extract – ‘Living as a Man’

Living as a Man- extracts from Chapter 21

It takes about two years to fully transition, to go from looking androgynous to undoubtedly male. After this time had passed, I lost any outward appearance of being female and I had to learn fast how to behave and to understand why people related to me differently. I felt wary and unsure. If I put a foot wrong, then I’d soon get told off. I didn’t get any encouragement when I did things as I should because it was expected.

The intervening period before completely passing as male was awkward too. Encountering people who didn’t know if I was male or female was especially trying. A salesman in a department store said, ‘Can I help you, sir? I mean madam, I mean sir, sorry…’

To get through this stage, a lot of trans people try and be more obviously male (or female if trans women) and use more gender specific clothes or other indicators to try and to help people out. With local shops, it was harder knowing what to do as it didn’t seem appropriate to explain to absolutely everyone what was happening to me. Fortunately for me the local shop I used the most, went through a change of management and so had new people serving. The man at the Dry Cleaners asked me if I had sister which was simultaneously awkward and amusing.

I paid a visit to a man who had transitioned a few years before me. I was curious because I had heard he also had had the ‘Brenda’ treatment when he’d been young at Greenham too. He, however, hadn’t been affected as I was and brushed it off when I asked him about his experiences. I wondered if that was because he was comfortable with an S&M identity. Anyway, we had a good talk about transitioning and surgery and then when we said goodbye, he held out his hand and we shook hands. I’d never done that before – shake hands with a friend to say goodbye. It occurred to me that from now on, this was going to be standard, shaking hands instead of hugging.

It felt like a special moment and I saw, with other trans men, our behaviour quickly assumed men’s standard behaviour. When going out drinking we all stood around for ages holding our pints instead of sitting down. I wasn’t someone who cared necessarily for following convention, but some of it was welcome, such as not having to hug people all the time, as I found enforced intimacy could be overwhelming.

Unlike boys going through their puberty, Trans men only have the two years to adjust and understandably mistakes are made. The other problem for me was that I looked like a very young man, almost as young as a teenage boy and it wasn’t easy moving from being treated with the respect granted to a thirty-seven-year-old woman to being treated like a teenage boy.

I had mistakenly thought it would still be okay to go on holiday with my mum, after only a year on hormones, this was a music tour through the south of the USA that had been planned for a while. I had assumed correctly that I would have transitioned enough to appear male but what I had not taken on board was that I would look under twenty. Everywhere I went I had to prove my age, as in many states alcohol can’t be served to anyone under twenty-one. I also had to put up with people on the coach party telling me that I shouldn’t be listening to their adult conversations and the like. As a teenage boy, my views weren’t respected and I was humoured or put down.

On one occasion, I was grabbed and pulled to one side by a woman to make way for another woman entering the lift. I was expected to move out the way most of the time for women. From my former viewpoint, I hadn’t noticed this. I had only seen that men occupied space in a territorial manner and that women were afforded less space, now as ‘a young man’ as it were, I could see that we were expected to move out the way for women and that we were supposed to think of them first.

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The challenge after being on testosterone for two years and appearing male was that people expected me to know how to behave. I’m quite sensitive, so I had to come to terms quickly with the fact that people care less about your feelings as a man.

You’re expected to take it on the chin. People will say what they think about your appearance and behaviour with no sugar-coating. Now in some respects this was a relief. It used to annoy me intensely when a man would ask If I’d be alright walking down a street on my own with poor lighting but now I also had to accept that there would be fewer allowances in many different instances. The upside was that I would be treated with greater respect, especially by other men, but I had to develop a tougher skin and learn different ways of behaving.

A car drove far too close to me almost driving over my feet as I was walking across the road. In my shock, I reacted instinctively and shouted out, ‘Wanker!’ to the driver. Had I done this in my past, I would probably have received at the most some equally offensive verbal back, but now things were different. The car screeched to a halt and the driver, a big bloke, got out of the car and started to come after me. He looked like he was about to do me in, he was furious. I turned and ran as fast as I could and mercifully he couldn’t be bother to pursue me. I was going to have change fast to avoid getting in some hairy situations.

