DRMacIver's Notebook

Notes on becoming a cis man

Notes on becoming a cis man

Please note: I ask for clemency and/or good faith reading of this post. This is stuff that is difficult to talk about without stepping on someone's toes.

Required prior reading:

In particular this paragraph from Lexie's post is the prompt for this one:

I do have some cis friends who’ve done deep introspection of their gender, and in doing so they became more sure that they were cis. I think they’d all agree the process was worthwhile – it gave them a better understanding of their gender, and how it affects them. But if they ever talk about this on the Internet, people tell them, “You’re trans, you just haven’t realised it yet”.

I'm one of those cis friends, and I very much agree that it's worthwhile. I've also absolutely heard "You're trans, you just haven't realised it yet" (usually less bluntly than that, but I've also heard it that bluntly). Given how rarely this experience is talked about, I thought it might be useful to share some of it.

First off, some politics: My basic stance on transition is that if you want to do it, go for it, you're entitled to. There may be some sort of intrinsic transness vs cisness, I don't know, but I don't think it matters for the purposes of who gets to count as eligible to transition. Bodily autonomy is important, gender is a thing that it is good for people to experiment with if they want to, and people should be trusted to make their own decisions in this space.

In particular while I would never suggest this about any individual person (and indeed don't have anyone I even suspect of this) I'm morally certain that there are people out there who are at about the same point on the cis/trans spectrum as I am and have decided to transition. That's cool by me. It would both be inappropriate of me to police that, and also I wouldn't want to police that. It's just a thing that they're entitled to do.

I personally decided that transition wasn't the most useful route for me to go down and took an alternative path, but there's no reason other people should make the same decisions as me even presented with broadly the same experience of gender as I have.

Another political-ish note: I'm going to be disagreeing with some things some trans people say in this post. This can be dicey, but I feel reasonably confident in doing so because what I'm going to be disagreeing with his how they interpret my lived experience, not how they interpret theirs. Also, almost all of these are things that I've also talked extensively with other trans people about and largely agreed with them on - there's no broad consensus that I'm disagreeing with, we're just all figuring this out together.

Anyway, on to the main point of this post...

When I wrote "the inner sense of gender" I described myself as "almost certain that I am cis". This fluctuated a bit (both up and down) in the interim, and various people predicted that I would in the end decide I was trans, but I have largely largely settled on certainty that I am cis, at least to the degree that I think the question still makes sense.

One of the reasons I'm not sure it makes sense is that I'm increasingly unconvinced that gender is really a thing. Many things are gendered, and that the orientation of gendering is kinda defined by the statistical differences between some sort of "archetypal cis" men and women, but that doesn't neatly fall into saying that there is any one thing that we might call gender. Gender isn't a linear progression from man to woman, it's more like a big ball of biopsychosocial... stuff. This is a lot of why my politics of transition are basically "bodily autonomy, end of story" (the other part is that gatekeeping is not a thing that has historically covered itself in glory in this space).

But, to be concrete: My pronouns will remain he/him, I'm unlikely to engage in any major gender defiance regarding my aesthetic, and it's basically certain that I will never attempt any sort of medical transition (I'll confess to a certain amount of curiosity about the effects of hormones, but it really is just curiosity). To a very large degree I will continue to play the social role of man, and I will become increasingly comfortable with that (and also comfortable with ditching the bits of masculinity that I think are bullshit).

I still think if we had magic Culture level body changing tech I would experiment with other gender presentations, and I still think there's a decent chance that I might end up choosing a feminine or androgynous presentation as my default given that option, but I'd also like to be able to fly and the level of emotional significance these two facts hold is broadly equivalent.

What's changed?

Well, Lexie has been writing about embodiment recently. I've been part of some of the conversations that prompted that, and have been working on it myself too. I've, sadly, not achieved the same level of euphoria, but I don't think this is a gender thing I just think euphoria is hard emotion for me to access (I'm working on it). I've specifically been working on it in the context of Focusing and my work on feelings, which has been extraordinarily helpful. I've also been working on it in the context of Alexander Technique and some of what I've been learning from that in the context of letting my body drive (one of the minor personal annoyances of the pandemic is that it's interrupted my study of this).

