You mention ‘masculinity’ in your blog on a number of occasions (being comfortable with it, not wanting to be on one side of a binary, embracing the masculinity you feel, masculinise my body, true masculinity, masculinity I am claiming etc.). I’m interested in how you see/construct masculinity and, in particular, the masculinity you claim.

Some time ago I asked people if they had any questions for me about transitioning. Whilst I’m happy talking about myself at length, I am interested in finding out what, if anything, people would like to know about what I’m doing. My cousin sent me a question (above) that I’ll admit completely stumped me. It’s true that I talk about masculinity a lot – more so than talking about being a man, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later. Thinking about this made me realise I’ve probably been using the word as shorthand for something else entirely. I decided to enlist the help of others on this one – people from a variety of backgrounds, some transgender, others cisgender, some genderqueer, some who do not necessarily identify with any of those labels. This post is intended as a way for me to explore the issue of masculinity through both my own thoughts, and those of others.

Being sent these contributions has been quite scary, and I’ve worried endlessly over how to do them justice. As I said to my partner recently in the wee small hours “but they say these things so much better than I do. How do I write anything that won’t seem like a waste of their effort?” I didn’t want to trivialise the issue, but there have been times when this looked like it was going to turn into an academic tome. You don’t want to read my academic writing – it’s dull and pretentious. I have proof in the shape of 15,642 words comparing literary treatments of the Faust legend from the 16th Century to the Present. Yuk. So being reluctant to turn this into a school essay, please forgive me for what may have ended up as a twisty wander through my thoughts.

One thing to which I refer occasionally is ‘masculinisation’, as in ‘masculinise my body’. This is a word commonly used to describe the physical changes that the body goes through when transitioning from female to male. Testosterone leads to masculinisation, eg: lower voice, greater muscle mass, clitoral growth, increased body hair, and so on. Chest surgery is also often put under the heading of masculinisation.

I think that over time I have come to associate the word masculinisation in the context set out above with ‘the experience of becoming more masculine’ in general, and this may be where my use of masculine starts to get a bit rocky. I am often reluctant to say “I am a man”. Partly as I don’t see gender as a binary situation (see earlier posts), partly because whilst I know I don’t identify as ‘a woman’, I’m not sure I identify as ‘a man’, and lastly, and this is me being very honest here, because I am not yet (will I ever be?) comfortable with having been born female-bodied and being able to say categorically ‘I am a man’. That’s me, not many others. A lot of transguys have no problem self-identifying as a man from very early on, because that is absolutely, categorically how they feel. Whilst I “know myself” and, as mentioned earlier, know I am absolutely not a woman, I have a lot of issues that prevent me from slipping easily into being a man.

But I digress, the short version is that discomfort with saying ‘I am a man’ has led me to adopt the word masculine to describe how I feel, as it’s a more general term, and I guess has more room for gender manoeuvre. I have always felt comfortable with masculinity as, I suppose, a general area of behaviour, social context and expectation. But it doesn’t take a lot of deconstruction to know that the word masculinity is just as contentious as ‘man’ is for me.

My own masculinity is something I’m hardly ever aware of. I never look at myself and think “I feel masculine”. However, when I think about it, I have some very obvious and immediate ideas about what constitutes masculinity in others (Leighton Williams)

One of the first questions people tend to ask me when they hear I’m transitioning is “how do you know?” How do any of us know what gender we are? From an early age, of course, we are neatly divided into girls and boys by the way we are treated and spoken to, the toys we are given, the expectations placed on us, and this continues long into adulthood:

From cradle to grave, our culture stamps its definition of what makes a man or a woman upon us. When you’re a boy it’s all blue clothes and Action Man and not crying and later, when you’re presumably a man, prodigious beer consumption, football and lighting your own farts. It’s owning a flash car, having a lucrative (or exciting, or dangerous) job and shagging a sexy woman. (Leighton Williams)

We learn very early on, from parents, TV, shops, peers, everyone and everywhere, the things that are considered acceptable for men and women to do, say, wear, and so on. With the best will in the world, these things become so ingrained that we don’t see them as socially constructed, but as ‘true’ characteristics of men and women. We are then left to define ourselves based on a set of rules rigidly set along gender lines.

