When I was eight years old, I was sitting at the piano with my family and playing what seemed like an inspired selection of notes. Zafar, my older brother and infuriatingly difficult to impress at three and a half, asked, “Where did you learn that?” He stubbornly denied my claim that I was joking when I told him that I had made it up. I was thrilled and outraged at the same time.
I wrote a lot of music as a kid. Before deciding that practicing scales would be more fun for me, I had taken some piano and guitar lessons. It just came to me. I could just sit down with an instrument and improvise or recreate a song I had heard on the radio, but I didn’t know how to read or write music, and I still don’t.
In a world that was otherwise stifling, music became one of the few ways I experienced freedom. I was raised in a chaotic, dysfunctional household. I was unquestionably queer and brown, which brought about a whole new set of problems, including bullying and shaming that was racist and anti-queer. I had been raped and sexually abused by multiple people by the time I was 22. I was the primary caregiver for my mother, whose cancer nearly claimed her life. My brother, my closest ally, passed away when he was 26 because I had developed a debilitating form of fibromyalgia, for which I had to drop out of university. Even though I no longer consider myself to be a victim, I do recognize that I am traumatized, which is an essential component of this narrative.
Music was my lifeline throughout all of that, enabling me to endure and comprehend emotions I could not express or comprehend otherwise.
I composed and recorded a song for my brother in 2008 when we learned that he had aggressive brain cancer that was terminal. I sang it at his funeral service a few months later. For 14 years, I didn’t write another song or play music seriously. That part of me seemed to die with him.
I got back into playing music about six months after I announced that I was transgender. Yes, it’s too direct: I literally regained my voice. I started letting out songs. I now perform and sing every day, write songs frequently, record them on my phone to keep them in mind, and plan gigs. Music has provided me with a sense of stability throughout the overwhelming process of reorienting my life away from playing the woman I had trained myself to be and toward my identity as a transmasculine nonbinary individual, just as it did when I was younger. It helps me understand things that I otherwise have trouble comprehending. It aids my recovery.
I had devised a strategy for medically transitioning, which included taking testosterone, or T, and then having top surgery, amid my newfound journey toward gender euphoria. After that, I learned how T affects your vocal cords. They become thicker, which lowers one’s voice. However, it can reduce your range of notes and weaken your singing voice; Some trans men have reported struggling to sing or not being able to sing at all during that first year when their voices break. Additionally, due to their thinner “female” vocal cords, people who are gendered female at birth have a lifetime of muscle memory. As the vocal fold composition changes, this makes it harder for transmasc folx to control their singing voices; It necessitates extensive retraining.
D’Lo, an American transmasc actor, writer, and comedian from Sri Lanka, waited many years to take T precisely for this reason. He stated, “I was known for these multicharacter shows in which I used different voices for each character.” I had more range with a voice that wasn’t fueled by testosterone and was more feminine, for lack of a better term. I could play men and women, young people, old people, and other characters. I knew I was going to let go of the magic I could offer in my very queer body because I liked it. And I still grieve that.” However, D’Lo, who began taking T in 2015, does not view grief as a sign of regret. If I hadn’t taken T and learned the lessons that it taught me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I believed I needed to be seen as a man to be taken seriously as a man.
Although responses to hormones are very individual, some of the changes that occur on T, such as muscle growth and increased sex drive, reverse when you stop taking it. However, the changes to your vocal cords cannot be undone. Taking T is the right decision for many transmasc men and women who perform with their voices; It is extremely intimate. However, the thought of not being able to sing at all or at all for a year while my body adjusted was too much for me to bear. Therefore, I chose not to take it at this time.
The choice was terrible. Having a deep voice was a big part of my belief that I needed to be seen as a man in order to be taken seriously as a man. I also believed that if I didn’t take T, I would have to accept a life of constant misgendering and denial of my identity.
Even though I was more fully me than I had ever been when I came out, well-meaning people asked me if I would “fully transition,” which subconsciously reinforced the violence of the gender binary. I viewed taking T as a loud “fuck you” to a lifetime of people who denied my transgenderism and masculinity. If I had a beard, a strong body, and a baritone voice, no one could do that. Additionally, I felt as though I was abandoning younger versions of myself, exiled little boys who lived within me, by not taking T. In light of that, I felt shame.
I was under the impression that in order for my gender identity to be taken seriously, it was necessary for others to acknowledge it; however, the exact opposite was evident: To begin, I needed to see myself as real.
My therapist held my grief for me with compassion and created space for it, allowing me to feel free. This opened up an emotional space just large enough for me to fully comprehend what a dear friend texted me later that day: She wrote, “I wonder if there’s room, in this enormous, complex, and intimidating question you’re answering about yourself, to regard taking T or not taking it as not really what will “count.” It also has other significant advantages. However, you are becoming yourself by choosing the path that works for you and singing your heart out.
