Transitioning comes with its own set of expected but odd social experiences.
You’ll have people ask about your plans for surgeries and medical procedures as easily as someone would ask about your holiday plans. “Oh, congratulations!” they’ll say before sneaking in a polite yet invasive, “So are you getting… the surgery?”
What surgery? Do I have a (new) health problem? Are you my doctor? Am I being Punk’d?
There’s also moments of awkwardness around discussions on gender, and specifically news stories about trans people in the media. At best, friends and family are much more likely to censor their discussions in an attempt to avoid causing issues. At worst, they don’t care and will straight up let you know that. You might overhear acquaintances misgendering you when you’re out of earshot, or parents using the incorrect pronoun for the 10th time in 30 seconds (how is that even possible?).
Still… nothing could have prepared me for the differences between being perceived as a woman in society to being seen as a man, especially as a queer man.
I’d like to preface this with the usual disclaimer: there are as many “transgender experiences” as there are preferred pizza toppings in the world… loads (just for the record: team pineapple.).
No two trans people will have identical lives, and often those experiences are based around the culture you’re living in, “passing” privilege (a nuanced concept I’ve discussed in previous articles) and race.
It would be foolish for me to ignore that my experiences have largely been good because the world perceives me as a young, queer white man and I’m not the subject of the intense and horrific racism trans people of color are subjected to. There have been some good articles discussing the difficulties around being a black trans man, and I’d suggest them as required reading for anyone living in our modern world.
These are just the personal realizations I’ve made over the last couple of years regarding how gender has affected my life, as a white queer trans man with chronic illnesses.
I can walk anywhere now and be pretty much invisible… except to homophobes
Presenting and being perceived as a woman in society comes with its own set of rules, particularly regarding your physical wellbeing.
You have to consider your safety in almost every circumstance, especially when walking alone at night. Most know what these rules are: keep your keys close to you, just in case you need to wield them like a dangerous Wolverine cosplay. Have your headphones on so no one tries to engage with you… but keep the volume low enough so you can be aware if someone is becoming enraged when you don’t reply back to their sleazy catcalls.
Even towering over most people at my height of 6’, the risk was very real. I’ve had my fair share of close calls, like the time I was walking to the corner store as a tween, and a guy followed me home. He waited on the back porch until he got bored and left while I hid in my room.
As a man, and especially as a white man, I now have very little trouble walking home alone. In fact, walking around on the streets often makes me feel invisible! I don’t experience the ever-present “elevator eyes”, where someone scans your body from head to foot and back again and people don’t bat an eye when I step out of my house looking like a sweatpant clad hermit.
However, that isn’t to say that I always feel safer. Since transitioning, I’ve experienced moments where I’ve been harassed or nearly assaulted by other men for appearing “gay”.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Zack, anyone can be gay! Gay isn’t a LOOK anymore, how stereotypical! And you’re totally right, disembodied voice! Yet there are still people who will judge you based solely on your appearance. (Shock of the century, I know.)
There have been moments where I apparently give off a “gay vibe” (I blame my opalescent Birkenstock sandals). Simply looking the way I do has made me a target for violence.
One specific situation comes to mind when I think of my “close calls” with homophobia. It was early on in my transition in the summer. I was taking the subway downtown, and leaving the subway car, I stopped for a moment to change my music. A few feet behind me a man was looking in my direction, and he began yelling. I kept my headphones on, continued to walk towards the escalator, and paused my music to hear what he was saying.
“FAG!” he screamed, “FUCKING HOMO!”
I looked around and noticed the two women next to me were speeding up to avoid the guy. I sped up as well, but so did the homophobe.
“Huh,” I anxiously wondered, “Who is he directing that to? There’s just… women around me… Unless…”
I realized: I was the target of his slurs.
There was a quick sensation of gender euphoria at the idea that even bigots were gendering me correctly now. That euphoria was short-lived because he started to yell more violent things and approach quicker. I walked as fast as my little sparkly Birkenstocks would take me and ran up the escalator.
Apparently homophobia is very taxing on the body, and he couldn’t keep up. I made it outside, turned the corner but kept an eye on the situation from a safe distance. I was worried he’d target another person, and my fears were confirmed when I saw him targeting another young man.
Unfortunately for him, when he punched the young man from behind… the guy let out an unexpected warcry and punched the homophobe straight in the face, dazing him. The young guy quickly got away and the homophobe began fighting with a parked car.
It wasn’t the only time I’ve had slurs thrown at me, but it was certainly one of the scariest.
Doctors seem to take my concerns more seriously now
My parents recently gave me a huge plastic bin filled to the top with childhood toys and memorabilia. Between the cherished stuffed animals and long-forgotten school projects were my years of school report cards. It wasn’t the comments from teachers or the grades that surprised me: it was my tally of days absent, spent sick at home.
