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What really happens in the men’s room:
With one notable exception, during my gender transition, the trans grapevine served me well. Find supportive medical doctor in Calgary: check. Learn about skilful chest surgeon in Toronto: check. Connect with unknown trans men in To, introduced via said grapevine, who help navigate scary drains post-surgery: check. Get advice about least painful way to change ID (ha ha): check.
The exception to all these helpful actions and pieces of advice? The oft-repeated statement about men’s bathrooms and changerooms. You don’t look at other men, they don’t look at you. There’s no talking, no eye contact. It’s a place for a functional task. Unless, of course, it’s known as a pick-up spot.
My dear friends, I am here to tell you that men do indeed talk in bathrooms and in changerooms. At least the men I encounter, including those who appear to be cisgender and heteronormative. On a very regular basis.
Sometime during the summer of 2006, traveling in the US, I found myself boarding a Greyhound bus in Eau Clair, Wisconsin. I was barely past the notorious ‘in-between’ phase of transition; the time when a person has been taking hormones but the full complement of secondary sex characteristics hasn’t yet kicked in. I mostly looked like a man, but there was enough ambiguity to bring out the gender police in full force (and here I tip my hat once again to gender-nonconforming folks who resolutely make their way through the world in this way).
I’d known the US bus service was in more of a mess than usual, but I was still surprised to learn there is no bus depot in Eau Claire. How kind of McDonalds to step into the breach and offer space to Greyhound. Having vowed, decades earlier, to never set foot in McDonalds, I grudgingly entered the premises to purchase my ticket. Several of us waited for the bus – as expected, a range of working-class and working-poor folks assembled, with, as expected, a disproportionate number of Black folks. Once the bus arrived, I stood in line, waiting to approach the bus driver. Unfriendly as he had been toward everyone else, it seemed his expression became closer to hostile when I approached.
Still prey to motion sickness, I was pleased to find an aisle seat close to the front. Philip, a working-class Black man, occupied the seat across from me, his girlfriend beside him. He latched on to me immediately. Giving my full attention to his story – starting with the description of yet another move in the hopes of stable employment – as the wheels rolled was easy. Not so at the first bathroom stop.
This proved every bit as complex and sweat-inducing as a transitioning person might anticipate. I lingered behind the initial rush, hoping to avoid being part of a group experience. But, as they say, timing is everything, and I mistimed this one. I walked into the men’s, only to see Philip using a urinal, bus driver on his right, empty urinal on his left. “Joe, come on over,” Philip enthused. This time I did not imagine it; the driver full-on glared. I mumbled something. Without disclosing too many details, suffice it to say a fascinating exchange took place over the next few minutes that I would not have believed possible. During which time Philip continued his story.
When Philip got off the bus, we said a heartfelt goodbye. I was touched by the way he’d shared stories, especially the one about his grandmother teaching him basic 12-bar blues on an old family guitar with a warped neck. “I still have it,” he’d said wistfully. He’d appreciated my tale about learning on an instrument with a similar warp, that my friend delivered in the original cardboard box. And I had a question: who started this rumour about men not talking in public bathrooms and changerooms?
The question came to the fore again after my first experience in the men’s changeroom at the Canmore (Alberta) Rec Centre. Sweating, I opened the door, inwardly chanting my mantra: Stay calm, eyes ahead, no one is interested in me. The room itself is not large, its walls are lined with lockers, benches fill the centre spaces. I walked in, expecting anyone present to be posed in front of their locker, dressing or undressing in a no-nonsense way. Nope: two naked men engaged in a highly technical conversation about rock climbing, making no move to get dressed. One leaned against a set of lockers, right leg lifted on the bench in front of him, arms stretched out to either side. The other stood on a bench, stretching from side to side. I felt like the proverbial deer in the headlights. No matter where I looked, I could only see penises and testicles. I walked decisively over to a locker, which, praise all deities, happened to be empty. At this point the friendly men attempted to include me in the conversation. I responded in what I hoped was a nonchalant tone: “I’m not a rock climber.” “You should try it sometime,” said the man on the bench, bending over to touch his toes. “Yes, that is a good idea,” I said into the locker as I stripped down, threw on my suit, and edged toward the shower. “Have a nice swim,” called out the other. “I’m sure I will,” I mustered.
