Why do men tell me things?

I used to be a man-hating dyke. That is, according to a certain strand of American popular thought, I must have hated men, because I was a dyke. Back then I did at times feel more than a minor annoyance at some men, and on the odd occasion I came close to kicking a stranger in the junk because he was following me too closely on an uncrowded sidewalk just long enough for me to become aware that he was following me and that I did not know his intentions for doing so and was thus growing uncomfortable with his behavior.

I never actually assaulted anyone, and I am fairly certain now—because nothing untoward happened then—that most of these men meant me no harm and would have been very surprised to know that I was waiting for that fatal wrong move, which I would have answered by whirling around with fists, elbows, knees and feet flying. And I cannot say that in the moment I hated them. I did find it exasperating that they could not seem to figure out that walking right behind a woman on an uncrowded sidewalk might be construed as threatening behavior and that therefore they might want to consider what they were doing. Still, hate is too strong a word for what I was feeling then.

I may have changed my mind now.

It has been almost fifteen years since I began a transition from appearing to walk the earth as a woman to appearing to do so as a man. It has turned out not to be a “gender transition” exactly, because I am not convinced that my gender has changed. It is now packaged differently, and I usually feel less cognitive dissonance when others react to me as though I were just another guy than I did when they reacted to me as just another dyke, but what I thought was a desire to “become a man” has quite vanished, and with it any idea as to what a man is or should be or should do in almost any circumstance. I am pushing fifty so closely that by the time you read this I might not be pushing anymore but have arrived and already begun coasting downhill, but I have not the first clue as to what a fifty-year-old, bearded white guy—a description that reasonably approximates my current presentation—is expected to do, like, pretty much, ever.

And other older white guys? Oh my god.

I am a writer, a reader, and a thinker of some fashion or other. I spent my formative thinking years as a body that was read as female and thus often assumed to be incapable of adequate thought. I was, and still am, so introverted that I pull introversion/extroversion scales wrong side out when I take personality inventories. I hate confrontation for various reasons and for various, often related, reasons, I assume most primarily that I do not know what I am talking about when conversing with others in real time. I do not think quickly on my feet; my brand of introversion and social anxiety makes it difficult to articulate myself at all outside of my room and without a keyboard or at least a pencil and paper. I think intuitively and visually and have to translate this sort of thought into a linear language of at least somewhat common understanding before I can present myself coherently, and that takes time—time that is usually not available at parties, in discussion groups, in seminars, or in other social situations in which I have been called to try to think and present at the same time.

Short version: I do not do well in real-time arguments and spent the first half of my life not being taken seriously anyway due to (somewhat) female appearances. Thus, in spite of the fact that I am supposedly educated and well-read, I will still default to Intimidated in an average conversation with anyone. Conversations with men, in particular, though, have become almost surreal since I have come to look like one of them.

Interestingly, perhaps, men still address me as though they are quite assured that they have given whatever matter all necessary thought and are offering me the Single Inescapable Conclusion on whatever topic. That has not changed, and so I am getting the impression that in US culture men do not talk to men all that differently from the way they talk to women, except they do sometimes have the sense to keep overt sexism to themselves when women are around. This means I have heard some even-more-horrifyingly-than-before sexist things since transitioning to a masculine presentation, but the whole patronizing tone has not changed. It was always horrifying and it still is.

I suppose I should clarify my terms here. When I say “men” in this case, I am usually referring to cisgendered men with whom I might interact in an average day, or men who have, to the best of my knowledge, no prior experience living as a body perceived and/or labeled as feminine. This is not to say I have not had any conversations with maddeningly obtuse men whose history includes identification as trans- or some other variety of gender nonconformity and/or transition, but this happens less often. Whether this is because other trans-spectrum men [1] are more likely to have at least some awareness of the vagaries of societal gender expectations or because there are simply not very many of us, I am not certain.

What I am describing here, though, are my experiences in conversation with apparently cisgendered men as a USian trans-identified male who spent thirty-five years as a body hailed more or less as female (less as I got older, cut my hair shorter, stopped wearing anything but men’s clothing, bound or otherwise hid my breasts, etc—but this resulted in a confusing presentation much more often than in one “mistaken” for male), and as a person whose temperament makes confrontation quite difficult to negotiate and disagreeable to contemplate.

So, when I encounter men still holding forth as though their thoughts are the unassailable products of rigorous reasoning, even when said reasoning is obviously lacking and nobody appearing to be a woman is present [2], I find myself in a position of not knowing, exactly, what is going on. My experiences as the assumed-feminine recipient of male wisdom do not help me: although I did come to understand that, where I live, patronizing condescension is to be expected of men if one appears to be a woman, this tells me nothing about what to expect if one appears to be a man.

On the one hand, the fountain of youth from which so many female-to-male transsexual individuals drink has rendered my visage a good ten to fifteen years younger-looking than it actually is, and so it may be that I am still considered a novitiate in the world of masculine knowledge, and I am being condescended to because of the tenderness of my perceived years. On the other hand, I wonder whether it is that men simply spout off all the time, expecting other men to challenge them with counter-spouting-off if they hear something with which they disagree. Whether or not the man spouting off believes he is actually right is unclear to me as well, because the “knowledge” so imparted is often so obviously self-serving that I wonder if it is being offered in some sort of ironic self-deprecation that I am just not getting.

