The Making of a Man
“The Making of a Man: Notes on Transsexuality” A book by Maxim Februari, translated from the Dutch by Andy Brown
Maxim Februari knows all about the effects of testosterone. He began taking it in 2012, the year he announced that he was no longer going to live as the woman Marjolijn Februari. In his provocative new book, “The Making of a Man,” the Dutch novelist and newspaper columnist reveals with humor and insight what a body in transition goes through under the influence of testosterone: a deepening of the voice, a broadening of the shoulders (which required new jackets two sizes larger), a coarsening of the skin, a thinning of the hair at the temples along with the appearance of sideburns, and a strengthening of the muscles (“Every object that previously I could barely lift, I now just pick up and put down again a few metres away without the slightest effort”). Though the body undergoes its major changes in the first two years of treatment, the testosterone doses go on for life. Februari describes the options: pills, which he says are least popular; a gel applied to the body daily; or shots every week, every two weeks or every three months, which he says most people prefer.
While details like these illuminate the journey of the transsexual, Februari has created something far more than a portrait of gender evolution. With celebrities such as Bruce Jenner drawing attention to the issue, Februari has done our culture a service by producing an etiquette book for those who may not know how to talk to friends, neighbors or strangers undergoing a gender transition. “If I can contribute to a better understanding” of transsexuality, he writes, “I am willing to say something about my body and my feelings.”
His intellect and honesty allow us to see gender, in all its manifestations, as simply one component of the complicated human experience. Februari leads us away from a common belief that our perception of ourselves as male or female is determined by our genitals. As the German doctor and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld wrote in 1917, “A person’s gender has more to do with their soul than with their body.” In Februari’s perspective, “gender is the mental, immaterial aspect of your sexuality, how you see yourself and how others see you.” Early in his life, Februari experienced a disconnect: He did not feel he belonged to his female body. He had what is called gender dysphoria, “the feeling that something is wrong with the role you have been allotted.”
Februari notes that discomfort with one’s body is not a condition experienced only by people like him. “Hardly anybody has a body that fits them perfectly,” he writes. The huge industry of cosmetic surgery that alters people’s noses, chins and other body parts is proof enough. “There are born women who undergo surgery to feel more feminine, born men who take male hormones to become more masculine,” he adds. “In a certain sense, they, too, are in transition.”
When Februari finally decided to live as a man, at age 49, he encountered every possible reaction, usually from well-meaning people. Everyone sought the right words; they were curious; they asked questions (often inappropriate ones); they wanted to be encouraging, sympathetic, understanding. But mostly the conversations, Februari writes, were “stuck in shame and shamelessness.”
To ease embarrassment all around, and to promote meaningful discussion, he came up with this slim volume. He doesn’t shy away from addressing the ugliness that transsexuals encounter — the violence, the discrimination, the criminal repercussions in some nations. He ponders questions of love and loneliness: What happens in a relationship when one person undergoes a transition? He refers to “alarming figures” showing the high incidence of divorce or abandonment after one partner changes gender. “But,” he says, “I get a much less dismal impression from stories I have heard myself. Existing relationships often seem to survive, while singles are remarkably successful at entering into new ones.”
Februari’s primer on etiquette aims to sensitize people to a range of transgender faux pas that crop up in everyday conversation. These include some inappropriate questions:
“What is your real name?
“Your new name is your real name now.
“Have you had surgery yet?
“Asking someone about ‘the operation’ amounts to asking them about their genitals. Is that decent? What did your mother teach you about asking embarrassing questions?”Journalists often ask Februari about his sex life. “Do I still have a sex life? And how? Do people still want to have sex with me? Let me make this clear: every question you wouldn’t ask any other guest on a talk show (‘How big is yours? Is your wife happy with it?’), you don’t ask a transsexual guest either.”
And inappropriate terms:
Februari was once angered when a journalist asked him if he was a (s)he. “What she meant to ask was whether I am intersexual: that is, whether my body is literally so ambiguous that I am neither man nor woman. … If someone calls himself ‘he’, why would you say ‘(s)he’?”
“Slightly less objectionable, but still unacceptable, as it suggests that you have suddenly become two people.”
And “nonpliments” (intended compliments that have the opposite effect):
“Wow, you look just like a real man.”
“You used to be such a nice woman.”
“You look better than all those other transsexuals.”
And finally, the penis question.
Februari recounts the times civilized, highly educated people have talked bluntly to him about penises — often while sipping tea at a reception. People make a point of coming over to him and saying they don’t want to talk about his transition because it’s very normal and there’s no reason to feel awkward about it. Then something happens. “After we’ve shared a few moments together of staring at the floor in profound silence,” he writes, “they will suddenly look up and ask: ‘Do you want a penis?’ As if they have a spare one that they want to get rid of.”
He understands the fascination with genitals and offers this anecdote to open a discussion about the reality of transsexual men and their penises. He explains that testosterone causes the original sexual organ of the transgender man to grow, “to the extent, in fact, that a transman is unlikely to feel that he has no penis.” He speaks in general about many men he’s followed during their transitions, and they all report “at regular intervals on how much their voice has dropped, how spectacularly their biceps have grown and how much they have grown ‘down below,’ as it is discreetly referred to by all concerned.”
But should a man seek more of an organ by surgical means? It’s a question each man must answer for himself, Februari says. As for how much he will talk about his own organ, he rightly chooses to be discreet, though the inquiries keep coming. “OK, so what were we talking about?” he writes. “Oh, yes. My penis. Do I want a penis, do I have a penis, what kind of penis, questions, questions, questions. Well, next time we meet in the foyer of a concert hall, feel free to raise the subject, but I’m afraid you’ll never get an answer.”
Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and the author of “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder in Belle Epoque Paris.”
©2015, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers GroupWAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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