I don’t like football or fighting but I love guns. I like subtitled films, flowers and long walks, I bake my own bread and like driving fast, I really don’t know if masculinity can be defined unless it is in context with stereotypical views on what it is to be male as thrust at us in the majority of medias (AW)

Any child that is different either has to face the social music, or learn to hide their differences. I don’t think anybody would want our children to grow up as homogeneous Stepford-style children, but I believe that in any society there is a limit to how much ‘rule-breaking’ you can get away with before alienation, bullying and discrimination start, at whatever age.

The fear of not meeting the expectations of being a man, a ‘man’ or A MAN ran through my childhood, particularly amongst my peers (rather than family). I was never interested in sport – well, not ‘manly’ sport, anyway – and anything oily, greasy or muddy held no interest for me. The thought of being pigeon-holed as ‘effeminate’ or ‘gay’ in the changing rooms at high school scared me (despite the fact that, by that age I knew perfectly well which team I batted for) (Richard Cooper-Knight)

I’m not suggesting that somewhere in the world there is a secret society of rule-makers dictating gender stereotypes as a means of social control, but there doesn’t need to be – we have become self regulating, penalising those who step outside of what is considered normal and acceptable. It is important to us, in order to avoid dissent, that certain people behave in a certain way.

Masculinity to me is a concept that society has a great deal of investment in defining-what it IS and what it IS NOT, who is allowed to embody values that are signified as masculine and who is not. When I was perceived as a woman I was constantly told that I was too masculine-meaning I took up space and behaved in ways that only men were permitted. Now that I am perceived as a man I have to watch myself so that I don’t take up space that belongs to people who are not granted the same amount of license as I am, someone perceived to be a white, middle aged man. I perceive myself as a ‘herm’ and someone who has zero investment in propping up patriarchal dominant masculinity (Del LaGrace Volcano)

So society has a stake in reinforcing particular behaviours.

But what of physical characteristics? Whilst socially constructed differences can be seen as such if you pick them apart enough, men and women are certainly physically different, though even these things can come into question to a degree.

To me masculinity is not much to do with gender. As you can get masculine women and feminine men (later category I fall under). For me, when I think of masculinity I tend to think of the below although obviously not everyone who possesses any of these traits is necessarily masculine – it’s more having lots of the traits combined which gives that impression I think:

Deep voice, confidence, assertive manner, little interest in clothes, make-up, etc. Interest in stereotypically ‘male’ things, like maybe sport, work, out-doorsy things. Being one of the lads or enjoying the company of other masculine men, being direct. Physically, I would say having masculine features rather than pretty or delicate features, having a muscular physique possibly, facial hair, large prominent features like brow and nose and chin (Anon)

It’s certainly possible to put men and women into loose physical groups, based on perceived differences, and as someone using testosterone therapy in order to achieve a more stereotypically male body, I’m as guilty as the next person. The thing is, a lot of statements about men/women start along the lines of “All X have this…”, then graduate to “All X except those have this…”, then “Many X have this, but a lot have that”, “X can have this or that…” and so it goes. And let’s not forget how much physical appearance and perceived appropriateness of behaviour are used to categorise and judge, and pull rank.

I think that there can be a tendency generally…to construct a ‘true’ masculinity as physically strong, self-assured, often more aggressive with higher sexual drive – those that possess these features seen as being more masculine (and biological determinism / testosterone claims almost let them off the hook when they behave like utter wankers in the name of maledom). Indeed, for some, such behaviour becomes a rite of passage. All too often the primarily social construct of masculinity is conflated with sex and physical appearance (Anon)

But what about genitalia? Reproductive paraphernalia? Ask a lot of people how they know if they’re a man or a woman and they’ll probably refer to their bits. The thing is that as with my “All X have this…” point above, you really cannot say “All men have a penis” any more than you can suggest “Women are women because they have wombs”. Many men do not have a penis, and I’m not just referring to the John Bobbitts of the world. And even if I were, he didn’t suddenly become ‘not a man’ any more than a woman ceases to be a woman after a hysterectomy. Many people have different biological characteristics from the gender with which they identify, but that doesn’t make them ‘less of…’ or ‘not a…’ so whilst genitalia in particular may be some indication of gender, that’s not the whole story. As Stephen Whittle explained to his oldest child.

