FTM: What's in a Label?

In the four or so years I have known I was transgender, my perception of myself and what I want in transition has changed quite a bit. With that change came a change in language, and an awareness of the importance of terms in relation to self identification. Of the terms I have used, FTM continues to be the one I have the most complicated relationship with. FTM is an acronym that stands for "Female to Male" and many people, both in and outside of the LGBTQ community, use it as a term to describe transgender men. There is also a complimentary term, MTF (Male to Female), that is used to refer to transgender women. (I will only be speaking about FTM and my personal feelings from my perspective, as it isn't my place to speak on any issues transfeminine people may or may not have with MTF.)

When I first began to understand that I wanted to transition to appear more masculine, my dysphoria was very intense. At the time I read this intense dysphoria as a sign that I was a boy, though I now know myself to be nonbinary. As I explored the trans community, FTM was one of the first labels that I encountered that felt fitting for me. It was presented as synonymous with trans man in a lot of cases, and as someone who felt they were a boy, it felt right. I quickly adopted it, a badge of my newfound sense of self. I was completely uncritical of the term because of its prevalence in the community and seemingly universal acceptance.

After I had made some progress with transitioning and I had time to relax and reflect on my feelings, I slowly became aware of the parts of myself that were neither male nor female. I began to embrace my nonbinary identity, and eventually abandoned the labels of "boy" and "man" entirely. This all started around two years ago, and it has been a long time since I have thought of myself as male in any context, yet FTM continues to exist in my vocabulary of labels and self descriptors. But why? 

Long before I realized I was trans, FTM was a term that had a strong hold in the transgender community. Medical professionals, journalists, and LGBTQ organizations now use FTM pretty regularly. It has become a short and simple way to refer to trans men, but its meaning is less than concrete. With the rising number of nonbinary identified individuals speaking out in the transgender community, FTM has now been used by some as an umbrella term for trans masculine people. Some trans masculine nonbinary people embrace this term as a way to unify a spectrum of trans masculine people under one acronym. Others adamantly refuse to use the term as it can imply they are men when they are not. Some binary aligned trans men don't like the term, while others use it proudly. What on the surface seems to be a straight forward term to ease communication about gender, generates complication within the conversation of gender and labels. 

For one, the term has a dodgy meaning literally. Female to Male generates some obvious conflict already, by implying that one was once female, and is becoming male. Even when I identified as a trans man, I never thought of myself as someone who was once a girl and was now a boy. This mentality of starting as your assigned at birth gender and transforming into another gender is fading out of our social concept of the transgender experience, as more and more people come to understand the difference between gender and sex. Currently the terms AFAB and AMAB speak to being "assigned female at birth" or "assigned male at birth". This is much more respectful to our knowledge of gender and sex, and switches the focus from transition to the social problems with prescribing gender at birth. (This, from what I can assume, also helps the conversation about the rights of intersex people). AFAB allows us to speak about some medical and social aspects of transgender experience without assuming that the person identifies as a man, and without implying that they were ever once a woman.

Another problem with FTM is that not every transgender man wants to or can complete all available steps to transition "completely". Social perception of transition has shifted in recent years with nonbinary people and information about the actual steps in transition becoming more visible. The trans experience is no longer completely in the dark. Videos about binding, top surgery, bottom surgery, and hormones make our experience more accessible for the education of cisgender people. Stories of those who can't or don't want to take certain steps to transition have more of a platform than ever. Transition itself is now beginning to be perceived as something much more personal, less policed by social perception of maleness or femaleness.

