Circumgender:, or Why Do I Identify As An Afab Trans Woman?

Afabs saying ‘it’s funny because I kind of identify as a trans woman?’ are routine on social media and in transmasculine spaces. For a while, I’ve been meaning to write up some thoughts on why this happens, as a guide for people in this stage of life to start pulling themselves through it and out the other side.

Transition is scary and gender is weird. This pattern occurs so often because it’s created by real dynamics in our culture. it’s also wildly upsetting to actual trans women, for reasons that’ll become clear as I write (if they aren’t already)

Identifying as a trans woman when you are in no sense CAMAB is usefully nonsensical - in other words, it’s a clue to the presence of a dissatisfaction, of desires that feel impossible, of contradictions which are unresolved. it’s usually telling you about something you need to do, or making you aware of a knot that needs untangling. The sooner you can reframe it as some kind of action, or at least some other kind of identity, the better - not just for the sake of the trans women in our community (though that’s not unimportant*!), but because you’ll have learned more about where you need to be next. Getting out of the doldrums of transition and into a real wind is gender’s delight.

So - gently - let’s talk about it. The reader I imagine for this essay is a transmasculine person who’s feeling this kind of urge, wants to figure out what’s going on, and is open to trying something else. You’re not invalid - I have no intention to shame, as it does no good. We’re all gender-hurt people. Buut we can still explore where our feelings and ideas come from, as a precursor to choosing to experiment with alternatives. In fact, you can still express every part of what you’re expressing now, but in ways that are happier and more full - and less uncomfy for your allies. In this essay, part of the purpose I'm going to encourage you to try

Transfeminine readers are welcome, but should be aware we’re describing transmisogynist tropes very explicitly, to draw clear attention to them.

Each of the posts below posits a factor, and also has a solution for an alternative. You may chime with some, all, or none of them!

Aside from being interpersonally irritating, maintaining this kind of circumgender FtMtF identity space does cause real problems. This includes

'Trans woman' is, for want of a better description, a term relating to your position in social power - making afab-but-transfems the Rachel Dolezals of gender.

⒈ Historically, (facimiles of) trans women have been hyperrepresented in media so your first encounter with the concept of transition, and with the feeling of ‘maybe i’m a person like that’, will probably be with trans women; and things can get a bit tangled in yr brain, having imprinted on transfemininity like a baby duck.

(This is - perhaps! - less true now than it was five years ago.)

Seek out more representations of trans men or transmasculinity!

⒉ Desire to transition mixed with fear of what you’re transitioning into, or fear of the process of transition.

‘If only I could resolve this increasingly loud urge to transition,’ one thinks, ‘by becoming a woman - something I already know how to do, and risk nothing by doing.’

Or, ‘I know I am not a woman right now, but society is telling me i need to become one - who else knows accomplishes such a feat?’

Or, alternatively, ‘if only i loved being a woman the way trans women loved being women - I’d love to be a woman like that’.

Alas, little one, such things cannot be.

Take courage. Others have been where you are, and survived and triumphed. The next step is to really hear what your brain’s saying:

‘i need to transition’ and ‘i am not a woman’ and ‘society is putting me under pressure to be a woman’ and ‘i do not love being a woman’ and, indeed, ‘i am afraid’.

Only by hearing yourself can you process it and get through.

⒊ I have a theory that mass-media depictions of trans women are - paradoxically - quite good representations of the trans man experience.

Trans women do not like these representations because they are a form of erasure: displacing authentic and compassionate texts by women about their own lives, with a cis fantasy which is misleading, dehumanising, and a key component causing real-world violence. The template, in short, is: ‘a man, who is too much like a woman [tragic/heroic/disgusting/brave/outrageous/abject - delete according to the mood of the piece]’

Because these depictions are transmisogynist, they are always about men. Trans women are not men, but we are. Like all queer people, we read between the lines of mass culture and read ourselves into texts where we are not. ‘A man, failing at being a man because he is so feminine, but does he not have a certain kind of heroic fragile beauty?’ is an appealing take on the transmasculine condition. And it’s far better than cis fantasy texts describing us, as some kind of lesbian who went too far. And often enough, you come across trans women who feel intimately close to the lesbian stereotype of ‘a woman, but somehow a failed woman - a woman who’s bad at being a woman in the way society expects and demands’ - too mannish, but in a punk way. They’re certainly getting more out of that than I am!

