Tag Archives: transgender

How to naturally boost testosterone

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn't prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

“Naturally boost testosterone, and increase the size of your penis.” Does it work for FTMs? Here’s how one trans man and technical writer researches those claims.

Maybe you’ve got “absolutely no problem (TM)” with the size of your unit. If that is not the case, such promises are beguiling. All the more true for transgender men. A pill, or a diet, that will masculinize a person’s body, without taking testosterone, is exactly what some trans and gender nonconforming folks are looking for. And the industry delivers: people spend billions of dollars on products (and books about diets) that don’t live up to the hype.

Why are we so gullible? Because we want it, a lot, and because there’s so much to know about how our bodies work, that it’s easy to be confused by scientific-sounding claims. This weekend, someone told me that if you eat a lot of broccoli, it will stop your tongue from producing estrogen. What they said exactly was, “Broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen.” And other people believed it.

Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

I knew this was not true, but now I was faced with the challenge to disprove a nonsensical statement to people who didn’t particularly want to not believe it was plausible.

“Does broccoli block absorption of estrogen?” is not the kind of question that Google can answer (yet), not like it will if you ask “How old is Cher?”, or “What’s the capital of Assyria?” If you try, the results may lead you to some articles about broccoli and estrogen and, if you have been misled or don’t understand what you’ve read, you may end up believing something like what I was told about broccoli.

Complicated information like how our bodies use food and hormones isn’t as easy to transfer as simple advice like “eat broccoli.” It’s like a game of telephone. On the starting end, there may have been a true fact, but by the time the message reaches its final recipient, it’s nonsense.

I’ve written before on this blog about how difficult it is to figure out what is trustworthy information, among all that is posted as “fact” on the internet. When I was growing up, traditional publishing included fact checking, providing some reassurance that the contents of a book marked “Non-Fiction” on the cover were just that. Online, the job of separating fiction (or garbled nonsense) from fact is the responsibility of the reader.

To find out whether it’s true, that “broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen,” I have to know how the human body works. Without a fundamental education, I wouldn’t know the right questions to ask.

The person who says that broccoli blocks the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen presumes the following are true:

  1. Estrogen comes from food.
  2. Your tongue is the organ that turns food to estrogen.
  3. Broccoli can prevent this conversion.

All three of these are false.

First, estrogen does not come from food. Sex hormones are naturally produced by our bodies. We can also absorb hormones in the forms of pills, creams, injections, and patches. Some kinds of estradiol pills are designed to be taken sublingually. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, beneath your tongue, and some medications are designed to be absorbed sublingually, directly into the bloodstream. If you hold a micronized estrogen pill under your tongue, your tongue is absorbing estrogen. It is not turning one thing (phytoestrogens) into another (estrogen), and it’s only able to efficiently absorb chemicals that have been very finely milled, to a microscopic degree, so the molecules are small enough to cross the mucous membrane. If you hold peas, or milk, or avocado, or tofu, or any other food, under your tongue, estrogen is not going to come out of it and go into your bloodstream.

There are substances called phytoestrogens which occur in small amounts in our food, and mimic some (but not most) of the effects of estrogen. Phytoestrogens are chemically and structurally different from the estrogens that human bodies make, and from the kinds of synthetic estrogen that come in pills and patches. These differences are why there’s no amount of phytoestrogens that can replace estrogen at normal, healthy levels in a human. When you eat broccoli, a small amount of phytoestrogens are absorbed through the walls of your digestive tract (starting with your tongue), and circulate in your bloodstream. They have a weak effect on the body that is not well studied, and you excrete them with your urine, just like with other hormones.  

To recap:

  1. There’s no way to prevent your tongue from converting food into estrogen, because it does not do this.
  2. The phytoestrogens in foods (like broccoli) occur in small amounts, and have different, weaker effects on the human body than either natural or synthetic estrogens.
  3. No food can replace hormone therapy.

But what about the claims to “naturally boost testosterone”? The majority of supplements contain misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and mislabeled ingredients. This doesn’t stop Americans from spending billions of dollars every year on vitamins and other dietary supplements. Transgender men in my Facebook group ask this question often: “How can I masculinize my appearance without taking testosterone?”

The answer is that you can’t, at least not to a significant degree. Surly Amy turned to professional bodybuilders for information on “Natural Transition,” a trademarked term. “I asked [natural bodybuilder Denise James] if following the prescribed routine would result in masculinization: a deeper voice, increased body hair, etc. She said that women who are natural bodybuilders don’t generally experience those effects.” 

When I investigate claims of products that are said to raise testosterone levels, I’m skeptical on a number of levels. First of all, the claim is generally directed at cisgender men. Whether the product will have an effect on a trans man, is another question, and much like the broccoli claim, you have to know more about how human bodies work, to properly evaluate its value.

Read the whole claim, including the studies your source says support their statements. Understand what the claim is.

