Self Explanatory: When Your Gender Isn’t

This is a piece from my upcoming zine “Nelly,” which focuses on feminine men.

Self Explanatory

Where to begin? Perhaps with the words:

“Hey, faggot.”

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 what?

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.

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About Asher

Asher Bauer is fast becoming a fixture in the San Francisco kink community, and intends to stay that way. He has worked as a Queer Educator at LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation And Information Center), and since has taken his talents as an educator to a wider variety of audiences, teaching on subjects ranging from safer sex to BDSM to trans and queer identities. He is also one of the hosts and originators of Transmission, the new trans-centric party at the San Francisco Citadel, and Invasion, the Citadel's all-genders queer party. View all posts by Asher

31 responses to “Self Explanatory: When Your Gender Isn’t

  • Ethan K.

    How well I remember lying to my shrinks! Yes, I’m only attracted to women. No, I never played with Barbies. Yes, the other children always picked on me because I was different because I was “masculine.” Pffft, no. I’d still be psych-surfing now, four years later, if I’d told the truth.

    My wife calls it The Cookie and Chair Effect. The shrink asks you a question and tells you to “answer honestly.” By the way, if you answer A I’ll give you this cookie. If you answer B, Bruno here will break this chair over your back. :) Oh you answered A! Wow, everyone seems to answer A. I should write a paper on this.

    Answer A gets you medical care. Answer B gets you laughed out of the office. This, is why we lie.

    I live in Montreal now and the culture here is very gender-normative. (read: sexist) Women are fem, men are masculine. I, with my long hair, short stature and delicate facial features, get weird looks in the bathroom and sometimes someone helpfully informing me that I’m “in the wrong room.” This, with a full fucking goatee on my chin. Not stubble. No, this was an inch long.

    I hated that thing. I prefer a smooth face. But I felt I had to wear it because it would help me pass. Well, it didn’t. Remarkably, many, many people in Montreal need serious help from an optometrist. After the last drunk fuck opened his hate-hole to me in the loo, I decided to celebrate the spring equinox with a fresh face. I shaved that thing off as a big “fuck you” to all the losers who think that petite men aren’t real men.

    I haven’t had anyone do that to me since. I wonder, sometimes, if the reason I was getting “read” had more to do with my slinking meekly, ashamedly, into the mens room rather than striding with my head up like I belong there. Strange. I seem to be more of a man without facial hair than with.

    • Oliver Leon

      I live in Montreal too! Small world.

      I agree–the culture here is very gender-normative. It’s so annoying that I have to suppress my queerness in order to be seen as male. As I’m pre-T, I’m mostly read as a young teenage boy. I don’t mind that so much but I can’t say I like being perceived by bus drivers as a troublemaker. :/

      Did you go through therapy outside of Montreal? My psychologist seems OK with the fact that I am attracted to men. Granted, I haven’t seen him long… but he dissed the Harry-Benjamin Standards of Care so I THINK I’m safe. (I don’t dress femininely around him though.)

  • Ollie

    I can’t wait for the zine.

    Asher, you give me hope.

    That is all.


  • Aleksander

    I am also so excited for this zine.

    All of this, so much, mirrored my own experiences growing up. After I gained awareness about being trans I recalled my childhood heroes and predilections and how fitting they were, how perfectly obvious. I cannot be other than who I am. It took a while before I could figure out that self-evident truth but I’m reminded of the motto my mentor used to tell my class, that we were all in the process of becoming. When I heard it then I nodded along, assuming that process was something that happened -to- us. Now I’m willing to fight tooth and nail to be the one actively deciding what that means, what I am becoming and how. Your posts remind me why it’s so necessary and so worth it.

  • H Douglass Brown

    I only have a question of your theory about the men who are attracted to the ‘Nelly’ men? Not regular everyday butch gay males, but trans women/men in transition? Or better still the feminine body, mannerisms and mentality as a girl, but…?

  • rowan TwoSisters

    Well done Asher!

    I see many similarities with your supah article, and how my partner describes himself, with one notable exception, he likes girls.

    And like many things in life there is a fluidity to his identity, which I rather enjoy as he finds whats strongest for him in the moment.

    Thank You for sharing your world,

  • Bargain

    Ohhhhhhhh, this is exciting!

    I fall into a pattern of thinking about my gender more and more (and more), and it gets further and further complicated within the confines of my skull, until BAM, some new word/phrase/theory shows up and makes things an awful lot simpler. Reading this was one of those times.

