What cis men could learn from trans masculinities

February 17, 2015 § 9 Comments

You can learn a lot about masculinity when you’re consistently told that your own is invalid.

Mainstream media shows no sign of stopping its love affair with the ‘masculinity in crisis’ storyline. It’s the apparent reason behind Gamergate, and rape culture, and the abuse of women online, and the baffling appeal of Christian Grey. In a world that’s become too feminist (if only), the easiest way for men and boys to prove their masculinity is to lash out at everything perceived as feminine or womanly. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. The usual solution offered is a return to ‘traditional values’ – and a limiting of feminist options.

I might not be a man – but I would put myself under the broader banner of trans masculine. More than that, I’ve learnt so much about masculinity and maleness – what they mean in practice, the questions around them, the nebulous idea of social categorisation* – from the trans men in my life, and from the trans people who would sometimes, always or occasionally inhabit a space broadly recognisable as ‘masculine’.

I think the idea that ‘too much feminism’ is causing a crisis in masculinity is bullshit.

But – something you do realise, when you have to fight the world for the right to be seen as yourself – is that this space of ‘masculinity’ is surrounded by barriers and tests meant to force you into proving yourself a ‘real man’. Mainstream societal masculinity puts itself in a crisis state: to protect itself, to reject calls for gender reform and justice, to make itself seem valuable and desirable. It creates a narrative of being under attack, and asks to be defended. It paints itself as being rare – and asks that its challenges be met before entry to the club can be granted.

And then it does something else – something seductive, and so easy to fall into. It gives you cheats codes. Society doesn’t just provide them – it pressures you into using them, to show that you’re ‘just one of the guys’. The temptation can be overwhelming, when you’re being undermined at every turn – I’ve certainly succumbed in the past – but what I’ve learnt from the trans people I admire most is that there’s another way.

You don’t have to be trans to have learnt that. Not every trans person will, or will want to – because it keeps them safer, or makes life easier, or because those stereotypes and cheat codes match the way they think of the world and themselves. Trans men/trans masculine people are not a magical subset of people graced with an innate superiority to cis men. Some of them are just as misogynistic, just as oppressive, as any cis guy. But when you have to fight to be heard, to be believed – when the world around you has treated you like a girl and/or a woman as its default setting** – then I think it gives you the opportunity to broaden your mind, and think about what it really means to be a man, to be masculine.***

I wish more cis men – and mainstream society in general – could learn just three things:

1. It’s not about your body

As a response to: It’s ALL about your body. And particularly about your cock.

Cheat codes: mocking guys who are fatter/thinner/different from you, using the size/type/presence of someone’s cock as an insult/weapon, policing and abusing women and other feminine people’s bodies to make you feel better

So, the world at large still believes that man=penis, woman=absence of penis – phallocentric, transmisogynistic, transphobic – and incredibly limiting. That’s not an area I’m enormously dysphoric about, and, still, I’ve felt a huge amount of pressure to ‘make up’ for the fact that I don’t have a cisnormative cock – by being more muscular, more typically attractive, more typically masculine. I feel weird about admitting this now, because I’m worried that some people will judge me as less trans, and less masculine. In a broader bodily sense, I used to worry about transitioning – in part because I was worried that I would never live up to a standard of masculine attractiveness. It felt like it would be better to be perceived as an attractive woman, rather than ‘fail’ at being masculine in the eyes of the world.

One of the things I found incredible, transformative, when I started exploring the trans community, are the people (of all genders) who allow their bodies to be reflections of who they are – not the other way around. Most pertinent here are the men, trans masculine people, who follow their own internal dictates as to how their bodies should be. That what kind of cock you have, and whether you have one at all, should be for you to decide – not the government, not the media. That you get to decide how your body and your gender entwine. That dysphoria varies from person to person – and we all need to find a personal solution to what makes us feel most like us.

What would the world look like, if we didn’t automatically assume that genitals indicated gender, that a penis is somehow better than anything else (on a man), and that a cisnormative penis is the only one worth having? How much kinder would it be, if self-worth wasn’t predicated on how many inches you have in your pants, whether those inches can conform to an incredibly narrow standard of appearance and performance? How much safer would the world be, if we didn’t suppose that one kind of body is ‘strong’ and another ‘weak’ – and that to prove that the strong kind is really worthy it must be hardened as much as possible? With no care, no tenderness, no regard for health – and no regard for the care, health and safety of others?

