Monday, March 16, 2009

This Is A (Trans) Man's World! ... At Least In Theory

"A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has fire, women will like him." — Mae West

The "Calling All Trans Men" post drew out some interesting comments in response, which I'm happy to see. Indeed there was more to discuss on the topic, but I tend to write long enough blogs as is.

While the first blog was more focused on the politics and avenues to utilize our male or female presentation status, there's still more to it. One thing I've noticed and even alluded to briefly, and that one of the respondents to my blog wrote covered how trans men are treated. TransFM's Ethan St. Pierre responded:

I was reading your post and laughing as I was reading it. Not because I disagree but because whenever your stubborn, Texas ass disagrees with me, you always blame it on my "maleness."
Which is true, except it's not the "disagreeing" really -- it's the part where he doesn't listen to me. It's my own fault really. I mentioned to him some time back that he was male and could cut people off and talk over them and get away with it. When I'm on the phone with him, I've learned to let him wind down before I get my point in -- something I didn't do before. Continuing on Ethan's comment:

There is a lot more to write about this topic, specifically the way some transwomen treat transmen. For instance, I was in a Yahoo group just recently when a transgender woman actually said that there was little difference between a butch dyke and an FtM.

Before we can move on together, as a movement, I think that respecting each other's identities should come first.

I understand what you are saying, Vanessa but there are still transgender women who do not respect transmen nor do they treat us as men. So while society at large might see us as the men that we are, before we can go anywhere, we need to be seen that way in our own community first.
I haven't had time to go to the specific quote Ethan had mentioned, but others have seen it as well. That type of commentary is as mindless and laser-accurate as micro-surgery with a sawed-off shotgun. Think of the reverse comment: there's no real difference between a gay drag performer and an MTF. Even beyond the specifics of the comment, there's a right and wrong way to talking with a trans man, just as there is with talking with men in general. One thing I try to avoid, for instance, is telling them "you need to do this" or "you really shouldn't do that." (Ethan had someone "instruct" him in such fashion, and this came from a recognizable name in the community.)

Instruction or directing in a controlling manner -- or even trying to intimidate -- tends to be viewed by all but the most timid as dismissive and even emasculating. From what I've seen, people tend to tune that out. Really, not even trans women like it but we need to become more inured to it to an extent. Unless I'm actually running something specific, like an event or lobby day, etc, I tend to avoid command language (although I'm sure I'm probably not as good at avoiding it as I'd like to think).

With both males and females I try "warning" language (if I can get their attention at all), basically telling them "well this is what's gonna happen if you do this." At least I can try to warn them, but then ... they typically go off and do the deed anyway. For me, letting them learn on their own works better -- they learn, and it's not me telling them what no to do, but rather what to expect. I mentioned it in a chat with Diego Sanchez about what he was experiencing from staffers on the Hill -- there was no way I could tell him what to do. He had to learn it himself, and as I mentioned he'll learn more of it as time goes on.

Contrasting that to one of our other trans community "leaders" who's female, and her style of leading. Many MTF's find it dismissive, but imagine being a trans man trying to function in a man's world and having a dismissive, top-down controlling type to deal with. Even other non trans, genetic women have noted this "use of male privilege" in her style.

It's something I've witnessed from other trans women, an assertiveness that doesn't come from female socialization, but rather from what we had to live through in our previous incarnations. While I can't say for certain, I would imagine today's transitioning teens (likely both male and female) have a lot less of this to "unlearn." But for many of us, the early years while we were still trying to "throw off" the potentially suspicious peers left its impression. But for those of us who've had many more years in the wrong gender role, if we're not mindful we can let the old behaviors slip in.

To this point, one respondent called Noach said this:

I'm a little shocked at this analysis. It's so gender normative. I think this analysis of gender roles post-transition is flawed. Trans Women's role in political activism is based on their former (and, I argue) still extant, gender privilege. Our histories persist. No matter how much some of us may wish them gone, the gender in which we were raised leaves its mark.

Transmen's purported lack of activism (which I don't find to be the case in California politics) is erroneous.
It is true that trans men in California have realized their potential and are moving on this. This will help shave a bit off of time it will take before trans women start reaching that same threshold. Meanwhile Noach's point above appears to concur with the blog point on behavior patterns, but ....

