Op-ed: When Trans Men's Visibility Comes at the Cost of Self-Esteem
Catchy headlines can thoughtlessly reproduce some of the most harmful messages that we, as trans men, receive from cisgender (non-trans) society. Take, for the most recent example, Gay Star News' splashy list, "11 Insanely Hot Men You Will Not Believe Are Trans," a follow-up to the much-discussed 2012 list from Oddee, "10 Handsome Men (Who Were Born Female)."
If this is what the recent, much-celebrated boom in "trans visibility" means for trans men, I for one am not convinced it's a positive step. Trans men have historically been all but invisible within popular discourse about trans people, and it's troubling to see some of the messages that surround us when we do finally manage to "break through" into the public spotlight.
Let's just take a moment to unpack the Gay Star News headline's subtext for the trans male reader. It isn't a huge leap to read this as "For a trans man, part of being attractive is for others to not be able to 'read' your trans history on your body." Even subtler: "Trans men's default descriptor is anything but 'hot'; it's hard to believe trans men could be sexy." Subtlest: "Trans men aren't actually men" (otherwise, could this list not have simply been titled "11 insanely hot men"?).
Moreover, scroll through the article and an equally heavy visual message becomes clear: Only specific kinds of trans male bodies can be considered "insanely hot": Muscled, youthful, able-bodied, conventionally "masculine," and white-skinned (the one tokenistic exception to this "rule" being African-American athlete Kye Allums).
This list of descriptors outlines, within the field of masculinity studies, a particular kind of embodiment called "hegemonic masculinity." Hegemonic masculinity — or, in other words, the "mainstream" vision of an "ideal" masculinity within patriarchal, white-dominant societies, such as those in the Western world — affects both trans men and cis men by giving us all a vision to constantly measure ourselves against (and inevitably, for the most part, fail). Hegemonically masculine bodies remain at the top — whether the individual intends it or not — by making feminine, brown, fat, elder, disabled, and "nonpassing" trans bodies invisible, shamed, and communally deemed "less than" or "undesirable."
Most of these messages happen tacitly and are silently catalogued by individuals without a conscious thought process. Media, whether for entertainment, information, or, most insidiously, both, is one of the most powerful beauty standard disseminators. And the effects come down especially hard on multiply nonhegemonic bodies. That is, men whose identities exist at the intersection of marginalized gender identity, gender expression, age, ability, and race — for instance, to name just two of many possible permutations, trans men of color or fat, effeminate men.
This is not, of course, to say that trans men like athlete Balian Buschbaum, photographer Loren Cameron, or actor Ian Harvie are unattractive or should be ashamed of whatever personal appearance goals they've managed to reach. Rather, it's to say that a whole range of other bodies and ethnicities are being left out of a public conversation that contributes to trans men with different body shapes and skin tones feeling (un)attractive and (un)lovable.
Because, in the end, this list wasn't produced to say, "Let's celebrate 11 men reaching their beauty and health goals!" It was produced for a cisgender reader to look at and think, "Wow, not all trans men are ugly like I've been led to believe!"
Since we, as trans men, already exist outside of the hegemonic ideal by virtue of our trans histories, I worry that such messages are inevitably internalized. This has serious implications for our self-esteem and self-love.
And while, sure, true self-worth comes from within no matter how many "lists of hot trans men" are produced, these kinds of articles have an impact on trans men feeling like we can never be truly whole unless others cannot differentiate us from our cisgender peers and we meet a largely unattainable "look."
Granted, many trans men do not want to be immediately "readable" as trans; indeed, many others would give anything to attain body shapes similar to those of men on Gay Star News' list. But that doesn't detract from the point I'm making. Individual trans men can never know whether these goals come from deep within or whether they're offshoots of a lifetime of internalized messages about not being "enough" because of media like the "11 Insanely Hot Men" list. This makes it that much more difficult to realize the truth that individual fat, elderly, disabled, hairy, scarred, readably trans, feminine, brown trans men are, in fact, very sexy.
I can already sense certain rebuttals to my points, and I'd like to address just one more: "Isn't this list a positive way of showing cisgender audiences that 'Trans people are just like you!'? Isn't that a step forward for equality?"
My question, in return, would be: "Knowing this list's underlying messages, can we believe it will generate genuine equality?"
My answer (you guessed it!): No. Why? Well, trans men need not be content to only become of interest or available for comparisons of our "equal status" to cis folks when we can say, "See? I can look just like you!" The implication here is still that "Most of us aren't like you — we're 'others,' and that's a bad thing." That's not equality. That's assimilation masking itself as equality.
True equality is when we can all be ourselves without fear of reprisal, without a hierarchy between hegemonic, hegemonic-adjacent, and nonhegemonic masculinities. When being different from a majority population isn't assumed to be a strike against you that you must work to overcome. No matter how many cis people read "11 Insanely Hot Men You Will Not Believe Are Trans" and experienced an "aha!" moment that changes their default assumption that "trans men are unattractive," this kind of set-up is inherently faulty from the beginning.
To paraphrase several others before me: The revolution will not be clickbait.
MITCH KELLAWAY is the trans issues correspondent for Advocate.com. His other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Lambda Literary Review, Original Plumbing, Mic, The Huffington Post, and Everyday Feminism. He is the coeditor of Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves (2014, Transgress Press), an anthology of personal narratives by trans men. Reach him at MitchKellaway.com and @MitchKellaway.