2. Male privilege is real

And making it worse to prove yourself is a shit move

As a response to: Actually, men are the most oppressed now

Cheat codes: Capitalising on your privilege to make yourself feel bigger, stronger, safer, better – objectification, catcalling, belittling – sexist shit towards people of other genders

One incredible aspect of trans experience that has yet to be fully mined is the knowledge gleaned from experiencing different treatment at the hands of those around us, based on the gender they perceive or assume.

If anyone is still wondering if male privilege is actually a thing (I hope you’re not), then the experiences of neurobiologist Ben Barres provide essential reading. Remaining in the same line of work, post-transition, he’s noticed an incredible difference in the way he’s treated by fellow scientists – his work is considered better, more legitimate, his views more respected. It’s an experience I’ve heard anecdotally from so many of the people I know. Being read as male doesn’t negate the other ways in which people face discrimination – this piece from Kai M. Green on the intersection of racial profiling and oppression with gendered ideas of being in the world is essential – but, for many people, in different ways, it confers an advantage.

And if you’re being forced to prove which ‘side’ you’re on? To prove that you’re not really a girl? That you’re deserving of the privilege of being male? Even five-year-olds know how this one goes: you make the girls cry to earn your place in the boys’ treehouse. Maybe it’s not as bad as deliberately making them cry – maybe it’s making a show of ogling a woman in front of your friends, or talking crap about them while in all male company. Maybe they’ve serve the dual function of proving you belong in an gay all male environment – insulting bodies read as female or feminine. What that does – turning women and feminine people into props and accessories used to reinforce masculinity, regardless of their feelings, or how much it hurts them – is unacceptable. I’m not going to repeat the ‘real men don’t’ line – it’s not a question of being a ‘real man’ – it’s being a decent human being. There are millions of men in the world who don’t place harmful notions of proving themselves over the foundational aspect of being basically decent.

And if trans men, trans masculine people, who are forced to prove themselves over and over again, with the threat of prejudice, abuse and violence hanging over their heads – if they, if we can do that without resorting to sexism, then cis men can do it too.

3. Life’s too precious to let cultural expectations hold you back from your own truth

As a response to: That’s just how men are, and how they’ve always been

Cheat codes: Denigrating anyone who tries to be themselves, or challenge an aspect of the world around them, hiding in cynicism and apathy because it’s easier, becoming numb to world around you because it’s too hard to challenge

Again – it’s not like trans masculine people, trans men, have the monopoly here. But the struggles we face, just to be ourselves – it really brings it home. If we’re able, we can learn so much about who we are, who we can be, the price of that, and also the value.

There are plenty of cis guys who know this already – and plenty who have to play by some of the rules, at least, to be safe.

But for the cis men who are safe, who’ve never had to fight for it, who go along with a status quo and don’t ask themselves why they do it, or how it came to be: why?

Why bow down to a legacy not of your making, rather than remaking yourself as you might be?

So, what if the traditional model of masculinity is in crisis? What if it has been destroyed by a greater awareness of gendered inequality and oppression, a shift towards gendered justice? If a category that encompassed all kinds of harmful behaviour is being stretched, twisted, subverted, remodelled?

We’re still here.

So why don’t we get our hands dirty, and build something better?

* Yes, I’m still genderqueer – also very fond of questions

** Just to be very clear that being a girl/woman is not a bad thing – and that trans masculine people/trans men do not transition in order to ‘escape womanhood’ for something ‘better’.

*** I get that this is an ‘all about teh menz’ post. But I think one of the best things guys could do for feminism is to interrogate the way men, masculine people, are supposed to be, to behave, and find better ways of being in the world.

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§ 9 Responses to What cis men could learn from trans masculinities

  • ❤ #gratitude for stating so many obvious things. cheers.

  • Cara says:

    I don’t believe “too much feminism” is causing a crisis in or about masculinity. I personally was born (way back in 1977) with female anatomy, and I still have all my original female anatomy. I’m a heterosexual female in my late thirties. The only crisis I ever had about masculinity (about figuring out what it was) wasn’t because of feminism, it was because of the men I grew up with.

    There was my maternal grandfather, italian-bon and old school. When I was ten, he raped me, said if I refused him he would rape my younger sisters in my stead, & left me feeling like I HAD to take it all summer to keep him off them; he also paid me, in ever-decreasing amounts, after each of our sexual encounters, explaining the amounts decreased because my pussy, like a car, depreciated with each use.