I think our history of living in the opposite gender role has given us the benefit of experience other humans don't have. If we are transmen, our compassion and empathy are what make us a different breed of man. If we are transwomen, our aggression and activism make us a different breed of woman.

It's time to capitalize on those differences, rather than fearfully trying to "blend in" and to conform to tired old stereotypes.
While I agree with the added benefit of both experiences, it shouldn't be used to excuse a more male dominion pattern as a trans woman. I'm big on breaking stereotypes, but some (such as using the privilege) can have both beneficial (being heard, making progress) and negative impact (trying to dominate over trans men). Frankly I also disagree that all who "blend in" do so out of fear. Some do it because it's easier, has a personal upside (avoiding stigma) and can be very uncomplicating as well as providing clear benefits (both career potential and relations with friends, peers). Of course the downside is the lost potential to educate or to help their own community.

On the flipside of this argument, Antonia D'Orsay tended to take sides with using the stereotype role.

Transwomen need to start doing what transmen did first: building a consensual community.

We need to start organizing the bake sales and fundraisers and house parties and community centers, and *while we do so* we need to remember the transmen, not after its done.

We're women - we are supposed to be thinking of the boys in what we do....

Transmen need to Provide and Protect, transwomen need to Support and Comfort.

And instead, we do the reverse, all too often.

So be sure to mention that yeah -- we do have a job to do, and it's *more* important in a lot of ways, and that job is that while the boys make the changes in law and get heard, we make the homes and the support systems for all transfolk.

"The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun" — Man, I Feel Like A Woman, Shania Twain

Good points, except some of them seemed to be almost adherent to the women-as-frail-housewives-home-baking-cookies image. It's a nice image, but real-world application is highly improbable for trans women as Rebecca Juro pointed out:

Personally, I think the biggest problem here is a basic one, and one that transwomen can be just as guilty of as transmen when they find themselves in the position to take advantage of it.

As we all know, generally speaking transmen are more visibly passable (and therefore more commonly accepted in their chosen genders) than transwomen. Given that, I don't think it's any surprise that so many transmen choose to live under the radar and not put themselves out there publicly.

Conversely, transwomen are commonly far less accepted in everyday life as members of our chosen gender, and I believe that's a big reason why so many of us are comfortable putting ourselves out there publicly. Often we have no private lives to protect since we're known as trans pretty much everywhere we go, and certainly (in many cases, including my own) every time we open our mouths to speak.

The result is that transwomen are far more visible in general than transmen so we have far less to risk by being out and open. Add to that the natural tendency to find men more credible and capable than women in general and we find ourselves in the situation we do.

Unfortunately, transmen like Ethan St. Pierre, Diego Sanchez, and Shannon Minter who are out and open, as well as being willing to be so in the public eye are the exception, not the rule, I fully expect that will continue to be the case.

After all, how many publicly vocal transwomen would still be openly and publicly trans if we could simply pass through life accepted as the women we are in all aspects of our lives? I think we all know the answer, don't we?
Becky made a number of salient points, especially noting that there is no "provide and protect" available to trans women from any source, trans men or otherwise. We, like they, are "out there" and even just the basic survival is tough -- maybe even a little tougher for trans women as opportunities are fewer, and the "ick factor" (as Barney Frank likes to refer to it) is more pronounced with MTF's. As Julia Serano noted, trans women tend to be everyone's "whipping girl" replete with all the sexually deviant connotations from the unknowing general public and even a bit from the gay and lesbian community as well.

Not all "passable" trans women avoid being public, however, I might note that trans women who "blend in" are about commensurate in percentage with trans men -- nearly all of whom blend. While trans men's numbers may be numerically lower, the difference comes from the trans women who may not "blend in" making up a significant portion of the trans activism community. Necessity is the mother of invention, and their need is palpable -- thus they involve themselves. Save for those who get into advocacy as a means of economic opportunity, the vast majority of trans activism has been done by those who had the greatest need.

Antonia did have points to make as well. The bake sale and house parties thing aren't something I can visualize (if no one's got money in the first place, how do you have bake sales or house parties?) and when you've got people who've been through financial, emotional and sometimes physical hell, the "support and comfort" function doesn't come easy either.

Another point she brought up was the FTM consensus building approach being learned in MTF circles. Focusing on making the homes and the support systems and community centers may not employ all of us, but it's a start and will begin at least some basic function for our community.

