I'm writing this post to help me think through a reaction I've felt recently. I don't fully understand it, so bear with me. I've written a bunch about trans issues in the past--for example, explaining how dysphoria can be experienced by non-trans people, the differences between butch women and trans men, discussing some infuriating anti-trans sentiments in the lesbian community and the tension between butch women and trans men, and giving advice to a reader trying to figure out whether he or she was trans. I'm interested in trans issues not only because equality and respect for trans individuals is fundamentally important to the queer community at large, but also because understanding people's transphobic impulses can tell us a great deal about how we understand sex and gender.
So here's what's been bothering me. Lately, I've met a number of people who identify as butch women (and sometimes, but not always, as genderqueer), and who exclusively use feminine pronouns (she, her, hers), and who also modify their bodies in various ways consistent with popular understandings of masculinity: specifically, taking moderate amounts of testosterone, which (particularly if paired with certain kinds of physical activity) can result in major masculinization of the jawline/shoulders/etc. So as a result, many of these women look way more "masculine" than a woman who does not take supplemental testosterone. The fact that this is a trend does not bother me; people should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies. What bothers me is my own reaction. There's a little piece of me that feels like they are "cheating" or "having it both ways" by taking testosterone but not being trans. My internal reaction is super disturbing to me, because on an intellectual and spiritual level, there is literally no reason for me to feel even a little bit uncomfortable! It makes no sense. My own reaction is intolerant, wrong, and inconsistent with my values.
So here's what I think is going on. On most people's idea of what a "woman" is, I am pretty far on the masculine end of the spectrum. I like being a masculine woman; it is who I am. And I would like to think that my satisfaction with my own identity is wholly internal. But, of course, this is impossible; we are social animals, after all. When I see a trans man, I am not "threatened" or bothered in the least, even viscerally. He's in a different category from me. He is a man. But the women I am describing take male hormones and identify as women. They put themselves in the same category as me: masculine woman. But since they are taking testosterone and making their bodies and presentations more masculine, I feel less masculine in comparison to other people in my "masculine women" category. Maybe my discomfort comes from this perceived threat to my masculinity. If so, this is interesting but disturbing, in part because I like to think of my own identity as self-contained--as stemming from me, not from my relationship to the rest of society. Except, of course, that I don't exist in a vacuum.
As you can tell, I haven't thought this through completely, but I wonder if anyone else has felt anything like this. I talk to butch women occasionally who say that they feel "pressure" to transition. I can honestly say that no one has ever pressured me to become trans (although occasionally people assume that I must be "at least thinking about it," since so many of the masculine women they used to know have become men). There is not much personal allure for me in the idea of existing as a man. I like being a woman. But I guess I also like being a masculine one, and I guess that that masculinity is more precarious than I would sometimes like to acknowledge.
First off: Caitlyn Jenner is a brave human being. Anyone who has the courage to come out as something different--as something that others make fun of or ridicule or malign is brave. It takes courage to be yourself whenever "yourself" isn't what most other people are.
I've been increasingly bothered by the rhetoric surrounding Jenner's coming out, and about the precise nature of the ostensibly supportive comments I've been reading and hearing. The ones that bother me most have come from well-meaning straight women in the public eye who talk about how beautiful Caitlyn is (true) and how courageous she is (also true), and who show a sudden empathy for the plight of all trans people (by which, frankly, they tend to mean trans women). (Sidenote: I'm going to use the term "straight women" in this post to refer to a particular kind of straight woman that tends to: (1) embrace the gender binary (2) but support gay rights (3) but glare at me in the women's restroom. You know the type. If you're a straight woman who reads this blog all the time and doesn't look askance at butches in the restroom, please know that I'm not talking about you.)
It's not that Caitlyn Jenner doesn't deserve kudos and support--she certainly does! But a significant chunk of the mainstream support I've seen seems to totally embrace gender norms. If Caitlyn looked like, say, Rachel Maddow, I daresay that she would have fewer straight female supporters talking on podcasts and posting on Facebook pages about much they love and support her. Nor, I suspect, would she have graced the cover of Vanity Fair. I do not think Bruce Jenner coming out as a woman is the big draw. I think the big draw is Bruce Jenner coming out as a woman of a certain kind--as a woman who embraces the type of femininity that fits neatly into the existing gender binary with which people are comfortable. I don't think they're thinking, "Wow, this really complicates how I think about gender!" I think they're thinking, "Wow, this gorgeous woman was trapped in a man's body!"
As a New York Times article astutely pointed out the other day, the brain-body distinction is not so clear. Here's an excerpt:
While young [Bruce Jenner] was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted – Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men. Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night. Those are realities that shape women’s brains.
Which is true, at least to some extent. To say that Jenner always had a "woman's brain" doesn't take into account that she had a man's social experiences--and that our experiences powerfully shape our brain chemistry, our pocketbooks, and our self-understandings. Acknowledging this doesn't make Jenner any less of a woman (something the article really seems to miss). But not acknowledging this minimizes the social experiences of cis women and girls, and reduces trans identity to a simple case of "wrong brain, wrong body." Jenner had a certain set of experiences particular to her identity, and they should be respected in and of themselves.
