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"You know, I used to be quite a looker"
There’s an in-depth investigation in the New Yorker today about a male novelist who has the same name as me and has (apparently) made a history of fabricating events about his personal life in order to inflate his reputation as a writer, so forgive me if I seem a bit shaken. It’s not every day one’s doppelgänger is taken to account, and it’s hard not to read an opening sentence like “Dan Mallory, a book editor turned novelist, is tall, good-looking, and clever,” without feeling like you’re next in line for disaster. I had a fairly unique name for a woman, and a relatively commonplace one for a man, and now the only other man who shares both is being exposed as a charming fraud, and if you don’t think that sums up a whole host of particularly transmasculine anxieties, baby, you’ve never transitioned from female to male!
The other day I was talking with a friend about the very gradual but quite profound change testosterone has had on how I sound, and I caught myself saying something I say a lot nowadays: “I used to have a lovely singing voice.” Which is mostly true, but “lovely” is fairly subjective, and it was only lovely by singing-in-the-shower or gathered-round-the-family-piano standards, not church-solo or sudden-appearance-at-an-open-mic standards. I sometimes worry I sound like someone’s grandmother claiming to have once been the Yellow Rose of Texas when in fact she was simply a pleasant-enough looking high-schooler, the passing of time being sufficient for everyone to accept the polite fiction. And how will I know when I’ve dipped into fabulism if I don’t keep in constant contact with the past? Who is going to oppose me? “No, you had limited breath control and sounded obviously strained the moment you strayed out of your comfortable half-octave range, you acne-ridden deceiver”?
Some of it, I think, is self-conscious cover; before one begins to look like a man to others, one first looks like a hairier, puffier-faced woman and there’s usually a social cost for looking like that. And some of it also comes from a desire to maintain that one didn’t transition out of necessity but desire: being a woman is hard but I was good at it, I think is the underlying anxiety, nobody fired me, I quit. I know I’m not trying to look pretty anymore, and I apologize to all those who have to look at me, because I used to try and I’m not enough of a man yet for it not to be a problem. I promise to work very hard to look like Victor Garber so you can look at a handsome man in three years’ time minimum.
But there’s also a perversity to it, and a pleasure too, and it’s a pleasure I’ve seen other trans people take for themselves, mentioning – possibly exaggerating slightly, as our past selves are unlikely to walk through the door in contradiction – how good we used to look for whatever it was that people thought we were, how great someone’s rack used to be. I find it very endearing; transitioning often makes room for fondness where there was no room before. Pride without ownership, affection without desire, that’s what I’m trying to communicate when I say something like I used to have great [redacted]. Maybe, too, an attempt to say I’m not delusional. I can see things as they are, I can assign proportionate value to things, I’m making these decisions with a sound mind and an accurate view of reality.
It may be nothing more than an attempt to forestall that kindest and most painful of denials, But you used to be such a _______. But you had such a beautiful _______. I know, don’t remind me. She was lovely, and she had such nice hair.
One of the things women do well as a group – I speak broadly here, but not definitively, many women don’t, and plenty of do women do it well some days and not well at all others – is layer relationships one on top of the other, doubling back and reinforcing and looping multiple ties into one so that transitioning can sometimes feel like pulling apart an entire web, inconveniencing (at the very least) a number of other women who had depended on your position in order to maintain theirs. (That is also a very self-centered way to regard one’s transition; I’m sure many people who transition don’t feel this way at all. Nor do I mean to suggest I’ve toppled any woman out of her own life by taking testosterone or changing my name.)
I spend more of my time than I ought to preparing for an exit interview with Cis Womanhood that will never happen. No one is calling me to account or asking why, after thirty years in the position, I was moving into a different role in the company. But my mother did a wonderful job raising me, and I loved being her daughter; my aunt and grandmothers have always been so kind to me and taught me so much, and most of my growing-up was spent being trained for a job I no longer have, and I never quite knew how to express my love and gratitude for the ways I was treated as a woman, by women, while no longer continuing to be one. I am so glad I was my mother’s daughter, and I’m so glad to get to be a trans man; I had a lovely singing voice once, nothing special but quite pleasant. Mostly it cracks now, but I have reason to believe it will settle into something mellow someday. Nobody is asking me to apologize for anything, but I still want to most of the time.