A photo essay by Amos Mac
When you hear the term masculinity, what comes to mind? Does it ignite a memory, or remind you of a smell or a piece of clothing? Is it just a feeling or an energy — something in the air, something you inherently are or are not? We spoke to a mix of twelve trans guys and non-binary trans masculine people about masculinity — how they create it, how they’ve wrestled with it or embraced it at different points in their lives, how it can be toxic or problematic, given certain connotations. Whether you are trans or not, you’ve probably been affected by society’s definition of masculinity — so let’s redefine it.
Share what masculinity means to you by responding to this post.
Mars Hobrecker, 22, Bushwick, Brooklyn
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? I think I literally identify as “over it.”
How do you create your own masculinity? I spend very little time thinking about masculinity. I don’t really have a stake in it… This is about as masculine as I present. I usually dress kind of femme unless I feel really gross — then I’ll wear jeans. Usually I put a bit more effort into my presentation because I don’t want to be read as someone who is ultra masculine and takes up a lot of space. When I’m dressed more masculine I intentionally try to make myself smaller, physically. When I’m performing with (my collaborator) Leah James, I’m always in a very passive role. I’m static and the actions are being put onto me; other people are in control. I’m already on stage, so I don’t need to be taking up more space on top of that.
D’hana Perry, Mid-30’s, Prospect Park, Brooklyn
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? I’m a combination of they/them, genderqueer, androgynous, sometimes trans masculine because that’s technically true. Though I’ve taken some steps to transition medically, I don’t identify as male. I don’t hold any allegiance to any one gender.
What does masculinity mean to you? It doesn’t mean anything to me. Except for that it’s a comfortable outward expression and a natural part of who I am. Outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t hold it up on a pedestal — in fact, I try to give it as little space as possible. It’s my outward expression, but it’s not how I see myself in the world.
Morgan Sullivan, 20, Upper East Side, New York
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? FTM trans boy
How do you create your own masculinity? Masculinity is nuanced. The meaning of it is different for every person, and for me, the definition is constantly changing. My transition has always been centered around my relationship with my body, and how I can make that relationship as healthy and loving as possible. I always strived to find ways to feel the most comfortable and happy, but masculinity has never been the ultimate goal. I find that a lot of the time, masculinity is something that is projected onto me as a result of the assumptions that people make about me as a trans man.
Antwon Falu, 32, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Occupation: Chef and Grill Master
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? Trans male
What does masculinity mean to you? I used to think masculinity meant fixing cars and being an electrician. I used to do all these jobs when I was younger because I thought that was what being a man was all about — that I have to do these types of jobs to be “masculine.” I really love to cook, but I thought that being a cook was feminine, so I would break my back doing all these other jobs. I used to do landscaping, groundsman work until one day I just stopped and said, you know what, that’s not being masculine! Being masculine means carrying yourself well, dressing nice, sharp! It’s not about what you do for a living or how many tattoos you’ve got or how much weight can you lift. It’s about how you carry yourself.
All my life I was stealth. Even when I identified as lesbian and I wasn’t all that comfortable, I used to be stealth in everything I did. I was a male identified lesbian, but as I got older and I felt more free — and now I love myself more than I ever have before. I don’t wanna hide! I’m proud of my surgery scars, I earned these scars. I’m proud of every part of my body and I love myself.
Ketch Wehr, 30, Yorkville, New York
Occupation: Artist and Graphic Designer
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? FTM / fey trans masculine
What does masculinity mean to you? That is something that changes for me and for everyone all the time. Generally, the answer can only be true in this moment through certain textures — the way something feels on my body at this time. But ultimately, masculinity is one range of options for gender expression among many. For me, masculinity feels like a certain amount of tension between comfort and vulnerability.
How do you construct masculinity? I build masculinity internally, and I think about ways to externalize it. Sometimes I create it through my presentation. For example, I decided to grow a 5:00 shadow for awhile — I was physically able to grow it, and I enjoyed it, and it fulfilled a certain variety of masculinity that I had wanted for a long time.
Ky Platt, 42, Lower East Side, New York
Occupation: Stage Craft and Stand Up Comedian
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? I don’t really do male or female pronouns. I don’t care.
How can masculinity be toxic?Masculinity is as complex as any other type of identity — race or whatever. Especially in this day and age — and not just in American society, but globally — masculinity is really sort of limited, and that’s sad and problematic. I see that in my own life: I have a hyper masculine African-American father who was a Golden Gloves boxer. One of my brothers is incredibly athletic; he has three sons, two of whom are gifted athletically. The other son is intellectual, but my brother favors the jocks — and I think that’s sad. Especially, because the intellectual son will probably be the agent for his jock brothers! I don’t think that the modern masculine identity is very nuanced. It’s based around a lot of insecurities that I don’t fully understand. Why is it that my brothers can’t show a complex masculine identity? Our society values the “Soldier”, the “Athlete.” We don’t even really value the “Father,” which is weird. If you’re going to be basic about masculinity, you’d think the archetype of the “Father” would be the #1 image you’d want to uphold or idealize.
How do you create your own masculinity? I was 10-years-old the first time I shaved my head. I had this long Diana-Ross-type-hair, typical mixed-race afro hair, curly and crazy. One day, I shaved it because I fucking hated it. I also accidentally shaved one of my eyebrows! Around the same time, I got tickets to “The Fresh Fest” in Cincinnati to see The Fat Boys and Curtis Blow. I went with my friend Eric, the white Jewish kid in my town. My mom dropped us off at the venue, but before the show, she was like Do you wanna get an outfit? We went shopping and I picked out the butch-est shirt I’d ever seen. I remember to this day what that shirt looked like. Before The Fat Boys and Curtis took to the stage, there was a DJ spinning, and all these black girls came up to me and wanted to slow dance with me — none of them knew I was a “girl” and it was amazing! And my mom was 100% supportive of that!
