She was a conservative Christian woman I met in college, a kindhearted and generous person. But she also argued openly on social media that advocating for certain pronouns was as absurd as asking to be called “Her Majesty.”
So when I came out as a man, I wasn’t really surprised to lose that friendship.
Although my other close friends have largely been supportive, I sometimes get the impression that they too see my request for certain pronouns as an imposition, especially in light of the fact I’m ambivalent about taking testosterone and still have feminine mannerisms. I’m patient with their misgendering, but it reinforces the self-doubt within me and the sadness and discomfort it brings.
Gender shapes social dynamics, even between the closest of platonic friends. Kira, a 29-year-old trans woman, says she feels pressure to comfort her female friends when they feel guilty for misgendering her. One of her friends even began crying after accidentally using Kira’s birth name in the school newspaper. “Cis people don’t realize that they even center themselves in their desperate need to be apologetic,” she says.
Kira has also noticed that her girlfriends share more spontaneous physical affection with one another than they do with her. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have,” she says. “You should hug me more. I notice that you don’t hug me as much as you hug our other friends…” I can’t say that.
“I wonder if passing more as a woman would unlock some new level of friendship where they would let their guard down around me,” she adds. “But I know it doesn’t work like that.”
Kira says she feels most able to be her authentic self—goofy, vulnerable, and frank—in the online community she has built with a group of fellow trans women. “Trans women, especially trans women of color, pay the steepest social cost for being ourselves,” Kira says. “We’re often reduced to stories of hardship rather than being introduced as whole and complex human beings. Sometimes I want to talk about gender, but a lot of the time I just want to talk about video games.”
Samantha, a trans woman in her late 50s, and the first US schoolteacher to come out as transgender, created a male persona when she was a teen in order to survive and fit in. It involved studying and imitating what her male friends did. When she finally transitioned, she was able to let go of this dissociative alter ego. But her male friends didn’t respond well.
“Most of them couldn’t handle it, and to use a term [transgender] that didn’t exist back then, they ghosted me,” she says. “My social needs then shifted to a desire for close female friendships, since I really have nothing in common with cis men.”
Roger, a trans man, says the more he passes as a man, the more straight cis male friends he gets. He says this may also be because his partner is a straight cis woman, and they present as a straight couple. “Men now view me as a candidate for potential friendship, whereas women tend to assume I wouldn’t want to do the types of things they might like to do, which isn’t necessarily true,” Roger says. “I grew up with three sisters, and mostly, I still relate to people the same way as before. [For example], I recently went and got manicures and pedicures with a close female friend.”
Roger says this newfound camaraderie with other men has been healing. Before he transitioned, he had a certain stereotypical idea of what it meant to be a man. But now, he knows guys are also attuned emotional beings. “I do question, though, whether being read as a straight [biological] male opens up [the] door for male friendships.”
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Personally, I’ve always related better to women and remain mystified by male friendship. I’m glad my friends still feel comfortable hugging me and having heart to hearts. But every time a friend misgenders me, I’m reminded of the effort it takes them to see my insides. I’m reminded that my communication style, according to the binary most people subscribe to, is misaligned with my gender and my body.
But even I misgender trans people—in fact, I even misgender myself, in my own head. Society is grappling with new paradigms and in a sense. We’re all learning, trans and cis alike: We are learning to love ourselves, to see ourselves as natural, even beautiful, rather than pathological and broken. And we are teaching cis allies how to support us in that process.
Ultimately, having a body is like sitting in the pilot seat inside the head of a giant robot. The robot’s make and model do not ultimately tell you that much about its pilot. So, regardless of how trans people appear, it’s important for our friends to believe us when we tell them who we are. It’s important for cis people to love the person they are getting to know just as much as the person they thought they knew.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.