FTM, however, continues to conjure a very binary view of transition. Female to male, breasts to flat chest, estrogen to testosterone, vagina to penis. Unlike "trans man" it refers directly to the language of sex, not gender. Female and male tend to be used within the context of sex and chromosomes, where as words like "boy" and "man" are usually used when talking about gender. Gender is mental while sex is physical, so inevitably FTM tends to bring us to a place of physical transition, and asks us to define that. Is someone successfully male if they cannot have bottom surgery? If they don't want to take hormones? What is the "right" path from female to male? Is it enough to simply say "I am male" and not take any medical steps? In an age of the rejection of compulsory gender, most of us know better than to answer these questions seriously. Transition is personal, and no one should attempt to police another's experience. Of course, not all FTM identified people see this term this way, and some trans and cisgender people still have a very binary view of gender that aligns with going from "female to male" medically. Regardless, I believe that the general belief is shifting to one that is more fluid and personally defined.

For me, the biggest quandary with FTM lives in its prevalence outside of individual identification. For trans people navigating medical and/or social transition, labels like FTM are often the easiest or only way to access information and resources they need. Many transmasculine support groups are titled FTM. Most YouTube videos, forum posts, and blog entries with information on hormones, safe sex, prosthetics, name changes, etc. are tagged with FTM. The fact is, FTM is so ingrained in trans culture that it has taken on another use beyond that of self identification: the navigating resources and community spaces.

This is even more prominent within the medical community. Cisgender doctors trying to treat transgender patients are often inclined to medicalize trans experience, boiling down gender into sex. Even in programs designed specifically for transgender people, identity is often divided ultimately into either "FTM" or "MTF", creating a binary even in the context of trans experience. This will often lead to assumptions about the transition path one wants. For instance a nonbinary person only seeking top surgery may repeatedly be asked about when they plan to start hormones or have bottom surgery because they fall under the category of Female to Male. Most of this is likely due to the way medical institutions teach doctors about trans patients. Many doctors don't know about nonbinary identities, or cannot comprehend why someone who is a trans man wouldn't want to "complete" transition to the medical standard of maleness. Change is coming, but it is only now that nonbinary identities and more fluid interpretations of trans experience are starting to make their way into textbooks and into the ideologies of future doctors. 

Because of its heavy use within our culture, often times FTM offers a sense of legitimacy that less understood labels do not. The simplified thinking of "Female to Male" appeals to those who do not understand the diversity of gender, where labels like agender, genderfluid, or even transmasculine might confuse and deter them. FTM offers a sense of efficiency in communicating about gender with uneducated people. This often makes it something begrudgingly used by those who do not identify with it at all. This may actually come in handy for communicating with some people, but it goes deeper than just causal conversation. For those seeking help with fundraising for surgery, horomones, housing, etc., FTM will bring you more assistance than something more "niche", since it is familiar and understood by many. For AFAB transmasculine people who run businesses or otherwise seek internet traffic, #ftm is a huge deal. On instagram alone, #ftm contains over 2.8 million posts, while #transman contains less than half a percent of that amount, #transmasculine being even less than that. 

This is why FTM has not left my vocabulary, and the vocabulary of many transmasculine and nonbinary people. As someone has navigated medical transition and social support, explained myself to uneducated cisgender people, and has actively fundraised and promoted my business online, FTM maintains its hold on my public identification. Despite not feeling at all male, and never having been female, Female to Male has become utilitarian. Tagging my posts with #ftm increases my visibility, and points other transmasculine individuals in the direction of my work.

Using FTM as a self descriptor for practical reasons, however, raises some questions within me. If I never wanted top surgery, would I still feel comfortable using the label? Probably. What if I had never started testosterone? Maybe, but I become unsure. The "typical" binary trans male experience that FTM is associated with further alienates people who use it to access resources and connect with other trans people.

Although labels should be person centered, there is an undeniable culture of label policing that effects nonbinary people especially. Not even a week ago, a person chastised me for using #ftm, questioning my nonbinary identity because of my choice of tags. Most nonbinary people encounter identity policing, and surprisingly a lot of it comes from within the binary trans community. There are groups of binary aligned trans people who lash out against nonbinary people and young trans people calling out those they see as "fakes" or "trans-trenders". They see fluidity of others' genders as a threat to their identity being taken seriously, and react with anger and harassment. This toxic mentality creates infighting that I believe only to be a detriment to the overall advancement of the trans community. On a personal level it is poison to those who by no fault of their own must use umbrella terms like FTM to navigate their world. 

