When I came out my mom was determined to make sure I knew that being Queer was full of joy. A lot of despair and tragedy affects our community but as I was coming out as trans and queer I was lucky to also see a lot of joy. That will always be a part of my art. It will always be a part of my pride.
-Miles De La Torre, they/them (@miles_does_photos on Instagram)
Complement this piece with part 1 of Miles De La Torre’s Queer & Trans Joy in Color photo series, or by following the TransJoy Media Instagram page where you can find trans artists of all genders and genres!
When I came out my mom was determined to make sure I knew that being Queer was full of joy. A lot of despair and tragedy affects our community but as I was coming out as trans and queer I was lucky to also see a lot of joy. That will always be a part of my art. It will always be a part of my pride.
-Miles De La Torre, they/them (@miles_does_photos on Instagram)
Over the years , I have become aware of the fact that the version of masculinity accepted as the hegemonic ideal in the Western Imperial Core is based on white supremacist, bourgeois, patriarchal, misogynistic, transphobic, and ableist values. I have also learned there is an alternative to this ideal: positive masculinity. The most basic definition of which is choosing to consciously deviate from societal pressures or stereotypes that dictate what makes a person more or less of a man.
This definition is a great starting point, however I wish to address two of the main points I see repeated when people attempt to promote or discuss positive masculinity. These are people who excoriate many men’s general obsession with increasing their ability to physically dominate another person, without understanding and addressing the possible causes of this desire. Discourse around positive masculinity also focuses heavily on calling for men to get in touch with their emotions. While both of these points are worth your consideration, the framing of these messages can come across as denigrating aspects of the hegemonic ideal that are central to many people’s identities as men. I feel this to be something of a miscommunication that can be solved with the inclusion of a little nuance.
Stoic Philosophy, Buddhism, and Emotionality
Photo by Efrem Efre
So many (usually cis/het and white) men resonate with the philosophy of the ancient Stoics that it has literally become a joke these days. I understand where this is coming from, as the people who typically espouse the virtues of Stoicism often use it as an excuse to do little else in the way of self-examination. However, I argue that Stoic philosophy is not wrong in and of itself.
I believe that training yourself to avoid immediately reacting to situations can be useful to most people. Incorporating techniques designed to lower my reactivity has been healing for me, as a person who has been primed by trauma to react to every situation, often before I am able to fully understand what is actually going on. As a physically diminutive, and legally disenfranchised child this ability kept me alive, but as an adult this reactivity has taken a toll on my personal relationships. My mental safety systems are immature and in need of some renovations. Stoicism and Buddhism are two of the many different tools I have used in pursuit of this change.
However, I do not wish to engage with this philosophy uncritically. I do agree that the classical teachings of Stoicism are incongruous with a healthy relationship to your emotions. Classical Stoicism teaches the rejection of all human emotion on its face, a requirement with which I vehemently disagree. I have found that attempting to permanently reject all emotions that would disturb my “inner quietude” only leads to the sublimation of all emotions to anger, or to depersonalization and derealization. Often, my psyche is best served by fully experiencing my emotions, but I do not believe this must always be done at the exact moment they begin to occur in order to be effective. Positive masculinity discussions should include methods of handling big emotions and situations of extreme conflict.
Extreme situations often require one to be fully present, and focused on physical survival, which can often mean that it’s imperative to your (or someone else’s) safety that you not be bursting into tears or screaming your head off because you’re upset. Crying and screaming certainly might help you process what you’re experiencing but there are many situations where this would lead to worse outcomes than would simply putting a pause on emotionality, and pushing through to safety.
This imperative to maintain control of one’s behavior is where my accordance with Stoic philosophy ends, as we humans are not masters of our emotions. We could not possibly be. Emotions are signals and drives from our bodies that are intended to convey messages to our conscious mind, usually in the interest of preserving our sense of self or physical safety. While I agree with Stoic philosophy only insofar as we should not be beholden to these signals, or driven solely by them; I disagree with the Stoics in that I have learned1 the healthiest method of handling emotions is to address them consciously as quickly as possible. This allows the conscious mind to take these signals into account when planning how to address the situation causing the emotional response. In my experience, conscious awareness of one’s own emotional state is only an advantage when handling interpersonal conflict. Stoicism does not offer substantive help in developing this awareness.
Though Buddhism can. Incorporating certain Buddhist teachings into my daily practices has helped me endure some fairly traumatic experiences and given me more tools to keep myself safe in situations such as deadnaming and misgendering in public. These experiences are deeply scarring for me, but using breathing/walking meditations and mantra I am better able to keep a handle on my behavior until such a time as it is safe to process my emotions. Sole credit is not due to either Stoicism or Buddhism, but these are mental frameworks to which I can turn when I need to process the ongoing trauma that is my existence.
The Desire for Physical Power and the Necessity of Vulnerability
Early 20th-century strongman George Hackenschmidt
The desire for physical power is not inherently wrong. Wanting to be big and strong is not a bad thing. However, we must not engage with this desire uncritically. We should question our motivations for physical strength else we find ourselves driven to unhealthy extremes such as eating disorders, and/or steroid abuse. Often the fitness industry, and products associated with it, will sell you a sense of invulnerability along with whatever pill, shake, or workout plan they’re shilling. This is a problem because everyone needs to work on their relationship to disability and the vulnerability that comes along with it.