As a result, I began to reevaluate my relationship with masculinity and learned how to experience joy, self-assurance, and centering in ways that didn’t strictly adhere to gender norms.
Kathryn Hansz, my therapist, uses an approach to psychotherapy known as internal family systems (IFS), which has gained a lot of popularity recently. It has been crucial to my ability to identify as transgender. The premise is that we are made up of many parts, including the Self, our fundamental essence. Inside Out) with whom you collaborate to build a relationship. They are released from the extreme roles they were forced into as a result of the trauma as you heal. You might still have coping mechanisms, for instance, that you developed during a traumatic time in your childhood. The goal is to return these components to their original functions, which are beneficial to the system as a whole. For instance, for the first time, I am attempting to fall in love with the exiled boys of varying ages, who I was led to believe needed to die in order for me to survive.
Gay, Dr. Frank Anderson is a well-known IFS therapist, psychiatrist, trauma-focused speaker, and author. His parents began sending him to conversion therapy when he was six years old. Before eventually coming out and marrying a man, he married a woman. I inquired about Anderson’s understanding of masculinity and femininity since he is of mixed gender. “Especially for straight people, who then jump into these predefined roles, defining gender restricts people from having a range and being able to embrace whatever place they’re in,” he stated.
He said that gender stereotypes are harmful to everyone, regardless of gender identity or orientation, and that he was surprised by this. Dresses are not appropriate for boys. He stated, “Girls are not supposed to be tough and strong.” I think culture and society like to impose so many messages on us very early on in a way that makes it really hard for kids to understand.
Anderson pointed out that trans people can also be restricted by these definitions. Similar to cis and heterosexual people, I believe that many trans people exhibit a spectrum of masculine and feminine traits. If we change from F to M, are we required to deny our femininity? I think we want everyone, transgender, straight, heterosexual, and gender-neutral, to be who they are to the fullest.
The remarks made by Anderson opened up something within me: I was frantically trying to transform into something I feared. On the one hand, giving space to my masculinity makes me feel most at ease. It’s hard to put into words: There is a quiet confidence and a sense of grounding. In contrast, I had also come to understand masculinity in terms of rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, violence, and dominance. I was, as Anderson suggested, disavowing all of my feminine qualities in my effort to comprehend, accept, and assert my gender identity. But what did I have left?
If I were to be honest with myself, a portion of me desired to take T in order to avoid negotiating my extremely difficult relationship with masculinity. I had convinced myself that I could get around the murky space in between if I could jump to the other end of the spectrum, if I could be seen and treated as a man.
I fell into a deep depression after coming out as transgender, despite the initial surge of joy. Several factors came together. I was going through a heartbreaking breakup. Being transgender has been extremely difficult for one of my parents. I hadn’t anticipated how the world would treat me; For the majority of my life, I had taken for granted the numerous advantages I enjoyed as a cisgender, straight woman.
However, I realized that I had also been at odds with myself. While simultaneously clinging to ideas, feelings, embodiments, and expressions of masculinity, many of which I also distrusted, parts of me were attempting to kill off my feminine parts. Suddenly, during those months, my desire to die made a lot more sense.
Anderson assisted me in distancing myself from the people who had hurt me and my notions of masculinity. He suggested that my experiences of abuse had not taught me to distinguish masculinity from femininity. He stated, “A man is not like that.” You should be afraid when they project and act out on you. However, you need to differentiate between gender and damaged parts.
She went one step further when I shared all of this with my therapist. My therapist said that I had lost my masculinity because I had been raped and abused. I had never considered this idea over the years. I wept, both in relief at comprehending why I was having trouble reclaiming that part of myself and to let go of my grief and pain.
It is necessary as well as daunting to unravel the tangled web of sexuality and masculinity. I’ve also been thinking about the pressure men and masculine-presenting people feel to dominate in the sexual realm as I become more masculine-presenting. In a similar vein, a lot of femme queer women I know feel similarly constrained by passive heteronormative sexual roles.) A 2019 study on the impact of heteronormativity on the formation of identity among young queer people found that “binaries of gender, sexuality, and family intersected in participants’ lives and their narrative constructions.”
However, I detest this widespread expectation. It’s not that I dislike playing a dominant role, but rather that it’s not the only thing I enjoy. Also, I’m annoyed that a part of me thinks playing this role will make me more manly. Tragically, “they will never find the course to create liberating, fulfilling sexuality if masses of men believe that their selfhood and patriarchal sexuality are one and the same,” Bell Hooks writes in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.
