u/sololover was at loggerheads with u/everlastingloss. u/sololover had left a snarky comment on a post by u/runforthehills81 that asked about the ethics of entering a half-marathon as a ‘female,’ even though that was not how u/runforthehills81 identified and even though they had been on testosterone gel (two pumps a day) for over six months now. Was it OK? u/runforthehills81 had asked. Was it fair? Despite their handle u/runforthehills81 was still pretty new to running and exercise generally and had not yet had top surgery (though they intended to). The race in question only gave the options of entering as a male or a female, and u/runforthehills81 had the uneasy feeling that if they entered as ‘male’ all the cismale competitors would stare at them (their unbound chest especially), but what if they entered as ‘female’ and some of the women accused them of cheating? What then?
‘Nobody will care,’ u/sololover had said.
‘Don’t be a dick,’ u/everlastingloss had commented on u/sololover’s contribution.
‘OP is asking a genuine question. Show some respect.’
‘I’m just telling it as it is,’ u/sololover had answered, almost immediately. ‘All
anybody will care about is making it to the finish line or beating their own PB. Plus, it’s a known fact that the gap between men and women’s capacities in long-distance running is increasingly negligible compared to short distance. It’s a bit like tap dancing.’
‘WTF tap dancing?’ u/everlastingloss had responded.
‘Now who needs to show some respect?’ u/sololover had typed. From there the
cascading conversation had whirlpooled and become increasingly terse and uncomfortable. u/runforthehills81 had not returned to the thread. If you clicked on their profile, you could see that they didn’t post often. This was their first ever post on the r/askanythingtransgender discussion board – and, our heterosexual cismale protagonist thought as he read this exchange, his mouse cursor now hovering over the solitary selfie u/runforthehills81 had posted in an open-to-everybody subreddit titled r/amihot, possibly their last.
It had taken him a while to decide on a name. He’d wondered at the inventiveness of so many of the handles he’d encountered during his first weeks of scrolling through the trans-orientated discussion boards he’d accidentally happened on, having Googled something about low testosterone, because that was a problem he thought he might have. As it turned out, his testosterone levels were fine for a man of his age (thirty-nine, soon to be forty), which was a relief, though it left open the question of the genesis of his recent disinterest in everything sexual, his cessation of masturbation, his sudden reluctance to let his wife see him in the buff – his newfound shyness in that respect. She hadn’t seemed to notice much. He’d spent more and more time mooching around corners of the Internet that weren’t meant for him, virtual versions of spaces he’d never have come across otherwise, subreddits dedicated to subjects he’d always felt a sort of gentle aversion to, or just been mostly ignorant of, such as bottom surgery for men who were born in the bodies of girls. How did everybody there come up with such sad funny usernames?
He’d ascertained that once you’d chosen one, Reddit didn’t let you change it again
not without opening a brand-new account. Why was that? he’d asked himself. He still didn’t really know. But he had figured out (eventually) that ‘OP’ meant ‘Original Poster’, and he had gotten used to other acronyms such as TL;DR (too long didn’t read) and NSFW (not safe for work) and YMMV (your mileage may vary; that one he knew how to interpret but wouldn’t have known how or when to use). And then at last, he had settled on a name: u/russellsparadox. He wasn’t called Russell IRL. Another possibility had been u/anotherman, but ANOTHER MAN was the name of a fashion mag for ratty dapper types of the kind he’d never been and never would be. Russell’s Paradox was just a maths problem he’d once been fascinated by, many years ago. He hoped that it was OK. It was more man-geeky than he’d been aiming for, but at least it wasn’t something he’d one day come to cringe over. He’d seen plenty of those on non-trans discussion boards dedicated to powdered food products and bodyweight exercises and HIIT training and silly memes. He’d once come across a close-to-desperate post by somebody called u/methclown begging – begging – Reddit to be able to change.
By contrast, the usernames of those who contributed to the threads of the trans
subreddits impressed him with their concise expressiveness and atmosphere of – how to put it? Managed melancholy? Perhaps, he’d thought, having learnt about deadnames and the faff faced by trans people who changed their IRL name (there was so much admin and so much passive aggro from those who kept calling you what they’d always called you), if you were trans you grew a knack for words. Or was that a shitty stereotypical thing to think? It was all new to him and though he had chosen a username and designed an avatar – a cartoon version of himself he was quite pleased with – he hadn’t yet posted, on the trans-themed discussion boards or anywhere. He was aware he was becoming what was called a ‘lurker’, but he wasn’t himself potentially transsexual (some of the posters preferred that term to transgender, which had surprised him at first) and he wasn’t a pervert or a chaser, or what he’d sometimes seen referred as ‘transamorous’. He was just genuinely interested and maybe a bit addicted to the tiny dramas that sometimes played out when somebody posted something somebody else found aggravating, such as the argument between u/sololover and u/everlastingloss. And what was wrong with that?
What had u/sololover meant by the tap-dancing reference? The question stayed with u/russellsparadox for days. He had never been one for dancing. He wasn’t even into sport much, though he’d been a goalkeeper for a five-a-side team for a while. He couldn’t fathom a connection between the intricate manoeuvres of tap dancing and the demands of endurance running at all. Towards the end of a scrolling session (since the advent of homeworking, with no colleagues around and no need to worry about something being NSFW, these had bled increasingly into his workday), he led his cursor to a new tab, opened YouTube, and searched for examples of tap-dancing routines. When the first batch of videos were all of kids taking part in municipal competitions (he and his wife had never wanted kids of their own), he’d added the word ‘Hollywood’ into his search terms. A fresh set of results came up, and he clicked on a sequence by Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen from 1949.
