When I was little (probably five or six; must have been at least five, because we had already moved out of the flat I had been born in), I had ballet classes. Here’s what I remember about them:
I had a plain pink tutu, sensibly made of cotton and machine-washable. Some of the other girls had tutus with the skirt part made of that meshy plastic stuff that feels really nice when you rub it between two fingers, and one had a tutu made of some stretchy material that glittered. I was jealous.
We once had a show for parents and such in which we danced a robo-dance kind of thing, all edgy, isolated movements. (In hindsight, it doesn’t seem very ballet-y. I don’t know why we had a robo-dance.) My grandparents came to watch and later said that I was the only one who had occasionally paused to listen to the music and get back into the rhythm. I was very proud of that (and still kind of am).
I don’t remember a lot of what we actually did in class. I only remember one exercise that had us curl up really small on the floor, imagining we were flower seeds, and then growing upwards veeeery sloooooowly. It was boring as hell.
Once, my grandmother walked me to ballet class, and we passed a traffic sign I recognized as prohiting cars from parking, and lots of cars were parked behind it, and I made some horribly embarrassing pseudo-adult comment how typical that was, and she asked me to read what it said beneath the sign. It said “end”. But it said “end” in German, which is “Ende”, and I thought it said “Ente”, which means duck. My grandmother did not realize I had read “duck” and considered the matter settled. I did not understand what this had to do with cars and was very confused about it for the rest of the walk. This is not really related to ballet class, I’m just still embarrassed about it twenty years later and think of it in shame every time I think back to that ballet class.
Eventually, I had complained about ballet being boring enough that my mother put me into a children’s acrobatics class instead. I don’t remember anything about that – I have the vague impression that it was more fun, and that it was cancelled for some reason.
All I really know is that she started giving my siblings and me the big book listing all available classes and had us pick one ourselves every term, which is really the best approach.
I’m very grateful for that. It just seemed normal back then, and I took it for granted, but now I have to look at the prices for sports classes and not just at whether they seem fun, and it’s definitely not an opportunity everyone has growing up. Even if the money is there, it takes prioritizing – especially if your kids don’t seem horribly passionate about any particular sport, investing the money and effort involved takes a conscious decision.
I’m glad my parents made that decision. It was physically healthy, it allowed us to experiment with a variety of different sports and discover and/or develop preferences, and it normalized the many steps involved: looking at available classes on time at the beginning of every semester, picking one by description alone (without knowing what exactly it entails, without knowing the person offering it or other participants), signing up for it, going to a possibly unfamiliar place at a specific time every week, navigating locker rooms and entering a possibly unfamiliar gym to engage in an activity that will very likely be quite challenging at first… all of this is difficult and scary even with my long history of doing it, and if I had to do it for the very first time by myself as an adult, I probably wouldn’t.
But thanks to the years of practice, it’s manageable, and when I enter a new gym for the first time, I feel somewhat at home despite all the unknowns.
Over the years, I tried a variety of classes, never sticking with one for longer than a few terms at most. I had enough fun with jazz gymnastics to take it multiple times, and learned how to properly throw a punch in self-defense class at the age of nine. (I made a sort-of friend in that one – we laughed about our teacher’s hair together, since it constantly looked as if he had just touched a live wire, and paired up for partner exercises, although we never did anything together out of class and I don’t remember her name).
I took jazz dance when I was ten, and I still get flashbacks to bits and pieces of the choreography every time I hear the Pink Panther theme. Afterwards, I took sport climbing, mostly because I liked rock climbing, but it wasn’t the same at all, and I missed having music to move to. I don’t remember everything I did after that, but I know I attended some gymnastics class with my mom and took some aerobics class on my own.
I must have skipped a few semesters due to dysphoria, depression and general misery, because the next thing I remember is belly dancing and tai chi (both in the same term), and I think I was already sixteen or so by then. Tai chi was relaxing, but pretty boring, while belly dancing was a lot of fun: I loved the music, and the movement patterns were simple enough that I could just relax completely.
Also, I had moved on to adult classes by then (no more classes specifically for children), and the group consisted of a bunch of middle-aged, overweight women who generally gave zero fucks and spent a lot of the time trading jokes and anecdotes while gyrating their hips wildly. It was a rather fascinating glimpse into another world – one laced with constant casual sexism, but an interesting one nonetheless.
(When I thought about transitioning, one of the thoughts popping into my head was the question whether I could still belly-dance as a guy. I shook my head at myself, because of course anybody of any gender can belly-dance, and then I looked up male belly dancers anyway. I felt much better after finding Illan Riviere.)
During summer holidays, I sometimes signed up for short trial classes to have something to do. Jiu Jitsu left me with sore wrists thanks to all the partnered exercises that involved having them twisted, and taught me that actually being able to use it in self defense situations would take years of practice. Improvised dance was a lot of fun (and during an exercise that had us group up and push against our partners as hard as we could I was told that I was stronger than I looked by a male partner who apparently had trouble holding me, a compliment I still treasure).
