Charlie Sorrenson


We met on Tuesday evenings at the one queer bar in Costa Mesa. There were those among our number who would have preferred to meet at a normal bar, one that reflected their now-status as extremely straight men, but these members knew enough not to say this out loud. The location, with its implications of sidelong glances and drunken mistakes, made the rest of us feel by turns excited (if we were into men), wistful (if we had once been lesbians), or uncomfortable (if we were ace or sober or just introverted as fuck). We weren’t a support group, not technically anyway: Richie, our not-technically-a-leader, preferred the terms meetup crew or Tuesday gang. While he had once been a therapist, he was no longer practicing, and he didn’t want us to conflate this with group therapy; he was simply holding space (as he liked to say) for the transmascs of Orange County, empowering us to meet and socialize and perhaps absorb some comfort from each other and from his own soothing trans-elder energy. People rotated in and out, but the three types of attendees remained relatively fixed: There were the guys named Hayden or Aiden or Carlos, who went to the gym more than most cis boys and wore brand-name muscle shirts that displayed what they liked to call my 10,000-dollar-chest; the Ollies and Lukas and Elliotts, artsy softbois who could be relied upon to drop the phrase male privilege into the conversation at some point every week; and the shy pastel-haired contingent composed of members named for an aspect of nature (River), a two- or three-letter iteration of their birth name (Ash), or something truly chaotic like a single letter or a Greek god (a position occupied, in the group’s current iteration, by an aggressively gender-ambiguous individual named X). It should be noted that our we-ness was of a specific type: We were mostly white, mostly middle-if-not-upper-class; when we laughed, all but two of us revealed teeth shaped by the tyranny of orthodontia. These facts made us fret, they spurred us into fits of guilt. We’ve got to make more efforts to diversify! one of us would inevitably say, and some of us would nod and some of us would look away and some of us would leave and never come back. Those who remained concluded, privately, that we had enough to worry about as it was. We were beardfluffed and bacned, itchy in our ill-fitting skins. Our online avatars showed photos of the backs of our heads or one of those trees that looked like a dancing ballerina. The inner had yet to converge with the outer, and the gap between the two was disconcerting. What might it look like to lean into this discomfort? Richie asked. He was a fat, bald, jovial white man in his sixties. (And why, we wondered, were all older trans men fat and bald and jovial? Was that what we too would become? Terrible thought! And at the same time almost unimaginably wonderful.) What might it look like, he continued, to dwell in the discomfort for a while? But we didn’t want to dwell, Richie—we wanted to leap, to bound! Most of us had started T, and the ones who hadn’t longed to. The hormonally endowed among us watched new hair creep moss-like across our skins and thought faster, faster, even as a sort of terror engulfed us at the thought of what we would someday become. We checked our hairlines daily in the mirror and both longed for and dreaded the moment they would begin their inexorable upward climb. Those of us from more hirsute lineages grappled with the eruption of ass-hair in, like, month two. The rest of us shaved when there was nothing to shave, or else jealously guarded the 20 dark hairs over our upper lips. Dude, we said to each other, looking good, dude. That beard’s really coming in, man. Thanks, dude. Dude! We called each other dude a lot; the expected faction called each other bro without a trace of irony. We ordered baskets of tater tots and descended upon them as we complained bitterly about weight gain on T. We thrilled at the older gay waiter who said, Checking in, gents, how are we doing over here?, and to reward this act of decency we ordered another round of drinks we couldn’t afford, choosing to believe he’d called us gents because we passed as gents, dammit, and not because he’d known Richie for going on thirty years, had seen this group in all its many iterations. We thought a lot about passing. There were those among us who wanted to cast off femininity like a stained t-shirt; who wanted to step, shirtless and preferably musclebound, into the wide grassy world of the lawn-mowing, door-opening, unquestioned Man, caressing with open palm what our fathers had met with fist. The rest of us wanted a passage through masculinity as complex as it was unattainable. What we wanted was for straight cis men and old ladies to look at us and think, now there’s a respectable and fundamentally unremarkable young man. For gay men to cruise us unapologetically; for straight women to take one look at us and discard every interdiction they’d