There were a lot.
In the years leading up to my transition, I’d been complaining more frequently of physical symptoms. I’d wake up in the middle of the night shivering but drenched in alarming amounts of sweat. I’d have migraines that would leave me sick in bed for days. Food would always cause me stomach pain, and I rarely ate a meal that didn’t leave me feeling sore. I was iron deficient, but no one could explain why.
Initially, doctors would brush it off. They’d tell me that it was all anxiety, or that I wasn’t eating properly as an attention-seeking tactic. They’d explain away my pain by blaming it on “that time of the month” even when I’d point out that I was feeling pain all times of the month.
I started transitioning. Slowly, I noticed medical professionals becoming a bit more sympathetic. I began losing weight, initially by eating healthier but when the weight melted off at an alarming rate… doctors started to take notice. I had been complaining of these symptoms for five years, and it was documented in old medical records, yet suddenly was finding myself being referred for tests I had inquired about for years earlier.
It turned out that a lot of my symptoms were the result of certain autoimmune disorders. I could have been diagnosed much earlier, but a lot of my symptoms were brushed off as “period” related. I was seen as being someone who was a bit of a complainer, which is definitely true with respect to someone cutting me off in traffic but not with regards to my health concerns.
I had some serious long term issues due to my undiagnosed conditions, and while I’m grateful for treatment options available to me now, I can sometimes find myself wondering how life would have been different if I had just been taken seriously years before.
People expect me to make the “first move”
I had seen her from across the room at a local dance event. She was funny, easy to talk to, and had a palpable aura of joy that just made you want to be friends. I was intuitively drawn to her candy floss colored hair, and how her glittery tulle dress caught the light when she twirled to show it off to some mutual friends.
We made pleasant small talk until she suddenly seemed a little uncomfortable. Was it my awkward small talk? My hands got sweaty, and my heart started pumping loudly in my ears. The last time I’d been to a formal dance like this, I was still in high school and wearing excessive amounts of vanilla perfume. Had I offended her with one too many dad jokes?
“Well? Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?”
Oh. Ohh… Oh crap! I’d never asked anyone to dance before.
It was pleasant, but I was definitely awkward. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to stay quiet, or continue the conversation so I did a mix of both. She would laugh, and at one point she placed her head on my chest and I was scared she’d hear how loud my heart was beating. I didn’t want her to see how scared I was. I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie Big, an inexperienced youth in the land of adults who were just so much better at socializing than I was.
We danced a bit longer, and I excused myself before running outside to fan myself off. I desperately hoped she didn’t notice me having full-bodied panic sweats, and luckily she didn’t, but I avoided dancing as a whole for the rest of the evening out of fear that someone else would ask me to dance. I didn’t want anyone to realize that I was clueless.
It was the first in a long line of moments where the social rules felt hammered into my anxious self: despite our “wild” and modern gender roles, men are still largely expected to make the first moves.
This isn’t a “but women are terrifying!” point… it’s an “everyone is terrifying to me and my anxiety!” point. I can comfortably talk to people when it comes to friends and acquaintances, but once someone hits on me in a way that demonstrates their expectation that I’m going to be the pursuer because of outdated gender stereotypes… I freeze.
I’ve had it happen with people of any gender: enbies might expect that I’m going to be the one making the first moves to makeout, or fellow queer men will be coy about initiating sex until they have to tell me in the most unsexy way “Zack I want you to fuck me” and it ruins the magic.
To compensate, I try to be very obvious about my lack of understanding. I remind my dates, through jokes, that I’m not too bright when it comes to intuitively knowing the rhythm of romantic situations. If I feel comfortable discussing my experiences prior to transition, I explain how I struggle with knowing when to hit on someone else or make romantic advances.
If all that fails, and I find myself feeling discouraged… Well, there’s always Grindr. I’m pretty sure just mentioning the app causes gay men in my area to zone in on my location like a gay-heat seeking missile.
There have been a lot of unexpected “benefits” to living life as a man.
The lines for the washroom are shorter (but the stalls are much more disgusting). I can wear the same black jeans and hoodie every day, and people don’t expect me to “dress to impress”. I can wash my face with the grungy bar soap in the corner of my shower and not get pimples. (That last one is definitely a result of hormone therapy, and I’m super grateful albeit a bit gross.)
Even without those privileges… I still would live as a man. I didn’t transition because of those social benefits, I transitioned because that’s what best aligned with my body and mind. I could never imagine myself as an older woman but as an older man? Suddenly my future seemed bright. I was able to grow and change in ways I had never felt possible before.
I didn’t just transition, I transformed into a person that I could be proud of while having immense empathy for my pre-transition self… which was truly the most unexpected benefit of transitioning.
Featured art by Marie-Maxime Giguère