What I've Learned About Toxic Masculinity As A Trans Man

Trans women are incessantly policed on everything from being too female to not being female enough – but no one asks what it really means to be a man, writes CJ Atkinson.
Courtesy of CJ Atkinson
Courtesy of CJ Atkinson

The first time I attended a group for transmasculine folx, I stood nervously in the breakout room watching three men drool over a car on their phone. In so many ways it felt like I was a kid again, standing with my brother and his friends while they talked about rugby and girls and cars.

Sometimes I think that the nature of being trans is that you’re born in the world with a tally in your head. A certain number of points make you a girl, a certain number of points make you a boy, and good luck to the rest of us floating around in between.

People always ask trans people how they knew, as though we only make sense with an acceptable enough origin story. Trans women are incessantly policed on everything from being too female to not being female enough. But in some ways, this policing of trans women also begs the question that people never ask of trans men like me: what does it mean to be a man?

Cards on the table, I’m not a binary trans man. I identify as non-binary transmasculine for many reasons, a lot of which I’m happy to discuss at great length but essentially comes down to this: I was assigned female at birth but my discomfort in my body has more to do with stereotypes or societal norms.

“The policing of trans women begs the question that people never ask of trans men like me: what does it mean to be a man?”

Because of this, I take testosterone, and am on the waiting list for what is known as ‘top surgery’ – a double mastectomy which will allow me to present a more masculine chest shape. Yet I’m aware of the limits of language and gender, and I’m also passionately queer, which is why I use they/them pronouns. It sounds a lot, but it’s simply my way of being in the world. I am specific, but I’m certainly not unique.

The first time I came out to a friend, she laughed. It wasn’t unsupportive laughter but the kind of laugh that a best friend can do where they’re amused and fond and ready to fight your corner with you.

“But you hate men,” she said. And then, without missing a beat: “but if you want to go shopping, I’m here for you.” The first time I heard that it was funny. The tenth time, it had grown a little bit old.

By the time I hit my twenties, I was comfortable calling myself queer, even if I wasn’t sure about calling myself a woman. My friends, predominantly, were queer people – queer women in most cases – and our spaces were political, defiant, and critical of the white cis heterosexual patriarchy in which we live.

Masculinity was embraced in many ways by the people I know and love, in different performative ways – from the butch lesbians who rock suits and boots and are passionately proud of being women to the drag queens who first welcomed me into my first gay scene. The spaces aren’t angry, it’s just that being a man isn’t privileged within our spaces in the same way that it is everywhere else, intentionally.

It never occurred to me that this could be a problem.

Courtesy of CJ Atkinson
Courtesy of CJ Atkinson

Around this time, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault gave people a kind of rallying cry to start calling out power structures, to further challenge the idea that a default human is straight, white, male, middle-class, and physically and mentally unchallenged.

It also brought to the forefront of the world’s mind the concept, and consequences, of toxic masculinity. Which, while designed to benefit every gender, frequently gets compressed into easy, Twitter-friendly shorthand. So the world becomes #YesAllMen, even when trans masculine people are at higher risk of experiencing sexual assault and have no provision made for them. Compression like “this is a space for women and non-binary people”, where trans masculine and non-binary folks find themselves grouped in with “Ladies”. Compression like “trans men are men but we don’t mean you,” because your gender is valid but we don’t like it so we ignore it.

For the first time in my life, I realised that I was in complete disagreement with ideologies and thinking that I have called home for as long as I can remember. This world that had felt vibrant and inclusive because it felt like the rare space where you can celebrate your whole self suddenly wanted or needed me to leave a bit of myself at the door.

The discomfort comes from people explicitly stating that trans men are allowed in a space, while also confirming the worst preconceptions about men. Because honestly? When it comes to not all men, I really, really mean it.

To suggest that trans men benefit from male privilege is to suggest that we have access to the exact same kind of privilege and power structures that the average cis man does. For some men, this is absolutely the case; for some men, however, this will not ever be the case. While there are an increasing number of “passing” trans folk - usually white, physically abled, and slender - there are a majority of trans people who do not fit a very narrow definition of gender.

The central conflict of gender identity we need to overcome in our society is this: you are a man if you identify as a man, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the world will see and acknowledge you that way.

“You are a man if you identify as a man, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the world will see and acknowledge you that way”

Which means that in order to ‘pass’, as a trans masculine person, the behaviours you have to buy into increasingly feel like we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

I come back time and again to the idea of the gender tally. How do we collect enough points to ‘pass’ as being male? It sounds ridiculous phrased that way but we live in a codified world, and there are many of us trying to understand those codes so we can pass by unnoticed. It’s really that simple. Trans people like me are too often viewed as trying to ‘get away with something’ – when in reality most trans people are just trying to get through the day.

The first time this came to my door, it was relatively benign; someone asked me how I could be a man if I had a pierced nose. It never occurred to me that something as simple as a nose piercing could be gendered – I’d just had mine pierced because a cis male musician I knew had his nose pierced. But this is the kind of low-key and constant interrogation that challenges everything you understand about your gender manifestation.

So how do I get the required number of man points? Is it drinking beer on weekdays? Is it wearing sweatpants? Is it mother-in-law jokes and sexual assault? The rules for passing as a man walk so closely to toxic masculinity that they’re almost interchangeable.

I understand for many, many, many people there is a huge amount of trauma when it comes to dealing with masculinity. This is fair, and it’s valid, and I understand (and indeed deploy) a rage tweet as much as the next person. But what I’ve learned about toxic masculinity is that for as long as we allow it to dominate our definition of all masculinity, trans men and transmasculine non-binary people are going to find themselves isolated, without the resources we need just to survive.

CJ Atkinson is an queer writer and academic

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