Tagged: feminism

On Unsupportive Partners

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately on partners’ problems with transition. It’s hard to read about cisgender people who are possessive of their trans partners’ bodies, who politicize the choice to transition, who pressure their partners to stay in the closet.

Before I go any further, let me say that I mean no disrespect to these cis folks, their trans partners or to these relationships. Some of these couples have been together longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t know the first thing about that kind of love. I hope to someday. If you’re struggling with transition in your relationship, please share your thoughts–including if you think I’m full of shit!

Being trans is really goddamn hard. It bothers me when those closest to a person–parents, spouses, lifelong friends–make transition any harder than it already is. Our loved ones should support us.

It’s a blight on the face of justice that some people try to talk us out of transition in the name of feminism. Gender essentialism is not feminism. The idea that no one should transition, that trans people don’t actually exist, is plain old gender essentialism. What happened to “My body, my choice”?

Trans people are not traitors. Transition is not a political choice, except insofar as the choice to live is political. It is downright radical for trans people to assert our right to exist, to live fully and authentically, in a hostile world.

We should all do a better job of recognizing where we end and our partners begin. I think we can all agree that it would be sexist and unacceptable for me to, say, feel entitled to sex from my female partner, or to try to control how she dresses, who she talks to, or how she spends her time. So too is it cissexist and unacceptable for partners to feel entitled to our body parts, medical choices, wardrobes, and the words we use for ourselves. It’s an overreach, it’s controlling, and it’s disrespectful.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to feel overwhelmed, afraid, confused, sad and/or pissed off when a partner shares their wish to transition. What I am saying is that partners should own their feelings and respect others’ bodies and choices. It’s not okay to try to control your partner because you feel scared or lost. I feel like if you really love and respect your partner, you will want the best for them–even if that takes them away from you.

My views are colored by my own experience with an unsupportive girlfriend. She was my high school sweetheart. We were together about three years, living together for two of them. She liked my masculinity as long as it was labeled “butch,” but she was extremely dismissive of my desire to transition. She staged what I can only call temper tantrums about how my face would look different, how I’d never pass as a man, how she didn’t want me to have surgery, how I was robbing her of her “queer” identity card. She used my new name and pronouns grudgingly and behind my back told people to “humor” me by going along with it. I was undertaking the most difficult, important task in my life thus far–and she made it 100% about her.

We broke up when I found out she was cheating on me. I cried for one day and then was overcome by a wonderful feeling of euphoria and freedom. I made the appointment to start hormones that very week. I never knew getting cheated on could be so awesome!

I’m now with a woman who gets me and respects me. I think everybody deserves that.

Partners of trans people–please don’t make your partner’s journey about you.

Can Men Ask For Safe Space?

In my circles, it’s commonplace for women to express greater comfort around other women. Is it socially acceptable for a man to say he’s more comfortable around other men?

In class recently, we watched a video of a group counseling session. At one point, a male group member said he had difficulty trusting the group. When pushed by the facilitator, he noted that he had an easier time trusting men than women. This particular group had three or four male participants and ten or so female participants. In context, he was saying he found it easier to be emotionally vulnerable with men. I have noticed that many people feel more comfortable discussing personal, upsetting matters with others of a certain gender.

During the discussion, one woman in my class made a dismissive remark about that moment in the video. Basically, she made a joke to the effect that she felt uncomfortable when he said that, that perhaps he disliked women, and that she would have wanted some distance from him. Another woman chimed in along the same lines. They shared a laugh.

These comments got under my skin. As a man, I am used to women saying they prefer the company of other women sometimes. I completely accept it. Many women have had bad experiences with men, while others just feel another woman will be more likely to understand them. At the crisis hotline where I volunteer, I don’t work a single shift without a woman calling and asking to be transferred to a female volunteer. It doesn’t offend or upset me in the least–I know it has nothing to do with me.

