It’s not easy to be an independent thinker, but some have a drive to be one. I’m not sure why; it seems to be innate, though of course the environment can nurture (or squelch) that impulse. It’s also true that the universal human need for belonging can complicate the independent thinker’s life. We all want to find somewhere we fit.
When I met Mars on Twitter—where his bio declares he is “Unapologetically speaking [his] mind”—I knew I’d found a kindred spirit, having this impulse myself. Mars is a thirty-eight-year-old transgender man whose parents immigrated to the US from Cuba. I first spoke to him in 2018 when I was preparing my first article on gender dysphoria and overexcitability. Now, almost three years after we last spoke on the record, Mars is still participating in contentious discussions of transgender issues on Twitter, which has to be one of the most thankless tasks in the world—especially given that his views don’t line up with either of the most vocal camps.
When I kicked off our conversation by asking him where he sits politically (what I actually said was “You consider yourself a conservative, right?”) he gave the sort of weary reply that, I find, is common these days among people who try to discuss nuanced issues on social media.
“Well…yeah,” he began. “But at this point, I’m just so frustrated with the state of everything that I’m more in the middle—or politically homeless. I align more with the Right, but there are certain things they say that that are as tribalistic as the Left. They all play the same game—you have to be a certain type of conservative, a certain type of liberal.”
From Loner to Dropout to Confident Podcaster
Of course, it’s not just on Twitter where refusing to toe a line makes it hard to fit in. We can run into it even in our school days, so perhaps it should not surprise us that Mars said he was “pretty much a loner in middle school.” Through his teen years, though he did have a couple friends, he struggled a lot with understanding himself, becoming depressed in high school and ultimately dropping out. (“I convinced my mom I was going to write a book,” he added.) In his twenties, he went to therapy a couple times, but it didn’t help much, and ultimately, he turned to drinking. “That really delayed me in figuring myself out emotionally,” he said. “I think I’m pretty mature today, but it took me a while because of certain life choices I made.”
Another important element of Mars’ youth was his imagination. When I asked him about the five domains of overexcitability in his life, he readily replied that the imaginational was the one that stood out in his life story—so much so that it contributed to his struggles in school.
“Instead of writing an essay [in response to an assignment], I would write a story—I’d be in a fantasy world,” he told me. “I didn’t intentionally try to go there, but I found it very hard to sit in the classroom and pay attention to the teacher talking. I wish there were a way for kids go through school other than sitting in the classroom. It’s so hard for some of us.”
To those of you who are versed in psychological diagnoses, Mars’ comment may bring to mind that of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and he has indeed received that diagnosis. He knows imagination can be part of the deal, and really related to an episode of a podcast called Gender: A Wider Lens that discussed the frequent overlap between gender dysphoria and ADHD.
Despite this, he questions how much the latter diagnosis explains in his life. “A lot of times I think I don’t have ADHD, and then sometimes I think maybe I do,” he said. “I’m in my head, wondering if these are ADHD behaviors. I thought ADHD just meant you were hyper all the time. I’m not that. I have an issue paying attention.”
For Mars, the real issue comes down to one of rigid labeling. “I feel suffocated by labels,” he told me. “I had the same problem when I went to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] for awhile. You are an alcoholic—you are this label and you are because you behave in these ways so you are going to do this.”
When it comes to the ADHD label, he’s also explored the question of etiology—that is, of why any given person struggles with attention. After all, there are people who have struggled significantly with attention since they were kids, and there are those who developed this problem more recently, as the world around them changed.
“I can’t help but wonder if it got worse because of the Internet,” Mars told me. “It’s so hard for me to read a book! I want to check my notifications; I want to see who’s online; maybe I’ll play one game; and you end up doing six things within an hour and then you haven’t really done anything.”
Reacting Emotionally—Then Pausing to Think
We all know those notifications are not merely distracting us; they’re hacking our emotions. Even if you don’t feel particularly emotionally overexcitable—and Mars told me he did not when I asked him in 2018 and still did not in 2021—we who are on social media are all operating in an environment that is built to excite our emotions, as he recognizes. Spending a lot of time on Twitter, trying to exercise his intellect, he’s given some thought to how to manage this.
“I just want to make sense of things in a world where almost nothing makes sense,” he told me. “[So] when I see something on Twitter and I do emotionally react—not publicly!—I have to think about it.” He cited the viral videos of police officers interacting violently with black people. “I want to emotionally react as much as everyone else, but I have to watch it eight times and see what everyone is saying.”
This practice, unfortunately, puts him back in lonely territory. “To not emotionally react today and to be your own person, it’s really isolating,” he said. “I’m sure it feels really nice on the Left and Right to have a tribe around you that agrees. I don’t need that, but it’s a very isolating place to be if you’re not seeking validation constantly for what you believe politically.”
