As a trans man, Max Simensen says he has unique insights everyone could learn from

as a trans man, max simensen says he has unique insights everyone could learn from

Max, pictured with his wife Mags, says he has gained male privilege but also isolation since affirming his gender a decade ago. (Image: Margan Photography)

I was 17 when I first went into a men’s public bathroom, and it was a freaky experience.

The silence was disarming.

I thought no-one was talking because I was there. I was an alien in a new universe that I had to get used to.

But as I continued to use men’s public bathrooms, I realised it wasn’t me. There was something else going on.

There’s a social custom for men to stop speaking on entering, even if you’re with your dad, brother or best mate. Talking to another guy in the bathroom is seen as strange or even insidious. Eye contact with another man might raise alarm bells.

You get in, stop conversing, only look at the ground, piss and get out of there.

This is a glaring contrast to women’s public bathrooms, which can feel like stepping into a feminist support group. The chatter, the laughter, the occasional tears and waves of support for those crying makes for a heartening sense of camaraderie and solidarity.

I could be in a women’s bathroom for 2 hours and have the time of my life.

The difference between these two everyday experiences is one of my go-to comparisons to highlight the differences in how some men and women live — often directly in parallel to each other, but rarely discussed or thought about.

How did I discover this? I’m a trans man. I spent the first 17 years of my life using female bathrooms, and I’ve spent the last 10 years using male bathrooms.

The differences are stark, but if you’ve only ever used one bathroom, you wouldn’t know.

I was assigned female at birth and socialised as a woman for 17 years. After a handful of identity crises, I met a handsome trans man at a house party when I was 16. I’d never heard the term transgender before and had no idea that medical or social transition was something people could do.

In that moment, hearing about this man’s experience, something clicked for me.

It set off an out-of-body experience where I rapidly pieced together feelings, experiences and memories from my childhood. In that moment, I realised this could be the explanation for how I’ve felt my whole life.

Immediately, I felt utter despair. Yet I also felt a wholeness within me. I realised I’d have to make a choice: live like this, really disconnected from myself, or accept that I might lose everything to live as myself and just figure it out.

A million thoughts ran through my head.

What would this mean for me? What could I even do about it? Would people believe me? How could I be sure? Would I have to choose another name?

All this before I’d even thought about any social, biological, mental and cultural changes.

I knew I had a long journey ahead.

These days, while many people want to know about my personal transition (including wanting to see my before-and-after photos), I’ve realised there’s something else from my journey I can share that could benefit everyone.

Trans people have a unique understanding of how gender is experienced by different people. And I want to share some of what I’ve observed and understand about living in two very different worlds.

Handshake protocol

During my transition, one of the things I had to learn quickly was the social etiquette of handshakes.

I went from greeting men with a hug to shaking hands. Men began to squeeze my hand with a tight and intense grip. This threw me and I remember once pulling my hand away and saying: “What are you doing?!”

We both stood there in confusion.

It turns out that’s how many men shake hands with each other — and I had a steep learning curve ahead to perfect this ritual.

I learnt that it’s important to look into the eyes of the man you’re shaking with, to enter the shake with palm-on-palm precision and appropriate grip strength, and to have a clear understanding of the ideal duration.

I’m still working on it.

Brutal truths

A more important realisation was that I can now be out alone at night, without fear.

A few years back, I was walking late at night and there was a woman in front of me. She looked over her shoulder and suddenly appeared fearful.

A man must have been following us, I thought. Intuitively, I looked over my shoulder too. I was terrified because I couldn’t see him.

My instinct was to approach the woman, to cluster in the relative security of female solidarity.

She looked back again; I looked back again — and then it clicked: I was the man she feared.

It was mind-blowing at the time.

This was also the first time it occurred to me that I was perceived as a potential perpetrator based on appearances alone.

There were other changes, too.

I play video games. It’s something I’ve always loved doing, before and after my transition. It’s been a space for escape — but also a place where misogyny and harassment can thrive.

When gaming, you have the option to turn on your microphone and chat to other players. Something I noticed when transitioning was my increased comfort in chatting to other players. Why?

Generally, the response from other gamers when you chat varies greatly depending on the pitch of your voice.

If you have a feminine-sounding voice, it can lead to an onslaught of verbal abuse, harassment and misogyny from players online. Many women and queer people do not use a mic on open gaming platforms for this reason.

These days, I come off mute more frequently. I often forget that my voice is different now, as I constantly hear men who have their mic on throughout the entire game.

As a woman, you’re made constantly aware of how much sound you’re making where it seems that men aren’t conditioned to be attuned to that at all.

A life less interrupted

I’ve also noticed I don’t get interrupted in professional or personal settings nearly as much anymore.

It’s strange to be in a room where, when I start talking, other people stop.

My opinions and ideas have also stopped being so heavily scrutinised or as regularly challenged. Responses to my ideas have changed from a “No, because” or “Have you thought of” to more of a “Yes, and”.

Formerly my experience was that, at work or just in life, it felt like the burden of proof with anything I said sat with me as a woman. I would have to have a full case mentally prepared for what I was about to say.

Now I find I must be extra cautious because people can assume that what I’m saying is correct or factual, rather than just my thoughts.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people no longer expect me to organise gifts, food, or plans in general.

At work I’m no longer asked, or expected, to organise gifts for farewells or birthdays, morning teas or lunches, or plans like booking meeting rooms, sending invites, taking minutes or extra administrative tasks.

In the past, I would be delegated tasks like this. Now if I do any of these, people are genuinely impressed.

I’ve also realised that in the office, or outside it, there is no longer any discussion about what I eat.

I still sometimes struggle to eat in front of other people, because in the past I experienced commentary on my eating.

Now, no one talks about it anymore. At all. People no longer have an active awareness of my diet — or at least don’t comment on it.

Paradox of privilege

People act like there are such biological and cognitive differences between men and women. Like, chemically.

But, from what I’ve seen, a lot of the perceived differences between men and women are social. The differences are ones that we construct.

Things like where and how you were raised, cultural background and class — all those things would impact significantly more than testosterone.

To me, the hormones and the biology seem like the fine print. I’m more “Max” than I am “man”, and I know that our values and personality make up so much more of us than our gender or sex.

I know that Max, as I am now, is me being my most authentic self.

Yet there are things that I valued before that I miss, like the interpersonal flexibility that you get with people and how you connect.

A lot of what’s expected of men is super rigid and really suffocating. And when you do something out of those expectations, it’s often perceived as weird and therefore potentially dangerous.

Men are taught to fear anything outside the rigidity of masculinity, and underneath that is a fear of being perceived as anything like a woman.

There is a paradox in all this because I’ve inherited a lot of male privileges in a sense. But for me, I also get the isolation.

People often misinterpret privilege as a sense that the privileged person’s life is amazing. To me, it is the absence of certain adversities or obstacles faced by other groups of people.

And what I’ve come to realise is that perhaps if more people understood the obstacles the other groups faced, the world would be a much fairer place.

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