    So, thanks. Can’t wait for the full zine.

  • Falcon

    Thank you for writing this.

    This – precisely this – is why I describe my gender as genderqueer, despite feeling that my sex is male. I’m femme enough that no one takes me seriously as a man – but because I’m clearly not cis and have never done “cis chick” properly, no one takes me seriously as a woman, either. I would probably get slapped with “fag” if the cis gay guys in my area didn’t still think of me as a lipstick lesbian. >.<

    So………. I end up banished into something of a gender-no-mans-land, and I'm frankly A-OK with that. I finally know who I am and that's all I really need.

  • Momo

    I relate so much to what you said hear, and it reminds me of some of my biggest fears. I’m a closeted gay, fem, trans and I am always so afraid no one will believe me because of the exact things you say here. It’s sad and depressing to read, but also comforting to know I’m not alone and others are willing to speak up about it.

  • Schala

    The thing about not wanting to be Guy Clone #43879873 might be that female-assigned and identified persons have much more leeway in expressing themselves – whereas they more or less can’t become numbers, to strangers just looking, as much as to friends.

    I can easily understand not wanting to abandon this as a ‘cost’ to being seen as a man.

    It certainly changed my life for the best to transition to being seen as female. I finally stopped feeling I was stuck wearing oversized all-black boring clothing forever (with no make-up ever).

    That’s ironic, given I *am* attracted to men. But I wasn’t in the gay community before (or dating anyone)…but just my body language made everyone think I was femme, my very long hair (since being about 20) on top made some think I was female (but never for long, since flat-chests aren’t considered girly). And in the war between baby face and stubble, you need lots of stubble to be seen as male.

    So I avoided giving anyone ammunition, or to ‘guess’ my darkest secret, that I’ve “wanted to be a girl” since I was a small kid (by avoiding anything with even remotely any feminine connotation, continue to hide my small frame and waist by continuing to wear what my mom bought for me in my teens (M and L adult size “unisex” t-shirts – when XS women’s/junior’s would have fit).

    If someone’d guessed it, I’d turned 200 shades of red, before melting in a puddle of embarassment. Have this deer-in-headlights look for hours. Until/if it could be a reality, I didn’t want to have to explain, to anyone, that I was female.

    And another reason I dressed blandly: I didn’t care about my life at some point. It was something to endure, not something to enjoy. So why bother?

    And it’s true also that the attitude that you belong there, as much as it could look like entitlement and ‘male privilege’ (especially to certain radfems who think trans women are just oozing the stuff), is what makes people leave you alone about your looks and identity. A “I won’t take crap” attitude.

    Mado Lamotte is a famous female impersonator from Montreal, and he doesn’t apologize for being in-your-face. He intentionally doesn’t look female, but more like an exaggeration of being made up – and he won’t cower or be shy about it.

  • jack

    Another Montrealer here, and coming from the rural uk, it’s probably the *least* gender-normative place I’ve lived. It’s the only place I’ve ever felt safe buying makeup (I pass as a cissexual man) or wearing it in public.

  • Jian

    I kinda love you…

    I’m a critter currently living in limbo. I might have been born male (raised thus) this may need further testing… I grew up on defiant femme boys and strong butch women as my idols and I swing between wanting to be both of them. Gay men shunned me for being so different, flamboyant, political, and outspoken. This started in high school with the pretty high population of Out kids.

    Can’t wait to see the zine. ^^

  • Tyro

    I realized a long time ago that while I have no problem identifying as male, I don’t fit the stereotype of masculinity. I like to shop, I relate much better to females, etc. etc. I’m sure you’ve heard it all. For what it’s worth, I try to expand the scope of maleness by living my life with little concern for societal proprieties. Who knows? Maybe I’ll make an impression.

  • Siege

    As a male-sex gender-neutral queer, I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to constantly have to prove yourself where you go. I have the luxury of other’s assumptions at my finger tips. I can’t begin to tell you how incredible your writing is. This is something all people need to read, and it’s people such as yourself that are so incredibly good at writing concise and insightful text that truly will break those conceptual boundaries sooner than expected.
    Kudos to you man, you’ve done amazingly well, I’ll be sharing this with all of my friends cis, het, trans and queer alike (just to label a few). <3

  • Parker

    Yet another Montrealer here…but just moved to Vancouver about 3 weeks ago. Finding it MUCH easier to live and breathe here.
    Great post, Asher. Stoked for the zine!