When the twins were about three months old, we were both feeding them at the living-room table, and Eleanor turned round and said, “Mum, Dad, how do you know Lizzie and Pippa are girls?” And Sarah and I just looked at each other and went, “Mm”, and I answered, “Well, we don’t actually know whether they are girls. What we do, just like every other family does, we make an approximate guess. We know that most people born with fannies will grow up to be girls, and most people born with willies will grow up to be boys. So we start off somewhere.(p90)

Self, W. and Gamble, D. Perfidious Man Viking, 2000 

We all have to start off somewhere as children, and whilst I’m no psychologist, it’s fair to say that our experiences of our parents go a long way to help us understand ourselves, and choose (whether consciously or subconsciously) the traits we wish to emulate.

Seriously, I would have to say that masculinity to me is working hard to provide for the people you love, putting your own feelings and reactions aside for the sake of consoling those around you in a time of crisis (not to reject your own feelings but to deal with them at a later time when the situation has been handled), providing a feeling of security and protection to those close to you and being a source of reliable practical knowledge and good humour to those around you. I hasten to add that my attributing those things to masculinity does not suggest they are absent in femininity. Also, I recognise that those are all things I have come to consider masculine purely because they offer a very accurate description of my father and my father has always been the biggest influence on my idea of masculinity (EH)

We learn young. Watching kids TV a couple of days ago (yes, for pleasure, not research!) it was interesting to see how behaviours are perpetuated and somehow made desirable to the point where absence of these behaviours is seen as strange or unusual. To summarise, group of female characters are in tree house having tea party, won’t let in boy characters because ‘they will be noisy’. Boy characters build castle, fight and shout abuse at girls. One girl wants to go play with the boys, but is shouted down and shunned by the other girls until she goes back into the tree-house. Boys have skull and cross bones flag, so girls make themselves a flag…pink and flowery. The girls eventually get bored and want to go into the castle. Why? Because then they can be fairy princesses in the castle. None of this stuff is wrong, but it is drawn very much along the lines of what constitutes acceptable behaviour for a girl/boy.

When it is implied that masculine behaviour ‘must be’ a certain way, the pressure to conform for those who don’t toe the stereotype (and really, who does?) is huge.

Welcome to the world of different body dysmorphia and body fascism, lower life expectancy, reduced likelihood of health-seeking behaviour, pretending to like football in order to fit in, higher suicide rates and, oh yes, the eternal elbow-scramble at bars while calling one another ‘mate’ (Anon)

As a transman, do I have any advantage in *not* having been expected from an early age to ‘man up’? Arguably, yes, in some ways. Any urge to ‘fit in’ largely amounts to the desire/need for social acceptance from the point of view of a grown-up. However, 39 years of socialisation as a woman leads to some very odd juxtaposition of needs and behaviours. That said, I feel I am in an interesting position with regards to being able to analyse my own reactions to the expectations and acceptance of others.

So much of my contemplations on masculinity have been focused around how to divide out what is innate to being male and what is socially learned. I think that trans people have a unique experience to be able to speak to this divide since we were not socialized as the gender we identify with. There is a lot of my own feelings of being masculine that have been with me my whole life, but now that I am finally being socially accepted and socialized as a man, there are other aspects of my masculinity that have been influenced or shaped by that social recognition (abeardedgnome)

So this masculinity of mine, the more I consider it, is a house of cards. If you try and base any definition of masculinity on physical characteristics, genitalia or behaviour, there will almost always be a hefty ‘yes, but…’ involved. The more tentative these ‘traditional’ assertions become, the more it becomes clear that what is considered to be masculinity is largely a social construct. Which poses problems for my next argument. Masculinity as an absence of femininity.

I guess masculinity to me means un-feminine. It’s unfortunate, but most of the time I define things as what they are not (HK)

This ‘absence of’ has been a useful mental position for me going into and experiencing transition. Having experienced years of dysphoria in a female body, despising the sexual characteristics that oestrogen had gifted me, my main aim in embarking on this course was to free myself from the femininity I had grown up with and been socialised into. But then, if we’re unable to pin masculinity down as a solid concept, the same must be true of femininity. Dammit.

