Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Reflections on visibility as a transgender man.
By Alexander Pines
“Do you have blood in your semen?”
This question, the last in a long line posed by my doctor at Columbia Health Services, was what made me realize why no one believed me about my UTI symptoms; everyone from the lady at the reception desk to the two dubious nurses to the doctor assumed that I had a penis. I don’t. Awkward.
“I’m trans,” I said.
So this is what passing really means, I thought. “I still have a vagina,” I said.
“Oh! Then you could definitely have a UTI! You just looked, well, like someone…” he said, trailing off and muttering about getting a urine sample.
Who ought to pee standing up? I finished for him, wishing at that moment that I could, in fact, pee standing up. It would’ve made taking that urine sample a lot easier.
Most of the time, I pass as a cisgender (non-trans) man and my transness is something I am not forced to think about. Moments like this remind me that for most people, trans identities—and, by extension, experiences—don’t exist. In this case, by the time I received treatment for the UTI, it had already progressed into a full-blown kidney infection.
Passing, in the trans sense of the word, is being constantly read as the gender I identify with— in clothing stores, restaurants, airports, bathrooms (always vital in bathrooms), and so on. Most don’t see the needles, the pools of blood that form on my thigh when I mess up a shot, the oily residue I later wash off my hands in the bathroom, the vial of amber liquid— hormones—I keep next to my birth certificate and the social security card on my desk.
Before I came out as trans, I used to jokingly call myself a “hundred footer”—you could clock my queerness from across a room. Short hair, Ani Difranco tee shirt, the works. In other words, I was used to being visible. Once my gender presentation became more intentionally male, this visibility became an anxiety that twisted in my stomach throughout my day—cashiers, security guards, and professors all fumbled for pronouns and stared. Now, I look like any other white guy on line at Starbucks.
Passing makes me a little uncomfortable. There’s something about the word that implies some dishonesty, like I’m lying whenever I let the guy at the counter call me “sir,” like I’m not a “real” man. It makes my life easier, sure, but passing can be monolithic and reductive: it erases my invisible selves into a palatable whole that allows for the kind of small talk and quick transactions I couldn’t have before—no more fumbling. Sometimes, though, I push back. I exist, I want to say, often. I am a trans man and I exist.
But other times, I don’t push back. I want to be who I often look like: a man, no modifier. Back home, surrounded by guys who use the word “faggot” with the ease that I say “problematic,” I am crass, aggressive. I play video games and sports with my friends, and don’t say anything when they call me a pussy for leaving my shirt on at the beach. To be constantly thinking about my transness is exhausting—it’s easier to laugh it off when I’m told to grow a pair than to lecture about the politics of equating genitals to gender. Passing can let me pretend to be effortless—a way of just being without having to deal with being trans.
The summer before my junior year of high school, in 2010, I wrote in my journal: “Am I trans? I don’t think so. […] Perhaps this will pass with time. I hope that it does.” This isn’t who you’re supposed to be, I thought, often. The more I ignored it, though, the more my body howled in the mirror, the figure too soft and voice too high and squeaky. Throughout high school I tried as hard as I could not to be trans, hoping I could someday bend “woman” into a shape I could live in. Whenever people did the math of short hair + baggy jeans = boy, I got angry—they saw something in me that I didn’t want to be true.
When I came out as trans at nineteen and everyone did the same math of high voice + soft face = girl, I hated them all the more and wondered if, perhaps, they saw through me.
Eventually, I wrote a story of myself and told it until it came true. During the four-month period between coming out and starting hormones, I felt like I was constantly in the process of reshaping myself, rewriting and reimagining the former selves into some sort of consistent whole because these are the sorts of things I do in order to feel genuine, in order to feel real. I found myself spending hours every night rereading old journals and flipping through pictures to find a kind of textual evidence for the Alexander that I would create in the morning.
One year and six months on testosterone later, I want to tell you that I’m the same as I ever was, that I can look at pictures of “my sister” and still see myself. Pre-testosterone, I was afraid that at some point hormones would render me inauthentic. I didn’t want to have to inject myself biweekly with something developed in a lab in order to be myself. I would pass, sure, but as who?
This is what passing looks like: women cross the street late at night to avoid me. I am a “buddy” now, a “bro.” The man who cuts my hair tells me about his girlfriend, the security guard when I sign in asks me if I’m keeping up with football this season. I’m not used to being a threat, to being the reason for anyone’s quickened pace on the walk home from the train or bar. But there’s also a tenderness to the way I interact with men that I never expected. I sometimes feel as though I’ve been let into a world I wasn’t supposed to see.
I have mixed feelings about my invisibility. I miss the solidarity of the “queer head nod” I used to get when I walked by on the street, the community I could visually align myself with. But there are also days when I do not want to be seen, when the reality of inhabiting my body—scars, synthetics and all—is terrifying, when it is easier for me to pretend to be the person you think I am in passing than it is to be myself.
For all the years I spent trying not to be in my body, to make it invisible even to myself, there are days when I wake up in a body that feels like, for the first time, it’s mine.
When people ask if I feel any different now—a neckbeard I keep forgetting to shave and shots and shots and shots later—I can almost always tell them that I’m growing into the person I always thought I should be.
I still carry around my first driver’s license in my pocket, from a few months before my seventeenth birthday. Sometimes I pull it out like a party trick and laugh when my friends tell me what a lesbian I used to look like. A coworker from over the summer said that without the matching signatures, the girl in the picture could pass as my twin. I like having a reminder of where I’m from, to keep “my sister” with me, even if it’s just an expired ID. There’s something reassuring about having a physical, visible object to prove that Alexandra Catherine Pines existed at some point, that she was just as real as Alexander. It’s nice to know that there’s a place where they can both be at once, even if it’s just a wallet.