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EDITORIAL: My Journey with Toxic Masculinity (As a Trans Masculine Person)

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Art by Michelle Dong

When I came out as a trans man, everyone expected me to fit into this masculine ideal. They expected me to resent the femininity that was forced upon me: in the narrative portrayed by the media, the trans boy would cry when his parents put him in a dress or give him barbie dolls as a birthday present.

But I didn’t. I loved -- and still do to this day -- the aesthetics of dresses. I love the way it flares when I spin around, the soft feeling on my skin, the freedom of movement it provides. I happily accepted the barbies my mom brought me and lay them down with my stuffed animals, making up happy-ever-after or tragic-and-death stories in my head.

At the early stage of my transition, my childhood experience seemed to invalidate my identity. I kept questioning myself -- am I really trans? Am I faking it for attention, even though being transgender would only set my life in survival mode and even put me in a dangerous situation?

In many trans men and trans masculine people’s experience, a big part of transitioning is to observe how cis men behave. To mimic their mannerisms and characteristics. I was taught to walk like a man, to not cross my legs in a “feminine” way, to not fidget with my hands when I talk. To not raise my voice at the end of the sentence, to put away my stuffed animals, to donate my “girl clothes.” I stopped smiling in photos because it made me look “less masculine.” My to-go clothes became hoodies and straight-cut jeans, even though my style is much more adventurous. The stereotype doesn’t end with the appearance and outward behaviour, either. It’s more socially acceptable for men to express their emotions in an aggressive way. 

When I started testosterone, I loathed to become some angry, heartless monster. I was afraid that my female friends would treat me differently, but I was even more afraid that I would become a different person. 

But that is bullshit.

Testosterone is merely a hormone, a tool that alters my physical appearance to match who I have always been on the inside. It will not change my mind, my passions, or my personality. I’m still the sensitive poet who cares deeply about everything (well, except that testosterone did make it a lot harder for me to cry). I’m still the therapist friend who everyone seeks out when they have relationship problems. I’m still the paradoxical photographer who is obsessed with birds and cats simultaneously.

I am still the same person, so why should I change how I behave? I didn’t jump out of one box just to get in another one. Gender identity and gender expression are separate, and performing the masculine ideals to appeal to the cisnormative society is a step backwards for a person who transitioned to be free.

So I walk in a straight line, sometimes even swaying my hips. I use expressive body language and hug my friends tightly. I nod, tilt my head, and tap my finger to show that I am listening. I’m not afraid of putting on a sweet voice (especially to cats).

The result is... well, most people assume that I’m gay. (Thanks, I’m not.) The assumption is deeply rooted in toxic masculinity and the confusion between sexuality and gender identity (i.e. sexuality and gender identity are completely separate, and being trans does not mean that I’m gay). Society sees feminine boys as automatically “gay” because toxic masculinity is rooted in homophobia as well as misogyny. It devalues femininity because it devalues and objectifies women.

You might notice some guys in your school who are pretty sweet by themselves, but become jerks when they get into a group. Unfortunately, in a so-called testosterone concentrated area, men can be highly insecure. They hold themselves to the “tough guy” mentality and use it as an indicator of power. Toxic masculinity also stops men and masculine-identifying people from expressing their emotions and seeking help. It forces them to seek alternative ways to deal with their feelings like self-meditation or simply suppress their humanity forever, which lead to severe consequences like drug-overdose or suicide. To this day, I still am grateful that I didn’t become a part of an all guy group during my early stage of transition, even though I crave male friendships.

Toxic masculinity also includes unrealistic expectations of physical strength and sexual potency. It makes men and masculine identifying people who don’t fit in the criteria feel insecure and encourages negative behaviors. Right now, there seems to be more awareness of body positivity: bodies come in all shapes and forms, and all bodies are beautiful. This notion often doesn’t apply to masculine bodies, but it is just as necessary as feminine body positivity. (This is me speaking as a 5’2 Asian dude who is six months into my second puberty.)

So, what does a masculinity that isn’t toxic, a healthy masculinity, look like?

Healthy masculinity is having the confidence to admit your mistakes, the vulnerability to share your emotions, and the decency to treat everyone with respect. If you’re a guy, talk to the men around you: your father, your brothers, your sons, your mentors, and your friends. Challenge the ideas that they have been told on toxic masculinity. Ask them what they think.

For me, healthy masculinity means having the knowledge of who I am and the courage to physically transition to the man I have always been. 

“Boys will be boys” should not be an excuse to justify sexual harassment or not take responsibility for your actions. It should mean that no matter how old you are, you’re free to let out your inner child and play in the dirt or pile of leaves.

Or if you’re a trans guy like me, it can also mean that regardless what bodies we were born into, we have always been ourselves.

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