Theo Sterngold, 26, manages a bar in London, where he also writes about gay porn and pets every cat that he sees. He grew up in Southern California and the U.K. and came out as transmasculine a couple of years ago, after a lifetime of “wishing he was a dude.” Like a lot of queer people, though, it was far from the first time he came out to his friends and family. As a trans man who was assigned female at birth and also spent time identifying as gender-nonbinary, Theo has explored gender as a spectrum — a continuum of sorts that’s led him to where he is today, a moment in time that still isn’t completely comfortable for him, even (and maybe especially) among other trans men.
* * * * *
I always thought I was a “fag hag” in high school, hanging out with all the gay guys. Eventually, though, it dawned on me, “Oh no, I’m just super-jealous.” I desperately longed to be a dude, but it was only when a trans friend asked me straight up if I was trans that everything began clicking into place. Still, I think pretty much every gender-nonconforming person experiences a lot of doubt about whether they’re doing the right thing — like, Is this definitely who I am?
For me, the main thing I kept asking myself is, “If I had some sort of magic machine where I could go back and make it so that I’d been born a man, would I do that?”
The answer was always yes.
At this point in my life, I’ve come out to my parents time and time again. I remember being like 16 and saying, “I’m bisexual,” and everyone thinking I was a wild teenager who was being rebellious. The second time, I came out as pansexual and said, “Look, this is serious. It isn’t just a phase.” Then I came out as nonbinary about three years ago. That was a difficult concept for my family. My mom was super-supportive, but she had a hard time understanding it.
She was also the first person I came out to about being trans. It was a couple of Christmases ago, and it was before I’d come out to anyone else. I’d only just accepted it myself. I spoke to her openly about it and thought it was necessary to go through my entire upbringing with her and try to pinpoint every single thing I did as a child that made me realize I was trans.
It’s funny because these memories — or pieces of evidence — might seem really insignificant. For example, when we used to play games as children, I’d always be the guy character. If I couldn’t be a guy character for whatever reason, I’d be like a dog or something. I’d never, ever play as a woman character. If I did, I felt really shitty about it.
I don’t know why I felt it necessary to do that with my mom, but I guess it was in the hope that she’d go back in her mind and remember these things too, and be like, “Oh, yeah, I can see it.” I’m not entirely sure that happened, though. She mainly was just really understanding. She said, “I love you. Just give it some time before you do anything.” It was nice, but I wish she’d been like, “I can see it now, you were always were a boy.”
But she didn’t do that. I don’t know if I necessarily needed her to, but I sorted of wanted it anyway. I thought that would make me even more confident in the fact that I was doing the right thing. I guess you still look for validation in your parents, whether or not it’s the right thing to do.
My mom is more comfortable with me being trans than she was with me being nonbinary because being trans was easier for her to comprehend. I think this is common. Now that trans issues are becoming more and more publicized, people understand them more. Nonbinary people are still more of an enigma. Also, trans people tend to exist within gender binaries, at least compared to nonbinary people, so some cis people have an easier time “getting” the trans experience than the nonbinary experience.
Speaking for myself, having lived as a nonbinary person, it was tough for me to realize that I’m actually a man. I’d been studying gender studies for so long that I didn’t believe in a gender binary anymore. I was focused on gender being totally fluid. I still wholeheartedly believe that gender is totally fluid, but that made it even weirder for me to be like, “No, I’m not a they/them. I’m not a nonbinary person. I’m just a man.” It almost felt hypocritical.
My dad was one of the last people I came out to. He was basically like, “It’s not a big deal. I love you.” I was underwhelmed with his reaction, because I was like, “It is a big deal! It’s a super-big deal, actually!” I know his attempts at minimizing it were his way of trying to be supportive, but I wish he had been like, “Wow, this is huge! Congratulations!”
I also came out to my older sister, who I’m pretty close to. I don’t think she was super-surprised. However, before coming out to her, negative ideas kept popping into my head — like she wasn’t going to think I was serious or that I was doing it for attention. There are a lot of people who think that trans people are just attention-seeking or liars. That’s crazy to me. Like, “Why would we be going through all this fucking shit if we weren’t serious?” Luckily, my sister didn’t think those things and totally understood.
