(This is my submission to the next Carnival of Feminists, Wednesday over at Amber’s place (final link will go up when it does). One of the available essay topics was male allies in feminism, and this seemed appropriate.)
(I’ve been meaning to finish this post for a while now, which is why the first link is so old.)
Over at Alas, FurryCatHerder and I got into a fairly interesting discussion about feminist transition (not actually a contradiction in terms). The back-and-forth started with a comment by Angiportus:
When a local library acquired some guides to transitioning, I was startled by how limited and utterly stereotyped was the ideal that the trans-t0-be was urged to shooot for. Just another pigeonhole.
That was 10 or so years back, but newer guides have not yet appeared. Keep up the good work and maybe they will.
I pointed out that most people these days go online when they can: it’s sometimes cheaper, it frequently affords more anonymity, and it offers a much broader range of information than a single book can.
FurryCatHerder responded thusly:
I find that the modern on-line community is a disaster. There’s a lot of emphasis on passing though an uncritical embrace of highly stereotyped behaviors.
I’m bi (like, Kinsey 5.9 :) ), but I mostly date women and in the lesbian community there is no shortage of women who are called “Sir” on a regular basis. The women that happens to understand why it happens and aren’t anywhere near as offended as transsexual and transgender women are when someone calls them “Sir”.
So, yeah, while there is an on-line trans universe, I don’t think it’s providing helpful or particularly feminist information to people contemplating a sex change.
I’m going to try to spell out my thoughts here.
First of all, there’s a lot out there, and your search is truncated to your needs. A married forty-year-old transguy living in Utah will find different information than a fifteen-year-old ft? livejournaller living in San Francisco. The “online trans universe” is more like a set of parallel ones connected by the occasional wormhole. Because I have no interest in becoming a woman, I have not spent anywhere near as much time looking at information available to those transpeople who want to become women. Because I am not married, I don’t know what resources someone looking to preserve or end a marriage might encounter. It’s worth pointing out as well that some of the deepest gulfs in networking exist between transmale and transfemale communities.
Second, there are certainly unabashedly sexist transguys, and guys who consider stereotypical male presentation cues to be part of manhood in general. They exist. I have no reason to believe that they are less likely in general to make use of the internet. I mean, what’s more phallic than a series of tubes?
However, I wouldn’t put them in the majority by any means. In fact, what I’ve encountered more often is a different, related problem with transition and feminism.
I call it The Passion of the Secret Vagina.
I hate race/transgender analogies, because they so frequently compare scars instead of dynamics. But maybe this one will serve this purpose. What Furrycatherder is talking about is someone who believes that womanhood is the same as stereotypical femininity, that it is impossible to be a woman if you are not feminine, and that your womanhood is indisputable if you are. Call it the Farrah Fallacy. This would be analagous to someone who is unabashedly racist, I suppose, or suffering from internalized racism.
What I see, as often if not more so, are transmen who consider themselves to be deeply feminist, so much so that they cannot cope with the idea that they are becoming men. They cannot admit to the privilege they receive by virtue of doing so. This would be analagous to the baby anti-racist white kid so suffocated by shame and guilt that he becomes obsessed with negating his whiteness and white privilege. That white kid has failed to understand that neither one is consensual, but rather inalienable, and that the point is not self-delusion but awareness.
This condition is paralyzing, but it has worse effects. Transmen get to be men. Most of us pass as male, whether or not we particularly want to. That means that the people around us see us as male and treat us as male. That means that we have access to male privilege, unlike people who are seen as female. While it is absolutely true that transsexuality and numerous other factors complicate this privilege, that not all of us pass all the time, that we are frequently unconventionally male, and that being outed as transsexual would compromise our safety, we no longer suffer from misogyny the way that women do. Catcalls, for example. Not one strange man on the street has groped anything since I transitioned. When we deny the difference, we end up denying not only the way that sexism functions in our lives but the way that it functions in general. In other words, we end up arguing from an anti-feminist position.