Personally, I want to increase my physical prowess in order to better support and protect the people in my life who are less capable of defending themselves or may have mobility issues that require physical assistance. I also use strength training to improve my personal relationship with my bodymind. These are noble goals. Many men who, like myself, were fed patriarchal ideas of what constitutes manhood feel that the call for men to “be soft” is a direct challenge to the traditional condition of manhood that is striving for greater physical capability. True strength is all encompassing. This call to strength, and the necessity of vulnerability should be cultivated simultaneously. It is wrong to argue that men need to work on one of these without also addressing the other.
Unless you die abled, you will become disabled at some point in your life. Put another way, even if you get to live a long, and relatively healthy life you will still be disabled simply by dint of your age. This means the vast majority of us will be very vulnerable at some point in our lives. If you can’t handle this fact emotionally, you are not a strong person. Focusing on the physical development of the bodymind is an honorable pursuit, but it must be accompanied by developing a healthy relationship with the mind part of one’s bodymind. This includes addressing your attitudes and anxieties around disability. Lean into this anxiety. Do the hard thing and learn more about what it’s like to move through the world as a disabled person.
That’s what this is all about, taking the more difficult path by leaving room for learning. Do the harder thing, and instead of shying away from your emotions, address them consciously, and immediately. Do the harder thing, and question your view of the world, and yes, maybe even your sense of self. In these ways, positive masculinity is not just getting in touch with your feminine side or learning how to cry. It can be these things. But positive masculinity, to me, is the active pursuit of being a better person in service to my self-actualization and to the people around me. Don’t most people want to have better, more secure relationships with themselves, and the people they hold dear?
So, what exactly is positive masculinity?
Men should be encouraged to feel their feelings, and, in fact, would be better served by learning how to address their feelings appropriately. Men need to criticize the motivations behind their quest for greater physical capability, and the anxieties that could be at the heart of this desire. No, it’s not right that men are by and large afraid of publicly expressing some personal qualities that may be deemed “feminine” because of society’s toxic expectations of them. These are just a few of the great things that positive masculinity promotes and I encourage you to learn more about the above concepts.
But we can go beyond this. When speaking about masculinity as it shows up in our society, we need to be offering a substantive framework of aspirational masculinity as well as pointing out the flaws of the current system. This mental framework does not have to be a set of standards to which to adhere, however it should consist of some guiding principles that are as inclusive as possible without being so broad as to be impotent.
When engaging with masculinity as a concept, most people will use the phrase “Whoever identifies as a man, is one” and leave it at that. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. But it doesn’t do much for people who are questioning themselves, or seeking any greater understanding as to the nature of their gender itself.
I do not seek to define what masculinity is in concrete terms because this is not necessary and promotes gatekeeping manhood. Rather, I see my own relationship to manhood as more of a journey that I am continually on, instead of a destination or ideal model for which I must strive. Or as the artist Mars Wright likes to say, “Gender is a game, and I’m having fun playing!”
I recommend taking some time to think about how you would like to play this game that we call gender. Below are some substantive questions you can ask yourself to discover more about your current relationship to your gender, and how you might like to change it.
What are some things you like about your gender as it is now?
How does it feel to move through the world as you are now?
How do people currently address you? Does the way people treat you reflect the person you know yourself to be more of the time than not?
Can you name some expectations society places on people that have your body type, wear the type of clothes you wear, have your skin color, or hair texture?
How do you fit into these expectations and where do you diverge from them?
How do these differences make you feel about yourself?
How important to you is it that people’s perceptions of you align closely with your inner understanding of yourself? For some, this may not be a concern, for others this could be the primary driver of the choices they make around their gender.
Even if gender isn’t important to you, still consider the impression you wish to give others. What do you want others to see when they attempt to perceive you? If this is confusion then by all means, confound the masses with your gender. If you wish to be seen as an average Joe Schmo even if that could never explain the multitudes you hold inside yourself, that is just fine too!
I also understand not wishing to be perceived at all, I spent quite a bit of time in that space myself. What I found is that I could not stay there forever. The world imposed it’s own ideas of who I am onto me. These ideas were so off base that I was eventually forced to acknowledge the dissonance this caused and assume responsibility for relieving this distress. It is not my fault that the system of gender exists as it does today, but it is my duty (and yours) to actively take control of what I can about my gender and my relationship to it.
From these questions we can start to paint a picture in our mind’s eye of the kind of person we can aspire to be. This picture can fluctuate and grow, it can be very defined and concrete, or more ephemeral and changing, like a quick sketch or an elaborate oil painting.
To continue the game metaphor, your gender could be a highly structured, and elaborate game like D&D, or Settlers of Catan. Or your relationship to gender could be more like a quick, pickup game of basketball in the park. Recently, my relationship to my gender has felt more along the lines of Calvinball, a game invented by the protagonists of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip with rules that are invented on the fly, and are often self-contradictory.
Wrapping it all up
My ultimate point is that positive masculinity is so much more than getting in touch with your feelings. We need to deconstruct our entire understanding of what gender is, in order to make sure that our relationship to it is genuinely our own, and is not solely the reflection of other’s perceptions or lack thereof. Our gender should not be based on transphobia (i.e. I want hormones and he doesn’t. I’m more of a real man), misogyny (Men are just so much smarter than women), ableism (I’m stronger than him, so I’m a better man), racism (He’s a thug, I’m such a nice guy), or classism (I make a lot of money because I’m not lazy, that makes me a good provider).
