Sign on a tree: Space Invaders Against Transphobia

Follow up re: “I date women and trans men.” Cisnormativity, essentialism, & socialization

My post last week about the “I date women and trans men” sexuality frame was one of the hardest and scariest bits of writing I’ve ever done. I’ve been heartened to see it shared widely and prompt a lot of discussion, including among a lot of the folks who inspired me to write the piece in the first place. There’s also been a lot of push back, and I want to respond to some of that here.

Sign on a tree: Space Invaders Against Transphobia

Photo by James Cridland via GenderBen

To be clear, this is a response to critiques from within queer and trans communities. There’s been plenty of push back from radical feminists, too, but I don’t think it’s worth my time to engage. I do think it’s revealing, though, that the arguments I’m hearing from folks who aren’t intentionally transphobic are some of the same arguments coming from radfems. Radfems are deliberately, intentionally writing from a cissexist frame that doesn’t see trans folks’ genders as legitimate or real (it’s pretty ridiculous when they get upset because I’m apparently saying trans men shouldn’t be available to them, as lesbians, for sex). So it says a lot to me about the ideas embedded in responses from the queer community when they’re practically the same.

Specifically, I want to address the arguments that I’m about policing people’s sexualities, that it’s not cissexist to exclude just cis men from a community’s sexuality, and the discussion about excluding trans women because we’ve been socialized male.

I get why people don’t want to think critically about sexuality in this way, I really do. It’s very hard to separate critiquing a sexuality frame from judging your individual life choices. I get why folks were offended. But I’m offended by a culture that says – no, shouts – that girls like me don’t belong in the realm of sexuality at all, except as fetish objects. I share this feeling with a lot of people, which is why I took the leap into the conversation.

I see a community that wants to to do gender better drawing lines around sexuality in a way that’s overdetermined by cisnormativity, and I think that’s worth talking about.

I take the critique about policing sexuality very seriously. This is absolutely not my intent, as I said in the original post. I don’t want to police people’s desires, and I certainly don’t want to police who you fuck. I do want to call out the way cissexism is overdetermining a community’s sexuality frame. The “I date [presumed cis] women and trans men” approach is based in the genders coercively assigned to people at birth – on cis genders. There’s a ton of internal community policing to maintain this frame. I’ve seen queer women struggle with not wanting to date any men when they’re community tells them they should be dating trans men. I’ve seen a lot of female assigned folks get shamed for dating cis men, with the flip side of folks being praised for dating trans men.

I wrote about this frame undermining trans guy’s identities because that’s what I hear from my community (all my examples were based heavily in experience). The trans guys I choose to surround myself with work really hard to undo their misogyny and examine their role in patriarchy. Because they are men in the world. Sadly, I’ve also seen and heard about a lot of trans guys who take advantage of this frame to not lose their community, despite the fact that it’s a women’s community. I’ve seen them take advantage of this frame to get laid by folks who say they don’t want to be dating men, but are told dating trans men is different. I might have more complex feelings if these guys were actively working to bring trans women into these women’s spaces and women’s communities, but I’m not seeing that happen.

Title card for Drive. Ryan Gosling driving a car, looks to the side, all moody

Feminine masculinity

Which brings me to the whole excluding cis men issue. Again, I don’t want to police your personal desires or needs. But I do want to call out the idea that cis men are necessarily different from trans men in some overarching way that can apply to a whole queer community for a whole range of reasons. This is an incredibly essentialist understanding of gender that doesn’t match up with reality. Both cis and trans men can work to be conscious of their role in patriarchy, work to resist misogyny, work to perform maleness or masculinity in non-oppressive ways. They can also both be not-so-masculine (yes, cis and trans folks, including men and women, can both be gender non-conforming). And both can use their male privilege to maintain their position in a gendered hierarchy, to do hurt to women. As I said in the OP, there’s an epidemic of unquestioned misogyny among way too many trans men that’s getting supported in part by the idea that these men couldn’t be misogynist because they were assigned female. Yep, there’s that cissexist understanding of how gender works again. (By the way, making this about bodies is super essentialist and reality-free too: it assumes cisnormative understandings of bodies – the identities applied to bodies by the cis world – are true. It forgets that our understanding of “biological sex” is constructed by a cis-dominant culture. And it misses the diversity of sexed bodies and the way medical transition alters bodies.) There’s also erasure and pushing out of queer cis men, really all male assigned folks, who’s sexualities include female assigned folks.

