I got in trouble in school exactly one time. In kindergarten, I would chase the boys in my class around on the playground, threatening to kiss them. Once, I kissed Brandon Y. on the lips when our teacher’s back was turned. I know that I got in trouble afterward, but I don’t remember it. All I remember is the thrill of the kiss, and the equal thrill of everyone immediately tattling. When I shared this story with a college partner, he said that it was very on-brand for me. When he was in kindergarten, meanwhile, the girl he liked found out about his crush and emptied a garbage can on his head.
I was, and still am, consumed with boys, with boyishness, with denim and sweat and blunted edges. As a kid, my crushes were overwhelming. I didn’t know about my clitoris until after high school; all the energy I might have spent jerking off was instead directed into intense and constant consideration of the boys I crushed on, and of boys in general.
I wanted to be able to touch whatever it was that made them men and to smell it and hear it and get fucked by it, to have it inside of me and to have it be the cause of my most wildly dis/embodied moments.
The beginning of the end of my local friendships came during an eighth-grade sleepover when one of the girls said that penises seemed gross, and I said that I thought they were maybe actually pretty interesting. I was branded a slut before I even got the chance to do any slutting. When those friendships disintegrated, I replaced them with intense worlds in my imagination, stories that lasted for years and were so vivid that I can still smell the mildew in my characters’ kitchens. They were worlds that featured women only as mothers and sisters. Even though most of my nominal friends were girls and I had no idea what men’s worlds might even be like, I aligned myself with men to the point that when a friend told me that she had accepted a place at a women’s college, I asked her, “Dear god, why?”
In retrospect, my wanting to consume boys was in equal parts my desire to be with them and my desire to be them. I wanted their masculinities for my own. I wanted to be able to touch whatever it was that made them men and to smell it and hear it and get fucked by it, to have it inside of me and to have it be the cause of my most wildly dis/embodied moments. And in some ways, I succeeded. My masculinity is a magpie’s nest of the boys that I’ve loved. I can pinpoint phrases I’ve stolen, styles of physical ease I aspired to, why I use shaving gel instead of shaving cream. Mine is better than theirs, of course — these are, after all, all people who I’ve broken up with— but still, my masculinity owes theirs a significant debt.
And then I discovered my boys mostly weren’t boys at all.
A college partner (we had the same favorite verse of “Hallelujah”) came out to me as trans in a coffee shop in our college town five years after we dated. The unfeasibly cool but somehow still into me emo kid to whom I gifted my first BJ (basement, jersey, TV playing in the background; they had me stop blowing them so I could watch the long shot in Children of Men) is, as per a Facebook post that I tripped over myself to like, agender. Much to my chagrin, the last person to touch my tits before top surgery gave themself a suburban mean girl name.
Not everyone I’ve dated has come out to me as trans, but there are enough of them to be thoroughly damning. The boys I tried to become — cut my hair and changed my name to try to be — are not boys after all. I built my gender on sand.
Of course, my masculinity would be born out of the dregs of people trying to rid themselves of theirs.
It makes sense. I’m genderweird, a huge faggot. When I come out as trans, people often assume that I’m transfemme, and I rarely correct them. I use they/them pronouns; I wear dresses; when natural gender segregation happens, I float between the men’s and women’s spaces. Of course, my masculinity would be born out of the dregs of people trying to rid themselves of theirs. It’s actually rather beautiful, now that I think about it — an adoption of traits on the edge of abandonment. Rescuing things that don’t know they’re about to be cut loose.
And yet I feel defensive. Am I this bad at being a man that I could only learn how from those who failed at it? Were all the lessons I learned worthless? What if, in trying to be a man, I really just had womanhood reinforced deeper into my bones? What if I’ve never really been wanted by a man, let alone by a man as a man, and never really will?
I rung in the new year at an outdoor gay bar in 20-degree weather. As we all jumped up and down and drunk-screamed “Tubthumping,” I made a single resolution: no more sleeping with cis people. Within three months, I had a serious boyfriend for the first time in years, a glitter dirtbag faggot like myself. My boyfriend and the exes share some similarities: They’re all Irish on at least one side, for instance, and tend to think I’ll like the same music (I have never received a mix from a partner that doesn’t have a track by Metric). But there is something particularly whole-feeling about desiring a masculinity that was chosen. My boyfriend came out as trans five years after I did, but it was like his masculinity sprung, fully formed, out of his ears and knees and cunt. (It didn’t — I know it didn’t — but he is so put together and so clear about the things he doesn’t yet know that I sometimes forget.) Desiring his masculinity feels solid, like I’m wanting something with hundred-year-old roots.
Like with the others, I want to climb inside of him, live in the warmth of his skin and caress the sharpness of his bones. But unlike the others, I eventually want to climb back out. To be myself instead of an outpost of him. I don’t have to ache for his masculinity. Every ounce of it is something that he built for himself, and that reminds me that if I want it, I can build it for myself too. His transness lets me see the things about his masculinity that aren’t for me and leave them behind. It lets me grow into the things that I want instead of trying to sew them into a skin that rejects them. I do not need his love or approval or permission to be a boy like him, but I have it. I don’t have to steal when I am able to ask, and he is willing to give.
I wish them well, all the boys-who-used-to-be. I hope that they were able to take from me the way that I took from them. I hope they picked up the femininity that I was abandoning, gave a home to the parts of myself that I loved and hated and don’t want back and miss. But I really hope that on the new year, or their birthdays, on the days when they wake up before their alarms for no apparent reason, that they make the same resolution that I did. I want them to feel the deep, powerful embodiment that I so desperately wanted from them but couldn’t get. I want them to feel at home. ●
Jamie Beckenstein is a writer, tarot reader, oral historian, and community worker based out of Queens, New York.
This story is part of a series about debts of all kinds.