The pool experience proved anti-climactic after that. What a cinch to enter the pool shirtless, with my new trunks! What a cinch to approach water’s edge! What a cinch to dive in and swim laps!
Who first uttered the ‘men don’t chat with each other in the bathroom’ line? Were my two experiences a bizarre aberration from the norm that would not be replicated elsewhere?
I admit it, I like men:
In A Room of One’s Own, my beloved Virginia Woolf writes: “The truth is I often like women. I like their unconventionality. I like their completeness. I like their anonymity.” In response, I can now write: “The truth is I often like men. I like their kindness. I like their uncertainty, their insecurity. I like the way they subtly seek reassurance.”
Since transitioning, I’ve had numerous conversations with men, conversations I did not have before. Men, or folks who appear to be men, talk to me on public transit, in city parks, on ski lifts, and yes, in bathrooms and changerooms. Often our conversations are marked by the same kind of openness, honesty, and direct communication that Philip, and the naked rock climbers, showed. These surprising interactions have marked me in unanticipated ways.
For much of my life, my strongest emotion toward men as a group was fear. This makes sense, given the number of male perpetrators who traumatized, violated, and brutalized me. My connection to the feminist movement in the 1980s changed this – the fear turned to rage, not only for what had happened to me, but to so many women and children. My anger was fully supported by the feminist movement. (And damn it, I miss those days.)
Over the decades, working with male activists and hanging out in queer communities, my connections to male-identifying folks grew more positive and I did not anticipate any change in this when I transitioned. But a surprising feature of the transition is that the increased, spontaneous interactions with men have brought forth a new wellspring of affection. So much so that I can simply say: I am appreciative of the many men who manage to be decent people in a world that rewards them for not being decent people. And in noting this, I am not deluded about the presence of men who are not working to be decent people, who are sexist and/or misogynist in terrible ways. I am noting that there is more cause for hope than imagined.
The image of the spectrum is routinely used to explain and explore the many possibilities for gender identity and presentation. As a visual person, I find this image helpful, and have extended it to other realms, other concepts. Certainly it allows me to make sense of the variety of ways that men/male-identifying folks express their masculinity. It reminds me of the diversity of the way men choose their position on the spectrum: misogynists and perpetrators: men who may not express their misogyny publicly but who do so with the women they live with: men publicly engaging in anti-sexist and sexist behavior: men who are genuinely decent people.
While I am grateful for the numerous encounters that remind me of men’s goodness, there’s no shortage of contrasting experiences. The husband of a new friend constantly interrupted her during our first meal together. The student who visited my office last week, traumatized and desperate, after a recent breakup with a boyfriend who promptly uploaded recordings of sexual activity – taken without her consent – on a ‘revenge porn’ website. The friend who routinely expresses delight during our mountain hikes that I am not 500 metres ahead of her on the trail, as her male partner always is.
Men have a variety of choices, in terms of dealing with the system of sexism, and they position themselves all over the spectrum.
Repercussions of family rejection:
It still amazes me to hear the transphobic comment that some of us who transition have been unduly influenced by some mysterious other(s), and thus the decision is not really our choice. And yes, transitioning as a middle-aged person, I heard this.
Really? I’m going through a years-long process that involves surgery, hormonal treatment, heavy financial burdens, the possibility of losing friends and family members, the possibility of being fired, the possibility of being assaulted, because I’ve been unduly influenced? By scheming trans people espousing the glamour and luxury of the trans lifestyle? Bragging about the way their fortunes have shifted? Taking a break from sipping on their cocktail, casually grasping their silver filigreed, initialled cigarette holder in their other hand, to encourage me to join this fantastic club? “Dahling, you simply must transition! You have noooooooo idea how fab it really is!”