Traditionally and historically treatment of trans people has been based very much on the understanding that they identify very strongly as ‘the opposite sex’ (sic) and this is certainly what many of us have had to tell doctors in order to access appropriate treatment. Whilst ‘we as a society’ often have very fixed ideas about gender, ingrained practically from birth, I believe that as individuals it is rare to see anyone that actually embodies the stereotypical view of ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’, regardless of gender identity or sexuality. It seems all the more ludicrous, therefore, that we should ever have to define ourselves so rigidly to others.

What does masculinity mean to me? It’s my animal side, my hunter, my dispassionate observer. It lives side by side with my femininity of course. A cross dresser I spoke to recently told me his ‘girl’ side allowed him to be a better man, and I think that’s the trick, so keep both sides in balance, though that balance is different for us all. (Vince Laws)

I see the masculine/feminine qualities as extremes that no one should aspire to embody as much as strike a balance between…The trick is to transcend the stereotypes and find the worth in containing an equal balance of both. (Leighton Williams)

I’ve had it suggested to me that if we could raise all children completely without gender, no social expectations based on perceived gender, no associations of behaviour, emotional response etc., that there would be no transgender people. I guess the argument is that what “we” are seeking is to get away from the gendered role we have been handed at birth. A small part of me can see the logic there, but speaking personally, despite everything I’ve said here, there is more to gender identity than we can define.

I don’t think I can understand masculinity in isolation, but only as compared to femininity. It’s a bit like temperature – you can’t really say what is “hot”, without comparing it to what is “cold”. I think these clichés apply: masculinity is hard where femininity is soft; it’s penetrating where femininity is embracing; it can be analytical compared to emotional etc. But these are just terms that describe the opposite ends of a sliding scale of characteristics, of which most people seem to have a fascinating, ever-changing combination. And I think an individual’s behaviour fluctuates around a unique point on the scale, more often gravitating towards one end, which feels like “home”. I feel out of place when people try and pin me to the feminine side. I instinctively “know” my home is toward the masculine. I use the word “instinctively” because this “knowing” can’t easily be intellectualised. My sense of my own masculinity originates at some deeper, more basic level of my being, It’s not a creation of my conscious intellect (jmj)

I like this idea that we ‘instinctively know’ where we are at in terms of gender. Looking at this issue of how I define ‘masculinity’ serves to make me realise that it is a word I have chosen to describe a set of quite personal, and probably very ill-defined feelings. Unfortunately it comes with a number of connotations that reflect society’s obsession with pinning everybody down. However, whilst I can be a bit of a doom-monger when it comes to the woes of this world in which we live, I do believe that increasingly there are a lot of people who are willing to see the individual, rather than the category.

I am a gay man, though it is never something I consider any more important a part of my identity than that I’m an artist and have a dog…it’s never the first thing I’d ever mention or consider primarily important when introducing myself. As such, I generally view others in similar ways (RK)

A lot of time and mental and emotional space is spent as a transgender person trying to work out ‘who you are’, when actually I’d say that most of us KNOW who we are already, but in stepping out of an accepted social role, there is a lot of pressure (and incentive, in terms of acceptance) in stepping back into another one.

Any attempt to define what [male and female] ‘means’ seems more and more to me like a clichéd construct, burdened with what society apparently expects of those ‘roles’. We’re all human beings, that’s the key thing and we are what we are. There’s a lot of unnecessary misery in the trans community caused by the perceived pressure to ‘conform to the (gender) norm’ (ZG)

In all honesty, I think I have done more of a job of deconstructing what I mean by masculinity, rather than explaining how I construct it as a concept. And I’ve not even mentioned hegemony once. I think the main issue that I’ve had here is that whilst fully aware of the connotations of using the word masculinity, and the flimsy nature of the assumptions on which it is most often based, it has been the easiest word to use, and consequently I have been doing a bit of connotational cherry-picking to justify my choice.

I have spent a long time trying to write a pithy ending to this, neatly summing up my feelings without resorting to using language laden with a meaning and context that instantly negates what I am trying to say. I guess if I saw things in black and white, it would be easier to justify using particular language or ideas to describe my feelings, but all I really have to go on are a gut-feeling and a generalised sense that being and becoming different from what I was is right for me. To finish with a final quote:

I am always very troubled by these types of questions. I’m forced to express my deep, un-examined beliefs, whilst also knowing full well that they are the product of my experiences rather than being any kind of objective account of things (EH)

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this post.


For further reflections on this subject by a friend, please take the time to look at Homebase and Handcream.