My stance now is complicated. I think that we shouldn't gloss over the fact that FTM literally implies that trans men were once women. I think we should also acknowledge the medical/biological feel it carries. But the term has a use in the community that we cannot deny. How it allows people to navigate spaces more easily is not negligible, and many trans people can see the truth behind the confusing and untruthful literal meaning of the acronym. Uneducated cisgender people, however, may not have the background to understand that. Many of the same trans men who embrace FTM would be offended by the language "he used to be a girl" coming from a cisgender person. But how would a cisgender person seeing Female to Male for the first time with no context know that that language is offensive? No one can say for certain how much confusion and offense terms like FTM are actually generating, but that isn't the point. The use of FTM as a personal identifier is something no one should try to police or change, but as FTM gains use in the cisgender community, I feel inclined to ask if we like the example it sets. 

In my search for resources and like minded voices in the community, I stumbled upon this video by Kat Blaque, a fairly popular trans youtuber. Her answer to a viewer's question compliments my point, adding that FTM and MTF aren't "helpful language", which I couldn't agree with more. I highly recommend watching this short video to hear from a transgender woman on the subject since I cannot speak to that experience.


There are other options for acronyms like MTX and FTX, which are used by some nonbinary people as a replacement for MTF or FTM, the X representing "other" or "neither". But this still implies "male/female to" something, so I avoid using it myself. When needing to talk about the specifics of my transition, I prefer to use "assigned female at birth, transmasculine, queer, and nonbinary", but that's a mouthful. The reality is labels are completely individual and situational. What works for one person doesn't for another, which is why even the broadest and most popular labels hold very personal meanings. And what works in one situation, may not work well in another. At the doctor's office I am FTM, with my family I am AFAB transmasculine, with my friends I am nonbinary and queer, and by myself I am a complicated mix of all and also none of these terms. My use isn't right or wrong, it's just mine. Gender policing people are clearly ignorant of the reason why the diversity of labels and identity is not only a necessary to many, but an important part of the larger conversation around gender. That conversation is broad, and one that cannot be solved or encompassed in writing like this. But the effect of FTM's impression on my personal identity is worth discussing.

Personally I dislike the term FTM, and wouldn't use it if not for its practical application for my business, my pursuit of support groups and information online, and within a medical context. This is partially because I am not a trans man, but also because of my dislike for the implications it carries that I described above. To me, FTM is simply a necessary evil that leaves a sour taste in my mouth when I use it to self identify out of necessity. I bare no resentment, however, for anyone who chooses to use the word as a self identifier. I see its value and the incredible community that its singularity allowed for. The problem is not the acronym itself, but the ideas it can generate about gender and sex, and what trans experience should and shouldn't be.

Thinking about the conversation around what our labels imply and the language we use to talk about our experiences calls up the image of the Five of Wands (finally a tarot reference!). It is a constructive struggle, if done right. It illuminates our values, and our personal and community associations with our language. It points to our differences and our similarities, and highlights those who are acting from a place of insecurity instead of desire to advance the community. At the end of the day, these are the conversations that will advance our labels as well as social perception of the trans experience, and contribute positively to trans lives in return. 

All of this comes from my experience and personal opinions, and doesn't reflect every trans person's experience or opinions. If you have differing opinions, I would encourage you to engage in conversation about it, either with yourself or others. If you are trans, you can push your thoughts and really explore your feelings about labels and their social impact. If you are cisgender, you can listen to contrasting voices in the community and educate yourself on other perceptions of common trans related labels to inform the language you use. We can all be a part of the advancement of our language as a community, and the furthering social understanding of trans people, just through participating in conversations like this one.

Blessings and best wishes! 

educationHarvey Jamesftm, labels