What makes a role model?

For a long time now, my partner, Candace, and I have had a debate going on.  While I agree with her on the surface I have serious issues at the internal level.  What I’m talking about is the impact I have on other women and young girls, and even men to a great degree, just by merely living my life as I do.  Candace contends that I am a positive role model for what a “strong woman” can be and that by living my life as this “strong, masculine woman”, I am pushing the limits for what other females can see themselves doing in the future.  Also, it opens up many men’s eyes to the fact that some women are capable of breaking into male dominated areas.

On the surface, this seems great.  Yes, I have always pushed hard to get to do what I really wanted to do no matter what anyone said about it.  I have a habit of being interested in and wanting to do things that are traditionally male dominated.  My jobs and hobbies have always been things that mostly men do.  I can’t really help this; it’s in my nature.  Everything about me tends towards the masculine.  My interests, attitudes, behaviors, fashion, mannerisms, are all masculine.  On the surface I appear to be a masculine woman.  But at my core I am male.  I now know myself to be transgender.

So what does this mean as far as my “role modeling” for the young girls and women out there?  Isn’t it a bit of a sham, a lie?  Not an intentional one, mind you, but a sham nevertheless?  I’m reminded of my high school trumpet section.  By the time I was a senior we had a majority of girls in the section and I was the section leader.  Today, I am in contact with most of those women and they are so proud of our predominantly female trumpet section of 30 years ago.  It was quite an awesome thing in those days to have so many competent females playing a male dominated instrument.  They all look up to me still.  I was their leader then and I still am in their minds.  But, now that I know who I really am, my feelings around this have changed a bit.  I wonder, if they knew that I really was male all of that time how would that change their perspective on their history.  Would they still be so proud and look up to me so much?

And, today, I own my own business.  Many people look up to me for what I’ve achieved with it.  I am proud too.  It’s been hard and taken a lot of dedication and long hours to get where I am.  A while ago a lady brought her daughter into my shop to meet me to show her that a woman can be good in business just like a man.  I was honored but I also felt the twinge of pain that goes along with not being completely authentic.  I knew that it was important for that woman to show her daughter that she could do anything if she put her mind to it and for her to see a living example of this.

Candace uses these examples of why it is important for me to stay in my female form.  Why it’s important to be a role model of a strong woman.  But the problem is that I don’t feel like I’m a good role model of what a strong woman can be.  When I think of positive female role models I think of women like Oprah Winfrey, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Ellen Degeneres, Melissa Etheridge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, Sally Ride, Candace’s mother and step-mother, Candace and so many many more amazing women.  I could name great female role models all day but the thing that makes them different from me, to my knowledge, is that they all identified as WOMEN.  I don’t.  I am a transgender man.  I may not look like a man yet, but that is who I am at my core.

So, I ask myself, and Candace too, am I REALLY a good role model for young women?  And, by merely living my life the only way I know how am I somehow responsible for maintaining this image, false as it may be?  I think not.  Candace thinks that I do have an obligation to continue.  She thinks it’s more important than being true to myself.  I can’t agree with that.

I think it’s wonderful that so many women look up to me.  That’s cool.  But what would really make me proud of myself is to live my authentic life and not be a role model for just women but to all of the people out there who don’t fit into any of society’s boxes.  How about all of those trans kids out there who don’t have role models?  While there are certainly less of them, that doesn’t make them less important.  And how about men who are taught that there is only one way to be a man?  How could I impact them by being a sensitive, caring man?  I think there are lots of ways to be a role model.

So, when a mother brings her daughter in to see me as a role model I wonder whether that little girl can see herself in me.  Am I really role modeling for her what she wants to grow up to be like?  I doubt it.  Strong, assertive, confident?   Yes.  Transgender male?  Probably not.  Masculine?  Doubtful.  But am I not strong, assertive and confident because I have a male brain?  Would that strength, assertiveness and confidence play out differently if I had a female brain?  I think so.  I often observe Candace, who is also all of those things, and we are very different in how we express those qualities.

I feel a lot of guilt about how my transition will effect those around me already.  I don’t need more guilt over the little girls that I’m letting down by “turning into a man” and how I’m “selling out”.  I don’t think she’s trying to be hurtful by bringing these things up to me and probably thinks that I don’t give myself enough credit.  Believe me, I’m very aware of how the world sees me and what that means.  I am proud.  And I would be even more proud if I could do these things not as a woman but as a transgender man.  Now THAT would make me proud!

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15 thoughts on “What makes a role model?