One side effect of this is that it has resulted in a great deal more comfort in my body, and reduced my dissociation from it. A lot of things that previously looked kinda like gender dysphoria turned out to be fantasies of "If only my body were completely different I'd be able to connect to it", but it turns out to be perfectly possible for me to connect to my body as it is, and to enjoy my experience of it, it's just quite hard work to acquire the skillset. It's possible that it would be easier if I transitioned (certainly it's a common reaction to going on estrogen, but I suspect that some of that is genuinely just that estrogen makes it easier to connect to your embodied emotional state), but transition doesn't, for me, seem at all necessary for reconnecting with my body.

This also ties in to a lot of trauma. A thing that I saw on Twitter the other day (I don't want to refind the tweet because it's a general theme and I don't want to pick on her in particular) was a trans woman saying that one of the reasons why she knew she was trans was that "cis men don't typically experience their masculinity as traumatic" and... I'm sorry to report that this is not true. I'm not going to say that we experience exactly the same sort of traumas from it as trans women do (I'd be very surprised if we do, but I'd also be very surprised if there weren't some large overlap), but there is a great deal of trauma associated with cultural indoctrination into masculinity norms. Some of this is that norm acquisition in general is traumatic, some of that is that many of our norms around masculinity are really quite bad. Going through masculinity training just is traumatic. I expect the same is true for going through femininity training, though with a different specific traumas.

Some of my specific traumas around this are that many masculine norms are very violent, both literally and figuratively, and are quite damaging to be coerced into. Current western masculine norms are also very homophobic. This is both a problem if you're not actually straight (which I'm not), and if you just happen to have some more feminine traits (I perform masculinity reasonably well in some ways and quite badly in others - for example I'm much more into talking about feelings than I think even the average woman, let alone the average man).

In general, gender non-comformance is punished (both by people of the same gender and the opposite), and almost nobody is perfectly gender conformant, so most people will have gender related traumas. Unpacking some of mine was essential for acquiring a healthier relationship with masculinity (and part of that healthier relationship is boundaries! I'm now much happier saying "No, fuck off, that's a stupid way to be a man. Shan't." to the worse bits).

The final aspect for me has been sex. I've been having a lot of it over the last year or two, and it's been very helpful. I don't plan to go into details here, but I'll note a couple significant features.

First off, lets talk about autogynephilia. I basically agree with Scott Alexander on this: Autogenderphilia is common and not especially related to transgender. I've had more than a few fantasies about myself as a woman. I've had more than a few fantasies about myself as a man. I am reasonably gender flexible in fantasy. It's fun and I don't intend to stop. Gender is sexy and fantasies are supposed to be sexy.

If you don't realise that this is a thing, it can be very confusing, and the way that literally everybody talks about it (from "autogynephilia isn't real" to "autogynephilia is the main reason people are trans". Both seem to be obviously false) is extraordinarily unhelpful for making sense of a perfectly healthy and common experience. People do a lot of things in fantasies that they don't especially want to do in real life, and turning this into a whole big thing is a great way to confuse people.

Secondly, a lot of gender related traumas are connected to sex. I don't want to go into details here, but they definitely were for me (it's less dramatic than you might be imagining from that). There is a lot of shame connected up with masculinity and desire, and acquiring a whole bunch of emotions skills while also having a whole bunch of sex was a great way to expose, confront, and defuse those.

Thirdly, for me at least having a penis is fairly central to my experience of masculinity (I'm aware that this is complex for many trans people, so treat this as a personal claim, but I expect it's a personal claim a lot of cis men would make), so uh getting comfortable with using it was a pretty good way of getting comfortable with masculinity.

Finally, sex ties in a lot to embodiment. In many ways the key to good sex is to embody well during it, so sex works very well for providing the desire for growth in this space (of course, finding people you feel safe with is equally important here).

None of this has added up to me suddenly being completely clear or comfortable with my own gender or body, but I'm vastly more so than I've historically been, and I've acquired the skill set and the understanding that allows me to continually improve on that over time.

So, at this point, I am reasonably comfortable in saying that yes I've thought about my gender a lot and I have concluded that I am a cis man, and that I am confident that the more work I do in this space the more thoroughly I will come to understand and embody that.