The most recent target of the ire of internet trans activists is the environmental organization Deep Green Resistance, with the inspiration for outrage being a presentation given by Rachel Ivey titled “The End of Gender: Revolution, Not Reform.” As one would expect, the presentation (which I recommend watching because it is on the whole very good) functions as a call for gender abolitionism, and this naturally leads to a discussion of trans people. Describing an encounter that she had with a trans woman, Ivey says: “[This trans woman] said ‘I don’t have the male privilege that I was raised with anymore.’ I had to think about that for a while to think about what I thought about that and whether that was true, and I realized that it wasn’t, because being raised with male privilege is the privilege. Being raised with the knowledge that you are fully human and you deserve rights and that your body is not fair game and that the court system considers you human is the privilege. And that doesn’t just go away.” This moment stuck out to me because I feel that Ivey’s statement is indicative of a broader issue in discussions focused on the relationship of transsexual women with feminism: the conception of the effects of male socialization as entirely immutable, and thus of the male privilege experienced by transsexual women as permanent.
I should start by discussing my background, because my own experiences are largely where my perspective on this issue stems from. I am more or less a textbook early transitioner in that I began to experience severe sex dysphoria at a very young age and had largely completed my transition several years before reaching adulthood. I came out at age fifteen shortly after I learned that there was a name for what I had been struggling with for so many years, and while I did initially face some resistance from my family, a year later I had completed social transition and begun hormone replacement therapy. I have now been fully assimilated in society as a woman for nearly five years and am currently a full time student at a university where no one is aware of my status. I also, as virtually all transsexual women do, experienced male socialization and male privilege.
Listing all of the ways in which being male socialized affected my self-image and conduct prior to my transition would undoubtably be impossible, but Ivey’s summary is certainly applicable to my own experiences. As a young boy I was consistently praised for my intellect and encouraged to pursue academics, and I never had it instilled in me that I was an ornamental object whose sole purpose was to submit to and please men. I was never taught that my body was not my own or that my thoughts and feelings were irrelevant, and thus I was shielded from the trauma that often characterizes the experiences of women in their childhoods and teen years. In my early teens I was even praised for my performance of femininity because it was supposedly more artfully executed than that of my female friends, who on numerous occasions told me that I made them feel insecure by being “better at being a girl” than they were. Ultimately I developed a kind of warped superiority complex: I hated myself, but I still felt as though I was somehow worthier than the girls in my peer circle because I bought into the idea that I was both smarter and prettier than they were.
It should be clear at this point that I fully agree with Ivey that the process of male socialization is significant. I will always support female only spaces because I strongly believe that those who are forced to contend with destructive female socialization deserve to be able to heal away from those who were male socialized, and I believe that it is clear that male socialization often does impact the behavior of trans women post-transition, particularly when they are not passable. What I take issue with are Ivey’s assertions that the effects of male socialization are entirely irreversible and that all transsexual women are the permanent beneficiaries of male privilege. Speaking once again from my own experience, I noticed dramatic changes both in the way that I saw myself and in the way in which I behaved not long after I began passing. I had never been particularly assertive prior to transitioning, but I became substantially less confident, as well as more insecure and fearful, once the people around me began to see me as female and treat me accordingly. Ultimately, I ceased to believe what my male socialization had taught me: that I was valuable, that I deserved to be heard, and that I was worth more than being an object for men to look at and possess. These days I am very, very timid and incredibly self-critical. I struggle on a constant basis with feeling like I am a failure if I do not please and attract men, and I frequently find myself, as Ivey puts it at one point in her presentation, “walking like I am about to be kicked.” My intent is not to say that my experience is somehow exactly the same as or equivalent to female socialization, because it certainly is not, but rather that humans are far more plastic than the viewpoint espoused by feminists like Ivey suggests. My experience and the experiences of numerous other transsexual women demonstrate that, for us, assimilation very often means bending to systemic misogyny, and thus the dissipation of many of the effects of male socialization.
It is also notable that how we view ourselves is only one component of privilege. How we are treated by others is arguably more important, and assimilated transsexual women must grapple with misogyny in nearly all of the same realms as non-transsexual women. I find the idea that I actively benefit from male privilege strange, because I am affected on a daily basis by the woman-hating beauty standard, street harassment, silencing by men in academic settings, the threat of male violence, and so on. I transitioned early enough that I never experienced life as an adult man, and thus I have never actually known numerous aspects of male privilege. I have never been advantaged when applying for a job, I have never been able to walk alone at night without fear, I have never been able to speak in a college class without the potential for interruption and dismissal by a male peer, and the list goes on from there. Once again, I do not mean to suggest that the trajectory of my life has somehow been exactly the same of that of those born female, because that is not the case. I do, however, find the claim that I could not possibly have any idea of what it is like to be a woman and that I am somehow indistinguishable from an average man in terms of experience and privilege more than a bit dubious.
Additionally, it seems to me that Ivey has abandoned for the sake of convenience a principle that very often underlies radical feminist arguments against the concept of cis privilege: that for one group of people to be privileged over the other, the former group must actively benefit from the subordination of the latter. “Cis” women cannot be privileged over trans women, because “cis” women do not benefit from the abuse and disenfranchisement of trans women. The same is true in the case of transsexual women and females; I fail to see how assimilated transsexual women such as myself benefit from the oppression of females, because we must contend with nearly all of the same hatred that is directed at females as well. The maintenance of patriarchal systems is not at all in our interest, because we are beaten down by them from the moment that we begin passing.
The uproar in trans activist circles over Ivey’s presentation has been predictably crude and unproductive, but it is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to respectfully discuss the male socialization and privilege experienced by transsexual women, as well as how these experiences impact our relationship to feminism. Socialization and privilege absolutely do matter, and attempts to dismiss these factors by trans activists are reprehensible, but to argue that assimilated transsexual women are full beneficiaries of male privilege or that the male socialization that we experience is entirely unchangeable is to egregiously misrepresent our realities. It is more than possible to discuss the differences between the experiences of females and transsexual women without ignoring the common ground that we clearly do have: common ground that is essential, because ultimately we would all benefit from working together to dismantle patriarchy.
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