Tomboy or Trans

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For Valentine’s Day, Alvar got me a small model of a unicorn. It’s sitting on the windowsill now, keeping me company when I eat breakfast in the mornings, several hours after Alvar has left for work. For me, this journey with Alvar started with the Gender Unicorn, a beautiful illustration by Landyn Pan and Anna Moore, showing how diverse we humans are in terms of sexuality, emotion, gender identity, and gender expression. After having been given the picture as study material for the volunteer work that I was doing, I showed Alvar the unicorn one evening. A week later, he told me that he might be trans, and that this was a truth that he had tried to suppress most of his life.

Once we had begun to discuss Alvar’s identity, a whole universe of questions opened up. Initially, Alvar was not sure if he wanted to transition at all. He said that he had learned to love his body the way that it was, and that he had ‘gotten by’ so far. He asked me how our life was going to look, and if we even had a future together, if he decided to become more male. I didn’t have any answers to those questions. All I knew, was what I had learned through my own coming-out process: the only way that one can build real relationships is by being true to oneself. Regardless of what happens between Alvar and me, I would never want him to compromise with who he is for my sake.

The questions that we tried to find information on, were the usual ones that people who think about transitioning need to consider: What kind of changes could Alvar make? What would be covered by national health care? What were the criteria for being referred to a gender clinic? How might hormone replacement therapy affect Alvar, what risks were involved? Alvar started the process of getting closer to the idea of transitioning by looking up others who spoke about their own way to gender affirmation. He found a few people on YouTube who shared their experiences of going through the process of transitioning. For my own part, I searched medical websites for information about waiting lists, and the different stages that a transition takes one through. In between reading articles and making notes, I had days when I was too upset to even touch the subject. Alvar’s videos of trans men made me leave the room – I didn’t want to think about him going through the same changes that they had done, exchanging their boyish androgynity for becoming men. I wish I could say that those days of being troubled are over, but I still experience them. To me, Alvar is perfect the way he is now. The contrasts between his masculinity and femininity is what caught my attention when we first met. They still fascinate me, and the thought of him losing these nuances terrifies me. At the same time, every day I learn more about what this discordance between his outer appearance and the way that he feels on the inside, costs. Also, part of me is longing to see the ‘real’ him, the way that he perceives himself. I want to meet him when he feels whole. On the days that I don’t let my fear take over, I know that he will be even more beautiful once he has made the changes to his appearance that he wants to do. It’s a dive-and-climb journey, this being the partner of someone who is transitioning. On the one hand, I get to accompany Alvar to each height that he reaches, witnessing how he is becoming more comfortable with himself with every triumph. At the same time, I find myself free-falling out into the atmosphere, not sure where I will land, or what to expect when I get there.

“She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girlish, she was so boyish it was girlish” 

Girls Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate, 2007)

When I first told my friends about Alvar’s gender identity, they asked me if he is sure that he is a man, or if he might just be gender nonconforming, in the way that he doesn’t fit society’s narrow criteria for what a woman should be like. For a brief moment, I asked myself that question too, but even before Alvar came out to me, I had a feeling that he was a man, limited by the fact that he has a woman’s body. There is an ongoing discussion in the L(GBTI+) community about how there is no space for butch lesbians anymore. Being assigned female at birth, and at the same time being perceived as incredibly masculine in appearance and interests, is often considered to be provocative, not only in the heteronormative society as a whole, but also within lesbian circles. The term ‘butch’ in itself is not easily defined; even the most masculine lesbians that I know, do not use the word ‘butch’ to describe themselves – ‘tomboy’ is much more often used. Perhaps the word tomboy has a more playful, rather than aggressive connotation. Maybe tomboy suggests a mixture of both male and female, whereas butch has a much more pronounced masculine feel to it. As one of the interviewees in the documentary Gender Troubles: The Butches by Lisa Plourde, says, butch women are often mistaken as trans men, and suffer abuse from people who regard them as ‘trying’ to be men.