I saw a black woman being kicked by two white women in a street brawl outside a nightclub in Brighton. I stepped in to try and help the woman being kicked on the ground but suddenly out of nowhere I was pushed and thrown back a couple of metres in the air against a wall by a bloke who obviously didn’t want me to intervene, I was temporarily winded. The woman on the ground managed to get up. I went over and asked her if she was okay but she was not impressed by my feeble attempt to help.

So, I learnt quickly as a man you must expect a reaction – and a violent one – in these types of situations from other men and learn how to avoid it. I wondered how often men I knew had got into fights or were beaten up and I asked one of the men at work, he replied ‘only once.’ I suspected he was an avoider, which I needed to become. Another bloke I met at college had been mugged and attacked many times, largely due to his Pakistani background. Defence I could understand, but this macho lark of violence and the risk of getting your head kicked in wasn’t for me. It seemed stupid and reminded me of the time I was supposed to fight with Frankie. I could relate to frustration but sometimes violence by men was about show and power.

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All the new behaviours that would minimise offence or embarrassment had to be learnt very quickly. Before, I could go into a pub and look around properly. As a man, I realised it’s a different ball game. If I looked at a man intently then I’d be considered either threatening or gay and if I looked at a woman, this was perceived as me being sexually interested in them. For the first few months I had my head down.

To my dismay, I could also rarely look at children for longer than a few seconds without the mother giving me filthy looks and sometimes even moving the child away. If I saw a lesbian or gay couple, I felt an urge to smile or reassure them that that all was fine by me, but this didn’t work well either, I just appeared like a pervert then. It seemed instead that the most appropriate and less problematic way to behave was to be like your average heterosexual man and I found myself adopting this early on.

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I used to look at men suspiciously myself so you could say that I should’ve expected negative attitudes towards men but I thought it was predominately lesbians who held these views. I hadn’t expected almost everyone else to hold men in low regard. It was unpleasant to be suddenly treated in such a negative way and constantly with suspicion but I had to start getting used to it.

I said to Kristin, half-jokingly, ‘Shouldn’t you welcome me into the wonderful world of heterosexuality?’

‘It’s not actually that wonderful, I’m afraid,’ she replied.

I was beginning to realise this.

Going out for drinks in the West End was an eye-opener. Another male friend and I arrived at a bar, which was completely full except for two seats at a table for four, which was occupied by two women who were chatting to each other.

I asked if we could sit down at the table but the answer was an emphatic ‘no’. It was clear they thought we were planning on chatting them up when we just wanted to sit down and talk to each other.

Another time a male friend and I wanted to go into a bar in Leicester Square but the bouncer said that only women or couples could go in. It was so ironic to me. I had been under the false impression that the world would be wider to me as a heterosexual man but it wasn’t that straightforward. Also, to go to a lot of clubs I would have to pay whereas women would go in free. Having spent most of my time in the lesbian world, I didn’t know any of this. I also discovered in most bars and clubs all the women would stick together and the men would do the same. How were people supposed to meet and get together? I wondered.

Before, as a woman, I would resent men always offering to buy drinks and would offer to buy them drinks instead. I remember vividly after work once, the sales manager offered to buy me and the other women we were with, drinks and food – he brought out his credit card and actually said, ‘I’ve got the power!’

I resented men’s power then, but at least as a woman I could challenge it. Now I can’t challenge the dynamic. That would be considered rude, but what I’ve observed to help balance things out is that often there’s a bit of a charade that goes on: men often buy the first drinks in a ‘showy way’, and then women (if they’re offering) will buy a second drink or, if already in couples, women will sometimes give money to their partners to go to the bar.

But on dates, it’s often a different matter.  A friend, a trans man, went out on a date with a woman. He bought all the food and drinks in a classy restaurant then right at the end he asked if she would be up for buying him one drink. This didn’t go down well at all and other trans men told him he shouldn’t have asked her. I agree that on a date things are different but I did feel a bit sorry for him as he’d spent a fortune.

