Why Do Some Trans Men Freak Out When Other Trans Men Wear Makeup?

Some trans men believe that society will only accept us if we prioritize passing, and conform to a masculine standard in our outward presentations.

Marco Verch/Flickr

Is a man wearing makeup still really a man? While it seems irrational to think a bit of face goo would negate someone’s manhood, no other question is as contentious in the community of trans men. It’s gotten to be such a problem that some Facebook groups for trans men address it directly in their rules for membership. “If a man is wearing makeup, LEAVE HIM BE” is the third rule for one such group with over 15,000 members. Other FTM groups, particularly those with very few rules, host near-daily flame wars between makeup-wearers and trans guys who attempt to enforce a masculine aesthetic through insults and mockery. Dyed hair and feminine clothing can sometimes prompt a similar reaction, but nothing seems to trigger a backlash to the same extent as trans guys who wear makeup.

Lukas Pareika is one of the transgender men who has posted pictures of himself in makeup. When I asked him to describe his makeup wearing, and if he’d been hassled for it online he wrote:

I tend to mainly go for eye and lip makeup when I’m just doing it regularly, nothing too intense. Off the clock, I’ll throw on some foundation and contour if I feel like, and on special occasions I do a full face/get a full face done. I never realized what an art makeup was and being an artistic type, I was instantly drawn to it. I love everything about it, from the application, to the end result, to the occasional compliment. It just feels good to do. In my life outside of the internet, I hardly receive any negative comments. Online however, I’ve had many trans men on pages I follow on Facebook tell me that I’m not a real trans guy for wearing makeup and looking feminine. One guy even told me I couldn’t possibly be trans, because I didn’t look like a guy.

Outside of the trans community, many people still insist on definitions of “man” and “woman” that arbitrarily exclude every single trans person from their post-transition gender, and hurl insults when our appearances are deemed too feminine or masculine for the gender we identify with. So as a trans guy myself, I just don’t go there. If a trans guy wants to wear makeup, he has every right—I won’t say a thing about it. Deep down in some cold, conservative part of my soul, however, I have to admit I understand where these particular haters are coming from. I don’t say it; I wish I didn’t feel it; but when a transgender man shares a very feminine looking picture, particularly one in which the femininity of his facial features is enhanced by makeup, it makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of an earlier time in my life when I’d look into the mirror and see a girl who could never be anything but a girl, a particularly intense form of what’s called gender dysphoria. Damien, a New Jersey trans man who has participated in some of the online dust-ups, described his own similar reaction:

I feel dysphoric since we’re both lumped in under the same label, and it reminds me of how hard I fought to NOT have to look like that, [and of] all the trans guys in unsupportive households who are forced to wear makeup and perform femininity.

It also reminds me of the feminine features I still have that I’m waiting to change. I wonder if the person posting even understands dysphoria the way that I and many other non-makeup-wearing trans guys experience it.

Dysphoria is not something that only the makeup-free among us experience, according to Andrew Berry. Berry is an 18-year-old trans man who’s a brand ambassador for MISFITBEAUTYCO and sells his own homemade makeup on Etsy. He explained to me how makeup can make him feel good, despite the haters:

When I do more drag like or extreme looks it can help my dysphoria in a weird way. Makeup can change how I look, and I like that aspect of it. My dysphoria is really prominent, but making myself feel good by doing a fun makeup look can really help me feel better and that’s what people usually try to do when they have dysphoria.

For me, makeup is reminiscent of high school, of trying to fit in as a teenage girl even though the more I succeeded the more wrong and out of place I felt. For Damien, makeup reminds him of parts of himself he still hopes will change and of trans men whose unsupportive families force them to perform femininity. But who are we to say how it affects Berry or Lukas? One man’s dysphoria is another man’s brand ambassadorship, apparently.

But the extreme negative reactions some trans men have to others’ makeup can’t all be chalked up to an awkwardly reflected form of gender dysphoria. Another thread is some trans men’s belief that society will only accept us if we prioritize passing, and conform to a masculine standard in our outward presentations. James, an Australian trans guy who says he tries to stay out of arguments over makeup pictures, stated his fears about how others will view feminine trans men in no uncertain terms:

For those [makeup wearers] who haven’t had top surgery, don’t bind, and aren’t on T, it’s simply ridiculous. Often, they’re the ones who get angry if they’re misgendered, when they appear to be making no concerted effort to look like their desired gender. It makes the rest of us legitimate trans men look ridiculous and like confused [lesbians].

Though crudely stated, this sounds familiar. There’s a long history of bad blood between assimilationist queers—who stress our similarities to the mainstream—versus more radical folks who hope to overturn the dominant cultural norms about gender and sexual expression, dating back at least to when the LGBTQ movement was still called the “gay rights” movement. Even today, many gay men and lesbians see transgender rights as a millstone around their necks, much as masculine trans men see feminine trans guys as weighing down their struggle for acceptance. I’m not persuaded that trans men wearing makeup is where a final line that must be drawn, that society must accept everything up to that, but not one eye-shadow further, even though I sympathize with a desire to be accepted by the mainstream rather than endlessly fighting against it.

Part of the negative response to trans men wearing makeup is dysphoria, and part of it is a fear that masculine trans guys’ desire for acceptance will be undermined by radical demands to upend gendered expectations for behavior and appearance. I also suspect that there’s an element of generalized bias against femininity: a sense that expressing femininity is weak, bad, or frivolous while masculinity is strong and righteous. The trans guys I spoke with didn’t say this, exactly—but they did make mocking references to “toxic masculinity” and claim that masculine trans men were being marginalized or excluded from the trans male community. In my experience, the extent of this marginalization has been to ask masculine trans men not to impose their ideas about what it means to be a real man or look like a real man on others. But I can’t claim to know everything these guys have experienced.

It’s understandable that makeup makes some trans men uncomfortable and that some people are afraid the mainstream will only accept gender-conforming, cis-passing trans men. But to believe that we’ll win acceptance by policing one another the way the cis world polices us—tearing down each other’s appearance and accusing one another of being fake—makes no sense. Trans people have to give one another the benefit of the doubt if we’re going to expect the wider world to do the same for us. That means accepting trans men as men, makeup and all.