Masculinity Is the Soft and Vulnerable Thing Inside Me
If anything was poisoning me, it was the mantle of womanhood that was forced upon me
At the clinic, my RN patiently explains to me how to change the 18-gauge needle to the thinner 25-gauge, how to swab the side of my thigh with an alcohol wipe to prep it for injection. I can barely hear him; my head feels like it’s underwater, and my hands are shaking. When I push the air bubbles out of the syringe and the excess fluid dribbles down along the needle’s length, my RN nods at me. “Whenever you’re ready,” he says, softly, as if not to startle me.
“And it just goes in — all at once?” I ask, even though we’ve already gone over this once before.
“If you can,” he confirms. “It’ll hurt less, that way.”
In this moment, poking myself with a needle for the first time feels impossible. I am terrified of needles. Through the haze of my anxiety, I briefly consider that this is an apt metaphor for my decision to take testosterone. That I was the one who chose to do this, that it is not the act itself but the unknowability of the result that I am most fearful of, but also that it is impossible to waver any longer. I am on the precipice; the syringe is already in my hand, poised in its perpendicular position, ready to pierce through my thigh and all of my jittery nerves.
My hand stills. At last, I’m ready. It’s time to take the plunge.
At some point last year, my Instagram algorithm finally figured out that I am a queer guy. Not a difficult task, as I had been clicking on every suggested Reel of a hot Asian man, half out of a desire to study and steal what made them so effortlessly masculine, and half out of desire. It spat out video after video for me of men in slo-mo or match-cut transitions, flaunting their perfectly styled hair and expensive outfits, and like a particularly naive mark, I watched them all. But there were a couple of Reels mixed in with the rest that took me aback. Catching sight of a blonde-haired Japanese man dressed up in gallant period attire, poised and tall under a spotlight and singing his heart out on stage, I knew from previous experience that he was not a man at all, but Rei Yuzuka, one of the current top stars of Japan’s Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theater troupe. Yuzuka is an otokoyaku — a (presumably) cis female performer who only plays men’s roles, and she is the best of them, among a notoriously competitive company of actresses. It did not escape my notice, either, that Yuzuka had managed to fool my Instagram algorithm — that, with the sheer power of her gender performance, she had transed my panoptic gaze just a little bit.
“Part of the especially unique allure of the Takarazuka Revue,” the official YouTube channel boasts, “is how the women playing otokoyaku seem to be more impressive on stage than real men.” Which is a statement that, as a transmasculine person, I find incredibly funny. Because isn’t that, in effect, what I am doing? Constructing an alluring masculine fantasy for myself, out of the bits and pieces I observed and borrowed from other men. Like the otokoyaku, I wasn’t always a man. I had to learn to become one.
I hadn’t always wanted to be transmasculine. At the beginning of 2018, with the help of my therapist and several close friends, I had just left my ex-boyfriend several months prior. It had been a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, punctuated by several instances of sexual assault, and I had settled into my new apartment, away from him, somewhat shattered as a person.
It had unequivocally been a relationship filled with gendered violence, despite his protestations that he was a feminist, just because of the way cisheteronormativity shutters us into gendered roles if we don’t actively resist it. Knowing this, and filled with a redolent rage at what he had done to me, I couldn’t help but feel vengeful. This was, perhaps, at the height of the “men are trash” rhetoric spreading around social media, with everyone happily tweeting and sharing easy zingers. Including myself. It felt righteous and justified, and moreover, in my injured psyche, it made sense. Masculinity had hurt me, which meant that I had to take shelter from it. I imagined that femininity was a divine goodness. Masculinity was something toxic to be rooted out in everyone and destroyed. I held onto this belief for several years, especially since it was a sentiment echoed in many queer spaces that I had called my community.
And yet, in 2021, I suddenly felt like I wanted to go on testosterone.