I acknowledge that because of the very different social positions of men and women, female-only space and male-only space are not the same. To take just one important example, women are much more likely to have experienced violence from a man than the other way around.

Still, in a mental health context, it is imperative that we take individuals’ unique needs seriously. The fact that men and women have different experiences on average means nothing about the needs and experiences of a specific person. Men are less likely to receive mental health treatment; I attribute this to a masculine imperative around not asking for help. If an all-male environment makes it easier for some men to do this difficult work, I think we should encourage it.

It really bothered my that my classmate inferred that the man in the video disliked or disrespected women. What he said was that he found it more difficult to trust women. Note that he didn’t say, for example, he found it difficult to trust women with important responsibilities. He said he found it difficult to trust women he’d just met with his emotions and struggles.

I can relate. When I was in counseling recently, I asked for a male counselor, because I knew I’d feel more at ease. The only time I have been in group counseling, it was a group reserved for trans men. I love women, I respect women, I have wonderful close relationships with women, and I am an ardent feminist. But when it comes to the rather odd situation of sharing my personal struggles with someone I just met, I feel more comfortable with other guys. It’s easier to speak frankly about private and difficult topics. It’s easier to share challenging emotions. I feel less need to downplay bad things, to use inoffensive language, to look like a strong, tough dude.

“Safe space” is a concept we usually reserve for an oppressed group. While the gender system does privilege men over women, it’s not a simple case of one class of people unilaterally oppressing another. The gender system does profound, specific violence to men as men. Emotions and intimacy are huge, crucial areas where gender norms harm men. This happens in ways most women probably don’t understand.

So I think that, in mental health services, men should be able to ask for safe space. Maybe, just maybe, it will make men more willing to seek help and more able to really use it when they get it. These spaces harm no one and might really help some.

The appropriate response for women who hear men express these preferences–especially women who are aspiring mental health professionals–is not derision or laughter. It’s not taking it personally or as some kind of larger comment about women. The appropriate response is compassion.

Why I Call Myself A Feminist

I am a feminist.

I am both passionate and ambivalent about this label.

I claim it because I am committed to gender justice, because I recognize the role of sexism in the power structures of my society, because my politics are indebted to many feminist thinkers. I claim it because it’s an excellent shorthand for some of my most closely held principles. I claim it because most people aren’t feminists. I claim it to see the look of surprise people get when a man says, “I am a feminist.” I claim it to remind myself to practice a nonviolent masculinity.

I am ambivalent about the label because I have huge problems with many feminists and large swaths of feminist thinking. Feminism has often failed to take an intersectional analysis, centering white, well-off women and ignoring issues of race, class, nationality, sexual orientation and ability, to name a few. As a trans person, I am disgusted by the cissexism and transphobia that flourish in some feminist circles. As a man, I can’t be entirely enthusiastic about a gender justice movement that grapples so little with men’s experiences. I have respect for anyone who avoids the word “feminist” because of the failings of many feminists.

At the same time, feminism is what brought me here. I got my first exposure to ideas like systems of oppression, hegemony, and allyship through feminist spaces. I followed the path of feminism, and it lead me to people working for all kinds of equality. The principles of feminism, distilled to their most basic core, guided me to my current understanding of the interlocking matrices of power that operate in my society. Feminism lead me into a world of activists and thinkers much greater than the term itself could contain.

Feminism lead me to critiques of feminism. The deeper I went into feminist thinking, the louder the protest became. I was soon reading the work of women of color, working class women, lesbians, and trans women who illuminated flaws and blindspots in feminist discourse. I encountered men who explored the male experience of the gender system, sometimes criticizing feminism, sometimes valorizing it.

My level of comfort with the term “feminist” has shifted across the phases of this journey. First, I was curious about feminism, but wouldn’t describe myself that way. Then I became an ardent feminist. Some time later, as I learned about the inadequacies of feminism, I became uncomfortable with the word and stopped using it for myself. Now, I use the word when appropriate, with an awareness of its strengths, shortcomings, and context.