Sometimes, this need to cling to an assigned female identity is self-serving. It is used as grounds for inclusion in queer women’s spaces, and as a shield against any allegations of misogyny. Sometimes, it has to do with an inability to leave an old community behind. Sometimes, it has to do with internalized transphobia–because of course no one can really change sex–or with a simple lag between outside reception and self-image. Sometimes, it is done in the service of a genderqueer identity, or an identity that is somehow complex. I respect the importance of community ties, and I do not believe that anyone should have to cut their history apart in order to be truly transsexual. All of that must be reconciled with the truth of how transition changes our lives. Any other approach is far more steeped in denial than “passing” will ever be.
I have a perfect example of denial, from a personal blog I’m gonna refrain from linking to. It’s his private space, and I don’t know him too well, so you’re just gonna have to take my word for it. The guy was ranting, which is another reason I’m not gonna hang him out to dry. He had recently been in a discussion with ftms, most or all further along in transition, who saw themselves as men, or possibly men with a little something different. They lived as men and wanted to be seen as men. They were not out to most of the people in their lives–coworkers, managers, casual acquaintances, housemates, friends of friends, somewhat closer friends, certain in-laws. Their partners, families, physicians, and close friends knew, but not many other people. Some of them saw their transsexuality in terms of their medical privacy or their history. They no longer identified primary as trans, and some had ceased to identify as trans at all.
Dude was incensed. Sellouts! Cowards! Traitors! I’m never gonna forget my female life! I’m never gonna go stealth!* I’m never gonna pass! I’m never gonna lie to people! I’m always gonna be a woman and have these woman parts and that will always always always be a part of me and my life! I’m never gonna be like men! Because I have a cooter!
I was reading this and thinking, Do you even hear yourself?
He’s an ftm, too, but earlier in transition. At the time of the j’accuse, he did not pass consistently and might not have been passing at all. His life in transition had not advanced to the point where he had started a job or grad-school program as a passing transguy, or moved to a new city as a passing transguy, or started dating someone as a passing transguy. He came out to people as male-identified, not as originally female-assigned. He was, however, on that trajectory–odds are very very high that in a couple of years, he will have exactly the same options as the guys he was yelling at.
In other words, a few years from now he’ll have a male body just like I have white skin. He will interview in it. He will work in it. He will shop in it. He will go out to bars in it. He will walk down the street in it. A photograph of it will appear on every piece of identification he carries, right next to his male name and male gender marker. Everyone who meets him will see him as a man. While it’s true that he’ll still have his Secret Hoo-Haa, he won’t have to walk down the street with his pants down. In order to avoid being seen as male, he will have to announce his transsexuality to every single person he meets–and eventually, they might not even believe him.
In other words, yes, he will pass. Yes, he will go at least a little bit stealth. If that’s lying to people, then yes, he’ll be lying to people. Finally, yes, he will be like men.
I understand how scary can be to leave behind beliefs you’ve always held about yourself and your place in the world. I can understand how distasteful it can be to join a group of people you’ve always seen as the oppressors, especially if you’ve suffered gendered abuse at their hands. I can understand how frightening it can be to feel invisible all over again, and even to feel as though you’re trapped in yet another ill-fitting identity. That doesn’t make it negotiable. You’re changing sex. Who’s being cowardly, here? The people dealing with their lives as they are, or the people pretending to fight battles from positions they no longer hold?
And on the subject of trans invisibility, denial supports ignorance in another way:
As a trans woman, this is how I feel right now about many FTM-spectrum folks (as well as many non-trans queer women) in my community. While some trans guys & queer women I know are righteous allies in the fight against trans woman-exclusion policies in lesbian & queer women’s communities, others choose to enjoy the privilege they have being accepted in queer women’s spaces, even if it comes at the expense of trans women’s identities. Often this is couched in the language of fighting to change such policies (see comments in a recent TransNation Camp Trans article and my response below). What is typically overlooked is how this enables anti-trans woman sentiment in queer/trans spaces.
In other words, if transmen never really become men, transwomen never really become women. If we never really possess male privilege, they never really lose it.
*Slang term for not being out to everyone or most people; arguably derisive, especially in the mouths of people who will never hear, “Oh, so you’re really a woman?”