ever held about the height of the men they dated. We wanted butches and queer femmes to look at us and see us, to say, you are still one of us, even if the world insisted that we weren’t, not really, not anymore. We wanted to not feel so damn awkward every time we saw other transmascs; to be able to stand up straight and make eye contact and execute a single, masculine nod. We wanted our new reality, which was that we could walk through late-night parking lots and run in the woods and revel in the exquisite blankness that was the absence of fear. We wanted the femmes we loved to have the same safety, but we couldn’t think about that too hard or we’d never surface from our despair. We wanted to pass, but not to the point where women treated us as potential threats, which they did with increasing frequency—a frequency that shot up exponentially with each degree of melanin in our skin. No, no! we thought, watching the woman ahead of us on the deserted street take out her phone and pretend to be on a call. Don’t you know I’m not like the rest? But they couldn’t, and the reality was that we were. To be a man was to wield at all times a loaded gun; to be a good man was to spend your whole life refusing to deploy it. How could we understand the difference, how could we toe that ambiguous and ever-changing line, how could we gauge our own success at doing so? For answers, we turned to the internet. We found all the transmascs on TikTok. We watched voice-drop compilations until 3:30 a.m. We googled top surgery success stories and top surgery disasters. We googled: how do men wear scarves? We retweeted think pieces about how real men have breasts; liked the photos of transmascs proudly baring theirs; spent hours haunting top surgery forums and dreaming of the day we could rid ourselves of our own. We googled testosterone and depression FTM, testosterone and anxiety FTM, testosterone and suicidality FTM. We made our way from the affirmations of YouTube therapists to the muck of Pornhub with disconcerting speed. We repented; shelled out for ethical porn; ended back where we’d started. We found transmasc porn stars—watched their furry soft-limbed bodies, heard their feminine moans—felt inexplicable disgust. I don’t look like that, we thought. I am not so small, so pathetic, so pitiable—am I? We googled FTM bottom growth reddit and is it normal if…? and why isn’t mine…? 3 inches, we all thought—in what world? We googled 10-step skincare regimens and voice masculinization techniques and whether to shave with or against the grain and the best FTM workouts and—later—can you gain muscle without working out? and trans-affirming therapists and how much you can really drink on antidepressants and coming-out letter templates and and and and and. The question we wanted to ask, but that we knew no search engine or drug trip or god could provide, was: When will I be enough? Failing that, we spent more on skincare products than we had as so-called women. Each time we ventured into the outside world, we left behind beds piled high with rejected outfits. We spent the money we should have been saving for medical care at Old Navy and Foot Locker (Hayden, Aiden, Carlos), ASOS and Uniqlo (Ollie, Luka, Elliott), and overpriced thrift stores (River et al). There were days when we caught sight of ourselves in the mirror and thought, but—that’s me, and the thought sent a thrill from our heads down to our groins. It turned out (much to the distress of the asexual among us) that the horny teenage boy trope wasn’t entirely a construct of the patriarchy. The world was full of hot people; how had we never noticed them before? We made eyes at them and—lo!—some made eyes back. And although the world beyond mere eye contact frightened us, bravely we stumbled into it. In the darkened booth of a club, a woman Carlos had been flirting with plunged her hand down his pants and grabbed his packer. He sat there petrified, glad he’d forked out for the 4-in-1 model that cost half his biweekly paycheck, and after a minute she shouted in his ear, You’re soft, and he shouted back, I’m drunk, and they abandoned the whole thing, and he woke up the next morning and thought, did that happen? did she really not know? and he felt triumph and a curious disdain. X brought a transgirl they’d met two hours ago to orgasm in the cookbook section of the public library in Anaheim. Luka was cruised in the bathroom by a heavyset bear type and went into the stall to blow him out of a strange mix of gratitude and the desire to prove he could give just as good as the cis boys. We were considerate lovers; whatever else could be said about transmascs and our obvious lack, we were pretty sure this was true. How smoothly hatred of our bodies tipped into the worship of others’! How wondrous the sight of breasts on a body not our own, how absorbing the crinkled, ever-shifting landscape of a biodick! We fucked in bathrooms and in bookstores, in basements and cemeteries and strangers’ backyards. And