Sir, Can You Help Me With This?

Before Tom Forrister transitioned to male, no one asked him to fix a broken car or a jammed printer. Now he’s the go-to guy.

I’m in the computer lab on campus, absorbed in a project. I don’t notice the pretty commuter student ask me a question until she’s practically in my lap.

When I look up, I realize I’m the only guy in the lab.

“Do you know anything about computers?” she says, her voice rising in a flirtatious lilt before her smile turns into a slight pout. “My paper won’t print.”

I glance to my left. The woman next to me seems to know her way around a computer, typing away furiously at complicated Java code that to my eyes reads as a migraine-inducing page of scrambled symbols. Another young woman, far down the row of machines, looks like she works here. She is busy helping another student.

I slide back in my chair. “I’ll do what I can, but there are probably people here who know more about this stuff than I do.” She flashes a wry smile, like she doesn’t believe me. She has every confidence that I, the only male in the room, can solve her printer problem.

This is not the first time I’ve been singled out since transitioning. It even happens with people who knew me before and after the physical changes began to take effect. As a young woman, coworkers and friends never asked for my advice on anything mechanical or technology-related.

After I began to appear more masculine, these same friends suddenly started requesting my assistance in many areas in the field of “man jobs:” car trouble, broken copy machine, wiring lighting in an apartment, even plumbing.

♦♦♦

I am still the same person inside, with the same skills and abilities as before, but society’s expectations have dramatically changed based on my “new” gender. It’s an adjustment, to say the least.

One’s gender role and gender identity are not the same thing, but neither are the two mutually exclusive. The more I relate to the world as Tom, and the more testosterone works on my body, the more I realize how the concept of gender is wrapped up in social and biological factors that I cannot easily separate.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I am beginning to realize how some social biases have arisen from biological differences, and how some are just plain condescending toward both genders. I celebrate our general differences, but I also believe that it comes down to having respect for each other on an individual basis.

I get, for example, helping out with lifting heavy objects overhead. I was pretty strong for a woman, but my upper body strength has increased tremendously since my carefully monitored levels of testosterone have had time to affect my musculature. But when it comes to an understanding of mechanics, I’m still as clueless as ever.

♦♦♦

I can’t deny that testosterone has changed my behavior. I used to cry to let my rage out. Now, the tears rarely come, even when I’m sad. I am more assertive, but in control. I channel my anger and aggression into running and weight lifting, into creative projects that set me free from pain. I go for long drives and take more risks on the road. I’m less likely to ask for directions.

I process information differently; I’ve never been much of a talker, but now it’s a little harder to verbalize my thoughts. At the same time I can concentrate better on the conversation because I’m fully in the moment—I used to feel a constant, nagging tug that something was wrong, and I was never totally present.

When I was viewed as female, people thought I was bitchy and standoffish because I communicated too stoically. Now, even though my conversation skills haven’t really changed, women note how chatty I am for a guy and say that I’m such a good listener.

Men now feel free to joke with me at my expense, but they respect that I can both dish it and take it. We bond.

Quite literally, I have toughened up. My pain threshold has increased. My skin is rougher, tougher, less sensitive. Before T I couldn’t tell the difference, but now when I touch my wife’s arm and then my own I’m amazed at how smooth and soft her skin is.

Taken individually, these physiological and behavioral changes may seem insignificant—but together they have fundamentally changed my presence in the world.  For the first time, I don’t fear walking alone at night.

The fear of being attacked and raped never left me when I was perceived as a woman. I was always aware of the possible danger, crossing the street when a stranger walked by, having my keys and mace ready while I made my way to my destination as quickly as possible.

Now I feel safer, because I am not seen as a rape target. I size other guys up, thinking, Yeah, I could take him. But I also have to watch my own body language as a man among women. If I’m not conscious about my stance, I can appear threatening. Women might cross the street to avoid me.

♦♦♦

Despite all the changes that I’ve experienced, T hasn’t completely altered who I am. I’m not a techno wizard. (My wife is the tech geek). I don’t turn into the Hulk when I’m angry. I haven’t gained an interest in sports. I’m strong and confident, but I will always be that artsy guy.

And I’ve learned that being open to learning, trying to fix things to empower myself, and helping others is one of the manliest things I can do.

Which is why, even though I bristle at the request when I know she’s only asking because I’m male, I help the female commuter student with her printer connectivity problem. Even if it means reading the user’s manual. As a last resort, of course.