  1. I’m a scientist. I work in a male dominated field and have fought through tons of sexism to get where I am (such as it is). I have an acute understanding of how sexism plays out in science and mathematics. I felt like I was abandoning women in my field by transitioning and beat myself up for it. But you know what? No one was going to benefit from a stressed out and unhappy version of me. Self-denial is not a way to help anyone. And I can certainly fight sexism in my field in my current, happier, form. Take a look at work and writing Ben Barres for a great example of this.

    (And yeah, I’m a trumpet player too…)

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    • Thanks for sharing your personal struggle around this subject. I am sure that it is a central theme for many FTM folks in the transitioning process. I will definitely check out Ben Barres. I believe you are the 2nd person who has mentioned him in the last couple of days. And, nice to meet another trumpet player too!

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  2. God knows the world needs caring, feminist men and strong, proud transgender people just as much as we need competent, confident women (i.e., a lot). Trans kids are in critical need of role models–women have a lot more options, from a statistic perspective if nothing else. And young men desperately need grown men to show them how to be masculine and respectful at the same time.

    We are absolutely obliged to serve our communities, but we cannot be required to do so by living a lie. We make our best contribution as our whole selves. I think you will serve better as a man than you ever did as a woman. I know I do.

    But that’s all beside the point. The point is that this is your life and this is who you are. The claim here is that you must perform a certain gender role for the sake of the community. Sounds like plain old sexism, doesn’t it? The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. The true message of feminism is not that women deserve to be free. It’s that we all do.

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    • I’ve never thought about it before as a form of sexism but you are absolutely right. I think there is a lot going on in this argument between myself and Candice besides the most obvious.

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  3. The best role model you can be is to be authentic, and only you can decide what form that should take. You can’t be an idealized “Rosie the Riveter” if that is not who you are.

    I think if you have to suppress your masculinity (whether you transition or not), your misery will seep out the edges and be palpable to those around you. Then you will not be a good role model. If it puts you into a depression, then you will even be a worse role model.

    I feel for you, I’ve been through – I am going through – the same arguments with Donna (why can’t you be satisfied with just being butch? what is wrong with being a woman?) and there is no good answer other than “I know what my truth is”.

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    • “You can’t be an idealized “Rosie the Riveter” if that is not who you are.” I love this line! And I love Rosie too! She’s a great example of a symbolic role model for women. But isn’t the message with Rosie that women fill in when the men are gone but go back to being wives and mothers once they’re back? I, personally, found this so disappointing once I understood it.

      I know that the decision to transition, for me, has to be made outside of my relationship and regardless of what anyone else wants or thinks. Like you, I really want to preserve my relationship if at all possible. But, I also know that if I choose to stay in my butch form because of the relationship and not because it’s what I really want to do I will end up resenting her and becoming bitter, depressed (more than usual) and who knows what else. It’s paradoxical in a way but to preserve the relationship I feel that I will probably have to risk losing it. I don’t want to be one of those couples who have been together for 40 years and can’t stand each other.

      I know you’re in very similar shoes and it’s comforting to know that I have company in my middle aged struggles. Thanks for all of the awesome writing you do and sharing your perspectives. It’s very valuable.

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  4. I also played trumpet! (Although I wasn’t very good and I did not enjoy it.) Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspective – really like this post.

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  5. I guess I feel you can be a really good role model for people whether you’re male or female. I get really tired of hearing all about how you’re such a good role model if you’re a woman who does things that men typically do, but I never hear how a man just living his life is such a good role model, and I never hear about how a woman doing things that are stereotypically feminine makes her such a good role model.

    I don’t want to be “such a good role model… for a girl” I want to be a good role model because I’m strong, motivated, and constantly pushing myself to be better and better.

    So… that’s my thought, I guess.

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    • I agree completely! These are my beliefs too and why I get so upset when I feel pressured to stay in female form because I’m a “good role model” for girls. Plus, I think I would be a better role model if I was living authentically and could really be myself. Thanks for sharing your insights and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future.

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      • You inspire me, and I’m just a trans kid, so, go you! Role model for the non-binary people!

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      • Thank you Khai! Don’t underestimate yourself because of your age. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see young trans people following their true paths and insisting on being genuine so young. You are paving a distinct path for others coming behind you to follow their truths and live authentically too. And you’re also making it a little easier for us older folks to put our lives on the right path.

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      • Awww thank you!

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  6. Lesboi – let yourself both follow your truth and know that in so doing you are being still an incredible role model. You are showing anyone who you meet that you can succeed and be all that you can be and are meant to be simultaneously- as a human being. You pave the way by taking risks to live your truth. This is the best role modeling one can offer anyone. And being trans is a huge part of your role modeling path.

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