Photos by Leah Faye, Model & Editorial by Bethany Blackstone.
It was my third day of presenting as a woman in public once again after quitting testosterone, and I was insecure and overcompensating. Despite still wearing a mask at all times, I had thickly coated orange concealer beneath my foundation to try to neutralize my stubble. Anxious about how much my hair had thinned and receded, I wore a vibrant lavender wig. Hand-me-down pink velvet was draped over the massive silicone inserts I had strapped to my chest. On the train home from work that night, I took video of a man in his fifties or so openly pleasuring himself, staring directly at me from across the aisle. I needed a drink and stopped at my bodega for a six pack. I tried to politely ignore a man who was begging me to go out to a bar with him instead. He commented on my low voice, unsure if I were “one of those lady men” or not. He then followed me from the bodega back to my apartment, offering a princely sum of $200.00 to spend the night with him. When I finally made it inside to my room, I ripped off my hair, stared at my mastectomy scars, and sobbed.
After five years living as a trans man, I blamed myself. I blamed myself for believing a simple costume change would be enough for people to perceive me as the cis woman I am despite all the changes that had been made to my body, and I blamed myself for not taking to heart what the trans women I’d met had to say about their experiences with unwanted attention. Harassment they face couldn’t be any more difficult to deal with than my own history as a woman, right? I handled my first transition gracefully enough, returning to myself was bound to be no problem, I had thought.
"Reclaiming my femininity...didn’t weaken me."
Styled by Leah Faye. Dress and tuxedo jacket purchased on Depop for less than $40. Dress custom tailored in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
I found that after all the fights I put up to be perceived as male, all the years spent on transformation, I succeeded. People now saw the juxtaposition of my clumsily-coordinated, hyperfeminine fashion against my deep voice and lean musculature as indisputable proof that I was a trans woman, and I was met with fetishization and loathing. People saw a man masquerading as a woman, and as such, I was breaking a social contract for demeaning myself. As if womanhood is weakness.
When I decided to transition to male - cutting my hair, binding my chest, and restricting myself to lose denim, tees and button-ups - dressing for the side of the binary opposite my perceived sex and gender never put me in any great danger. People didn’t read me as male for several months after I began taking testosterone, but my male dress never outwardly caused offence to the general populace. After all, women wear men’s clothing all the time! All “gender neutral” clothing seems to be some version of what’s classically been regarded as menswear. And so, for the first time in my life, I experienced some freedom from existing merely as a sexual target. My wardrobe made me safe. Whether or not people saw me as male back then, they didn’t sexualize me, and I was okay. At the time, it was just what I needed.
While my physical transition was successful, in social regards, it backfired. I let the rest of my life stagnate as one singular goal took over. I never developed a career – I didn’t finish college, and had to walk away from acting when I started getting too many calls for male nudity. My friendships and relationships were flimsy – I felt as though I was always expected to meet a role I simply could not fill. I began to isolate and lost all direction.
But I was safe.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, it was a need for that safety, buried by dissociation, and not bodily dysphoria, that was the driving force behind the urge to defeminize myself and live as a trans man.
Finally processing my repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse seemed to snap me back into a congruent state of consciousness overnight. The terror of understanding that my protective measures of defeminizing myself had transformed me into a being resembling the very monsters that used my body at the expense of my sanity was almost another trauma in itself - and I absolutely hated my clothes.
It’s taken a year for me to forgive myself. I understand now the state of desperation I was in, how I was willing to do anything to move further away from the truth about my past. After all the drug abuse and suicide attempts, driven by my belief that my responses to extreme trauma were in fact due to some inherent mental illness, it only made sense to regain some agency over my direction in life by regaining agency over my body.
Reclaiming my femininity after coming to terms with why I rejected it didn’t weaken me. It made me more powerful. I am no longer interested in expressing my gender for others’ approval, nor am I interested in muting the parts of myself that once attracted so much terror.
At this moment in time, I don’t believe gender is any more than a set of expectations based upon sex, an outward expression based on one’s characteristics according to the binary. That is, the rules are made up and don’t mean jack shit. I don’t believe we can challenge the limitations of gender by contorting ourselves to fit them. I don’t want a world where people feel a need to fight their bodies and redefine themselves in order to feel safe behaving as they’re internally inclined to. That admitted, even if every single trans person is simply traumatized and desperate like I was, until we create a world without such suffocating labels enforced by violence, every human being must be given the freedom to explore those labels as they see fit, for the sake of personal agency and self-determinism.
I will wear as much or as little lace and sparkles as I like, and will not be weakened by it.
Bethany is based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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