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.
In the queer community, we talk a lot about "gender dysphoria," often when talking about various trans identities. For example, a pre-op trans man might look at his breasts and think, "I'm a man! These don't belong on me!"
But I've heard the word "dysphoria" used in many other ways, and I've gotten a ton of questions from readers about it: Can a butch feel dysphoria if she's forced to wear a dress? Can a heterosexual person feel dysphoria if she's dating someone of the same sex? Are trans people the only ones who experience dysphoria? Are they the only ones who experience "gender dysphoria?"
The American Heritage dictionary on my shelf at work doesn't even include the word "dysphoria" [what???]. But the dictionary on my computer defines it as: a state of unease of generalized dissatisfaction with life. The opposite of euphoria. I think of "euphoria" as a state of extreme joy. So dysphoria is a state of extreme non-joy? I think the key is "unease." A dysphoric feeling is a feeling that something is not quite right--that it's not aligning how it's "supposed" to.
Gender dysphoria is a more specific. WebMD says that it's a: condition in which a male or female feels a strong identification with the opposite sex. Not conforming to the social features related to one's biological gender is not in itself a disorder. Rather, a person with gender dysphoria experiences great discomfort regarding his or her actual anatomic gender. And while WebMD has its flaws, everything I searched in academic and professional medical journals says about the same thing.
So under that definition, when my butch buddy C (pictured right) donned a gown for the Ada Initiative (the sports bra peeking out is a nice touch, don't you think?), she was experiencing some kind of, like, wardrobe dysphoria--as in, help! this doesn't belong in my closet!--but not actual gender dysphoria? That's how I understand it.
Yet, there's something about her discomfort that is decidedly related to her gender. I mean, I'd experience some kind of fashion-related unease if I was forced to wear Crocs with a suit (or, TBH, Crocs with anything). But it's different kind of "this isn't right on me." And that something has to do with gender presentation.
This makes sense if you don't think of gender as an either-or phenomenon. C associates her lovely purple dress (heehee... I chuckle every time I look at that picture) with femaleness, and identifies herself as female. But as a different kind of female. One who doesn't wear a dress. And while it's certainly not the same as the gender dysphoria a trans person experiences, it has at least a few elements of similarity, doesn't it? Does it make more sense to think of this as a kind of "gender dysphoria" if we think of "butch" as a gender? I feel like doing this still minimizes the distinct gender dysphoria felt by trans individuals, though.
I don't know anything about dysphoria as a medical phenomenon, but I do know something about social psychology, and there's a related phenomenon in social psychology called "cognitive dissonance," which is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by a person who has two contradictory ideas/experiences happening at once. Like, suppose you think littering is morally irresponsible, yet when you ate lunch outside yesterday and your napkin blew away, you didn't go pick it up. This is so hard for the brain to deal with that we invent little ways to make things compatible (e.g., "it's just a napkin," or "there's trash pick-up around here every afternoon"). Is that just dissonance? Or is it also a kind of dysphoria? To me, it doesn't have the "unease" that I associate with dysphoria.
I don't see gender as a "spectrum;" I see it as a field with lots of different spaces in it: overlapping, related to each other, messy, contradictory. Some people might be comfortable standing in only one place on the field. Others might be comfortable in a whole lot of places. If I only like to hang out in the "butch" spot, and I'm wearing a dress, which I see as non-butch, and I feel uncomfortable as a result of this misalignment, what is it, precisely, that I am feeling? I don't think it's gender dysphoria, exactly, but I think it's some very specific type of gender-related discomfort or dissonance. And for me, at least, it's a similar feeling as if someone calls me "sir." I think: nope, you didn't get me right. You're not seeing me as I want to be seen. I want to be seen as female, but as a certain kind of female. A non-"deviant," but specific genre of female--which, sure, incorporates a lot of elements society considers "masculine."
I bet I have a lot of readers of all different identities who want to weigh in on this one. I'll be super interested to read your comments.
Trans issues have popped up on Butch Wonders quite a bit in the past, so when a super-smart English professor I knew came out as trans, I shamelessly pounced on the chance to ask him all kinds of questions about his process and identity.
BW: How long have you "known" that you're trans? What does it mean to know?
Allen: I've known that I was not quite cisgendered for several years, and I've felt trans off and on for several years, but more solidly during the last six months.
