On Becoming a Real Man
– essay written May 2013
Becoming a man could be so simple; there are religious ceremonies, puberty, and father-to-son heart to hearts than can instantly propel a boy, like myself, into manhood. Or possibly it will be the moment I get a real job, get married, and have a kid. Or perhaps it was earlier, when I signed that line to register for the selective service. But where and when does the “real” come into play? Regardless, I seemed to have chosen the most unconventional way of asserting my manhood (God bless my Mom and Dad at the time). Real or not, here I come.
“So when did you know?” I am asked frequently. “How did you know?” Another popular one as well. “When did you come out?” As if there was only one time (the most recent of which is right now!). “If you could have chosen, would you have been born a cisgender male?” This one always makes me linger a second longer each time; I am perfectly happy being transgender, and I am unbelievably content being a self-made man. So unbelievably, in fact, that others will tell me what I want, who I am, who I was, and if they think I qualify, in their eyes, as a man.
I have found that these qualifications do not exist. They vary from person to person in such a plethora of ways that it would be impossible for any person to fit the definition of being a man, cisgender or transgender, “real” or “fake.” The beard, the height, the six-pack, the beer belly, the bald spot, the sex, the walk, the talk, the cockiness, the humble brag- this checklist of requirements exists as a part of the trivial soup of our Men’s Health and Viagra-ridden culture. If no concrete definition exists for being a man, which is beautiful and freeing in many ways, I cannot imagine how to think of becoming a man. Without knowing this first, it would be akin to building a bridge over miles of ocean without land on the other side to connect to. Now I picture bridges like veins or tree roots, reaching out in a million directions and connecting back to the same initial blood or water source. We are not dissimilar to the natural patterns of this life which we try so hard to control. I feel less real the more I try to be “real.”
This Wednesday morning, when I stuck a small needle full of testosterone into the side of my hip, I felt awakened, relaxed, and way too giddy considering this was 220th time I have performed this ritual. Next Wednesday, I will still be just as excited – but why? The day after President Obama was inaugurated, I had injected my first dose of male hormones prescribed by a balding Harvard Professor whom I aspired to become. Later that day, I delightfully declared in a YouTube video that I was an Obama baby. At the age of seventeen, I was proud to announce my male infancy; yet, I don’t consider that first injection moment the turning point of me becoming a man. I had come out as identifying as a man two years prior – the male pronouns and “Hey man!”s still didn’t quite feel up to par to reaffirm my becoming a “real man.” Nor did I feel like I became a man when I removed my breasts, or two years later, when I had my reproductive organs sucked out of my belly button, though others will often say that did the trick. So when do I get to become a man and, hopefully soon after, feel like I am a “real man?”
What a “real man” entails is not easily answered by internet research. One blogger on a site dedicated to “The Art of Manliness” wrote an article titled “Becoming a Man.” He states that he has “come up with the following traits that truly define what it means to be a man;” selflessness, consistency, and humility. Selflessness because only “real men” can serve someone or something greater than themselves. Consistency because “real men are people others can count on.” And, of course, humility because “real men are secure in their abilities and do not find it necessary to place themselves in higher esteem than those around them.” First, none of these highlight the action of “becoming;” more importantly, if these signify “real men,” I know many selfless, consistent, and humble women who are “real men” too.
My only conclusion is that there is no such thing as a “real man.” Gender is a social construct; we have developed it over the past thousands of years as a means to create order within our relationships. These days, gender is highly based in stereotypes, as is anything created socially. I may have transcended the gender lines, but since realizing that gender is not real, defining my transgender identity sometimes seems impossible. Selfless or selfish, consistent or contradictory, humble or arrogant, all I know is that I have felt like a man on the inside since I was three years old. But how does it feel to be a man? And even if there were a set feeling, how would I, as a female-born individual, be able to recognize it?
In the end, I am the manliest flowerpot embodying a steroid-hogging, scarred body, but I wake and know being a man feels right for now. I don’t know how others see me, but I see myself whole. Awkward patches of stubble, a hairy stomach, greasy skin and a voice that won’t stop getting lower even at the age of twenty-two. There is no defined way to become a real man, but I know how I became one.
I became a man the day I sat my parents down and said, “I want to let you know that, although I have been your daughter for the past sixteen years, I am a man and I want to transition socially and medically to become your son.” I became a man again the day my brother, after two years of resistance, recognized my pronouns and, at long last, told me “I’ve always wanted a little brother, and out of all the transgender little brothers I could ask for you, you’re perfect.” Real or not, I became a man when I consciously decided it was time to become one.