a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Climbing Gender Mountain and turning into a man

Let’s say that dealing with your gender is like traveling up a mountain. The easiest path is the paved road. Sure, it twists and turns, and you’ve got to keep your wits about you to avoid falling off a cliff, but it’s wide enough and smooth enough that you can drive up the mountain in your car. This is Cis Road, open to anyone willing to present themselves as the gender they were assigned at birth, and while it’s not quite a walk in the park, it’s a relatively easy way to travel up a mountain.

If you don’t want to present yourself as the gender you were assigned at birth, but you are still willing to present yourself as a man or a woman, you can head out on Binary Trail. It’s narrower and steeper, so you can’t drive a car anymore. Still, there are clear trail markers and you’ll be in the company of lots of other binary hikers. Hiking a mountain is hard and sometimes awful, but if you just stick with it and keep following the trail, you know you’ll reach the summit eventually.

What about those of us who don’t want to present ourselves as men or women at all? Ha. Good luck, nonbinary friend. Here’s an axe. You’re on your own.

Nonbinary people have no road, no trail, no map. We strike out into the forest, hacking our own path, figuring things out as we go along. We don’t have any guarantee that we’ll reach the summit; we don’t even necessarily know what that would look like. Some people like the challenge and feel proud of making their own way up the mountain. Almost all of us will glimpse Cis Road and Binary Trail through the trees and feel tempted. Wouldn’t it be nice to just… stop struggling?

Well, friends, I did it. I stepped onto Binary Trail. And, to my surprise, I kind of love it.

I always thought that I would hate being misgendered as a man, after the novelty wore off, but a year or two of being read as a man has shown me that I was mistaken. I catch myself calling it “passing” when someone calls me sir/he/man/buddy/dude. I have even caught myself saying “we” when talking about trans men. I’ve responded so well to my partner using man-specific terms when talking about me and complimenting me that she’s begun to use them all the time, and every time I hear them, my unconscious first reaction is delight.

When I first stepped onto Binary Trail I thought I would be seen as an imposter. My fellow hikers welcomed me warmly, however, even after I explained that I didn’t truly belong, and I felt encouraged enough to continue for a few trail markers. Life gets easier the farther I go. Doctors cheer me along. Society cheers me along. There are a few snags, of course, because I’m still hiking up a mountain, but overall the experience of not hacking my own way through the trees has been so enjoyable that it leaves me wondering — have I been wrong my whole life? Could I really be a man? Or, perhaps, could I be turning into a man?

My gender feels like a choice. It feels like if I keep going the way I’m going, I will gradually become a man, through and through, but if I choose to sharpen up my axe and jump back into the forest I will stop that process and stay genderless.

Oddly enough, the idea of being a man doesn’t make me uncomfortable the way it did not so long ago. My hesitance is less about my internal sense of authenticity and more about interacting with the world. One thing that makes me uncomfortable now is knowing that I am willingly turning into, essentially, a straight white man, the worst overall oppressor. I’m still asexual and therefore not straight, but having a woman as a partner gives me the appearance of straightness to those who don’t know me well. Do I really want to take on that privilege? Will it turn me into someone terrible? Do I really want to listen to my friends say “ugh, men” and know that I am one of them?

In a wider context I would have a ton of privilege, but in the very narrow context of my day-to-day life, the straight white man is the only type of person who hears bad things said about him regularly and without repercussion. (Binary Trail has made me realize how few men I associate with on a regular basis…) Oppressed people have every right to complain about their oppressor, so I know that gracefully hearing complaints about men is just part of being a man. I do the same with my whiteness and my thinness and my able body and all my other privileged statuses. Yet I’m not entirely sure that I want to knowingly, purposely put myself into this new privileged class that is so generally reviled in my personal community. If my gender is, in fact, my choice, is this the choice I want to make?

And aside from that, is following Binary Trail a cop out? Would it be weakness to purposely choose not to be nonbinary? Am I letting myself be seduced by an easier life, giving up on my authentic self?

I’m reaching a point where I no longer want to let people see me as a woman. At work and with some of my family I haven’t bothered to mention my gender, but it’s becoming less and less comfortable. I could tell everyone that I’m genderless and assert my right to my identity. In a sense, I feel that I should. What’s going to happen to me? Probably nothing. Awkward conversations for the rest of my life and the constant background fear about prejudice against a visibly trans person, but otherwise nothing. I feel some responsibility to come out as nonbinary since I’m in a relatively safe place to do it.

Still, part of me wants to avoid those awkward conversations, the explanations and the Gender 101 lectures, and just say that I’m a man. I could do it. People would believe it. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it. But it feels, somehow, like cheating.

If my gender isn’t my choice at all, and I’m discovering the manliness that has always been within, then all of this is moot. Eventually my true self will win out. After being proudly genderless for nearly three decades, though, I doubt that’s the case. Most likely, I’m just enjoying the relative ease of this life and it says nothing about my internal identity. If I don’t want to go back into the forest with my axe, I could present myself as a man to the outside world and keep my genderlessness more private.

What if my gender is changing, though? What if I’ve never had a gender and now, at 28 years old, I’m becoming a man? Weird. So weird. But I mean… stranger things have happened.

3 Responses to Climbing Gender Mountain and turning into a man

  1. Sounds like an interesting* position.
    *(Bizarre? Elating? Troubling? Elements of all of the above? “Interesting”, you dear catch-all word, you don’t really handle shades of meaning well.)

    A couple of my characters in the last few years have shown themselves to identify off the binary, necessarily expanding my awareness that this is a thing. The first is 100% certain of their utter lack of gender. The second embraces the male pronouns he was born with, but dances between feeling male, feeling female, feeling both and neither and nothing in particular. That’s been “interesting” to navigate with him, trying to discover where he feels comfortable.

    Deciding with which groups you want to outwardly identify can be a challenge. Here’s hoping you soon find the place that feels rightest.

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