39. “Hey, I Bet You’d Know: How Do Guys Think?”

Short Answer: No Idea, Stop Asking

Every once in a while I get asked about how guys think. The implicit, or sometimes explicit, presumption is that I must have some sort of insider information, since — they seem to think — I used to be (or still am?) a guy. This post is about how that's so very, very false. Truth is, my whole pre-transition life was spent faking being male. (Yes, I use sex/gender terms interchangeably, since I don't think they're as separate as people seem to like to think). In fact, I was so good at faking it, that people were shocked when I came out as trans* and told people about my transition plans.

metamorphosis_changethinking.pngWhen I told people about my transition plans, I'd often hear: "Wow, I never would have thought." Behind this is an implicit assumption that people can recognize transsexuality. Part of what's probably behind that is the "traditional narrative" of trans* people: they know from age 3-4, and they always gravitated towards stereotypically feminine (for trans* women) or masculine (for trans* men) endeavours, toys, etc., and that they eschewed and abhorred stereotypically masculine (for trans* women) or feminine (for trans* men) endeavours, toys, etc.

Well sure, that's true for some trans* people. Maybe a lot, I have no idea. Frankly, we have no data on the prevalence of this narrative for trans* people. But it's not my narrative. I didn't know from age 3-4. It wasn't until about age 12-13 that I started having doubts about my gender identity, and that I knew that I'd be happier as a girl. Unfortunately, it took me another 16 or so years to know that I am trans* and that I should transition.

But for all that time that I was uncomfortable being the way I was ("male" bodied and attributed with a male gender), I became very good at acting male. I had to: I didn't yet know that transitioning was a viable option for me. In fact, I hadn't yet even considered that I might actually be trans*. Growing up, I was socially awkward. I didn't know how to act, how to carry myself, how to move in the world. I didn't know how to be. So I began to study how male-bodied, male gender-attributed people typically behave, and interact with the world. And I essentially started acting. And I got really good at it.

But as good as I got at acting in those ways, at pulling off the role(s) of maleness and masculinity, it never came naturally. I honestly wasn't authentic. I never felt at home in my body, or in the world. I knew I was just faking it.

So when people ask me how guys think, presuming that I should have some insider information because, well, I *was* a guy (right?), well…I really have no idea. I was never really a guy. I was just acting. I know how they behave — I know quite well, in fact. But if you ask me what's going on in their heads, I honestly don't have a clue. Guys are as much a mystery to me as they are to anyone else.

Oh, and that question is really fucking offensive, by the way. Did you catch that? It presumes that I was a guy, merely because I was born with a particular body, or that society treated me a certain way. Sure, I was "raised" and enculturated as male, but that doesn't mean it had any affect on who I am. (There are some effects, sure, in that I avoided a lot of the negative ways that women are enculturated and treated from a young age, and throughout their lives.)

Honestly, shortly after I decided to transition, I was able to throw the "gender switch" and begin interacting with the world (even though the world often didn't interact with me at the start) as a woman. Social situations almost instantly became a breeze. I went from an (internally) awkward person — someone who used to be a big wallflower, for much of my life — to a social butterfly. Conversations flowed more freely, my actions ceased to be stiff and robotic, and all of my relationships instantly improved. Oh, I'm also happy now, and I smile a lot more!

I think there's an interesting, important, deep irony with all of this. A central stereotype of trans* women (and trans* people generally) is that they aren't authentically the gender, represented by their gender identity, and evidenced by their gender expression, presentation, and roles. The stereotype is also that they must consciously learn and practice how to be (for example) female, and thus they're just 'playing' at being female, but aren't actually authentically female. Media portrayals (like Bree in TransAmerica, which I've written about already) often show trans* women failing at being women: bad makeup, bad fashion, over-the-top stereotypically feminine, practiced mannerisms, tripping in heels, and so on. This ignores, all the while, that cis women sometimes struggle with each or all of these too; hell, there are entire television shows dedicated to the phenomenon (e.g., What Not To Wear). There's also a horrible presumption that if one has bad makeup, can't walk in heels, bad fashion, and so on, then one "fails at being a woman."

A conversation with a colleague after I gave a conference presentation on trans* women's stereotypes raised an important issue: there's not only a gender essentialism (that one is forever one's birth-assgined gender, and that there's something essential — a set of necessary and sufficient conditions — for being a particular gender) behind the trans* stereotype, but there's also an implicit gender essentialism in its suggesting that cis people are "naturally" and authentically their gender. This is false in both cases. Everyone "performs" gender, and it comes more naturally to some than others, whether cis or trans*. And everyone, at some point in their life (or, for most of us, most of our lives) "plays" with or "practices" features of gender, especially gender expression.

The irony is that I had to practice and study being perceived as male. When I got to flip my gender switch to female (I'm not being binaristic here), everything quickly became very natural. I don't have to try being a woman — it's just who I am. There's no acting anymore. I know how women think, because I am one: I don't know how guys think, I only played one.

Yours truly,