It is simply a waste of time and energy to define ourselves by what we are not or how we measure up to other’s ideas of us. No, the true self is exactly that, self-oriented. When we attune to this true self, we can begin to take active steps towards embodying who we really are, and focus less on who we are not. I argue this is the crux of a truly mature relationship to gender and what the message of positive masculinity does a decent job of promoting.
I highly recommend you look into some resources for learning more about positive masculinity, which you can find here, in article form, and here is a great video breaking down the basics of the concept.
Rupert Raj’s story is an interesting look into a pivotal time in the history of medical transition. Raj was born in 1952 and began pursuing medical transition in 1971. Because he was only 19 years old at the time, New York State required written consent from an older family member to obtain an appointment with an endocrinologist in order to receive hormone therapy. In the 1970s there was an extremely small body of scientific work on the trans experience, and even less understanding of trans people’s specific needs than there is today. During this time, trans people were also often excluded from LGB action groups, so a few trans and gender expansive people started organizing their own political action groups.
Raj participated in this wave of community action throughout college, and in January 1978, he started an organization for trans people (including trans men and women, as well as cross-dressers), called the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT). During his time with FACT, Rupert Raj edited and published the foundation’s newsletter. This contained much needed information on transgender resources and included lists of books and articles relevant to transgender people, along with tons of other information that was otherwise very difficult to source. Raj was involved with this organization until 1981, when he chose to focus on serving the unique needs of trans men.
A cartoon about penile prosthetics that appears in Metamorphosis Magazine Vol. 1, No. 5, pg. 8
In 1982, Raj founded the bi-monthly magazine Metamorphosis, with which he hoped to serve as something of an information broker between the trans community and the greater scientific community. The magazine aimed to provide information on various aspects of being a trans man, including clinical research, hormones, surgery, tips to effectively passing as a man in public, and legal reform for trans people. There was also some levity in the form of jokes and cartoons, and the subscription even included 3 business card sized ads for subscribers free of charge.
Metamorphosis reached an international audience, at one time having subscribers from as far away as Great Britain, and New Zealand. In 1988, Raj decided to end publication of the magazine due to extreme burnout.
The Digital Transgender Archive, and Canada’s The ArQuives, have graciously preserved digital copies of what appears to be the entire run of Metamorphosis, which you can read here. I am planning on reading these in their entirety and writing a deep dive on this awesome piece of trans masculine history. Should you choose to read these, I would caution you that the language and understanding around trans people and our experiences has changed quite a bit since this time, and these should be read with this context in mind.
After shuttering the magazine, Rupert took a 9-year break from public advocacy to heal. At one point he commented, “No matter how important the work you’re doing may be, sometimes you need a decade off from being a trans person in the public eye.”
Raj re-entered the public stage in 2002 when he founded RR Consulting, continuing his work as an educating consultant, psychotherapist, gender specialist, and trans-positive professional trainer.
In 2017, Rupert Raj made available the text of his international trans poetry anthology “Of Souls & Roles, Of Sex & Gender: A Treasury of Transsexual, Transgenderist & Transvestic Verse from 1967 to 1991.” The volume includes nearly 400 poems penned by 169 trans people throughout Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
His sociohistorical memoir, “Dancing the Dialectic: True Tales of a Transgender Trailblazer” was first published in 2017; a second edition of which was published in 2020.
Rupert Raj continues his work as an advocate for transgender people, and a community educator to this day. Most recently in October of 2022, Fantasia Fair recognized him with their 2022 Transgender Pioneer Award. This is the longest standing award that solely recognizes trans people. Established in 2002, this award honors the lifetime achievements of trans people who have made the world a safer place for people like us.
Portrait of Rupert Raj by Maya Sueso
If you would like to learn more about Rupert Raj and his work, you can follow this link. And if you enjoyed this look into the life a trans activist, you may enjoy looking into the lives of other LGBT+ Figures in History.
The tall, pale skinned woman opens the pink door of her convertible and extends an impossibly long leg out onto the pavement. She emerges from the vehicle, and you begin to wonder how she could possibly have fit inside as she towers over her surroundings. She walks quickly, and silently into her house that also seems slightly out of proportion to its occupant.
As she enters her home, she kicks off her tiny hot pink heels. Once we peer inside, we can watch as this person goes about her day, but something still seems slightly off. She makes dinner, though she herself never appears to eat, and there is no one else in the home. She lays out a bowl of water, and pet food on the kitchen floor, but we never see an animal around the home. When watching TV, she seems to sit stock still, her gaze fixed on a static screen.
It isn’t until late in the night that we catch a glimpse of something truly out of the ordinary. When the clock strikes midnight the impossibly tall, slender woman grabs a pair of binoculars from the living room cabinet and begins peering out of a living room window into the night sky. After a few short minutes, she strips off her brightly colored dress and runs into the backyard. The last we see of her is her nude form floating up into the star-studded night.
That is, until the next morning when this woman can be seen waking up in her bedroom, now inexplicably dressed in a flowery top and neon green pants. She wakes up and prepares for her busy day of work as a world-renowned supermodel.
