Since coming out in 1995, I’ve spoken to many audiences about being transgender in my role as an author and teacher. One common question on those occasions has always nagged at me: Given that people don’t tend to read me as transgender, why do I insist on being so publicly out? My answer has shifted over the years, but the recent focus on the sexual harassment and assault that women face has given me my clearest answer. It’s important that people know I grew up as a girl and young woman because my experiences in that gender identity have shaped and still shape who I am today: someone who is not and will never be comfortable being called or considering myself a man.
I only lived 17 years as a girl and a young woman, and I grew up in a safe environment: a small Maine town with loving parents who raised me to speak up and be self-empowered. Though these factors do not shield one from sexual assault—nothing truly does—I am fortunate not to have suffered such abuse.
But as I read the #MeToo entries on social media sites and news outlets, they cast me back to my adolescent years. At 11, 12, 13, I was just outgrowing the category of tomboy that had granted me some self-explanation, and had given me a little room to maneuver in my childhood. I was just beginning to come into a body that, more and more, felt inescapably like a woman’s.
I remember that body; how every woman I saw reminded me: I would grow up to look like them. I dreaded that future. Even more, my body suddenly became subject to public commentary, as if it were on display for others to evaluate. I remember hearing, “I wouldn’t have thought you’d have bigger boobs than Ann,” from one boy at school, as if my being a tomboy had any correlation to how large my chest would get. “You should wear a bra,” I heard from a wide range of mothers and fathers of my friends. Eventually, I figured out a sort of proto-binder—at first a couple of undershirts, extra small, and later the kind of compression shirt worn when you’ve broken a rib—that I donned through the end of middle school and beyond.
When I went off to boarding school in ninth grade, it was an intense relief that most students didn’t go to the dances, where I’d learned in middle school how much boys liked to press up against any girl they could; I was delighted that many of the girls in my dorm preferred to work on their history papers or watch The Princess Bride on a Saturday night. But I was having a hard time with math that year, and I remember telling an older student that I’d made an appointment to meet with my teacher. “Who do you have?” she asked me. I told her my teacher’s name—let’s just call him Mr. P. “Don’t go by yourself,” she warned.
I enlisted another girl from my dorm, I’ll call her Donna, to come to tutoring with me, and the two of us sat side by side in the math classroom with Mr. P standing behind us. He put his hands on my shoulders and leaned his face between us as he commented on our work, occasionally touching Donna’s arm and hand as she wrote out her solutions. He patted our backs and squeezed our shoulders as he told us about quadratic equations. I remember the two of us scurrying back to the dorm that night, giggling and chattering: gross, weird, kind of nasty. We ran to the older girl, the one who had warned me about Mr. P, and she just rolled her eyes. “Come to me for help next time,” she said, and then named a few other teachers we shouldn’t go to alone.
And then there’s the very impersonal. The catcalls and jeers. The comments shouted from passing cars or out of dorm room windows. The men on buses and subway cars who sat down too close, who couldn’t seem to stay in their own seats or manage not to bump against me. There were so many, they all blur together. Sometimes I would jab back with an elbow. Sometimes I would cross to the other side of the street. Mostly, I walked quickly and tried to ignore it all.
This is incredibly mild. Milquetoast. I have had the easiest of times, both as a girl and as a boy. The experiences I have enumerated are barely enough to register on the Richter scale of harassment. And yet, these instances made some of the deepest impressions on me about what it means to be a girl and a woman in this world. This is what women are trained to expect as their due.
Now, I move through the world and pass as a man. I share offices and bus seats and locker rooms with men. I hear how men talk about women when they think there aren’t any women present. And I never feel more like a woman than when I am alone with men. If the #metoo movement has, hopefully, given women the inspiration and power to speak up about their experiences, then it has given me—a transgender guy—the inspiration and power to speak up to the men around me and say, I am not one of you. Though I might look like you, I refuse to talk like you. I refuse to think and act like you. I refuse to easily accept the privilege that calling myself a man might confer.
When I consider that oft-asked question that nags me—Why not just live as a man?—this is why not. I cannot and will not just live as a man because I have lived as a woman, in a body that vexed and confused me, in a body I neither wanted nor understood, a body that carried all the baggage that being perceived as a woman entails. Because of this, I understand that we have to keep talking about gender; we have to recognize what our insistence on upholding the gender binary does to people. Each of us—cisgender and transgender—has to understand that gender is one of the primary ways we structure power in our society, and that society continues to see women as less than men. Because of this, and my early life as a girl, I will never subsume my identity under the mantle of manhood. Call me transgender, or even a guy, but I am not and will never be a man.
Alex Myers is a writer, teacher, and speaker. A graduate of Phillips Exeter and Harvard, he was the first openly transgender student at both institutions. He teaches English at Phillips Exeter and is the author of Revolutionary (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a novel that tells the story of his ancestor, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. Alex runs workshops and speaks at schools across the country on the topic of gender identity and supporting transgender students.
Myers, Alex. “How #MeToo Taught Me I Can Never Be a Man.” Them | News, Culture, and Current Events for the LGBTQ Community, 28 Nov. 2017, www.them.us/story/sexual-harassment-before-transition-and-manhood. Accessed 20 July 2021.