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Trans Men Contemplate Manhood in New Book

by Matthew S. Bajko
Saturday Jun 14, 2014

The question of what does it mean to be a man is at the heart of a new book featuring essays from a diverse group of men who have transitioned from female to male.

"Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves," published by Oakland-based Transgress Press, explores issues surrounding masculinity and manhood within the FTM community. It aims to move the conversation beyond tales of transitioning and focus it on the 28 contributors' lived experiences and daily struggles.

"There are a number of pieces in there where people talk about why fatherhood is important to them and what it means to be a good dad, especially as a transman," said Oakland resident Trystan Cotten, 45, a straight married black man and professor of gender studies and African American studies at Cal State Stanislaus. "Life is not the same as a cisgender man. Not to say being a cisgender man is easy. But as a trans man you have a different road to take."

(Cisgender refers to individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity, as a complement to transgender.)

Cotten, who transitioned from female to male in 2007, is the book's publisher. He launched Transgress Press two years ago as a platform for trans writers to find an audience.

His company's latest title, released in late May, provides readers with a "much broader, diverse understanding about what it is to transition to manhood," said Cotten.

The book is filled with "beautiful stories of men becoming fathers, husbands, brothers and about mentoring other men," said Berkeley resident Zander Keig, 47, who came up with the idea for the book and co-edited it.

Taken together the collection of essays is "a celebration of being a man and all of the different aspects each of them experience as a result of being men," said Keig, a clinical social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs who works with homeless vets.

Based on the subject matter of the essays, Keig and his co-editor, Boston-based transgender activist Mitch Kellaway, decided to use the phrase "man up" as the basis for the book's title.

"Becoming men, or manning up, is a different take on the phrase, which tends to be a negative thing," said Keig. "We wanted to not reclaim it but reframe it for our purposes."

During his late teens and into his 20s, Keig identified as a dyke. In his early 30s he started identifying as trans, and at age 39, began his medical transition. Several years ago Keig co-edited the book "Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect," which was a series of letters trans men wrote to their pre-transition selves with words of advice and guidance.

Following the success of that book, it was a 2011 Lambda Literary Awards finalist, Keig turned to wanting to spark a conversation among trans men, whose voices are often not heard from in mainstream media or within the LGBT community itself.

"What happened is I was looking for mentors and other men like me I could exchange stories with. There were few and far between," said Keig, who is married to his wife, whom he met 12 years ago. "I thought other people might be having the same experience. I talked to other FTMs who were having a hard time finding mentors and living unapologetically as men. A lot of them don't identify anymore as trans."

Former FTM International leader Jamison Green, 65, a consultant on trans issues who wrote the award-winning 2004 book "Becoming a Visible Man," said too often the discussion around trans masculinity is muted.

"When people think of transgender, they pretty much think of trans women," said Green, who lives in the East Bay and, since February, has served as president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Having written the foreword to "Manning Up," Green called the book a first-of-its-kind effort "to extract and expose trans men's personal feelings about masculinity and what does it mean to become a man."

Far too often, he said, trans men are misunderstood or "are diminished because they used to be women."

One of the book's contributors is Maximilian Wolf Valerio, 57, a former longtime San Francisco resident who is now living in Oakland. He transitioned 25 years ago and identifies as a straight man.

"At some point the man part is more important and the trans part is more and more like a footnote," said Valerio, who works for a tech company and published his own book, The Testosterone Files , in 2006. "It is less something I think about."

For "Manning Up," Valerio repurposed an essay he initially wrote for a gay website back in 1998 about why he is not transgender. He prefers the term transsexual, which he argues is being lost under the transgender umbrella.

"I think being transgender or genderqueer has a political project to it. It is a political term, that has sometimes been my perception," he said. "There are people who see it as a stamp against binary gender. I am not for or against binary gender; my particular transformation from female to male was not a politicized project. It was a medical transition and a personal transformation."

He sees the book as presenting a broad perspective on how to define manhood. And it presents in personal terms, said Valerio, "the beauty and strength and the journey these men take to become who they are."

To celebrate the release of "Manning Up," Transgress Press is hosting a launch party from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 17 at the LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street in San Francisco. The free event will features signed copies of the book for sale and readings by some of the local contributors.

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