For example, when I search on “natural testosterone enhancement” I get a mixed bag of results. Many of the hits I get are just lists of vitamins and nutrients that you already need to be healthy. The Livestrong site says this about broccoli and estrogen: “Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, contain many nutrients that promote healthy metabolism of hormones.”

Your body needs nutrition to work properly. Part of healthy bodily function is making hormones. So sure, broccoli is related to hormone levels, but no more so than a hundred other nutrient-dense foods. Being properly nourished is always good advice, especially if you want to feel better. The more diverse your diet, the more likely you’re getting all of the nutrients you need—like zinc, vitamin D, and saturated fat—to make hormones, sweat, muscles, hair, and everything else you’re made of.

The Livestrong site also says that xenoestrogens (phytoestrogens are plant-based xenoestrogens) have two different classes of side effects. “In men, high estrogen may lead to a decrease in sex drive, decreased muscle mass, chronic fatigue and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Women may experience severe premenstrual syndrome, unexplained weight gain, hot flashes, allergies, osteoporosis and depression.” Which ones should I expect will apply to me, an FTM? And how much support do any of these statements have in the medical literature? According to one abstract, “The possible impact of xenoestrogens, to which humans are also exposed through the food chain, needs to be further clarified”: a fancy way of saying, “we just don’t know yet.” The Livestrong site doesn’t say, so I would have to search for the answer to each one: “sex drive xenoestrogen”, “muscle mass xenoestrogen”, and so on, maybe add “female” and “male” to those searches, and see what comes up. 

There’s something called a “xenoandrogen,” too, which have characteristics similar to xenoestrogens. These have been studied even less, and while they exist in substances like certain kinds of tree pollen used in Ayurvedic medicine, they are not found in food.

Some products that claim to be “testosterone boosting” are really designed to make your penis hard. Classic (and totally unproven) aphrodisiacs, like eggs, avocados, and other egg-shaped foods, will sometimes appear on these lists, and are based on magical thinking that says if it looks like a testicle, it must be good for virility. Some products claim to improve your vascular health, which may help with the underlying cause for impotence, but are really best left to a doctor to diagnose and treat. My point, in either case, is that neither of these has a thing to do with testosterone. The only connection among these health claims is they all play on male fears of sexual inadequacy, which is what a “natural testosterone booster” search is really all about. Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

If you have found a product that claims to “boost testosterone,” next ask the question, “How does it work?” How does this product (or practice) affect testosterone levels? Based on your understanding of the body, does the explanation make sense, or is it like the broccoli example, contradicting what you know to be true about the body? You might have to return to your general studies in digestion, or the endocrine system, to be sure. That’s okay: no one knows absolutely everything about a subject. As you read, when questions arise, jot them down and do the research.

Once you’ve identified the method by which a product or practice claims to increase testosterone levels in the human body, study the literature around this, until you understand how it claims to work. Search on the keywords involved in the mechanism, not just the product itself. Has it been tested in a double-blind, controlled study with a large number of participants? Were the results written about in a peer-reviewed journal?

And if it does make sense, generally speaking, will it work on your body in particular? Not all our bodies work like the subjects that appear in medical studies. Trans men’s bodies are not the same as cisgender men’s bodies. If you’ve studied the product and it affects production of testosterone, will it still work in a body without testes? You may have to study the way the product or practice works on female bodies.

Pay attention to sources. Just because it’s on a blog doesn’t mean it’s not true. Who’s the author? Are they credible? Are they trying to sell you something? Keep track of where you pick up your facts. Even a sales website written by non-doctors can be telling you the truth, but before you accept it, confirm it with another source, one you are sure is not making money off convincing you to buy their product.

When are you done? Ask yourself, if I were a journalist writing an article on this subject, who are the authorities I would ask? Then go find those sources by adding their name to your search. What are the organizations you consider reliable sources of health-related information? Some terms to consider adding: “peer reviewed” “endocrinologist” “gastroenterology.”

A final tip for your searches: try adding the word “controversy” to your keywords. The results will give you another perspective, and address the differences in opinion that exist on a subject.

Keep studying. The more you know, the harder it will be to fool you, and the easier it will be for you to investigate a claim.

Share your work. If you are out with the guys and one of your buddies starts talking about this amazing study and how he’s eating six cups of broccoli a day, and it’s really working because look, he’s got four new chin hairs, ask if he knows how it works. When you come to the part where your friend doesn’t know how his body works, send him a link to one of your sources that explains it. 

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Who wins? Love wins

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Not so long ago, when everyone was talking about Rachel Dolezal, I found myself in the minority of people who supported her right to self-identify. Since then, has come a torrent of violence against the Black community: the church shooting in Charleston. More churches in the South, burning. The Klan marching with the Confederate flag. The President being greeted by this symbol of racism.

And then, the marriage equality decision, and the celebration. The rainbows erupting on my Facebook page. My friends, online and elsewhere, care about both of these events. Already, my more radical friends are moving on to celebrate Obama commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, because the frontiers of social justice stretch out in all directions.

