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A Conversation on Breasts, Beards, and Binaries

Gender dysphoria is robbing me of my birthright

The author running in a sports bra and shorts toward the finish line of the U.S. Half Marathon, San Francisco, November 2012. Photo: Ziggy Tomcich

Content note: Medical issues and (by some interpretations) partial nudity.

Yesterday, I was walking home from the bus stop after a lab appointment for my biweekly testosterone injection. It was the first sunny day in what seemed like weeks, and I was uncomfortably warm: In addition to the short-sleeve shirt I was wearing, I had my usual tank top underneath to make my breasts less noticeable without resorting to a sports bra or binder.

My breasts aren’t particularly large, but as I’ve gained some weight, they’ve become more difficult to conceal, even with added layers. I haven’t worn any kind of bra since I transitioned five years ago, and binders are out of the question; the one time I tried to put one on, I had a panic attack. I simply hate the feeling of constriction.

So as I was walking, bra-free, on this warm day, a woman heading the other direction stopped about 20 feet away and stared. I murmured “hi” as I neared but kept walking, hoping she wasn’t going to ask for directions (which I’m terrible at) or anything else. As I approached, I heard her say with quiet astonishment, “It’s a man.”

I hurried past, flustered. Had I misheard her? I did not want to ask for clarification; I dislike talking with strangers, and I got the sense (though it was impossible to tell for sure) that she might have been developmentally disabled. I hadn’t been misgendered as female since growing my beard out several months ago, so I assumed her confusion was about seeing a bearded person with visible breasts.

Headshot of the author, wearing a short beard and hat, May 2018. Photo: Gwen Park

Referring to me as a man wasn’t necessarily misgendering anyway. I’ve transitioned from female to male for legal and medical purposes and accept being addressed as a man on the street even though I’m actually agender. I can’t expect strangers to know I’m nonbinary from looking at me nor do I have the energy or desire to explain my gender to everyone I encounter.

I hate when well-meaning folks tell me to “just be myself” because being myself would mean going out topless, and I simply can’t do that safely.

Regardless, her reaction made me feel like a freak. Any joy I took in the sunshine or in the success of finding a lab open on Memorial Day so I didn’t have to delay my shot evaporated — replaced by a fixation on the body parts that relentlessly announce “female” to the general public. To date, I believe I’m the only transmasculine person I’ve met who neither binds their breasts nor is seeking top surgery. I can tell myself all I want that there’s nothing wrong with me and that I should just ignore other people’s reactions, but it isn’t that simple.

There was a time when I loved running shirtless in the sun. I even reversed a vitamin D deficiency by running frequently in full sunlight with lots of skin exposed. My doctor was surprised, given my medium-tan skin tone, that I was able to achieve a normal vitamin D level without supplements.

However, I always wore a sports bra when running shirtless, as you can see in the race photo at the top of this post. Being topless is technically legal in San Francisco regardless of gender, but outside of nude beaches and certain events, you rarely see topless women walking around here.

Even years before my transition, I felt envious and resentful whenever I saw a shirtless man running outside. Many would see this envy as evidence of wanting to be flat-chested myself, but the true source of my resentment was injustice. I was, and am, angry about living in a society that treats people differently based on how much fleshy tissue they have protruding from their chests.

Having surgery in order to fit in is not an acceptable solution to this problem for me. I’m unwilling to undergo the risk, pain, and expense of surgically altering body parts that I personally don’t have a problem with. The source of my physical dysphoria is my reproductive system and genitals, not my breasts. The dysphoria I experience with my breasts is purely social and part of the reason I’ve spent less and less time in public since my transition.

The author sits topless in Dolores Park, San Francisco, June 2014. Photo: Ziggy Tomcich

One of the few places I felt comfortable being topless in public was at the first Trans March I attended, in June 2014. Though I had begun my social and medical transition months before the photo of me there was taken, I had not yet had my court date to become legally male (that would come two weeks later). When I uploaded this photo to Flickr, I tagged it as “moderate” per their guidelines, acknowledging that most users would see this as an image of a topless woman, regardless of my actual status.

Despite the many restrictive guidelines governing photos showing breasts, there is nothing sexual or indecent about this photo. It’s simply a person wearing jeans, sitting on the grass in a park on a sunny day. My middle-aged breasts are sagging and have stretch marks. After four years on testosterone, they now have some hair on them as well. That doesn’t bother me, but if I were to go out topless now, with my hairy breasts, receding hairline, and beard, I would very likely be seen as a freak.

Some people don’t mind being seen as freaks, even relishing the attention. Others are bothered by it but not enough to prevent them from being themselves. I hate when well-meaning folks tell me to “just be myself” because being myself would mean going out topless, and I simply can’t do that safely.

While it isn’t always appropriate to go topless even for cisgender men, I don’t even feel safe wearing skimpy tank tops or shirts with plunging necklines. I’ve been encouraged by friends to try wearing the tops I prefer to weekly rehearsals with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, which I do consider to be a safe space. But I still feel the need to cover up on the way there and back. Even just going to answer the door at my apartment building, I throw on a hoodie; I don’t want to deal with uneasy stares from a delivery person trying to parse the combination of beard and breasts.

For related reasons, I haven’t been in a hot tub, swimming pool, or any other body of water since not long after I began my transition. I used to hot tub nude with friends frequently and could still do so in select company, but knowing that strangers and casual acquaintances would see me as a woman would be difficult. I own no bathing suits appropriate for my current body; I’ve seen some vintage full-body swimsuits advertised to trans men (and nostalgic cis men), but I’d much rather wear trunks. I could walk around topless on one of our nude beaches, but again, people would see me as a woman or a freak, and neither of those interpretations is acceptable to me.

Today I went for a run, encouraged by my new doctor who, like my previous doctor, sincerely cares about my health and wants to help me get back into a regular exercise routine. I tried to explain to her that I enjoyed running and did want to get back to racing, but exercise itself was not going to alleviate my depression or dysphoria. I resigned to going out very early in the day, hoping for fewer people and a greater likelihood of fog.

No such luck this morning as it was sunny, and, being after 7 a.m., a number of other joggers were out and about. No shirtless men at least but several shirtless women, running in their sports bras, long ponytails swinging to and fro. At least I assume they were women; they could be nonbinary like myself or even trans men. These are the snap assumptions we all make when we see strangers on the street.

I tried to ignore my growing discomfort, sweating under my tank top, shirt, and jacket. Halfway through the run, I took the outermost layer off, hoping that the passing motorists were watching the road and not my jiggling breasts. I ran around the lagoon at the Palace of Fine Arts, trying to enjoy the sight of swans and herons and forget about my body for a few minutes. But my mind would not stop churning, and I felt distressed and physically ill for the rest of the run.

Some might ask why I don’t seek out a trans-friendly gym for my exercise needs. Well, frankly, I hate gyms. I’m fortunate to live in an area with a mild year-round climate and beautiful views, so I don’t want to pay a monthly fee to share equipment and showers with strangers indoors. And running outside is the only exercise I’ve ever been able to stick to; signing up for races provides a good incentive.

What it comes down to is I see running outdoors as my birthright as a human being: Moving my body, unrestricted, while feeling the sunlight on my bare skin, getting a natural source of vitamin D and endorphins. Why can’t I have these things without fear and distress? The “Free the Nipple” movement might eventually grant top-freedom to women, but that won’t help my situation. As long as we insist on associating breasts, beards, or other body parts with gender, dysphoria will continue to fester.

Queer agender trans male. Black vegan atheist, photographer, blogger. Pronouns: they/them/their.,

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