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.