In my life, feminism emerged, became its own opposite, transcended itself, and was reborn. I honor feminism as a wide net that sets many on the journey to critical consciousness–a journey much bigger than any one struggle.

Do you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

Thanks to Alma for the interesting conversation that inspired this post.

Pink Collar Man

A wave of anxiety crashed over me. I was overcome with the sense I had made an embarrassing mistake, like walking into the wrong bathroom. Looking around, I first saw only female faces. But I wasn’t in the women’s restroom. I was in the first day of Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Me, a male professor, another male student, and our ten or so classmates–all women.

I just started my second semester of grad school in mental health counseling. My program, like the field as a whole, is heavily skewed towards female. (The faculty, on the other hand, includes plenty of men–interesting bit of sexism, that.) I knew this when I applied and didn’t give it a second thought. I am comfortable around people of all genders. I reject the sexist forces that push more women and fewer men into this profession. And I think it’s important that more men get involved.

Counseling is a pink collar perfect storm. Caring for people–check. Low paid (relatively speaking)–check. Under appreciated–check. Warm and fuzzy–double check. I think most men just can’t picture themselves doing it. Those who are interested in mental health might opt for a different track, perhaps one more associated with authority, science, and a big paycheck.

I think that’s a loss. Men are less likely to seek counseling, but there are many who do, and some might be better served by a male clinician. Men are also much more likely than women to be in court mandated counseling. Some women and non-binary folks might prefer to work with a man. Many boys could benefit uniquely from working with a male counselor.

I’ve seen a handful of counselors myself, and the counselor’s identity has made a huge difference to me. I was in counseling as a child and adolescent, during transition to get a letter for surgery, and in the last few months as I process my grandmother’s death. My most recent counselor is a gay man of color, while all previous counselors were older white women (at least one was definitely straight, not sure about the others). I really wanted to see a male counselor when I needed my surgery letter–I had a lot of male-specific stuff on my mind at the time–but I couldn’t find one. While working with my most recent counselor, I found that I was much more comfortable speaking frankly with him. The fact that he is gay and Latino also really helped. I could see myself in him.

So both my politics and my experience tell me that pursuing counseling as a man, and particularly as a Sephardic Jewish trans man, is a great idea. But that didn’t prepare for how it actually felt to walk into a classroom that was almost all women.

I felt embarrassed, anxious and confused. I kept wondering how being transgender played a role in my decision. Would I have thought of this path I weren’t trans? Would I have entered this program? I felt like there was some unspoken guy signal I hadn’t heard, an open secret that only I missed.

Of course, there are a bunch of other men in my program, and as far as I know they are cisgender. But that didn’t stop me feeling like I’d made an unbecoming mistake.

I guess I wanted to think that being transgender didn’t have anything to do with it, with any choice I make or thing I do. Maybe part of me wants to think being transgender doesn’t have anything to do with me. It bothers me to think I might do something a cis guy wouldn’t–even though it’s a point of pride that I do certain things (being a feminist, for example) that most cis dudes don’t.

But being transgender has everything to do with it. Not because I missed some male socialization signal that would have turned me away from the helping professions. Not because I shouldn’t be there or because a cis guy wouldn’t want to be there. Being transgender has to do with it because I have years of firsthand experience with depression, anxiety, and mental health professionals. Being transgender has to do with it because I know it’s possible to make changes that make a difference in your wellbeing. Being transgender has to do with it because it’s given me more empathy for others. And being transgender has to do with it because I know I don’t need to live my life according to stereotypes. I did not transition just to trade one suffocating box for another.

I’m feeling much better about it this semester. It would be nice to see more guys around, but it does make it easy to become friends with the dudes who are there. We have a certain solidarity.

I still dread walking into a class to realize I’m the only male student. You can imagine my relief when I sat down in Human Development Across the Lifespan yesterday. I counted eighteen students, eight of them guys.

What Are Femininity & Masculinity?

