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Becoming Laura, installment three: 'Un-making a man out of me'

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Laura, age 26 , Kejimkujik National Park, 1985
Laura, age 26 , Kejimkujik National Park, 1985
Laura, age 56, Halifax,2015
Laura, age 56, Halifax,2015

By Laura Shepherd

“I get it,” my friend said, at length. “You’re not a man. You’re a traitor.”

I was trying to explain being trans. I’ve known my friend a long time. He was comfortable with our friendship when he thought I was a man. Coming out to him challenged his view of manhood, as much as it did his notion of me and our friendship. It does for a lot of people I know.

My friend hasn’t thought about gender much. He hasn’t really had to – he’s cisgender, white, male, straight, married, owns a business started by family, and is used to prosperity. He’s satisfied with himself, and figures he’s pretty much done everything right to earn the privileges he enjoys. Including being a man.

So he speaks, he believes, with authority when he tells me I’m delusional. I accept his candor – he is my friend, after all. I forgive him, too - as much for misunderstanding his own gender as for misunderstanding me and mine.

I passed as a man for fifty years. I was taught how to be a man, by men who regarded me as like kind. I’m white, I’m educated, I’m a dual (Canadian/US) citizen. Before I transitioned, I enjoyed the privilege of going just about anywhere I wanted in North America without ever having to explain myself. That’s the exclusive privilege of white men.

I don’t have to venture too far from home to realize I’ve surrendered that privilege. Strangers my own age – men - will walk right up to me in the middle of an Irving Big Stop or a Dunkin Donut, somewhere, and ask me my medical history, in so many words. They adopt the posture of those urgent to act as I approach a washroom their wife recently entered. I’ve feigned great interest in the astonishing array of liquid products for engines, transmissions, and brake systems, just to avoid confrontations at truckstops, waiting for a busy washroom to vacate.

For me, such encounters have no good outcome – I am outed and spotlighted at the very least. It’s only ever a question of how badly things will turn out. People are pretty convinced their ideas about gender are correct, and they think they need to protect them when they feel they are threatened. I threaten them, just by being trans. In practice, this means I face confrontation a lot. Sometimes, I’ve deferred defending myself so many times in a day, it’s hard to tell you with a straight face that I really am proud to be trans.

Despite fifty years in his clothes, I really have no idea what a man is. I can recite all the ways men are reckoned to be, by nature. You can, too. We learned this stuff in childhood: men are things like competitive, committed, outcome driven, physically powerful, undistracted by emotions. Women are, well, not. We can’t help it – any of us – it’s just the way we were made, by evolution or intelligent design, take your pick.

I worked as a ‘spin doctor’ in politics. I know ‘spin’ when I see it. This sounds unmistakably like ‘spin’- a harmless-enough sounding moniker for ‘propaganda and misinformation’.

I can’t tell you what a woman is, either. Neither do I think other trans women can. Yet, there’s a strange kind of gender enforcement practiced in some trans women circles that echoes, to me, the way men admonish each other to behave as men. I hear the phrase ‘like a woman’ used in reference to movement, gesture, vocabulary, voice – any number of forms of expression. I almost never hear a critical discussion about what makes a person a ‘woman’. Instead, we authoritatively offer each other helpful how-to hints to make each other look, act, move, smell, and sound (more, presumably) ‘like a woman’. This, too, is ‘spin’ – I don’t have to follow any of those imperatives to be a trans woman.

There is nothing wrong with passing as cis or wanting to. I used try to do so, myself. I just found I spent so much time and energy worrying about my success, it impeded my ability to function naturally in social situations. If anything, my self-consciousness resembled the state of anxiety I experienced from dysphoria, the very condition I was trying to relieve by presenting as female, in the first place. There is a spectrum of both identities and expressions. For a binary identified trans woman, my location on that spectrum is closer to non-binary than many age-peers I know who are trans women.

Those whose gender is non-binary – that is, neither male nor female or maybe something else entirely – live without the presence of recognizable role models or forms – for themselves or others. To many who have not questioned gender, genderqueer and non-binary folks are invisible, or dismissed as deliberately strange when they are recognized as unfamiliarly gendered. People don’t usually tell you to do something ‘like a genderqueer,’. It’s not the kind of gender we used to show kids they could be.

I remember being ten or twelve and losing a fistfight to Jimmy Martineau. He’d punched me harder than he’d intended, and broke my glasses. I bled all over my t-shirt. We both knew he didn’t mean to be so enthusiastic about punching me in the nose. We were fist fighting, but as friends frustrated with and testing each other, not as enemies trying to hurt one another. There were understood to be limits. He had, according to our unspoken rules, no reason to apologize – he’d won the fight. Still, I knew he felt badly. What he said, instead, was, “Just take it like a man,” as if I’d be doing both of us as well as manhood in general a favour if I acted like I felt neither physical nor emotional pain, and simply bled like a car might leak oil.

His direct hit ended the fight. I might have felt pain, I may have felt vanquished. But I didn’t feel fear. Not anymore. I’d felt that when I was punching Jimmy, when I was fending off (or not) his blows. I felt it before the confrontation got physical, when violence was an imminent danger. He felt it then, too, but we didn’t talk about that. Ever. We never acknowledged to each other that we felt fear. We earnestly believed men – ‘real men’ (we used that phrase) – did not feel fear.

