A digital call to action spread on friendster.com last month, and a crowd of tranny boys descended on the East Village gay dive the Boiler Room. It was the very first Manhunt, a party for transmen and their admirers.
When several dozen genderqueers crashed the place, a few of the bar’s gay patrons threw a tantrum. They tried desperately to sort out who was a dyke and who was a dude by rating the tranny boys—with their flat chests, short hair, and male posturing—according to who still “looked like girls.” But eventually, these hecklers were outnumbered by some of New York’s au courant gender outlaws, a mix of young masculine-identified dykes, bois, and trans guys clamoring for a space of their own. By the end of the night, the trans folks and the gay guys had made peace, and Riley MacLeod, a 22-year-old, gay-identified tranny boy, even stole a kiss from the bartender.
Just a few years ago, the transmale community was still underground, connecting with each other in group therapy and chat rooms. How things have changed. Some of the city’s hottest queer parties are fundraisers for chest-reconstruction surgery, tagged with names like “Take My Breasts Away.” Ethan Carter’s Trans*Am party has gotten so popular it has outgrown its digs at the lesbian watering hole Meow Mix, and Manhunt plans to carry on through the summer.
By now, there are hundreds of personal Web pages, chat groups, and surgery-comparison sites by and for transmen. (Check out ftmi.org, transster.com, t-boyz.com, or the more than 200 Yahoo groups that pop up under a search for FTM, meaning female-to-male transgender.) Brown University, Sarah Lawrence, and Wesleyan have gender-neutral dorms, bathrooms, and sports teams. New York’s LGBT Community Center has expanded its Gender Identity Project to include eight groups for the gender questioning.
Five years ago, if you were a transmale, you were FTM (or female-to-male) and you would probably change your name, go on testosterone, move to a new city, and perhaps consider sex reassignment surgery. Most of those FTMs wanted the world to know them and see them as real men. But there’s a new trans generation. They’re college-educated, raised on gender deconstruction, and not so interested in realness.
Today, most transmales don’t plan to have “bottom surgery,” which constructs male genitalia out of the labia and clitoris. For some, it’s a matter of cost (ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, which still doesn’t buy you a fully functioning, realistic penis). But a lot of trans guys say they’re doing just fine without one.
“I do not want a cock,” says K.J. Pallegedara, an 18-year-old tranny boy who hides his breasts by binding them with Ace bandages. “I know a couple of transmen who see their masculinity in their dick. But my masculinity is in my head.” K.J. does plan to take testosterone, and he’s saving up the outrageous $8,000 for “top surgery,” which removes the breasts and constructs a male-appearing chest. Dr. James Reardon, one of the nation’s best-known chest reconstruction surgeons, says he performs at least one such procedure a week—up from one a year in 1974, when Reardon saw his first patient.
As visibility grows, more transmales are changing their pronouns and hormones to fit their masculine gender identity, and many are starting the transition at a very early age. (A recent Oprah episode featured transmale guests as young as 11.) Along with this emergence has come an extensive lexicon. In addition to FTMs, there are female-bodied masculine-identified people who don’t consider themselves men. They include tranny boys (who feel and look, well, boyish), transfags (who act effeminate), bois (dykes who “play” with masculinity), genderqueers (an umbrella term for folks who challenge their gender)—and the list is still growing.
In this brave new world, you can be a transmale who goes “no-ho” (meaning no hormones) or “low-ho,” and “no-op” (no surgery)—or you can be a genderqueer who has top surgery, identifies as a woman, and goes by the pronoun he. The possibilities are endless.
America has always been the land of self-invention, but lately that concept has been applied to the body in unprecedented ways. Thanks to technology, transmales can now invent the body they feel comfortable with. In the new thinking, gender and orientation are a highly personal creation, and while some transmales still strive for “realness,” the new generation is heading far beyond the appurtenances of masculinity. This isn’t about having a beard or chest hair. These guys look boyish, yet butch.
But in the end, the transmale identity can’t be described within the binaries of man/boy, butch/femme, or gay/straight. Says transman and performance artist Imani Henry, “It’s all about self-identity.”
As Manhunt and Trans*Am (meaning amorous) imply, transmales are on the prowl for folks who are willing to break the mold of gender and sexual orientation—or at least go out with someone who does. Along with this evolution has come a new breed of queer women who like dating trannies and who gag on the word lesbian. “I don’t give a shit if people read me as lesbian or straight,” says Alana Chazan, 24, a femme queer woman who has dated both dykes and transmen. “For me, it’s about respecting my partner’s gender identity.”
It remains to be seen whether gay men can respect a tranny boy in the morning. But there are same-sex couples who weren’t born that way. Some transmales call themselves transfags because they express femininity in a very gay-male way. And some of them are open to dating women. “I don’t define fagginess by who I fuck, because I’ve dated all over the place,” says Bran Fenner, 22. “I define it by how I demonstrate femininity.”
Bran has a crew of transfags of color that he met through a Yahoo group he started with a friend. Most of its members, like Bran, would call themselves pansexual. Riley, on the other hand, wants to date biological men (called bioguys), a hopeless prospect, he says, because of “male ignorance” about transmen. But those walls are coming down. The Center has started a new group for LGB trans people, and there’s now trannyfag porn featuring trans and bioguys, surprise, getting it on.
Whatever their sexual orientation, most transmales remain in queer women’s spaces because they feel safe there. Acceptance is growing in this community, but there still are dykes who gripe that all butch women are turning into boys, and feminists who label transmen misogynists out to gain male privilege. It’s true that some transmen ridicule women, but no more than “real” men do—and there are feminists and lesbians who ridicule femininity. So what’s the difference?
We live in a time when the attributes of manhood reign supreme, and not just for men. Women are appropriating the power and aesthetic of masculinity to redefine themselves, to the point where even our heroines—Uma Thurman comes to mind—kick ass harder than your average dude. Masculinity is no longer an exclusively male endowment, but it’s still a very desirable one. This explains why the stakes are higher for transwomen (MTFs) in the world at large than they are for transmen. It also explains why the new generation of genderqueers accords more status to the male-identified. And perhaps why there are so many queer women, as opposed to queer men, ridding themselves of their female identity.
Yes, the status of transmen is enjoying a boost thanks to our macho obsession. But the way this scene understands itself and the world challenges that hierarchy. Feminism and gay liberation made it OK to feel comfortable with yourself as the world labeled you. But the genderqueer generation proposes a new reality in which the world doesn’t label our identities and our bodies; we do. If you spot these transmales at the Pride parade, or in your local bar, you have seen the future—and it’s very queer indeed.