A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar
A Journey of Self (and Sexual) Discovery
by Harry Nicholas
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Pub Date 18 May 2023 | Archive Date 17 May 2023
'On the bookshelves, there was plenty of stuff on being gay, and much needed, joyous accounts of what it is to be trans, but nothing really that encapsulates what is it to be both - to exist in the hazy terrain between.'
After his relationship with his girlfriend of 5 years ended, Harry realised he was a single adult for the first time - not only that, but a single, transmasculine and newly out gay man.
Despite knowing it was the right decision, the reality of his new situation was terrifying. How could he be a gay man, when he was still learning what it was to be a man? Would the gay community embrace him or reject him? What would gay sex be like? And most importantly, would finding love again be possible?
In this raw, intimate and unflinchingly honest book, we follow Harry as he navigates the sometimes fraught and contradictory worlds of contemporary gay culture as a trans gay man, from Grindr, dating and gay bars, to saunas, sex and ultimately, falling in love. Harry's brave and uplifting journey will show you there is joy in finding who you are.
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Average rating from 22 members
'A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar' follows Harry, a trans gay man, as he revisits the various stages of his life, from being perceived as a girl to embodying other manifestations of a labeled, binary world.
To make sense of it all — and himself — he calls on both the cool detachment of the past and the heat of his present physicality, allowing the two to recodify a social system that has long outlived the constraints of finite thinking.
First things first: those expecting a salacious read will be disappointed. Harry doesn’t fetishize the trans body, nor does he romanticize the fullness of the cisgender male physique. Above all, he celebrates the interconnectedness — and incongruity— of gender, doing so in a way that frees the reader by extension.
Navigating gay spaces, which is arguably the narrative’s main focus, also calls for the traversing of a social system that has not been designed — or modified—to fit an entire segment of the population. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, as is the vitriol spewed by those, who perceive inclusion and acceptance as a threat to their own effortless comfort.
And so, as much as we’re awed by the trans body and its unshackled existence, we are also enthralled by its desires and dislocation within a binary system; its many grapples and marvels. Estrangement breeds separation from oneself, and self-acceptance drains one of a certain fixedness. In working towards it, Harry sews his own experiences into the fabric of the collective history of trans people, never suggesting that one man’s story can outweigh such an amalgamation of voices.
And so, instead of looking at social nuances through the lens of his own aches, he acts more like a compass, steering the reader toward literature, psychology, social mechanisms, and the words erased by a history of mistrust and ignorance. Thanks to his keen eye, Harry is able to guide us to the junction of the present and the past, literature and activism, sex and love, as well as pride and dread. From there, we explore the subtleties of desirability more so than actual desire. We learn that sexual hunger can, in fact, stem more from an absence of self than its physical cravings.
That’s not to say that eroticism doesn’t play a vital role in the life presented to us. But instead of pleasure, we focus more on gratification. And rather than the idolization of another, we examine what it means to be truly wanted and enjoyed, particularly as a trans man. From donning a jockstrap for the first time to pushing a stranger’s sperm out of his body, Harry unpacks himself wholly.
And though he unveils many hardships along the way, he addresses them with enough humor to enhance — never overpower — the heartfelt wisdom of his work. As all roads lead us to a joyous ending, so do they bisect where lust lingers. From hydro-eroticism and the proliferation of “molly houses” to the verifiable examples of transness that have failed to be recognized as such by a history devoid of specificity, his examination is always a profound one.
It’s no surprise that Harry’s fascination with the various facets of the trans experience—as communal as can be —proves infectious. And the examples he draws on, from the diaries of Lou Sullivan to the present-day headlines, add meat to the bones of one man’s introspections. Wonderfully, 'A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar' is as much about gayness and transness as it is about the intersectionality of both, as well as the community that harbors all—at least in principle.
