I recently watched this TED talk by Norman Spack, an endocrinologist who treats transgender teens. It stirred up a lot of feelings for me. First, I’d like to say I appreciate Spack’s sincere concern about the well-being of transgender people. I appreciate that he mentions the appalling suicide rates and shameful lack of equality under the law for our community. I’d also like to say I think it’s great that some people get access to gender-affirming treatment as adolescents. This prevents incalculable hardship and I see it as a wonderful thing.
But there is also something profoundly transphobic about this talk. I am deeply uncomfortable with using the sexist, racist, ablist, heterosexist and cissexist standards of mainstream society to judge the “success” of trans bodies. As usual, it is women who are the main targets of these value judgments. Spack says it all when he says, of young trans people who never go through the wrong puberty,
They look beautiful. They look normal. They had normal heights. You would never be able to pick them out in a crowd.
There are two main reasons it is so difficult to be transgender. There is an intrapersonal element, our discomfort with our bodies, our need to express who we really are. And there is an interpersonal element: others’ many assumptions and judgments, which at best ruin our days and at worst end our lives. The two are completely intertwined in the lives of real people. You can never really address one without addressing the other.
I completely agree with Spack that it’s a disgrace to deny these established treatments to young trans people. But it’s also a disgrace to deny us full acceptance–acceptance that doesn’t depend on how well we blend in with cis people. In his zeal for helping trans teenagers “look normal,” Spack has neglected the other half of the struggle: creating a society where we don’t have to be invisible to be acceptable.
There is no treatment that can make anybody not trans. We can use the names and pronouns that fit us. We can inhabit a congruent social role. We can take hormones, have surgery, and bring our bodies into line with our genders. But we will never be cisgender.
The young women in Spack’s photographs do look “normal,” and that means they look cis. But they’re not cis–they’re trans. Being easily recognized in their true genders will make life much easier for them, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not enough.
Real justice is not superficial. It’s not enough to recognize that they look beautiful and look normal. We will not be equal until it is acknowledged that they are beautiful and normal–and so much more than that.
If trans people succeed only insofar as we look cisgender, we have won the battle and lost the war. It’s not enough for trans people to look cis. It has to actually be okay to be trans.
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.
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?