Content Warning: mentions of sexual assault, internalized transphobia.
I spontaneously came out as genderqueer this year on Transgender Visibility Day, after more than a year of keeping it a secret, mostly because of self-invalidation and confusion over this newly blooming identity. Over this past year, I’ve been trying to allow myself, with varying degrees of acceptance and success, to explore masculinity and move away from the norms of femininity that I always felt the need to conform to. Throughout my gender journey, which is still continuing and still at most times confusing, one of the questions I’ve been relentlessly asking myself is why I feel such a connection to masculinity and a desire to explore it, when I’ve been so hurt by it in the past. Being a survivor of sexual assault and of toxic masculinity in general has made me loathe myself for any masculine tendencies, and it’s been a difficult relationship to reconcile.
I cut my hair short for the first time in my life in October 2017 and it instantly felt like I could breathe better. The freedom of the weight being both literally and metaphorically lifted off of my shoulders gave me the courage to begin leaning into my masculinity in ways I had always been scared to, even if the desire always existed. My presentation changed most noticeably in my style of dress, but I also felt myself trying out different mannerisms, lowering my speaking voice, and becoming more vocal about the stereotypically masculine things I liked. In particular, I expressed my love for the staples of my boyish childhood and my passion for watching basketball, especially on days when I woke up feeling more masculine (gender fluidity for the win).
It wasn’t long before I started becoming critical of myself though. I read a lot of online discourse about what it meant to be genderqueer, non-binary, and transgender, and I turned questions that I saw online, asked by people who doubted the existence of my identity, back at myself. I first wondered whether I was trying to escape being a woman. Whether exploring masculinity was my way of separating myself, as far as I could, from the traumas of misogyny and sexual assault. I wondered if womanhood had become synonymous with a loss of autonomy for me. Maybe I was trying to get a piece of myself back - or not even that, but maybe I was simply trying to avoid losing more of myself. This question haunted me, lingered at the back of my mind, kept me up at night. If this was true, did that mean my burgeoning identity wasn’t real? A fake front created by years of trauma?
Along with self-doubt and self-invalidation came self-shaming. Even in the times that I allowed myself to accept my genderqueer identity as valid, I asked why in the fuck I would want to explore masculinity. Masculinity - the same beastly, primal force that existed to an unhealthy degree in the man that raped me; overt displays of which have consistently made me feel small, powerless, helpless, and afraid. And yet, I felt within me such a true connection to traits, behaviors, and likes that are often identified as masculine. And these connections aren’t new; I’ve felt them since I was a child, when I played with Beyblade Tops, loved Yu-Gi-Oh, and chose to be a superhero with water powers instead of a mother in the game of house. But I knew from experience that men were trash, and most men strived for masculinity, so why would I choose to be anything like the ones who hurt me?
If men were trash and I wanted to be more like them for whatever reason, then maybe I was trash too. Maybe I deserved punishment for whatever I shared in common with them.
For a while I frantically pursued the meaning of masculinity. I needed to know whether a healthy masculinity was possible so that I could stop punishing myself. I was concerned that men praised for their “healthy masculinity” were in actuality just men who weren’t afraid to be more feminine. In other words, maybe it wasn’t their masculinity that made them healthy, but rather an acceptance of their femininity. Sure, masculinity was associated with strength, independence, and courage - all positive attributes. But I saw many examples of femmes and femininity embodying the same things, just in a softer and more open way. Women are raised to be feminine and yet, because of the misogyny in this world, have to learn how to be strong, take care of themselves, and put in even more labor (and at times ignore their own struggles) in order to be a caretaker to others. So was masculinity really good for anything, or was it inherently toxic? I was scared that my exploration of masculinity would lead me down the femininity-scorning path that so many men take. I wanted to explore masculinity but was terrified that I’d turn into my worst nightmares.
It’s a thing I have not quite reconciled. Allowing myself to explore masculinity still makes the traumatized parts of my being shudder. I am still not sure what a full embrace of my masculinity would look like. I think I’m hesitant to push my boundaries and potentially set off more alarms. But I am learning from trans men, masc genderqueer and non-binary folks, and even some cis men, that my masculinity is whatever the hell I want it to be. Soft and powerful, courageous and vulnerable, handsome and beautiful. I am learning from women, femmes, and other non-binary people, many of them also survivors, to find my own balance of femininity and masculinity (and in fact to stop thinking of them as polar opposites, but rather as independent and overlapping), and to understand the role that trauma plays in my identities and my life. Trauma may affect my identities and my perspective but that does not make me less valid, nor am I rejecting femininity or the diversity of womanhood by not feeling like the label of woman accurately describes me.
Nearly two months ago now, I took the plunge and shaved my head. My hair grows fast, so I’m quickly approaching the stage where I need to decide whether I want to grow it out or shave it off again.
Predictably, I haven’t decided.
But if I want to, I remind myself, I will gleefully shave my damn head. I will wear that oversized ‘men’s’ flannel. Then maybe the next day I’ll wear a flowery dress. And as I explore and process, I’ll remember to leave space for my healing. Whatever I do, I will try my absolute hardest not to feel any shame or guilt for being me.
Be honest to yourself about what you want: out of life, to eat, to feel, to do in this world. Honor whatever it is, without judgment. Give yourself whatever it is you need. This is a process that takes time. It is the process of getting to know yourself, getting to know your body – without judgments or assumptions – learning to let all the parts of you be what they are.
Face them, hear them, know them, and find peace in letting them be.
Many of us work against ourselves – denying us pleasure, fulfillment, and fullness. This is no way to find peace. We are working for peace within our bodies and ourselves to reconnect us to our power center. We are learning how to listen to ourselves and honor our needs and desires.
Be kind, be gentle, be love, be open.
Enjoy your body.