Describing Trans Men

Describing Trans Men

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

Last week, I discussed the ins and outs of describing trans women in ways that celebrate the differences between trans and cis women, while still being respectful. This week, I’d like to have a similar discussion about describing trans men.

Trans men don’t feature quite as prominently as trans women in the broader fiction landscape, but there are still plenty of tropes and misconceptions associated with them. And, if I’m being honest, I haven’t focused much on trans men in Queering the Narrative — a lot of my focus has been on trans women, as that’s the topic I know best.

That being said, some baseline knowledge about trans men can be found in these three posts, and I recommend you check them out if you want to write a trans man. You can also check out my Tropes to Avoid post about trans folx, though that focuses largely on trans women.

Things to Avoid When Describing Trans Men

Trans men are men. This means that, to start off, you should consider how certain descriptors would be received if they were describing a cis man. Are they coded as negative, effeminate, or demeaning? Bear in mind that insinuating that trans men are less masculine or manly than other men — and therefore, by extension, not really men — is a pretty crappy thing to do.

It honestly doesn’t help that so much literature, especially the classic stuff, is very hung up on what it means to be a Real Man™. Modern media is rife with tropes and stereotypes about what Real Men are and are not, and some of the portrayals used to subvert that — such as effeminate mannerisms or physical weakness — can hit much differently when describing trans men. This doesn’t mean that all your trans man characters have to be big beefy muscle bros, but just be cautious of how you approach depicting them outside the societal understanding of Real Men.

Most critically, do not describe trans men as effeminate, girly, or otherwise equate them to women. To imply that they have more in common with women (especially cis women) than with men is icky. You should also be careful of describing a trans man as being gender non-conforming or non-binary, unless you have personal experience with that — some transmasculine folx can find that invalidating

This goes for physical descriptions as well as behavioral characteristics. Describing trans men as “emotional” or “sensitive” can hit a lot differently to your transmasc readers, who might have had such language levied against them throughout their lives. Conversely, avoid portraying trans men on testosterone HRT as angry, aggressive, or abusive. This plays into a trope that is often used to demonize trans men, and which misunderstands the experience of many people on T.

Image of Max Sweeney from Showtime's "The L Word"
Max from “The L Word” is a classic example of this negative trope.

Similarly, harping on the physical differences between trans men and cis men is shitty. Cis men can look any number of ways, and so can trans men. The perceived “differences” between trans men and cis men are more often the result of stereotypes about just what a Real Man™ looks like, and not accurate to the full breadth of what either group can look like!

It’s also pretty iffy to describe trans men as young or boyish. Sometimes trans men are perceived as pre-pubescent, especially before HRT, due to their height, voice, and facial structure. This is something that frustrates a lot of trans men in real life, and to see it uncritically perpetuated in fiction doesn’t feel good. It also simply doesn’t work for a lot of trans men, like those who have been on HRT for a long time. 

Describing Trans Men Well

Like trans women, however, there are some distinctive differences between trans and cis men. These differences should be celebrated, respected, and certainly not harped upon. Describing trans men as basically cis men, however, is erases their trans experience.

Much of this advice is for describing trans men who have already undergone an estrogen puberty — however, these differences will be less pronounced in those who had access to puberty blockers and other medical interventions earlier in life.

Trans men do not lose their breasts when they go on HRT, and without surgery they will still have them throughout their lives. This means that when describing trans men, you’re likely going to have to describe either binding or top surgery

You can find more advice on both of those specifically at the links above, but in general these are parts of the trans men experience that would be pertinent to describe, as they will have affected your character’s life at some point. Perhaps they still have to bind, or have scars from top surgery. Or maybe they don’t have access to either of these things, and so they do other things to obscure their breasts.

Testosterone will deepen a trans man’s voice, and so their voices aren’t quite as distinct as a trans woman’s might be. Those trans men who choose not to undergo HRT, or whose voices don’t change as fully, might have uniquely high or reedy voices compared to cis men — but I don’t know for sure that this is something that trans men would be comfortable reading, so I’d use caution in describing them as such (especially as high, thin, or reedy voices in men are sometimes used to mark villainy or poor morals in fiction).

Another thing T can’t do is help a trans man grow taller post-puberty. This means that, on average, trans men do tend to be shorter than cis men. Describing trans men as short is fine — just don’t bring gender into it. Don’t say he’s short “for a man,” or say his height is “womanly,” or any other bullshit like that. You can just say he’s a bit short!

And, as a final note — most trans men who go on T tend to have facial hair. It takes a while for this to grow in fully after starting HRT, but beards and/or mustaches tend to help trans men get gendered correctly, so a lot of them wear facial hair if they can. This, however, is not universal — plenty of trans men choose not to go on T, some (like cis men!) have genetics that prevent them from growing facial hair, and some just don’t vibe with it. Those that do, however, tend to be proud of their facial hair.

Conclusion

Bear in mind at all times that trans men are men — and that the societal conception of what constitutes a Real Man™ is harmful to both cis and trans men. However, specifically contrasting trans men to any of those ideals can be particularly harmful, so use caution.

That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week to talk about describing non-binary folx, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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