Being trans or non-binary in a society that is so institutionally driven by concepts of traditional gender can be a confusing and alienating place. As a non-binary person I am often baffled by the emphatic appeal to a manufactured ideal of ‘manliness’ in our day-to-day lives; from recruiting for occupations to marketing products to picking hobbies, it seems omnipresent and suffocating.
Is all masculinity like this? No. Does it have to be? Also no. I believe there is a strong opportunity for cisgender men to learn more about a more freeing experience of masculinity from trans and non-binary people.
Fragile (or toxic) masculinity is often considered to be a ‘doubling down’ of certain behaviours. These are often centred around maintaining a sense of control, such as being needlessly competitive, repressing emotional expression or a propensity for coercion. Conversely, it can also be seen as an attempt to minimise peaceful resolution, compromise, collaboration or openness. Some men feel a strong need to maintain a status quo where these beliefs and ways of thinking aren’t threatened as a way of retaining that sense of control. In order to do this, they can try to perpetuate these behaviours not only in themselves but in those they consider to be their peers, whether in work or social settings.
As limiting as this can be, it tells us a lot about our society’s response to identities which are considered outwith the norm, and the more ingrained and internalised these structures are the stronger the backlash. When these ways of thinking are challenged the response can often be disproportionate to the act, but the perceived threat to that particular brand of masculinity shows how fragile their narrow view of masculinity can be. Despite this, gender roles can, and do, change over time. However, this can be so slow that it may not feel as if they’re changing at all.
Media is often where this conversation can take place, but despite attempts to present a complex and nuanced picture of flawed men, there are some who seem determined to purposefully misinterpret the authorial intent behind these characters. Fictional men like Walter White, Don Draper or Rick Sanchez are popular examples of this - whilst watching these kinds of shows is definitely entertaining, they are clearly not supposed to be sympathetic characters. It should be concerning to all of us that some people identify with these characters at all. Despite the fact that the creators of these shows have time and again expressed that these are flawed characters who are not supposed to represent a role model or an ideal, some will twist that authorial intent and social commentary. They will take startling leaps of logic to, again, avoid any perceived threat to their view of what masculinity is and isn’t.
Transmasculinity is about embracing the options presented to you. Trans people have existed throughout history despite attempts, to this day, by more regressive elements to erase or diminish those people and their identities. Indeed those who threaten that toxic masculinity in other ways - sexuality for instance (see the Lovers of Moderna) - can be erased too. Many cultures around the world have historically recognised and celebrated trangender identities but they’ve been sidelined from the history books. While it is a separate issue too complex to be addressed in this article the unfortunate reality is that in many places around the world an enduring impact of colonialism is intolerance towards diverse sexuality and gender expression. Nevertheless, trans people exist and persist because the need to express these unspoken parts of themselves is often greater than the risk.
My experience as a non-binary person who was assigned male at birth is messy and confusing, and has taken a long time to unpack. I didn’t come out as non-binary until my mid-twenties because frankly I didn’t know I was. I didn’t really know or understand what the words were to describe how I was feeling. I had no one to relate to or speak to because I didn’t know any other non-binary people. I remember when I first read about being agender, and it was like a bolt out of the blue had hit me and it all suddenly made sense. For me, that was one of the most powerful and cathartic watershed moments of my life. Exploration can often be liberation, and I’m so glad that I took the time to educate myself about trans identities or I know I would still be stuck and struggling in these patterns of behaviour that I thought were expected of me - despite having no affinity for them.
Transmasculine people have choppy waters to navigate in exploring their identity, the lines can often seem blurred and as with any social construct, gender can be a complex thing to understand. But by the same token, it can also be very simple - you may not intuitively understand what it feels like to experience gender dysphoria or euphoria (and if you’re cisgender you may likely never know), but you don’t have to. All you have to do is respect it, and support the trans people in your life. Read more, listen more and recognise the unique perspective of people who have battled with their gender dysphoria because their experience and presentation of masculinity is hard won. Simple and small changes for you, such as taking care to use the right pronouns or learning to use someone’s new name, will take a little effort from you and make a huge difference to someone else. Who knows? You might learn something about yourself along the way.