When I was in the Job Corps and had to choose a trade to learn, I chose the one that most of the male students and the masculine-identified AFAB (assigned female at birth) ones did: construction. It was, to the sensibilities of a bunch of working-class 16-to-24-year-olds, the only trade offered that was macho enough. And I sucked at it.
I was clumsy. Motor coordination and balance have always been issues for me, and I was constantly dropping things or tripping over things. I couldn’t ever seem to swing a hammer or push a saw with the proper motion; in fact, due to a bit of scrambled programming in the part of my brain that controls motor function, I can’t even do a push motion smoothly. For most things, I find a way to pull and still accomplish the task, but when safety regulations are involved, “I’m doing it the way that works for me” doesn’t quite cut it.
The instructor kept trying. If I couldn’t pound nails or cut wood, maybe he could make me into a painter. I held the roller wrong, dripped paint everywhere, and generally left every space I tried to paint looking messier than before I started.
Maybe even more significantly, I hated it. I hated being outside when it was cold. I hated struggling so hard to do tasks that seemed so simple to some of my classmates, it was as if they could do them without even thinking about it. I hated how tired the work made me and how little satisfaction I got from it when it was done. More than once I got in trouble when the instructor found me curled on a corner of a half-built roof with a book. The trade wasn’t a good fit for me, but socially, it was my only choice.
Then, a few months into learning construction, my tendency to black out and fall down when I stood up caught the attention of the school nurses. One of several chronic illnesses I live with had loudly made its presence known, and I was called into the school medical office by a nurse with a grave face and a folder full of test results. “You’re sick,” she told me.
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The proclamations were made: no climbing on ladders, no heavy lifting, no tasks that required me to change position too quickly. The health restrictions pretty much ruled out the entire construction trade for me. On the insistence of the school medical staff, I picked another field.
Freed by doctors’ orders to choose anything out of the other options offered, I went for the nursing program. I loved it. I took to learning and memorizing anatomy and medical terminology easily; I loved learning the practices and protocols; most of all, I was excited about helping people. I had always wanted to do something that made a difference, and being a caregiver felt more significant to me than painting the same wall over and over. I was one of only two guys in the entire program, but I had a doctor’s note. I had an excuse.
As a trans man who chooses to live mostly “stealth” (and is highly aware of the privilege involved in being able to do so), I have always been tuned in to the ways I perform my masculinity and how they are measured against society’s standards. I always saw myself as a non-traditional sort of man: I wanted to wear bright colors and squeal over pictures of cats and prefer fantasy novels to televised sporting events and still have people see me as a man. I transitioned so that I could be myself. Yet, as soon as I did, I discovered that the type of masculinity I aligned myself with was an option – for cis men. Any deviation from traditional gender roles, in my trans body, was a reason to question and undermine my identity. My cis male peer could have a kitten notebook because he wasn’t bound to gender stereotypes; if I had one, it was because I “used to be a girl.”
As the years went by and I started to lose my mobility, my sense of identity in the world needed to shift again. I have a distinct memory of a fellow transmasculine person with mobility issues who talked about being perceived as female while in a wheelchair and as male while using crutches; as my own pain and instability made use of my wheelchair increasingly necessary, I worried about losing the masculine identity I’d worked so hard to build for myself. I noticed how people behind me in line at stores or the bus stop would sometimes call me “ma’am” or “miss,” despite my short hair and clothes from the men’s department, correcting themselves only when they heard my voice or saw my face with its sharpened angles and too much hair. I have a small build already, and in the chair, I started to feel simultaneously like a spectacle and invisible.
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My identity as a visibly disabled, but generally not visibly trans, man was a constantly contradicting balance. It was harder to be seen and taken seriously when people were always looking down at me, but I found silly little things surprisingly easier sometimes. Nobody cared about me sitting in the bathroom, since I was sitting all the time. Nobody asked me to lift heavy things because my wrists might give out, but I couldn’t have lifted those things even at my strongest. My lifelong lack of interest in athletic things ensured that I was just never a physically strong person. People assumed a lot of things about my body, but my trans history was never one of those assumptions.
Being trans, and being disabled, both mean having a body that other people feel entitled to have opinions about. Our bodies are never just bodies; they’re talking points, political cannon fodder. I’ll never know what type of man I would have been if I didn’t live in this disabled body. I’ll never know how my relationship with my world, as a disabled person, would be different if I were cis. I know that at times I take comfort from seeing an autistic cis man with a high voice or fluttering hands like mine or from the fact that no one really knows how short I am when I’m sitting in my chair, but this comfort isn’t the same as true joy. It’s me being happy that a societal roadblock was coincidentally made easier to navigate around by another of my intersecting identities that still marginalize me; it’s not the same thing as the moments when I find things about those identities that make me genuinely happy and proud to live in this body.
I would love it if my relationships to my history and my identity were able to exist outside of society’s expectations for them. I would love to be able to explore the overlaps between my experiences as a trans person and as a disabled person free from the guilty relief at the ways they sometimes intertwine in a way that works out in my favor, or the creeping anxiety that one of my identities could incidentally give the other away. I’m waiting for the day when I won’t have to exploit one part of myself for explanation of another – when I can be exactly the kind of man that I am without need for an excuse. The adolescent self who just wanted to study nursing instead of housebuilding because that was what interested him is still waiting inside me for the moment when that’s okay, with or without a doctor’s note.
[Featured Image: A person with short dark hair is smiling and wearing a dark red and white striped shirt. Source: pexels.com]