Lost in transition

Xtra!; September 2008

My wife and I were knee-deep in February snow when we arrived at a northern Ontario campground earlier this year. I was proud and uncharacteristically confident with my breasts strapped down, my voice a high tenor and my chin boasting a month's sprout of reluctant, pubescent hair. It was the first time I'd attended a queer retreat since coming out as transsexual and beginning the physical transition from a female body to a male body just four months prior.

For weeks I had entertained visions of myself walking through those doors as a man, possibly attracting the gaze of a few gay guys (what better validation than that?) and sparking some buzz about who I was and why I had a wife.

Instead I discovered that it was already common knowledge that I was a trans man and I found myself reluctantly enduring a long winter weekend of being referred to as "she" by the girls while the guys disappeared en masse to the Jacuzzi without a glance in my direction. If I'd had any illusions about being taken seriously as a man they were shattered on the first evening when I was badgered by one woman, ostensibly drunk, who referred to me loudly as "she... he... it."

Looking back I admit that I pursued my transition naively; I belong to a generation whose queer acronym has always included at least one T. I assumed that transsexuals were equal members of the queer community and that my transition would have no effect on the relationship that I'd enjoyed for more than five years as a lesbian.

Now, after nearly a year on testosterone and a few girl parts lighter, I'm unquestionably a happier man, but my internal feelings of comfort are tempered by unexpected feelings of loss.

Living in the world as a white, heterosexual male has its privileges but as far as I'm concerned these pale in comparison to the privileges that I lost in transition. Like many trans men my identity is heavily invested in solidarity with women, with lesbians and queers at large, but I no longer have access to my former place of natural intimacy within those circles of belonging. It isn't enough to tempt me to continue living as a female imposter but it is enough to leave me mourning the loss of that connection.

I'm not the only one to suffer this sense of loss.

"Having come out as a lesbian at 15 the gay community became my family and my level of commitment to the LGBTQ community is profound," says Aydin Kennedy, a queer-identified trans man who is partnered to a lesbian. "The thought of not being part of such an amazing community was sad to me. There was also a sense of loss of my lesbian identity, the power of women and the connection that women have with each other. Although I never felt like a woman, I was afforded the privileges of being part of their energy."

"I'm still grappling with this," says Alex, a trans man whose transition cost him his lesbian partner. "I've lived as a lesbian for my entire adult life, so I feel lost around this right now."

Alex says that, after a year on testosterone, he's no longer certain about his sexual identity. "Hetero," he says, but adds, "I find some guys attractive.... I'm so horny at this point everyone looks kinda good."

Alex says his experience with gay men has included "some cruising, some hostility. Both feel strange."

As with many trans men, Alex struggles with a sense of not belonging. "I often feel like a breed apart," he says.

Jeff Thiefeldt is a 38-year-old Toronto trans man who, prior to his transition, was active in the lesbian community.

"The reaction I often get from lesbians or straight women with butch lesbian friends is that they are so accepting of masculinity in women that they accept me too as a woman," he says. "If a woman wants to grow a beard, that's okay with them. It's coming from a really good place, but I wish people understood that I'm not a butch lesbian who has taken things 'a little too far.'"

But if there's one thing that's worse than an overly persistent welcome into the girl's club, it's an outright rejection from it.

"Whenever I see lesbians it makes me happy," says Thiefeldt. "I often smile at them and wonder if they read me as a trans guy ally or a creepy straight guy. I miss the way they used to look at me as though we shared a secret."

This is not to suggest that all trans men want to be welcomed as queers.

"Personally I can celebrate the wins and mourn the losses of the queer movement... from a human rights perspective," says one straight trans man, who asked that his name not be used. "However I have no desire to align myself with the community publicly. Now that I have transitioned... I aim to live a stealth life and the less the general public knows about the meaning behind our scars and our challenges, the safer I feel in living stealth."

But for those whose sense of identity and belonging is invested in the queer community, expulsion can be devastating. While trans men are in a league of our own, we are a scattered and scarce population.

"If you start out in a place where you find any sense of belonging, you don't want to lose that," says Rebecca Anweiler, a feminist visual artist and activist living in Kingston, "and there's not such a large population of trans men that you can instantly access some other sort of community when you transition."

Anweiler's experience as a queer feminist offers insight into why some trans men occasionally encounter resistance from lesbians.

"I think that lesbians have a hard time with [female-to-male] transitioning because many of us struggle with our own gender identity and there was a longing that somehow we would be able to fit the range of what femininity was on some kind of map that went all the way to masculinity, and that it would suffice," she says.

While the map of femininity should not stop at the border of masculinity, the reality is that it is the wrong map altogether for trans men. Still, when there are only two categories widely available — male and female — and when belonging to either is typically grounded in biology, many trans men experience exclusion from both.

This might explain why transsexuals — too few in numbers to form an extensive community of their own — often seek safety and belonging among different groups who have been subject to other forms of exclusion.

"We purport to embrace difference, we have struggled to be more inclusive around race, class, ability, etc and we need to expand our horizons once again," says Anweiler, one of many feminists and lesbians working to create a safe space for transsexuals in their midst. "Transsexuals need a bigger world and the people who have been talking about a bigger world have been feminists and the queer community."

For those of us who want in, we look forward to living in that bigger world one day soon. For now I'll keep sweating the small stuff and hope for a little Jacuzzi time at next year's retreat.