  • Larkin

    Asher, you are speaking straight to my heart.
    I am what I see as a faggoty femme gay trans man, also, and it`s so very very nice to read someone writing about these things.
    I am taking T, just started 3 months ago, because I`ve decided I need the visibility that that will bring. For the longest time I thought that transitioning to be seen as the faggot I am was the wrong reason to transition. Then a friend said to me, Larkin–that is *why* people transition–to be seen as who they are.
    What you say about language and visibility really resonates.
    One of my biggest fears is that cis gay men will reject me and not want me sexually. However I think overcoming that and being confident is also a key.

    Thank you for ranting (in some of your other posts), thank you for being real, thank you for telling it like you see it.
    Keep on keeping on

    • Tyro Kathar

      If it helps, I have a thing for androgynous men; FTM’s are sexy ^_^

      • Asher

        No, it doesn’t “help.” I don’t need your validation. And fetishizing trans people is gross.

      • Tyro Kathar

        I think you’re taking me the wrong way. I’m attracted to androgynous men, and female-to-male transsexuals tend to be androgynous. Not a fetish, just a preference. In any case, I was replying to Larkin’s comment that “One of my biggest fears is that cis gay men will reject me and not want me sexually.”

      • Tyro Kathar

        I’m a cis(ish) heteroflexible man; I was trying to support Larkin’s choice.

      • Tyro Kathar

        Okay, let me explain and restate. I apologize for my comment before; I didn’t mean it how it sounds. I’m attracted to androgynes, regardless of why they’re androgynous, and I’m not attracted to trans people for being trans; I’m not a chaser. If I’m attracted to someone, odds are I’m going to be attracted to them regardless of plumbing. I read your blog because I like and agree with what you write, Asher. We’re on the same side. I make a point of spreading awareness and visibility of trans rights issues, not because I want credit for it or for some other selfish reason, but because it’s the right thing to do. A very good friend of mine recently started hormone therapy, and that brought the issue home to me, made it more personal than before; I was already a supporter of trans rights, already knew a few people who’d gone through the change, but never someone I was attracted to before. I ended up where I am now: still attracted to him, even though he was female when we were involved.

        Bottom line: You make good points, but unnecessary ones. As I said, I’m on your side.

      • Asher

        Bullshit, dude.

        You like trans men because they “tend to be androgynous?” The next chaser I talk to will tell me that trans men “tend to be extra masculine.” Or that trans men “tend to have softer, more feminine energy.” The fact is trans men tend to be men, and chasers tend to be people who are more interested in projecting their fantasies of what we “tend” to be onto us than they are in our realities.

        If you really care so much about trans people you need to notice what you’re doing and think about how it comes off, because coming onto newbie trans people is classic chaser behavior. People in early transition need time and space to figure out who they are in a hostile world, the last thing they need is chasers telling them what to be.

        Also, a lot of trans men who are attracted to men will be wary of “heteroflexible” or hetero-anything guys. That’s something else to think about. Notice how Larkin specified being worried about rejection by GAY cis men? Most of us queer trans guys have already had more than enough straight dudes.

      • Tyro Kathar

        You make some good points; I didn’t think through my comments, and acted badly as a result. For what it’s worth, I apologize.

      • Tyro Kathar

        You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m going to stop making excuses now and work on not being an asshole.

  • Larkin

    p.s. How do I find out about getting a copy of your zine when it`s done?

  • Fem « Tranarchism

    [...] other places where I have been loud and open about my fem identity, go here and here. [...]

  • Jonathan

    “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.”

    damn, yes, absolutely

    “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.”

    and I’ve done the same as a hetero (mostly), cissexual man

    but there is precedent: have you read “Brazen Femme” (ed. Chloë Brushwood Rose & Anna Camilleri)?

    “Yet I can’t think of a single cissexual man of my acquaintance who identifies as fem.”

    you do now :)

    • Asher

      That’s cool, I’ve kind of been waiting for cishetero butch women and fem/me men to start fucking each other. (This fem trans boy has been having sex with a butch trans woman for awhile now, so we got that figured out.) I think about cultural characters like Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica a lot– women who are really butch but have sex with men– and wonder why I don’t see more of that going on. It seems like high time for heterosexual people to embrace some gender nonconformity and role fluidity too.

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