Brotherhood, no rules
“Brotherhood, no rules” is an excerpt from an upcoming memoir about the author’s journey of gender awakening.
By Lys Morton
Illustration: Teigan Mudle
Humans are inherently social creatures, seeking out groups that cause our mirror neurons to light up like a prairie lightning storm. We strive to see ourselves in others, and to understand our self in comparison to those around us. So, the logical next step, once I had stumbled out of the closet, clutching the identity of Trans-Masculine Agender, was to dive headfirst into whatever communities I could find – a task that became incrementally harder as I went along.
Even in 2017, searching for in-person support groups in Calgary turned up just a handful that seemed to fall into two categories: Those for people under 21, and those for people interested in finding relationships. The under-21 groups further solidified my notion that I was somehow behind the curve in this whole transition game. Folks my age already had their shit figured out and were happily ticking along on their journey.
And joining a group in a city I would be leaving in under a year, to head back to Nanaimo and university, also felt like a sure-fire way to lose any support I might find. My connections needed to be ones that could travel with me. And I knew just where to look. Fortunately, or maybe not so fortunately, I had been spending a lot of time on Facebook.
Searching “Trans-Masculine Agender” on Facebook doesn’t give the clearest batch of results, but I did find some groups using names and terms that I was slowly becoming familiar with:
Trans and Nonbinary Post-Op Support
FTM Support (Straights only)
FTM Brotherhood * No Rules
FTM Guys for Real
FTM was shorthand for Female-to-Male and, I tried to convince myself, male was really just shorthand for masculine. I didn’t have to fit 100% into the box that these groups were initially designed for – I just needed somewhere to get some answers and tips as to what the hell this transition deal was supposed to look like. I finally had a starting place to figure out the pain I was learning to call dysphoria.
Still, my initial search didn’t seem to provide me with a team trying to piece together the same puzzle I found myself with. I wasn’t a girl, was never going to be a girl, had no future as a girl. But I couldn’t possibly be a man, right?
There was too much hurt if I was actually a guy. Hurt parents, hurt siblings, and hurt self – the one that was still trying to unload years of abuse from men my age.
Of all the groups, FTM Brotherhood * No Rules had the most potential. I could pretend to be like the rough-and-tumble guys in the members list. A good many had similar profile pictures: A leather vest framing a shirtless chest boasting two bold scars and at least one tattoo, their hand thrust towards the camera, clutching a vape or a beer bottle, or flipping the camera off.
I didn’t see myself picking up any new bad habits. I was already broke enough trying to save up to return to university. But I might be able to rock a leather vest somewhere down the road. I would have to bedazzle it somehow, make it more gender neutral. If I was going to be Agender, I couldn’t let myself get too masculine – that would defeat the whole purpose. Or, if I was going to be that masculine, I might as well pretend I was a trans man and just get on with it.
So I joined. My decision on appropriate profile picture could wait until later.
A new feature was rolling out through Facebook groups around this time, with admins being able to post a list of rules for members to abide by. FTM Brotherhood * No Rules was proudly above such things, but they did have an extensive list of what they called “suggestions.” The wording shifted from time-to-time, usually after one post or another became excessively heated and an admin would step in, which in turn prompted protests that rules were being implemented, freedoms stepped on, and that things weren’t clear in the “suggestions” in the first place. But they usually went something like this:
- Don’t cry if someone doesn’t think you look like a dude. Figure out what’s wrong and change it.
- Don’t bitch about your girlfriend. None of us care that you don’t have a dick.
- No crying if we tell you to ditch the makeup. This is a group for guys.
- Don’t go calling any little thing that makes you upset transphobic/racist/derogatory. We’re just dudes talking.
- No freebies. Work for your shit.
The “no freebies” line was largely in reference to the kind of post that would pop up once a week, from a brave soul hoping to garner a bit of help.
Anybody have a chest binder they’re not using?
Any packers lying around collecting dust?
Anybody not using their trans tape?
Then they would be promptly dogpiled by members reminding them of the suggestions-that-were-actually-rules.
But finding resources is hard. Items used to combat gender dysphoria usually end up being labeled as “novelty items” and tucked away in the back corner of stores like Whispers, usually with little information provided. Poke around online for places to shop, and you’ll most likely come across a sex store asking you to verify that you’re of legal age before you can look. An odd level of shame starts to weave itself through you when the very act of just trying to go through day-to-day life continues to be shunted into the same category as kink play.
So, you turn to the community you’ve recently found, hoping that someone can give you some guidance. Maybe someone’s feeling generous. Or maybe they can point you to a store that hasn’t classified things that might actually save your life as “alternative play items.”
I had been trying to find the best place to purchase a chest binder. It was a drawn-out process. I bounced back-and-forth as to whether the purchase would be worth it, seeing as I would never be able to wear it to my job as a classroom aide in a private school for disabled and neurodivergent kids. Binding your chest, thus constricting your breathing, is not recommended when you’re chasing down seven-year olds on a day-to-day basis. Too much movement and you might even break a rib.