In the end, Harry achieves the goal made essential by his resolve, as well as the spectacle of present-day politics. Namely, he establishes the continuity of a narrative that has been historically suppressed, and which will live on in the minds of each and every reader fortunate enough to come into its presence.
Thank you for the digital copy, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Even though I'm not much of a memoir reader, this one immediately drew my attention. It's simply gorgeous!
What means the most to me about this book is the fact that it exists. That I’m able to read about another gay trans man’s experiences and see myself reflected in them - moments like ‘YES I’ve had this thought so many times’ and ‘oh, I really want this in my future’. The author wrote this book with exactly this in mind - not being able to find almost any books by and about gay trans men - and I am very glad that he did.
This book is very meaningful to me on a personal level as a trans person, but in general, the way it is written is also very accessible to cis people looking to read more about being trans. The author does a very good job at presenting important trans issues as well as trans & queer culture and history throughout, in a way that feels very personal but still informative.
Sections that stood out to me the most were the author’s relationship to water as a gay trans man, the whole issue surrounding healthcare and how even non-trans-specific healthcare can be a huge problem for trans people, and also the “but who will love you?” section (because which trans person hasn’t been asked that by their parents).
This quote I think captures very well why I found this book so important:
“Lou Sullivan [a gay trans activist] is quoted as saying, ‘I wanna look like what I am but I don’t know what someone like me looks like’. It’s been 32 years since his death date, and I am starting to see what people who are gay and trans look like, and I’m able to imagine endless possibilities of what we could be in the future. But in the meantime, I’m still searching for people like me.”
Harry Nicholas’s first book, an autobiographical work, contains an impressive amount of interesting and considered thought in its 224 pages. At its core, the book is an eloquent narrative of his journey from one relationship to another, with transformative self-discovery in between.
But, of course, it is so much more than that, as any such tale always is. Not least because it is very clear that Harry has thought a great deal about his place in patriarchy — from when he was growing up in what he thought was girlhood, via how he’s been perceived through transition to now, existing and socialising in queer male spaces that are almost always cis-sexist and can often also be misogynistic, with transphobic microaggressions. His thoughts are well-framed and prompt consideration, for example:
<blockquote>Words and labels are incredibly important — I love being gay and trans and wearing those labels with pride — but they should breathe life into us rather than suck it out. We should let the light in rather than close a door on it, expanding our horizon of gayness and transness to mean whatever the hell we want them to mean. They’re ours to own.</blockquote>
Harry is a funny, witty writer; I laughed out loud at his comparison of conversations on Grindr with the amazing, heartbreaking <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-vIBq2lTn0">“I belong to a culture” monologue</a> from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Kramer">Larry Kramer</a>’s <em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Normal_Heart">A Normal Heart</a></em>. He also covers aspects of queer history that were unfamiliar to me, including Princess Seraphina, possibly Britain’s first trans or drag appearance, at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauxhall_Gardens">Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens</a> in 1732; the <a href="https://artuk.org/discover/stories/henry-scott-tuke-capturing-light-and-the-homoerotic-gaze">naked young men painted by Henry Scott Tuke</a> (1858–1929); artists such as <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Minton_(artist)">John Minton</a> (1917–57) and the other mid-20th century queer artists of Bedford Gardens; and an early gay trans man <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Sullivan">Lou Sullivan</a> (1951–91), who I only knew from his frustrations around accessing gender-affirming care because he was gay. Harry supplements the book with a bibliography of recommended reading, as well as repeated shout-outs to <a href="https://www.stonewall.org.uk/people/juno-roche">Juno Roche</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travis_Alabanza">Travis Alabanza</a>.
