“Do you think that as a trans woman there are still some aspects of male privilege that have shaped you?”
My friend Anne asked me this question last week, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s an excellent question, and I’m grateful to have been asked it. What has been the effect on me of having lived the first 46 years of my life as a man? What of that still lingers? With what consequences?
Thank you, Anne, by the way, for the value-neutral “shaped”...so much better than, say, “skewed,” “spoiled,” “corrupted,” “ruined,” etc... :-p There are people who would say that having lived as a man makes me a worse woman, or no woman at all, so I would also like to allow the possibility that in some ways having lived as a man might make me a better woman, too.
All those years I spent impersonating maleness, I was not self-aware as trans. Very early on I pushed my femininity down so hard and deep that I could not directly experience or express it. Still, from elementary school through the first year of college I struggled to find a mode of boyhood I could inhabit. I was gentle and emotional. I wore my hair long, often triggering gender confusion in others. I was routinely bullied and shunned. Childhood was lonely and difficult.
Things got better in college. I cut my hair, grew a beard, and threw myself whole-heartedly into my masculinity project...and I found it easy, in part because I had begun to discover the many compensations of being taken for a man. For example, I took full advantage of the privilege of moving through the world without fear. I went for long runs and bike rides in remote places late at night; I travelled and camped alone. I was as oblivious as any other young male-bodied person to the dangers all female-bodied people face.
Other privileges: as a sexual being, it never even occurred to me that I didn’t have to worry about being abused or getting pregnant. As I made my way through school and on into the world of work I accepted without a thought that I was taken seriously as a student, as a job seeker, as an employee. In my daily interactions with others I felt entitled to press my point, to interrupt, to oppose others. I found it unremarkable that in a group enterprise my idea often ended up being what we were all working on. I developed and expressed a high opinion of my own qualities - intelligence, creativity, talent, self-knowledge (ha!) - and there was no one to gainsay me, at least not based on my apparent gender. All these privileges I took for granted.
No doubt at times acts and words of mine suppressed or silenced female people around me. I hope it didn’t happen often, but then I wouldn’t know, would I? Fortunately I was raised a good feminist, and so have less to reproach myself for than I might otherwise have.
When I came out as a trans woman, some of the privileges of masculinity evaporated immediately. My sense of safety is gone. I am vulnerable both to those who would do harm to women, and to those willing to act on their transphobic or homophobic impulses. (Once they’re beating the crap out of you, it is not going to do any good to explain to them that you’re not actually a drag queen.) Note that one of the effects of hormones is significant loss of muscle mass and strength, so I can’t count on being able to defend myself physically any more than other women.
With regard to social power, as people begin to accept me as a woman, I have discovered how hard it can be to get a word in when some male person is holding forth; I have found myself in a subordinate role in groups of which men have taken charge; I have been addressed with condescending banter from guys who would have formerly addressed me seriously, as an equal. It is most educational.
There is a disturbing twist to this part: When these moments happen, I feel affronted or devalued or silenced...and at the same time I cannot help feeling a little spurt of joy, because I know I’m really being seen as a woman. Once, back when I was putting on fake boobs and hips and dressing up and practicing walking in public, I got cat-called in an alley in Ogunquit by some unseen man. “Hey, hot mama!” he shouted, and even as I thought “asshole,” I also smiled and put an extra little swing in my hips in response. Hmm. Thoughts, anyone?
What I have retained from my male-time is, I think, I hope, mostly internal and mostly positive. Changing my public gender has not changed the fact that I am accustomed to being taken seriously by the world. I am still willing and able to stand up for myself. Having experienced being both masculine and feminine among others, I am both aware of and empowered to respond to the abuse of social power. I am self-confident and sure of my own strength (most of the time). My psyche, free from the scars of rape or abuse, feels basically sound.
On the other hand, life as a trans woman involves a deep feeling of insecurity. Once I staked a claim to manhood, and the world capitulated. Now I have staked a claim to womanhood, and the world has said, mmm, maybe sorta, but maybe not so much. Most of the time the joy of my release sustains me in the face of society’s ambivalent welcome; but when my confidence is low I find myself worrying that the world is right. Have all those years inhabiting masculinity somehow made it impossible for me ever to be a “real woman”? This persistent anxiety can bring me to tears.
Of course all those years living as a man shaped me. How could they not? If things about me still seem male in ways that confuse or offend people, all I can say is, I don’t like it either, and I’m sorry, and I'm working on it. As for having learned to love myself and to be forceful in the world, I cannot see these traits as bad. My path turns out to be complex and sometimes perilous, with no clear end. I need all the help I can get. So while I am not done - and perhaps never will be - seeking ways to manifest these strengths in ways which more purely express my innate femininity, I am definitely keeping them, thank you very much.