No, I was not unduly influenced, and I embarked on the transition with full knowledge. I knew the risks involved. Including the risk of losing close people when I transitioned. By this I refer not to the risk of losing a friend or family member whose rejection would not come as a surprise, whose prior support had exhibited various weaknesses; I refer to the friend or family member whose prior support had been exemplary. For example, my brother, aunt, uncle, and cousin. I fully expected support from all of them, given their track records. Pre-transition, all four were fine with my lesbian relationships. All four stood by me after learning the truth about my trauma history, which involved immediate family members and priests in the catholic church we attended. The fact that they had stood by me during those intense life experiences felt to me like proof of solid relationships I could count on for the duration. And keep in mind they were the remaining four people I was connected to, out of a large extended family of 50 to 100 people, depending on how many second and third cousins were added into the equation.
Hear my heavy sigh, see my raised eyebrows: Wrong again. While people’s previous actions sometimes indicate what we can expect, in this case the Buddhists proved once again to be right (damn it) about the need to always let go of expectations and assumptions. These four supportive family members rejected me, and cut me out of their lives. Because of transphobia. Support for lesbians and same-gender relationships do not always link up with support for trans folks. The truth emerged when I called my aunt, after I knew she had received the coming-out-as-trans letter I had mailed her. “I can’t talk to you,” she said, after I greeted her. I thought she meant it was a bad time. “That’s fine,” I responded, “Why don’t I call back in an hour?” “No,” she said, “I can’t talk to you.” And she hasn’t.
For years I struggled to accept this reality, this loss of four people I truly love and want in my life. My brother’s disappearance has been particularly painful. In the beginning, every time I considered it, I’d think, in disbelief: This can’t have happened. The pain of these losses is still present, years later. And I now understand that the loss of these relationships has negatively impacted my racial identity, that this loss weighs heavily in another important realm of my life.
I have rarely lived in places with a large, politically/culturally active SWANA (South West Asian and North African) community. In addition, as a light-skinned Arab-Canadian, I am often perceived as white. Thus Arab friends, Arab networks, and Arab family members have been places where that identity is affirmed. Ongoing connections with folks in these groups were and are foundational to my sense of self.
When those four people disappeared, they took a piece of the foundation of racial identity with them. There was something about the long-term nature of these particular links, the history and shared memories, woven into our cultural/racial/class heritage, that gave me something I have not found elsewhere. Who else can appreciate the memory about sitting squished together on the piano bench at the children’s table at family meals? Who else remembers our extended family dancing the debke, followed by Cousin Millie’s exceptional belly-dancing? Who else erupts into laughter upon hearing these three words: Aunt Rose’s driving? And what about the time our green-thumb grandmother expressed interest in marijuana as a plant, happily took the seed my cousin offered, and grew a magnificent specimen next to the front porch? Several of us were grievously disappointed when, bursting buds and healthy roots, it disappeared one night. Was it my uncle, worried about the police descending on his thus-far law-abiding mother, or the boy next door, who was as keen on pot as we were? “It was Jon Englewood, I know it was,” my cousin insisted, every time the subject arose, glaring in the direction of the Englewood house, typically while five of us covertly passed a joint in our grandmother’s back yard. Over time it has become clear to me that losing family connections weakened my sense of self as Arab-Canadian.
Gender transition as a journey of the spirit:
Knowledge of internal sense of myself as male came to consciousness in middle age. It rose slowly to the field of open consciousness, quietly, with no fanfare. I had been part of the community for decades, identifying as queer/dyke/lesbian. While it’s true that as a woman I had struggled with my gender identity for a long time before making peace with it, the struggle was no greater than any thinking person’s would be, given our society’s ridiculous notions about gender.
But surprise surprise! Up came that sense of self into the realm of consciousness. First were a few important dreams: the clearest one featured my female self walking toward a man who looked suspiciously like me and was dressed suspiciously like me – well-worn oversize flannel shirt with sweatpants. Oh, and he had a really cute dog with him. The two of us were cosily seated in a vintage Westfalia van, which has yet to materialize. And in addition to the dreams was the credit union experience.
