An edited version of this appeared in TEAM Magazine.
I first saw Balian Buschbaum while watching National Geographic’s Taboo episode “Changing Gender” years back. My curiosity was piqued. I thought the episode would help me understand myself more as a gay man, and how I could explain myself better to people who didn’t seem to get that wearing dresses or being obsessed with Miss Universe is not synonymous to being gay.
Balian—a scruffy, athletic (he was a former Olympian) German—was formerly known as Yvonne Buschbaum, and is a trans man. That means, Balian was assigned female at birth, but he identifies as a man. This concept treads on SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Expression) territory, which a lot of people still do not fully understand. I myself found these as fuzzy concepts, until recently.
As a kid, I simply couldn’t comprehend how two masculine men could fall in love with each other. Society conditions us to believe that relationships are between a man and woman. So, for the longest time, I believed a gay relationship meant that a gay guy acted like the woman, and the other partner wasn’t really gay, just bisexual. (For lesbians, someone had to act like a guy—you get the drift.)
Eventually, these misconceptions were dispelled as I got to know my community. It was an awakening of sorts: I realized the many tribes the gay community had—bears and twinks and jocks. Lesbians weren’t all butch. Bisexuals really existed (and not just as a cover-up for their closeted gay lives.)
This happened as I came to terms with who I am: I don’t see myself as a girl. I am not the biggest fan of the gay club scene. My range of attraction is not limited to a particular tribe—chubby, mature, skinny, muscular, and the list goes on. I have never been and I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Miss Universe (or any beauty contest, at that.)
Though it took me a lot of reconditioning to let go of what I thought it meant to be gay, I would have to say that that was an easier thing to process.
It was more complicated for Alek, one of the guys I work with.
Alek, a 24-year old graphic designer, is a gay guy who likes dolls. He’s into Star Wars and Dr. Who, as well. He has strong opinions against Duterte (if you check his Facebook, you’ll know what I mean.) He’s an atheist, too.
Also—he’s a trans man.
“I was too 'smart' or 'logical' for my own good which prevented me from realizing I was trans sooner,” Alek shares. While other young transgender men would see their affinity for traditional masculine activities as a sign that they were trans, Alek dismissed it as mere refusal to conform. (After all, girls can do boy stuff and boys can do girl stuff—and who’s to say what’s girly or boyish anyway?)
“When it came down to it, there were two things that I knew for sure: one was that I see myself as a guy, [...] and two, that I liked guys and wanted guys to see me as I saw myself.”
To others, it might seem Alek is doing a 360. Why would someone born a girl even want to be a man when she’d wind up attracted to men anyway? (Caitlyn Jenner fielded the same sorts of questions: why want to transition to another gender, when you’re going to fall for women anyway?)
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a ‘What made you gay?’ question, but I have gotten ‘Why be trans then?’ a lot,” Alek says. “It baffles a lot of people that gay trans people like us put ourselves in these minorities within minorities. And on a more ignorant level, it is still very difficult for people to understand the difference between your gender and sexual orientation.”
Just like how I also believed bisexuals were myth until I actually met one, I’ve never really gotten my head around the concept of the gay trans man, until I met Alek. And even within the community, people still struggle with fully grasping the idea of transgender and cisgender. That includes reconciling the fact that trans people are straight—and the people they fall in love with are totally, definitely not gay. This goes back to SOGIE: sexual orientation (gay, bisexual, or straight) is very different from gender identity (cisgender or transgender.)
Digressing: the mere existence of the Miss Gay Philippines pageant, where the contestants are trans women, somehow shows how a lot of people still confuse that a cross-dressing gay man and a trans woman are totally different from each other—the former being mere performance/expression, the latter being an identity.
Which brings us to why a lot of trans people struggle to “pass” as their true identity. Society hammers the belief that real men can’t have tits or a soft voice, and women aren’t women at all if they have facial hair (much more, a dick.) And unless trans people pass the set of criteria society has made on what makes a genuine man or a woman, then that’s the only time they will be considered as the gender they identify with.
When you think about it, the demand for a trans person to disclose their transgenderedness to a potential partner could somewhat be anchored on the idea that there is an element of deceit involved—that somehow, a trans person is lying to someone about being a true man or woman.
“I've met and hung out with a grand total of two guys that I had some interest in, but it never seems to go any further than that and on both occasions,” Alek says.
“Make no mistake, I have suffered quite a bit of transphobia from gay cis[gendered] men, it almost doesn’t compare to the level of homophobia I have experienced from straight trans men…I worry that with gay cis[gendered] men, I might be prevented from completely relating to them because of my being FAAB (Female-Assigned at Birth), while with straight trans men, my gayness and how it manifests in sometime campy ways may cause others to doubt or invalidate my gender identity.
“Do I explain to dates immediately? No. I don't think I ever disclose that unless I want to talk about it, and let's be honest, I really don't like talking about it these days.”
For Alek, the silence comes from genuine fear. “I go between hating the idea of dating sites and apps and wanting to rely on them, in part because of the disclosure issue. This is a huge deal for some people, and it's all too true some people will flip out and have violent reactions to finding out-- regardless of how long you might know them. So I really go from either having that information right on my profile, or never mentioning it at all. The fact that I have to choose between wanting to spare myself any disclosure related anxiety and not wanting to have that one thing that defines me and that people always first think of when they look at me is really annoying.
“I did use to put it out on my profile on OKCupid, and once chatted with a guy who seemed okay at first, but became a creepy chaser real quick. And to be honest, I have nothing against chasers, so long as the person they're with is aware and okay with that. I am not one of those people who are okay with the idea that someone likes me specifically because I was assigned female at birth.”
In her scathing Letterboxd review of The Danish Girl, Sally Jane Black says: “A trans woman is a female, a woman. A trans man is a male, a man. No matter how we are portrayed, no matter what era of our life you refer to, no matter what we ‘look like’ (ugh), no matter what. We deserve the basic respect of being referred to correctly; if I were to misgender you, you would be offended.”
I know I’ve said that I’ve dated all sorts of guys, but when I think about it, would I really be attracted to a gay trans man? What if they did not necessarily pass according to my limited definition of what a man should be—which is having a penis? Do I find Balian attractive because he conforms to my ingrained notion of manliness—the facial hair, the muscles? Am I simply fetishizing this idea of masculinity?
Does a relationship solely need to be anchored on appendages, and not on personality? Isn’t focusing on a particular trait (again, the lack of a penis) and making it as the deal-breaker a very obvious case of objectification?
Wouldn’t we rather dismiss people because they are awful, rather than for lacking characteristics which they didn’t choose for themselves? Wouldn’t it be better to love people for what they have chosen to be?
What it does ultimately mean to love a person, outside of these labels?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t claim to be the most enlightened member of the LGBT community. Even I cave in to a lot of societal pressures. What I think we should we do, however, is to respect these realities outside of our own realms of experience, and keep questioning even our most fiercely-held beliefs.
It takes a real man to do that, after all.
HELLO, MY NAME IS EVAN TAN.
I'm a writer and communications professional based in Manila, Philippines. Outside of my regular job, I like to travel, work out, volunteer, watch movies and plays, go to art galleries/ fairs and museums, read books, and eat vegetarian food.
More about me here.