Almost immediately, he saw what u/sololover had been getting at. What was
interesting about the way in which the two figures moved across the screen was the indistinction of the movements their bodies made. Almost down to the last precise tap, Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen performed the exact same routine, the same patterning of brushes, buffalos and ball changes, and the same deft weightless glide. There was no difference between the masculine and feminine positions in the sequence, yet masculinity and femininity were still definitely there. But where? Not necessarily in Vera-Ellen’s dress or Gene Kelly’s sailor suit, he thought, but somewhere in their movements, yet the movements that the two dancers made were exactly the same. He watched the video again. The two bodies copied one another effortlessly, their torsos still but not stiff, their toes riffing perfectly in time. Even the way they made the movements was the same. Nobody ‘led’, like in ballroom dancing, which u/russellsparadox had tried with his wife on holiday in Tenerife one time. He hadn’t been any good at it. He’d stumbled around, slightly intoxicated by a mild case of sunstroke, though he had quite liked the flushed feel of it nonetheless. As he remembered, his wife had been worse than him, or perhaps just disinterested. It had been difficult to tell at the time.
They’d drifted increasingly since then, which was one of the reasons
u/russellsparadox didn’t worry much about her discovering his search history. She’d barely seemed to notice his unintentional celibacy and abrupt body bashfulness, and he hadn’t mentioned that he’d had his T-levels checked. But she was a good woman, and a good wife, and he still cared about her. He didn’t like the idea of keeping things purposively hidden from her, so he never deleted his history or cleared his cache, though he never told her, either, how much of his time was now spent lurking on discussion boards intended for those whose experiences were a world away from his. And was that necessarily bad?
Whether it was or whether it wasn’t, u/russellsparadox continued to lurk. He still refrained from posting, but he did think about possible posts, questions he might ask, or maybe an expression of gratitude for all he’d learnt. Or would that have seemed patronizing? He wasn’t sure.
Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he’d slide out of bed, sit in the kitchen with his
laptop and a bottle of beer, and click on the subreddit where FTMs and transmascs posted photographs of themselves asking for advice on how well they ‘passed’. He knew enough by now to know his interest could easily have been construed as dubious, but there was something about this particular subreddit that touched him, which in turn made him feel somehow vulnerable, which felt significant in relation to the troubles that had led him to have his testosterone checked – it was as if this particular discussion board might have some explanatory force. Looking at the photographs and the blunt-but-tender responses to them, he thought back to his own years of puberty, his awkwardness, his acne, his miraculous sweatiness, his astonishment at his manhood and his simultaneous anxiousness about whether he was, or would ever be, enough of a man. If he had posted a photograph of himself in those days, what would u/everlastingloss and u/sololover have said? Would he have passed?
One night, when he was up late wondering exactly this, his wife woke and came to
find him, drowsy and drugged. She seemed on the verge of asking him what he was looking at, but then her mouth collapsed into a yawn that spread across her face and sent her straight back to bed. He sat back in his chair, and watched her robed silhouette slip silently away. He couldn't have said, had she seen and been curious, why a single tear had squeezed itself from his screen-sore eye, and sat stubbornly, defiantly on his cheek.
After that interruption, his online activity subsided. He went back into the office, and u/russellsparadox had less time to be u/russellsparadox – less time for mooching, or snooping, or whatever was the right word for it. His interest in the trans subreddits diminished, though he did still think about them, sometimes guiltily, sometimes wistfully. How was u/runforthehills81 doing these days? he found himself wondering every now and then. Something about his experience definitely stayed with him, if an ‘experience’ was what he had had. He was still what would have been called a cisman – he was sure of that. But now there was something between him and his IRL masculinity (his body, his appearance, his moody penis) that reminded him of the princess who felt the pea beneath the mattress in that fairy tale – a little difference, a little twinge. Unless he was the pea?
The weeks passed, then the months. Eventually he and his wife seemed to
rediscover something in one another and resumed having sex. Good sex – maybe their best. U/russellsparadox wasn’t sure why it was so good after all these years, but when he considered it, he thought that it perhaps had something to do with the little difference his experience on the trans subreddits had made. It wasn’t that either he or his wife had actually changed. No, he thought, it was something else, something at once subtler and somehow sexier. It was the knowledge, newly born in him, that each of them could potentially change – each of their bodies had within it the possibility of becoming a completely different body, but even then, even had their bodies actually changed, they would still have been themselves, exactly the same.
H. Gareth Gavin is a writer from Birmingham, UK, whose work moves between fiction, theory, and forms of creative criticism. Midland: A Novel Out of Time (Penned in the Margins, 2014) was shortlisted for the 2015 Gordon Burn Prize. 'Home Death' was longlisted for the 2019/20 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize. A recent essay on transmasculinity and femininity, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me,’ takes its title from a Muriel Spark ghost story and is collected in Queer Life, Queer Love (Muswell Press, 2021). He currently teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.