But I needed to do something to feel like I was moving forward. Name and pronoun change only seemed to do so much, and I was still leery about taking testosterone. Maybe if I started feeling the slightest bit better in my skin, I could figure out the next step?
Searching through the group, trying to suss out what was going to be the best binder for me, desperate not to waste $50 on the wrong size or style, I was going in circles. Posts about binders and resources were vague, largely tailored to guys nearly half my weight, and worded in a shorthand I had not yet mastered.
GT2B nude or Underworks half? Recovering from dog ear removal and want to keep swelling down.
Loving zips for kitchen work. Defs pushing time limit, nice to unzip at break.
Nude or black for swim?
Shape Half is a gamechanger for the bedroom.
On my umpteenth refresh of the page, having gone through all the previous posts that week and seemingly just waiting for something new, I hit gold. Another member, obviously braver than I, had posed my question.
I’m a heavier set guy, looking for a binder. I know I can’t be completely flat, but what one is going to get the closest? Please, I’m really desperate right now.
I clicked the time stamp for the post so I’d be able to get back to it, then opened another tab to keep searching. Give it 10 minutes, return, and see what people had recommended.
Excited about finally getting an answer, I gave it eight.
My excitement was quickly snuffed out.
The first 10 comments all read roughly the same.
No freebies. Read the rules.
From that they quickly digressed to more personal ones.
Lose some fucking weight and you might not have to bind so much.
Start working out and your chest will sort itself out, I did it, quit asking for special treatment.
Aww, you’re desperate? Should have thought of that sooner.
A comment here or there would name a brand of binder, but that info was quickly buried. Maybe it was the educator in me, maybe it was because I was trying to develop learning plans for my class, but the lack of useful replies or attempts to help hit a sore spot, and I started writing without thinking.
Yo, some of us are still really trying to learn this stuff and don’t have answers. And some questions haven’t really been asked in this group yet.
Just about immediately, the “new comment” bar appeared at the bottom of the thread – a feature that has long since been replaced by three bouncing dots and the anxiety-inducing “someone is typing a comment.” The newer feature might have saved me the let-down to come. I’d have grown anxious enough to leave Facebook and find something more useful to do.
Instead, I clicked “new comment.”
Get over yourself.
Grow up already, quit crying about it.
Figure shit out like the rest of us have had to do.
A couple more in that vein, and then a longer one popped up.
You’re just another trans trender looking for attention. Go cry with the lesbians already, girly. You fucking make me sick, bitches like you pretending to be trans so that people will pay attention to you. Either be a man or fucking get over yourself already.
There was a lot to unpack there, and I wasn’t going to. My “run and pretend everything is okay” habit had worked for this long, right?
Except it hadn’t. And I sat there staring at the comment, letting it pull at the threads of an identity I was just starting to weave together. Was it dysphoria if I hadn’t really known since I was a child? Was it dysphoria if I was putting off purchasing a binder for this long? Was I really trans if nothing changed but a name and maybe some pronouns? Was this just some sick way for me to garner more attention?
I didn’t have all the words for it yet, did not understand the nuances of dysphoria and how these very thoughts played into it. I had yet to understand how much all those years of trauma inflicted by peers now played into this turmoil.
All I knew was that I didn’t want to become like the men I was interacting with in these groups. But I didn’t really know where else to go. Logic would suggest maybe trying another group, but the not-trans-enough I was fighting with had me convinced that I didn’t belong in any of the other groups I had found. If I didn’t belong in the “no rules” catch-all groups for anyone who identified as a variation of masculine, how could I justify stepping into ones tailored for specific populations of the trans community?
On top of that, the list of alternatives was growing smaller. I had seen daily posts talking about other trans masculine groups that were a toxic stew of infighting. Logic suggested that maybe those weren’t groups worth joining. I was desperate for community, but I wasn’t exactly eager to include more drama in my life on a good day, let alone when I was also trying to simultaneously navigate transition, teaching, and getting back to university. Maybe it was better to stay where I was and hopefully find better people.
I had risked a post here and there before, and was grateful for the members, few as they were, who had laughed at my jokes about staff who continued to misgender me, or cheered when I recounted tales of my students screaming bloody murder in my defense. For the members who were slowly providing me with language around dysphoria. For the few stories that cropped up of fathers who’d finally accepted this new path. As fragile as they were, these threads of community had formed in the handful of months I’d been a member. And they’d been enough reason to try to stay.
But all good things come to an end.
With summer approaching, I found myself transitioning again, pun intended. My job as an aide was winding up, I had been hired to work one-on-one with two of my students over the summer, and I had finally been enrolled in all of my classes for the upcoming university year. Meanwhile, FTM Brotherhood * No Rules was falling prey to the same infighting that had swept through other groups.