I asked Alvar where he thinks the line goes, and why he changed from seeing himself as a boyish, lesbian/bisexual woman to, well, a straight man. “Growing up, you might realise that you like girls. Or, you might realise that you like boys. Or neither, or both”, he said. “The question is: how do you perceive yourself? Are you happy with the body that you have, or are you looking at the others, thinking that you should have been born with the same kind of bodies that they have?” To me, that is a clear explanation between the difference of tomboys and trans men, i.e. the difference between gender expression and gender identity. There are days when Alvar avoids mirrors. I only know this because he has told me – from the outside, he comes across as comfortable with himself. The tomboy women that I know, feel at one with their bodies – it is society’s disapproval that they have to deal with, rather than an inwards fight with themselves as they are.

The story of finding oneself is different for everybody. In Alvar’s case, he has never done any self harm, something that is often mentioned when talking about people who experience gender dysphoria. The reason why Alvar did not approach the subject of being trans before now, he tells me, is because he didn’t know anything about what transitioning meant, and he didn’t recognise his own experiences in the ones the few stories about transgender people that he knew. He admits that he had a lot of prejudice against people who wanted to change the gender they were assigned at birth. Although Alvar didn’t see himself as trans, he tells me that he never felt at home in the lesbian community either. From the interviews that I have heard with people who have transitioned to men, there seems to be a chasm between lesbian women and trans men. I don’t know if some lesbians feel resentment towards trans men, seeing them as sisters who have abandoned the cause of feminism for living a life with male privilege. It’s something that Alvar has reflected on, this changing to ‘the other side’, where he might be perceived as part of the patriarchal problem, rather than an ally. At the same time, his experiences of meeting gay women have often involved rivalry, and a feeling that he has been regarded as a threat, being as masculine as he is. To illustrate: some people have been surprised to hear that he hasn’t started HRT yet, they have been convinced that he must be taking testosterone because of way he looks. In some cases, the same competition that he experienced among lesbian women, seems to have been transferred to how he is received by other trans men. Alvar and I have discussed if this sense of jealousy is related to the way the girls are brought up to see each other as threats, rather than supporting each other.  I have to admit that the last time I was in a room with several trans men, I felt a certain amount of suspicion from some of them. Maybe it was only me projecting the worry that they would think that I judged them for the life change that they had made. Or maybe it was a sense of feeling out of place as someone who is gay, but cis gendered, and who, as a result of that, has the security of belonging to the lesbian community where bonding with each other is the key.

Before I came out as a lesbian, I read many coming-out stories, searching for one that would match how I felt. However, most of the stories that I found, were ones told by ‘tomboys’, who had known that they were gay from a very early age. They also stressed the fact that they spent their childhoods doing sports and playing with cars instead of having makeovers and dressing dolls. Essentially, in terms of gender expression, the narrative for lesbian women was similar to that of many trans men. For my own part, I couldn’t relate to these stories. Growing up, I had never fallen in love with my friends that were girls, nor was I interested in football or vehicles (except, perhaps, hot air balloons…) – I had the same kind of dreams of pink and ponies that a lot of girls around me had. Even during my rebel teens, questioning beauty ideals and patriarchy,  I never felt that I walked outside the frames of societal structures enough to be gay. I think that this is the reason why it took me so long to find where I stood, sexually and emotionally. I just knew that I connected with women much more than I did with men, and that women made my head turn a lot more often than I found myself looking at a man.

Conflating gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality, is a common thing to do. For some people, these three things are united, without any friction in between. In general, though, I think that most people experience a kind of disharmony at one point or other during their lives. I also believe that these things can change over time – for instance, I felt that I grew a lot more convinced of my lesbian disposition over the years, compared to how I was when I first came out as bisexual. In a world that wasn’t so fixed on binaries, that had more space for fluidity, maybe people wouldn’t feel the need to change go through the process of transition. Maybe more women would identify as butch, rather than trans. Right now, I don’t think there is any point in speculating in that. A society that is more open and all-embracing would be wonderful, but to question the real distress of people who don’t feel at home in their own bodies, is nothing but ignorant. I wish that anyone who has felt the same kind of anguish over their bodies that Alvar has, gets the opportunity to make the changes necessary in order to meet their own selves and think: “That’s me. That’s who I am”.

© Picture: ‘The Lonely Mitt’ by Alvar.

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