The same is true of autogynephilia - a profoundly dehumanising and transmisogynist psychological concept which pathologises and demonises lesbian trans women’s sexuality. It theorises that lesbian trans women are straight men who are attracted to the fantasy of themselves as a woman, contradicting everything trans women have ever said about themselves. As a trans man, however, it’s not a bad description of my sexuality. I am a man, who in some way eroticises my own body as a female body and being treated as a woman in the bedroom. Due to British trans healthcare neglect, I have knowingly been a man with a womanly body for seven years. Getting laid in that time requires a strange process of negotiation between the fantasy and the real, and one of the most challenging parts of my transition so far has been the difficulty of experiencing the sudden absence of this dream-woman who was always in the room with us.

One has to have a care here because trans women are our allies and sisters, and their discomfort with abusive media targeting them must come as a higher priority than our flailing attempts to feel seen. I am not seriously suggesting anyone reclaim autogynephilia; the master’s tools are not even good for melting down for an art piece. But the purpose of this article is to give some pointers to people wondering ‘why am i like this, what’s going on?’.

Try and be very considerate. Writing or creating the works you want to see about yourself - or seeking out works by trans men - is a better choice. I actually don’t think that being into Rocky Horror or w/e is the end of the world - whatever gets you through the day - but we survive through solidarity with those in the struggle alongside us, which does mean putting your media preferences aside and not making it your whole persona.

Think about what appeals about the archetypes you’re drawn to - ‘flamboyant’ indicates your craving outness, ‘tragic’ that you want care and for someone to notice your pain, or for your hardship to be meaningful.

And they all mean you’re processing what it is to be a man who is sometimes like a woman. This, you can do while never making any reference to transfeminine people: it’s our experience, and we can just discuss it as such.

it’s worth keeping in mind that irl, being a trans woman has very little in common with these appealing representations - it’s just being a woman who gets picked on a lot. You’ve probably already tried that, and know you dislike it.

⒋ As a trans person, you crave and need representations of gender-diverse people for empowerment. However, dysphoria means it’s hard to get excited about your own representation. No closeted trans man wants to look like a trans man (if it comes at all, that courage and love comes with time).

Trans women can represent a ‘safe’ middle-stage fantasy, where you can get excited about transness but without needing to reckon with your own body. LARPing transfem embodiment/culture can be a substitute for engaging with the difficulty of looking at your own self

You know what I’m gonna say. You’ve gotta transition. I promise there is a future in which you are excited about your own transness (or you can transition far enough to get out of an uncomfy-in-betweenstage). I like Jules Ruiz’ zines, as one example, of a trans artist who pulls out the gorgeousness of trans people in his artwork.

⒌ transfemme culture/iconography/identities are all wrapped up in a broader queer dude culture (the same way that transmasc and butch dyke cultures can overlap). Cis popular culture - and cis gay cultures as well - have typically grouped GNC people with their asabs. That is, any afab person - no matter how far masc of center or even male-identifying - is essentially, ultimately, part of a lesbian culture, and vice versa.

The tricky part is that the tradition makes it true: GNC gay or gay+trans people do find authentic self-expression and a home among spaces of either gender (reflecting, perhaps, the reality that nonbinary expressions and possibilities are always contained by binary social norms, even in LGBT communities working to overcome this).

And so there are gay men, who are essentially cis or cis-identifying, who are drag queens, femboys, nelly, or even transitioning a lil bit while feeling the cis gay man community is still the right niche for them. There’s also future transfeminine people, experimenting with their gender in this context, as a phase they will later pass through. And there’s transfeminine people who don’t want any thing to do with that culture, and never want to be associated with it in any way - doing similar kinds of genders, but in straight or lesbian contexts instead.

