Sitting down with Max and Felix to talk about their experiences as transgender* men felt like an honor, a privilege, and also a little like having sex for the first time: intimate, vulnerable, awkward and clumsy. The transgender community is one of the most marginalized in the world and although media coverage of transgender issues is rising, it is often fraught with incorrect pronouns, invasive personal questions, implications that gender identity is a choice, and countless other pitfalls that can hurt more than help the transgender community. Despite my good intentions, exploring transgender issues as a cisgender* person felt like a minefield full of accidental ignorance and clichés, so I started by asking for boundaries.
Alibi: What questions do you wish people wouldn’t ask you?
Max: Well, it’s always nice to not be asked about your crotch on a daily basis. When someone hears, “Oh, that person’s a transgender person,” all they think about is their genitals, immediately. Everyone’s curious, which you can’t fault people for but, you know, that’s my business.
Felix: Very true. The other thing I hate is when people who are completely uneducated on the subject ask a bunch of personal questions like, “Well, when did you decide to do this?” I didn’t decide! I mean, I decided to transition because I thought that would be what’s best for me, but I didn’t decide to be transgender. When I first decided to transition, a lot of guys asked me, “Why would you want to be a gay guy when you could be a straight woman?” They don’t realize that gender identity and sexuality go way beyond your physical body.
What questions do you wish people would ask you?
Max: You know, things that normal people ask normal people. How are you today? What’s your favorite color?
Felix: Yes, you want people to just ask normal human things, especially when you’re trying to get close, not just, “I’m going to grill you about your whole body right now.” In the end, it’s all about the context. Sometimes the questions are okay if they’re asked by someone you know is just curious.
What makes someone a good ally?
Felix: If you want to be a good ally, read. Educate yourself. Talk to us. I really appreciate people that go a little bit out of their way to learn respectful terminology and get to know what we’re going through. And also, if you’re in public together and someone starts giving you the stink eye, a good ally speaks up and says, “Hey, stop being a jerk.”
When did you first realize that your gender identity was different from your assigned gender?
Felix: I’ve had several levels of coming out to myself and self-realization. When I was little, I lived on a farm, so I didn’t have to worry about if I felt like a boy or a girl. We all had to do hard work. It was never really gendered at my house, but I always said to my mom, “If I was born a boy …” or “Why do I have to have breasts?”
Growing up in the early days of the internet, I would look up “transgender” because I was really curious but the only thing that would pop up was sex reassignment surgery for trans women, and I always thought, “Ok, I guess that’s not me.” So, I always had some sense of it, I just didn’t know what to call it.
Max: I was 4 or 5, and I hung out with boys all the time. It was all I wanted to do and I related with them, so I thought, “I think I would have made a better boy.” But it wasn’t articulated quite like that, I didn’t know what it meant. And my mom and dad never said, “You have to wear dresses,” or anything like that. I always got to wear what I wanted. I had short hair, and lots of people thought I was a little boy. I never corrected anybody and I hated it when my friends would correct people. Then, between the ages of 8 and 11, I saw this 20/20 episode about a transgender man who was a cop. They were talking about how he did bottom surgery and I was glued to it. I thought, “I wonder if I could do something like that. That would be way better.” And from then on, that’s what I would think about. I never looked it up on the internet because it was too scary.
When did you first hear the term “transgender” and what did that feel like?
Max: Probably the 20/20 episode, but I don’t remember when I actually admitted or applied it to myself. It was probably around 18 years old. Whenever the thought would creep into my head, I would say, “No, let’s think about something else.” I would distract [myself] a lot and try to avoid it.
Felix: I think it was when Chaz Bono popped up in the news. Also, I saw Adrien Lawyer, the head of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, and it just made sense. The gears started turning and I was reading about Aydian Dowling, the first transgender man to run for [Ultimate] Men’s Health [Guy]. I thought, “That is all man and he used to be trapped in this chick body,” and then it just clicked. I thought, “Oh, so that’s what’s happening.”
How did you tell friends and family?
Max: At first, the only person I told was my boyfriend, and that was two or three years into our relationship. I couldn’t tell him in person, but I had to explain it to him because he kept getting mad at the way I dressed. I wrote him a letter and he responded, “Well, you don’t like women, so obviously this isn’t real.” I just dropped it at that point, and he was the only person that knew until about seven years later when I decided to tell my friend because it just built up and I couldn’t take it anymore. Then, slowly I told more people, and then eventually I had to tell my mom. That was really difficult. I wrote her and my sister a letter. It was very scary, but it was fine. I’m sure my mom didn’t sleep that night.
Felix: My mom didn’t sleep for three weeks. She definitely cried for three weeks. She’s now my strongest ally, but when I came out it completely devastated her. Parents can’t read our minds and they have no idea that we’ve been going through this. They just see that we’re in pain and don’t know what to do about it.
What does transitioning mean to you?
Max: I means I can become who I’ve always seen myself as inside on the outside. It means I can be free.
How did you decide to transition?
Max: I decided I needed to finally do it after watching a transition montage video on YouTube. I related to every single word they said and just seeing how they were able to become what they've wanted through hormone replacement therapy and surgery inspired me to move forward with my own transition. I considered how people in society would react to me if they knew I was a transgender person, because transgender people are often victims of violent crimes. I also considered all the possible health risks, but the pros outweighed the cons.
How did it feel when you had decided?
Max: Good, I finally knew what I really wanted.
How did it feel once you started?
Max: I felt better with every day. Becoming more physically masculine is one of the best things I've experienced.
Felix: I’m still working through all the different body shape changes, like starting out with an hourglass figure and then trying to be a dude Dorito shape. I still have places that show off my femininity that I feel uncomfortable with because I want to take that away. I think the first few years are supposed to be the roughest. It’s just like regular puberty but older.
Do you have any advice for people going through similar experiences?
Max: Stay strong and surround yourself with people who actually care. Seek out other transgender people for support and friendships—those [relationships] are vital. And as cliché as it sounds, remember that it all gets better with time.
*Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
*Cisgender: A term used by some to describe people who are not transgender. "Cis-" is a Latin prefix meaning "on the same side as," and is therefore an antonym of "trans-." (www.glaad.org)