As for being out on social media, I wish I could say that all trans men are queering ideas of masculinity, but in my experience, that’s not really the case. I’ve found a lot of resistance among trans men because I identify as a trans man but I’m not on testosterone yet. Nor have I had top surgery or am constantly wearing a binder. (My body is quite physically curvy and thick, and I have a huge chest.) I’m not super-toned, hitting the gym all the time either. Basically, I’m not super-masc. I feel as much body dysphoria as any other trans person, but when I go out in queer spaces and feel really free to be myself, that will often mean having my chest out.
I find the kind of shit aimed at me online interesting because I’ll see pictures on Instagram of really beefy trans guys who also haven’t had top surgery and have their chest out, but they don’t get any shit. I’m glad young people have a space to express their gender identity, but many also have become super gate-keep-y about it. A lot of meme pages centered on young trans men have some really, really problematic views on dysphoria.
For example, I’ve had a lot of negative responses on my Instagram feed from young trans guys who still very much buy into this black-and-white idea of this is what it means to be a man. They say things like, “You’re not really a trans guy. You’ve actually made me feel more dysphoric by seeing this in my feed.” It’s horrible stuff that’s made me feel really shitty. They have this super-, super-narrow idea of what it means to be trans. It’s sad young people are thinking this way. I wholeheartedly believe that it’s their own internalized transphobia that’s driving such comments and thinking.
The most surprising reaction I’ve gotten since coming out was from one of my roommates. I live with a cis heterosexual couple. We’re all pretty close, but I’ve had some weird reactions from the guy. He’s accused me of stealing his style now that I’ve been dressing and appearing more visibly male. He’s got loads of heavy, gauged earrings and is kind of a hardcore, DIY kid. I literally got one new earring, and he said to me, “I can’t believe you’re copying me. You know that’s my thing, right? That’s my identity. You expect us to use your pronouns and respect your identity — well, this is my identity.” I was like, “Wow, you’re comparing my gender to your earring? Fuck off.” I think he feels slightly threatened, which I find bizarre.
Legally speaking, there was a big thing here in the U.K. a month or two ago where in order to get what they call a gender-recognition certificate — basically, a piece of paper that legally confirms your new gender — you had to have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The problem is it’s really hard to see a counselor who will give you that diagnosis. You either have a three-year wait through the National Public Health Service, or you’re forking over 300 pounds to have a private counselor give you the diagnosis. That’s completely unattainable for a lot of people. Recently then, a lot of people have been arguing that you should be able to self-identify as whatever gender you want and get this gender-recognition certificate without pathologizing it. I agree with them, because being super-dysphoric doesn’t necessarily make you any more or less trans, among other things.
That said, I paid for the private counselor to give me my gender-dysphoria diagnosis so I could get the official paperwork. It was a nerve-wracking, super-stressful meeting. First of all, it was at an office in the bougiest building in Central London. I was like, “Okay, so you can afford this really fancy office because you’re charging trans people 300 pounds a visit just to get this diagnosis.” That sucked. It made me realize how much fucking money this person was making off of trans people.
I’m sure for some people this appointment was a useful therapy session, but for me, I went in knowing exactly what I was gonna say and how I was gonna say it. I did my research and knew exactly what kind of questions they were gonna ask. I also knew that to get what I wanted, I’d have to lie about some of it, so I did. I don’t feel bad about it, though, because I needed it, you know? I also knew that if they didn’t give me the diagnosis after the first meeting, I’d have to pay more to come back for a second — and I obviously didn’t wanna do that.
Essentially, they feel more confident giving you the diagnosis if you’ve been out for a long time. I, however, had only been officially out for about six or seven months. I lied and told them it had been two years. They asked for proof of that as well, so I showed them the changed name on my wage slip at work and backdated another name-change document to a couple of years ago.
I don’t regret any of it, though. Before coming out as trans, I wouldn’t wanna leave the house. I didn’t know why. I thought it was seasonal depression or something. But it was really about how much I hated the way I looked and how people looked at me. I still struggle — even when I’m wearing a binder — because my chest is huge. Unless I’m in a very safe space where I feel completely comfortable, I can tell that I don’t pass.
The good news is that being out as trans-masculine is getting easier for me. For starters, I have a trans-masculine partner who is really, really, really supportive. Plus, I start T, or testosterone, in less than a month, which is exciting. I already have a lot of facial hair, which helps me feel a little better. But T will take it to a completely different level, hopefully erasing more and more doubts along the way.