If you’re the sort of transmasc person who’s gay for men - or feel at home as ’man, but sort of feminine with it’ queer culture - then these archetypes will be as appealing to you as they are to cis- or (cis-ish) men.

it’s a tough situation because categories are fluid; you don’t want to cisframe historic people who almost certainly were gendercomplicated; but you do live in a society and draw strength from what’s gone before. For years I articulated this like ’of course, I know many of these people historically were probably transfeminine, but - for example - I’d like to be like Quentin Crisp’. Crisp has, of course, since come out as trans - saying in an interview she would have liked to live as a trans woman, had she been able to find that possibility. The politics are identical to tensions around the trans-butch cusp, and the answer is the same too: that these two things can coexist, overlapping in some people but distinct in others.

it’s worth mentioning also that i know a couple of trans women who identify as "kinda transmasc" and I know exactly where they’re coming from, because i’m having the same experience in the opposite direction. I know exactly what aesthetic and social history they’re trying to position themselves in: it makes a lot of sense. You’re trying to figure out your gender, your sexuality, and your transness in a way that has a "history", like you’re not the first or only one. Trans women can experience themselves as ‘girls who are boyish’, and thus feel like they’re intertwined with that butch-transmasc-lesbian/genderqueer cusp thing. I know one person who I am pretty sure identifies as ’AFAB butch dyke who’s now detrans’, perhaps conceptualising her own ’time on T’ as a pre-transition trans woman as politically-aesthetically-emotionally similar to that of someone who used to take T voluntarily; and more than one queer trans woman who’s into binders, again as a politico-aesthetic-emotional signifier of doing that genderqueer-but-also-a-girl thing. Who better than trans women, really, to intuitively get the lesbian history of being both women but also outside of it as well, to positively connect their own ’not allowed to be a woman’ experience with a lesbian one. To make it clear, I think all this is punk as fuck, and I have no desire to gatekeep the walls of transmasculinity. I feel positive about that because I’ve never felt like those lesbian-adjacent genders has anything to do with me as a man, however much some theorists and historians try to group us together (and howevermuch those genders DO overlap for others)

so, in part, it’s about trying to avoid creating new binaries or new "ownerships" over social genders based in ASABs. And we can maybe understand these genderqueerings as new genders that anyone can transition into. Trans men can can experience themselves as "men who are feminine", and see themselves in nellies and queens. And, very similarly, we are seen as ’not really men’ by virtue of being trans, so regardless of who we date, have a natural affinity with cis queer men who are treated likewise.

That’s a lot of words to say ’men can be feminine’.

But this feeling points also to alienation from gay cultures. All gay people need to feel seen by their fellows to be whole and, as a trans person, you may feel adrift without it. Being a camp fem gay is in part, natural for some, but also in part a visibility and an outness and a being seen for who you are. You might not even be destined to be that camp as a man, but the transcloset is a profound scream of invisibility and a longing to be any kind of seen at all. If you’re early in transition, you might feel painfully shut out from a style of queerness you crave (and feel complicated about the kinds of space you can access, and how people interpret your queer aesthetic).

Know that trans men can, and do, find homes within gay communities; if you’re not ready to seek it out, then i recommend reading books, histories, and art by other queer men as a stopgap, as well as seeking out male archetypes doing this kind of thing - not transfeminine ones.

And try to depathologise your own desires for gender expression: lots of little gay boys have been here, worrying about ’why’ they want to be feminine, worrying that being a feminine man makes them bad, and the answer is a shrug - fuck theory, just do it.

⒍ The trans umbrella (rightly) includes many manifestations of gendernonconformity. For political reasons, it’s good to resist a clear TS/TV division - or, trans vs nonbinary, or TG vs TS, or trans vs trans*...the terminology changes depending on what age you are, but the underlying tension is between ’people who transition and want to be taken very seriously in a deeply material, inner core, always been essentially a man, this is my gender at the shops and in the bathtub’ transitions and ’putting on a costume, for political, emotional, or aesthetic purposes’ transitions.

For political reasons, it’s best to say ’all these people are trans, the same kind of trans’. To do otherwise creates division, gender policing, tension, assumptions, exclusion, and bad stuff that gets us nowhere. However, at the same time, there is some reality to these separations, albeit one that’s worth resisting taking too seriously: when I describe them, you know the two types without needing me to explain in great detail.

