By Isaac Fornarola
(Click to read on The Huffington Post)
Recently a photo essay was published on Medium entitled “Masculinity Means” as part of the We The T project, a “month-long conversation about everything transgender” with an educational bend and a focus on promoting trans narratives. The piece featured responses from people of varying identities and presentations. I was both eager to read it and excited by its emphasis on diversity within the trans masculine identity. All of the reflections on masculinity presented in the photo essay were nuanced and complex — as varied and multidimensional as trans people, or people, truly are.
But there was one common thread throughout, particularly in the narratives of the interviewees under 30: they all seemed to view their masculinity with a palpable amount of negativity, and were careful to acknowledge their privilege first and foremost. In response to the question “How do you create your own masculinity?” a 22-year-old artist answered:
“…I don’t want to be read as someone who is ultra masculine and takes up a lot of space. When I’m dressed more masculine I intentionally try to make myself smaller, physically.”
A 25-year-old educator responded:
“I’m very conscious of the way that masculinity is given priority in the world. My own process of how I cultivate tenderness and softness in my masculinity is given a lot more room than trans feminine people’s narratives… wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had equal representation of trans femme experiences as well?”
This same interviewee presented the issue succinctly and bravely:
“It’s complicated to identify with a gender expression that is given more authority and more space in the world, while also identifying as trans, which means I’m really vulnerable to violence. It’s a delicate balance.”
Where do all of these self-effacing narratives come from? Perhaps they were primarily a result of the heavy-handed questions (one answer was in response to the question “How can masculinity be toxic?”), but I think there’s something else at play, too: feminism, one of the most important movements in the history of human progress, is seemingly at odds with the transgender movement, and if not directly at odds, then at the very least made philosophically uncomfortable. In “Where Have All The Butches Gone?”, an opinion piece that ran on SheWired.com (and later The Huffington Post), author Roey Thorpe articulates the fundamental ideological tension:
“Why can’t they [trans men] understand that gender is a social construct and that women don’t have to conform to a feminine ideal? Isn’t that what we were fighting for, a world in which women could wear tool belts and neckties and do anything we damn well please without the constraints of gender? …For many of us, particularly of an older generation, being out and proud lesbians and feminists has been our life’s journey — and hard-won. The communities that we’ve built as a shelter from the storm of a misogynist culture are particularly dear…and the idea of becoming a man — with all the unearned, unexamined privilege that the idea suggests — is especially incomprehensible; it’s a betrayal of trust.”
Thorpe articulates an important point: it’s hard to be a feminist and to acknowledge someone’s desire to identify with qualities of masculinity that have helped to uphold systems of patriarchal oppression. Being accepting of someone’s expression of masculinity is in a way a philosophical endorsement of the value and positive attributes of masculine identity. This seems to be at odds with what many people have fought for and still fight for — but it doesn’t need to be.
A potential byproduct of holding two truths at the same time is the experience of cognitive dissonance, or the stressful and negative psychological effect of holding conflicting viewpoints. I’d argue that the lack of dialogue between some feminists and transgender men is partly a result of this dissonance, a natural consequence of believing we should break down gender roles and also supporting those who might want to identify with them in their more traditional sense. What does this mean for feminists who have worked for decades to render the gender binary obsolete?
The natural result of this dissonance is not the outright rejection of trans masculine people but a tentative expression of discomfort, often taking the form of quietly biased commentary. An example is Slate’s recent article that claims that the use of testosterone negatively affects language processing by resulting in a, “shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain.” The article cites a study with only 18 participants (author Rachel E. Gross acknowledges that the study was “small” but asserts that it still provides “tantalizing new evidence” — of what, exactly, is still unclear.) In the midst of a political fight for free and fair access to medication and healthcare for transgender individuals, are pieces like this really allowed to masquerade as accepting of this movement? Testosterone allows many people to live lives that are at least slightly preferable to madness. Is a finding like this really significant enough to justify the work that the publication of it does to derail a movement? These tentative insinuations are a byproduct of the philosophical challenges the transgender movement poses to the currently accepted model. A true feminist endorsement of the transgender movement will require ideological compromises.
Trans masculine people are tiptoeing at a time when we should be walking tall. At the apex of the long-awaited turning of the cultural tide toward increased transgender visibility, we should be telling stories of triumph and pride, tales of our dedication to authenticity in the face of adversity. Instead, a hostile culture of political outrage and rigidity is forcing us to be at best polite, at worst ashamed. The transgender man’s narrative is laden with apology, wrought with asking for forgiveness. This is not to downplay the importance of having a comprehensive understanding of one’s own privileges, but at a time when you can still be fired for identifying as male, when transgender people are committing or attempting suicide at an unfathomable rate, and transgender-inclusive versions of ENDA have been rejected by congress for decades, it seems absurd to ask transgender men to acknowledge their privilege before all else. Let us win basic rights to medical care and employment first, and apologize afterward.
While the relative invisibility of trans masculinity in popular discourse may be a reflection of a rightful hatred of patriarchy, the fallacy is in the extension of that hatred to masculinity and manhood on the whole. As long as we overlook the differences between patriarchy and masculinity and continue to conflate the two, we will struggle to be sufficient allies to transgender men. The catch is that this means not only re-evaluating our perceptions of trans masculine people, but also re-evaluating our perceptions of all men. It calls upon feminists to see masculinity as complex and intersectional, with assets and value to the world. As long as our feminist arguments remain insular and don’t account for intersectionality in terms of gender, they leave little room for new perspective or growth.
At the conclusion of Thorpe’s article, she details her personal journey in accepting the transgender movement. Admirably and honestly, she highlights the conflict between her philosophical beliefs and her desire to remain an ally. Thorpe’s article is proof that a little self-reflection can go a long way. In crossing this barrier to trans masculine acceptance, we have to resituate ourselves ideologically, remaining confident in our principles — but not so confident that we get comfortable and stop paying attention. We must acknowledge that new ideas we perceive as threatening are generally worth our consideration. We can hold two truths, and we have to.