That might have been the first time I got an inkling that we don’t talk about the real experience of being men, especially the anxiety and apprehension people trying to be men feel in the face of a daunting expectation for dominance, and the certain loss of esteem that accompanies failure or weakness. Boys are often made to feel like they’re supposed to know already how to be men, but for some reason of inadequacy they keep getting it wrong. I think a fear of failing at being your own gender is, in fact, one of the things that inspires more oppressive or ‘toxic’ masculinities.

I played sports, in part to prove my gender. Built small for a competitive male athlete, I found niches in contact sports, like goaltender in hockey, where I could watch others act out the violence of the game with some immunity from it, myself, and thus perspective.

Mostly I played, and later coached baseball. It’s a game of intimidation. Instead of brute body contact, baseball’s competitive physicality is almost abstract, or psychological – sliding hard into the second baseman to break up a double play but not actually interfering with him, throwing your head sideways at bat to avoid contact with a chin-high fastball calculated to miss you, anyway – but just barely – in order to scare the daylights out of you before the next pitch.

Everybody’s leg shakes when they first face a really fast pitch, though no one ever tells you that. You have to learn to get past that fear, to hit the ball. This gets abbreviated by some coaches as the directive, ‘Be a man’. Kids pick this up. Peers would confidently encourage a young batter to ‘be a man out there’ when his leg shook in fear after a frightening pitch. Barely a decade out of diapers, they acted already as expert arbiters of their gender.

“Like a man”, on the ball field, may mean not showing pain, not showing fear, not acknowledging emotion. The commonality is economy of expression, cultivated as the opposite of the expressiveness of femininity. Traditional masculinity considers anything more than functional expressiveness to be frivolous or indulgent. It’s no wonder men don’t talk to each other about being men.

We pretend that manhood – masculinity – comes naturally to men. It’s not reckoned to be contrived – not like applying make-up to the face is seen as artificial and deceptive. Personally, having applied makeup to my face, and having shaped that same face into a look of studied disinterest after publicly enduring physical pain, I’m hard-pressed to declare one more a fraud than the other.

What is real is about gender is the power and privilege we assign to the male and masculine – the system we call ’patriarchy’. We teach boys how to be dominant and how to dominate. But mostly, we teach them that access to manhood is exclusive, and determined by other men.

It’s like a crime syndicate – it’s understood you can never leave the confines of manhood once admitted, and you’re expected to defend it, no matter what. For the safety of the syndicate, it’s unwise to talk about it too much with others inside the family of men, or to say what you really think, so everybody toes more or less the same line, whether they believe it or not. And what happens in manhood stays in manhood.

Being a trans woman looks, through this lens, like a betrayal, like I’m telling tales out of school, like I double-crossed the mob. That’s what my friend meant when he called me a ‘traitor’.

As the father of two cisgender boys, now in their early twenties, I tried to give voice to the illusions and insecurities of manhood and masculinity. I didn’t want my boys to grow up feeling like they had to act out an ideal – and possibly unattainable - version of their gender in order to inhabit it, in order to become men. I tried to show them there are multiple masculinities, multiple ways of being a man. It’s possible, I wanted them to know, to be a good man – one who is not toxic in their practice of masculinity.

We know there are multiple femininities – the variety of expression we permit women is an indicator. I used to envy women the possibilities open to them. My women co-workers could wear anything, within the workplace dress code, and it would not in any way threaten their gender. A suit jacket and loose men’s necktie one day, a skirt and sleeveless blouse the next. If I did that, trying to pass as a man, I’d be told to go home and change, at least out of the skirt. It would, in my workplaces, have spawned a further personal scrutiny to understand my motivation. Meanwhile, nobody sent my co-worker to get her head examined for dying her hair with blue and green streaks.

I protested the necktie as an accessory of power, not fashion and decorum, when we reviewed the dress code at the school board where I worked. “Why,” I cheekily asked my supervisor one day, “do I have to tie a cloth penis around my neck and marry my job to be taken seriously as a man?”

Because, power and privilege. That’s why the woman in the workplace can get away with, essentially, any gender expression she wishes – she’s a woman. It doesn’t really matter what she wears because the male world doesn’t care, not about her, not about her gender. This is how patriarchy works.

Patriarchy let me in the club.

I will tell you I was never a man, only mistaken for one. My friend will tell you I am a man. A man, to him, is someone who is recognized as a man by other men. He thinks it’s some kind of choice, my being trans. My insistence on leaving the syndicate, as it were, is tantamount to treason, for him.

This is echoed by those cisgender women who see my experience of male privilege as incompatible with womanhood or femininity – who see being a woman as its own exclusive experience, of powerlessness and lack of privilege relative to men. Some women see trans women claiming womanhood as just another form of oppression by ‘men’.

To me, trying to define a gender is like trying to capture an electron. As soon as you think you’ve pinpointed it, it vanishes. It’s like a quantum phenomenon that way – we know it only by its shadow, only by what it is not, by where it is not.

It’s no surprise to me men are nervous about manhood – it really is a house of cards. We use gender as a tool to support a system of unequal power and privilege. Were it not for that system, what would gender be? We don’t know.

As a trans woman, I am frequently challenged to show how my gender is not a fraud. What I don’t often say is, I can’t. All I can do, truthfully, is show how your gender is a fraud, too.

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I think it's gracious of you

I think it's gracious of you to continue to be this person's friend and respond in this way to what would have been a baffling and hurtful comment. Much of what you write about  the conditioning of boys was unknown to me in spite of some inquiery and I think that's totally intentional for ther reasons you describe. So thank you for that insight.

I had played the role of aribtering access to womanhood, not against people who had experienced male privilege but those who hadn't acknowleged it or continued to act out of privilege. In reality I guess all I can arbiter is my own space.

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