I recently heard comedienne Gavin Crawford on CBC Radio’s Laugh out Loud show (January 2020) tell a story which ended with the laugh-producing claim that nothing interesting ever happens in line-ups. I beg to differ, Gavin. Let me take you to a Friday morning, many years ago, in a long line at my Canmore credit union. This was a rare occurrence in the small town, and the switch from the usual 30-second to a five-minute wait did not sit well with everyone. One person sighed repeatedly, another tapped long fingernails on the table holding deposit slips, a third shuffled their feet. I was fine with the wait. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Uncle M stood beside me. It was one of those amazing moments when boundaries of space and time reveal themselves for how porous they really are; he was, and he was not, standing beside me.
I spent a great deal of time with him and his family as a child and teen; they lived close by and I was regularly over at their house. Uncle M was an avid sportsman and took his five children with him on the skiing, swimming, and tennis excursions that happened multiple times a week. And he was happy to take me along with them. My fondest memories are of our Saturday and Sunday trips to the small downhill ski club, outside of town, that we took every weekend during the winter months. In what by today’s standards would be a mid-size car, with four kids squished in the back and two in the front beside Uncle M, no seat belts of course, we spent 50 minutes of driving time each way, uncomplaining, in our cramped quarters. Depending on proficiency or lack thereof, we went to various hills for the morning ski, then met at the car for lunch; Uncle M was inordinately proud of the small barbecue he had fashioned from a stainless steel garbage-can lid, on which he cooked hot dogs for us before we headed back to the slopes. I had and have such fondness for him, a hardworking, decent, working-class man, content with his life, clear with his political values as a long-time supporter of the NDP and his union.
There in the credit union lineup (and given his desire that the banks be nationalized and his lifelong support of credit unions, the place is entirely fitting) I experienced his calm, patient self, unbothered by the wait. But then he disappeared and I became him. It was a changed me: a calm, patient man standing in line at the credit union. Wow, trans? Me? Really?
The idea surprised but did not dismay me. I was thrown for a loop but it was not a terrifying loop. Reflecting on this over the ensuing weeks, I realized that I wanted to sit with this realization. Literally sit. At that point in my life I was actively engaged in Buddhist study and meditation, in an attempt to integrate spirituality more fully and holistically in my life. I felt strongly that for me my gender transition was at its heart a spiritual journey, and the most important action I needed to take was to claim the journey and make certain I internalized this new aspect of my identity; this was primary, more important than making decisions about practical matters such as hormones and surgery. And that is what I did. I meditated daily, prayed, and re-read Sharon Salzberg and Thich Nhat Hahn and Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Delai Lama. I did return to the previous authors who had already helped me comprehend trans issues – in particular Leslie Feinberg and Jackie Kay – but it was the Buddhist writers’ insistence on finding and honouring the still point within that spoke to me most clearly.
My gender transition was a journey of the spirit, a journey seeking internal alignment, a journey toward wholeness, a journey of affirmation of the self. The year of prayerful preparation proved exactly right. At its end I had the clarity and readiness to embark on medical transition. For the most part the calmness stayed with me; I did not and do not perceive the transition as a crisis, as the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, which is not to say it was easy. But it’s not up there with the impact of living with lifelong, severe PTSD. Nor is it up there with my distress about our environmental crises and the disappearance of the creatures I worship. This can be difficult to explain, but I try, in order to counter people’s assumptions.
Here’s one example. At the beginning of my physical transition, while having tea with a few folks after hearing a speaker at the public library, I came out to the one person present who did not yet know. She said breathlessly: “Where do you get the strength to go through this? It must be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life!” Inwardly I thought:Ha! If only! Aloud, I told her that it was nowhere as difficult as dealing with environmental devastation and loss of biodiversity. I gestured out the windows, toward the Rocky Mountains. “I’ve only been in Alberta five years, and I can see the difference in the glaciers,” I concluded. “They’re receding.” I’m not certain if her silence meant that she’d grasped the point, or that I’d confused her further, but the server arrived with our tea and the moment passed.
Capital P, capital R, capital I, capital V:
Privilege is an integral part of this story. Privilege needs to be part of this story. Privilege, an important and non-static element of life, is an important part of who we are, given that most of us belong to a mix of marginalized communities and dominant communities.
