because of the very different social positions of men and women, female-only space and male-only space are not the same. To take just one important example, women are much more likely to have experienced violence from a man than the other way around.
Still, in a mental health context, it is imperative that we take individuals’ unique needs seriously. The fact that men and women have different experiences on average means nothing about the needs and experiences of a specific person. Men are less likely to receive mental health treatment; I attribute this to a masculine imperative around not asking for help. If an all-male environment makes it easier for some men to do this difficult work, I think we should encourage it.
It really bothered my that my classmate inferred that the man in the video disliked or disrespected women. What he said was that he found it more difficult to trust women. Note that he didn’t say, for example, he found it difficult to trust women with important responsibilities. He said he found it difficult to trust women he’d just met with his emotions and struggles.
I can relate. When I was in counseling recently, I asked for a male counselor, because I knew I’d feel more at ease. The only time I have been in group counseling, it was a group reserved for trans men. I love women, I respect women, I have wonderful close relationships with women, and I am an ardent feminist. But when it comes to the rather odd situation of sharing my personal struggles with someone I just met, I feel more comfortable with other guys. It’s easier to speak frankly about private and difficult topics. It’s easier to share challenging emotions. I feel less need to downplay bad things, to use inoffensive language, to look like a strong, tough dude.
“Safe space” is a concept we usually reserve for an oppressed group. While the gender system does privilege men over women, it’s not a simple case of one class of people unilaterally oppressing another. The gender system does profound, specific violence to men as men. Emotions and intimacy are huge, crucial areas where gender norms harm men. This happens in ways most women probably don’t understand.
So I think that, in mental health services, men should be able to ask for safe space. Maybe, just maybe, it will make men more willing to seek help and more able to really use it when they get it. These spaces harm no one and might really help some.
The appropriate response for women who hear men express these preferences–especially women who are aspiring mental health professionals–is not derision or laughter. It’s not taking it personally or as some kind of larger comment about women. The appropriate response is compassion.
I had just paid for two full pints and was headed back to where my friends were sitting. As I turned around, I found myself directly in front of a couple, two short-haired women with tattoos and gauged ears. I gave them my biggest tipsy grin.
The women responded with a barely perceptible look of disgusted surprise and instantly turned away, pretending they hadn’t seen me. I was left holding my beers in complete confusion. These two had to be the meanest lesbians I ever met!
Shuffling back to my table, I realized what had happened. While I had seen them and thought we were members of a common tribe, they had looked back and seen some drunk dude with really horrible gaydar, presumably hoping to chat them up.
This was about a year into my transition, right around the time I started being read as male with complete consistency. It was time to say goodbye to the lesbian smile and the lesbian nod, like I’d said goodbye already to lesbian identity.
I still sometimes give a queer nod or smile–when I see a butch with a badass pompadour, when I see a gay or lesbian couple in love. I’ve learned to pick the time, place and manner so that I don’t bother people. They respond pretty well, though they often look a little confused, like they’re trying to figure out if I’m just a really cool straight dude, or maybe thinking, That guy’s gay? Really? I doubt that they ever suspect the truth.
These days I’ve also learned to give women a very different kind of smile, what Alma rather glibly calls the “I’m not gonna rape you” smile. This is the distinctive closed-mouth, eyes-averted, head-down grin a man gives a woman in strange situations, such as being the only two people walking on a street at night, that’s meant to say, I am totally not a threat to you. The body language is exactly like a submissive dog, leaning way, hunching down to look a little smaller.
This gesture is second nature to me now. I do it without thinking, moving to give female passersby a little extra space. I hurry past them on my way, because I hate getting stuck ten feet behind a woman who walks the exact same speed as me, who keeps turning the tiniest bit, trying to look at me without showing it, obviously extremely uncomfortable. I can’t say anything in these moments–anything I could possibly say would only make it worse. All I can do is make a wide parabola around her, smiling with my head down, hoping she can tell that I just really want to get home.
“He was always so… Manly.”
These were the words I’d been waiting to hear my whole life. Said by the person I’d always wanted to say them. Unfortunately, when my mother finally spoke those words, I wasn’t there to hear it. I was a hundred yards away and under general anesthesia.
My girlfriend, now fiancée, was the one who heard them. She told me later, back in our hotel room. While my chest was being reconstructed, the two women in my life had gotten to know each other better.
Alma and I had only been together for six months. It seemed perfectly natural she’d accompany us to Cleveland to help take care of me after my surgery. My mom cooked; Alma cleaned my drains full of blood and pus. Her tender care and steel stomach made quite an impression on both my mother and me.
While I was in surgery, Alma was overcome with worry. True to form, my mother tried to feed her. And she told her things about me–some she’d told me before, and some she never had.
Things I already knew: That there was always something different about me. That they’d been really worried about me and were relieved I was doing so well since starting transition.
Things I didn’t know: That she noticed I was masculine from the time I was a tiny child. That I always had a masculine look. Square jaw, muscular limbs, broad shoulders. She said I looked like a little linebacker. She said she knew there was something there, and it seems so obvious now–but at the time, she just didn’t connect the dots. Remorse ran off her voice, rainwater in a gutter.
It was a great gift to get this information, no matter how indirectly. Some thunderstorm in my heart finally went quiet, a temper tantrum I’d been waging for twenty years resolved at last. Like when the heater turns off and you’re suddenly aware it had been humming in your head for hours. Like the first day you wake up feeling better from the flu. You remember what it’s like to feel good.
Then I understood why she’d never told me. My parents bit their tongues on the very words I needed to hear the most. They thought those words would crush me. They thought they’d be calling me ugly. Now they know they were wrong.
They had probably never met a transgender person. They’d certainly never been parents before. This year I’ll be as old as my father was when I was born.
I forgive them.