The way I have described it to my friends is that my body knew before my mind did. By 2021, I had already come out as non-binary, changed my name to “Jonah” on all fronts but legal, and even started presenting as more masculine, but I had never thought that I would want to undergo medical transition, or to be seen as, first and foremost, a man. I still can’t fully explain how I knew it was testosterone that my body needed, and not anything else. All I can really say is that it was a visceral urge that seemed to spring from some deeper part of me that came before language and reason.
These urges came on the heels of my abruptly quitting a long-time job, and I don’t think the timing was pure coincidence. Freed from the last stranglehold that required me to put on a pretense for polite society, I was suddenly thrust into discovering who I was outside of professionalism and capitalism for the first time in three years. But the thought of wanting to go on T was terrifying. I couldn’t understand it at the time — why did I want to be a man, when men had hurt me so much?
There is a lot of fear-mongering about testosterone and how it affects one’s emotions, mostly designed to convince trans men from transitioning and to give cis men a biological excuse for their harmful behavior. It’s so pervasive on every level of society that it’s hardly questioned, and I certainly believed a lot of it when I first began researching what it would be like to go on T.
Like many others, the first things I learned about HRT were largely from hearsay and haphazard Google searches. There seemed to be agreement that the effects of T were “destructive,” “irreversible.” You wouldn’t be able to undo the rapid proliferation of facial and body hair, nor the deepened vocal chords, nor the bottom growth. Worst of all was the oft-discussed “roid rage,” which made T sound like a poison that was destined to incur anger and aggression in any body it entered. That made me most afraid of testosterone — afraid that I would change too much as a person, afraid that I wouldn’t recognize who I was in the mirror. What if T transformed me into the thing I feared most — a man who causes harm to other people?
It was this language that made me put off going on T for almost a whole year, all while I was in severe dysphoric pain. Fortunately, I was surrounded by good people — trans/non-binary friends who graciously listened as I voiced my wants and worries, and specifically, a few transmasculine friends who were going through a similar process of discovery with their own genders. Through them, I learned that masculinity wasn’t anything to feel ashamed of, and so was emboldened to try looking into HRT once again. I scoured Twitter for personal experiences from transmasc folks, I read crowdsourced Google Docs on the effects of T, and I watched YouTube videos and TikToks of trans guys talking about their transitions. This new variety of first-person reportage was invaluable to me; it showed me that there were many ways to be a man and to exist in a man’s body with joy. Moreover, it taught me that the fear-mongering was a result of TERF rhetoric, which sought to “preserve” and “protect” the femininity of transmasc folks and prevent them from transitioning.
I had femininity within me, certainly, but I didn’t want it to define me anymore. If anything was poisoning me, it was the mantle of womanhood that was forced on me but that I had never wanted. And if I didn’t remove it from myself, it might end up killing me. Slowly, my need drowned out my fear, and I gathered the courage to call my local gender clinic for an intake appointment. After years of enduring violence, I owed it to my body at least a chance at freedom and autonomy.
We do a lot of harm, to ourselves and to others, when we assume the bioessentialist stance that men, particularly cis men, are not capable of emotional intimacy. I remember receiving a verbal dressing down from an old friend when I called them complaining about the lack of investment I was getting from a guy in my burgeoning friendship with him. “You need more female friends,” they told me, “guys just aren’t good at having deep heart-to-hearts.” But, I replied hesitantly, I feel like I just get along better with men? There are exceptions, of course, but I have often felt a sense of disconnect when befriending women — a gap of difference I never felt like I could bridge. “You’re probably hanging onto some internalized misogyny,” was their diagnosis. “I think you have to ask yourself why female friends aren’t good enough for you.” Funnily enough, my friend would probably be horrified to know they once said such a thing to me. At the time we both identified as cis women, and now neither of us do.
