This is a piece from my upcoming zine “Nelly,” which focuses on feminine men.
Where to begin? Perhaps with the words:
The words are not a threat, but an affirmation. They come from my friend who for now I’ll call Ethan, a cute boy in the same awkward situation that I find myself in—gay, fem, transgender. Fucked.
There are three strikes against guys like us. We are feminine, but not female, and are no longer capable of pretending to be so. We are homosexual men whose bodies other homosexual men often find repulsive. When we tell the world that we are gay, we are generally asked, “Why didn’t you just stay a girl?”
Our feminine traits are seen as residual, as a sign that we do not know how to be men, rather than as the deliberate and brave rejections of masculinity that they are. Doubly brave, given that they throw our maleness doubly into doubt.
When Ethan calls me a faggot, he is speaking as one trans nelly homo to another, affirming that we are in the same boat, affirming what so many have been reluctant to believe about me. But on some level, the slur still hurts.
Trans people have historically been forced into gender conformity. A trans woman could not hope for a diagnosis of gender identity disorder unless she showed up for her psychiatric evaluation wearing make-up and a skirt. Trans men had to vehemently deny ever playing with Barbie dolls as children. These were stereotypes with which we had to conform in order to obtain the medical intervention we needed—surgery, hormones, etc.
Similarly, we were forced into presenting a façade of heterosexuality. A trans woman could not be a lesbian. A trans man seeking to transition could not admit that he felt attracted to other men.
Lou Sullivan (1951-1991), gay transsexual activist, helped to change that, fighting to remove homosexuality as a disqualifier for gender identity disorder. Because of his work and the work of others it is no longer impossible for queer trans people to transition, but the social pressure to be straight and gender-conforming persists to this day.
Make no mistake—it is hard to be a nelly gay man, and it is especially hard to be a nelly gay trans man. In light of the pressures that we as trans men face to present hyper-masculinity and express exclusive attraction to women, it is incredible that any of us have found the courage to deviate.
What’s even more incredible, though, is that nearly all of the nelly men I know are trans.
It feels like I know dozens of swishy, lipstick-wearing, drag-doing trans nelly queens. Yet I can’t think of a single cissexual man of my acquaintance who identifies as fem. I know a few cis men who I would call fem, though not to their faces—men whose voices and mannerisms are ultra queeny, but who sport butch little military haircuts, mustaches, and Castro Clone clothes.
It really makes me wonder: why are trans men so much more willing than cis to identify with and present femininity?
There is an obvious, if erroneous, explanation, so I’ll just come out and say what the worst side of us all is thinking: Because they’re really girls.
Because we’re really girls, eh?
And girls are naturally feminine?
And girls are all attracted to men?
While these types of essentialist arguments might hold water for some, hopefully nobody who would take any such statement seriously is even reading this. No—men and women are diverse. Some women are masculine, some men are feminine. We all know that here. Why should it be so hard to accept that this goes for trans men and women as well?
No. There are much more interesting and much more likely explanations for why trans men are more willing to do fem than cis guys are nowadays.
It is a well-known fact that many straight trans men initially identify as lesbians. It seems a natural enough mistake to make for a man attracted to women who has been told his whole life that he is a woman as well. What is less well-recognized is that some gay trans men may have seen themselves as lesbians at some point, too. After all, when a female-assigned person appears at all masculine or remotely desires to be male, the first words that most people think of are “butch” and “dyke.” It seemed a likely explanation for my own feelings at a time when I knew next to nothing about transsexuality.
Of course, this was all wrong. I am not a butch dyke and I never was. In fact I am the exact opposite, if such things can be said to have opposites. I am a feminine homosexual male. Yet I am not male by birthright, and because of this, society told me that dykedom was the closest I could possibly come to my dream. This depressed me more than I can possibly describe.
Yet, while lost in this labyrinth of gender confusion, I stumbled upon a few golden truths. Butch has a corollary, and that corollary is fem(me). These words describe gender expressions as unconnected from sex or gender identity. They are free-floating concepts, capable of being attached to all kinds of men and women. When I transitioned, I took the ideas of “butch” and “femme,” so central to the lesbian community, with me into the world of gay men. Other fem trans men, I think, have done the same.