We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities.

In a group I moderate on Facebook, “All transmen know each other,” a member posted that they identify as trans* on the FTM spectrum, but also as a member of lesbian community. The kinds of remarks I deleted from that thread were made to show disrespect and disapproval of the original poster’s identity. Which just goes to show, even in a tiny subset of a minority, gathered in solidarity over at least one of our identities, we are fully capable of tearing down strangers for claiming to know who they are and where they belong. Familiar much?

One of the strongest allies I have, in all of my struggles, is my therapist. I’ve been seeing him for several years, and I trust him to see me, not to reduce me to my identity labels, to understand that I have both a history and a present. He’s even helping me see that I have a future.

And he’s a straight, married white guy. When he told me that his family went out to dinner to celebrate the marriage equality decision, I bristled, but didn’t say anything. (To my therapist. I know. And he’s probably reading this.) On a personal level, he’s a flamboyant nerd. There have been days I’ve walked into his office and bitten my tongue, so as not to say, “What is up with that shirt?” (Did I mention he’s probably reading this?) Over the years I’ve gotten a better focus of what has made him into the person and the professional I’ve come to trust. Those of us who know what the inside of a locker looks like, understand something about one another. My therapist and I have a few identities in common, but they’re not why I trust him. It’s because he’s passionate and believes in his work so much that he is my ally.

Thinking of him and his family out at dinner, celebrating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, I thought of all the people who come to our local Pride event each year. Some of the straight people there have politics as radical as mine, if not more. Some of the gay people there are conservatives with whom I have nothing else in common but an LGBT umbrella. My husband told me about standing in line for beer after the parade, behind two women who were complaining about the furry presence. There was no one more modestly attired than the furries, but this couple saw them as rubbing their sexuality in other couple’s faces. At a Pride event.

Identity politics erodes not only common decency, but our sense of irony.

My community can turn on its own, always has, in times of crisis. We’re not that different from any other group you can think of, as far as that goes. What’s remarkable, and worthy of celebration, is when we’ve fought together in solidarity for justice. We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities. The uproar on “All transmen” against lesbian-identified FTM-spectrum trans people, the lesbian mommies who objected to the furries, and Black people and their allies who mock the idea of cross-racial identification, are all guarding the same source of personal dignity and self-knowledge.

When I went to my tenth high school reunion, almost fifteen years ago, it was my first time seeing my classmates since I’d transitioned to male. I went to a small public high school in the rural South. I recognize and know the names of most of the people I graduated with, and they mostly knew me, too. There were just over a hundred of us, so not too many to get to know. And we’d had this formative experience together, going through high school, beginning to figure out what kinds of adults we’d become. One of my classmates, who is Black, showed me the photos in her wallet of her family, watching closely for my reaction to her white husband and their children. This was her litmus test: If you don’t like what my family looks like, then screw you, I could imagine her thinking. She’d passed mine the minute she started talking to me. Not everyone wanted to talk to the transgender classmate.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see interracial marriages happening among my graduating class, because when we were in school together, there was no interracial dating. Few of our parents would have allowed it. No one came out as gay in those years, either, though I learned from my sister, who attended after me, that in her class five years after mine, there were one or two who came out.

I really like my high school class. I think we’re an exceptional group of people: a lot of very smart people, and kind ones, too. Some of them suffered a great deal: from poverty, racism, divorce, disabilities, bullying, domestic violence, substance abuse, you name it. “Suffering does not ennoble,” is a phrase my husband likes to quote. We were mostly much kinder, ten years out, than we’d been in school. We are capable of becoming more sympathetic from having suffered, but it’s not the only possible outcome. Abuse begets abuse. It takes effort to break the cycle.

The woman who showed me her family photos, posted on her Facebook wall on the importance of having a “loving” conversation about what marriage is and is not, and this definition is purportedly Biblical, and not inclusive of gay and lesbian couples. (So far, she hasn’t had anything to say about polygamy or divorce.) The larger culture of our country, in the forms of social approval and formal legislation, now includes my marriage, but my former classmate’s religious subculture does not.

It wasn’t long ago—around the time my parents married—that legally, my classmate’s interracial marriage was considered no more legitimate than my same-sex marriage. My father’s generation was the first in his family to marry non-Sicilians. My mother is of English and German descent. When I was in high school, my parents told me that interracial marriage was cruel to the children, who would have no place in the world. They said this without irony: my parents were racists who said they weren’t racists. They were not the first such white people to exist, but because they were my parents, they were the most confounding to me, and their racism, which became my racism, would be the hardest to see and undo. My parents hadn’t considered how the world had changed since their own marriage, and how it could change again. They hadn’t thought of how their messages to their children reinforced racism instead of changing it.

