We went to a movie last night, a documentary about three people transitioning to male called “Boy I Am”. (What a great title, huh?) It covers a lot of interesting ground—the intersection of race and class with transitioning genders, taking testosterone, undergoing top surgery, navigating relationships with partners and family—in a thoughtful way.
During the movie itself, I kept shifting around, absolutely could not get comfortable in my seat. Afterwards, there was an audience discussion, and I found myself unable to say anything at all. T. said some interesting things about femmes, her older friend whose partner transitioned, and some other stuff. It was a safe space to talk, you know? But I was silent as the grave.
Partly I was afraid of offending the transguys there. The drawback to the movie, in my opinion, was that it used Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam as basically the sole representative of butches. (Halberstam is the author of, among other things, Female Masculinity, which I read this spring and found utterly liberating.) So it was too easy to conflate butch vs. transman with older vs. younger and real-life person vs. theoretical academic. (Just as a series of comparisons, not as oppositions.)
And since just about all the butches in the audience elected not to stay for the discussion... well, there I was, not wanting to recreate any border wars (butches are the real, the brave, the subversive embodiment of female masculinity! butches are just ftms in waiting, too wimpy to really do it!).
But also, I felt surprisingly emotional and conflicted about the whole topic. Shaking hands with a transguy afterwards, I found myself panicking when I realized my grip was firmer than his: is that butch-ly overcompensation? Does he think I’m a pathetic pussy, relying on an iron grip to mask my lack of ‘real’ male signifiers? (Please pardon the misuse of pussy; it’s what occurred to me at the time, sadly enough.) I’m so used to defending my right to masculinity against straight cis-men—why did I fall apart at the imagined judgments of transmen, who I would think I have far more of a natural alliance with?
If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that my embrace of masculinity and butchness itself is a relatively recent and hard-fought thing. But the movie, plus a weekend in which I looked at a lot of old photographs, made me reflect what a long fight it’s been, too.
I thought about transitioning in college, in a vague, confused way. At one point in the movie, Halberstam says if someone had offered her testosterone at 19, she would have taken it; the implication was that she’s glad now she didn’t. I sympathize with that. I was so lost at 19, in terms of gender.
The movie focused a lot on top surgery, and oddly enough, that’s always been one of the least attractive things about transitioning to me, in a physical sense. A deeper voice, narrower hips, more muscle? OK, sounds cool; at times, I’ve desperately wanted those things.
But I’m really fond of my breasts. They’re not very big, but they’re not invisibly small either. They were just about the only part of a female puberty I was genuinely enthusiastic about. For some reason, they seemed unequivocally mine, a friendly presence there on my chest. How I got this in a culture that packages up breasts and turns them into objects-of-male-gaze par excellence, I can’t tell you. But I feel comforted by their presence, hidden under layers of just t-shirt and shirt back in the day, tucked into a gentle sports bra now that I’m not a skinny-ass teenager anymore. I like the way they’re small enough not to interrupt the fall of my dress shirts from my shoulders too much, yet still present and visible, confirming the female half of the female masculinity thing.
So my confused 19-year-old self thought: but to transition I’d have to lose my breasts! I can’t do that! I’ll just have to be a woman, full stop, end of story, stopping mucking about with boyishness!
Which brought its own set of troubles, because really, I feel somewhere in between. I want my breasts and my masculinity. I want to grow up to be just like Jack Halberstam. I just didn’t think a well-made documentary and a room of well-meaning, kind-hearted transmen and their allies would bring all that anxious confusion rushing back to me.
I might lose my nerve and take this picture down, but for now, here’s a reward for anyone who’s read this far through my little identity crisis: me and T., dancing at a wedding in the mists of the past. It’s incredible but true: we had NO IDEA what butch-femme even was when this picture was taken. You’ll just have to take my word for that.