When I was growing up the concepts of feminine beauty and sexuality were understood by those around me exclusively through the lens of the male gaze. Barbie being a perfect example of this, as she is arguably a personification of the male gaze. Whether viewed through the lens of science, second wave political feminism, or through religion, my family has only ever understood femininity as men understand it. And despite being trans, I was no exception until very recently.
The main perspective through which my family taught me about sexuality was the brutal reality of biology. My mother was both a biology and a chemistry major during her undergraduate degree and made sure both me and my sibling were aware of what our body parts looked like, their proper names and functions, and, at an appropriate age, how sex worked in a mechanical sense. There was rarely, if ever, any mention of pleasure or of queer sex.
This dry, scientific approach to human sexuality contributed heavily to my theory on Barbie. I was taught that, generally speaking, humans have genitalia, and at least partially functional mouths and anuses. The Barbie’s I played with had none of these, nor was the plastic on their lower section molded to resemble underwear, as some are now. Couple this lack of orifices with her impossibly long limbs, and rather oddly shaped breast forms and the one conclusion my mind could draw was that Barbie must be an alien who simply resembled humans in order to live more easily among them. This was how I played with Barbie’s until I lost interest in them entirely somewhere around 7 or 8 years of age.
Second wave feminism
The brand of feminism unique to the mid-20th century also deeply influenced both my mother, and her mother. Despite chafing at the demands of a deeply misogynistic capitalist system, both my mother, and grandmother fully internalized their positions as “undesirable” to the male gaze and sought empowerment within the system through the imitation of masculinity.
My grandmother went from being a hyper visible target of the male gaze as a rather attractive teenager, to consciously rejecting the male gaze during and after college. She sought to defeminize herself through smoking cigarettes and vocal training to deepen her voice. She bought suits with shoulder pads to broaden her slender frame and wore 2–3-inch (5-7.5cm) heels everyday despite being 5’-10” (178 cm) tall without them. There were many reasons for this but the main one was that my grandmother was determined to make a career for herself in public service as a social worker.
This meant fitting into the local government office work environment of the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Looking, sounding, and acting more like a man was only an advantage. Which is why my grandmother impressed upon my mother that it was better (and safer) to be deemed sexually undesirable by the male gaze. Along with this, feminine sexual desire for men was seen as problematic to the cause of feminine political equality. Being submissive to a man in any sense, even if that only meant one enjoyed a receptive role during sex, was seen as debasing oneself. Despite her best efforts, these ideas did make an impression on my mother, and continue to influence her thinking on gender and sexuality to this day.
This staunchly feminist attitude was deeply at odds with my family’s religious teachings. Both my mother and me were brought up in the Church of the Nazarene. The qualities deemed most desirable in a woman by the Church and its members were namely whiteness (or proximity to it), chastity, and submission. I was taught that beauty was to be found in one’s perceived virginity, and willingness to serve a man. Both of which naturally excluded me, a childhood sexual assault survivor who has never been interested in men sexually.
Though I did receive a lot of praise for my bright blonde hair, blue-green eyes and light skin. This told me everything I needed to know about what people actually took into account when they interacted with me, my exterior. I was forced to listen to sermons and “youth-oriented discussions” on the value of sexual purity, and how abstinence until marriage is the only righteous path. All while knowing that these same people who were seemingly so concerned about “my immortal soul” would look down on me if they knew what I had been through. Keep in mind I stopped going to church at the age of 10, so these are just the messages I absorbed as a young child.
Taking a step back
All of these perspectives were sorely lacking. They are 2 dimensional at best and serve only to flatten the powerful twin forces that are feminine beauty and feminine sexuality into something built only to serve someone else’s imagination. These common means of understanding the world around us (politics, religion, and science) seek to reduce the entirety of human experience: love, sexual tension, release, pleasure, pain, gratitude, longing, fulfillment, comfort, affection, intimacy, and identity into things that can be easily owned, manipulated, and eventually consumed. I deserved better as a kid, and we all deserve a deeper understanding and appreciation for the truly multifaceted nature of femininity.
Multiplicity and Femininity
When looking back, I find myself intrigued by this aspect of multiplicity inherent to my childhood understanding of femininity. Barbie was an alien who could successfully live and function among humans. Drag queens, a childhood fascination of mine, looked nothing like their drag personas when the makeup came off. Many people who wear it feel makeup to be something akin to a mask, a part of themself, but something that can be put on and removed at will or convenience. To my young mind, femininity was allowed to exist in so many iterations, and masculinity came in one form: loud, and dangerous.
I did not have options as a child. Lack of choice was, in fact, a defining aspect of my childhood. Everything in my life, from what and when I ate, to how I dressed, sat, and spoke was policed by someone. Everyone had a fucking opinion. The aspect of femininity that I fell in love with was simply the idea of being able to conceal and reveal aspects of yourself at will. There is real power in this act. It has saved my life. And continues to do so to this day, though I now recognize that this skill is not inherently gendered.
Photo by Leeloo Thefirst
Wrapping it all up
Despite my enduring passion for the power that others find in feminine beauty and sexuality, it is not for me to claim personally. I admire it deeply, but I do not feel a personal connection to what, for others, can be a very real means to self-fulfillment. One need only witness the amount of folks who feel personally liberated by expressing their femininity and having it validated, to understand that a great many people find joy and identity in embodying aspects of the human condition which greater society recognizes as “feminine”.