Gay trans men with no lesbian history, on the other hand, who lived their previous lives entirely in drag as straight women, probably had their prior contact with gay male culture through the straight media. Although femininity and flamboyancy are overwhelmingly out of style among gay men nowadays, the heterosexual media still loves to portray nellies. To a certain extent we are entertaining. We can even be non-threatening, when kept safely behind a TV screen. But let us also not forget that queens and nellies are and have always been not merely the most sensational, the most shocking, the most titillating, but also the most flamboyantly visible to the heterosexual world. Some men’s closets have no doors. They cannot hide, so they are always the first to be seen.
So when one is on the outside of gay culture looking in, one notices nellies first. We are obvious. A novice observer may not even realize that masculine gay men are actually homosexual, but about nellies there is no question. Consequentially, to some, we seem like the only kind of gay man that exists.
Now for a gay trans man, especially one living in the closet as a hetero woman, images of fem males have a special appeal. After all, we are men who have been so thoroughly feminized by society as to be actually considered female. Seeing other boys in dresses and make up is comforting. It makes us feel that we aren’t the only ones. A photograph of the very young Oscar Wilde wearing girl’s clothes makes us feel less alone as men raised female. David Bowie’s glam get-ups, Iggy Pop’s eyeliner, all these things have been little beacons of hope for us along the way.
Jake, Mel and I crowd around the bathroom mirror, doing our make-up. Jake smears on glitter, Mel meticulously applies false eyelashes, I artfully smudge my black eyeliner. Of the three I am probably the closest to butch, at least for this evening.
“This is gay,” Mel giggles.
It really is, but it kills me that we have to say it so often. Like the constant “fag” talk between the three of us, it is an affirmation born of insecurity and shame. We have been told for so long that we can either be feminine or we can be men, not both, that we have to verbally contradict that message as often, as loudly, and as explicitly as we can.
I’m sick of trying so hard. I want both my maleness and my femininity to be self-evident. Unfortunately a lot of that hinges on physical alteration—surgery, hormones. I am on testosterone. Mel isn’t, and doesn’t want to be. Jake hasn’t started yet.
A feminine trans man, especially one who is not “passable” in cissexist parlance, faces a conundrum. He can dress and behave how he really wants to, and risk “looking like a woman.” Or he can butch it up in order to look more like straight society’s idea of “a man,” and sacrifice his individuality, his identity as the specific type of man that he is. Either way, he will not be fully seen. His truth will remain obscured.
Clothes should not make the man, but for a trans man they often do. A trans man who wants to wear “women’s” clothes finds himself in a dangerous limbo, especially if he has not had hormones, especially if he does not “pass.” Language becomes his last resort, his only means of making clear to the world who he is— hence the sometimes dizzying array of labels and self-identifiers espoused by my type. Here is yet another reason why trans men are more likely to call ourselves “fem” than are cis guys: cis guys have the privilege of not needing to explain themselves. They can rely solely on visual cues to tell their story.
And gay men love not having to speak—witness the hanky code, the key code, the extensive vocabulary of stance, eye contact, and gesture used to facilitate anonymous cruising. Silence is sexy. But gay trans men do not have the luxury of silence. We are constantly called upon to explain ourselves, to describe our situation, to disclose our histories and our surgical status. Our verbosity is off-putting to gay cis guys, who in turn often express their contempt as they are accustomed to expressing everything else—without words, by ignoring us.
I used to live in that world of words, in the limbo where my gender resided only in my clothes and the vocabulary used for me, where wearing just a touch of lipstick could radically skew other people’s perceptions of my gender. I don’t spend so much time there, anymore. Stubble and a deep voice mark me as male even while I’m flouncing about in a garter belt and high heels. People know what kind of man I am when they look at me, without my speaking a word.
I have become self-evident, and I finally (sometimes) have the luxury of silence.
“Faggot!” is not just a word I hear from my friends anymore. I hear it on the street too.
Craven assholes scream it from their cars as they drive past. People call it out when I pass them by.
The straight world looks at me and sees “one of them.” But gay cis men do not look at me and see “one of us.”
There seems to me to be something terribly wrong with that.
We are homos just like the rest. We just have a little extra something to deal with. All right, we have a lot of extra shit to deal with. But deal we can and deal we do.
As transsexual faggots we have just come too far to be anything other than precisely the kind of men we want to be. Why transition just to wear flannel shirts when we long to flounce about in sequins and marabou? Making the journey to become ourselves is not worth it if we do not become wholly ourselves, if we as nelly trans men do not embrace our femininity, our queerness, our raging fabulousity.
You see, we do not just desperately want to be men, any men. We are individuals. We have specific visions, specific desires, specific genders, and a specific situation.
Gay, fem, transgender. Fucked.
But loving it.