Scene 1: I met a young trans woman recently: a new-school tranny whose model of "woman" is a young radical who treats gender irreverently. I liked this person's style, but I found myself wanting to call her he. I wasn't sure why because I really didn't think of her as a man. A friend nailed it: After hanging out with trans men and butch dykes, he had probably become the pronoun I use to signify gender queer.
Scene 2: The same friend said she was experiencing a new world of pronouns — who ever knew this humble part of speech was so important? — in a group of gay men who sporadically referred to each other with the gay male she. As we talked about it, we realized that they were using she to signify cattiness, sluttiness, uptight bitchiness: all negative forms of stereotypical femininity.
Leaving the GLBT world briefly, let's talk about the workplace, where, because we don't really know one another, biases flourish unacknowledged and unchecked. My working hypothesis about my workplace relationships is that I get into political hot water because I act like a man when bosses expect me to act like a woman. A man can be more direct, more certain of his competence and right to exert it. A woman who acts the same way clearly doesn't respect authority and/or has a difficult personality.
Scene 3: My A-Number One worst experience with this was with a self-declared feminist boss who was consistently wowed by men who were no more impressive than any of the women in the office. I fantasized about making a silent movie of her interactions, showing how she barely made eye contact with female employees and giggled like a schoolgirl at everything the early-20s male intern said.
This boss, I'll admit, has some sort of gendered personality disorder: She is as "victimized" in her own mind as the most novice feminist and yet as oppressive a boss as the most old-school old boy. But her case is different only in degree from other female employers'.
Scene 4: I currently work at a large nonprofit whose ED is a woman who inherited the job after being the second-in-command to the organization's founding director, a man. She has hired a senior staff person, a man, who is utterly and completely incompetent at his job but makes up for it by being a first-class bloviater. About nine-tenths of what he says is name-dropping of one sort or another.
His role is to undo good decisions my immediate boss, a woman, has made, to hold up good work indefinitely by citing vague bureaucratic concerns, and to force bad decisions on us periodically. The ED has been told of his unprofessionalism and incompetence repeatedly, by several people (women). But his position is safe because he is her toady.
My boss was prepared to hire a new public policy consultant, an accomplished lesbian lawyer. The Bloviater wanted to split the policy work into two parts and give one part of it to a Chicano man, who comes from an activist background. (Incidentally, the nonprofit is decidedly, even proudly, more milquetoast than the Sierra Club.) My boss objected because it seemed unnecessarily complicated. The Bloviater responded by calling a meeting with both the lesbian lawyer and the Chicano man. Awkward!
It immediately became clear why The Bloviater favors the man: He's also a smoke-blower, and the two name-dropped each other into oblivion while the lawyer, my boss and I sat by. There was a quick reprieve in which work was accomplished when the ED walked by and waved for The Bloviater to step out and consult with her for a moment. He looked like a schoolboy tripping on his seat to get out of the conference room.
Now back to the GLBT world. It bothers me that one of the two most compelling reasons pushing me to transition is that I feel unseen and belittled when people out in the world call me she. As if she were less than he. But I think it's lesbians and some evolved, self-confident FTMs and straight women who know — really know and believe — that women are not less than men. To wit: my boss, the lesbian lawyer and I in that conference room, I'm sure, all saw the boys' antics as no more than comical.
And it's the knowledge that men aren't superior, I think, that makes trans men who pass continue to feel at odds with themselves: They benefit from a privilege that they know is absurd. A trans man recently told me that he didn't feel like "A Man," and was going off testosterone again. He'd been off and on it six times. Am I a Man, benefactor of a privilege based on false assumptions, or am I a Woman, belittled and unseen based on false assumptions? It's another version of what my worst female boss must experience.
Some women take the opposite tack, believing that women are better than men. I don't find this way of thinking helpful or accurate.
Scene 5: I go to a boxing class once a week. It's a friendly class with no face or body contact. The instructor is a femme-ish lesbian who, despite good intentions, has trouble calling me he. Her butch girlfriend is also in the class. The other regulars include a slightly butch Italian lesbian, a balding straight man and a really tall Pacific Islander woman, who's apparently straight though I initially mistook her for an MTF. The girlfriend and the straight man are the best boxers by far; the girlfriend is more standoffish and seems to feel more inconvenienced by lesser pugilists.
One day as the class was winding down, the instructor remarked that she was sort of glad the straight man wasn't there because it was nice to have just us —. Here she stopped and looked at me, and then defended what she was going to say since I'm open about not having been born a man.
But what did she mean exactly? If we'd been talking about oppression or gay culture, I would give no argument that a straight man would have been unpleasantly out of the loop. But we were boxing. I can only deduce that the instructor must have meant that in some way the class was more collegial or supportive that day. But it wasn't. How is it that the assumption that women are gentler than men persists in a class filled with biological females who run the gamut of gender identities and even continues to be seen as a good thing in a class where the explicit goal is to learn how to beat the shit out of someone?
That putatively "feminist" view of women also seems to transcend fact. When I commented to the instructor that both her girlfriend and I were more macho than the straight man, she agreed. So who exactly was praised by her remark? How does it support the cause of women's political and physical empowerment?
For me, the real claim of feminism is that women are equal to men — neither better nor worse nor all that different as a class of people. Making the difference smaller makes transitioning seem like a much more individual, personal act, and it's in that frame that it makes sense to me. I can't be asked to hold the fate of the binary gender structure on my shoulders and to have my particular shrug signify something in particular as it echoes through a series of subjective — contradictory, overlapping, emotionally charged — assumptions.
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