Whatever the case may be, I still feel like a squirrel in front of an oncoming car, trying desperately to decide which direction to run, when confronted with Self-Obvious Truths as Mediated by Men. My self-assurance in these situations is almost nil. I do not expect anyone ever to take anything I say to heart, and I do not expect to be able to out-spout any pontificating personage regardless of gender. It occurs to me that I might simply act as though I thought whatever comeback I could manage were gospel, but I do not yet have the bravado necessary to do that. Besides, if I were ever to become a condescending, patronizing know-it-all, I would beg you to please shoot me. I do not think that acting like one even without conviction would be a particularly good idea.

On those occasions when a retreat to computer-mediated communication is possible, I still do not know what is the best way to proceed when I am faced with a man who has no idea that any experience diverging from his could even exist in a parallel universe, much less on this very planet and possibly even next door. I can write, and I know I can write, but I am not convinced that burying someone in discourse is advisable or healthy for all parties concerned. That is, if the tendency in men to declare themselves master of whatever field of knowledge is at hand is also an invitation to other men to join some sort of dick-waving competition, I am not sure that answering that invitation helps things at all. Although I may be in a venue where I can respond, how to modulate that response so as not to stage yet another cock fight is less clear.

I do know that the longer I am on testosterone, the harder it is to resist such competition. This is not so much because I want to compete, but rather because it drives me over the edge with anxiety and rage when one man appears to be dominating the conversation to the exclusion of all others: I am acutely aware of the silencing of others and sensitive also to being silenced myself, living as I do under a constant din of self-doubt, where silence has, for so long, felt safest. Testosterone has had the effect, in me, of amplifying both my emotions and their ensuing impulses to the point that they are often difficult to resist.

But I participated in a few too many usenet flamewars in my internet youth. Thus, my response to being told how I think, for instance, or who I am, is often simply to flee. To approximately here, where I can write abstract treatises on how it is to figure out social propriety when one is not well-versed in determining what might be proper in any given situation. I grew up as an extremely introverted girl, terrified of being wrong but usually convinced that she was so. I am no less introverted and no less terrified than before, and still convinced about 75% of the time, which means that when I do engage in written argument, my instinct is to argue as though my life depended on it. It sort of does, in what my therapist calls my “rich inner life.”

Small animals who think their lives are in danger are extremely hazardous to handle; they may not not mean to take anyone out, but will not hesitate to try to do so if they feel threatened. One reason I was able, when it was my job, to deal with animals in that state without any fear or anger of my own was because their aggression made perfect sense to me. I even identified with it much of the time I was at work: trying to negotiate the intense sociality of a daily job left me feeling much like that completely bewildered cat that will take your arm off if you reach for it.

But so any internal model for responding to disagreement without immediately escalating into combat readiness is quite lacking with me. Fight or flight are the only options that make instinctive sense to me, while human social functioning is incomprehensibly subtle. Add the complexities of socialized gender and I am thrown into my own personal third-body problem, where calculating real trajectories—much less ideal ones—becomes operationally impossible. And so answering the pronouncements of men who are so sure they are sure that they don’t even have to care about the actual cause they are promoting becomes an exercise in what I can only describe as sublimely disastrous communication.

I do not suppose that I actually hate men in general because certain ones of them drive me to this sort of distraction, but between my own disabilities in negotiating conversation and the very tiring fact that these same conversations just keep happening, I have come to a place where I question ever more vehemently the very idea of What Men Do in my culture. That devil’s advocate, for instance: who would want to be one? One is reminded of big brothers who torment their younger sisters just to get a rise out of them. Arguing without conviction for a position that makes little difference to the arguing party seems to me to betray some sort of delight in eliciting responses that are enormously costly, in terms of emotional energy, to the person goaded into a response, and in watching, without having to pay a particularly high price for the “entertainment,” the gyrations of another in pain. And what is that? Sociopathy? Psychopathy in larval form?

I wonder, and I wonder how it is that one comes to believe that behaving thus is acceptable in what passes for polite company. Here I am, having gone to some effort to cross over to the “other side,” but how the lifelong residents here choose to behave is every bit as bewildering, and nearly as maddening, as it was before I arrived. I do realize that there is no here here and that there never was; that is, I realize that “men” is a completely fictional category (though not, for all that, necessarily voluntarily chosen). But it is a familiar category, and one that I was led to believe, as most of us were, would make sense upon investigation.

But, no. Like most of life thus far, it makes less sense than ever.

[1] I use the term “trans-spectrum” here as something of a neologism, because it is difficult to use the term “trans” together with “man” in such a way that every person who might be included under such a locution would agree to being included thus, and so there is no current consensus that I am aware of as to how to refer generally to the class of human bodies who were assigned female at birth but who identify as some other gender. “Coercively assigned female at birth” might come fairly close to naming an experience that many of us have in common, but even there rests some controversy, so I note it here and hope that “trans-spectrum” men can be taken provisionally, as it is offered, as a shorthand term that is necessarily inadequate.

[2] See Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me” for a very useful exposition of the phenomenon of Men Educating Women. What I am mainly considering here is why and how Men Educate Everyone, apparently.