I mention this, because for people with this kind of circumgender urge, what we’re doing is cribbing from both traditions in an incoherent way. We’re trying to articulate "I’m AFAB and transitioning to M and want to be taken utterly seriously as a person of that gender, as if I’d been born and raised in that gender" - i.e. Classic Transsexual - and additionally wanting to do the gender umbrella bit where you’re a nelly femboy and experiencing a tension and incongruity and frisson with your other gender - i.e. Transvestite Self Expression.

This is not how you’re supposed to do it. The binary insists on binary transitions - that is, if you absolutely must transition, then butchness, trans men and drag kings are all in the same kind of Zone, variants on the same extreme, so as not to shock the binary more than necessary. You can go from one side to the other, but the sides must stay real - no zig-zagging across or doing loopdeloops. Your transvestism and transsexuality is expected to ’line up’ in predictable ways. But expecting that is just another way of invalidating the legitimacy of trans genders. Nobody expects cis men to become drag kings - if I’m a man the same way other men are men, then of course it’s intuitive to me to feel that’s where I start in my gender expression.

I want to emphasise that - you don’t necesarily have to take this way of articulating gender/transition seriously; i’m not sure i’ve ever used the term ’classic transsexual’ before and hope never to again. But in this context, i hope you know what I’m sort of pointing at.

Part of this is, again, about avoiding facing your transmasculinity.

Being trans means visible gender tension is part of my emotional-social experience that I want to express. But resolving my dysphoria means - on some level - passing as a man unambiguously. Expressing my transness through feather boas and lingere is low stakes, because it’s shallow and daft and I can be in on the joke, whereas if I was to fail at being a man that conspicously I would curl up and die.

it’s worth bearing that in mind because...a lot of the time...the tranny aesthetics this pulls from are visions of real people who were/are desperate to be beautiful as women - the true courage of visibility is not merely being outrageous enough to be looked at, but sharing what’s vulnerable and sincere. & that the energy of someone taking their best shot in the face of profound hostility is very different from someone being bad at something deliberately, because you can only see the superficial qualities of the act.

You may not be ready to go about tits out. But you should reflect on what doing that would feel like, because that’s your equivalent. & there really is no harm in being a man and also crossdressing, going out en femme or doing drag, so do it if you like; but hold this awareness about the political significance of gender-play. It can be liberationary to futz up the binary in that way - it’ll certainly be more fun - but you might also be cheating yourself of something important if you make that your sole gesture of trans visibility.

Be transmasculine where people can see (and if you can’t, perhaps don’t take transfemininity so lightly).

⒎ Envy of trans women’s ’masculine features’ being processed in inappropriate ways - "I have boobs but i wish i had boobs and a cock", or, "of course *I’m* not trans, I am a woman, I just wish I was a woman with...broader shoulders and a more angular face and access to male social spaces".

For obvious reasons, this is extremely uncomfortable and you should never disclose it to trans women in your life.

You want to physically transition.

Regardless of what gender identity you may end up in or what your social expression is or what you tell other people about it, you want hormones, surgery, or both.

If you’re not ready to contemplate a transmasculine identity, you can be where you are for now: you’re an afab person, who identifies as a woman and lives socially as a woman, and you also want better cheekbones and a dick. That’s fine, & you should go for it.

⒏ if you’ve followed trans women online for more than five minutes, you’ll have encountered them grumbling about how transmascs are assholes. If you’ve tried to been in a transmasc-heavy culture and treated unkindly, this will ring as very true, and you’re going to feel safer surrounding yourself with transgirl culture instead.

They’re not all like that.

Try and come up with a mental list of characteristics that toxic people/spaces have, and when you encounter new people, assess them against it. The aesthetic of transmasculinity might be a bit of a trigger right now, but that’s just superficial & you know it - it’s personality characteristics like, I don’t know, ’bad faith manipulation of social justice language for attention and gain’, ’extremely high drama’, ’bullies people’ or ’aspiring rapist’.