Tom Forrister is a regular contributor to The Good Men Project Magazine. Want to know when his next piece comes out? Sign up for our email mailing list.

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About Tom Forrister

Tom Forrister is a student, writer, and Georgia native who now resides in Massachusetts with his wife and ball pythons. When not writing, he enjoys singing, weight training, and exploring New England's nooks and crannies with his trusty video camera.

Comments

  1. Accepted or redirected male, it’s always good to see maleness defined as fixing something (eventually) rather than breaking it with impunity.

  2. Tom, I’m a Jezebel reader who came across this cross-posted there. I loved the insights about issues I never thought about. It really caused me to examine our assumptions of men and women. I just read one of your previous posts about shaving. I want to thank you for sharing your story so eloquently and honestly and a great site like Good Men Project. I’ll be following you regularly now.

    • Tom Forrister says:

      Jennifer, thanks! The experiences are certainly eye-opening, often posing more questions than answers about gender assumptions. Glad you like the column!

    • Well, hello, fellow Jezzie. I want to second that. I have a lifelong male to female trans friend, as wll as a progressive, and not particularly traditional male fiance.

      I actually hear more complaints from my fiance about this. He remembers when he worked retail and was always asked to do the work that required lifting, etc. often without help if he was the only guy in the store at the time. He’s a strong guy, but he’s not huge or anything.

      I also remember my time in retail. I was always very athletic, and I used to rock climb 4 days a week, so I was pretty burly under my skinny exterior. I’d always help move boxes of tiles, etc., at the flooring store I worked at. Whenever I did that, I’d always get a call from the boss, telling me to quit doing heavy lifting because I was “too tiny for that,” but meanwhile, my coworkers were upper-middle aged dudes who were very out of shape salesmen. If anything, I was probably the most appropriate choice to lift those boxes, given I had no history of slipped discs like they did.

      It is funny how expectations are placed on people based on gender. I find that if we forget to send someone a Christmas card (oops), even if it’s the fiance’s friend and not so much my own, I’m the one who gets the dirty looks. If a friend is moving, he’s expected to help. A friend (and now our landlord, too) recently renovated the apartment we live in, before we moved in. He was always willing to accept my fiance’s help with renovations, despite the fiance not having any knowledge of …any of that handy, manly stuff. The funny thing is, he always refused my offers to help, despite the fact I’ve been part of erecting more than one building, I know my way around a workshop (thanks, dad!) and wound up fixing up all kinds of problems in the building after we moved in (a lot of folks just can’t get the hang of mitre cuts).

  3. Fantastic! Beautifully written and full of sense and sensitivity. I grew up in Massachusetts and have lived in San Francisco for 25 years. (and my brother has ball pythons!) And so I hope you find the acceptance you deserve there (as opposed to here where everything goes!) A very young boy who shares the same music teacher as my teenager, is now transitioning to being a girl. They are thwarting hormones now before puberty. Truthfully? She really does seem to be a girl already. As if she’s found the skin she belongs in. I’m glad that you have found yours as well and can ponder for us the approaches to gender that most of us will always stereotype but never really know.

    I’d love to read more of your story. Thank you for sharing.

  4. damn, Tom — proud to know you!

  5. I have to say, it is great to hear this from the other side of the fence. As a woman I am never expected to carry anything heavy, have knowledge nor ability to fix anything and in an odd realization I do walk to the car with my keys in hand while staying alert for predators. And listening to your perspectives on how the perceptions of others changes as we change is genuinely fascinating to me… nice to meet you, sir :)

  6. Tom Matlack says:

    Great insight from a unique perspective. One of the things I have always tried consciously to do is play the game the other direction. I am 6′ 3″ 225 pound straight as an arrow looking guy. But I often test friends and acquaintances by play acting as gay and even a more sensitive female. It’s not that I am not really like that at all, I just go over the top to see how people respond. I am fascinated by the boundaries we create artificially between the genders, and the ones that are truly hard-wired into us with little we can do about it.
    Thank you for sharing your story here. We all need to hear it.

  7. Tom, why did you change? You were a pretty woman! The only people who elect to get transgender surgery are feminine males and masculine females because they feel discriminated against as an inferior member of their biological sex. You looked great as a woman!

    • How does pretty impact which gender you feel you should have been born into? And also, how does ugly = inferior? Your logic baffles me.