And if nurturing isn't our role (and for a lot of the hardscrabble types amongst us, it's not), there is another alternative. Not all wives are the soft ones -- some nag. Loudly! As I'd mentioned in the last blog and Antonia mentioned, essentially the guys will have to get our rights. As Spanky's gang had on the sign in front of their clubhouse "no girls allowed." But as Sylvia Rivera showed, we can damn sure raise hell outside and create the impetus for moving the reluctant gatekeepers along, lest they face a lot of pissed off, ugly women with rolling pins! The guys are the lever, we girls are the fulcrum.

Another issue brought up in a comment by Katrina Rose was noting Ethan's comment on the "difference between a butch dyke and an FTM."

However, I have also seen certain non-MTF individuals utilize that purported "little difference" to sickeningly inflate the number of 'trans people' employed by a certain transphobic gay organization in DC.
There has been a propensity by non trans folks, frequently (though not solely) Human Rights Campaigns employees, who identify as lesbian for the "privilege" in LGBT world, but will state they feel or identify as "trans sometimes" in front of a trans audience. It happens more frequently as time goes by as we never made a big stink initially. Apparently they think it's something they could continue to get away with.

Nevertheless these trans-voyeurs live in a non-trans world, with virtually all non-trans friends and have non-trans experiences and jobs. But the convenience of having a throw-down tranny ID allows them both easy claim for their employer (both for their EEO and some feigned caché as a bonus) and the ability to avoid facing the trans reality of lost job and wages, lost friends (who don't particularly like trans, but dislike traitors more) and maybe even lost love and family.

Think of someone saying they identify as lesbian "sometimes." Are they a full-fledged lesbian? Do they receive carte blanche entre into places you would normally not get to go as non-lesbian? Do you think the Michigan Womyn's Festival will fling its doors open for a slew of weekend lesbians? It's kind of like saying your black sometimes just so you can hang out in the hood some time for shits and giggles.

At the last IFGE conference, FTMs Spencer Bergstedt and therapist, Sam Allen were discussing some of the genderbois using the term FTM casually, while at the same time railing against anyone who called them a "dude," "man" or anything "trans." Per their report, these kids were pretty militant about their self-terminology ... and yet would self-describe as FTM. As Sam said "if [they] don't want to be "man" or "dude" or anything, then stop using FTM!"

Spencer agreed, adding, "What the hell is FTM anyway? Female to ... MALE!"

We all need to be mindful that as trans men are establishing themselves and striving to reach their potential, they face a lot of clumsy trans women still treating them as women, lesbians or subordinate as well as dealing with other non-trans folks nibbling in from the fringes trying to claim their identity as well. These things take a toll. Then after they get done with that, then they must battle with dismissive gay men and then with red-meat good-old-boys!

And for us trans women, I guess it's time to bake a cake. If you're like me and can't afford it, there's always the Sylvia Rivera method! It's all we have left.

"Get in the streets and rock!" — When Electricity Came To Arkansas, Black Oak Arkansas


Anonymous said...

As the wicked and horrifically heterosexist dyssonance, I have to admit to my shortcomings. The catch is convincing me I have any...

For me, the stereotype is the basis of the argument that was originally put forth -- and the argument was soundly based in trying to gt something done in a world that still functions under the *assumption* of those stereotypes being upheld.

So much of my point, bake sale and barbie girl and all, was that if we're going to call on transmen to take on more of the masculine expectations of behavior, then it follows with reason that the same argument should have us doing the same thing.

I'm one of those airheaded blonde types that really does spend the time cooking meals and looking after her man and wanders around with long fingernails and wear dresses and skirts all the time. While I see largish hands and broad shoulders and no hips, I'm told I am fairly passable, and that works because I'll never pass to myself, but passing is part of conforming to someone else's presuppositions about what constitutes a woman. In other words, I get by.

And there *is* merit in the supposition, regardless of the inherent sexism of it -- as much as our mere existence does defy the entirety of gender as a binary or whatever *theoretical* concept one wants to use, in the end we still live, at present, in a world where the majority of persons, institutions, mores, ethics, laws, and so forth all pretty much function and often are inherently dependent on a gender binary (and one can run from there into all sorts of side arguments).

We have to make our changes, play our game, in a world where everything is still sorta stacked against us.