I agreed with my classmate that marriage has been redefined, and went on to say that this has been the most important change to marriage’s definition since Loving v. Virginia. I asked her which side of this change she wanted to be on. She hasn’t answered me, but I kept thinking about her, and seeing her continue to draw a circle around her marriage with her  Facebook posts, and excluding mine from legitimacy. Then I dealt with the same circle-drawing in the “All transmen” group, and then I had my silent recoil from an act of earnest solidarity from my therapist and his family. What did all of this turf-guarding mean?

I realized that, while part of me wants to protect my valuable identity as a queer, I will have to share my queer values with an ever expanding circle of allies, if I want to see progress in the world. Because there is a difference between a subculture and a culture. You can’t live in your subculture all of the time. The greater culture is constantly affecting it, forcing us to live by its standards, but also changing with us. In forty years, marriage between a Black woman and a white man has gone from dangerous and illegal to mainstream. You can now see interracial couples in ads for cars and breakfast cereal. Interracial celebrities: musicians, actors, models, comedians, athletes, and even our nation’s President. My parents were wrong: there is a place for the child of an interracial couple in this country. One is in the Oval Office. And there’s a place in this world for me, too.

What’s larger and more all-encompassing than identity politics is our human dignity, which does not rely upon us having one identity or another regarding our gender, race, beliefs, or abilities. Because as I’ve seen in my own, small trans community, we can define and subdivide identity groups in every possible way, to include those who are like us and exclude the ones who we don’t understand and don’t want to. If we can’t put a label on someone that makes their choices or existence make sense to us, some of us are at a loss as to how to respect them. Our real lives are complicated, and not just internet-famous people’s lives like Caitlyn Jenner’s and Rachel Dolezal’s, but all of us who are honest about our personal growth, how we’re not the same people we once were, and yet we are, and are capable of becoming so much more.

Violence against Black people, and against trans people, particularly poor trans women of color, isn’t going to go away unless the mainstream culture changes. Because I think we can agree, it’s not what the Black people are doing inside their churches, or trans women in public bathrooms, that makes hateful people kill them. It’s what we’re telling one another about who’s on the inside of the circle of dignified existence and who is not.

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How many trans men are there in the world?

How I run “All transmen know each other” on Facebook: with transparency, liberally, and without pity for trolls of any gender identity.

How I run “All transmen know each other” on Facebook: with transparency, liberally, and without pity for trolls of any gender identity.

There may be as many as 35 million transmen in the world. I base this figure on the very rough estimates that, of all the people in the world:

  • One in two are assigned female at birth,
  • One in ten are somewhere on the LGBT spectrum, and,
  • Of those on the spectrum, one in ten are trans.
The Facebook group I created in 2011, “All transmen know each other,” has recently reached the ten thousand-member mark.

Figures for the transgender population vary: Gary Gates says that about 0.3% of the adult US population identifies as transgender, or three times as many as I’ve estimated. Extending Gates’ work to the current global population of over 7 billion, and presuming half of trans people are assigned female at birth, there are potentially over ten million trans men in the world.

The Facebook group I created in 2011, “All transmen know each other,” has recently reached the ten thousand-member mark. That’s nowhere near the millions or billions of trans men who might possibly be alive today, but still makes “All transmen” one of the largest FTM groups on Facebook. I have a theory on why my Facebook group is so popular: the administrative rules foster community, and are simple to enact and replicate.

I made some decisions when I created the group that I have held a firm position on, over the years. The group would be public. This makes it easier for Facebook users to find us, and it makes people accountable for what they do in the group. The membership would not be limited by personal identity. Trying to police the gender identities of people online goes against not only my ethics, but common sense. And since the premise was that we all know one another, or aren’t far removed, we might know one another through other people who aren’t trans men: via mutual friends, lovers, allies, trans and queer people. The group would be about trans men and our experiences, but we would not be the only ones allowed in.

My plan was to create a space that was mostly wild: just focused enough to be worth joining, and moderated enough to be worth participating in. I delete the spam, ban the trolls, defuse escalating tempers, and remind members of the rules of the group, but mostly, I let discussions run their course. I’m cautiously optimistic, based on this experiment, that public, identity-based groups with simple “don’t be a jerk” rules for participation have a future in social media.

The tweaks I made to the rules, early on, were intended to reduce negativity and increase clarity of the group’s vision. It was not a group that would become whatever the current vocal minority said they wanted, and up for debate each time a new vision became popular. It would not become closed (in the Facebook sense, of non-members being unable to see our discussions) or exclusive to trans men. Bullying people for using the “wrong” words or displaying the “wrong” feelings (having expressed, for instance, a sexual preference for trans men) would not be permitted. The limits of my power are as admin of this one Facebook group, so I don’t allow fights that begin elsewhere to erupt on the page. No screencaps of text or IM conversations that identify anyone other than the person posting are permitted in the group.

There are literally hundreds of groups on Facebook for trans men: stealth men and public speakers on the subject, breastfeeding men, newly transitioning men, senior men, men of color, gay and bisexual transmen, survivors of abuse, open groups, closed groups, you name it. If “All transmen” isn’t for you, and none of the other groups are, either, it takes about three and a half minutes to create your own group and find out whether your vision for the perfect trans group on FB works as well as you think it should.

