Not by how I define myself, but by how others define me

June 10, 2014 § 6 Comments

 or Experiencing misogyny without being a woman

(Descriptions of harassment contained within)


Misogyny is a blunt instrument, but one that can be handled subtly. The way it is woven through our lives, our experiences, doesn’t have to abide by the parameters we ourselves have set for those lives and experiences.

I would call myself androgynous, genderqueer, transgender, transsexual, trans masculine – and yet misogyny aimed at me has been a constant companion since childhood. That might seem like a stunningly bland and obvious statement to make, but one that I thinks needs making, because it seems as though some in the trans and wider social justice communities are forgetting that, in a bid to make a wider point about male privilege.

Does male privilege exist? Fuck yesdo we even have to ask? Do even the queerest of spaces often highlight and praise what is considered masculine over what is considered feminine?  yes yes and yes. Do some trans masculine and other FAAB (female assigned at birth)* trans people engage in misogyny aimed at others? Sadly yes.

But taking those facts and then claiming that all FAAB trans people benefit from male privilege – without qualifiers, without the rest of the story – that’s not only painfully untrue but also a damaging erasure of real suffering endured under a misogynistic system. And that suffering is not an aberration under that system, but a crucial part of it.

What do they see, the people I’ve met throughout my life who’ve abused me in the street, followed me home, threatened to rape me, discriminated against me in education, in the workplace, groped me, insulted me, mocked me? Gender variance, yes – but rarely is that gender variance explicitly parsed as ‘ you are trans masculine, and therefore I object to you’. In some cases, it comes from a place of utter confusion: ‘what ARE you? Are you a man or a woman?’. Rarely, it is a reference to being trans – in the form of the word ‘tranny’. Occasionally, particularly when I’m out with a male partner, it’s for being an effiminate man: ‘batty boy’, ‘faggot’, ‘poof’, ‘YOU’RE GAY’.

But, overwhelmingly, what they see is a woman who is not doing womanhood right. I know this because they tell me. The man who threatened me at a taxi stand for fifteen minutes (no one intervened) because I wouldn’t go home with him: ‘Who’d want you anyway – you’ve got no tits. Why don’t you just go home and wank while you cry because no one wants you.’ The group of older men outside a pub in the afternoon who closed ranks and shouted at me that I was ‘begging for it up the shitter’. The cis men and women, in politer settings, who sneer and mock and tell me that I’d look so much better if I looked more feminine, and who’d hire me as I am? The people who will not hire me/work with me/teach me specifically because I’m obviously a ‘psychodyke’. And, occasionally, none of that even matters – anything vaguely ‘woman’ will do – guy who tried to masturbate on me at the bus stop, this song’s for you.

It is frequently said that the world rewards women who ‘aspire upwards’ to masculinity – and I believe that is true. But it frequently punishes them as well – for usurping male power and privilege, for destablising a system, for being ‘unworthy’ of what they claim to be theirs. And that applies to people assumed to be women as well as actual women.

On average I would say that I ‘pass’ as male around a fifth of the time. Mostly in casual situations – in shops, on public transport. There are plenty of trans masculine people, FAAB genderqueer people, who do not pass as male, and suffer far worse than I do the punishments society metes out to those it considers difficult, wayward women. Who they actually are, who they know themselves to be – do we seriously think that the people who attack them, attack us, take the time to find that out? Or, if they do know it, use it in any other way than as a weapon?

Structural critique and understanding of oppressive systems should never be reasons to turn away from individual and systemic suffering within those systems – it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Highlighting the appalling misogyny directed at trans women, trans feminine people, trans people assigned male at birth, does not have to mean claiming that other people do not suffer under an oppressive system too. Acknowledging that some trans men have male privilege, in different degrees in different situations, does not mean that all FAAB trans people have male privilege in all situations. It is possible to have a degree of male privilege and still be the victim of gross misogyny. Assuming that all trans masculine people pass – that all trans people assigned female at birth ARE masculine, and therefore benefit from masculinity –  is simply untrue.

We shouldn’t compound the damage done by misogynists, by misogynistic systems, by pretending that those abuses don’t exist – or don’t matter. It serves no one but those seeking to keep us down.



*I’m not generally a fan of identifying trans people by the birth gender they were straitlaced into. However, in this context, because it is the criteria widely used, I think it’s useful to discuss.


§ 6 Responses to Not by how I define myself, but by how others define me

  • L says:

    Reblogged this on FISTFELT and commented:
    ^ This is the struggle I’ve endured my whole life, long before I knew anything about gender.