    There was my father, the man who sat in the barca lounger & did nothing while my mother routinely beat me & my sisters (the Saturday afternoon beatings, we came to call them, because every Saturday, she would take a break from cleaning the house to beat us while my father just looked on); we got older & daddy’s ass remained in the barca lounger as he watched mom tell us who we could date, where we could go, how she would throw us out naked if we brought home a bad report card, which colleges we were allowed to apply to.

    And that’s all, folks. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, I have no brother. So I grew up knowing these two extremes of “masculinity” and no in between.

    • cnlester says:

      I’m so sorry. That’s absolutely appalling.

      If it isn’t clear, I don’t think feminism is causing any kind of crisis in masculinity. I think a traditional model of masculinity needs changing.

      • Cara says:

        Well I may not have a swinging dock between my legs, but off the top of my head, I would say these are (or should be) the rules for being a man & anyone wanting to be called/treated as/respected as a man must follow them:

        -the waistband of your jeans should not be worn so low on your hips that the world can see four inches of your basketball/boxer shorts. It’s called a belt, get one & wear it.

        -it’s Cologne, not a marinade, and you, sir, are not a steak. Don’t make me tell you again.

        -if a lady cooks a nice dinner, take the backwards baseball cap off before you sit down to eat.

        -if you hit your wife, your girlfriend, your gay lover, that person has the right to send two larger gentlemen to teach you never to do that again. End of story.

        -if you rape another human being, either with your anatomy or an object, you are no longer permitted to call yourself a man, regardless of whether anyone finds out what you did or not. This is especially true if you rape a child. If you rape someone and I find out about it, I will respond in kind.

        -if you made a baby, you must do something for that baby, and paying child support isn’t enough. Coco the gorilla could sign a check, with proper training, you need to be more than the monkey that signs the checks for your kid.

        -be mindful how you behave in front of your daughter. You’re teaching her what a man is, does, says. If you’re a drunk who spends the rent money on scotch, she’ll think every man do like that.

        -pay your debts.

        -it doesn’t matter if you have unresolved issues with your father, your mother, drunk uncle Lou, your brother the thief. That person dies, you put on your black outfit & show up to the funeral. There are living people there who need you.

  • bluestgirl says:

    In response to your point #1: when I first started seeking out Q&A’s, resources, blogs, etc., for trans men, I was sort of taken aback by the sheer quantity of material about penises. It seemed like 90% of the discussion I found was about harnesses, prosthetics, STP, etc., and any other physical or social elements of transitioning were seldom mentioned. I don’t want to come across as critical towards the trans men for whom that is an important part of having a body they feel comfortable in, but I also feel like it was another example of the general culture’s focus on penises as THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

  • Thank so much for this, as a man bullied by male peers for a lot of my life there is a lot I can take from this blog. Thanks again

  • […] Lester’s “What cis men could learn from trans masculinities” gave me a lot to think about this week. I often think about gender and identity and, […]

  • Lynn says:

    While it’s far too simplistic to blame feminism for the crisis in masculinity there are elements of truth in the accusation. In the 1970s feminism widened the acceptable roles for women enormously but did nothing to change what was socially acceptable for men. Combined with other social and economic factors such as the shortage of housing and the reduction in low skilled jobs in the traditional male employment sectors there was a significant increase in the number of men who could not perform the traditional male role as family provider. All they were left with was the arrogant, bullying “real man” image that you rightly condemn.

    It’s wrong to assume that the priviledge an academic male has over his female collegue applies at all levels of society. At the lowest levels a woman can get status and some income from bringing up a family. A man in the same situation gets no status and often has more difficulty getting an income because not having paid employment is seen as the sign of a wastrel. There is also intersectionality to take into account – an academic, male or female, is vastly priviledged when compared to someone on benefits or in a minimum wage job.

    Personally I transitioned MTF largely because I was struggling to match the social demands of being male. Now I don’t have to my stress levels are way down. The sexism I encounter is merely irritating even when made worse by transphobic attitudes.

    The solution is to redefine masculinity so that it incorporates many traditionally feminine elements. It’s starting to happen but there’s a long way to go. The reverse has been done for women, widening the definition of maculinity is long overdue.

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