Finally, I want to talk about the claim that folks don’t date cis men or trans women because both groups were socialized male. This is the same argument that was used to keep my foremothers out of women’s groups in the 70s. Folks said trans women were bringing male energy, taking up too much space, re-traumatizing cis women just by existing (this linked up nicely with the early radfem arguments that our bodies were mutilated acts of rape and should be destroyed). I’m deeply disturbed to see this argument rear its ugly head again.

Buck Angel topless, arms crossed, chomping a cigar

Socialized female??

Once again – this is an incredibly essentialist and reality-free understanding of how socialization works. We don’t just get socialized into a gender up until the age of 4. Socialization is an ongoing process throughout our lives, one that’s dynamic, that we as feminists are called to play an active and deliberate role in directing and resisting.

I’m also baffled by the assumption that trans women were all successfully socialized as normative dudes. Obviously, there is no universal trans experience. In my experience, the socialization failed at every turn. Because I was never a man – that was sort of how my body was understood by default (even the shape of my body got policed) because our culture’s understanding of bodies is cisnormative. But I’ve always been a girl who got forcibly put into the boy box. I tried really hard to fit for 22 years, and I failed miserably. My failure was policed with verbal, emotional, and physical violence. I did perform some patriarchal bullshit, like my anti-abortion politics – though I learned a lot of that from cis women, because all women can be agents of the patriarchy, too. I was even a member of an all-male clergy, though the way I performed my spirituality was shamed as well. Other trans women, especially women from an older generation, have attempted more extreme versions of male performance (this is the place that really makes sense to me to talk about gender as performance in relation to trans folks), like getting straight married or joining the military. These actions can be incredibly complex sites of a lot of feelings, including pain and trauma, for a lot of these women – not some simplistic male socialization when you’re not actually male.

I found it incredibly easy to unlearn this socialization, because I’d had to try so hard to perform that role. Girl instantly fit better. Sadly, the community I came out in during college, especially my reproductive justice organizing community, wanted my femininity to be about weakness because it was in a person assigned male. I’m still working to unlearn a version of femininity that’s about timidity, about not asking for what I want. I learned this both from being raised in a way that said other people’s issues with my gender were more important than my actual identity, and from the role I was pushed into by my queer and organizing community. Much more than being socialized male, I was socialized to put other’s needs about my body and identity ahead of my own. I’m not alone in struggling against this. I see a lot of my sisters working for strength in a lot of aspects of our lives, including our sexuality.

And what’s with the idea that being “socialized male” is 100% bad when it comes to trans women? Cis feminists are all about unlearning the problematic aspects of female socialization, about being able to do their genders in a range of ways without being policed for it. The fetishization of masculinity in female assigned folks stems partly from a celebration of taking on aspects of what’s understood as maleness that are about strength, about standing up for yourself and speaking your mind. But when it comes to trans women, we’re not allowed to display any of that.

Some of the critique leans on the idea that by calling for the inclusion of trans women and questioning the inclusion of trans but not cis men I’m reinforcing gender essentialism. This is a nice dodge from the way this sexuality frame reinforces cisnormativity. All of the pressure to move gender and sexuality forward is consistently put on the people at the bottom of these hierarchies. While other folks are able to do their identities in a range of ways, ours have to somehow be politically perfect. Trans women have done a ton to move concepts of gender and sexuality forward in a way that benefits everyone. But we’re also fighting for basic inclusion. If a community is constructing sexuality in a way that’s built around gender, it should be legitimately (not cisnormatively) inclusive of trans genders. Full stop.

There are plenty of ways to organize sexuality that aren’t necessarily based in cissexism. Like only dating queer folks, or only dating people with gender politics, or not dating assholes. Or even dating based on the way our attractions are a total mystery to us, cause that’s much more how desire works (*stops self from going into psychoanalytic theory on Feministing*).

I was under the impression part of being queer involves questioning the heteronormativity that gets fed to all of us, and that informs queer sexualities, too. Shouldn’t we be doing the same with cisnormativity?

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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