by Gaia U Master’s degree graduate, Lawrence Schuessler

My eyes slowly flutter open. I hear the howling of a coyote in the distance. I open my eyes a bit more and wait for my sight to adjust to the light inside of my tent. Condensation covers the interior of the nylon walls. They look dangerously cold. On this early morning in the middle of the desert, I remember how much I enjoy sleeping on the earth. I get up to find the stove so I can boil water for my favorite and last remaining addiction, coffee. I wait impatiently for the water to boil, but I am deeply content with sitting on the ground out here, at ease in my own skin —the skin of a man.

My definition of masculinity stems from my childhood. I remember my father walking around in his shorts getting ready for work; his body was muscular from years of going to the gym. I remember admiring his body and all his hours of work spent sculpting it. I based all of my ideals of what it is to be a man on his representation. Most of these ideas concern the body. As a female to male transgender individual, my body has defined who and what I am for as long as I can remember. Since having top surgery and taking testosterone, my definition of masculinity has shifted to what I say, how I hold myself, and how I fold myself into this society.

As I slowly sip my coffee, my eyes open a bit more to see distant mountains hovering over the valley ecosystem. Slowly the fog rises and reveals the cacti scattered across the desert floor. The desert is a wicked place, full of prickly exotic-looking vegetation and home to some of the most bizarre animal species in the world. The most common ways to die in the desert are dehydration and drowning—too little water in the arid heat or too much water filling a slot canyon in a flash flood. Survival comes from the tension in between those extremes, and it requires constant critical vigilance. I can’t stay in the desert forever, but I can bring that practice to the rest of my life. A lot of people are afraid of the desert and what can happen out here. Not me, I love it here because it is one of the only places that doesn’t judge me based on how I look or my variant gender. The wilderness doesn’t care what you look like, how much money you have or what is between your legs; it treats us all the same. Living in these places ten months out of the year has helped me accept who I am and what I am. The wilderness has helped me define myself, especially the desert. Everything that is living in the desert has struggled to survive. It is a place of low-growing shrubs, dangerous spines, and little water. A saguaro cactus, for example, sends millions of seeds out at a time to find a patch of moist ground. Only two or three will make it, like tiny miracles.

During my teenage years, I sold myself on the streets of Los Angeles, California to support my ever-growing drug habit. Most of my clients were heterosexual middle-aged women, and they really enjoyed fucking a “tough, masculine man,” as they called me, even though I was still inhabiting a woman’s body. What does that say about those women and their definition of masculinity? What does it say about my fierce desire to survive and be seen as the man I know I am? After a lifetime of being with cisgender men, these women were looking for a gender-bending man to fulfill all of their fantasies. All of these women in their mid-fifties were looking outside of their not-so-happy marriages to explore sexuality with a transgender man. I was more than eager to be seen as powerful and superior to that straight, simple brand of manhood. This tells me that maybe something is lacking in the version of masculinity constructed within heterosexual relationships.

What is masculinity to me? A constant enigma defining my life, becoming something new every day. Traditionally masculinity is defined as strength and boldness, concepts that warrant even further definition. Am I of strength and boldness? Is masculinity how others view me? Is it a personal challenge? An ever-changing cyclone of images, cultural ideals and expectations?

In the wild, everything slows down: my thoughts, my body, my world. Out here nothing needs to be defined, everything just exists, and this simplifies me. Out here I can define myself as a man, without even needing that word which holds no value and no weight. I am just another organism working to survive. This simple fact has brought me back time and time again. Every time I come out to the wilderness I remove the shackles of city life, the stereotypes and social norms that I feel forced to follow. Being in the wilderness, I am granted the headspace to define how I am masculine in what I say, what I do, how I move across the landscape, not just by my body. In the desert, I have room to heal from the scars of external judgments, and I’m free to redefine masculinity for myself and others.

Masculinity has taken different meanings throughout every phase of my life. When I was young, it stood for being physically strong, having a muscular body, being dominant over women, and working hard for money to spend at the bar. In my teenage years, when I was trying to define myself, trying to pass, slumping my entire body toward the earth, nearly breaking my back to conceal my chest, being masculine meant smoking cigarettes, taking as many women as possible to bed and being tough. I also started giving myself tattoos during this phase of my life. The tattoos symbolized my pain threshold, which in my mind meant I was more masculine than my counterparts though still trapped in a woman’s body.

During my transition, I lost my definition of “man.” I was looking at my past and putting to rest how I had been living for 27 years and looking to the future, toward how I was going to be able to live now in my new body. My body was a place of shame for me in the past. My body was a reminder of how I wasn’t masculine, how I wasn’t what the world would call a man. I left that world often, finding refuge in the brutal simplicity of the wild.

Now, when I go back to town, I stumble down streets bombarded by billboards of  “real men” telling me that I must wear this product and smoke this cigarette and if I don’t I am not a real man at all. Every day as I walk or ride my bike around I see examples, suggestions of how to fit into this over-masculinized society. Whether it is in the form of a magazine cover in the checkout line at a grocery store, or at the gym I frequent, where the men are trying to lift so much more than they should, I am reminded that all of this is just an interpretation of what we think we are supposed to be acting like.  I find it the most difficult to define my masculinity in the midst of too many influences.

I flip through the pages that are filled with barley-clad women posing on bar tables, horses, even roller skating rinks. Am I supposed to enjoy these images and the accompanying horrible articles because I am a man?  If I do not indulge myself in these types of images am I less of a man? The men I see in the advertisements remind me of porcelain dolls with perfect bodies. Every time I see one of these ads with the men in their little skivvies I want to vomit all over the page. I do not have a perfect body like these models, and I have been trying to sculpt myself for years to fit these pictures, which to me are a representative of what women want in a lover or partner. And after years of trying I have given up, I will never look like these men no matter how hard I try. I will always be just a transgender man who has undergone surgery to try and fit into this society, and to be honest, that is alright with me now. I am working to find a balance between the external and internal ideas of manhood.

In the past, living as a transgender man, I felt that I needed to magnify my maleness, act tough and in control. That was the way I was in my early stages of transitioning, but now, two and a half years later, I am finding balance and constantly redefining how I am masculine, how I fit in this world, in this role, as a man. I guess I have never really changed how I interact with the world; I am still me. I am aware that when I am in a large group of straight men, I tend to ham it up a bit more, to fit in. I never want to be found out unless it is in my power. The thing is, I do fit in because I have an inkling that not all cisgender men can define masculinity–every man has this ongoing battle inside their head every day. Our views are sometimes swayed by advertisements we see or what we hear women want, but we are creating a million different possibilities, making a million choices that collectively become our identities. To me, masculinity means being honest and remaining truthful to who I am and what I believe. It means taking risks, even when I am ostracized for what I believe and for how I walk through this world. Masculinity means doing what is right for me. It means being okay with not knowing the answer to a question, not knowing the driving directions and stopping to ask for help. Today, I won’t always be the one tackling the hard-to-open jar in the kitchen. Today, I won’t be the first to pick up the heavy box. Today, I won’t define being a man by what I have between my legs. Today, being masculine is taking each day as it comes and doing what I do to help others question what masculinity is and what it is not. I live my life, and though I am a man, being masculine doesn’t define me. I am free to define masculinity for myself.