As a trans man, I’ve been asking myself for years what it means to be a man and to be masculine. This is one of the things that led me to creating this piece, which originated from the time my car broke down and my grandfather became determined to fix it.
Upon his declaration to get to work, I offered my assistance, but my grandparents had other plans in mind: my papaw, in his stubborn old country man way, had resolved to make the complicated repair totally on his own. My mamaw decided she and I were going to help in a way I didn’t expect.
We pulled up two green plastic lawn chairs a ways away from my grandfather, close enough to hear the frustrations under his breath, clicking of his teeth as he discarded tool after tool, but far enough away to make him feel like he had plenty of space. This left room for us to have our own private conversation.
We sat, observing quietly, then started gabbing. It felt at first like we were all just there with each other, but as I continued to periodically assert my availability to help Papaw between conversations with Mamaw, I realized there was a divide. There was him: the fixer, the holder of things, the determiner of tools, the carrier of the burden and reward of repair. Then, there was us: the girlies, gossiping, waiting for the big guns to finish the job, sent to the sidelines by the VIP.
That’s how it seemed, until mid-gab, when Papaw almost dropped the car jack on himself and before anyone could realize the danger, Mamaw swooped in to save him from the threat.
She made her move, to the annoyance and resistance of my tired and irritable grandpa, and gracefully returned to her stoop alongside me in the girlies’ green lawn chairs.
It became clear to me after that– she understood.
She understood that my grandfather would reject any help offered, but that he would need it and when he did, she would see it. She would be there, ready to take action, without even a moment’s notice.
This is what masculinity feels like to me. It feels like looking at the options and tools available, hoping one will fit, learning what works, discarding what doesn’t. Sometimes its using the available tools to make more tools, more options, and hoping that what you build is useful to and works for the rest of the world.
This scene and masculinity both make me think about the divides that exist between masculine and feminine people; the spaces that masculine people are given that often overextend themselves into or overshadow spaces that feminine people are in, and can determine how much space feminine people are even allowed to take up. I think about how masculine people are so often highlighted in the foreground, but how even if we aren’t allowed to see it, there are always feminine people that are doing the work: the essential work, the skilled but unappreciated labor.
I think about how often masculinity comes out of a sort of “knowing” – how when two men are moving a hefty, awkward sofa, there is an unspoken rule where they should just “know” where to go, anticipating where the other person is going, and move gracefully with each other to accomplish the goal in this totally silent, but still somehow communicated way.
I think about how my grandma knew that any outside help – especially from a woman or a young trans man who knows next to nothing about cars –would not be accepted, but was certain that at some point assistance would be imperative. Because she knew this, she made her silent plans to work in the way she knew it needed to.
I have been on T for six years now, which has made me super cis-passing. As my transition has progressed, the way I've been treated by both men and women has exponentially changed. When I greet men like I would anyone else, with a smile and a quick “howdy,” sometimes it comes out a little too jolly or rushed and I can instantly see a look of assessment. It is such a fragile thing. Even one small inflection can be passed over as a judgment of “too feminine,” or “weird,” or “not man enough.”
Recently, my downstairs neighbors found out I’m queer. The two housemates were always polite and minded their business aside from a courteous “hey man” in passing. Once, after I walked a date out the door, kissed him, and came back inside, I caught them looking out the window underneath the curtain at me, which they had never done before. After that, neither of them ever said hello to me again.
This is clearly a case of homophobia, but isn’t homophobia rooted in toxic masculinity, too? The boys look at me different because I’m gay, but also because with that notion, they see less than. They see not man enough, fairy, faggot.
I have spent years trying to assess my own relationship to masculinity as a trans man with most of my life lived as a woman. I have learned that I think it’s all kind of bullshit, but it’s also kind of beautiful– the times when you do greet another man with a polite “howdy” that maybe comes out “too sweet” and it’s received with a welcoming smile and a “howdy” back. The times that I’ve been smoking a cigarette at a coffee shop, looking feminine as hell, nails painted dark green, earrings in, all pink fit, legs crossed, and still another boy, a stranger, approaches me and asks if he can join me smoking my cigarette, and nothing we talk about is related to who we are or how we show up in the world, and then, a bond forms because we are both boys. The times that I hang out with my trans masc friend, the first trans boy I ever met who was my age, and we talk about the different parts of being a trans masc person, how to stick to our values and stick up for ourselves and other people in a world that makes it really scary to do so, bonding over the shared horrors of men’s restrooms, the dreams of an all-trans-led auto shop called “Transmission,” and dreams of a world where trans people are part of the norm and you don’t have to be passing to be seen as who you are.
I’ve spent all this time asking myself, “what is masculinity? What does it mean to be masculine?” and there are so many parts that feel so good and so right, but there are just as many parts that feel so foreign and wrong. I still can’t totally put my finger on all the different moving parts, but I know that masculine is something I am. It’s something that feels flexible to me, malleable and living, and it’s also unique to every person – even if it might not seem like that on the surface.
When I am in spaces where I'm super aware I'm a masculine person where I can sometimes feel like I’m perceived as a threat, or I'm in spaces with a lot of other masculine people where I sometimes feel challenged because of my own toxic masculinity and wanting to prove myself as “man enough,” I think of situations like this where there is a lot to take in, unpack, and learn from.
I think: maybe masculinity is not just a look; it’s a way of being, of feeling, of living.
It’s my papaw making it his priority to take care of me, maybe in a way that showcases his masculinity, but not just because he wants to show off, because he wants it done right, because he has the experience to make him confident that he can do so, because he believes the least he can do is try to be there. It’s my mamaw having seen the situation enough times to know she’ll have to be strategic and stay on the sidelines until the time that to interject that she knows will come. It’s me watching it all, assessing and learning, inventorying for my next session of wondering and trying hard to keep all of the discoveries and notes with me the next time I act.