I had no good explanation for why I yearned for the emotional intimacy of men. Sometimes there is no logic devised for feelings; they are simply that: feelings. Gestures towards an emotional truth that has no container. In Sophia Giovannitti’s essay “In Defense of Men,” a critique of the common liberal feminist impulse for man-hating, she writes, “I love men’s casual homoerotic acknowledgements of each other as men; I want all men to kiss their homies goodnight and I want it so badly that I, too, want to be a man who is a homie who gets kissed goodnight.” Giovannitti wrote this line as a cishet woman, but I can find no better line that encapsulates my entire spectrum of desire as a queer trans guy. We all talk about how toxic cispatriarchal standards render many men isolated and unequipped to express intimacy, and while that’s certainly true, I have met many men (cis, trans, and non-binary alike) who happily resist those values and are openly affectionate with their male friends, and when it happens, it is just as beautiful, sacred, and deserving of protection as any other expression of friendship.
I have no better proof of this than my own experience. Recently, a cis female friend who’d also experienced intimate partner violence asked me, “How did you stop yourself from blaming men as a whole for your trauma, and from going down the man-hating path?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I guess I was just lucky to have some really good guy friends at the time.”
In retrospect, I think it’s funny that some of my most toxic, emotionally taxing friendships have been with queer femmes, and some of my most loving, intimate friendships have been with cishet men. Of course, I could say the exact opposite is true as well. The devastation of my twenties was caused by a man with whom I was in a cishet-fronting relationship, and the people most responsible for rescuing me from it were women. I have been held and loved by people of all genders, and I have been hurt by them too. Knowing we are all capable of harm regardless of our identity markers — that was ultimately the truth that freed me.
Where does that leave me, then? I want to acknowledge that a toxic masculinity does exist — one upheld by a cispatriarchal system that seeks to control and poison all of us, including cis men. I want to confirm that there is a power pageantry at play here that, if we’re not careful, even transmasculine folks can be lured to participate in. And I want to emphasize that this model of masculinity is inextricable from the project of white supremacy, which stations its imagery of “ideal maleness” and “ideal femaleness” in white bodies and traditions. For Asians in particular, we are always feminized by the white gaze, regardless of gender. Even if I were attempting to “transition into male privilege,” as some TERFs claim, it would never be possible for me. I am forever in America, by nature of my race and assigned sex at birth, designated to be some bastardized form of “gender,” not the “desirable feminine,” but certainly not masculine, either. So I don’t belong in the traditional dichotomy of masculinity and femininity, and I don’t care to, either.
Aligning masculinity with “hardness” and femininity with “softness” simply reifies gender binaries, the same way that primarily referring to non-binary people as AFAB or AMAB does. Our social conditioning trains us to think in binaries, and it’s a hard system to escape, even as our own genders manage to. On a practical level, I don’t think these dichotomies make a whole lot of sense, either. Growing up, I was a rebellious and rambunctious tomboy, and my mother had (without much success) attempted to eradicate my inherent boyishness and impose femininity on me. Not because she wanted femininity to make me soft — but because she thought my unacceptable gender deviance, which was out of alignment with the society I lived in, was my weakness. Possibly my worst offense to her was that I was a sensitive child, prone to crying and large emotions. She wanted me to hide that as well, under the clean and equanimous guise of a “good girl.” “Never show the world your true face,” was the lesson she stressed the most. “The smartest way to survive is to wear the face that everyone else wants to see.”
Unthinkingly, I had swallowed her teachings, even when they had hurt me. All throughout my teens and early twenties, I taught myself how to perfect femininity. I spent years curating my wardrobe and took pride in being complimented for my style. This only intensified after I left my ex. In the typical post-breakup fashion, I wanted to prove that he hadn’t hurt me at all, that I was stronger and better without him. I dyed my hair, bought more revealing clothes, and hunted for the gazes and praise that would affirm that I was worth their love. I’d even hazard to say that these attempts at high femme appearance were extremely successful. But one afternoon, returning from a party for which I had dressed to the nines for, I walked back to my apartment feeling like I wanted to cry. Nothing bad had happened there; everyone had been perfectly nice to me. But I felt like the underside of my flesh was crawling, like I wanted to rip all of my skin off. And I knew precisely the source of my deep discomfort, even as I clung onto it, thinking it would save me.