BW: Can you give an example of something that makes you feel non-cisgendered? After all, I've always hated and felt totally uncomfortable in "girly" things. It just feels not-me. Is that what you mean by feeling non-cisgendered, or is it different?
Allen: Those feelings of discomfort with "girly things" are part of it for me, but it also includes dysphoric feelings about my body, such as feeling really psychologically uncomfortable with my female chest and even more minor things like my female-looking neck, female hairline, etc. I have also never liked to be called a girl, woman, or even "tomboy," since "tomboy" suggests that one is not a real boy! So all of these things are part of my feelings of not being cisgendered.
BW: I hate the word "tomboy," too. To me, it always suggested that my "boyishness" was a phase I'd grow out of! I resented that, even as a kid, because I knew that there was something in me that other people saw as boyish, and I knew that it wasn't going to change. Okay, so say more about the feelings and knowledge of being trans.
Allen: I use those words--felt/feel trans or male--instead of "know," because to me, the transition process centers on feeling more than knowledge. For me, it's not an issue of "knowing" I'm trans, but one of being ready and willing to feel my feelings.
BW: How do you know you're not just taking advantage of "male privilege," since in most places it's easier to be a gender-conforming male than a non-gender-conforming female?
Allen: Because when I'm allowing myself to feel male and when others view me as and call me male, I just feel happier and feel I'm more able to express myself and let go of hesitation and self-consciousness and depression, even when I'm only in the company of loving, supportive people like my wife and my mom. Male privilege doesn't come into play with such people, yet I am much happier being male even in such small company.
BW: So, with these people like your wife and your mom, what does it mean to be treated "like a man?" Can you give an example?
Allen: That’s a great question. They don't treat me especially differently, actually; I think the main things that make me feel male and make me feel good in such circumstances are that they don’t call me girl terms and that as male I'm able to feel happier inside my own head, which causes interactions to automatically feel better. An example of the first is that my mom has always called my wife and me "the girls," but now she is trying her hardest to not do this. And my wife calls me "hubby" instead of "wife," which is validating.
BW: Do you still ID as butch? Do you ID as a straight man?
Allen: No, I don't identify as butch anymore. To me personally, "butch" implies being something other than a guy, and I feel like a guy. I'd probably just lean towards calling myself a guy, or a trans guy. I like those terms. I'd be more likely to identify as a straight man than as butch, but "straight man" feels a bit confining. I am about 99.8 percent straight, but the associations that go along with that term—e.g., uptight, not queer or trans, "bro"—don't feel so great to me.
BW: What's the other .2%? Attraction to guys (since you're a guy)?
Allen: Well, yes; in my lifetime I've had genuine crushes on two men! But nothing ever happened with that.
BW: It seems like few trans men date butches, though I can think of plenty of trans men who date men (either cisgendered or trans), as well as plenty of trans men who date feminine-presenting women. Why so few butch-trans male couples? Or am I wrong about this?
Allen: Yeah, I can't think of any transmen dating butch women, that I know of. But maybe there are some! I don’t think I have any answers here.
BW: I suspect there are some out there somewhere. (Any BW readers want to chime in?) So as you were dealing with all this gender identity stuff, how did your wife respond?
Allen: We've been together for more than nine years, so I've talked with her about my gender feelings for the entire time I've been exploring my identity. So it is certainly not a surprise to her that I'm trans. She is very supportive and happy for me, which I'm grateful for, and she is excited for my future happiness and our future in a potentially better relationship! After all, if both people in a relationship are able to be fulfilled and comfortable, doesn't the relationship end up better for it?
BW: I would certainly think so!
Allen: Also, she's had relationships in the past with cisgendered men, women, and transmen, so she can certainly be attracted to maleness. While she feels disappointed about not being able to refer to her "wife" and thus be recognized by others as queer, and while she's sometimes nervous about how my personality may change on T (I don't think it'll change radically), she is supportive and hopeful.
BW: How are you going to decide whether to get surgeries? Is that a hard decision?
Allen: It's an easy decision to get top surgery, which I'm getting on August 5! Or rather, the decision is easy at this point, after I've debated, analyzed, and overthought about transitioning for at least eight years! I decided to get top surgery because I am mentally uncomfortable about my chest every single day of every month and year.
BW: Uncomfortable how?