Thomas Page McBee, 34, Lower East Side, New York
Occupation by day: Director of growth/editor, Quartz
By all other hours: Journalist and writer (Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man)
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? Thomas.
What does masculinity mean to you? Masculinity, as I connect to it, is an energy. It is the language through which I happen to express my gender. Like language, the creative part for me comes from work within constrictions — societal and physical — in order to transcend. Masculinity can be a site of trauma and pain for a lot of people of all genders — but it can also be a way of creating connections and leading quiet revolutions.
How do you create your own masculinity? I’m intentional with my body, the space around it, and the expectations of it. I didn’t transition until I was 30, so I had a lot of years to figure out who I was beyond gender. Being a man in the world is a weighty, strange, troubling, beautiful thing — and I’m grateful for the bullshit meter and compass I live by, and for the years I spent being invisible to the same culture that now welcomes me openly. It’s a perspective I don’t forget, and I think it gives me an orientation toward everyone — trans or not — that starts with character, not my projections of masculinity and femininity and whether or not you’re meeting or failing them.
Sebastian Roy Noriega, 45, Bronx, New York
Occupation: Security Supervisor
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? Straight. Stealth.
What does masculinity mean to you? For a long time, anything that was opposite of feminine was masculine for me. I grew up with a pink room and I hated it. Everything from football to working out to roughhousing — that was masculine to me. But now, masculinity, to me, is something that comes from within. But you can see it coming a mile away: it’s a combination of my surroundings, my clothing, my movement, my everything.
But I still see this a lot with the younger generation…they misconstrue disrespect as being “masculine” — being hard core and rough and rude, as opposed to being a gentleman. If your partner’s not acting right and you want to hit them, that’s not masculine, that’s stupid. I don’t understand where that comes from.
D’Jamel Young, 28, Bronx, New York
Occupation: Massage therapist, entrepreneur, actor
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? Transgender male
What does masculinity mean to you? Masculinity is just that thing that makes you you! It is something that is naturally exuded and can really be defined in so many different ways. For me, I think it holds a certain essence of aggression. I’m stern and bold and a very aggressive leader, so that’s how my masculinity may come off in my personality.
How do you create your own masculinity? There was always a certain form of masculinity that I really identified with growing up. It terrified me to imagine myself in another way. But in the Army, I was forced to fit inside their box — and I didn’t fit there at all. I was too big of a mystery for them. I excelled at being in my own box, but they wanted the control. I tried for a while… They’d tell me to do 12 push ups and I’d do 40. I put my best in it. And then they chaptered me out.
Aaron Rose, 25, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? The essence of my gender is 1998 Leonardo DiCaprio / genderqueer Jack Dawson from Titanic, but “trans masculine” resonates most these days.
What does masculinity mean to you? Masculinity is the what grounds my gender presentation because it’s what feels most authentic to me. It allows me a sense of flexibility and vulnerability and adventurousness as I move through the world as a gendered person. It’s complicated to identify with a gender expression that is given more authority and more space in the world, while also identifying as trans, which means I’m really vulnerable to violence. It’s a delicate balance.
How do you create your own masculinity? I’m very conscious of the way masculinity is given priority in the world. My own process of how I cultivate tenderness and softness in my masculinity is given a lot more room than trans feminine people’s narratives. That’s something I always try to say when asked about masculinity in this public facing way. All kinds of queers need to create radical representation for themselves — wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had equal representation of trans femme experiences as well?
Jevon Martin, 45, Bronx, New York
Occupation: NYC president of Black Trans Advocacy and MTA train conductor
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? Male
How do you create your own masculinity? Masculinity, to me, is self-expression. I don’t worry about whether I’m “male enough” or whether I have “female traits,” I’m just me. Guys come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, so I just respect them for who they are. You can’t judge them, because you don’t live their life.
How do you create your own masculinity? I transitioned late, when I was 35. I knew trans women, but didn’t know any trans men. The first trans guy I ever met was Louis Mitchell. I was sitting on a panel for the PPG with Pauline Park and Ms. Watson, when Louis Mitchell disclosed he was sitting next to me. I was blown away. That’s when I realized, Wow, that’s me! We’ve been the best of friends since. He’s my big brother. We have a fraternity of trans men, and we pledge to mentor the younger trans guys and lead them in the right direction. We help younger guys with their transition, help them get in the job field; we feed, house and clothe them. We do what we can to help them.
Logan Jardine, 32, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Occupation: Emergency Medicine Resident Physician
How do you ID on the gender spectrum? Male
What does masculinity mean to you? When I first came out as trans and started transitioning 13 years ago, I felt a lot of pressure to conform to a certain standard of masculinity. Eventually, I realized that the type of masculinity I was pursuing was a myth, it was the type of masculinity I had read about, seen on TV, been spoon fed — it was the type of masculinity that was actually impossible to achieve. Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring as much what other people thought of me, and I was instantly happier.
Masculinity can be oppressive, especially in the traditional sense. It can also be misused, misread, and misunderstood. I try to be aware of the privilege that comes with male presentation and masculine affect. I think that masculinity is often seen in opposition to femininity, that the two cannot coexist together, but this is not true.
Help us redefine masculinity. Join our conversation by responding below with your thoughts about what masculinity means to you.