Thankfully, my understanding of the world has grown beyond that of general society to include the fact that gender is personally understood, and there are as many genders as there are people in existence. It was only through interrogating my relationship to masculinity, femininity, and gender as a whole that I came to see this truth. So, while I can’t give her all the credit, I do have to thank you, Barbie, for kicking off one queer kid’s journey into thinking critically about this bizarre thing we call gender.
I have not made it a habit in my day-to-day life to be out and proud about being trans. In fact, just recently I felt it necessary to completely disavow my transness, in an attempt to get someone to gender me correctly. The misgendering isn’t any fault of mine, and I didn’t necessarily have to approach the issue this way. But this is the route I chose. I don’t know all my reasons for this, but I have distilled it down to a sense of safety.
I currently work in a construction subcontractor’s office. When I first started, the man who is both my direct supervisor and the Vice President of the company routinely misgendered me, for some reason. I sat both him and his wife, the President of the company, down and had a brief discussion about my pronouns. Though they never asked outright, I denied being trans. Since this conversation, my supervisor has improved. The President has been overall really consistent in addressing me properly, but just a week ago from writing this, she misgendered me when speaking to another employee. I didn’t, and still don’t understand why this keeps happening. The “why” doesn’t matter, ultimately. I am now extremely anxious to come into work, because I am continually trying to brace myself for the inevitable. They have improved significantly over this last week, but my boss fucked up again today. Suffice it to say, I’m looking for another job.
My boss did offer to let me punch him as a means of apology. Maybe one of these days I should take him up on the offer.
I know that I am not obligated to disclose my trans status, and I am perfectly within my rights to go as stealth as possible. I have dealt with a lot of harassment, and systemic transphobia just to get to the point of being stealth. Even accepting all this, the fact that I felt the need to go to these lengths to remain stealth doesn’t sit well with me. To me, this is proof that the world is not for me, as a trans person. In order to protect my sanity and my safety, it felt safest to distance myself from my own identity, even here in sunny San Diego, California.
This is unacceptable. If I, a gigantic, white, “cis passing” trans guy doesn’t feel safe, who the fuck could? This world has been violently, and irreparably shaped to promote white, cis passing men’s welfare as much as possible. I point this out in order to offer something of a counterpoint to the ridiculous idea that “we’ve come so far” with accepting gender expansive people. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard something along the lines of “We’re so progressive here in California, you’re in a good spot!” or “We’ve come so far in accepting this gender stuff.”, I’d be a rich man. People are really out here thinking we solved transphobia. Lord, help them.
It’s exhausting to have the struggles that define your day-to-day life completely invalidated and ignored. This reminds me of the arguments my fiancee and me got into over the length of time I took to come out to one of her parents. Her parents have recently divorced so, I came out to most of my fiancee’s family all at once, and then came out to this particular parent months later. The reason for this is simple, I didn’t think they would get it, and I was right. My fiancee hated seeing how stressed and angry I got when this parent would refer to me with feminine terms, and literally said to me more than once, “If you would just come out…”. She was under the impression that it would help because her other parent had already mistakenly outed me as trans to this person. For some reason, this gave my fiancee the impression that all I needed to do was come out, and this parent would suddenly start gendering me correctly. I knew it would actually make things worse, and after I was able to calm down, I repeatedly explained as much to my fiancee. Yet, she still pushed me to come out. Eventually she dropped it, and I stuck to my own timeline. I am proud of that.
Unfortunately, I was exactly correct. The first time we visited after I came out, this parent didn’t change at all. During this holiday trip, this parent never once referred to me correctly, rarely corrected themselves, and even had the gall to leave a holiday decoration featuring my deadname on display in their home. I ended up taking this decoration down myself the night before we left.
My fiancee and me ended up getting in one of the worst arguments we have ever had over this parent’s behavior. The specifics of this fight are not important but suffice it to say neither of us are proud of the things we said. My point in addressing this argument at all is to highlight that there are always very real reasons someone is concealing aspects of their identity from people that are otherwise “close” to them. I knew I would be unable to safely cope with her parent repeatedly, and knowingly misgendering me. I have known that misgendering would be the biggest problem for me since before I even admitted that I am trans. The real fear of what emotions misgendering could bring up kept me from coming out for a very long time. I knew transitioning publicly would take a massive amount of emotional labor, and masking when I am feeling intense emotions, neither of which I have ever been very good at. So, I stayed in the closet until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. This is not a tactic I would recommend. However, it was definitely the safest option for me and my circumstances. I did what I had to, and now I am living with the consequences.
I will say I am definitely more emotionally mature and capable than I was at 20-22 years old. I was living with my mother back then, which caused a lot of problems. That situation demanded so much of me emotionally that I did not have the bandwidth to look inward. I was working 14-hour days for a laughable amount of money. I wasn’t even brushing my teeth regularly, I barely had access to laundry facilities, and wasn’t getting adequate nutrition. I was relying on caffeine and the occasional diet pill to mitigate my hunger. I was also drinking pretty heavily until the pandemic hit. Then I had no choice but to quit drinking for months on end. I also had space, and time alone to reflect on myself and my life choices up to that point. I knew then that it was do or die, literally. The minute I could, I started applying for jobs with he/him pronouns, and I came out to my fiancee.