    • The sheer amount of misinformedness in your comment is appalling. I’d advise you to take a class or read a book on gender theory before commenting on something like this again.

    • Katherine says:

      Funny, I once had a stage where I considered transitioning because I was treated as an inferior member of my species based on my gender, despite (or perhaps compounded by) people telling me that I was pretty.

      However as I matured I realised that that wasn’t me.

    • Other than the amazing hurtfulness of this comment, all I can say is LOL. I’m pretty damn butch and I have not the slightest desire to transition. A friend of mine transitioned to female and she is also butch. There was nothing much girly about her before she transitioned and not much after. I know too many fabulous camp FTMs to count.

      So, yeah, stick your assumptions up your jumper. You might get some use out of them then.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Oh wow, if that was trolling: Good work. If not, you should probably read up a little on GID before posting stuff like this.

    • I’m not sure if you intended your comment to be offensive, and I don’t really care. It /was/ hurtful and offensive. As someone who was born into a body that caused other people to read me as female, I can’t count the number of times well-intentioned relatives and friends informed me that I was “too pretty” and “too feminine” to be a man; each time someone said it, it hurt because it was an invalidation of my sense of self, and a denial of the life I wanted for myself.

      Not only is your comment empirically incorrect (hi, I’m a femme queer genderqueer transguy; I like glitter, dress in drag, and wear make up nearly every day. Also, I’m super hot, just so we’re clear.), but it also suggests that a person’s worth is determined by their attractiveness** and/or (as you conflate the two) gender expression (i.e. when you say “inferior member of their biological sex”). Equally troubling, the tone of your comment (“you looked great as a woman”) reduces female bodies, in particular, to their appearance.

      So, if you weren’t trolling, I suggest you educate yourself before you participate in any further discussions relating to trans* people, gender, and also women. If you are trolling, I’d suggest you stop, because that’s just an a-hole thing to do. Your comment was cissexist, misogynistic and ignorant and therefore potentially triggering. If you don’t know what I mean by ‘triggering’, please educate yourself on that as well before talking to other human beings.

      **aka socially re-enforced and reproduced beauty standards that are really quite arbitrary.

    • I’m sure you would know more about this than anyone who has experienced it…

    • Is this a joke? Were you trying to be rude? Or are you just very stupid?

  8. Hi Tom,

    Very interesting story. A few years ago I fund myself as the only guy on a ‘Gender. Identity and Media Practice’ course. I found it odd, that even on an enlightened course such as this, that if ever the computers didn’t work, the light went out, a table needed moving – I was the person to ask. I raised this a few times in the class and was told that it was because I was ‘bigger’ (I suppose in ref to the table moving, light bulb changing) when in fact i am quiet a slight guy, and many of the women on the course were far more sporty that I, and some taller.

    Still – I wonder when these attitudes will change…

  9. Interesting article. Although, I find it odd that you start out by telling us how differently you are perceived and treated these days, but when you notice changes in your own behaviour you attribute it to hormones.

    • Tom Forrister says:

      The point is, it’s a combination between hormonal changes and socialization. As I say in the essay, “…the concept of gender is wrapped up in social and biological factors that I cannot easily separate.”

  10. My FTM brother has noticed a lot of the same things. I find the observations of trans people really fascinating, since they get to see both sides of gender in a way that few of us ever will.

  11. Thank you for taking the time to give us your valuable insights.

    I wish you all the best.

  12. I’m right there with you, bud. I get a lot more requests for help, whether it’s IT aid or heavy lifting (although I’ve been in T for two years now, I have yet to notice much in the way of strengthening of muscles, which I blame more on fibromyalgia… but my endurance is impressive.) However, I’ve had to start carrying pepper spray, something I never dreamed of doing when presenting as female. Chalk it up to insecurity or whatever, but I was accosted in the men’s room of a fast-food restaurant for “squatting” on the toilet, sounding like a woman when I peed (I’m pre-op and had a VERY full bladder), and then after cussing the guy out, being called a woman yet again. Then as the guy left the restroom, he announced to the entire restaurant that there was a woman in the men’s room. He may not have known because he never clapped eyes on me and was obviously hopped up on something, but this is considered a hate crime in my state. I didn’t get a look at him, either, so I couldn’t finger him to the police (not that they would’ve done anything since this took place in a po-dunk blue-collar suburb full of rednecks.) Since then, I’ve been paranoid about restroom use and have been carrying pepper spray. I’m only 5’4″ and as I mentioned above, have fibromyalgia, so I can’t exactly “take him” even in self-defense. I’d likely wind up in the hospital, even if I won.

