A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar is a groundbreaking take on what it’s like to be a trans man dating men – here, the author delves into sex, gay culture, femininity, and publishing trans stories in the midst of an anti-trans backlash
In 2018, fresh off a breakup with his ex-girlfriend and realising that he wanted to explore life as a gay transgender man, Harry Nicholas found himself with a lot of questions. Will any gay men find me attractive? What will sex look like now for me? Will I fit into the gay community? What will the future hold? “There weren’t any role models I could look up to who were both trans and gay and say to myself, ‘Hey, they made it! They’re happy,’” Nicholas writes. “I guess the only way to move forward was to figure it out for myself.”
And figure it out himself he did – with a little help from his friends. The resulting memoir Nicholas wrote about his awakening into gay culture, A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar, is a groundbreaking take on what it’s like to be a trans man dating men. Breezing past common beliefs that gay and bisexual trans men can’t participate in gay life, Nicholas spends much of the book chilling at gay saunas, pools and bars and blasting through Grindr hookups.
But the book isn’t (just) an ode to gay hedonism – it’s also a sweet and serious paean to the communities, loved ones and role models that have helped Nicholas through the sore parts of being gay and trans. In the midst of a hostile climate that often views transness as a life-arresting tragedy or immense moral fault, Nicholas’ story of complicated, love-filled, sexy trans life is a welcome balm.
Here, Dazed chats with Nicholas about sex, gay culture, femininity, and publishing trans stories in the midst of an anti-trans backlash.
Your book is part of a relatively scarce lineage of gay transmasculine literature. Why do you think there’s so little material about being a gay trans guy in published writing, in comparison to straight trans guys and lesbian transmascs?
Harry Nicholas: When we think of trans people, society often pictures trans women or visibly gender-non-conforming people. That isn’t something to envy; the hypervisibility of trans women brings violence and scrutiny that trans men don’t experience as much. But it’s part of the reason that there isn’t much published writing by and for trans men, and even less for gay trans guys. Lou Sullivan, probably the most famous historical gay trans man, was refused testosterone by medical professionals because he was gay. It was as if his gayness provided ‘evidence’ that he wasn’t really a man or that he was too feminine. Access to transition meant needing to be straight. I wonder if this has left a historical legacy that means that trans men have been scared about speaking openly about their sexuality, out of fear that it brings into question their maleness or masculinity.
You talk about how urgent it feels to be writing about trans lives right now, in the face of a massive anti-trans movement. How does it feel to be writing under that kind of pressure and intense backlash, especially when you’re still very young?
Harry Nicholas: Yes, I’m 26 as the book is being published. I know that’s young, and truthfully, I think some naivety helps! I have experienced online pile-ons and violence from the unrelenting anti-trans movement, but I am also aware of how important it is to live truthfully, share experiences and archive our realities, because that’s how I came to terms with and began to understand my own gender and sexuality. It is hard. It took longer than I had hoped to write this book. I tore entire chapters up and felt exasperated about how much of my everyday life might be seen as controversial or form part of a headline. But there’s nothing quite like this available at the moment – a book that explores contemporary gay transmasculine life – so I knew it had to be written. If it wasn’t for writers like Juno Roche, Travis Alabanza, Andrew McMillan and Brontez Purnell, I wouldn’t have the language of confidence to understand – let alone write about – queerness. So I find strength through their courage and writing and knowing that I am not the first.
You mention contraception in the book, including a stressful experience of trying to get Plan B when the pharmacist doesn’t believe you could possibly need it. Where can you find out about sexual health education when most professionals don’t know anything about our lives?
Harry Nicholas: I know, right? This information isn’t to hand, and many healthcare professionals know substantially less than we do about trans bodies. What hurt the most about that experience of asking for Plan B was that I was seeking urgent medical help and I was refused, because I was told that a body like mine didn’t and couldn’t exist. It was infuriating. When I started taking testosterone, I was handed a sheet of paper that asked me to acknowledge that testosterone would make me infertile. It took me ages to realise that this just isn’t true! It wasn’t until I visited 56T at Dean Street in London, and a kind nurse spent over an hour with me discussing contraceptive options and PrEP, that I felt like I had the knowledge I needed about my body. Now I look to them, and to the Terrence Higgins Trust’s thorough sexual health guide for trans people.
How do you reconcile being part of a culture – gay culture – where being a Real Man is viewed with the kind of laissez-faire attitude it deserves, and where drag and genderfuck and the gay ‘she’ are a thing, but then also being in a position as a trans man where you’re constantly asked to restate and prove and defend that you are a Real Man?
Harry Nicholas: This is something that has changed throughout my physical transition. At the beginning of my transition, when I’d only taken hormones for a few years, I worried at all times about being seen in any way as female (and with that, feminine). I’d reject everything associated with campness and femininity. I probably thought that pink floral shirts, short shorts and face glitter were things I’d never be able to wear. But now I’m nine years on hormones and much more confident and secure in my transness and gayness and manhood. I can wear skirts, make-up, skinny jeans, and feel confident that I’ll still probably be read as a gay man. That in itself is a real privilege. It’s taken time to come to terms with the headfuckery of it all – I’ve gone from someone who rejected and pushed away any hint of femininity to someone who actively embraces it. I guess I’m certain in my own mind now that I’m a Real Boy without needing any external validation.
People sometimes assume that our ideal is to be perceived as cis men, and you talk a bit in your book about the ways in which that can be lonely and alienating. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Harry Nicholas: I have a turbulent relationship with this, because on the one hand, I want people to read me as male at a first glance. I wear a packer to give the appearance of a bulge, I avoid clothing that accentuates my hips – but at the same time, I want my transness to be recognised. Like, I haven’t always been this way. I had a girlhood; I have a whole set of experiences you might not expect of me. I find that when meeting people for the first time, the things they assume about my history sometimes make me want to scream. It can feel as though so much of my life and the way I experience the world is simply erased, or worse, is inconceivable.
A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar begins with your breakup with your long-term ex-girlfriend, because you both wanted to explore your queerness. A lot of trans people lose a long-term relationship in the process of coming out. What would be your advice for those people, or for people scared about if that’ll happen to them?
Harry Nicholas: I have an older friend who advises anyone who comes out as trans to break up immediately, because it won’t work. I don’t think that’s true, and it’s probably an outdated way of looking at transness and ‘becoming a new person’. Ultimately, each relationship is different. But in my experience, the person who transitions only ever becomes happier, more confident, more outgoing, more themselves. If your relationship can’t keep up with that, then it probably isn’t the right relationship.
If there’s one message you’d have people take away from the book, what would it be?
Harry Nicholas: That trans people can love and be loved. When I came out as trans, one of the first questions I was asked was ‘but who will want to be with you?’ It seemed that to be trans meant being unlovable, and living a life of loneliness. But I’ve found the exact opposite! I’ve found a rich community full of heart and pride, sexy boys, great sex, amazing friendships and the love of my life. I want people to know that’s possible.
A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar by Harry Nicholas is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and is out now.