It started with a simple post, as it always did – a picture of someone who was obviously rocking the androgyny phase of transition. His look was familiar: Prosthetic facial hair clipped down to a fine stubble, eyelashes for days, the familiar “long on the top, sides shaved down” haircut that teenage boys and butch lesbians seemed to fight over every season, and a mixing of steel-grey and military-blue eye shadow that somehow created an illusion of metallic eyelids.
Something about the look gave me pause, a sort of perplexed curiosity that, up until that moment, I’d only felt upon seeing my bear of a cousin in his drag persona. That’s “bear” as in a gay man sprouting muscle and hair for days, usually including a Ron Swanson-style ‘stache. Yet he’d taken that masculinity and added eyeliner that was sharp enough to cut someone, a flawless skin complexion, a wig that shone, and eyeshadow that glittered in the light of the camera flash.
I’d always shrunk from any example of men interacting with femininity. How could they glam-it-up without feeling like a knock-off girl, a bearded lady? Performing drag isn’t the same as being trans, of course, but transphobia is a stock response to it, particularly from those who’ve never bothered to understand the difference. And this particular flavour of transphobia, tied up as it is in mysogyny as well, is so woven into our society that even I grappled with it, finding myself yet again mimicking the men I wanted nothing to do with. The thought of wearing makeup sent me into a dysphoric tailspin that would usually leave me stalking around the house and swearing under my breath.
Yet the look in the photo was oddly appealing.
I scrolled to the comments of this particular picture, a little spark of courage in my wanting to ask how someone might go about recreating this look. That spark was met with the drivel I should have expected.
What? So you want to be misgendered at this point?
Don’t come crying to us when people call you a lady. You’re not even trying.
You look like all of my exes. Bitches be wearing $80 worth of make-up.
What’s a girl doing in a group for guys?
On and on the comments went, and that little spark was once again quickly snuffed out. Because they were right, weren’t they? I had been actively avoiding anything feminine for most of my life. Why would I jeopardize all that work now just for some crummy makeup? Why would I ever subject myself to all the ridiculous things women played with if I was trying to be read more male?
Dysphoria was now wringing me for everything I was worth, feeding a fight-flight-freeze response that quickly shifted to the lesser known appease-to-please. As the comments continued to pile up, I found myself starting to agree with them. For the rest of our lives we would be fighting to be seen as “not a girl.” Why would anyone willingly add fuel to that fire? Should we not actively try to blend in with the average guy at every turn? Didn’t battling dysphoria mean avoiding anything that society deems feminine?
I was grappling with whether to toss my questions into the trash heap of the comment section, thus aligning myself with the same people who had triggered my current panic response, when a fresh comment caught my eye.
Cis guys wear makeup and are applauded for it. Their makeup doesn’t make them any less of a man. So why the hell can’t we trans men do the same thing? Some of you need to grow the fuck up.
I paused at the comment, taken aback by the simple logic behind it and how much it clashed with my current state of dysphoric thinking. Makeup was bad, dressing fancy was bad, anything that could remotely relate to femininity was bad.
Simply because we were trans and running away from any sense of femininity as quickly as we could. Or, at least, I was.
But now that notion began to clash with a new thought born from that single comment. Slowly the thought turned over and over in my head, and began to untangle itself as I scrambled through the last few weeks of the school year, wrangled together all the paperwork for my students, held one last party with my coworkers, and headed off to work with my summer students at camp. And somewhere between Heritage Park in early August and university in the first week of September, it stopped tumbling about and grounded itself.
Femininity itself wasn’t bad; the dysphoria wrapped around it was.
Hurt people hurt people.
In the chaos of dysphoria, how many of us had been lashing out at anything feminine simply as a kind of fight-flight-freeze response? How many of us were mimicking the only community we had found so far, this more-male-than-you one, and perpetuating that response? And how many of us were trying desperately to copy whatever over-the-top male trope we could find, in an attempt to flee this specific brand of dysphoria, this need to no longer be socially related back to femininity.
Running from it wasn’t going to make it go away. Trying to run from dysphoria in general for the last 16 years had only gotten me into my current predicament, struggling to untangle an identity wrapped up in years of anger and abuse, desperate to switch out gender dysphoria for gender euphoria.
Maybe it was time to look for role models outside the Trans community. Piece together my own form of masculinity, one that didn’t define it as anti-feminine. Take the bits of language I’d learned in FTM Brotherhood * No Rules and use it to shape at least part of the foundation for this other brand of masculinity. Instead of running, I’d face my particular dysphoria beast head-on and untangle the hot mess it had wrapped me up in. I’d leave this particular Facebook group and search out anyone who was a few steps ahead of me on this particular path.
And if all of that led to a little bit of drag in my future, all the better.