    • Tom Forrister says:

      Yikes. I’m pre-op lower surgery too (not sure if I’ll ever get it), but so far I have been fortunate in restrooms. I like to think that most men aren’t obssessed with the way another man urinates. In other countries a lot of men sit down to pee, so this standing to pee idea is cultural as well. The encounter with that guy would be enough for me to carry around pepper spray too. Do what it takes to be safe.

      • In other countries… must be a Canadian thing, then. ;) Most of the men I know (cis, trans, whatever-bodied-and-abled,) sit to pee because they’re just not that excited about cleaning pee spray from everything.

        I often find it interesting how the most personally insecure people may be insecure because they disapprove of themselves, yet they insist on the general population mirroring their behaviour in order to be considered behaving properly (does that make sense?)

  13. This is a very interesting article to me as a trans woman navigating transition in the workplace and how the perception of me is beginning to change.

  14. As a technically semi-adept straight female in Scandinavia (which is one of the most gender-equal regions in the world) I often get asked by men whether I know how to fix a paper-jammed printer, as well as other light technical challenges. Men generally don’t open doors for us, either. We’re seen as perfectly capable of opening them ourselves. It doesn’t seem to faze men all that much to ask us for help or advice, either.

    When I’m in the US I’m struck by how much more fixed the gender roles appear to be there. I wonder why that is. Does anyone have any theories on this?

    • As an American woman, I am baffled by this too. I am perfectly happy to open my own doors, lift my own boxes (unless they’re too heavy, and then I ask for _help_) and change my own lightbulbs. If I can do it, I should do it for myself, I am not a child and I am not weak.

      I also expect to pay for dinner on half of my dates, tho my boyfriend does make almost twice what I do. My friends were SO shocked when I mentioned this at a party. They were all of the opinion that he should pay for my dinner, regardless. But none of them could really convince me why that should be so, since I am gainfully employed.

      It’s as tho the women’s movement never really took hold, which makes me sad!

      • Kitti, I open doors for men and women alike. Not because I don’t think they can do it, but to do something good for a fellow human. I have twin daughters and I’ll be sure that they know how to change oil or a flat, fix a door knob, work with tools and other “guy” things. My Son is going to have to learn how to do his own laundry, iron it, run a sewing machine and cook something other than mac and cheese or PB&J.

  15. That is fascinating!

    Since you mentioned the need to be aware of your stance for fear that women will feel the need to cross the street, I wonder if that has actually happened, and how it felt. I’m a woman who behaves in the way you described when walking alone at night, and I often cross the street even if the man walking near me doesn’t seem threatening, just “better safe than sorry”. Do you find that you are offended or hurt when that happens? Do you have some desire to say, “No, it’s okay. I know how you feel!” My husband has said before that he feels guilty when women appear to be frightened or concerned by his presence.

  16. Andrew Watkins says:

    I stumbled across this article when I saw it in the sidebar for another goodmenproject post and I thought it might be interesting.

    Wow.

    I’ve often wondered how much of being “male” or “manly” was societal and how much came with the equipment. Reading your story here gives me a unique insight into such things, I don’t seek out to read much from people who are TG and perhaps that’s something I need to remedy. I mean obviously the fixing things aspect is at least partially societal, but it’s interesting to read that you found yourself more aggressive and prone to risk behavior. Sure, we’ve long connected that with Testosterone, but the mental aspects are interesting too. The difficulty verbalizing your thoughts, the way you handle your emotions, etc… Very interesting.

  17. Tom, are you planning any more articles soon? I find TransGuy’s insights into masculinity/s, its biological and social components fascinating

  18. This has been my experience exactly since starting a new job and being consistently read as male. Well written Bro!

  19. Here’s a well-written article where Natalie writes about similar themes from the perspective of a transwoman: http://skepchick.org/2011/12/sacrificing-privilege/

  20. DavidByron says:

    Seems like there’s twenty articles by trans women for one by a guy.
    So please write twenty times as much.

    BTW, how would you feel if you discovered that your testosterone shots were a placebo?

  21. Thank you for sharing your experiences; without meaning to sound impersonal, the perspectives of trans-folk always give invaluable insight into gender issues.

