This article was originally published November 12, 2019.
Each year, Transgender Awareness Week serves as a time of reflection and celebration to raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people to shed light on issues the community faces. This year, TAW takes place November 13 through November 19, culminating with the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Wednesday, November 20 to observe and honor the memory of those whose lives have been lost to anti-trans violence.
Follow along on social media to learn more about what you can do to advocate for the visibility, protection, and human rights of transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive people both near to you and around the world.
Happy Transgender Awareness Week to all the trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals and their allies! Today, we’d like to introduce Z of @zthebug, model, photographer, and friend—and someone who just happens to be a man.
Z, like many other individuals who challenge gender and sexuality, and who see gender identity and sexual orientation as both overlapping and interconnected (but not mutually exclusive), talks to Momotaro Apotheca co-founder Lindsay Wynn to discuss the offensive and oftentimes uncomfortable situations he encounters on a daily basis.
Despite increased visibility of the trans community with more nondiscrimination laws in place and better representation in the media, binary societal norms remain omnipresent. We must take it upon ourselves to change these antiquated perceptions and expectations. Listen, learn, and read along to an everyday perspective from a transgender individual to hear how you can better support this community around you. *Spoiler alert* It’s not that hard.
Tell us about the importance of pronouns and your journey transitioning from they/them.
I did the intermittent pronoun thing with “them.” For a lot of people they/them is a final destination but for me, I needed to ease in a little bit. When I switched [from] using she/her, I started using them and I was really excited by people respecting my pronoun and using it. But ultimately, it didn't feel like the right one for me, so then I started using him and I think I kind of always knew that was the pronoun I wanted to use. It just took a minute for me to get there.
Once I started using him, it just felt right, you know? There's just this feeling that you get—this euphoria—when somebody uses the right pronoun or the right name or an adjective that feels like it matches the gender that you identify with. I would have that [euphoria] every time anyone would say he/him.
I would notice that some people still wanted to use they/them for me, because thats what they were comfortable with. Ultimately, I am much more comfortable with him and when everybody got on board, it was lovely.
And how long have you been using him now?
Could you talk about dysphoria changing from she/her to they/them and your own feelings about having to make that decision? What's the journey there? What’s the internal dialogue?
I think everybody has a different dialogue. I was scared. I think there's this element that culture sort of imposes upon us that changing your pronoun is inconvenient for the people around you. And that maybe you should try to stick as close as possible to the one that you were assigned at birth for that reason. I think that's why I sometimes felt that some of my friends or family members would rather use “them” for me rather than “him” because, you know, it is a job.
It can feel very difficult, especially since changing your pronoun requires constant maintenance and you have to constantly correct people around you and that's your job. Nobody else is going to take that on for you and when they do—like when your friends or your family or your partners or whoever— takes that on and corrects people, that's a really wonderful thing but that's not something that's a guarantee for anybody who changes their pronouns. In general, changing your pronouns [requires] this constant hyper-vigilance and anticipation that somebody is going to misgender you.
I think there's this element that culture sort of imposes upon us that changing your pronouns is inconvenient for the people around you.
I think of a million little ways I can try to sneak my pronouns in early on in a meeting so I don't have to wait to inevitably be misgendered. I’ve come up with all these little tricks. I have my partners introduce me (“This is my boyfriend Z.”) so that the person immediately knows what pronouns I might use.
Unfortunately, there's no avoiding people messing it up because [society] still very much subscribes to this binary idea that you can look at somebody and know what their pronouns might be—which is never true.
The difficulty comes from feeling like you're inconveniencing others. I have a lot of anxiety about [saying what gender I am] even before it happens in a conversation. I prepare myself for it to happen and think about what I'm going to say and try to analyze the person wondering; what would be the most seamless way to correct them on my pronouns.
[I’m always concerned about] how they would feel most comfortable, which I don't even know if that's the best way to approach it. I feel like I'm constantly tempering myself against other people's comfort with my gender, which I don't recommend.
You think that's a pretty unanimous experience?
Yeah, I would say most trans people I talk to know exactly what I'm saying. It's like everybody says that they respect your gender and that they want to be there for you, but then the minute they mess it up, I find myself constantly reassuring cis people who get [my gender] wrong like, “Oh don't worry.” In reality, it's not that hard [to call us by our preferred pronouns].
I've begun saying thank you for correcting yourself; thank you for gendering me correctly and not filling space reassuring somebody that it's okay that they misgendered me.
