“When I speak, I’m not interrupted. My ideas are listened to and I don’t get called aggressive anymore.” This is what Nino says when I ask how he is treated differently now when other people see him as a man. We talk about how almost absurdly little-seeming things determine our gender experiences: what we wear and how we have our hair, with whom we spend time.
Nino, a student, journalist and part-time parent now in his thirties, was assigned female at birth. Six years ago he started transitioning from female to male. In Finland, where Nino lives, medical transition is a long and highly bureaucratic process that involves opinions from several medical staff – and a lot of waiting.
Transitioning to what?
The whole process has led Nino to see gender as solely consisting of social relations. “People are treated as men or women, and gender is being constructed in the interaction that is based on expectations”, he says. “But it’s also a prerequisite for social interaction.”
This is reflected in the way he is given more space and respected more when people see him as a man: “People think I’m more credible.” One interesting case in point is that in relation to parenthood, when Nino was read as a mother, he received a lot of critical looks and comments. ”But when you’re a dad, people think whatever you do is great and it’s worth praise that you spend time with your child. You even get excused for looking non-normative in a different way than in any other situation,” he says. This non-normativity is not only created by his gender expression, but also the piercings and heavily tattooed arms. When I ring his doorbell, Nino has just been tying green extensions to part of his hair.
Although Nino decided to undergo transition, he did not find the masculinity that was expected from him right either. He says that while being transgender is starting to be seen as a valid gender experience, non-binary experiences are rarely recognised, especially when people choose not to alter their body.
Nino often combines masculine and feminine elements in the way he dresses. Nowadays it is possible, but during the psychiatric evaluation period it was not. It took him months after he got his diagnosis to get a referral to mastectomy – and even then the doctor made it clear he had to look masculine enough. “He said that were I wearing a dress, it would be better if I had breasts too.”
“It felt like they would only accept certain kind of answers as proof of my masculinity”, he remembers. The first specialist nurse he saw asked how he played with other kids in his childhood and a psychologist wanted to hear about his sexual fantasies at the age of 13.
“It’s only lately that if someone mistakes me for a woman I feel they’re mistaken and not that they can see my real gender”, he now reflects on the outside pressure. This both similar to and different from my own experience: when people see me as a woman, I feel they are mistaken but I fail to explain why. It is too easy to think I create that expression myself with long hair and big earrings – like those trivial things were some measure of gender identity.
When I ask Nino how he feels when people see him as a man, he thinks for a moment. “Sometimes it’s like ha, fooled you. But sometimes it’s also really annoying if people have very strong expectations.” He adds that he clearly thinks of himself as outside the categories man or woman: “But I have a contradictory relationship to it, because if I have to choose between those options I clearly prefer to be seen as a male. I wish there were many more situations where it doesn’t matter and where there are more options.”
I can only agree.
Lecturing people is tiring
I ask Nino if he believes he makes people rethink their fixed expectations to gender, but he is not sure. “I’m not very good at reading situations I’m in.” He adds it is also a good thing that he is not very sociable and does not need much company from his fellow students: “I don’t have to force myself to interact with people I don’t want to. It might make them uncomfortable but I don’t know it because people don’t say that kind of things aloud.”
“I used to get into long arguments about gender. Now I just don’t have the energy anymore.” He calls on people to educate themselves instead of expecting someone else to provide them information. “It also feels too close. If I talked about non-binary gender experience, I’d have to talk about myself. I don’t want my experience subjected to being argued about.”
Having a non-normative gender experience is less about having to explain himself and more about having to think a lot, he reflects. Will people comment on his appearance when he uses the bathroom? Will events he attends have gendered features like a dress code? Will he get hassled out on a weekend night, when many people are drunk? Do friends of his friends know his background, and will those who know be considerate enough not to bring it up if he does not? Even if situations where he needs to explain actually come up quite rarely, he always needs to be prepared; this means that the fear leaves a mark in nearly all of his social interaction.
The gender binary is such a big part of mainstream society that transgender people are often marginalised and ostracised: A study from 13 EU countries found that 79% of respondents had experienced some form of harassment in public, ranging from transphobic comments to physical or sexual abuse. In the US, transgender people experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population and 90% report harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job. They are also much more likely to experience police harassment, poverty and mental health issues.
Although being transgender is all too often seen through the physical transition – and exotised as a bodily thing – there are also practical difficulties in the process. These include having to announce a new name, gender and social security number everywhere. The Finnish social security number is a passport to healthcare, the social security system and many institutions, but as it is gendered it must be changed to formalise a person’s legal status. Nino tells of a friend whose bank account got lost in the changes. It was then recovered, but all these things add to the already long and stressful transition process.
A non-binary reality
Nino considers himself fortunate to live in a reality where a lot of his friends are outside a binary gender system.
“I’m always surprised when I come across the so-called normal world and that people are so attached to the idea that there are two genders and they do certain things”, he says. One of the areas where this manifests itself clearly is language. Although the Finnish language has gender-neutral pronouns instead of he and she, Nino says it always puzzles him why people use so many gendered words. “I don’t use words like man, woman, girl or guy even on a daily basis because I don’t find them useful. But a lot of people just add them everywhere. It sounds weird when people use gendered words unnecessarily.” I suggest he is lucky – gendered expressions like “mate”, “dude”, “lady”, “love” and so on are much more prevalent in English than in Finnish.
To my question about pronouns in English Nino responds that he finds the singular they very useful and often uses it to refer to people unless he knows they prefer another pronoun. Himself Nino is also fine with they – previously, he had a stronger preference for the male pronoun because he had to emphasise his masculinity. “It started with having to prove it to the doctors and nurses, but of course outside of that too: for a few years I felt I had to present myself in a certain way. It’s only lately I have found a balance between masculinity and femininity.”