Recently someone asked me if trans men transition in order to gain male privilege. My initial reaction was to laugh in their face. But then I realized that, misguided though it was, the question contained an important kernel of truth. So I decided to write this think piece instead.
While someone could hypothetically decide to transition to gain male privilege, this person would not have done their research. To transition is to be visibly trans, and thus a visible target for harassment, discrimination, bullying, and a whole lot of other bullshit for an indefinite period of time, or for as long as you are visible trans. Even when you get to the other side and start “passing” as cis man, you’re still going to deal with a whole lot of bullshit that cis people don’t have to deal with- just different bullshit. I personally can’t fathom signing up for all this just to gain male privilege – especially considering there is no guarantee you will.
As doctors make sure to emphasize, there is no way to predict how a given body will respond to hormone replacement therapy. For trans men, this means that there is no guarantee that you will grow facial hair, or that your voice will drop into the traditional male register, or that your body fat will distribute in a way that helps you get gendered correctly. There is, in fact, no guarantee that T will make you “pass” as opposed to being perceived as a woman with a hormone imbalance.
I was desperate for relief from my dysphoria, and for the freedom to live as my true gender. This freedom – which most cis people take for granted – was so crucial to my mental and physical health that I was willing to endure any hardship just to have a taste of it. Transitioning was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. And still, I had it easier than a lot of people. I’m one of those trans men who hit the genetic jackpot, as far as privilege is concerned. First of all, I was born white. And secondly, I was genetically predisposed to respond well to hormones. Within months of starting testosterone, my voice dropped into the male register and my chin and upper lip were covered with dark stubble. I gained muscle quickly and my body fat redistributed giving me a masculine physique, since I wasn’t curvy to begin with. I also had a naturally small chest, which made me an ideal candidate for the least invasive, most affordable top surgery. Within a year of beginning my medical transition I was consistently “passing” or being gendered correctly by people when they met me. Within two years, I was “cis passing” or being perceived as a man who had never transitioned. I was so relieved and elated by the changes that were happening to my body, and to finally be seen as my true gender.
It was also a mind fuck. Like most trans folks in early transition, I had extreme imposter syndrome. I would constantly analyze others’ facial expressions, speech, and body language for clues to determine if they were “clocking” me, i.e. picking up on the fact that I was trans. I felt like nervous, insecure, and intensely dysphoric in almost every context, especially in the presence of cis men. These anxieties started to fade as I started to pass, but they didn’t fully leave me until somewhat recently, as in the past couple years. The biggest mind fuck of them all, however, was when I started to experience male privilege. I still remember my first taste of it.
I was walking home from the gym one night after dark. Two young women walked a block ahead of me on the sidewalk. When they noticed me behind them, their pace quickened and they crossed the street, only to continue walking several more blocks in the same direction. It took me a minute to realize that they’d crossed the street because there was a man walking behind them: me. The realization was startling. And it made me angry: at the patriarchy, and at the cis men who experienced their privilege everyday, and had no qualms about it. I also felt guilty, like a traitor.
My awareness of sexism was heightened by transitioning. How could it not be, after seeing what it was like on both sides? So often when I was accompanied by a woman, my presence was acknowledged, theirs was ignored. I was suddenly allowed, even expected, to take up space with my moods and belongings. Women were expected to shrink to make room for men. I was assumed competent and given the benefit of the doubt when women worked tirelessly just to be taken seriously.
Though I expected sexism and misogyny from cis men, I was startled when I encountered sexist trans men. These are the type of trans men who like to show off their knowledge of cars, tools, and sports so as to out-man one another, as if competing to see who has the bigger micropenis as a friend of mine so aptly put it. Note: you don’t get to repeat that joke if you’re cis. I vividly remember serving two trans men at the bar where I worked when I started transitioning. I was blown away when they started talking shit about their girlfriends, referring to them as “hysterical,” “hormonal,” and “crazy” over rounds of Bud and 4 Horsemen (drinks I will forever associate with fragile masculinity).
During the first year or two of my transition, when my imposter syndrome was really bad, it took a substantial amount of courage to call out cis men when they were sexist. Oftentimes I was complicit, which caused a lot of guilt. It’s not that I wanted them to like me – I just wanted them to see me as a man. Eventually I came to my senses, worked through my internalized transphobia and started to relax into my gender. As I did this my cognitive dissonance dissolved and my guilt began transforming into something more constructive. My hatred of the patriarchy sharpened, as did my commitment to hold myself and other men accountable.
Nowadays I consider it a privilege – in every sense of the word – to have the freedom and confidence to defy toxic gender norms, to present as a man who is masculine and feminine, compassionate and justice-oriented, fluid and flamboyant, critical and sensitive, whatever the moment calls for and whatever feels authentic.
What kind of masculinity do you embody/ wish to embody/are you attracted to/not attracted to? How can you be a better ally to women and femmes? What unjust systems do you currently benefit from at the expense of others (patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, etc.)? What are you doing to help dismantle them?