The group is not staffed 24/7, no one has taken responsibility for members in crisis, and despite every member’s efforts, sometimes bad posts make it into the group and hang around for a while before they’re deleted. Despite the caveats that the group is not a support group, and not a “safe space,” “All transmen know each other” provides a reasonably secure online environment for trans men to come out and find community, support, and resources. The group is active enough that nearly any query gets not just one but several useful and timely responses. It’s full of engaged members who retain group memory: to refer new members to other resources, and demonstrate the kind of clear communication and healthy boundaries the group set out to embody.

There are certain questions that new members ask repeatedly. “How do I begin transition?” “How do I have the coming out talk with my parents?” “Who is a good surgeon in my area, and do they take my health insurance?” I answer when I’m qualified and have the time, encourage those I wish I could do more to help, if only to bump his post back up near the top so that someone else might see it and answer. The question that seems to elicit the most annoyance from other “All transmen”  members is, “Do I pass?” However, it’s not the kind of question that one n00b can ask for everyone else’s reference, so everyone that needs to ask it, will have to do so for himself.

There are several categories of posts that I don’t enjoy, but neither do I delete them. The “Do I pass?” posts are one. Another category that is unpopular, but permitted, is the “Go Fund Me” post. I’ve rarely seen a “contribute to my transition fund” request that courteously explained the exceptional reason why those of us already paying for our own transitions should pay for someone else’s, as well. The campaigns are often created by people so new to their own transitions that they’re asking for tens of thousands of dollars for procedures they haven’t researched, much less are ready to undergo. Some of them haven’t even come out to anyone, yet. There are no hard rules of transition, but moving out of your childhood bedroom and/or coming out to your parents typically precedes phalloplasty. I know, it’s not fair. It’s also not my fault.

Sociopaths are a vanishingly small minority—about two percent of the population—but they exist in my community like they do in everyone else’s, and it only takes one to ruin an experience for thousands of people. More than ten years ago, I saw the death of a beloved transgender conference, due to the antisocial behavior of a few troublesome members of my community. These privileged children felt entitled to stick it to our host because their weekend got extended by a snowstorm that trapped every out-of-towner at the conference venue for an extra day. While most of us made the appropriate arrangements for an act of nature, because sucking up inconveniences is one of the pitfalls of travel, these people played “dine and dash” in the hotel restaurant, slept on couches and stairs in the lobby, and just to make sure their aggrieved message was clear, destroyed the frames on the artwork displayed in the hotel where the conference was held. There’s a metaphor there, for people who are angry at situations that were created by no one on Earth, and who lash out at whoever inspires their jealousy. The actions of a few selfish members of my tiny community destroyed an institution, one that has not been replaced in the years since. So I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some little trolls come fuck up my Facebook group.

Not everyone is welcome in “All transmen.” Almost every day, I let at least twenty new members in, and ban at least one person for breaking the rules. Most of them, I won’t shed a tear over: the ones who post ads for handbags (and much, much worse) are some of my least favorite people on the internet. I feel a little bit bad when I ban a trans man from “All transmen” for being abusive to the other members. I also know that people have to be able to get along, not be vicious, destructive, attention seeking, or cruel, no matter how they identify, or how hard their lives have been. I’d rather the group were only three-fifths transmen, and capture only a tiny fraction of all of the transmen on Earth, as long as the majority of the participating members are courteous and fair with one another, and keep the discussion on topic.

“All transmen” continues to grow at a steady rate, and host varied and thoughtful discussion, daily, on a variety of aspects of our lives. I believe there’s a lesson here for anyone trying to create community online: on how many rules are optimal, and which ones are indispensable. All transmen don’t know each other yet, and probably never will, but with patience and management, I now know ten thousand people who are holding a space open, online, for that dream to be realized.

 

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“Heartbreak and Detox” is coming

Justin Cascio reads Heartbreak and DetoxA story of courage, transgender identity, and yes, heartbreak, coming soon on Amazon.

Not all of my stories develop such a life of their own, or recapitulate their themes when they do, but “Heartbreak and Detox” has brought me pride, grief, and hope since its publication.

I mentioned here in February that my story was accepted into an anthology from Transgress Press, “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves.” The book was published in June, and has received fine reviews. I was proud to see my work in print, and read my story at a book launch event in the Boston area last month, where I was gratified by the reception. As many writers can testify, reading one’s work aloud connects the author and his audience with his words in a way that nothing else can.

However, not everyone was happy with my work. Someone I was once close to, and who I mention in my story, was upset to see her name used. Upon consideration of this fact, the publishers at Transgress Press have decided to remove my story from future editions of “Manning Up.”

This is an ironic twist, given the story’s themes of betrayal, bullying, and heartbreak. But she—and from here on I will call her “Mary Ann”—does not get to decide what I write about, particularly when it’s true. I know where I stand as a writer. My story is a powerful one, and it remains true, whatever names are used.