Allen: The look and feel of my chest bothers me intensely. I feel a deep, intense, and excited longing to have a male chest. To me, it sounds better than any Christmas present I could imagine! As for lower surgery, I'm not even thinking about that right now. I have always thought I will not get lower surgery, due to the cost, pain, risk, and my current lack of desire for it (partly due to the less than perfect results of FTM lower surgeries). But we'll see how my feelings develop over the years.
BW: Are you worried about any changes in your social life?
Allen: I'm worried about cisgender guys saying sexist things while hanging out with me (which I've not yet experienced but have heard a lot about from other transguys). I think that would be depressing, and it could be challenging for me to challenge them and "call them on it," but I would do my best, since anyone who spouts sexist ideas or attitudes should be called on it.
BW: Any medical worries?
Allen: Medically, I'm most worried about increased risk of heart disease and cancer of female reproductive organs. However, these are not gigantic risks, because I read a scientific study on somewhat long-term HRT in trans people which suggested that FTM heart disease risk is not really higher than that of cisgender men, and I have a healthy lifestyle. And like many transmen, I plan to have surgery to take out my ovaries and uterus in several years, if I still feel like I want and need to be on T long-term. This prevents cancers of those organs and also reduces internal hormone "battles."
BW: You've referred in the past to having "access to the male parts" of yourself. Which are male non-physical parts, and which are female? And doesn’t almost any answer assume that women "are" a certain way and men "are" a certain, different way?
Allen: This is a very complicated question to answer. I'm not sure it can really be explained. The short version is that my deepest spirit feels male.
BW: I think I understand that. Because even though I have a ton in common with lots of trans men, reject many socially "feminine" things, etc., men remain "other" to me. I guess a lot of women remain "other" too. But I have no desire, for example, to exist in all-male social spaces as a man. I don't know if I ID strongly with one gender or the other, really. But being called "she" is much more comfortable to me than "he." My own deepest spirit feels female, I suppose, though in a different way from stereotypical femaleness. I am very aware, on a basic level, of feeling "other."
Allen: I'm not sure that I feel much of a female part of my inner being. To quantify it, I feel like 80% of myself feels male, and the other 20% might be genderless. Obviously there are many stereotypical activities, mannerisms, etc. that could be labeled as female or feminine, like certain ways that I sometimes sit on a couch, for example. Or being emotional. These things don't feel very female to me, when I do them; they just feel human. So I won't even get into any such stereotypes any further right here.
BW: Are you afraid of getting a hairy chest? I totally would be.
Allen: Haha. No. I think that a hairy chest would feel foreign to me at first, but then, it would occur very gradually. Especially after I get top surgery, I think a hairy chest would be OK. Sometimes it seems weird to me that I am currently relatively hairless (since I've only just recently started T), so perhaps more body hair would actually feel less weird.
BW: You've said that you prefer to be treated as male. In social situations, does being "treated male" mean being treated with more respect? If men and women were treated identically in social situations, do you still think you'd want to be male?
Allen: Yes, I would still feel male and want to be male regardless of social equality issues, since I feel much better, happier, and more like myself as male even in private social situations, even in groups of women. Especially in groups of women.
BW: Like when, for example?
Allen: A few years ago, I was part of a lesbian book group that met monthly. I always felt a little "off" or like a misfit in this group, and I always felt angsty when I would prepare to go to the group: I'd have this urge to dress not just in a T-shirt, which is what I wear on 100% of my days off, but something more decidedly masculine like a button-up shirt. I really chafed against blending in with the other women. They were very friendly and cool people, but still. I felt frustrated when I would sit with them in the book group.
BW: That is so interesting! I'm guessing that plenty of them were butch or masculine-identified women. But you still felt a desire to define yourself oppositionally to the others in the group.
Allen: I felt that in portraying myself as a woman (since the group was only for women), I was not revealing my real self and was thus invisible. This is a horrible, depressing feeling that I think no one should have to experience. So now, presenting as male in social or work situations, I feel happy and visible, and instead of the dulling and quieting feeling of invisibility, which just made me feel like not talking a whole lot, I feel a positive energy that inspires me to talk more, put myself out there more, and let others get to know me more.
BW: Are you afraid of not being treated or seen as "one of the butches?" (This comes from your earlier statement that you don’t ID as butch—I’m not suggesting that trans men can’t be butch.)
