When you start to transition gender, you will most likely have certain ideas about how things will go. You will probably be very excited, and looking forward to all the positive changes in your life. However, there will be changes you don’t expect! For me, the biggest surprise was how people changed in the way they treat me, and how I have had to adjust to these changes. In short, I have been forced to man up! In this post I share my experiences, and offer some tips about how to cope with changing expectations.
All of a Sudden, Everyone was Reading me as Male!
At some point in my transition, people stopped being confused about my gender. It seemed that all of a sudden, everyone “read” me as a man. That was wonderful, but it came with a catch – suddenly, I was expected to behave as if I had been a man all my life. But in fact, I had lived as a woman or girl for some forty years, and my knowledge, strength, and abilities had been impacted by that life experience.
As a man, people expect you to have male strength, and sometimes do things that no one expects women to do. The first time I noticed this was many years ago when I was still presenting as female. I had been scuba diving in the ocean off a small island in the Indian Ocean. When I surfaced, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder how I was going to get back into the boat. It was a small power boat, and there were large swells on the ocean, lifting the tiny boat up and down like a toy. There were no steps of any kind for climbing back into the boat. I had a moment of sheer panic, wondering how on earth I was going to get back in.
Then I saw what the other women were doing. They would swim up next to the boat, and wait for the swell to lift them closer. Then they would extend their arms, and one of the small but very wiry and very strong islander men would grab their hands and haul them out of the water. I followed suit – it was a bit scary, but manageable. Sitting back in the boat, relieved as hell, I watched the men enter the boat.
A Moment of Sheer Terror
Needless to say, the islander men were not hauling them in! The men had to wait for a swell, then grab the side of the boat and haul themselves bodily into the boat. Some did it with grace, and others landed in a sprawling heap on the boat deck. Then I saw a middle-aged man surfacing from his dive, and getting a look of terror on his face as he realized what he was expected to do to get back on board. He managed to do it, but I could see the panic on his face, and see every muscle in his body straining as he desperately struggled to lever himself into the boat. He was a small man, and I guess he could have asked for help – but men rarely do that. Especially as his wife was also in our group.
That experience gave me my first insight into the kind of pressures men deal with, but I never really understood it till I experienced it myself.
How Am I Going to Get Back in the Boat?
The first time this happened to me I had surfaced from a dive and suddenly felt quite terrified when I realized I was expected to get out of the water on my own. In this situation there were steps at the back of the boat, but it still takes a whole lot of strength to lift yourself out of the water and up onto the steps when you have about 60 pounds of equipment on your back. I thought I might drown trying, or be swept under the boat. I figured out a compromise – I clung onto the bottom step, and removed my tanks and handed them up to an attendant, before hauling myself out. It was a lot easier without the tanks. As I retrieved my tanks from the attendant, I told him that I had a bad back!
Becoming One of the Guys!
Even in everyday life, things like this happen all the time. I remember my very first experience of being treated like “one of the guys.” I was buying a bike on Craigslist, and I met the seller on the side of the street outside his home, where he was giving the bike a quick clean. I wanted to take the bike for a test ride. As I am a very short guy, the saddle was way too high, so it had to be adjusted before I could go for a ride. The seller fished around in his tool box and handed me a wrench: “Here you go!”
I realized with a shock that I was expected to adjust the saddle myself! I also realized that when I was “read” as female, this had never happened. The man would automatically have made the adjustment for me. But now being read as male, it would have been downright insulting if the guy had assumed I was not able to make the adjustment myself.
Men Don’t Help Men …
I notice this repeatedly – men will not help other men unless asked, because it would be insulting to assume they need help. Unless the other man is very old, or very young. This makes it very tough on people who have not learned basic “male” skills at their father’s or brother’s sides since they were five years old!
In that situation, I thought fast and figured out how to adjust the saddle. Fortunately, that is quite a simple mechanical task. But as I did it, I was realizing that my life had changed forever. From now on, people would be treating me completely differently. It was a mixed blessing.
Am I Strong Enough?
As another example, I was volunteering at a roadside stall that was covered with a huge tent-like tarpaulin. A raging wind and rain sprang up, and the tent started to sway dangerously. The volunteers at the stall were me, one man, and four women. The other man leapt into action, grabbing one side of the tent and manfully holding it down, while yelling at me to grab the other side! The women huddled under the tent, fully expecting the two men to save the tent.
Well, I did my best, but it took every shred of my weight and strength, and even then, it was only just barely enough. Testosterone makes you way stronger, but it does not make up for the many years you have not had the benefit of testosterone. I am probably three times stronger than before testosterone, but only half as strong as I would have been had I been born with a male body. Also, boys tend to have totally different childhood experiences than girls, many of which make boys stronger as they grow up.