Society still very much subscribes to this binary idea that you can look at somebody and know what their pronouns might be—which is never true.
I feel like our community talks a lot about how we don't necessarily have to be the ones to show up and educate people on why it’s important [to gender someone correctly].
The stress and experience you feel all day because you’re constantly having to [educate people] and you just want to be within yourself and feel good and have a sense of normalcy.
We don’t want people to think it's hard because it's not, right? It really takes no effort [to gender someone correctly]. It's why straight and cis people announcing their pronouns is so important because it normalizes that type of engagement (creating new social norms).
Any advice or experience for friends and family or people transitioning?
One thing that I notice is when people misgender me, there is this sort of awkward pause and maybe they're wondering if you noticed and if you’re going to correct them. We always notice. Anyone who has changed their pronouns. Anybody who is expressing, “This is who I am,” and is constantly not being validated will notice if you use the incorrect pronoun.
If you misgender someone, just correct yourself immediately and every single time you [realize you misgendered them]. We don't need to hear any sort of explanation like, “Oh, I've just known you for so long as she….” or, “It's just so hard because I'm in my 50s….” We just want the correction.
That's such great advice.
It's wild that I would have to say this, but sometimes people will be like, “Are you sure? I really think I said the right pronoun.” And I'm always like, “Unfortunately, I am sure; you did not say the right word". Just don't argue with someone on whether or not you did [misgender them]. Just apologize, correct yourself and move on as quickly as possible.
What are your thoughts on Hormone Therapy? Any reasons to take them or reasons not to? What are nuances one may not understand regarding the journey with hormones?
I have my personal feelings about it, as does everybody who does or doesn't take hormones. We all have ideas about why we do or don't want to put something into our bodies and I think that that's very personal.
I am open about the fact that I don't take hormones. And I choose to be open about that because I really care about the visibility within the trans community of people who do not take hormones and are not medically transitioning because they are still 100% valid. I think there's a million reasons to take hormones, or not to, depending on who you are, what your thoughts are.
Ultimately, we are who we say we are, no matter what we've done. I don't believe that you need to prove to the people around you who you are with your pain.
I think that there's a kind of mythology—especially within cis culture—and this idea that trans people have to prove a certain amount of pain and sadness or difficult experiences and physical proof to the people around us, that we are who we say we are. I don't believe that you need to prove to the people around you who you are with your pain.
I think that there's a million things about me; one of them happens to be that I'm a man. That needs to be acknowledged and respected, no matter what I've decided to do to my body, no matter what I will do to my body, or what I won't do to it.
I want to be acknowledged and validated in the same way that everybody else is. A lot of people are lucky enough to be acknowledged for the gender that they are without doing anything. I know some guys who don't even brush their teeth, yet I have to take [hormones] for the rest of my life to be acknowledged as a guy? I don't think so.
If I decide one day that I want [hormone therapy] or to change my body, it's going to be for me. It's not going to be for other people. It's not going to be to prove that I am who I say I am.
You see so much Internet culture supporting two years on T, which I support one thousand percent of course, but you need to support two years on nothing also. At the end of the day, you are still who you say you are.
When you're having conversations with partners and talking to people in general, what steps do you take for transparency and talking about the aspects that affirm your sexuality and a personal relationship?
I have a lot of little things that make me feel really good and a lot of little things that make me feel really bad. I, like many trans people, haven't really had any role models; there's not a lot of good media out there and what does exist in the media is a very shrouded, narrow depiction of what it is to be trans. It's often somebody standing in front of a mirror tearing at their body and crying, which, first of all, is a universal thing; everybody's had that moment. Trans people don't own that.
I think that everyone can relate more than they realize to feeling a little off some days. But there is this aspect to being trans where if you're not feeling 100%, or if you're not able to validate yourself, it's hard. The world around you isn't necessarily going to do that for you on the days when you can’t [validate yourself].
Anybody who identifies in a certain way will tell you it doesn't have anything to do with what you do or don't do with your body. It's just who you are.
If I'm not feeling as masculine as I want to be feeling, or when I get misgendered, or if something happens that makes me feel this uncomfortable, it's difficult because there's not that societal foundation to fall back on that cis people have.
In those moments, it's hard for me not to feel like I'm a burden.
Like, if I’m having a bad day and not wearing a shirt that makes me feel good—like, I have one specific shirt that I know is just a shirt, but that makes me feel validated as a man— I'm not going to be okay that day.
That sounds a little wild maybe to somebody who's never felt that, but I think compassion in those moments for the trans people in your life is so important because they can't always hold that [safe] space for themselves.