Then came the reconciliation. I couldn’t quite square up my reasons for waiting so damn long. I resented myself a lot. I hated the world for what it is. I was scared. So scared, even though I’ve known this was inevitable since I was teenager. I’ve spent a lot of time and brain power on this question of waiting, and the best I’ve come up with is, again, safety. I was out of control. I couldn’t have handled the things that come with moving through the world as a trans person. I would have completely self-destructed or irreparably harmed someone around me or both. I’m glad I dealt with my issues in the order that I did. I guess I just wish the world had made it easier. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to wait so long.
People like to push the narrative that you can’t expect people to change the way they view you if you don’t ask them to, a.k.a coming out. And while I totally understand this on a practical level and really don’t see an alternative in the foreseeable future, I do struggle with the perception of coming out as a fix. The only thing that telling people you are trans actually gives you is the ability to say “Well, I’ve done my part.”
It is the responsibility of the people to whom we come out to do the work of changing their perceptions of us. Many people do not understand this. So many people think that if we just “educated” someone who is “ignorant about trans people” they would be a perfect ally and the trans people in their life will never have problems with them again. But that is hardly how it works.
Someone made this assertion to me once, albeit not in as many words. I was telling them that I wasn’t yet out to a mutual family member of ours because I know they have transphobic views, and this person interrupted me to say “Oh well, they’re just ignorant.” I literally could not continue with the conversation after that. This small comment changed the way I view this person, because it betrays an ignorance of it’s own. No amount of education will change someone’s view of me.
Gender is such a nebulous concept that the average person doesn’t have the time, space, or mental bandwidth to engage appropriately with this topic. This is a personal journey I am asking them to take in order to understand me better. I could talk until I’m blue in the face, but it is entirely up to the individual to whom I am coming out to change their thinking or not. Which is why coming out to others is less important than a lot of things.
Coming out isn’t as important as:
1. Active participation by the people closest to you.
Actually coming out is a hell of a lot less important than what happens afterward. In my family, I have two people for whom I knew the shift in thinking would be very difficult. One is elderly, the other is middle aged. My elderly family member has tried very hard and messes up constantly but is getting better. I know she practices in her spare time. She tries her damndest, it is still hard for me sometimes but I really appreciate the effort.
Then there is one middle aged family member that I’m 99% sure still refers to me with feminine terms behind my back, most of the time. This person also constantly misgenders me to my face, but does go out of their way to correct themselves sometimes. I won’t get too into details because they really aren’t important. All I know is that this person does not see me as a man, and is not working to change their perspective at all. This is the same person that was referred to as “ignorant” in the anecdote above.
Coming out to this person made things worse for me in some senses, and much better in others. Sure, it’s nice to be open about who I am and to know for sure that my intuition about this person was correct. But at the same time, I am now dealing with a person who is knowingly misgendering and deadnaming me. So, ultimately, coming out to this person was next to useless. Not entirely, and I certainly don’t regret it. But my part is done, and the more important part of the equation is missing.
2. Coming out to yourself and self compassion more generally
It took forever to crack this egg. I have known that I “identified outside the binary” since I was about 13-14. That language resonated with me and then I immediately proceeded to not investigate that further until I was in my 20s. I spent my teenage years trying to understand the form of masculinity with which I was most familiar. That is cisgender, heterosexual, patriarchal, white masculinity. I became deeply invested in the idea of becoming a good person through embodying the hegemonic ideals of my childhood:
Love and support a woman, maybe even a family, get a good job, work hard, exercise and get tough, be all things strong, capable, and stoic for everyone around you. (Incidentally, all of this means that anyone who is not interested in or capable of being any of these things is “less of a man”.)
In my 20s, I was finally forced to confront the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, a cisgender man. That, by default, disqualifies me from attaining the pinnacle of the masculine ideal of my childhood. This led to a lot of shame, resentment, and hopelessness. For years, I didn’t take any steps to address anything about my gender beyond my clothing. I now have to live with, and work through the regret associated with this wait and the reasons behind it.
The “coming out to myself” process has been more of an exercise in self-compassion than I really ever expected. It is shame that has been the most painful part of this so-called “transition”, and the only antidote for shame is compassion. I have to forgive myself for the sin of not being cis, the sin of being fat, the sin of being queer. I have to forgive or I would not be who I am today.
3. Learning more about trans people and trans experiences.
This includes engaging with the creative work of trans people such as books, art, music, comics, zines, poetry, essays, podcasts, and news articles by trans/gender expansive journalists. And mutual aid. These also happen to be two of the most potent options for building a trans community around you. Start following the accounts of trans artists, and creators. The TransJoy Media Instagram account is a great place to find new and established trans artists featured as frequently as possible.
You can also start going to local craft fairs, farmers markets, and other events that feature local artisans and creators. Sure, with this method there’s not necessarily a way to know if the artist you like is trans, so I would recommend keeping an eye out for art with explicitly queer themes. Chat with the artists if you can and discuss your own identity if you’re comfortable and how their art resonates with you. As a creator myself, I love talking about my work and how people relate to it.
4. Your safety.
This is an old saw but one worth repeating. Your safety and comfort is the single most important thing about your transition. The second half of this two part series will deal with this in depth, but for now, just remember that you are never obligated to come out to anyone. Just like welcoming people into your home, you should be allowed to choose where, when, how, and to whom you come out.
No one should push you into coming out before you are ready, under any circumstances. You deserve comfort and safety.