Of course, there are many people who want to be more frank and forthright like this, but who do fear that isolation. Mars has always struck me as more willing than most to face this tension and deal with the consequences of living his higher values; it’s one of the things I especially admire about him.
So I asked him: has he always been bold enough to say what he thought?
“I think I grew into it,” he replied. “I definitely have always had my own thoughts, but I was very shy for a while. It wasn’t until my mid-to-late twenties when I started to say what I think.”
Moreover, as Mars observed, it can be harder to get to this point today—and again, that’s because of the Internet. “You see exactly what could happen to you if you speak up,” he explained. “If you say the most basic thing online, you’ll see the backlash of cancel culture.”
As he reflected on the shy kid he used to be, he mused on how much worse it would be for such a kid today. “I imagine a shy kid would feel even more trapped unless you join a group or community. With kids today, there’s just much more of a need with the community,” he observed.
As much as we Millennials may have thought that groups like the jocks and the skaters and the emo kids dominated our social lives at the time, the cliques of the 1990s weren’t as all-encompassing as their successors are today, as Mars sees it: “It didn’t become your entire identity!” he said. And the transgender community is one place—though not the only place—where this dynamic dominates. “Now, with these other identities, these kids who feel like they’re gender nonconforming or trans, that becomes everything you are.”
And that totality of identity, when combined with the threat of cancellation and expulsion from the community, can put a young person in a bad place.
Navigating Intellect and Emotion as a Freethinking Trans Man
If you’re not well-versed in the inflammatory issues we’ve been alluding to, Mars’ pinned tweet will give you a 240-character overview of the kind of things he asserts that get him in trouble:
When I read this tweet in my interview prep, it brought to my mind the battle that can rage when a person has an intense intellectual drive and powerful emotions to go with it—an important component of the process known as positive disintegration. Mars does seem to me to manifest a core quality of intellectual overexcitability: namely, that drive to question and pursue truth. But the dichotomy between head and heart is a false one, and even if he prefers rational mode—even if he strives to take his emotional reactions off-line—he still experiences them, like all the rest of us.
Though he will be the first to step up and say that he is biologically female when some of the more extreme activists argue that, say, biological sex is a social construct, Mars himself struggles with the tension between head and heart. “It’s very hard to constantly be a part of a discourse that will invalidate you,” he explained. “A lot of [trans people active in this debate] are intellectual, but they can’t do it. Because you don’t want to take yourself down. I find myself asking myself that, too: am I taking myself down in doing this? It’s hard to answer this question. But without the truth, what do we have? It is what it is.”
I had to sympathize. I myself have views on the transgender question that are not black and white, and I’ve often appreciated Mars’s speaking up against what I see as harmful and inaccurate rhetoric from the most extreme activists. But when I see him insisting, in response to those extremists, that he is in fact female, it does not feel that all is as it should be. Why transition at all if you then must spend so much energy telling people you are actually female? So, as I told him, though I appreciate his pursuit of truth and accuracy, I hate that we’re in a place that puts him in this place. Wouldn’t it be a huge step forward if we could come up with some sort of lever that could help him do some of the intellectual lifting he’s driven to do without having to bear so much of the emotional weight?
Mars suggested that this lever could come in the form of clear, agreed-upon language. “If we’re talking about biological sex and I need to state the facts that I’m a female, okay, fine. At the same time, I am not doing this so I can go around telling people that I’m a woman. When people say TIF or TIM [trans-identified female/trans-identified male], I absolutely can’t stand those terms. It reminds me of a girl name—Tiff!
“I refuse to navigate it in a way where I out myself everywhere—but I also refuse to bend the knee on this [to those activists] because I do care about the truth,” he continued. “This puts me in a really strange place. There are a lot of uncomfortable conversations that I throw myself into. It sucks being in this position, if I’m being honest.”
Mars is far from the only transgender person stuck in such a situation. Perhaps the most famous is Caitlyn Jenner, who came out in 2015 as transgender decades after winning gold in the men’s decathalon at the 1976 Olympic Games; she is now running for governor of California as a Republican.
“Look at Caitlyn Jenner. She’s the first trans person that politically doesn’t sit where she’s supposed to, according to not only the Left but the Right,” Mars said. “This is the first person who could speak out and say that puberty blockers might not be safe and males shouldn’t play against females. The way they’re dealing with Caitlyn Jenner is a lesson for me. It’s kind of depressing. If this person who’s got a huge platform can’t make a change—and I hope that she can, in regard to transgender issues—then I don’t know.”
It’s also disheartening to Mars how both the Left and the Right have things to say about Jenner that are unfair—even cruel. “People on the Left don’t like her because she represents something that goes against gender ideology. And then I see old school conservatives who look at her and think she’s absolute insane—mentally ill. They’re both going off a person’s identity, not what she represents as far as her policy! And so they both put people in boxes.”