Allen: No, I’m not afraid of not being seen or treated as "one of the butches." I don't identify as butch and am extremely far from wanting to identify as a woman, so I would feel more validated and comfortable if I were not viewed as a butch woman. I actually don't think things will change much for me in this regard, as I have never felt like "one of the butches." I've never had any close butch friends and have never been part of a butch group of friends. This is kind of sad, since I wanted this for many years. But I found that butch women who wanted to be friends with me were almost nonexistent, and many butches were in cliques that I couldn't manage to work my way into.
BW: You're awesome! I want to be your butch friend! I have a few close butch friends, but never a group of butch friends. In part, I've felt like butches en masse can sometimes be a little "bro"-ish. (I'm not saying this is how butches are, just describing my own experience.) Particularly since I don't date femmes, I tend to feel like a bit of an outsider.
Allen: I can relate to that; I have also felt that groups of butches were like that! I've already made a number of FTM friends and am surprised at how much we relate and how easy I find it to talk with them and how much I DO want to be one of them. I guess that's a sign that I'm doing the right thing in transitioning! Most of the transguys I've met are less "bro" and more "regular guys" and seem to have less of a "macho" front. I don't know if this is just reflective of the types of guys who choose to go to the FTM support group where I've met friends, or what!
BW: That's super interesting. I've never been around big groups of FTMs, but have been in mixed butch/FTM groups, which to me didn't feel significantly different from all-butch groups. But in any case, it sounds like you have an awesome support group! How are your female-ID'd butch friends reacting? My background for asking is this: I had a close friend transition, and although I was super proud of him, it was weird being seen in public with him as a man and a woman, rather than as two gender nonconforming women. We had been existing in the world in a similar way (as people who "didn't belong"), then all of a sudden, he was seen as a "regular" person—just a normal dude. But I was still a gender nonconforming "other;" he fit in and I didn't! Does this make any sense?
Allen: Yes, that does make sense. Well, as I said, I have never had any close butch friends, none that I hang out with regularly. But the ones I know, like on Facebook, have been very supportive of me, as far as I can tell. I value that a lot. Yes, I do get to fit in—at a stranger's first glance, anyway—more than a visibly genderqueer person or butch woman would. Actually, for many years now, strangers in public have tended to perceive me as male about 90% of the time, judging by the frequency at which I was "sir-ed" and so forth. So I think strangers often view(ed) me as a "regular guy," even when I was pre-T, so this will not be much of a change, actually.
Allen: One example that comes to mind is when I was walking to the BART train after attending the Trans March in San Francisco last week. There were two couples ahead of me, further down the block, who had a "dykey" appearance. A couple of homeless guys called out some mildly insulting remark about "lesbians" to them, which I thought was awful and scary. The men hardly looked at me. Really the only thought I had here was that I felt sorry for those folks ahead of me and glad that I could blend in.
BW: That reminds me of a time my butch-appearing partner and I were walking back from dinner with a friend and got yelled at by some guy who called us "batty men" (an offensive slang term for gay men). I wanted to tell him, "You’re mean--and wrong!" It was odd to be gay-bashed incorrectly. But I did think about how encounters like this would be easier if I/we looked like a more conventional couple.
Allen: Yeah, it just happens to be that I feel most myself when I appear to be kind of a conventional dude. By chance. So I can sometimes avoid people viewing me as unusual. But this is a side effect of my transition and my clothing choices, not a reason for them.
BW: Do you expect that being a man will affect your career as a professor positively or negatively?
Allen: I don't expect it to affect my career much either way. The hiring process at state-funded colleges, the only places I want to work, is very regularized and doesn’t allow (in theory) for any discrimination or personal preferences of the hiring committees. However, many English departments are predominantly female these days, so, ironically, I could potentially add some diversity by being male!
BW: Okay, one more question: Is it the case that you were always "really" male, or that you have decided that you would be more comfortable "becoming" male?
Allen: I feel mostly male on the inside—in my mind, heart, and spirit—so I am already male, rather than becoming male, in those ways. I am becoming male on the outside, and I'm thus giving more life and sustenance to my mind, heart, and spirit, which are in the process of becoming less hidden and quiet and more alive and visible and strong.
BW: Good for you! I think it's awesome that you have the courage to be seen the way you want to be seen, and to live life as your true, authentic self. Thank you for taking the time to chat, particularly about something so important and personal.