  • Jamie Ray says:

    An intentionally masculine woman makes a lot of men very uncomfortable. Being visibly transgender (as opposed to visibly assimilating as male) is viewed by many people (most vocally men, but also by many women) as “not knowing your place”. It is (rightly) seen as a threat to male privilege because it challenges that system and presents an alternative. The “not knowing your place” is a historically misogynistic argument used against any behavior (such as our right to walk anywhere we want dressed however we want). Being “uppity” has been used against any woman (or any person perceived as a woman) who acts or defines themselves as something other than a sexual object for men.

    On the other hand, I do constantly have to check my own internalized misogyny – the part of me that is scanning and not wanting to see evidence of my femaleness – and only wants to see manifestations of maleness – and remind myself that non-binary includes both – and that one of the reasons I did not choose a binary transition is that I do not want to be socialized as a straight white male.

  • Sam says:

    The more I learn about trans* people and the stupid f@*king people who want to know what they are and what they have and (on and on) the more I want to keep my 5yo transgirl in the house forever. I cannot, but I’m scared. I was told she has male privilege because relatives know she was identified male at birth. Thanks, terfs. She transitioned at three years old. She’s chock full of male privilege, right? And if it was the opposite, she’d experience the utter shit you have. You just can’t win. I want to cry.

  • Sam says:

    And by “opposite” I don’t mean truly opposite but don’t want to write 1000 word comment.

  • Corvus says:

    Thank you endlessly for this. I am a transmasculine Butch. I am on T (over a year now) but I am read as a butch woman at work, at the hospital, at all of these places. There is no safe bathroom. There is no safer space aside from some queer spaces. I still even get cat called, harrassed, etc even though I present VERY masculinely. I have had people tell me that my trauma history is one of the worst they have ever heard. And it is cutting to me when I am lumped in with dudebro white trans men who have done everything in their power to mirror the patriarchy and dominant culture. I know several other transmasculine people, even trans men, whose bodies are threatened the moment they walk out the door because they don’t “pass” properly. I know countless transmasculine people with rape and trauma histories from when they were treated as women are treated that they have yet to recover from, that “passing” did not remove from their field.

    There is also the very real fact that race plays into it hugely. I am white. When black trans men are read as men, they don’t have this sudden white male privilege that white trans men sometimes gain. Trans women of COLOR are the recipients of most violence and gay men are second on the list.

    There is so much going on. My history as being read as both a feminine woman and a masculine woman and a trans person and whatever else, on the receiving end of harrassment and violence and discrimination should not have to be erased in order to fight against the huge oppression trans women, particularly trans women of color, face every day. I fight this every chance I get to speak about it and it becomes a very lonely fight when I am told that my transness has meant nothing but privilege. It surely has not. One day, if T ever makes me read as a white male, I will surely gain male privilege to the extent that trans people can. And right then, I pledge to acknowledge and use that privilege to continue to fight trans misogyny, general misogyny, racism, and so on,

    I think another issue is that many trans women do not identify with their history in the same way transmasculine people do. I have been treated as a vilified woman my entire life. I think this is a critical experience that some transmen who physically transition in their teens miss out on. My experiences with misogyny, homophobia, discrimination, ableism, etc did not stop with a T shot. I also have seen many presentations in more mainstream white culture of white trans women who “transitioned” at 50 years old after becoming the head of a corporation when they were “presenting” as masculine men. I can only imagine the suffering that it took to hide who they were that whole time, but I also acknowledge the fact that I do not have that class privilege because I was designated female at birth and have been overall a target for several reasons my entire life.

    That being said, I find it is mostly a very young crowd who does this “you are faab therefore you are all male privilege” thing. There are a wide variety of activists speaking about this. There is always a strange extreme that comes with an important cause, like the inclusion and safety of transfeminine people. And that part has its place, however hurtful they can be. They often grow into amazing activists.

    There are so many different kinds of trans people transitioning in different ways in different races, ages, and so on throughout life that when these conversations lump people into categories and rob them of their experience it is repeatedly extremely damaging.

    We each suffer differently and each kind of suffering is valid. We can work together, acknowledge each others privilege, and also not squash each others suffering.

    • cnlester says:

      Thank you so much for sharing – “We each suffer differently and each kind of suffering is valid. We can work together, acknowledge each others privilege, and also not squash each others suffering.” – YES

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