yes—maybe we felt ourselves a little too much. Maybe we drank a little more than our med-laden bodies could handle. Maybe we slept with one too many people in a single night. Could you blame us? After a lifetime of pretense—to welcome the phenomenon of being desired as we wanted to be desired, to charge into it full-tilt? Can you blame me? That’s what we said to each other, gathered around the sticky picnic tables at the dark walled-in patio out back, hunched over our empty baskets, picking at the tot shells that had dropped their soft potato innards as we recounted our exploits in the brief interludes when Richie was in the bathroom or at the bar. Well, the rest of us thought, listening to Aiden talk about the three female coworkers he was stringing along at the gym where he worked, or to Ollie’s story about getting it off with some guy in the alley behind the bar while his date waited inside—maybe you’re to blame a little. But we didn’t say that; we murmured assurances, propped each other up with words we only half-believed, because we understood that the purpose of a group like this—indeed any amassment of masculinity—was to ensure its continuation at any cost. Not that what we said mattered: the crash came one way or another. Remove the fuck from fuckboy and all that was left was a small, terrified child crouched in the furthest recesses of our selves and howling an endless lament, the words of which chased us at all hours of the day, driving us forward, ever forward, because if we paused for too long after the molly comedown or the breakup or for any non-screen-mediated time alone in our bedrooms, the wail would catch up, and what it said was: I am broken, I will never be whole; and who, who could ever bring themselves to love a broken thing? When it did, we descended into places we had hoped to never again inhabit, which only made the whole thing worse: Here, again? we thought. If this is my life; if I am so doomed; what, then, is the point? Our medications and our friends and our therapists kept us alive. Our lovers—the ones we managed to keep, the ones who stuck around because they understood what it was we were trying to become—helped us envision a mode of living that extended beyond survival. They ran their hands over those parts of our bodies we allowed them to touch and assured us that we were perfect, that they loved us as we were, now, not as the someday versions we held in our heads, and there were days when we almost believed them. Some Tuesdays we turned up to the group sullen and emptied of bravado. Because the truth was that none of us wanted to be here. None of us wanted to have the kinds of lives that required a not-technically-a-support-group to begin with. We looked at the others around the table and thought, but I don’t want to be him, or him, or them. What were we aspiring towards? we wondered. Some weeks it felt like all we were doing was fleeing, sprinting full-tilt from the all-engulfing terror of not-that not-that oh-god-please-not-that. One of us—it doesn’t matter who—turned to Richie and asked, with a mocking lilt that did little to disguise the despair beneath, We’ll get the hang of this whole being a man thing someday, right? The question we wanted to ask was: What sort of men will we become? But Richie seemed to understand, for he said, I think the question you need to ask yourselves is, what sort of men do you want to become? And the table grew quiet as each of us considered. Aiden thought of his stepfather’s broad steady hands, tweezing a splinter from his heel when he was still very young; and Ollie thought of the boy he’d loved quietly and unrequitedly for four years in high school, the way he’d flicked his chin back as he told a dirty joke; and River pictured the k-pop boys they loved trailing lace and gender fuckery across the stage; and Ash thought of his therapist; and Hayden of his high school softball coach; and X of the coworker at the supermarket they’d worked at when they were seventeen, who’d let them sleep in his garage for six months, no questions asked; and Luka remembered the friend who’d shown up with canned soup and video games every night for three months straight when he’d been catatonically depressed; and Carlos smelled the rich animal smell of his favorite uncle’s leather jacket, heard again his rolling laughter; and Elliott felt his partner’s hands in his hair as he retched into a plastic bag, their soft steady motion across his scalp, the crooning murmur of, oh honey, oh sweetie, it’s gonna be over soon. And Richie? Richie laced his hands over his fat stomach and leaned back in his chair and smiled an inward smile. Oh to be young! To still have hair, to fuck and fuck up, to tumble like blind puppies in and out of love! Oh, to not yet know! For—he thought, watching us wade through manhood’s murky depths, drawing closer to the flat firm land upon which we might one day stop and decide to build our lives—wasn’t the not-knowing the most glorious part of all?