TW: Transphobia, cissexism, misogyny, sizeism, erasure, descriptions of dysphoria.
I am wary of the uncritical acceptance of the idea that trans men have male privilege. I’ve seen with my own eyes the way some trans men can benefit sometimes from male privilege, but they have it in a conditional way. Quite the opposite, I’ve seen far more ways trans men are actively harmed by misogyny. I think the question of how trans men can recognize and check their male privilege is not as interesting or as urgent as the question of how trans men are harmed by the male privilege and misogyny displayed by cis men. I’ve made a little itemized list of ways misogyny affects us harmfully. I like lists, they’re neat and pretty.
1) For many trans men, male privilege is the privilege to be silent. It is the privilege to make oneself invisible. Some trans men wish to live “stealth.” I don’t. The idea of being stealth is unpleasant to me. I have no desire to silence something that is, for me vital and authentic to my voice and life experience. There may be privilege involved in a stealth trans male life, but it is a privilege problematized by a culture of silence and fear. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone of the danger stealth trans people can encounter if they are outed, often greater danger than the danger encountered by out trans people, because of the narrative of the deceitful trans person. Male privilege for stealth trans men is a privilege that comes at the cost of a past, usually a childhood, and often a present that has features unacceptable to the patriarchal structures that produce male privilege.
2) One of the most pervasive cissexist tactics of denying trans men’s genders is by suggesting that we are women attempting to escape the necessarily inferior condition of womanhood. Transfeminist Julia Serano has argued that the historic invisibility of trans men is because of this attitude. It makes sense that women want to be men—who wouldn’t want to be a man—but of course they can’t be allowed to be. On the other hand, a man who wants to be a woman is absurd, freakish, and worth attention. All this functions on the assumption that womanhood is an inferior state.
Some critiques, however, come disguised as feminist thought. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard variations on the theme of, “Well, of course you want to be a man! Men have male privilege!” and other charming iterations of the idea that sexism is the etiology of my gender. Interestingly, and rather unsurprisingly, in my experience, this usually comes from cis male pseudo-feminists who were insisting on my lack of ability to understand how my gender exists in a critical and politically minded way. It also presupposes that a woman would, in the face of patriarchy, be more inclined to switch genders instead of fighting for equality, which makes all kinds of assumptions about a woman’s strength, integrity, and readiness for battle. (All of which are traits which patriarchy attempts to reserve for men.)
3) Trans men are affected by patriarchal negligence of and interference with women’s health (the anti-choice movement, etc). The anti-choice effort to deny FAAB people rights over their own bodies extends to trans men. There are trans men whose sex lives involve pregnancy risk. There are trans men who need birth control. There are trans men who want to give birth and may be at risk for forced sterilization (especially if they are of color), or who want to choose to give birth how and where they feel comfortable. There are trans men who need access to abortion services. The patriarchal effort to deny FAAB people adequate health care and to ignore or erase their health needs affects trans men just as much as it does women.
Trans men often have a particular experience of anti-choice thinking if they need to take testosterone. Because taking testosterone renders a trans man (at least temporarily and sometimes permanently) infertile, trans men are frequently told that they will regret not being able to have children. The regret they are told they will feel is held up as an example of why taking testosterone is an unnatural act.
The (cis)sexist logic goes like this: “It is natural for a female-assigned person to want to become pregnant and have children, as they are by default a woman and reproduction is one of the purposes of women. Taking testosterone is obviously unnatural because bodies should only display the characteristics of their assigned genders, but this FAAB person does not see that. If I explain to this FAAB person that if they take testosterone they will inevitably be unable to have children and fulfill their true purpose in life, which they will regret, it will prove to them that taking testosterone is fundamentally an unnatural act.”
It’s all part of the barefoot and pregnant paradigm. Pregnancy as indispensable part of being a female-assigned person. The idea that female-assigned people have the responsibility to allow themselves to be impregnated.
To attempt to deny a trans man access to hormones, or to police his decision to take hormones, because he “might want to have children someday” is no less a restriction of his reproductive freedom as a female-assigned person than it is to disallow cis women from obtaining abortions, birth control, or sterilization.
4) Trans men are held up as an example of the hysterical woman. I experienced this firsthand at an intense level, having come out at fourteen, a time when one’s feelings tend to be pathologized partly because of the drama with which they’re expressed and partly because of unfair double standards based on weird cultural constructs about what adolescence is. Most of my feelings of depression or distress were seen as hysterical, in the fine old tradition of women as unreasonable and unable to understand their feelings or express them rationally.
Once I came out and explicitly expressed my dysphoria, another level of pathologization was added—the one present in discourses that pathologize trans people and lives, considering their genders to be mental illnesses in and of themselves.
