The day after my last post, an article highlighting trans men at Wellesley hit New York Magazine. I remember seeing it at lunch that day, somewhat frantically reading it and thinking to myself ‘damn it, I have a lot of work to do today!’ because I knew this was going to blow up in the Wellesley alum network. And blow up, it did.
I have written about trans* folks and women’s colleges before. I used to have very clear ideas about how I thought things should be handled, but this article and the subsequent alum response threw me into some turmoil.
My previous position, in short, was that 1 – trans men at women’s colleges are inevitable; 2 – many trans men still experience misogyny along with transphobia; and 3 – there are also inevitable non-binary folks who also aren’t women; therefore women’s colleges should embrace all oppressed gender identities from the start, and that this is not outside the original mission of women’s colleges. Unequivocally women’s colleges should accept trans women (don’t worry, this part of my position is unquestionable) – it should go without saying, but until it’s a reality, I’ll keep saying it over and over again.
What I watched go down in the alum community on social media was for me a collision of cis privilege and male privilege. It was confusing and painful for me. In the article, several trans male students described why they chose a women’s college, in some cases knowing that they may not be female during the application process, expressing that they felt that a women’s college environment would be a safe place for gender exploration in an otherwise hostile world. I get that. Many alums didn’t.
When a cis female alum who is not educated or very aware of trans* issues states that trans men should not be at Wellesley, I experience this privilege collision. On the one hand, I feel totally stomped on. How convenient for you that you can boil gender and gendered experiences down into these two neat categories. I can’t. I think to myself. What do you know of your whole world being turned upside down by a monumental realization of how to be more whole, a realization that comes with a lot of stigma and pain? You want to add transferring schools and extra social rejection? Thanks a lot. That’s the cis privilege piece.
Then there’s the male privilege piece: Women-centered spaces are still really important. As a trans man, it is essential to listen to women’s voices about their experiences and needs in women-centered spaces. As a trans man it is essential to remember that my masculinity and male-ness will always, inevitably impact others’ perceptions of my competence and authority positively, whether anyone means to or not, even at a place like Wellesley. As a trans man, it is essential to continue to recognize that many people are more comfortable with my presence at a women’s college than they are with the presence of trans women, and that this is a direct result of male privilege and the patriarchy.
That last bit seems obvious to me now, but took me a little longer to fully grasp than I’d like to admit. Weren’t we spending all this time talking about trans men at women’s colleges because they’re already there? Sure, maybe that’s part of it. But we should be paying equal if not greater attention to a whole class of women who are still excluded from women’s colleges, as we are to men at women’s colleges.
I want to now try and describe what I’d like to call ‘privilege whiplash’.
I just spent the better part of a year knowing, finally, that I am male, but still experiencing a world that treated me like a woman, and placed all related expectations on me, nonetheless. Trying to navigate misgendering and dysphoria was constant and exhausting (misgendering has all but ceased now, but dysphoria continues). I felt constantly re-squeezed into the female gender box, even as I was fighting tooth and nail to escape. As I experienced this, clawing for support, for my gender to be truly acknowledged, any time I was acknowledged correctly as male felt like a radical act of resistance and achievement. It often felt like (and still does sometimes) when someone correctly addressed me as ‘he’, we were collectively scoring a point against the patriarchy, a system reliant in part on rigid gender boundaries. To go from that struggle to this other discussion where, at last, my maleness is taken for granted, and precisely because it is, I and all like me are being called out for male privilege, totally set my head spinning.
It has only been a couple of months, filled with cautious optimism, that I have been almost always perceived as male by strangers and new acquaintances. After 27 years, this is a very, very short amount of time to adjust. I want to be clear that I am not saying that I am not gaining male privilege. It is an immensely important goal of mine to keep on top of this. It’s just really confusing at this point in my transition.
Transition comes with many different components. For me, in addition to physical and social components, there’s the internal transition. After a lifetime trying to be female, I still fall into old thought and feeling patterns associated with this. Without fully consciously realizing it, I am still often bracing for folks to perceive me as female and treat me that way – and not in a ‘bracing for misgendering’ kind of way. It’s something I’ve been doing all my life without realizing it. So of course I’m going to continue doing it unless I work on recognizing it and letting it go. In addition to that, I still have a lot of internalized transphobia to combat, that persists with dysphoric feelings that I don’t really get to be male, I don’t really get to be who I am, that I’m really just a freak and fake. All of this turmoil and privilege whiplash helped me to see that I hadn’t been working on my internal transition as much as I needed to, and forced me to look at myself through new lenses.
