Becoming a Dude: Part One-Growing Up
When I look back, I see myself gradually developing and taking on a male identity over a span of several years. A whole complicated mess of factors lead me to see myself as a man and take t and I’m still sorting all of them out. This series of posts takes a look how I think I came to identify as a man based on what I’ve figured out so far.
I didn’t see myself as a boy when I was a little kid. I had plenty of male role models and often played as male characters but if you’d have asked me what was I would have told you I was a girl, a tomboy more specifically. When I first encountered descriptions of women/girls that I couldn’t relate to, I concluded that those descriptions were bullshit not that I wasn’t a girl. I knew I was a girl who was “like a boy”, who liked to play action figure wars and make-believe adventure games with boys and who thought “girly” shit like dresses and dolls were stupid.
My parent never forced me to be “girly” and told me I could grow up to become anything I wanted to be. My mom tried to make sure I read books with strong female characters and tried to school me in feminism but I still lived in a culture with very limited ideas of what women and men could be and my parents’ anti-sexist views could only mitigate so much of that. I was always on the look out for women I could see myself in or look up to, tough smart women who could fight and didn’t take any shit and didn’t care about looking pretty. But most of the people and fictional characters who I felt like or who embodied what I admired were men.
When I was about twelve or so, I remember reading a magazine article about intersexed people who lived in a village in Venezuela, who looked female at birth and were raised as girls but then physically masculinized at puberty and switched to living as dudes. I uncomfortably wondered if I could be something like that and later used that reaction as proof that I had some form of gender discordance at a young age. I was fascinated by any mention of gender oddity I came across without totally understanding why and I read whatever I could find, which at that age was the occasional article in the Utne Reader, a left/progressive magazine my parents subscribed to.
I first seriously started considering that I might not be a girl or female when I was fifteen. At that age I cut my hair really short for the first time and soon discovered that I could pass as a boy. The first time I remember that happening, I’d just gotten out of school and was walking to my bus when this girl stopped me and informed me that I was “the cutest little boy” she’d ever seen. I felt totally shocked by that and a bit bewildered since I’d never considered that I could be seen as anything other than a girl. I wasn’t offended and I don’t remember having any reaction other than surprise. Soon after that, I had store clerks calling me “sir” and started startling folks when I used the women’s restroom.
Around the same time, the person I was dating came out as FtM. I vaguely knew of trans women, mostly from crude jokes about “sex changes” but I had no clue that trans guys existed, nor about the possibilities of taking t or having top or bottom surgery. Perhaps this explained why I seemed so different from other girls, maybe I wasn’t one after all.
I also found out about butch/femme culture around this time. I started calling myself butch as soon as I learned about it while also pondering if I could be trans and if I wanted to change my body. I read “Stone Butch Blues” and other books by Leslie Feinberg, books by Patrick Califia, all sorts of books about butches, trans men and genderqueers, whatever I could get my hands on.
I changed my name to a “boy’s name” and spent much of my teen years living as someone who passed as several genders. I wondered what the hell I was and what it’d be like to take t and get top surgery, if I wanted to do that or not. I tried on many different labels but often ended up calling myself a boydyke because I was drawn to elements of both trans dude and dyke identity and culture. Feeling all over the place and not knowing exactly what to call myself didn’t bother me much at first but later I felt like I had to choose an identity and stick with it, which lead to all sorts of problems.
The build of my body allowed me to pass as a boy quite frequently. My voice sounded deep and I even had an Adam’s apple. My body wasn’t particularly curvy and I had a very angular face with a prominent brow and strong jawline. Physically, I looked much more like how a guy is supposed to look compared to how a girl is supposed to look.
I had also started wearing all “men’s clothes” because they felt more comfortable and I liked how I looked in them. For many years, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I didn’t have to wear “girl clothes”. I loathed dresses and really “girly”-looking shit and I would wear the most androgynous “girl clothes” I could find but I didn’t start wearing “dude clothes” until my teens. I can’t really explain it but wearing such apparel just feels right.
I’d go to queer youth dances and get hit on by fags instead of dykes. Got hit on by a few straight girls too. Some gay kids I encountered assumed I was a trans dude. At this one queer youth group I attended, I found out that some people thought I was male-identified and preferred male pronouns though they never directly asked me if this was so. When I went to college, pretty much everyone I met assumed I was trans and used male pronouns without consulting me about my preference and I decided to go with it to see if living as a man felt better. Looking back now I notice a lot of such experimentation. I wasn’t sure what I was or what would make me happy so I tried doing different things. I could feel this sense of gender deeply but wasn’t sure how to decipher that feeling, figure out what it meant or what to do with it. I didn’t know how to survive in a society that didn’t even want to admit that people like me existed.
I found passing as a boy enjoyable, which lead me to wonder if I was trans and then later to decide that I was. But looking back I can find other reasons for why passing felt good and why I came to the conclusions I did.
Passing as a guy started off as an amusing experience that happened fairly often but later I became obsessed with whether I was passing or not. I have obsessive, anxious tendencies in general and my sense of self and self-worth gradually became linked to my ability to be read as male. Somewhere in there I internalized the idea that “masculine” traits were better than “feminine” one and came to see passing as a man as proof of my “masculinity”. For a long time though, I had trouble seeing myself as man. I had started seeing myself as some sort of boy since I was fifteen but man was different somehow. I wasn’t sure I’d be happy living as a man though I was fascinated by the possibility of doing so.
Looking back, I see a shift in my understanding of myself over the course of my youth. Initially I saw myself as a girl who didn’t fit gender stereotypes. I came across many descriptions of women that didn’t fit my reality. Ironically, most of what I read and disagreed with was written by the type of feminist who goes on and on about how women all naturally possess certain traits, like how women are more intuitive than analytical, are nonviolent and more cooperative and are drawn more to circles than squares. I thought that was all bullshit, that my existence proved them wrong. I latched onto butch because I finally found other women who had qualities and interests that only men were supposed to have, who didn’t fit into “femininity”. I also became infatuated with “masculinity” and tried to inflate and enhance my “masculine” traits. I was into the idea that a woman could be anything a man could be but after being exposed to trans issues I was also curious about the possibility that I could actually be a man and the two ideas co-existed and struggled against each other in my head. Over time, proving I was as good as a man mutated into proving that I was a man.