I don't want to have to explain it. It's just one of those things that [you] just to have to understand and move past it. I hold this ritual with me, it is very powerful and very helpful.
What are some of the things people and companies can do to affirm and help our transgender communities?
I think listening and paying attention is the most important thing. If you notice something that's beautiful or realize it’s somebody’s little thing, somebody’s Rosebud, or whatever it happens to be, I would say let them [choose to] bring it to light or not. If you think it should be shared, check with them first and [ask if] they want to share it and be part of how they present to the world, or is this more of a behind-the-scenes thing that they just do for themselves that you get to see but nobody else does.
Just listening to the person about what they think and how they feel is so important. Validation is so important, and finding ways to affirm your friends and partners is what you should focus on.
Can you speak to the sexual care space and what it means to be a trans man? What can a company like Momotaro Apotheca do when looking to the future of sexual care and having inclusive conversations whether it's about toys, sexual care products, etcetera?
I have an interesting relationship with any sort of self care product, regardless of if it's for my face or anywhere else. I notice there are things that I feel cis men can do, or “get away with” that I just can't.
Cis men can spend an hour and a half taking care of their skin, or talk about an amazing leave-in conditioner and it's okay—like, it rounds them out. However, if I do it, it's like my gender is in question for a second. I'm a little frilly in that moment as a man, which makes me uncomfortable.
I also know that if I were a cis guy, I would wear eyeliner way more often. But if I wear eyeliner now, it's not okay because people are going to think that it's feminine.
[Society] sort of assigns things meaning based on who is and isn't using it and I feel like there have been times even when I've felt dysphoria about basic self care that I almost don't even want to clean myself because it feels feminine to me. There's no reason I should feel that way but it's definitely been pressed into me by the world around me.
To even think that sometimes I feel like I can't clean myself is an insane thing that that we have to make right. Also, I admit I have a weird relationship with the exterior of products; I can't buy certain colors and that's me subscribing to a binary.
I think marketing can be very much improved upon when targeting trans people, non-binary people, or gender non-conforming people. Companies that say that their product is gender neutral should represent that product in a gender neutral way, or [represent] a bunch of different types of people all using that product. I constantly see [products] that claim to be genderless or gender-neutral or unisex, but they’re represented in a very specific way. Very pigeonholed. [Those companies] are just looking to tap into the market but not actually do the work.
Everything that I've ever seen, every piece of media with somebody who has a body even close[ly resembling] mine taking a shower reinforces toxic ideas that I have about gender and reinforces the dysphoria that I experience.
It's very pointed the way that marketing goes and the way that certain bodies are spoken to, even subliminally, through messages and marketing and I would very much like for that to change.
I think companies should be a little more aware of how they represent things and the words they use. These words are showing up everywhere and becoming buzzwords; they’re just becoming another thing to check off on a marketing list of who you’re trying to reach. But if you’re really trying to reach that community, think hard about why and what you’re trying to do for them. Show them that in how you present your product.
Do you have any more thoughts? Anything that you would add that you can say to the world, whether it's people who read this article and see these photos, or anyone that has a trans person in their life, or someone who’s newly transitioning? What are some things that you have gone through that might provide some support to these communities, especially trans kids?
The young [people] that are just figuring it out—they're googling all the things. I'm still one of those kids; I'll always be one of those kids. I feel like I didn't quite have the people to look up to or people to send a message to and ask questions, or just thank them for being who they are.
So sometimes when people reach out to me, I'm shocked. I also feel that gratitude for them. Like this younger group of people who are out here looking for me, looking for anyone, looking for somebody to speak to them or speak for them, or speak about something that's relevant to them because we're all just waiting for that and so many of us don't get that.
Listen to the trans people in your life, because we really will tell you everything you need to know about our boundaries and what we need.
What’s important is that when I say, “This is what you can do.” I need that person to do that. That's what I try to do in the moments where I experience my privilege.
Just listen first and try to absorb as much of what somebody’s saying as possible and then even going above and beyond and trying to educate yourself further on what they've said. Letting a conversation start and then doing your part to continue it. I think that's the most important thing to do for the people who are in your life who are trans, non binary, or gender non-conforming.
I don't have any problem doing the hard work to educate people, especially when I see them doing hard work to accept what I say and make changes. That to me is a totally equal exchange and it makes me so happy.
Meet the Photographer Celebrating Trans Existance as a Space in Constant Flux Interview with Laurence Philomene (they/them) @laurence.philomene