I’m a gay trans man in my 20s and I’ve been transitioning for five years. I’m really happy with my progress and have pretty much met all my transition goals. The only thing that still gives me dysphoria is how intimidated I get around cis men.
When I was really young, the first queer people I ever met were TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who taught me to hate and fear masculinity, so you can imagine the damage that did. When they found out I was questioning my identity, it didn’t go over well.
Nowadays all my friends are allies, and I’m seeing a therapist about my trauma. But I still find myself flocking to spaces that have very few or no guys in them. I’ve tried going to queer bars, but I get so intimidated that I end up leaving after one drink. When a man speaks to me, I instinctively make myself small and raise the pitch of my voice, afraid. It’s so awkward to be a man, to only be attracted to men and yet be unable to speak to them! I haven’t tried apps because that just feels like asking someone to fill my DMs with transphobia.
How do we as trans people survive in spaces that are primarily made for cis people—specifically, cis people attracted to the same gender? I want some friends, maybe even a boyfriend someday, that I can relate to and be myself around without sitting on a secret.
Lost and Longing
Congratulations on your transition! It makes my heart sing to know that you are happy and have reached most of your transition goals. You deserve to feel good in your body and your social role. It seems very natural that, as a gay trans man, exploring your relationship to other men is a part of your movement toward gender euphoria. Yet, as you describe in your letter, your body still responds with instinctive fear toward cis men—a serious double-bind.
Patience and self-compassion may be your greatest tools, L&L. Healing takes time, and so does building relationships. You don’t need to be fearless, only courageous in your journey. And you know what, L&L? The very fact that you have transitioned in a transphobic world tells me that you know something about what it means to be brave.
I’d like to take a moment to normalize your feelings of fear toward cis men. In my experience, many people in this world are afraid of them—including quite a few cis men! As you have likely heard before, the dominant culture is shaped around empowering and privileging toxic masculinity; young boys are often socially rewarded for engaging in aggressive and violent behaviours. The majority of physically violent crimes are committed by men. Many of us queer and trans people have experienced terrible things at the hands of cis men, even while cis men can also be incredible allies, friends and lovers.
So your feelings make sense from a certain perspective, L&L. Even the rhetoric of trans exclusionary radical feminists has some grain of truth when it comes to fear of male violence. Let’s acknowledge that even now, despite the fact that you are a man and have chosen a masculine gender expression, your fear is still trying to protect you from men. Self-compassion is knowing that fear is always, in some way, trying to save our lives.
Simply telling ourselves not to be afraid of something rarely works well. Instead, we often need to work with fear, acknowledge the wisdom of fear, provide our fear with the assurance that we no longer need it to save us. We need to know, deep in our bodies, that we are capable of protecting ourselves.
When it comes to men, L&L, it could be that gradual exposure in a neutral environment might help your body and mind slowly integrate a sense of safety and self-assurance. Having lived for a time as a gay man in my late teens and early 20s, my own experience is that gay bars, clubs and parties are hardly neutral. This kind of cisgender gay male cultural space tends to be highly charged and focused around particular norms of beauty and sex—white, cis, thin, between the ages of 18 and 35. Sexual directness is often prized in these spaces, and while this isn’t bad in and of itself (sexual directness can be wonderful!), it is frequently also accompanied by elements of transphobia, racism and body shaming. Dating and hookup apps can have similar dynamics—and even cis gay men often struggle with this.
For this reason, many queer men find each other outside of bars and apps. Pre-COVID-19, many social, artistic, athletic and other queer community groups met regularly to make music, play sports, do yoga, play video or tabletop games and more. Some continue to do so online, and some are just beginning to cautiously return to these activities in real life. Your options may depend somewhat on where you live, L&L, but joining a group of men (or mixed genders) for casual, structured activity might be helpful in developing greater comfort.
In such environments, you can plan to stay for just a short time, build up some positive (or at least neutral) experiences with cis men and practise managing small amounts of stress. Since you’re already seeing a therapist, I’d suggest collaborating with them to plan and debrief any steps you take towards “practising” being around men. Remember that when it comes to exposure therapy, titration and choice are key—taking things in bite-sized pieces and listening to your embodied sense of what’s right for you in the moment.
Will you experience moments of transphobia if and when you eventually step into communities primarily filled with cis queer men? Unfortunately, it’s always a possibility (or perhaps even a likelihood, depending on the context). The answer to your question about how we as trans people survive in such communities comprises multiple, overlapping truths. In the first place, I find it much easier to do so when I’m not alone, through connecting with other trans folks in queer spaces and building up solidarity and camaraderie. There have been times in my life when I never attended a queer event without at least one other trans friend with me. In some particularly great moments, I’ve attended trans “takeovers” of predominantly cis gay spaces, which has been thrilling!
However, I also believe that every individual trans person develops resilience over time: we learn to become advocates for our right to exist in queer communities, and we become more skillful in navigating complex social situations. Remember, L&L, that cis men are also afraid; in every domineering or clueless man there lurks a lost boy, struggling to find a sense of stability and strength. The dominant cultural ideal of masculinity is an iron shell built around a glass core—it is much more easily shattered than those of us on the outside can imagine. We don’t need to cede ground to that, L&L. Trans people have a place in the queer world, and we have the strength we need to claim it. After all, isn’t that what being trans is all about?
Without assuming anything, I’d also like to gently suggest that it might be worth exploring your relationship to your own masculinity, L&L. The experiences you’ve described about being taught to hate and fear masculinity by TERFs make me wonder if your fear of cis men might have something to do with how you feel about yourself.
Many trans men I’ve spoken to have had complex feelings about masculinity even while identifying with it: What does it mean to start to embody male privilege and power? Is it possible that you fear yourself, L&L, and the potential of your own masculinity to offend or harm people? You may want to check out talks and writing on masculinity and gender by trans men like Thomas Page McBee, Tiq Milan and S. Bear Bergman. Trans people are always being told that we are bad and dangerous, and I wonder if perhaps being around cis men might trigger some of your memories of being criticized and rejected by your former friends. Just a thought, L&L—something potentially worth exploring further.
Learning to love men through fear is a noble and worthwhile task, L&L, not least because you are yourself man who deserves to be loved. Of course it is hard. Perhaps it will be slow. But you don’t need to do this all at once. You can make your way there in the same way that all of us do: one brave step at a time.
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Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.