Internal transition also involves letting go of my constructed female identity. I don’t really know how to articulate this piece in words. It’s something like how I need to accept on a deeper level that I am not female, and to grieve for ideas I had about my identity and future possibilities that were attached to the idea that I was female. This is not straightforward. What parts of my sense of self were attached to my misperceived ‘female-ness’ that I need to let go of, and what parts of my sense of self are ones I should fight to hold on to because to do so would be to resist cisnormativity?
For example, I still identify as queer even though I am a man primarily attracted to women, because this is my social and cultural training and history. For now, at least, I have put my flag in the ground on my queerness, because it is part of who I am, even though it is rooted in my previous thought-I-was-female identity. To simply say, ‘oh, I’m a dude now who likes women, therefore I’m straight’, feels so, so wrong, and not me, and feels like I’d be giving in to larger social pressures trying to tell me who I am. At the same time, I am not a queer woman. I need to let go of any idea that my relationship to the queer female community will remain the same as it did before. I don’t want it to change, and part of me feels like it shouldn’t have to, but it will and it does, because patriarchy. Learning how to navigate things like this is part of my internal transition.
Similarly, as I am not a woman, my relationship to my women’s college community is changing, even as a huge part of me adamantly believes that it shouldn’t have to. Fuck the patriarchy, accept me as a gender minority even thought I’m not a woman! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I hate the binary nature of this whole conversation, because binary gender is what is imposed upon us by society. Again, where do genderqueer, trans masculine or transfeminine folks who aren’t men or women fit into this?
Anyway, as this discussion in the Wellesley alum community persisted, a number of trans* alums contributed some op-eds. Reading them I realized that I actually have no idea what it’s like to transition while a student at Wellesley, because the whole time I was there I thought I was a cis woman. A lot of my reactions to this whole controversy have to do with my own feeling of whether or not I am fundamentally welcome in the alum community, and the pain I feel around that. Unlike students, I can’t just ‘transfer’ alum communities. Anyway, the controversy among alums often came down to arguments about who experienced what kinds of male privilege and when, which is a cyclical and unproductive set of arguments. A fellow trans alum, KC, wrote a piece that really resonated the most with me:
Questions about who does and does not belong at Wellesley that are based alternately on an individual’s biology, or on their history, or on their presentation will always ultimately fail: this is a point I think we need to heartily acknowledge before we move forward with this conversation. The conversation I want to have is not the one where we draw lines in the sand about who Wellesley does and does not include; lines in sand are almost always washed up by the coming tide. The conversation I want to have is the one where we, as a community, think critically about the purpose of Wellesley as an institution. Focusing the conversation on Wellesley’s mission and not merely its admission means asking questions about what Wellesley does. Does it carve out space for all people who have suffered gender oppression? Does it actively resist the patriarchy? Does it always and only provide space to foster and celebrate womanhood? These are questions we can answer together, and it is my firm belief that in making decisions about what Wellesley does (a process that will be perpetual, ongoing), it will become clear who should be served by and inhabit that space.
My position on how trans men do and/or don’t fit into the Wellesley community lies in asking these questions, and knowing that I cannot answer them by myself. My position also is this: Before we focus a ton more energy talking about Wellesley’s mission and how it relates (or doesn’t ) to trans men and non-binary folks, WELLESLEY NEEDS TO ADMIT TRANS WOMEN. Or rather, these are separate issues, and we have been disproportionately been talking about one of them at the expense of the other, and that needs to stop.
On that note, here’s a petition for Wellesley to admit trans women: PETITION
I was reluctant to write about my experiences of this conversation at all, because I felt that we didn’t need yet another trans male voice talking about trans men. But I have chosen to write this piece anyway because this blog is in part about me sharing my own life experiences with my community, and that in and of itself is important. The moment I decided my experience of all of this wasn’t important at all was the moment I began to silence myself on all issues. This is the self-imposed silencing I mentioned at the beginning. I need to be able to share my experiences as a human being.
I also struggle with perfectionism, and my own turmoil around all of this prevented me from writing for sometime. I felt I needed to have a clearcut, uncontroversial answer to all of this, but I don’t. All I can do is share my experience, and so here it is.