That was a scary experience for me, being given the responsibility of saving the tent because I was read as male, but secretly terrified that I was not up to the task. Yet variations of that happen all the time now. As a man, you are expected to just automatically jump in and deal with physical situations in a way that would never happen if you were read as female.
Every Man Has to Man Up
These experiences have given me a deeper understanding of, and respect for, the responsibilities that men carry in life. Yes, most men are naturally stronger than most women, but some of them are really hopeless with mechanical issues. And some are not as strong as others. Some may have bad backs or other physical challenges. Nonetheless, all of them are expected to deal with challenging situations in which women more often get a pass.
I am not going to theorize about whether these societal expectations are good or bad. They are what they are. But it does put a lot of responsibility on men who are less strong, or who have fewer technical skills.
Ways of Coping
There are of course ways to deal with these challenges, to some extent. I have done a lot of courses in things like bicycle mechanics, to help me to not look clueless. Plus of course you can learn almost anything on YouTube – from fly fishing to car mechanics. Well, at least enough not to embarrass yourself too much! I even have my own toolbox now. OK, I hardly ever use it, but at least I have one!
And of course, I worked on my strength, with things like going to the gym and doing pushups (which I can magically do with testosterone, but could never do prior to T). Although I admit that as I get older, I no longer go to the gym. I prefer to get my exercise from more enjoyable things, and from doing as much functional strengthening as possible (lifting bikes and kayaks onto trucks, that sort of thing).
A surprising thing that helped me to cope was getting a subscription to a magazine called Men’s Health. Although it is of course aimed at cis men, it turns out that cis men also need help manning up! I remember one article about a man panicking when he realized he was about to have a son – he felt sure he was not “manly” enough to be a good father, and did some crash courses in things like mechanics!
Men’s Health is just jammed with ideas and tips to help men cope with everyday life. I found it both helpful and reassuring in my transition. It even helped me figure out how to dress. Plus, I always felt more manly on the day my copy of Men’s Health arrived in the mail! Finally, magazines are just so ridiculously cheap now – at the time of writing, 50 cents per issue! I feel very sad about the decline of print, but it sure does make for some great bargains.
Getting a Pass on Sports
I have never had the slightest interest in team sports or the teams that play them. I was a bit worried that this would make me suspect. I did make an effort to learn, but found it all quite baffling and boring. Luckily, the men I worked with at the time of transition were all total nerds (kind of like me). I realized that they were almost as clueless and disinterested as I was in team sports. Thank goodness! If the subject of sports came up, all I had to do was mention Star Wars, and the subject instantly changed!
It is simply amazing how intense a group of nerdy men can become if you say something like, “Personally, I think the only order to watch Star Wars movies in is the Ernst Rister Order.” Try it sometime. You probably won’t have to say one more word – in fact, you probably won’t be able to get a word in, even if you want to! I do have a stock sentence for the rare situation when I am challenged to defend my choice: “It’s unorthodox, sure, but it maintains the big twist.” In case you’re wondering, the Ernst Rister Order is IV, V, I, II, III, VI, VII, VIII, IX. Also, I do love Star Wars, but I have never been able to get quite as intense as some of the guys I know. It’s always fun to hear them go on and on about it.
Zip It and Drink Your Beer!
It is comforting to remember that many cis men also don’t understand sports – especially if they are more interested in Star Wars! There is an episode of the Big Bang Theory called “The Corn-husker Vortex” in which Leonard is going to watch a football game with his girlfriend Penny and a bunch of sports-loving men. He is so worried about his complete lack of knowledge of football that he studies the subject (Football for Dummies), and gets some tutoring from Sheldon (who is from Texas and therefore knows football!). He then makes bizarre, intensely nerdy comments about the game. For example:
“That completely was a forward pass which they threw intentionally … to avoid loss of yardage or to conserve time. I can’t believe they’re not being penalized with the loss of a down and by having to move the line of scrimmage back to the spot of the foul!”
At which point Penny tells him to eat pizza and stop talking. My wife and I joke about that episode sometimes – she knows much more about football than I do, but has gracefully given up on trying to teach me anything about it. Her advice if we happen to be somewhere where people are watching sports: “Zip it and drink your beer!” That’s good advice! Here is the video:
It Gets Easier Over Time …
The weight of societal expectations is decreasing as I age. Now that I am perceived more as a senior man, less is expected of me. In especially challenging situations, my age gives me a “pass,” so that I am not expected to be able to cope. I can hang back and wait for the younger men to deal with it, without any shame. Heck, younger men even hold doors open for me now, or stand up on transit to give me a seat! And every time, they respectfully call me “Sir.” I love it! Overall though, I am still expected to be knowledgeable about all kinds of things I never understood before.
I hope this post does not depress you. The many positive changes in my life more than outweigh the extra challenges I have to deal with now. And the bottom line is that having to man up comes with the territory of being a man!