& don’t stop listening to and connecting with trans women who also meet your criteria for cool people to be around, because your life and politics will be richer for it. The crummy reality of being trans is that, if you’re to transition, you are going to need your bros to clue you in to what finasteride is and which surgeons actually know their stuff.

it’s also possible you’re feeling this way - not because any trans man has done something awful to you - but because you do not want to be trans and are on the run from anything reminding you of it. Be brave.

⒐ You’re nonbinary. Available transmasculine archetypes aren’t doing to for you, but you are feeling Something nontheless that’s finding expression in tangled ways.

Get back to basics of what nonbinary is: any kind of self-expression that is a mismatch in binary society.

You might be struggling because you don’t lookfeelsense like the available nonbinary archetypes around you. Express it in a long sentence if you don’t have access to a single snappy identity term yet. If you feel transfeminine, it might include something like There are parts of being a woman i connect to, but also parts i feel outside of - I don’t exactly want to be seen as a cis woman, but I know I’m not a Trans Man or even especially masc

it goes without saying that trying to actually identify yourself as transfeminine or circumgender or FtMtF or w/e is a bad look, and will cause needless friction. There are loads of nonbinary labels, so if you want one pick one that isn’t that, or make up a new one.

⒑ Dysphoria, expressing itself as proper-ass unambiguous transmisogyny. A core component of cissexism is that trans people’s genders are less authentic, less body-deep than those of cis people. You may be feeling ’I am a woman the same way as a trans woman is a woman’ and be meaning ’I’m not a woman - it’s an illusion, a mirage, a thing which feels fake’.

For obvious reasons, this is extremely uncomfortable and you should never disclose it under any circumstances, and also work on that.


⒒ You like being femme, and want to continue doing so. Any kind of transness you can imagine yourself feels like becoming more man, more masc, more male-dressing, which doesn’t look anywhere near as lovely as transitioning to female.

Gender is bullshit, as you well know, so just do that & leave trans women out of it. Get a hormone prescription AND a slinky dressing gown.

You don’t have to stop doing anything you do now; but there’s more options than you might imagine to do male clothing which is flowing, whimsical, romantic, bright, or playful. Transitioning further than you are now unlocks the freedom to discover this.

it’s also possible that you don’t like being femme. One might assume all trans men are former butches, at home in trousers with practical hair. This isn’t true: the highest of high femme is also a masc egg mood, because it’s female-as-costume - or, female as imagined by men in male gaze media which, as a closeted man, may also be the best YOU can imagine when looking to your own instincts and the world around you and trying to figure out how to pretend to be a woman correctly. Female costume means you can offload your horror of the body onto a love of corsets and push-up bras, to distract yourself from the reality that you really are shaped like that when the clothes come off.

Only transition is going to unpick this for you, really. It is - as they say - un voyage.

⒓ You’re british / This is just what happens when you force boys to grow up as girls

Barriers to trans healthcare are conversion therapy by the backdoor; unfortunately, while you cannot stop people desiring transness, you can very easily prevent them expressing it, and ensure they live in misery. Part of that misery is many, many, many hours to wallow in genderfeels without any way to take an action and move on. it’s an ideal petri dish for labyrinthine genders of the strangest and rarest vintage, a sort of Overlook hedge maze of the self. The only thing the NHS loves more than creating non-binary gender experiences is doing harm to non-binary identified people. You’ve had experiences cis boys haven’t - say, discovering how much nicer it is to wear skirts in the summer time, or that it’s great to knit - and perhaps you’re carrying that with you positively. But some of it’s more ambigous - habit, or stockholm syndrome, or fear of an undiscover’d country that puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.

it’s always just enough time to make a man who would have loved to be a man at 15 go missing in the pandimensional fractal-mirror-void and emerge with a boutique gender which comes with a reading list and footnotes on its footnotes, and despair.

my interest in this kind of identification went off like a lightbulb the moment I got on HRT, so if you have a problem with this essay, you can take it up with the NHS, for making simple genders tortuous and leaving us to curdle in an omlette of uncertainty and introspection until we perish or go mad.