Being a MTF transsexual, it’s tempting and easy to focus on performance of femininity, since that’s the direction I’m moving. However, the concept of performativity overlaps into many more areas: masculinity, professionalism, game strategy (like poker), love and dating, to name a few.

We are born with certain inclinations, but unless we start from the Wild Child of Borneo as our model of humanity, then we’re all really talking about personalities that begin with these inclinations that have been modified through nurture, expectations, prohibitions, and norms.

I’d like to discuss my efforts to perform masculinity over the years, not only because it’s interesting theoretically (and counter to my M->F direction), but also because it’s therapeutic in that it helps me understand what parts of me are “authentic” and which parts were overlaid as veneer or protection.

Sidebar: dear readers, I’d be interested in collecting our group’s stories of performance of various sorts.

I knew I was different from probably age 5, and simultaneous to that realization was the recognition that I would have to learn to be a boy if I wanted to avoid the certain shame and disaster of revealing what I was really like. This is odd, but I remember watching my father and other men and analyzing their body positions, vocal patterns, and general ways of being. Chameleon-like I would imitate those stances:

  • one boot up on a chair, elbow on that knee, casual and confident.
  • strong, ready for a fight, square shoulders, puffed up chest, thrust out chin
  • masculine friendship, slapping backs, punching shoulders
  • relationships with women, largely patronizing, softer voice, pats on the back and butt (this was the 60’s and 70’s, remember)
  • hand gestures, not highly fluid, but choppy and decisive
  • strong, bone-crushing handshake, long enough to be meaningful, not so long as to be gay
  • later in life, ordering one more alcoholic drink and never being the first one to quit, a bullheaded bravado
  • when emotional, clamping down on the jaw, always gaining control over anything other than anger
  • verbally, adding cuss words and avoiding prissy words
  • spatially, arms out both directions, as in a restaurant booth, like you own the world
  • leg crossing — always ankle on opposite knee, never girly knee on knee
  • anti-loquaciousness, aiming for silent wisdom instead of feminine chattiness

I could go on and on, but the point is I remember actually thinking these things, and comparing them to the same list for girls, thus, early on, certainly by the time I was 10 or 11, forming the seeds of my social constructivist core with a gendered angle. I remember wondering in grade school what was real and what was imitation, and it seemed to me that the more I thought about this, the more self-conscious I became. My view of masculinity was colored by a cowboy, individualistic culture, and would have certainly been different if my parents had been professors on the East Coast or white-collar office workers, so I readily admit that adopting these mannerisms is not just about performing masculinity, but also performing class, history, and heritage.

It’s really pathetic, but I’ll relate a very, very conscious decision I made in probably 3rd grade. My father, who was always monitoring my behavior and finding things to remediate (whole practice sessions on shaking hands, for example), told me a chattered like a girl and made fun of me. I used to stand in front of a mirror and debate different sides of arguments, thinking pro and con about my persona, my beliefs, and my plans. Anyway, I had a talk with myself and decided that I would cease talking, that I’d listen and speak only when there was something substantive to say. My superiority and invulnerability would be that if I didn’t talk, I couldn’t be criticized. And I executed it, switched my personality on a dime — I remember one of my friends’ mothers, taking us somewhere to town (I still remember the street we were on–isn’t that weird?) saying, “You sure are quiet these days. Why don’t you talk any more?”

Strong and silent, hardworking and polite, my masculinity was sort of Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. I think my father wanted me to be John Wayne, but I was afraid of fights, afraid of confrontations (the silence was protection against them, as well), afraid of failure. I played football, but didn’t like getting hit all the time. I played baseball, but was accused of throwing like a girl, so I retreated into my world to learn to throw like a boy before venturing out and being vulnerable again.

In writing this post, I don’t know if my lifetime of self-consciousness and tension and pain has been a product of being trans (I mean the specific condition of GID), or rather the unending attempt to avoid performing femininity and to try to perform masculinity to society’s satisfaction–instead of just being myself.