by Tom Forrister
Before Tom Forrister transitioned to male, no one asked him to fix a broken car or a jammed printer. Now he's the go-to guy.
I'm in the computer lab on campus, absorbed in a project. I don't notice the pretty commuter student ask me a question until she's practically in my lap.
When I look up, I realize I'm the only guy in the lab.
"Do you know anything about computers?" she says, her voice rising in a flirtatious lilt before her smile turns into a slight pout. "My paper won't print."
I glance to my left. The woman next to me seems to know her way around a computer, typing away furiously at complicated Java code that to my eyes reads as a migraine-inducing page of scrambled symbols. Another young woman, far down the row of machines, looks like she works here. She is busy helping another student.
I slide back in my chair. "I'll do what I can, but there are probably people here who know more about this stuff than I do." She flashes a wry smile, like she doesn't believe me. She has every confidence that I, the only male in the room, can solve her printer problem.
This is not the first time I've been singled out since transitioning. It even happens with people who knew me before and after the physical changes began to take effect. As a young woman, coworkers and friends never asked for my advice on anything mechanical or technology-related.
After I began to appear more masculine, these same friends suddenly started requesting my assistance in many areas in the field of "man jobs:" car trouble, broken copy machine, wiring lighting in an apartment, even plumbing.
I am still the same person inside, with the same skills and abilities as before, but society's expectations have dramatically changed based on my "new" gender. It's an adjustment, to say the least.
One's gender role and gender identity are not the same thing, but neither are the two mutually exclusive. The more I relate to the world as Tom, and the more testosterone works on my body, the more I realize how the concept of gender is wrapped up in social and biological factors that I cannot easily separate.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I am beginning to realize how some social biases have arisen from biological differences, and how some are just plain condescending toward both genders. I celebrate our general differences, but I also believe that it comes down to having respect for each other on an individual basis.
I get, for example, helping out with lifting heavy objects overhead. I was pretty strong for a woman, but my upper body strength has increased tremendously since my carefully monitored levels of testosterone have had time to affect my musculature. But when it comes to an understanding of mechanics, I'm still as clueless as ever.
I can't deny that testosterone has changed my behavior. I used to cry to let my rage out. Now, the tears rarely come, even when I'm sad. I am more assertive, but in control. I channel my anger and aggression into running and weight lifting, into creative projects that set me free from pain. I go for long drives and take more risks on the road. I'm less likely to ask for directions.
I process information differently; I've never been much of a talker, but now it's a little harder to verbalize my thoughts. At the same time I can concentrate better on the conversation because I'm fully in the moment-I used to feel a constant, nagging tug that something was wrong, and I was never totally present.
When I was viewed as female, people thought I was bitchy and standoffish because I communicated too stoically. Now, even though my conversation skills haven't really changed, women note how chatty I am for a guy and say that I'm such a good listener.
Men now feel free to joke with me at my expense, but they respect that I can both dish it and take it. We bond.
Quite literally, I have toughened up. My pain threshold has increased. My skin is rougher, tougher, less sensitive. Before T I couldn't tell the difference, but now when I touch my wife's arm and then my own I'm amazed at how smooth and soft her skin is.
Taken individually, these physiological and behavioral changes may seem insignificant-but together they have fundamentally changed my presence in the world. For the first time, I don't fear walking alone at night.
The fear of being attacked and raped never left me when I was perceived as a woman. I was always aware of the possible danger, crossing the street when a stranger walked by, having my keys and mace ready while I made my way to my destination as quickly as possible.
Now I feel safer, because I am not seen as a rape target. I size other guys up, thinking, Yeah, I could take him. But I also have to watch my own body language as a man among women. If I'm not conscious about my stance, I can appear threatening. Women might cross the street to avoid me.
Despite all the changes that I've experienced, T hasn't completely altered who I am. I'm not a techno wizard. (My wife is the tech geek). I don't turn into the Hulk when I'm angry. I haven't gained an interest in sports. I'm strong and confident, but I will always be that artsy guy.
And I've learned that being open to learning, trying to fix things to empower myself, and helping others is one of the manliest things I can do.
Which is why, even though I bristle at the request when I know she's only asking because I'm male, I help the female commuter student with her printer connectivity problem. Even if it means reading the user's manual. As a last resort, of course.