Frankly, I'm also jealous. I wish that straight women would embrace women who look like me with as much openness as I see them embracing Caitlyn Jenner. In short, I wish that straight women's newfound "acceptance" of different versions of what it means to be a woman extended more broadly in my own direction, not just in Caitlyn's--that they would show so much love and support for women whose gender presentation and ideas of womanhood don't look like their own.
Back in 2012, I wrote a post called "Why Aren't all Butches Trans?" It continues to get comments, and a couple days ago, a reader asked a question that I thought deserved a separate blog entry.
In the post, I write, "A butch woman's masculinity is not different in degree from that of a butch man or FTM; it is different in kind." In response, a reader wrote: That is a very helpful statement, but I think "kind" needs to be expanded upon. Can you say how you might define "kind"? Would it be something like the difference between a different breed of animal eg. a cocker spaniel or labrador? Or the difference between a different species of animal eg. dog or cat? Or something else?
It's a good question! Here's what I mean by "kind."
Masculinity exists as a thing--a social construct we can understand and identify in the abstract. Even when it's not attached to a particular person, we have a social understanding of certain things as masculine. If you showed a random person a lacy pink tank top and a blue flannel shirt and asked, "Which one is more masculine?" most people would point to the flannel shirt, even if neither shirt is being worn by anyone. (Mind you, I'm not saying that there IS, in any normative or "real" sense, such a thing as masculinity or femininity--merely that these are widely-understood social ideas.)
Still with me? Okay, let's take a concrete example: water. Even if we don't know what container the water is occupying, we understand what "water" is, right? Now consider a river; consider a lake. Rivers and lakes are containers for water, but the water has a different "feel" in each one. We wouldn't argue that one of those is the "real" container, or that one is more "watery" than the other. Nor would we think it was weird if someone said that they preferred rivers to lakes, or vice versa. We get that they're different forms of water.
So, too, with masculinity. A trans man and a butch woman might both contain masculinity, just like a river and a lake might both contain water. They share a common characteristic, but because of who they are, they each take on an inherently different form.
To take the analogy a little further, there are all kinds of lakes and rivers. There are lagoons, ponds, streams, reservoirs, tributaries. And there are bodies of water that--just like bodies of people--defy or combine or challenge or embrace the conventional definitions.
I don't remember much about my sex ed class. I attended a handful of different elementary and middle schools, and I remember: (1) the girls being separated from the boys; (2) being shown some kind of cartoon about sperm and eggs; (3) our PE teacher telling us we needed to use deodorant from now on. I also remember leaving the sex ed video being suddenly unsure about whether sex was what made babies. I had thought so going into it, but the movie hadn't said anything about sex, and the animated version of fertilization seemed pretty divorced from two people doing it.
There was, of course, nothing at all about homosexuality, bisexuality, or gender identity or expression. The curriculum basically assumed that when girls grew up and got boobs, they would suddenly be interested in boys, dresses, and makeup. Growing up meant a continued separation of the sexes, and it meant that girls and boys couldn't really be friends after puberty. If you were a "tomboy," you'd grow out of it. Even if the curriculum had included something about homosexuality, the culture in the various working-class suburbs from which I hail would have never allowed it to be taken seriously. If anyone had "come out" in my high school or middle school, they'd have been ostracized and probably beaten to a pulp.
I know that some schools still teach sex ed basically this way, and in other schools it's way more progressive. I was super heartened to stumble on a blog post written earlier this year that translates part of a pamphlet that Dutch girls are given. I was floored by how incredibly progressive and awesome and inclusive it was. Here's my favorite part:
Take the time to figure it out! Are you uncertain whether you’re lesbian? That’s perfectly natural. Often, you’ll know after puberty what you are exactly. In any case, try to enjoy it if you fall in love, whether it’s with a girl or a boy.
Wait, what? Seriously? No big deal either way? Love is love; just enjoy it? Can you imagine having been given something like this when you were a kid? Would it have mattered? And can any of my younger readers talk about what sex ed is like in the U.S. these days?
OMG. I just got word that I didn't get a job I really, really wanted because the boss-to-be thought that I would be "too much of a leader" and insufficiently deferential. Problems with this assessment include:
I've been thinking about this quite a bit since I heard it earlier today. After some reflection, I told my "inside source" that I think the problem might have had partly to do with gender. That is, women are expected to act in a certain way. By showing up in a women's suit, etc., I made it look like I was trying to "do femininity," but that I was doing it wrong.
If this is true--and my inside source (herself an incredibly smart, assertive, feminine woman) thinks it might be--then the solution might be to make it clear that I am not attempting to "do" femininity at all. Maybe if I wear a men's suit and even a tie, it will be clear that I am trying to "do" masculinity.
In truth, I am not trying to "do" anything but be the best possible version of myself. But I wonder if, subconsciously, my would-be boss (though extremely progressive) understood me as a woman, judging me by implicitly comparing me to other women. If I wore guys' clothes, I would be putting myself more firmly in the "masculine" category. Not that I would be judged as a man, but rather that I might be judged more by a masculine standard, meaning that my apparent lack of deference(!) would be judged compared to men, not to women, and thus looked upon more favorably, since assertiveness is a quality more valued in men.
Either way, depressing.