Trigger warnings: Bullying, misogyny, transphobia
In case this is needed before we start:
Cisgender – having a gender identity that matches the one you were assigned at birth.
All good? Okay, moving on…
One of the hardest things about helping cisgender people understand the transgender experience is that there’s nothing to compare it to. There’s simply no analogue for the ways in which being transgender alters and shapes your experiences. Going to work, going out with friends, dressing, self-care, and even just looking in the mirror are all common experiences that are sometimes dramatically altered when when you don’t identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. If I were to list off every little detail of my life that is only there because of my transgender status this post would be longer that the whole damn Harry Potter series. But nowhere is that more apparent than in the various forms of discrimination we face.
Here’s one universal, undeniable fact: it’s really hard to be a woman. From broad cultural norms to tiny micro-aggressions, and even actual laws governing the use of one’s own body, the female experience is unfairly challenging. There are a lot of movements out there trying to alter this fact and they all generally fall under the umbrella term of feminism. Feminism is a great thing. I’ve considered myself a feminist even long before I came out as transgender. But like all large movements, feminism has its whack-jobs. Sections of the more militant among feminist groups have a deep-seeded hatred of transgender women. To them, since we have bodies that match those of cisgender men and were socialized and lived our lives as men prior to coming out, we aren’t really women and are holders of the same privileges awarded to men. The term TERF has become widely seen among progressive groups online, standing for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.
If you don’t already know I’m strongly against this idea then you must be new here, but I really want to delve into why this way of thinking is so flawed. First off, trans women do not have male privilege, at least not in the same way cisgender men have it. The argument is made that we had it before we came out and while that is technically true, we held it at the cost of our emotional and psychological well-being. Yes, we’re enjoying the relative ease of life that being perceived as male grants you in our society, but that is coupled with all the other aspects of being a guy that we find torturous because we’re having to pretend to be something we’re not. All my life I’ve always felt uncomfortable in groups of men. I never felt like I fit in. I never felt like I was having fun. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I did have male privilege and losing it once I come out was a sobering experience, it didn’t hold a candle to the immense relief I felt no longer having to pretend to be someone else everywhere I went.
When transgender women come out and start living authentically, our world changes dramatically. Being perceived as male does give you a lot of keys to let you pass by certain barriers, and having those keys taken away is quite sobering. I still remember having to get used to male colleagues not taking me as seriously, being talked over by men when I wasn’t finished speaking, and unwanted advances. I still remember the first time a man touched me without permission. I swear my heart stopped beating for a moment. These are all examples of transgender women experiencing the same sexism and misogyny that cisgender women do, so I have come to label it cis-passing misogyny.
I was lucky enough to start passing for cisgender after about eight months on hormones. I know a lot of other transgender women aren’t as fortunate (assuming cis-passing is their goal). When a transgender woman doesn’t pass for cis, she experiences a different kind of misogyny. Her’s is a misogyny of purposeful dead names, articulated misgendering (“how are you doing, SIR?!”), threats of violence, and just general mocking for being “a guy pretending to be a girl”. Make no mistake, this is misogyny; it’s just of a certain type that is specific to the transgender, not cis-passing experience. It’s still being treated harshly because of one’s gender with the actual form of said treatment being specific to the circumstance. It’s no different than misogyny against heavy women (“put down the fork”; “what man would ever want you?”) being different from misogyny against thin women (“stop trying so hard”; “she’s clearly asking for it”). Sadly, the way I was able to tell I passed for cisgender was noticing I was getting the same kind of harassment as my cisgender female friends.
So I passed for cis. I was able to largely go through my day without anyone knowing I’m transgender. Trips to the bathroom regained that glorious banality they had before transition (mostly, anyway). I still remember how good it felt to feel like I didn’t need to wear makeup just to go run a few errands. I could throw on jeans and a t-shirt and still not be misgendered. “Finally,” I thought “life can get back to the normal I experienced before transition: just minus the dark depression and constant suicidal thoughts. Oh no; now my normal was periodically interrupted by cat calls and unwanted touches. My Facebook notifications were full of requests from random men I didn’t know. My new normal was very different from what I was used to before transition.
I’ve never been a transgender man, but I’d have to imagine it’s an easier experience (yes, there’s a lot to unpack there so please don’t take my quick statement as some sort of dismissal of the hardships of transgender men; this is in broad-strokes). Passing for male and also identifying as male is, culturally, the best position you can be in (all other factors excluded). When transgender women start living authentically, we begin an uphill battle towards trying to be cis-passing (some of us, anyway) and if we manage to finally claw our way to that finish line, now we get to run the gauntlet of being a cis-passing woman in a man’s world. We run a race for the chance to run a different race.
“But!”, I hear the TERF’s shouting, “this is why transgender women aren’t really women! They had male privilege and chose to give it up!” I disagree. Do transgender women experience what male privilege is like; yes. However, as stated before, it comes at a great internal cost. Remember, transgender people don’t become someone else when they come out; they reveal who they always were. The only reason transgender women are perceived as male before coming out is that they’re acting like someone who fits their assigned gender. We compensate and sometimes overcompensate for the fact our appearance doesn’t match our identity. I’ve known transgender women who used to be full-bearded biker dudes. I myself used to wear camo, collect guns, and grow a goatee. We try to fit the mold we’re placed in and it just doesn’t work. That pretending to be a man so other people will treat us with respect is another form of misogyny. What kinds of discrimination do effeminate men face? Do I really need to name them off? That’s being treated as a lesser based on the aspects of your person that are culturally coded female; in another word: misogyny.
I said at the beginning that the transgender experience is wholly unique, and that’s very true. Not only is it unlike anyone else’s, it changes as we do. So, the next time you hear a TERF shouting about transgender women having male privilege or not being real women, have the courage to correct them. Stand up for your transgender sisters out there. After all, we’re out there fighting alongside you for the same things. Respect our struggles and see how we can help in the larger fight for equality.