Skye83 expresses frustration as a genderless person in the trans* community, which is often dominated by trans men and women. (The way they explain this might be bothersome for some trans folks.) They also describe themself as nonbeliever in gender who would like to see gender eradicated. They ask,

What do femininity and masculinity mean? I wish someone would give me an answer to that question… but no one does!!

I have actually said this myself, numerous times, verbatim. Reading it in skye83’s words made me realize I now have an answer. Below is an improved and expanded version of the answer I gave in the linked thread.

Femininity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with women in a given cultural and historical context. Masculinity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with men in a given cultural and historical context. Androgyny refers to a blending of these culturally specific feminine and masculine behaviors and attributes. It is also possible for behaviors and attributes to be neutral or associated with some other gender.

Masculinity and femininity are social constructs that vary across place and time. The categories of “men” and “women”–and any other genders recognized in a given society–are also social constructs that vary a great deal. Looking at the historical and anthropological records, I notice that the vast majority of human communities (all, as far as I know) make use of these constructs in some way.

The content of the constructs varies widely. What is considered “feminine” or “masculine” may be very different, even opposite, from one society to another. We can also see changes in gender norms and roles in the same society across generations.

What doesn’t vary so much is that gender exists in some form. People make meanings from the human body, sexuality, personality, reproduction, work, and related social roles. I would call this combination gender.

I see gender as similar to language. It’s a tool for meaning, communication and social organization that is part of the expressive repertoire of our species. Just like languages vary tremendously among groups, so does gender. People from different communities may be as confused by one another’s gender norms as they are by one another’s speech. Nonetheless, each is likely to have and use an idiom. Perhaps we are born prepared to learn gender norms, just like we’re born prepared to acquire language. The fact that it is so widespread suggest that, like language, gender is probably doing something pretty important for us. People seem to have strong intrinsic inclinations that pull them toward particular ways of being in the world, which they express through these culturally specific channels.

This view of gender has several implications. One is that gender is probably not going anywhere. Another is that, while we may be stuck with gender, we’re not stuck with the status quo. It follows that we are obliged to seek a gender system that is as egalitarian and nonviolent as possible.

If gender is part of how we communicate as humans, I think this suggests that everyone has a right to use this language. Therefore, we should seek a gender system that maximizes expressive opportunity. A good gender system doesn’t just avoid singling out some people for oppression, marginalization and punishment. Violence is a huge, terrifying problem with most gender systems, and it’s still the most pressing issue we face. But it’s not the only one. A good gender system gives as many people as possible the chance to truly express ourselves–to inhabit our bodies, relationships, and communities in an authentic way, to live in alignment with our deepest selves.

What do femininity and masculinity mean to you?

Negotiating Male Privilege

I have male privilege. When I speak, people usually listen and suppose I know what I’m talking about. When I walk down the street, people give me ample space and no one sexually harasses me. When my house is a mess, some people will give me a free pass and blame my fiancee. When I do clean or cook, I sometimes get disproportionate praise, while a woman who did the same thing would receive no comment. The examples go on and on.

What’s a man to do? I cannot get rid of my privilege. There is no opting out. I do my best not to perpetuate sexism and to treat all people with equal respect. At the end of the day, though, most people will still treat me very differently from a similarly situated woman.

So I do a few things to negotiate my privilege.

First, I try to use any unearned power to level the playing field, not further tilt it. For example, I make a point to listen attentively to women in group conversations. I stop speaking, look directly at them, and wait til they are done to respond. When a guy keeps interrupting and dominating the discussion, I selectively ignore him so others can speak.

I am far from perfect about this, and sometimes I just forget, but I do my best. I figure to whatever extent people are giving undue credit to my words, perhaps they will also do so for my actions. I especially hope to lead men by example, showing what it looks like when a dude takes women’s words seriously.

Another thing I do is respect women’s personal space. I try to give women ample breathing room on sidewalks, in stores, and on the bus. I try to be especially aware in bars, at shows, and on other occasions where space is tight and the potential for harassment is high. Because people tend to respect my space, these actions can have a real impact, sometimes creating a kind of buffer zone.