My privilege as a passing transgender man is real, and tangible. It impacts my daily life. It is vividly present. And, yes, – as is the case with privilege – it can be lost in record time, once someone ‘discovers’ I’m not a ‘real’ man; this can descend right into the world of assault and violence. This slippery aspect of privilege rings true across the board. What happens to white folks who regularly and routinely align themselves with folks of colour? What happens to cisgender heterosexual men who continually act against sexism?
What does this privilege look like, in a society where sexism/misogyny is alive and well? Well, it’s brutally clear in the elevator. Because when I get into the elevator, women, or folks who appear to be women, respond in a particular way. Body language battens down, breath changes, eyes bore steadily forward. I recognize these responses because they were mine, pre-transition. I get a sick feeling in my stomach when it happens. I get a renewed clarity about the importance of paying attention to privilege.
Privilege is visible in group settings – meetings, working committees, public discussions. Thankfully, in my workplace, other feminists treat me exactly as they treated me pre-transition. But with other groups, I can track the change. I am heard more. I am looked at more. I am invited to contribute more. I am praised more. For contributing in exactly the same ways I contributed when living as a woman, I receive numerous positive uptakes. A person might think that T gave me stronger intellectual capabilities as well as charisma and a witty sense of charm, if that person didn’t know better……But since I do know better, I recognize this as the reality of living in a sexist society. And with this particular manifestation of privilege, I can invite women/gender-nonconforming folks/non-passing trans folks to speak, I can praise their ideas, I can ask them questions, I can direct the focus of the conversation their way. This makes a difference.
Then there’s the classroom. For my first ten years, teaching Gender and Sexuality Studies classes as a woman, I walked a fine line. If I said too much about sexism and its working, there was often pushback and resistance. Colleagues validated this. At some point post-transition, during a discussion about violence against women, dismayed by the (usual and typical) sexual assault disclosures happening right in front of me, I lost it. I started ranting about sexual violence, the length of time feminists have been working on this issue, men’s appalling behavior, men’s resistance to feminist analysis of sexual violence, men who don’t speak up, police who make matters worse, horror stories from the courtroom. I caught myself somewhere around Minute 3, and shut myself down. I waited for pushback, challenge, questions. Nothing. Only students typing quickly, or looking at me attentively, waiting for more. What? Does this group have a better understanding of the depths of sexism? Next day it occurred to me: This is what it means to be man. Bingo! I have been able to test this hypothesis over time, and it is true. I can say: “Sexism is alive and well. In some ways it’s worse than it was 25 years ago.” I can say: “Arabs are consistently maligned. We are vilified in horrific ways on a daily basis.” I can rant for three minutes. There is no pushback. Instead, students dutifully takes notes!
With this manifestation of privilege, action can be taken. If students tend to hear more and give my ideas more weight, then I will say more. And I will also tell students I know my ideas are given more weight now that I’ve transitioned, because I have the before and after moments to compare and contrast. I can bring it out in the open. I can model the way that privilege can be discussed and analyzed in helpful and appropriate ways, openly and calmly, without swooning in horror and guilt. This serves students in all kinds of ways.
Lastly, I want to point out that, for the most part, it is a very different thing to transition from female to male than it is to transition from male to female. At a trans conference I attended in the early 2000s, I talked with another middle-aged person who was transitioning, from male to female. She was further along in her physical/medical transition than I, and spoke frankly about the ever-present fear of using the women’s bathroom. With her large hands and square shoulders, with her 5:00 shadow that was faintly evident even with foundation, she was vulnerable to daily harassment, suspicion, and possibility of assault that trans women face. It was clear to both of us that we had, and would continue to have, contrasting experiences with transition and how we would be received by society. This is a common pattern. Trans women do not pass as cisgender women as easily as trans men pass as cisgender men. Particularly if they transitioned as adults, particularly if they are unable to pay for treatments such as laser hair removal and Adam apple’s reductions, trans women are recognizable as trans women. Or if they are not immediately identified by the transphobic person, then questions, suspicions, and doubts arise in the transphobic person’s mind. Is this a real woman? Many trans women are routinely placed in the category of Not Women, because they do not pass. They fall prey to a particular mix of sexism AND transphobia. This intersectional reality is an embodied, daily reality that leads to harassment and worse.