I also took another stab at ballet, since plenty of movies and some series had made me curious again (Save the Last Dance and Billy Elliot come to mind as examples). This time, it didn’t consist of slow flower exercises, but of a glorious mixture of strength training, stretching, balance, cognitive challenge, and body control: the precision and attention to detail required to meet the exact standards for every movement and even standing still (feet turned out and arched, shoulders down, arms very slightly bent, fingers held just so, head just like this, stomach drawn in, butt tight, hips tilted slightly, legs straight) provided plenty of physical and mental exercise.
It looked quite ridiculous (and, as always, I avoided the reflection of the stranger in the mirror as much as possible), but doing it felt awesome. (Pretty much the opposite of belly dancing, which feels kind of ridiculous, but looks pretty good pretty quickly.) So I went back to ballet classes at the age of eighteen or so after more than ten years of abstinence, and stuck with it for about a year and a half (with some more self defense and some Shaolin Kung Fu on the side for more diversity).
Meanwhile, the gender issues I had been trying to put aside came up again, and instead of pushing them back down and ignoring them as usual, I started questioning, observing and exploring in depth. I went from reluctantly referring to myself as female to tentatively referring to myself as agender, and experimenting with my presentation, people’s reactions, and my own responses to those reactions.
One day, I twisted my ankle walking down a flight of stairs and couldn’t point my right foot any more. It took a while to heal completely, and by then the classes had finished. I didn’t sign up for new ones: by then, using my legal name had become difficult and started to feel wrong, and suppressing/ignoring my discomfort in female-only spaces was no longer an option.
Engaging in feminine-coded activities like ballet would have made me likely to be misgendered anyway, and binders and exercise did not go well together, either. (Although that alone would not have stopped me, to be honest. It didn’t stop me from climbing either.)
I ended up not attending any sports classes for four years while I figured out my gender, went through hours and hours of mandatory therapy, changed my legal name and gender, started testosterone therapy, muddled through the mind-numbing bureaucracy needed to get surgeries, finally had surgeries, and recovered. I still went for walks, hiked, and climbed, and every now and then I tried some exercise programs at home using YouTube tutorials or the like, but most of the time I just sat around at home.
Other trans men sometimes wrote online about how they handled the whole issue: some used the women’s facilities, some the men’s, with varying risks and side effects. One reported using the women’s locker room and overhearing a woman telling her friend about him as “that weird guy who always uses the women’s locker room”. One wrote he showered with a packer glued on, and had never had trouble. Some reported using locker rooms to stash their stuff only, and just going to and from the gym in (sweaty) gym clothes. Some even went swimming without top surgery, in binders or (expensive) bathing suits specifically for trans men.
I didn’t have the courage to do or even try any of that in the beginning, and later on, I was constantly trapped between the hope I’d get an appointment for surgery any day now and the voice in the back of my head warning me that it might not be for quite a while now and I should better not put the rest of my life on hold while I waited.
I transitioned believing that everyone outside a few, small, trans-friendly spaces would see me as a delusional, pathetic, contemptible woman lying to myself, a brainwashed victim of heteropatriarchy, godless heathens and their twisted worldview, the LGBT agenda, or [insert your favorite political opponents here]. Tales of discrimination, mistreatment, and violence abounded. I fully expected to spend the rest of my life either in hiding or in isolation, except for a few trans-friendly individuals and small groups.
I was wrong. Maybe I just got lucky in terms of my environment, maybe it’s due to my trans male and cis-passing privilege, maybe everyone secretly thinks I’m delusional but pretends to be friendly well enough for me not to notice, maybe the many trans people courageously living out loud and proud and slowly paving the way for more acceptance have made my life easier by putting their own on the line – for whatever reason, I’m still not alone, and only hiding some of the time. If I could go back in time, I’d encourage my past self to view the world more optimistically, to dare to move through spaces not made for him anyway and stand his ground with confidence.
But I can’t, and I’d like things to be easier for others facing the same challenges.
Here are some things that would have helped me, and that I wish existed:
Gender-neutral locker rooms (even just as an addition to the usual men’s and women’s, not necessarily as a replacement, although I do think that society overall would profit from a switch towards gender-neutral spaces);
The option to choose a name and form of address when signing up (even just in addition to one’s legal name, if legal names are necessary for some reason);
Every staff member respecting chosen names and pronouns, regardless of what one looks or sounds like, and interfering on one’s behalf if other customers don’t;
Making this inclusivity visible and explicit on websites, in programs, and in the gym itself (e.g. via small stickers, notes, etc.).
One day, maybe some of them will be reality. (Actually, the second one kind of might be already: when I e-mailed them to change the name connected to my account, I didn’t send any official documentation, and they did it without question anyway. I wouldn’t have thought to try that prior to having legal documents to prove my claim, though.)