I was finding out just how different the world was for men. It was an altogether different experience just walking through Soho to what it was like when I was perceived as a woman. I had men come up to me and ask what type of sex I was looking for, simply because I was alone and male in Soho. I suspect they wanted only to relive men of money however, as I’d heard from someone who’d been homeless and hung around that area, that there’s a scam whereby money is taken off tourists and they’re given keys to non-existent flats having been given addresses of where to go.

I saw a documentary about an older woman who had transitioned from male in her late 60s. She said she was now really happy and remarked, ‘women are so friendly and I have loads of friends now.’ Well the opposite is true for trans men. Men don’t share much with each other or support each other. Trans men probably do a bit more with each other at first but as we get more integrated into society, most of us start behaving in the same way as other men.

Emotionally, I changed. For most of my adult female life I cried and cried often. I think the power of hormones is underestimated, for I basically stopped crying. Was it just the hormones working? It seemed so. It certainly wasn’t that I suddenly thought I had to act like a man. Before hormones, which stopped the periods immediately, the night before a period started it was almost guaranteed that I’d cry. Crying at least two to three times a week dropped dramatically to only about twice a year.

My moods were much less volatile. This had upsides in that it was good for me to be more levelled emotionally having suffered bi-polar mania disorder, but it also meant I got less excited and overall had less emotional experiences of sadness and euphoria. I didn’t – as so many people expected – become more aggressive; in fact, I became much calmer and my anger and aggression all but disappeared.

I tried a feminist men’s group. At first, they were reluctant to allow me to join as I didn’t hide that fact of being a trans man, but after some consideration, they decided to allow me in. I was disappointed to discover that it was more of mutual therapy group where the men talked about their week. Also crying was greatly encouraged, which I found really odd. They believed crying was repressed, and that it was social conditioning. I begged to differ and they were bemused and not pleased at my assertion that it was mostly hormonal. It was a small group and after two meetings, I had had enough. I’d had years of therapy by this point and didn’t feel the need to go to a men’s therapy group too.

I began dating. The relationship with Katie had drawn to a close two years after we had got back together. Katie finished the relationship; it was no longer functioning and I didn’t object. For one date, which was with a deputy head teacher, I did a similar thing as my friend, I chose what I considered was a good restaurant and quickly paid for everything when she’d gone to the toilet. When she returned, she said that I shouldn’t have paid and said,

‘Come on, equality and all that!’

I felt a bit silly especially as I’d known she would be earning twice as much as me but I had decided I wanted to pay.   

It is expected that men choose where you’re meeting for dates. This might seem a given in the heterosexual world and probably not even noticed, but for me it was a big change. Usually they’d expect me to tell them where we’d meet but I would try and give more than one option, so that I wasn’t dictating but then they’d reply saying, ‘No, you choose.’ From straight female friends, I discovered that women get colossal amounts of messages from men on dating sites, it’s expected that men make the first move.

In the big scheme of things, the politics of dating are quite trivial of course compared to the real battles that matter in relationships. Men still don’t pull their weight in terms of cleaning and housework. The sharing of cooking has improved but we still have a long way to go and then of course there’s the income difference and the domestic violence issue.   

I think most trans people acknowledge that gender roles can be tiresome and restrictive to people’s lives. Personally, I think people should be encouraged to try and learn new things even if they don’t conform to the expectation of their gender as different skills can come in handy and makes life more interesting. I also began to learn to cook, late in life but better than never. I know a trans woman who regularly carries out car maintenance and fixes plumbing and the like for others, not worrying if this doesn’t help her ‘passing’ ability. She now experiences what I used to experience – patronising behaviour from staff in bicycle shops. I used to be so insulted when it was presumed by male cycle shop staff that I didn’t know what I wanted or what I was talking about.

That doesn’t happen anymore, I am now given respect in bike shops. I’m now given respect in many situations, the main advantage to being a man. Naturally many trans women, most I would suggest, become feminist if they weren’t before as it’s obvious when you transition just how differently men and women are treated and many are affronted.

At college, studying economics, I had my first experiences of being around people who knew nothing of my female past. It was satisfying. Although I looked totally male, I still looked very young – about 25 years old rather than 40. Sometimes I was asked personal questions like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ Once a woman asked me about domestic chores, and I revealed I did my own cooking, ironing etc. She said: ‘So you’re a new man!’