I was prepared for one source of privilege that would follow my transition, which placed me into a dominant group, but I was not prepared for another source of privilege; that which comes from transitioning from female to male, rather than male to female.
What’s a man to do:
I have been fortunate to have camped and hiked in many of Western Canada’s national parks. My favorite is Waterton, in the southwest corner of Alberta. I spent a week there in September of 2018. Because it was late in the season, the only tent campground open was in a corner of the large RV park. Five tents surrounded me the first night, and two more appeared next morning.
Later that day I met one of the newcomers. Tim dumped the massive armload of wood he was carrying to his firepit, and strode toward me with a wide smile. He gripped my hand, engulfing it completely with a muscular hand easily three times the size of mine. I managed to resist the impulse to sink to my knees and holler ‘Uncle!’ Instead, I smiled insincerely while inwardly pleading: Please let go of my hand. Please let go of my hand. I read him as a cisgender, heterosexual man (although one can never be sure!). He introduced the person with him as his girlfriend; he was astonishingly muscular and fit; I had the feeling that whatever size t-shirt he tried on would look like it was bursting at the seams; he worked as the head of one of Alberta’s backcountry search and rescue teams.
That evening, Tim and Anna-Maria invited me to sit with them at their fire. We chatted in detail about our hikes; I did my best not to take note of the fact they had managed to do three times the distance I had, with twice the elevation. After an hour Anna-Maria retired to their tent. Tim urged me to stay. I grew more relaxed after a few puffs on my poorly rolled joint. Tim showed no effect from the four beers he had imbibed, from his favorite local brewery. At one point, after a pause in the conversation, I took note of the beauty of the night sky, and sighed heavily. “What’s that about?” Tim asked. I told him that even when seeing the beauty of our natural world, I sometimes find it difficult to forget the grim reality of global warming and impending climate catastrophe.
It was as if Tim had been waiting for the door to open. His own observations, honed in the way that only someone who spends inordinate time in the back country – while paying close attention – can achieve, came pouring forth. Receding glaciers, fewer predators, damage to fragile ecosystems done by mountain bikers and ATV users, fewer wildflowers in his favorite meadows. And underneath it all, the heartbreaking love, the devastating love, that all environmentalists carry with us.
Tim continued. “We were out for a training week in Jasper.” Translation: a team of unbelievably fit people were hiking daily at a ridiculously rapid pace while carrying massive backpacks. “I woke up early. I wandered down to the meadow I had noticed the night before. The sun was just coming up.”
Tim leaned forward. “There were two wolf cubs playing. Jumping, biting, squirming. Soft balls of fluff. The cutest things. The mother sat there, gazing at them. Love written all over her face.”
I flashed back to Aldo Leopold’s description of the dying wolf who glared hatefully at the humans present. I said: “It sounds like a magical moment.”
“Yes, exactly. Magic. Magic in the heart.”
Another way to describe love. We sat in silence. “If everyone felt that, we could save the planet.”
Did he say it? Did I? A shooting star fell across the sky and we both inhaled audibly.
We sat in silence until Tim vocalized.
“Some days,” he said wistfully, “I find myself thinking; what’s a man to do?”
“That’s the question,” I answered truthfully as I looked from him to the sky and back again.
What’s a man to do?
I will likely spend the remainder of my life attempting to answer that question. Several things are already clear, thanks to this gender journey/spiritual journey. What’s a man to do? Pay attention, to self and others. Trust and follow the inner voice that comes from heeding the still point. Claim and proclaim the naked truth: I like men. Act in ways that reflect deep love for the planet and its creatures. Feel the magic in the heart.
To Eli Clare and Alexis Shotwell, for their feedback on this essay.
Feinberg, Leslie. (1997) Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodham. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kay, Jackie. (2000) Trumpet. New York: Vintage.
Leopold, Aldo. (1966) Sand County Almanac. United States: Ballantine Books.Woolf, Virginia. (1984) A Room of One’s Own. London: Granada Publish
Copyright 2021 Joe Kadi
Joe Kadi lives in the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda. The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. A disabled trans man, he is part of the SWANA (South West Asian and North African) community, and writes regularly for Mizna: A Journal for Arab Americans. He teaches in the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, University of Calgary.