I still want to share my story, so I am preparing to release “Heartbreak and Detox” as a single eBook through Amazon. For a dollar, you will be able to read my story of “manning up” in the face of “indifferent fathers, screaming mothers,” and bullies, then and now.

If you’d like to see more before making this investment in my more intimate writing, here are a couple of essays I’ve published on The Good Men Project:

How We Talk About What Turns Us On

In Defense of the One-Night Stand

 

Heartbreak and Detox” will be available very soon from Amazon.

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“Manning Up” and Becoming Whole

justin in sequoia

On getting broken down and building oneself back up again.

I’m two months out from back surgery, and beginning to feel like myself again. For more than a year, I suffered crippling back and leg pain from what might be a very old injury. The body awareness I’ve regained from surgery is joined by the sense of being gladly alive and sensate, after stripping the dulling layer of pain medication.

While I was still in the throes of my ordeal, and many months from resolution, I wrote and massively revised a story, “Heartbreak and Detox,” which was accepted for publication in a new transmasculine anthology called “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves,” edited by Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway. Keig co-edited the 2011 Lambda Literary Finalist, Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.

“This anthology will help provide the much-needed space for trans men to reposition gender change within the context of their lives as humans connected intimately with others,” writes Kellaway.

I’m at a bus stop and I hear my name being called, and try to pretend that I didn’t. I’d already seen her and Luc when I heard him innocently shout to me. He doesn’t realize how it wounds me to see her, my ex’s new girlfriend, who is with him. Of course she and Luc are friends. They’re all friends, in this small town, the whole queer, poly, trans and allied, kinky hipster crowd. Just not with me.

Avoidance of mutual friends is one of the stages of grief, but it’s not the first. We live in the same town. I used to go past her house every week. When we started dating, crossing the railroad tracks between our neighborhoods became a heightened experience, like crossing between worlds. Now her house is like a rotting tooth in my mouth that I can’t help but probe with my tongue.

 

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Running and Falling

SWINGHow narcissism and identity are very much like falling off a gate.

When I was eight years old I ran away from the person I loved most.

Grandma was staying with us because our parents were vacationing in Atlantic City for a week. I had a twenty dollar bill, a months’ allowance saved. Someday soon, I was going to run away to New York City. I was eight and had been planning this for months. It wouldn’t be the first time I left home—or last—but it didn’t happen the way I’d been planning, this time. I didn’t mean to run away from her.

But somewhere during the week, Grandma got confused about how much cash she’d spent, and called me into my room to ask me if I’d taken the $20 bill from her purse. She was sitting on my bed, her purse on her lap. When I denied it, she asked me again, repeating the question until I snapped and ran from her. I ran out of the house, and for blocks, until my lungs felt like they were on fire and my legs would fly out from under me.

I’d run off without any money in my pockets. This wasn’t the way I’d planned it, but since I couldn’t go back, I continued in the direction of the city. I walked, for hours, until after nightfall and I was lost. I found a shopping center and called my uncle who took me home to his house for the night. Not much was said before he returned me to my parents, who were due home that morning.

♦◊♦

This story is coming out again for me in therapy, making me think, making me distant. I spend long hours cleaning up digital poop in “Zoo Tycoon 2” to distract me. I work on telling this story, and answering to my own satisfaction, why it is coming up for me now.

The public breakdown of Hugo Schwyzer has made me think about how public to make my own mental health related suffering. The internet is a public space—even our email is read. I believe that we as citizens of an online community have to have ways of creating accountability. I pride myself on being out: sharing our stories is celebratory, healing, connective. Even before the internet made it so easy to share, I always intended to tell my own story: always, since I learned to write. But not just for others. I need to understand my own story. And so I write it. And then I edit. I revise, reframe for other audiences.

Being mentally ill has a way of erasing credibility and expertise in some people’s eyes. It’s as if everything is a lie, nothing can be trusted, there is no real “self” to know. I worry that there are too many facets for me to know, more than normal people. There’s aspiring, and then there’s believing in your own branding.

The reaction to Hugo online, among people who know him slightly or not at all, also reminded me of how I usually deal with his kind of madness, which is to run away from it. Narcissistic personalities are particularly beguiling, at first. I’ve fallen for a few. But these vain and greedy souls take their energy from people like me, who watch from a safe distance, and much more from people who step directly into their energy fields, or respond to their flirtations. Narcissists must be at the center of attention, this being the only way they can handle the deep conflict they generate.

Charming, intelligent people who can surf the waves seem deep and balanced, but they are more like skimming stones, leaping to avoid sinking. They don’t know quite who they are, and with this, I sympathize. I compare their self image to my physical sense of self. It took me a long time, well into adulthood, to develop enough proprioception that roller coasters made me feel sick instead of pleasantly dizzy. Narcissists only know they exist because of their effects on others, and the way you rock a baby to teach its inner ears balance, they must constantly rock the boat to roil others, to know who they are in the world. The high school drama that most of us outgrow, remains necessary to them.