To me, femininity was the knife I wielded, as well as my armor. Masculinity was the soft and vulnerable thing inside me that I had to protect from the cruelty of the world, that opened me up to the possibility of violence. For too long, I thought that this was the way it had to be. But as any person, cis or trans, might be able to tell you, this is a painful way of living. And neither is it even effective at saving you from harm. Lately, I have been discovering that a weaponless existence is the only way I know how to continue to live. Being free, weightless, and true to myself returns to me an innate strength that was all but hindered by the pressure to conform, and it also allows me to surround myself with people who are interested in loving me as whoever I am, no matter how many changes I may go through over time. I had been taught my whole life that being soft and vulnerable would only make me a sucker, a fool — but these days, I am finding that it is quite the opposite, that if I open up and meet people halfway, more often than not, they will come to meet me where I am.
I am lucky, in some ways, that the first trans man I encountered in any piece of fictional media was Oshima, in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Fifteen years after I’d first read it, I now have some issues with how Oshima is depicted as well as the contents of the book itself, but Oshima is still very meaningful to me. His gender identity is never questioned by the other two main characters, and he occupies a position of wisdom and culture in the narrative that feels enviable. Anytime the titular teenager Kafka needs advice from a sensible mentor figure, Oshima is there to provide him with it, and anytime Murakami needs to deliver an excessively long monologue about his opinions of art, it comes out of Oshima’s witty and discerning mouth. In a story with deliberately murky plotlines and morals, Oshima is the lighthouse, a beacon of warmth and stability that others can turn to when lost.
Moreover, Oshima ran completely counter to everything my mother wanted me to be — he invited strangers in need into his home without question, he was kind, he spoke his mind, and he didn’t care what others thought. He could survive the world as himself; he didn’t need any armor to begin with. For years, Oshima was my favorite and most memorable part of Kafka on the Shore, and I didn’t realize until recently that he represents a beacon for me, too, one that I can look back to and orient myself towards whenever I doubt that my masculinity is “enough.” When I try conceiving of a gentle but strong transmasculinity, often I am remembering meeting Oshima for the first time on the page, in equal parts awe and envy.
I am thinking of him the first time I plunge the needle into my thigh — not just Oshima, but the person that I want to become, the person I have always suspected that I might actually be. My RN was wrong — the injection still hurts, but it actually doesn’t hurt as much as I’d thought it would. Which is also an apt metaphor for my experience with testosterone. Now that it’s been more than half a year on T for me, I’m finding that a lot of the commonly-repeated things about T are, perhaps, not as common after all. Because of the chancey game of genetics, there truly is no universal transition experience. My face and body have visibly changed, but not as quickly or drastically as everybody, even the most well-meaning of folks, would have led me to believe. And that, for the moment, is okay with me. I am gradually molting into the shape of my soul, which I can now see whenever I look in the mirror. I am not waking up to suddenly discover that I am a completely different person; I’m growing with myself, one day at a time.
More importantly, of course, is the way that I’ve been feeling on T. Counter to the prevalent myths, I don’t feel out-of-control nor particularly short-tempered, but rather more open and in touch with my emotions. For many years, I had put up so many walls, with others and with myself. I refused to let myself feel the totality of my feelings, convinced that the depth of them would destroy me. I’m realizing now that what felt so unmanageable was the fog of dysphoria that laid heavily over everything, making it difficult to face my most difficult issues or even to ascertain what their root causes were. With the dysphoria largely cleared away, it’s like I’m re-experiencing myself in full color. Still capable of deep sorrow, yes, but not terrified that I’ll be ruined in its wake. What’s more, I possess a broader range of joy that makes me feel fully human, fully present and participating in the world around me. And that, to me, is what it means to be(come) a man.
The wonderful thing about being trans is that sometimes you discover the person you needed to become was always simply who you are. After years of wandering, I have finally come home to myself. There in my bones still lives the child who cries easily and bruises quickly, who gravitates towards warmth too readily but moves towards the fire without fear. I recognized him at once. Excavating them from buried earth, I take their hand in mine. I find that I no longer require the armor to live, to feel safe. After all, I am not walking forward alone, but with every part of myself.