Anything With Teeth Can Bite
About being trans, wearing clothes, and being a tiger
There was a post on an old queer messageboard I read as a teen, written by a trans masc person, that will always stick in my mind.
“I feel really threatened by FTM-vectored folks in male spaces/male-focused leather scenes. Like they were tigers or something”
I read the message board and didn’t post because I was intimidated, too, by other queer people. I was intimidated by what outsiders now refer to as “social justice warrior” culture: people getting called out for being oppressive for saying ordinary, everyday things.
And that was the problem: Ordinary, everyday society was oppressive in ways that were actively harming members of the forum. The forum was intervening, so that harm would not continue. But I was still an outsider: a baby queer. I hadn’t learned these things yet and felt like at any moment I might inadvertently say something horrible and be shunned forever.
Gradually, and over a great deal of time, I learned. I began to understand where they were coming from. By the time I got the courage to participate, the forum was pretty much dead.
I was intimidated by other trans men and trans masc people too.
I was a teen, I wasn’t on hormones, I was gay and considerably more femme-presenting than I am today. I had pink hair. I was the sort of guy one might have written off as a “transtrender” based on appearance.
When I came out as trans, to myself, that was when I began to embrace not just masculinity but femininity for the first time: because femininity didn’t have to be female anymore. And while dysphoria was omnipresent, I understood for the first time that being read as a girl offered me the ability to be physically safe (well, to the extent that teen girls are ever safe) as a boy in a skirt. But I had to do so carefully: the way others perceived my gender took a great toll on me psychologically and took precedence over how I wanted to look.
I knew that my mom would never take me seriously if I came out as a boy and then painted my nails in front of her. And then I’d never be able to get on hormones.
I was always afraid of the trans man who’s been on hormones ten years and has a big bushy beard and looks conventionally masculine. I think: he probably has ideas about what a real man is and thinks I don’t live up to them.
And it was when I was young and pink-haired and at my most stereotypically-trans-looking that I acted my shittiest toward other trans and gender-nonconforming people. I was in pain; I was ignorant and insecure; I mistook things that triggered dysphoria for things that were offensive.
I was a tiger.
I didn’t know that. I saw myself as vulnerable, and when the vulnerable are attacked, they are ruthless. They strike out at perceived aggressors without holding back, assuming that all of their strength will be needed to even make a dent.
This is the danger in seeing yourself as soft, gentle, and weak: there is always someone you can hurt.
It is good to be soft, but we must learn to recognize that sometimes we have power.
Tigers are soft.
Today, I look exactly like the sort of person I used to be afraid of.
It turns out that when you’ve been on hormones ten years, not being conventionally masculine is harder. I’m short, chubby, and hairy, and I’m comfortable with how my body looks. I’ve spent the past ten years focused on how my body looks and not really paid a lot of attention to clothes.
I don’t have a lot of cash to spend on fashion. I’m not big or strong, and I know that going out looking femme when I’m no longer possibly read as a girl; when I’m no longer under the protection of the notion that I’m an art student and therefore not really queer; that I could get my ass beat for being gay.
Someone once told me that I’m not allowed to call myself “queer” unless I’ve been assaulted by someone yelling that specific epithet. Her comment made me wonder if that’s what I really need to do to be queer: present in public in a way that endangers my life. That having been in a safe space, an expensive private school, when I looked my queerest meant I wasn’t really queer at all.
Around halfway through art school, I got into the painting program. There was a general disdain for people who dressed “arty” — it was considered a sign that one was a shitty artist. There was no queer community there. I started dressing plain, to direct critical attention, I believed, to my work and away from my body. This is a terrible advertising strategy: attracting attention to your body absolutely draws attention to your work.
So now I’m a t-shirt and shorts guy. And that means to other queer people I just look like, maybe a straight cis guy. Maybe a trans guy who’s alienated from the queer community: a trans guy who is going to judge everyone else for not being trans enough.
I found myself feeling intimidated, now, by trans people who look like what I used to look like:
What if they’re afraid of me? What if they lash out at me because they’re afraid? What if they exclude me from the community because I look like an outsider?
I feel like sometimes people within the community try to enforce masculinity on binary trans men. Maybe they think they’re being supportive. I had a nonbinary trans masc roommate who kept taking my personal care products from the bathroom, thinking they were abandoned by a former roommate: assuming they couldn’t possibly belong to me. They’d try to goad me into fights out of what I felt was fear: fear of men, fear that I was going to become violent. It felt like they were trying to make me into the thing they feared. And I hated it because I desperately didn’t want to be that thing.
But somehow it feels appropriative, or manipulative, to try to embody softness again.
Lately, I’ve tried to update my look. To have more signifiers of queerness: dress kind of punk. Get a black denim jacket. Put some pins on it. Floral print boots. One lace thong. I finally got the tattoo I’ve wanted for years. It’s a start.
And I’ve got a bicycle, so if somebody wants to kick my ass: I’m fast.
But I have this fear at the back of my mind: presenting yourself as non-threatening is a tactic predators use. I am actually a man; I am an oppressor. There’s an extent to which non-men and femme men are right to feel threatened by me. Many if not most of them have been abused by men. Am I, by trying to look softer, trying to gain access to trust I do not deserve?
Do I deserve it? Am I different at all from a cis man? What power dynamics are actually at play?
But that’s not the reason I’m doing it. I’m trying to look queer, which I am, to gain access to a community that I rightfully belong to. And to feel comfortable with the way I look.
I’m not sure why it’s so hard to get this thought through my head:
“I’m one of you and I belong here.”