I take people like Hugo to heart, because we both suffer from our mental illnesses. The breakdowns, the relapses, the suicides: every one is a cautionary tale for me. There was reporting last week of a young man who had struggled with an eating disorder and anxiety, even posted an encouraging recovery video on ED. I wonder what it means to succumb: when all of that takes you. I want to know the details, to not only avoid these fates but to feel safe. Falling can feel that safe. It has for me every time I’ve experienced the sensation of being near death. One time I was hit in traffic on my bicycle, and another time, long ago, I was thrown from a swinging gate. Each time I found myself flying through the air, the hard ground coming fast toward my head, and there was nothing to be done about it. Time stretched, allowing time for panic to dissolve, regret to flicker, for a clear image of the end. There was no sound, only full, long nanoseconds of understanding.

The fact that Hugo has landed back at his parents’ house is, to me, a personal nightmare. I have a history of running away. Part of me still doesn’t forgive me for turning back, the time I ran away from my grandmother when I was eight years old.

The story that my husband likes for me to tell people about her is the one where she doors a guy in an Astoria mall for stealing a parking space. My grandma Cascio was a lover and a fighter. But she was so much more, and most of what she was, I’ll never know, because I was her grandchild: blood and generations cleaved us. The most important thing to know about her was that she always made me feel like I was her favorite: special, protected.

♦◊♦

After my uncle brought me home to my parents, I was broken down. I don’t even remember their reaction when they came home from their trip, anything they said to me. I remember that for months, it felt like, I could not look my grandmother in the eye. I acted like I was angry at her, and I was—for not trusting me, for thinking me a thief. But mostly I was hurt too much for her apology to work. I could not apologize for running away. How could she have believed that I would steal from her? Didn’t she know how much I loved her? For me, it wasn’t a lie: I loved her more than anyone else in our family.

Immediately after my grandmother died, I began my transition from female to male. People who I thought knew me well were stunned and disbelieving when I transitioned, while others shocked me by having seen what I thought was so well hidden, and took my coming out to them in stride. I was humbled, repeatedly. There was so much I didn’t know about the people I thought I knew so well. I like to think my grandmother would have accepted me as her grandson, if she had lived to see me. And yet the timing is undeniable.

Image courtesy of the author’s grandmother, may her memory be a blessing

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10 Things People Have Said to Me, That You Should Never Say to a Trans Person

trans 101

What not to say to a patient, client, co-worker, friend of a friend, networking contact, first date, or other acquaintance who is transgender.

Has someone just come out to you as transgender? Are you nervous about what to say, now that you know this unusual fact about them? If you feel positively about trans people’s rights to express their identities, you may want to offer your support. Or perhaps you’re curious and would like to know more about this person’s life experience. What is the etiquette of talking about transgenderism with a trans person you don’t know very well?

Any variation on “you pass” is a personal remark about someone’s body. And unless you are invited, it’s rude to offer your opinions.

The short answer is to employ the “Golden Rule” of doing to others what you’d have them do to you in their situation. But for many reasons, it’s scary for cis people to consider a trans person’s perspective. Even people who have experienced oppression, questioned their own gender, or have been educated in establishing trust and rapport with a variety of patients, don’t always know what to say to a trans person they’d like to get to know better, personally or professionally.

In fact, people in the caring professions have not usually had any training at all on transgender issues. There’s more information available on Wikipedia about transgenderism than the average health care professional has received in their whole career. Trans people should be especially aware of this as they seek out care providers for themselves. While this advice is for cis people, and especially care providers, trans people may want to read along to understand why these sorts of comments are so upsetting to hear, no matter who says them.

1. “It’s working.”

The doctor I saw to get refills on my testosterone prescription prodded me like a prize steer on my last visit and remarked, “You’re masculinizing nicely.”

Understand, no one has called me “ma’am” since 1999. That’s the year I grew my first goatee, joined a men’s chorus as a baritone, and had gender confirming surgery. Yet more than a decade later, I’m still reassured by well-intentioned but ignorant people that I pass.

2. “I never would have guessed.”

People might believe they’re being complimentary, or helpful, or are demonstrating acceptance when they say things to me like “Welcome to my gender” and “I never would have guessed.” But what they’re doing is assuming I need their gatekeeping and approval. Neither is true.

Any variation on “you pass” is a personal remark about someone’s body. And unless you are invited, it’s rude to offer your opinions.

3. “How to”

The first therapist I saw, in pursuit of “The Letter” that would get me hormones, surgery, and a male passport, gave me a steady stream of advice on how to hold my cigarette, how to sit, and so on, all of it unsolicited and unnecessary. Trans people learn how to be men or women from the people around them, just as cis people do: we don’t need special lessons.