Confidence & Cross-Gender Relations
It seems to me that today, in 2021, confidence is more important than it’s been at any point in the lives of Millennials like Mars and me. It’s certainly at a premium for Zoomers (or iGen, as I’ve seen them called less commonly but more aptly), as they’re living their formative years in those constricting digital communities. And it’s something Mars clearly has, as he keeps speaking his mind and having difficult conversations while remaining true to his own choices and values.
It’s also something that, as both he and I have witnessed, is often lacking in people born female—especially those who develop gender dysphoria.
“Specifically females, when they decide they’re going to identify as a masculine male, they get this tiny boost of confidence. Which is very interesting!” Mars observed. He’s speaking generally, of course; he is himself an exception to this generalization. “I didn’t go through that. Prior to transition, I was very confident and very vocal. I think transitioning gave me a boost, but it wasn’t where I got my confidence. I got it growing up—growing out of being a shy kid.”
When Mars and I spoke in 2018, we talked about what made him different from those who went through a female-to-male transition only to regret it and detransition. Neither of us have anything like a broad answer to this essential question; he does, however, have some observations that can inform the conversation.
“I don’t relate to some stuff that detransitioners say, the way they felt they couldn’t do anything as a woman,” he told me. “I was really reckless in what I said as a woman. I didn’t care! Because not a lot of people made a fuss over a girl cussing out a guy.”
Having been understood by the world as female for much of his life, Mars has a valuable perspective on sexism and on fitting in with the norms of single-sex groups. “It’s very interesting seeing misogyny from this point,” he told me. “It’s something I’ve seen at my job. Everyone there knows I’m trans, so it puts me in this position of, okay, if I’m constantly calling out misogyny, is that going to put me in some new category to all these dudes? Do I want to put myself in that category? Maybe I’m already there. Fine. But I don’t want to add to it. So I have to be very cautious about how I handle certain situations.”
He added that he has to be cautious about this not just for acceptance, but for his own safety. That cussing out of guys he used to do when he was read as “she” became more complicated: “Now today, I find myself thinking before I go off sometimes. Because now that I’m presenting as a guy, he won’t think twice before he knocks me across the face. If you’re a guy and you’re being a jerk to another guy, that interaction is more likely to become violent.”
To Transition or Not to Transition?
Mars’ observation is especially salient given that, as he pointed out, one reason that some female-born people seek a gender transition to feel safe—to escape the specter of the violent male. He recalled hearing a detransitioned woman say as much. “Maybe they’re transitioning because they really want to opt out of womanhood and shield themselves from men,” he speculated. “I never wanted to shield myself from men; I felt I should have been a man.”
For young people who are questioning their gender, Mars encourages them to spend some time thinking about this question. “I don’t think a fourteen-year-old who is female and wants to be a man understands this. Locker room talk might terrify you. You playing sports with guys is fine, but a guy’s not going to think twice about beating your ass. I don’t see anyone talking about this in the community.”
It seemed to me, based on what Mars was saying, that maybe a useful question for gender dysphoric female-born people considering transition might be whether they want to reject certain elements of womanhood—or if they actively want to be men. This includes things like men’s locker room banter, the risk of being clocked for cussing out another man, the way men talk about women when it’s only men in the room, and so on. So I asked Mars: “What do you think? Is this a useful question?”
“I think that’s a good question to ask, but you’d have to ask it in a different way. Otherwise they’ll interpret it in a different way and throw it back at you,” he said, recalling the group dynamic he alluded to earlier as well as the way many in Gen Z frame gender. Instead, he suggested this question: “What are certain things about being a man that you feel you connected to? What are some negatives that you don’t connect to?” This, perhaps, might provide a useful bit of data.
“But that is a good question,” he added. “I absolutely believe there are just so may things that these kids don’t identify with that are supposedly ‘for’ men or women. They just look at the positive; they don’t look at the other elements.”
In the end, the conversation is a huge one—and a difficult one to have in today’s climate. “People who open this door and see what’s behind it—so many people are getting impacted by it!” Mars said “It’s a huge conversation to have. And it sucks that you can’t have it because people want to go along with what the rest of the group is saying. They don’t want to get taken down if they go against the group.”
For Mars, though the conversation has been costly, it continues to be worth it. When I asked him why he discusses things with people who disagree with him, he had a solid answer that I think will resonate with many Third Factor readers: “I want to understand them—but if I’m being honest, it also helps me understand myself,” he said. “I’ve been trying to understand why I am the way I am probably my whole life. And I feel like I’ve gotten closer to having that answer by having conversations with other trans people, despite the fact that many of them have other stories. It’s putting together all these pieces to the puzzle of my existence.”
Enjoy this interview? Check out Mars’ YouTube channel for more of his thoughts.