My own relationship to “coming out” has been rather messy, and fraught. Personally, I don’t like having to explain myself to people. I am an incredibly private person, and my transness is wrapped up in many deeply personal aspects of my history and identity. I’m certain there are plenty of other trans people out there who feel like this. Which is exactly the reason why I am working to change my perspective on this act of telling people who I am. I have heard coming out described as actually welcoming people to learn more about you as a person. Much like you would when welcoming someone into your home.
This slight shift in language helped me understand why I was so reluctant to share this incredibly private part of myself with my family. I am allowed to decide who comes into my home, and I am allowed to decide who knows I am trans. This is not always the case in practice, but I found that using this mental framework in advance of these types of conversations can feel empowering and help you approach people with confidence.
If you approach people with respect and openness the onus is on them to reciprocate or not.
hal sansone is a love poet, mystic, and pre-Nursing student with a love for trans caregiving. he currently spends his afternoons caring for dogs, cats, and critters. he spends the rest of his time existing in a vibrant and inter-dependent chosen family. he lives with two kitties – Fish, an anarchist witch, and Mr. Flamingo, her nervous but sweet protégé. he currently resides on Dakota homeland also called Minneapolis, Minnesota. he wants you to know that he loves you, whoever you are. forthcoming: featured poet (gris literatura), actor/maker in “Light My Way” (Sandbox Theatre), “winter garlic” micro chapbook (Ethel)
If you’re feeling anything akin to what I am these days, you may be wanting to go out on the streets and physically join the fight for trans rights. Problem is, not everyone can afford to both go out and demonstrate, and make rent. I am one of these people.
[As an aside, I also question the ability of organized peaceful demonstrating to do anything of actual political use. But politics is not the focus of this article.]
I, like many people, have a family that fully depends on my income. If I go out, trying to stand up for my right to exist, and I end subjugated by the state and remanded to prison, my family would suffer immensely. I imagine this to be the case for a lot of queer people.
So how are we, the caregivers, the income earners, the disabled, and immunocompromised, supposed to fight for our existences? Below are some great ideas for getting involved in community action, and joining the fight for trans rights that don’t involve rioting in the streets.
Great options for joining the fight for trans rights:
You can participate in mutual aid from your immediate vicinity, from home, and/or on the computer. Building alternative routes to meeting both individual and community needs is a powerful form of political action and one that is actually accessible and familiar to most people. Think the church food pantry, or the uniform donation drive at public school.
But we can think beyond these tried and true methods to more direct, and immediate forms of aid. Most people have family or friends that you can check up on. This is a form of mutual aid. Asking if they want something from the grocery store before visiting your parent or friend. Mutual aid. Giving people money without the expectation of being paid back. (Personally, I only give money with this attitude.) Mutual aid. There are so many more ways to do this:
Text a friend going through a hard time. Be kind and open without expecting engagement in return. People really like feeling included even if they can’t actually reciprocate in the moment.
Organize a carpool for anything! People who go to school, work, after school/weekend activities, volunteer activities, or even the grocery store could all use a carpool option. Bonus, it’s really good for our ever deteriorating climate. Keep in mind some of the people who could most use a carpool, are also the most vulnerable among us. The elderly, the immunocompromised, and the very young would all probably be better served by the next option.
Create a family friendly/disabled friendly transportation option. Single parents, families without reliable transportation, elderly people, disabled people, immunocompromised people, and people who use mobility aids often have a difficult time getting around. Yes, there can (sometimes) be transportation options available through some public or medical services. But these are very exclusionary in their policies on who can access them, if they even exist at all in your community. These types of organizations are known for being extremely unreliable, often late picking you up, if they even bother to show up at all. And families with young children often do not have access to a free or low cost option for transportation at all. This leads to many people missing appointments that are vital to their and their children’s health and safety. If you are a communicative, reliable person with a larger vehicle, you could look into coordinating a carpool that specifically services the above mentioned populations. Keep in mind this requires you to know the limits of your capabilities. There will be people you simply are not equipped to help, and you must be prepared to say no when you would knowingly put yourself or the person you are driving with at risk. Certified medical transportation exists in this country (U.S.) for a reason! Also, I recommend studying up on safe methods of storing and transporting mobility aids and car seats/booster chairs. I have almost broken a wheelchair before by being careless. Don’t be me, people depend on these devices.
Organize a “neighborhood pod”, of any sort. This practice saw a surge in popularity during the lockdown, which brought with it the need for parents to actively spend hours a day teaching their own children. Many working parents arranged a type of homeschool pod where students would all meet at one parent’s house to attend virtual school together. This is just one example of what is really an ancient practice. People have always banded together in small groups to get their needs collectively met. So, if you’re the extroverted type, start meeting with people in your neighborhood, or church, or child’s class and just ask around about what people could use. Are a lot people struggling to find time to run errands? Does someone have a 2-3 hour chunk of time to devote to running a few errands for people? It really can be this informal, and can change as needs arise, and ability to contribute changes. I recommend going into groups like this with an understanding that everyone will not be able to contribute in ways that appear “equal”. The point is to be fair about it. Maybe your 90 year old neighbor can’t run errands or watch the kids, but she gave you all a great batch of cookies, so hey.