There is an unexplored commonality between the oppression of women (cis or trans) and of female-assigned trans people. Both are pathologized for their genders and/or considered untrustworthy on the subject of what their gender is and what it means to have that gender.
When trans men come out, they are often met with the belief that they, as crazy hysterical women, are not capable of self-knowledge. ”It’s just a phase,” “You’ll get over this,” “You’re doing this to hurt me.” etc. They are understood to be incapable of knowing themselves well enough to make a statement as drastic as “My gender is not the one assigned to me at birth.”
5) Trans men are understood as failed women, failed by virtue of inability to attract a man or inadequate femininity (usually both, with the latter understood as the cause of the former). In the movie version of the TV show “Family Guy,” there is a perfect example of this. Many jokes in the show revolve around the ugliness and inability to attract a boyfriend of Meg, the daughter. In the movie, Meg is revealed to eventually come out as male. It is presented as a direct result of her ugliness and failure to attract a heterosexual man.
This misogynistic viewpoint states that trans men are simply women who were unable to act as “real” women do: not pretty enough, not sexy or obedient or virginal enough, in short not able or willing to conform to the plethora of often contradictory demands patriarchy makes of women and female-assigned people. These failed women, unable to satisfy heterosexual men romantically or sexually, and unable to adhere to patriarchal demands on a larger scale, must therefore become men.
Of course, these failed women-now-men can’t be allowed to be true men! They have vaginas and breasts, or they used to if they’ve had procedures that changed that, and everyone knows vaginas only go on women, who are of course crazy. In the end, the trans man becomes a failed woman who must become a man but cannot truly be a man. The demands placed on him by patriarchal logics directly contradict one another.
The whole operation ultimately degenders trans men, positioning them not as men and not as women (and not in a liberating, breaking the binary way). They are positioned as gender failures, not competent for either maleness or femaleness, a total Other.
6) The male gaze is used against trans men. This is not to say that trans men are incapable of using and benefitting from the male gaze, but that cis men use the male gaze to dehumanize and objectify trans men.
Trans women are obviously vulnerable to the male gaze because of their gender, but trans men’s relationship to it is more complicated. If trans men are not blending absolutely one hundred percent, it is considered acceptable for cis men to examine trans men and attempt to determine what gender they “really” are. They are something to be examined, critiqued, and made valid or invalid by the cis man’s decision because of the possibility that they are a woman.
The male gaze empowers cis men to decide whether trans men are adequately trans. That is to say, a cis man can look upon an unbound or femininely presenting transgender man, declare that his gender presentation is not that of a “real” trans person, and thus consider his gender invalid.
The male gaze used against trans men does not differ much in practice from the male gaze used against women: it focuses on secondary sex characteristics, it assumes that a gaze that lingers too long and too invasively or impolitely is acceptable.
All this plays into the male gaze’s function within the larger patriarchal project. After all, the reason that trans men must be examined this way is so it can be determined who the “real men” are on whom male privilege should be conferred. If trans men do gain male privilege, they must first pass the test of the male gaze, which will probably determine that they are “really a woman,” neither male nor female but entirely Other, or inadequate as a trans man and thus not “male enough.”
7) Misogynistic concepts of the FAAB body are used to police trans male bodies, a problem exacerbated by dysphoria. Or a problem that exacerbates dysphoria, depending on how you look at it. In either case, because of dysphoria, a classic misogynistic chestnut like “Vaginas are gross!” or “Menstruation makes me want to throw up” can ring true for a trans man on a personal level, w/r/t his own genitals or his own experience of menstruation.
It’s very easy for trans men to internalize these ideas not just as things true for them because of dysphoria, but of all FAAB bodies, ie. that not only their vaginas are disgusting, but that all vaginas are—and that, of course, can lead to them saying and doing sexist things, but it’s a kind of sexist behavior that has to be problematized. It’s much more akin to a woman talking about how much she hates her pubic hair than it is to a man talking about how all women should shave their genitals because pubic hair is gross.
All this fosters the same toxic culture of body denigration and competition that preys on women.
The intersection of cissexism and misogyny places trans male bodies in a double bind, that of being declared disgusting and invalid both because they have bodies that are FAAB, and because those bodies are trans FAAB bodies.
I believe there is something to be said here about sizeism and the policing of what and how FAAB people eat and how big FAAB people are allowed to be, but that isn’t an area I’m particularly educated in. I know that this is something Eli and Mitch know about—do you guys have any thoughts? All I’ve decided at this point is that a fat trans man is far more likely than a fat cis man to be declared loathsome, which can and often does lead to the designation of a fat trans man as a failed ugly woman as I discussed earlier.
Now, that’s the conclusion of my list. As I’ve said, I’ve seen trans men benefit from male privilege, but I think the ways that we’re harmed by misogyny are much greater. I hope this goes a little ways toward explaining why.