Hooks also discusses the flaws in the early forms of feminism, which focused on men’s rage and patriarchy but failed to address the grief and anguish that women and children experience when men are unable to be who they want to be. She writes, “We never had to give voice to the gaps in our understanding or talk about maleness in a complex way because we simply dismissed them and labeled them as oppressors.” Many interactions with cisgender men are difficult as a result of this distortion of masculinity, which is supported by dominance and accompanied by fear.
When a close male figure dies, for some, the unbearable grief can be accompanied by an equally unbearable sense of freedom. This is especially true for abuse victims.
Compared to any other man, I had always felt safer with my brother. By my early teen years, we had moved past the typical big-brother bullying dynamic, but Zafar protected me earlier and more consistently than anyone else in my life. When he died, I certainly did not feel more free; In fact, I felt much less emotionally secure.
However, in my final moments with him, I had never felt more secure or at ease next to his physical body. He was artificially kept alive so that his organs could be taken from him so that he could donate them; He had already been diagnosed as brain dead by that point. As he lay there, lifeless, I slipped my hand into his and softly rested my head on his shoulder. In addition, he and I shared a brief moment of peaceful sleep.
That experience will stay with me forever. I don’t really recall the conversations we had during his final days. However, I retain that feeling of safety. Additionally, I believe that it is tragic that the world conditioned us both to have our most liberating and transcendent physical interaction while he was dying. As he lay on that bed, there was nothing about him that was innately feminine or masculine. On the other hand, I naturally displayed both so-called maternal and so-called paternal instincts during my profound grief because I did not have the time to consciously debate my gender identity. I felt physical protection because I didn’t want people to crowd around him so he could leave in peace, and emotional protection because I wanted to make sure his last moments on earth were gentle.
Many of us know by now that patriarchy hurts men as much as it hurts women and nonbinary people.
By now, most of us are aware that patriarchy harms men just as much as it harms women and people who are nonbinary. I realized that any meaningful exploration of masculinity required the inclusion of a cis, straight man’s experience of it, so I wanted to talk to my good friend Andy Rohr, with whom I’ve had numerous lengthy discussions about gender.
Rohr talked about how oppressive ideas of masculinity are, especially the constant expectation that men should lead, whether in a professional or intimate setting, on a video call. If you don’t dominate, there’s a little bit of fear of being judged by others,” he said.
Vulnerability is frequently erased by this twisted masculinity. He stated, “It’s very difficult even to share things, personal things about your life that may be uncomfortable.” It is extremely difficult for me to discuss those things with any of my male friends.
Andy delighted me by explaining that listening to music is one of the few ways he feels free from these confines. His admiration for queer artists like St. Vincent and, more broadly, musicians who defy or play with gender and sexuality expectations provides him with a sense of liberation. Although it may not seem like much, Andy described the concerts he attends as “very affirming to step into that other world — a world that’s open and that doesn’t quite have those same confines in the rest of life.”
Everything we associate with gender can be found in music: A conversation can be gentle, strong, aggressive, or sensual. Like I was, it can be out of sync. According to Anderson, my musicality allows me to be curious and investigate the entirety of who I am. Being an instrument is a great way to express that range. Depending on the notes that come before or after it, each musical note can sound different. Both of my sexes are male. It is a continuum that is influenced and shaped by previous and subsequent events. Before I let out a sound when I sing, I contain every possibility when I take a breath.
I, like D’Lo, love my body’s queerness, literally and metaphorically. I enjoy singing lyrics with an undeniably feminine voice about what it means to be a man. All of this doesn’t mean I won’t take T one day; however, I can learn how I am most at ease by speaking in the voice I was born with. Additionally, this may alter over time.
I’m learning to accept the liminal spaces that exist between sadness and joy, wealth and scarcity, life and death, shame and freedom, and masculinity and femininity. I’m a mix of man and woman. I am neither one nor the other. Ironically, I can only feel secure in expressing masculinity in my own way if I exist between these extremes. Not as dominance, but as my own experience of gender, which sits quietly and securely within me rather than something I feel compelled to brandish and wield.
There are a lot of frightening aspects to the transition’s uncertainty. For instance, I am aware that I do not want breasts; however, will I also mourn their loss? The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in a letter, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” I can find peace by asking these questions rather than frantically looking for answers if I accept the in-between.
I will also turn to music whenever I find myself in a state of destabilization or fear, when I am desperately searching for certainty and answers that do not exist. I will traverse the range there; In the voids in between, I will exist. I’ll also be free.
Music has the capacity to contain everything we associate with gender: It can be gentle, strong, aggressive, sensual, a conversation.