Although there are occasionally some hostile or confrontational undertones involved, it is usually just an honest question. The questioner really wants to know. And the questioner is, invariably, a man.
I have a snarky reply that I never use in these situations, but that I like to keep on hand for my writing, which is: “It means never being asked that question, because you wouldn’t ask that question of a non-trans man.” Non-trans people are rarely expected to define their identity.
But my public answer is quite different, because the only thing “being a man” really means to me is being comfortable in my own skin and with who I am. I don’t imbue “being a man” with a lot of cultural stereotypes or expectations, both because I’m not interested in them and because I probably couldn’t live up to them, although I won’t deny that I’ve tried – and succeeded, on occasion – to carry out my culture’s expectations of manhood.
But I do ask non-trans men the same question, and when I do, I get a few of the cultural stereotypes – providing for my family, being physically or emotionally strong – but most of the answers seem to revolve around that all-important body part. “What does being a man mean to you?” It means having a penis.
For most guys, being a man is strongly associated with this particular appendage. While I understand where this comes from, it never quite makes sense to me to associate an inner identity with a body part. It’s like saying, “Being a man means having a nose.”
I know the difference between a penis and a nose (although for many of the guys I’ve been with, the nose was the more prominent of the two features), and I understand that a penis is used as a male identifier, while almost everyone has a nose. But if your inner sense of self depends on an appendage, what happens to you when something happens to that appendage?
If your nose is central to your identity, and it gets broken, does that mean you are broken? Most people would say no. But if your penis gets damaged or stops working altogether, does that mean that you are damaged or have stopped working altogether? A lot of guys might say yes.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on something that rarely follows orders anyway, has a nasty habit of letting you down when you need it most, and is so fragile that it can’t participate in competitive sports without a protective cup.
Don’t get me wrong – I like penises. They can be highly entertaining, sometimes cute, and tend to look good in designer briefs (often better than they do without them). But to base an identity on something so undependable and unpredictable is a huge psychological risk.
I honestly don’t know what being a man means to me, at least not in the sense of listing responsibilities or body parts. I know that it doesn’t mean having a penis – and for me, it can’t.
Luckily (or unfortunately), there aren’t that many people in a position to notice. Maybe if I had a better nose …
If you’re trans, what does being a man or a woman mean to you?