This February, Mack Beggs, a 17-year-old transgender boy, made headlines when he won a Texas state wrestling title. Beggs' victory caused national consternation. Not because of performance-enhancing drugs or sketchy recruiting practices, but because under Texas state policy student athletes have to compete as the gender on their birth certificate. Beggs, a transgender student assigned female at birth, who identifies as male, was forced to compete against cisgender girls, and he won. Texas, in true red-state fashion, has decided to remedy the solution not by allowing trans athletes to compete as their identified gender, but by attempting to ban trans athletes from competition altogether. Texas Senate Bill 2095, which ostensibly addresses the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, could also be used to disqualify trans athletes like Beggs who take testosterone to transition.
The Texas controversy, and the wave of uninformed think pieces and noxious comment sections that followed, made it clear to me that most people have no idea what the term "transgender man" means. Our sexist society sexualizes women's bodies, so transgender women, who transition from male to female, are seen as bizarre deviants motivated by sexual impulses. Transgender men, who transition from female to male, are almost completely ignored. In a world that consistently undervalues the contributions of women and continues to pay them less than men, while robbing them of bodily autonomy, who wouldn't want to just be a dude?
Consider the months of news coverage about Caitlyn Jenner compared to the week of blurbs in supermarket tabloids about Chaz Bono. For most cisgender people, the word "transgender" doesn't conjure up images of dapper young men in muscle shirts and cargo shorts. Even as a member of the transgender community, I find myself centering trans women or transfeminine people in my discussions, without realizing I am potentially excluding trans men.
Jack Ritchie, a local 26-year-old trans man, admits that "the biggest issue facing the transmasculine community is our invisibility. Every single trans guy who is on HRT [hormone replacement therapy] will pass."
Within the trans community, "passing" is the ability to be viewed, or "read," as the gender one identifies with; to be able to pass as a cisgender man or woman. Because of the powerful effects of testosterone, trans men develop increased muscle mass, body and facial hair, and experience a lowering of their vocal register. No one questions the masculinity of trans men in the way that people question the femininity of trans women. Well, no one except for other trans men. Ritchie says: "There is a lot of toxic masculinity in the transmasculine community. You overcompensate because there is a certain way that society expects you to be a man."
One of the drawbacks of being able to pass and blend into straight, cisgender society is a loss of community. As a trans woman I went from being perceived as a straight man to a lesbian woman, and I found a warm welcome in the Springs' LGBTQ community. Ritchie experienced the opposite. "I identified as a lesbian at 16; it was the only label I could find at the time, but now I'm just a straight guy. It's kinda sad, I feel this loss of community because I'm no longer super queer. I'm struggling to find my space in the queer community as a straight man." Ritchie has found a place for himself volunteering with trans youth at Inside/Out Youth Services and facilitating Building Real Identities Discovering Gender Expressions (BRIDGE), a support group for trans young people ages 16 to 30.
Life as a straight man isn't all bad. As an aspiring chef, Ritchie found himself welcomed into the fraternity of the kitchen. "I was always trying to find myself in a man's world; where do I fit amongst men? My coworkers accepted me, they told me those jokes that are not appropriate. It was cool to see the difference in how society treats people based on gender." With his acceptance into the world of men and masculinity, Ritchie found that the way he related to women changed. "Women on the street are afraid of me, which is funny because I'm 5-foot-2, he laughs, "you can't look too long or it's creepy. The fact that I'm seen as a threat now is weird."
While much of the national conversation about trans rights seems focused on trans women, it is important to remember that trans men are a part of the larger struggle for trans equality. Trans men may not face the same overt discrimination that trans women do, but they have their own obstacles to overcome, as men like Beggs and Ritchie work to find their place in society.