People who assume I am looking for their approving remarks on how well I’m passing or how nicely I fit the masculine mold, or who assume I want advice on how to “do manhood” better, are objectifying me as a trans person. They have their ideas about gender, and what trans people need, and they treat me accordingly, without paying attention to what I’m actually like, or have asked from them. I’m just a trans person to them, not Justin.

4. “I couldn’t help but notice.”

Most of us already know that it’s rude to grab the handles of a wheelchair in order to push someone where you want them to go, or to touch someone’s hair uninvited to satisfy your curiosity about its texture. There are some rules for how we treat one another, in recognition of body sovereignty, not just for people with disabilities, or people of color, but for everyone. We teach our children that other people don’t get to touch them, and that you don’t touch people, without consent. We teach them not to stare at people who are different. And we also teach them that it’s rude to talk about other people’s bodies.

Just because you know I’m trans doesn’t mean you get to turn the conversation into a free Trans 101 seminar.

5. “You are so brave.”

If you want to make me feel good about myself, compliment me on my shirt. I picked it out this morning. Or even better, compliment my writing or my cooking, in which, unlike my collection of identical white T-shirts, I take genuine pride.

It’s rude to say things about how brave I must be to live my life, because the compliment requires an appropriate level of intimacy, and honesty, to be accepted as genuine. You can’t honestly compliment me on something that you don’t know and can’t guess.

6. “Let me ask you something.”

When we don’t know other people at all, it’s easy to treat them as if they exist only in the role in which we meet them. But it is objectifying to treat people as if they exist primarily to satisfy you somehow—to educate you, or to make you feel comfortable, or like you’re a good person. Unless you’ve hired them to do something specific, such as conduct a Trans 101 seminar or wait on your table, they don’t have to do anything for you, including answer your questions.

The problem is not that sometimes people ask dumb questions. It’s that some people feel entitled to explanations and to feeling at ease and like good citizens—and that rather than doing the work, themselves, other people should meet those demands, by default.

It’s not always possible to do the research before an opportunity presents itself, in the person of someone who knows something that interests you. If you feel the need to ask a “dumb” question, consider starting by asking the person whether it’s okay to ask a few questions about their expertise, and be prepared to accept “no” for an answer. Just as in any other conversation, pay attention to cues that you’re making your acquaintance uncomfortable, and change topics.

7. “What was your old name?”

Or worse, “What is your real name?” If you ask me this (and I have been asked), you’re asking me to tell you the name that I legally changed so that I’d have no more connection to it.

Before professional interviews, I tell them this is the one question that I will not answer. Every time I see in an article, “Samuel, who used be known as Jill … ” I realize that I am right not to tell reporters, because this is what they’ll do with it: use it as a sensationalist prop for their prose.

For many people, trans or cis, what’s in their pants and in their past, is private. If someone gives you permission to ask questions about their private lives, proceed with caution and respect, and thank them for the gift.

8. “I know your old name.”

I hated my old name for most of my life before I changed it. As a kid, I wrote a syndicated advice columnist about it, and she said that I would grow into it. Needless to say, I didn’t.

I’ve had old classmates show up on Facebook and act like they have the right to call me by that name because that’s the one they knew me by, back in the day. When people who knew me from before transition continue to use my old name and make no effort to use my current name, I’m offended; eventually, I refuse to speak to them.

9. “Have you had the full surgery?”

Asking people to explain their questions is always a good response to an unclear question.

Every trans person has a different experience. Don’t assume anything. Consider asking, “What has your transition been like?” for a more meaningful response.

I had a psychologist ask me this recently, as part of a history. I’d already told her what operations and illnesses I’d had in my life, so when she asked me this, I did what I usually do in such a situation, and asked her to explain what she meant by “the full surgery.” She got flustered and shut up, because she realized her question was based on a false assumption.

The process of transitioning from one gender to another takes time: years, not weeks. Every trans person has a different experience. Don’t assume anything. Consider asking, “What has your transition been like?” for a more meaningful response.

10. “You must know…”

I don’t know everything about being trans. I have opinions, but you have to know me to understand where those opinions come from. Don’t trust what I say because I’m trans. Google me and read what I, and others, have written on the subject. Talk to other people.

I also don’t know all the trans people. A friend jokes that “there are only six trans men in the world, and the rest is done with mirrors,” but it’s a joke. A doctor I used to see for head meds would tell me about some trans patient or other he’d seen in his career, every time I saw him. It never had anything to do with the reason for my visit. He wasn’t even treating me for GID. He was name dropping to impress me as the kind of enlightened doctor who talks to trans people all the time and it’s no big deal. He impressed me as an insecure windbag.

The good news is that most people don’t need my lessons on not being an inadvertent asshole to trans people. It’s very often the same kind of sensible advice that gets you through any situation where you’re a stranger in a strange land. Be respectful, considerate, curious, humble, compassionate, generous, and courageous. I know it’s not much as advice goes, but it will serve you in a wider variety of circumstances than meeting one of the six trans men in the world.

Baby foot in mouth image credit: AshleyNYCPics/Flickr

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