I also engage in some old fashioned chivalry. I try to do this with sensitivity and awareness, to avoid treating any woman in ways that she would find patronizing or otherwise bothersome. I open doors, offer to carry heavy things, offer to walk with female friends at night, and so on. For me, this is a way to show respect and sometimes to mitigate misogyny, such as by helping women stay safe. Of course, it also has the potential to be plain old sexist, and might not be appreciated by everybody. So far, though, no one has been bothered, as far as I know.

What are your experiences with male privilege? What steps do you take to address your privilege, of whatever variety?

Trans People Are Not Traitors

One thing, and one thing only, delayed my transition for many months.

I had come to accept my masculine gender and my body dysphoria. I had let go of a lot of fear and shame. I had told my friends and my parents that I was questioning my gender and considering transition. I changed my name. I changed my gender presentation. I knew, beyond all doubt, that I wanted to transition. I desperately wanted to start hormones and have chest surgery. I knew in my bones I was like the trans guys I had seen and read about. I could imagine two possible futures: growing up to be a man and death.

But one thing was really, really difficult to chew over. It took longer to digest than denial, longer than my fears of being a freak and a monster, longer than my fear of rejection.

It was my fear of selling out.

My commitments to justice and solidarity form the absolute core of my value system. Growing up as a Sephardic Jew and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I learned that standing for the just treatment of human beings is the single most important thing a person can do. As a young gender-variant person, I developed a strong queer identity. My marginalized positions as a queer and Jewish person became deeply connected for me. I worried that by transitioning, I would somehow betray my principles and my community.

Why? For one, spending years in feminist circles, I had heard a lot of rhetoric that frames transsexual people as traitors. I had heard that people who transition harm the cause of equality by supporting the binary. I had heard that butches who transition are just grabbing at male privilege. I had heard that after the revolution, there will be no need to transition because all our genders will be respected. The message was basically, “It’s okay that you have these urges, just don’t act on them,” dressed up in feminist clothing. (Note: This applies to a subset of feminists, which is small, though sometimes loud.)

There is one thing that is always more important than ideology, though, and that of course is human life. After wrestling for quite awhile, I realized that I have the right to fight for my own survival, to seek my own wellbeing, to live the best life available to me. And so I made a big circle past my principles and right back to them again. Compassion is the reason for justice, and I had to learn to give a little to myself.

I am happy to report I have in no way sold out. Six years after I began questioning my gender and three years since my transition, my commitment to justice is as passionate as ever. I still cultivate a critical consciousness and speak out whenever I am able. I am going to school to learn to help people in better, deeper, and more lasting ways. I remain actively concerned about issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, trans* status, ability, and many more dimensions of diversity. I am a more complete advocate now that I am at peace with myself.

So don’t believe the hype. Surviving isn’t selling out. Our principles emerge in our words and our actions, not in our gender presentations, medical histories or hormones.

Gender Theory, Gender Practice

Today, a great deal of “gender theory” is abstracted from human experience. But if theory is not the crystallized resin of experience, it ceases to be a guide to action.

— Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors

Who can explain us?

“Gender is biological,” they said. “You’re born a boy or girl, and that’s the end of it.”

They were wrong. Our bodies defy their rules. Our lives defy their prescriptions.

“Gender is socially constructed,” they said. “You’re made a man or woman, and that’s the end of it.”

They were wrong. We were told who we were. We were told through every possible channel. We were told by our parents, our teachers, and our televisions. We were told by our friends, our doctors and our governments.

They hadn’t figured on anyone telling back.

Therefore we are miracles. We are miracle workers. We are testament to the exact limits of the human mind.

What does the human know? Not grand Truths, nor the exact limits of every category. The human knows little truths, general trends, and meaningful exceptions.

The human, hopefully, knows him- or herself.