What Really 'Makes a Man': Race, Media and Visibility

I am privileged to be white and masculine-presenting. Though I do not pass as a cisgender male, one day, I might look like the white trans men the media adores. There's a certain narrative available to me that I can choose to follow if I want. Ultimately, I simply want to feel at home in my own skin, but damn it, I do not want my experience and my body to add fuel to the idea that the only bodies valued in our society are white and male, masculine and able-bodied, hetero and binary. As a white and male-identified person, I need to be aware of that.

Queer activist and model Ryley Pogensky wrote this in response to the recent interview with Thomas Page McBee on HuffPost to promote his new book, Man Alive.

Pogensky, a self-identified "black blogger who is also a trans man," was invited as a guest. He expresses anger at the importance placed on McBee's experience as a white trans man, without mention of race, non-binary gender or alternative masculinities. I understand that this was mostly about McBee's book, but the interview was called "What Makes a Man?" and Pogensky was invited in. Pogensky was there, supposedly, to weigh in on his own experience; he, instead, got shoved to the back of the bus.

At a time when we as a society are discussing which bodies matter and which don't, this interview perpetuates the idea that white bodies matter more than black ones, and that masculine bodies matter more than those that appear more feminine. McBee said that he gets to be the kind of man he wants to be, but when given the chance to highlight the privileges that white trans men are granted, as opposed to their non-white counterparts, he said nothing. I was also disappointed that he didn't speak to the misleading title question -- because a man is not made. The only thing that really "makes" a man (or any gender) is that one identifies as such.

In a racist, sexist and cissexist world, it's hard not to drink the water. It takes active questioning of the images we are fed. At first sight, I thought it's great that this photo of Aydian Dowling went viral. It wasn't until I read Pogensky's article a few days later that I thought again.

I've become so accustomed to media fetishization of the "hot white trans man." When the majority of images of trans-masculine people presented by the media are white, male, fit into the binary, stereotypically masculine, able-bodied, attractive and have transitioned medically, this excludes trans-masculine people of color, and all people who are not binary, ultra-masculine, etc. This is why Ryley Pogensky is important as a model (and role model) and I'm glad that he is out there representing.

On the other hand, the photo of Dowling sends the message that I have to look like that, and that I don't matter otherwise. FTM Magazine highlights the fact that Dowling "doesn't look trans." What does trans look like, yes -- but what does trans look like when someone doesn't "pass," or when someone isn't white or binary? I can't imagine an image of a trans-masculine person who does not fit the white, hetero, masculine ideal going viral, and that is where we have work to do as a society.

If I were to pose in the same way as Aydian Dowling, you would see that I still have a "female" appearing chest, wider hips and my naked body would, in no way, pass as male by cissexist standards. Would the media celebrate that masculinity? The troubling thing is that they might after I "pass."

To the media: It's great that trans men are getting your attention, but they aren't all white, medically-transitioned and stereotypically masculine. We need examples of femme trans men, non-binary transmasculine people and trans people of color with more than a moment of airtime, without making them your tokens.

Please remember that it's a tough spot to be in, especially if you're non-white and non-binary or genderqueer. Trans people are either not "trans enough," "not man or woman enough," not seen, misgendered in life and in death, or not safe to be themselves both in their own homes and outside of them. Hormones and surgery are not the only transgender narrative. Being in the wrong body is not the only narrative. Going from one binary to another is not the only narrative. Transgender people do not "become" the opposite gender from which they were assigned at birth.

Even though I know this deeply, I've still absorbed the message that I'm not a man until I look like one. I've resisted the binary because I want to be myself, and not someone else's idea of what a man is. I don't know if a liminal happy place exists, nor do I know if I can feel safe existing there in our current world. Non-binary or those who present in-between genders are the most at risk to violence and misunderstanding. This is real and awful and what really needs to be given media attention. And while white cis-passing trans men are becoming pinups, racism and transmisogyny continues unchecked, as more and more trans women of color are in the news dead.

I want to see more genderqueer and non-binary examples of transgender people in the press, I want to see more transfeminine people and discussions of trans femininity besides photos of murdered trans women, and I want to see more space given to transgender people of color like Ryley Pogensky. I want to perpetually be aware of whoever's seat I might be taking at the front of the bus. I don't even want to be on that bus anymore if a white cis man is still driving it, but I also know I can't make it stop 'til everyone stops it.

What troubled me about "What Makes a Man?" is that it was really a spotlight on white heteronormative masculinity. What about black masculinity, queer masculinity and even-- transmasculinity across the spectrum?

Anybody who does not look like a cis white male loses their seat to varying degrees. This is the point of entry for white trans-masculine people to be aware of their black, femme, non-medically-transitioning or non-binary brethren. We all know what it feels like not to "fit" the white masculine ideal. I want to clarify that this is not an attack on McBee. His interview just happens to be a great example of how unconsciously racist white America is, period. I'm calling attention to it because white masculinity is mostly that: Taking up too much space, and not being aware of the space that you are taking. I can't claim that I'm not guilty of this, too; I'm just trying to do my part in dismantling the racist and sexist structures that we live with, that are part of this culture and our communities.

In his blog, Pogensky brings up the sad truth that trans men are given the advice of trying to act more like cis men. Gender is not enacted, you simply are that. You do not have to prove anything.

What we do need more proof of is that transgender people of all races, genders, ages, body types, abilities and expressions, do in fact, exist.