“What does feminism mean to you?”
“I’m not really sure what feminism means to me, or how I and my experiences ‘fit in.’ Especially post my social [gender] transition, it’s something that feels not right for me to identify with, even though some very important and prominent [parts of] feminist movements are applicable to me [as a transgender male].”
The comments above are my responses to questions that I answered exactly three months ago, during our first class meeting in Ileana Jiménez’s high school intersectional feminism class that started in September 2021. If I answered these questions now in December, my response would have some differences and some similarities. I can now name what feminism means to me, but the second half of my sentiment remains. Can I, a heterosexual, white male who has both transgressed the binaries of the gender hierarchy and now benefits from patriarchy, identify with feminism?
In trans-accepting feminist spaces, trans identity becomes mostly synonymous with transgender women rather than the entire trans community, leaving transgender men and other genderqueer people who don’t conform to the gender binary, out of many conversations. While trans men are often underrepresented in many conversations surrounding trans rights and trans feminism, it isn’t unjustifiable as transgender women, especially trans women of color, face simultaneous racism, misogyny, and transphobia; disproportionate rates of violence; and intersectional oppressions that dictate the differences between trans women versus trans men as they move through the world.
However, introducing more conversations around trans male feminism isn’t just beneficial for trans men, as it will also benefit intersectional feminisms by introducing another, yet collective, experience informed by systems of gender oppression and trans identity.
Feminism Needs Trans Men
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of white, cisgender, self-proclaimed feminists who are anti-trans – now commonly known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or “TERFs”) – who are further prompting the need for trans-inclusionary feminist leaders. In Emi Koyama’s “Transfeminist Manifesto,” they explain that TERFs “[characterize trans men] as traitors who have abandoned their sisters” by identifying out of female oppression and use the master’s tools of patriarchy to perpetuate misogyny.
Meanwhile, TERFs rely on the notion that trans women are not women, claiming that trans women have immutable maleness and inescapable male privilege and entitlement. However, blatant hypocrisy lies in their belief that trans men are wholly men who seek to oppress cis women while trans women aren’t wholly women. It doesn’t make sense that TERFs can on the one hand argue that trans women are not fully “women” and that they perpetuate misogyny, while on the other also argue that trans men are fully “men” in order to argue that they too perpetuate misogyny. If trans men are believed to transcend gender-based social status by transitioning, then by the TERF logic, trans women must also be seen as losing gender-based social status. This also assumes that trans men are granted full manhood after transition and that trans women were fully integrated into manhood prior to transition; instead, both groups are affected by misogyny.
In our high school feminism class, we learned about the Combahee River Collective, a group of leading Black feminist lesbians who authored the “Black Feminist Statement” in 1977. They wrote: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
A student who took this same class in 2017, revised this statement to reflect what they saw as 40 years of progress: “If Black TRANS-women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.” I agree with this revised statement, as it is necessary to include all those impacted by a movement within the movement itself. Trans-exclusionary feminisms like those preached by TERFs are not at all rooted in liberation from the master’s tools or committed to dismantling systems of oppression. Instead, they are actually rooted in patriarchal understandings of gender and in maintaining hierarchical privilege and power.
It’s important that trans men are included in feminist conversations because many of the ways that the patriarchy oppresses women also afflict trans men, from reproductive justice and health to misogynistic sexual violence. Additionally, it’s vital that feminism is accessible to trans men to address internalized transphobia and homophobia, which unaddressed, perpetuates those same systems of oppression. Ultimately, feminism needs to create and allow space for trans men so that trans men can access feminist spaces once they realize they need it too.
Trans Men Need Feminism
At the beginning of this course, I didn’t know how I fit in with feminism, or even if I could or should. As a transgender boy, I resonate with it and could truly understand the many experiences shared by the cisgender girls in our opening freewrite about our personal experiences with gender.
I too, hold my keys in my hand while walking home late at night in New York City; worry about being approached on the street; and cross to the other sidewalk when walking my dog at night if it’s desolate and I only see men nearby. My state of mind is likely similar to that of my cis girl counterparts but also depends on another factor of “what if”: what if someone realizes I’m trans? Yet, while my peers’ stories of street harassment were familiar, it hadn’t been an experience that I actually shared. While I’ve always had a multitude of backup plans running through my head if I were to be approached by a man on the street, it’s never been likely; I’m fortunate to pass as male in our unsafe society and I’m perceived as male by the world around me.
However, I recently had my own encounter with street harassment, something that I would have processed extremely differently if not for what I’ve learned throughout this course about the perpetuation of gender based violence and men’s entitlement, yet has also complicated my relationship with my above conclusions about how I am perceived by others.
As I’ve grown older (and I now look my age thanks to hormone treatment), I’ve learned a lot about how I move through the world and this course has made me reflect more on my experiences. It was startling when I first realized a couple of years ago that as much as I am afraid of men when I am walking down the street, the women I pass are possibly afraid of me too. I am increasingly learning to see my position in society and how I am benefiting from being perceived as cis male. I am learning to adjust to the inconsistent experiences I have had in the past in relation to how I present to those who know my gender identity versus to those who don’t.
During this class, I realized that feminist theory can explain many everyday interactions, including my own that relate to my gender identity. In my personal writing about my experiences with gender, many of the stories I told echo similar sentiments about social interactions with cisgender boys, specifically during my early adolescence:
“I used to joke with my friends that the best part about being trans is that I am a boy with ‘girl emotions,’ and that this is the reason it’s easy for my male friends to talk about emotions and other vulnerable topics [with me] even though they cannot with other people, let alone [cisgender] boys. It took me until a few years ago to understand that this part of my personality isn’t a remnant of femininity, but an example of the harm of masculine stereotypes.”
Remembering these moments from late middle school and early high school was an entry point into self-reflection about other times I perpetuated the messages I had been fed and internalized about gender roles. Specifically, when I would be in social situations with my cis, predominately heterosexual, male friends, “locker room talk” would run rampant among middle school boys trying to prove their masculinity through sports and sexist jokes. There were many times where someone would make a homophobic joke and realize I was there and then look at me with apprehension. There would be a short pause as they waited for me to absolve them and I would oblige, saying something along the lines of “I don’t really care” while thinking more about how I wasn’t seen as just another guy, but as the LGBTQ+ or transgender kid, versus wondering why they weren’t thinking about the unacceptable things they were saying.
While these two experiences hold different levels of severity, implications, and contexts, they both speak to why trans men need feminism. While trans men aren’t transgender because of internalized misogyny as TERFs have claimed, many do have internalized transphobia, something I realized I have personally grappled with throughout the past few years, especially while taking this course. I repressed my trans identity early on and even to this day. Part of this is because while being transgender is a part of my identity, it is more an explanation of my experience of being male versus a separate aspect of my identity. But maleness or masculinity is not and should not be dependent on transgender (or cisgender) status.
In times where I let social sanctions inform my lack of response to friends’ and acquaintances’ inappropriate comments, I enabled myself to become the token trans person/friend. This is the reason it’s necessary to erase the narratives of “good” and “bad” trans people because a socially acceptable, or “good” trans person shouldn’t equate to a trans person who has internalized transphobia. I strongly conform to cis, straight male gender norms, and while it’s not a false persona, I can’t help but wonder if part of my strict conformity to stereotypes is because of social norms and the added anxieties of wanting to fly under the radar of social scrutiny. Even when this course ends, my engagement with different feminisms won’t, because trans men, including myself, need feminism.