I am aware that I have put a lot emphasis on keeping your expectations of reciprocation low. But I would like to point out the “mutual” part of the phrase “mutual aid”. The entire point is that it is mutual. You, as the organizer, should still be contributing a need that will be met to the pot. Maybe one week, you need a ride somewhere. Maybe you haven’t had any time this month to go to the hardware store and your brother just said he was running errands in that part of town. Be sure that you are also getting some of your needs met when you engage in mutual aid.
The fight for trans rights takes all kinds, and needs pretty much any skillset.
There are opportunities to volunteer your IT, administrative, marketing, or graphic design skills. Pretty much any organization needs people creating and/or disseminating information through email, social media, posters, flyers, etc.
Here’s a brief list of resources to get you started on your search for volunteer opportunities.
Interrogating ones own biases and general ideas on the world:
This is one of the most productive and necessary actions to take even if it feels like twiddling your thumbs.
The fight for trans rights needs people to work on their understanding of trans, black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, and intersex people’s places and experiences in society. And the intersections of how these specific identities lead to different (sometimes overlapping) barriers to moving through society freely. You don’t even have to read Judith Butler to get started with this.
I believe that if you approach this task of expanding your perspective with the following set of understandings and beliefs, you will begin to understand what we mean when we say “No one is free until everyone is free.”
Belief/Value #1: Understand that individual members of minority populations are NEVER obligated to explain or speak on things they don’t wish to. No one owes anyone an explanation of their existence.
Belief/Value #2: Trust people when they do explain their experiences. Marginalized people are constantly talked over, spoken down to, and outright disbelieved when we offer, in good faith, to explain our experiences. This understanding that you should trust people with different experiences than yourself when they try to explain those experiences truly only comes once one understands that everyone approaches these subjects through their own lens. Your personal perspective on things like gender, sex and sexuality, race, or social expectations and status, is influenced by so many factors that in order to actually grow you must understand the natural limitations of any one individuals perspective. I am a white, trans man. This perspective comes with many limitations, and also does not explain the whole picture of my understanding of the world. No set of labels, or identities, could possibly do that, for any of us.
Belief/Value #3: Resolve to always vet your sources of information during your learning process. Reddit is NOT a valid source. If you need more information on how to do this or where to get started with your research, we have an article for that.
Belief/Value #4: Above all else, you must believe that no one, and I do mean nobody, DESERVES to be mistreated. I’m not talking about any kind of special circumstances, I mean on a broader, more systemic scale. I think everyone deserves a fair shake. I want you to stop and sit with that for a moment. Really think about what that means and how much your behavior or ideas about the world are in line with this belief. Then consider ways they could be more aligned. The answer to the question “Why should I use different pronouns for people?”, or “Why should I trust what trans people tell me?”, boils down to this basic belief. Do you believe that no one deserves mistreatment?
Making monetary donations
to individuals directly, mutual aid funds, grassroots orgs, and inclusive abortion/healthcare funds:
I highly recommend giving money directly to individuals. There are plenty of people on gofundme and Instagram that could use cash for vital essentials.
If you go the donating to an org route it is imperative you make sure to do your research on how any organization uses its funds. Grassroots, major charity, direct action, or mutual aid fund, it doesn’t matter. Do your research, which could mean you having to call or email them directly and ask for a breakdown of their funding structure.
If you give cash directly to the community you wish to serve, you know it is getting in the right hands because you put it there.
Organizing a Labor Union
The United States of America does not have a good history with organized labor in general. Historically, the powers that be are reluctant at best, and downright hostile at worst to the idea of changing exploitative labor practices, and instead only act in the interest of the almighty dollar. A particularly bloody event in the history of the U.S. labor movement is the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Image depicting a headline from The Washington Post that states “Air Fleet Ordered to West Virginia Battlefield”
This event saw miners and their families gassed, bombed, shot, and arrested for exercising their right to free assembly in order to improve their living and working conditions. It is because of these people, and many more like them that we have the opportunity to unionize today.
In the United States all workers “…have the right to talk to your coworkers about starting a union and about workplace conditions, including pay.”
I truly wish I had known this a few years ago when I was working at an incredibly abusive employer. Click here to read the guide I wish I had had.
Vote for the most progressive candidates in any and all elections you can manage to:
I’ll admit I’m not the best for this on the hyper local level, but I always make sure to vote in any and all state and federal level elections, and the primaries if I can swing it. My state allows vote by mail, so this is the main reason I am able to vote.
If you can manage it, I would vote for everything you can, from city council to local school boards. If you can vote, do!
Fight for trans rights by screaming in their faces (figuratively):
Write or email any and all so called “representatives”.
When some fucking governor or state representative is set to sign another anti trans bill, you can call or email to discourage them even if you do not have a connection to the area.
Same goes for officials of every level from your local school board to the Supreme Court and the president’s office. Annoy them with how much you call and email. Make an email address specifically for this if you don’t want to get flooded with campaign advertisements.
Some boards and committees have other options for accessibility such as live streams and call in options. This infrastructure has improved somewhat since the lockdown, but it still has a long way to go on the local levels. So if you can manage it, I really encourage you to make appearances in person at whatever local board/committee meetings you feel compelled to.
Wrapping it all up
All in all, there’s no need to wallow in despair and inaction. Feel your feelings, and let them carry you forward to putting whatever energy you can spare towards the fight for trans rights. We need all hands on deck for this fight for trans, black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, and intersex liberation! Because no one is free, until we are all free!