    “I get, for example, helping out with lifting heavy objects overhead. I was pretty strong for a woman, but my upper body strength has increased tremendously since my carefully monitored levels of testosterone have had time to affect my musculature. But when it comes to an understanding of mechanics, I’m still as clueless as ever.”

    Do you think if you’d been subjected to testosterone your whole life, your brain might have turned out differently? There is a lot of evidence that the essential structure of the brain slows down drastically after childhood, meaning unless you transitioned very early in life you might be stuck with the same brain you’ve always had, no matter your androgen levels now. There is some evidence to link in-vitrio testosterone levels to masculine traits in girls, including such things as autism prevalance (and by extension technical ability). It’s very much an unanswered question in science, but I don’t think your experiences really detract from the idea that men and women’s brains might be (on average – java girl and other outliers aside) different. If there are average mental differences in skills and interests, then the young woman who assumed you would be the best person to ask for technical assistance might have been making a statistically sound assumption.

    “I process information differently; I’ve never been much of a talker, but now it’s a little harder to verbalize my thoughts.”

    Continuing from my previous paragraph, imagine how a lifetime of these differences might have shaped your interests and therefore the skills you’d have developed.

    “Now I feel safer, because I am not seen as a rape target. I size other guys up, thinking, Yeah, I could take him. But I also have to watch my own body language as a man among women. If I’m not conscious about my stance, I can appear threatening. Women might cross the street to avoid me.”

    I’m sure you’re aware that as a man, you’re around twice as likely to be the victim of a violent assault during your life than if you had remained a woman. And if you do ever get attacked, people will automatically assume that you had provoked the attack or that you could have protected yourself. Women often complain about victim blaming and society not having sufficient regard for their welfare; but as you might be realising already, there is a whole other universe of victim-blaming and callousness experienced by men which most of us have had a lifetime of getting used to. Your skin is thick for a reason. Tread carefully.

    • The brain might develop quite a bit during early childhood, but it’s not officially finished developing until one’s early 20s. Plus, the brain is amazingly plastic. It’s capable of (what I think is) incredible change in structure and organization, if people who’ve quite literally had half their brains removed are anything to go by. There’ve also been studies showing that pre-hormone, pre-everything FtM people’s brains match those of cis (non-trans*) guys in layout. I’m forgetting the specifics, but it’s fairly easy to find on the web.

  22. Wow, this is so fascinating. What an amazing perspective on our cultural gender expectations. Really poignant as a woman to hear how you shared the common daily worry about rape and assault that so many of us women live with daily … and yet now you don’t. Just simply being perceived as “man” makes you instantly safer.

    I’m going to be thinking about this article for awhile, Tom. Thank you so much for sharing it. I really look forward to reading future pieces by you. Your unique perspective is a gift to those of us truly trying to understand gender/human dynamics from as many angles as possible. Great piece! :)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] interesting look at gender roles from the perspective of an FTM transgendered man.  Very revealing, not only about the way we treat others based on our perception of their gender, [...]

  2. [...] Shared Sir, can you help me with this?. [...]

  3. [...] Sir, Can You Help Me With This?: a transman comments on becoming a goto guy: This is not the first time I’ve been singled out since transitioning. It even happens with people who knew me before and after the physical changes began to take effect. As a young woman, coworkers and friends never asked for my advice on anything mechanical or technology-related. [...]

  4. [...] of what Madison Avenue marketers deem guy-appropriate. Our most-read stories (like the ones here, here, here, and here) have done just that, proving that the common conceptions of what guys will read [...]

  5. [...] The Good Men Project has some interesting articles, including some by trans* guys. Here’s one by Tom Forrister on learning how to shave, and another of his about always being asked to fix things now he is a guy. [...]

  6. [...] 2) Sir, Can You Help Me With This?, by Tom Forrister [...]

  7. [...] “Sir, Can You Help Me With This?” by Tom Forrister [...]

  8. [...] Transitioning can also be difficult for the individual, whether or not he or she chooses to have surgical procedures.  Reactions to the news that a person is transgendered can range from well-meaning but ignorant questions to outright cruelty, transphobia, and hatefulness.  As a person begins to live as his or her true gender, there is peacefulness to that, but society responds differently to men than to women.  My friend Tom wrote a beautiful article about how he was treated differently after transitioning. [...]

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