Obviously, I am not the primary target audience of this work — as Harry writes himself, he realised that this book didn’t exist when he needed it himself, to help him understand what it means to be a gay trans man:
<blockquote>What space I can take up; how I navigate sex and dating; … how I can interpret my own masculinity, femininity and campness; how I can navigate (often) hypersexualized gay spaces</blockquote>
But it is definitely the case there is plenty in this book that cis queer men (like me) can also benefit from. Aside from the obvious — like observations about patriarchy and cis-sexism from someone who has been perceived as female in the past and as male now — Harry is, of course, a gay man, with lived experiences that are often no different from that of cis gay men. For example, in a chapter about dating, he describes a very familiar concept of self-worth through being desired:
<blockquote>If nobody wanted to have sex with me, I felt like I was unattractive and therefore valueless as a person.</blockquote>
I think most queer men will be able to recognise that sense of seeking value and validation through the gaze and desire of other men. And, to be honest, anyone can learn from how <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_lockdown_in_the_United_Kingdom">first Covid lockdown</a> helped interrupt his self-destructive way of handling those feelings:
<blockquote>I wanted to fuck and dance and hurt. But a state-enforced lockdown put an end to my man-to-man-to-man-to-man behaviour.</blockquote>
There are eloquent, important sections about the disappearance of queer spaces and about the lack of queer male elders and generational trauma that he describes in the context of his self-examination during lockdown, which segues nicely into the start of a new romantic relationship, with very familiar descriptions of “I was used to fucking first, friends later” that I know plenty of queer men will understand only too well.
Likewise, as well as thoroughly deserving the <a href="https://twitter.com/HarryNicholas_/status/1601226301305602049">“chapter title of the year award” from his publisher</a>, his “My Knight in a Shining Jockstrap” (IKR!) is also a thoughtful, sensitive description of the anxious exploration of new spaces — I remember the same feelings on my own first visit to Clone Zone on Old Compton Street — and also of both dysphoric trauma and how to breathe through a panic attack, that latter also very familiar to me.
Similarly, while some of his first experiences visiting saunas are obviously specific to being trans, others have more universal resonance. There is, however, discussion of the parlous state of trans healthcare in the UK; we cis allies should definitely be more aware of quite how dysfunctional, gatekept and cis-sexist our current processes are. (I hold out some hope, with the passage of the <a href="https://www.parliament.scot/bills-and-laws/bills/gender-recognition-reform-scotland-bill">Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill</a> and the <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-64228256">Welsh Government’s support</a> both showing support for rational, evidence-based respect for trans people’s human rights, that at least the devolved health services might be able to make some improvements there.)
There’s also, to be honest, important moments of sitting with my own discomfort as I realise I had made gut-reaction cis-sexist assumptions while reading. Being a cis-queer ally to our trans family is <em>obviously</em> important, especially in this time of fascist rising and hostility, with trans lives being cynically used as a wedge that threatens the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. But allyship is a journey not a destination; we always have more to learn and there is plenty we can learn from Harry here. (One of the bemusing benefits of living through the horrors of renewed fascism is that at least this 47-year-old has become accustomed to learning how to be a better human from people over 2 decades my junior.)
But there’s also beautiful moments that brought tears to my eyes, both early on and later: Harry’s first gay male sex is a lovely, “relaxed and joyful” moment, as is his description of coming out as trans to his parents. And his boyfriend — now fiancé — Liam sounds like an absolute sweetheart. The way they marked the absent Pride and Glastonbury milestones from 2020 is incredibly romantic, even before the more vulnerable and sensitive conversations Harry describes towards the end of the book. They seem like such a healthy, delightful couple — both from Harry’s writing here and from what I’ve already seen <a href="https://twitter.com/HarryNicholas_">following Harry on Twitter</a> — that it fills my jaded old heart with joy.
This is an interesting and engaging read as well as covering important topics and, most importantly, providing some much-needed representation for other gay trans men — as he quotes from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Jarman">Derek Jarman</a>: “When I was young the absence of the past was a terror. That’s why I wrote autobiography”. And it’s a quick read too. Because Harry’s prose is so engaging, I finished reading less than 24 hours; I absolutely devoured this book.
I received an advance copy for free from NetGalley, on the expectation that I would provide an honest review.
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