Now for me, that's the sort of thing I relish as an individual. I am not, however, foolish enoug to think that I'm going to be able to do so at the same time as refusing to at least ignore the context of the battle since to communicate the needs I need to do it in a form that others can understand.

And that means there should be -- and, I put forth, must be, although it need not be exclusively -- some element of that.

If we're going to shatter gender barriers, the best way is to mix them up so totally that they become irrelevant. we do that, we'll have no need of "proper" documentation for voting laws that are asinine.

We won't have to worry about surgical letters for birth certificates. Or gender markers on licenses.

If we re going to erase the gender issue, most of our struggle's with disappear, and much of what we strive to deal with will ultimately cease to matter.

So to function in the here and now, we have to remember that we do need to consider some of the aspects of sexism that are present now.

Use what we've got.

The argument around "the one's that fight the most don't pass as well" is really pretty sound. Its rather pathetic, and speaks volumes about our sense of belonging to a shared experience and a political or social identity (that is, it screams we don't).

If one passes, people let you get away with more, things are a little easier, life is a bit simpler, you have different problems.

And yet, if we *use* that to show the inequity in the system, we are insulting to those who do not pass as well, as now they are the ugly chicks and it gets worse from there.

Thee are some out there who profess, literally, even today, that if you don't pass, don't transition. Indeed, they feel that you shouldn't even consider it. Which is sorta stupid since most folks pass after they lose their fears and worries over stigma and just get on with their lives. Which they won't do until they've had all the non passing experiences.

In the interim, I'm going to keep working to build community, to create infrastructure. Because I know that we will get more by showing the rest we can help ourselves than by just standing there with a cup looking, well, sad.

Vanessa E. Foster said...

LOL, "airheaded blonde"? With that response? No, sweetie, that cow won't hunt.

Actually it probably didn't come out well enough. There are going to be some to do the nurturing and keeping a home. And for them, yes, this is a legitimate part of the overall community puzzle. I had no idea you were in that position to be able to be the homemaker, and I apologize for taking more of my reality as a dominant perspective. That was dismissive (and oddly sexist too) to diminish this.

For the record, I'm one of the "passable" ones. I went to Target last night with zero make up, scroungy and in sweats and still joked with the woman and her young daughters standing next to me, looking for the right tweezers to prevent (non-existent in her daughter's case) "unibrow". That said, I've also never had the time for making my house a home. Very shortly after beginning hormones (and before transition, name/gender change) I was terminated due to "communications failure" -- read, they wanted this freak of nature possible tranny out of there. That was May 1996, and since then I've been eye-deep in activism, with all it entails: no time for relationships (had zero), no job security (Google me, and you'll see what my potential employers see -- I'm screwed), no personal time (if not blogging, it's watching the news and legislation dropping) and no money (as whatever spare I have, and sometimes just sinking into credit debt further, goes toward travel, producing lobbying materials, hotels, food, etc). No, I've not had long nails since I got involved in my first political campaign, rarely ever dress up (don't want to mess up what few good outfits I have, so mostly sweats, shorts, t-shirts, etc.) Back in the day I used to love to cook ... nowadays I have my sister & brother-in-law living with me (economy forced them in with me) and could foreseeably end up with my mom again too.

While I'm not saying all trans women (men too) go through this, most share this same semi- or outright desperation in their lives. For many, the nurture and keeping a home thing isn't an option -- esp. in today's America. We have to survive and find a way to do so. When their isn't other options, just like in impoverished areas of the world where other women are in similar straits, these women take to the streets and protest. It's all that's left! For many trans women, this is all we have beyond sitting around waiting on "hope" that never comes, and slowly wasting away.

Nichole said...

Neither of you strike me as very much "air-headed" in any respect. I was a bit puzzled about who's blog this is though? Is Dyss posting here as an adjunct blogger now, Vanessa? LOL!!

Excellent work and thoughts from you both. Thank you both.

I'll forego trying to claim the "air-head" title as that might just make light of my praises to you both.

Anonymous said...


No need to apologize, Vanessa -- its was a strong and valid point that holds more true. My own experience includes being evicted, and my entire transition has been one where funding came from me being creative. I still haven't found work, although I have found involvement in non profits.

I am lucky, though, in that I did find relationships. Openly, so.

Interesting timing as well -- a few short months after your firing, I started. About 5 or so.

And Nichole, nah. Dyss is one of those gals that sneaks in with smile and leaves with a grin, lol