[Note: this essay draws largely from my own experience and so only covers the experience of female-bodied people, primarily those who are butch or have “masculine” attributes. I believe that females who aren’t butch or “masculine” can also be socialized “trans” but I don’t know enough to talk about that. Perhaps if others find this concept helpful, they could add what they’ve learned from their own experiences to help expand it.]
One way to describe part of my experience is to say that I was socialized “trans”. That is, people assumed I was trans and treated me how they thought a trans person ought to be treated regardless of how I identified myself at the time. This treatment over time began to effect how I saw myself, helped to instill a trans male identity and encouraged me to transition. I think this is a phenomena that effects many females who are butch, “masculine” or otherwise don’t fit conventional “femininity”.
When I say that females are socialized “trans”, I mean that we’re treated as though our qualities, behaviors, mannerisms, appearances, and so forth are taken as indicators that we’re trans and so we get male pronouns, get asked when we’re going to transition, complimented on how well we pass, etc.
In my own circumstances, I would say being socialized “trans” included finding that my choice of name, clothing, physical features, interests, mannerisms and overall qualities were judged male by many people. These people decided that these qualities meant I was a boy with a female body rather than a girl with characteristics usually associated with boys and so it was therefore appropriate to use male pronouns without consulting me about my preferences. People used male pronouns to refer to me not only because they thought I preferred them but also because they seemed more comfortable using them to describe me. I was also told what a cute boy I made many times. On my own, I was considering that I could be trans but having many other people label me as such certainly reinforced that possibility and made it seem more likely.
Crucially, this socialization consisted of a lot of positive reinforcement. That is, when people decided I was trans and treated me accordingly they were often at the same time trying to show respect or be friendly. I didn’t receive the same sort of treatment as a butch dyke. When people “accepted” me as a trans dude they also integrated me into their social scene. People listened to me when I talked about being trans, gave me an opportunity to hold forth on my life. There’s this dynamic that can arise between trans people and trans allies where trans people get support and attention from allies and allies gain political/socially progressive cred for being friendly and cool with someone society thinks is a freak. Such a relationship typically contains some degree of objectification of the trans person, ranging from being slightly tinted by it to being totally pervaded.
I don’t believe my experience of being socialized “trans” is totally unique. I think there are different degrees of it and it effects people differently. Some people just get annoyed when they’re presumed trans because they don’t see themselves that way. Other people can start to internalize it. This does not make the latter group weak, only human. People are very social creatures, very open to the influence of others. If you keep encountering people who make the same judgments about you over and over again, you may very well begin to think there’s some truth to them. Much of our sense of self is influenced and reinforced by other’s perceptions.
This “trans” socialization consists of several components. One is deciding that certain actions, appearances, practices etc are signs that a person is trans/male rather than a woman, female, and/or butch. This is based off the assumptions that any perceived “masculinity” is maleness and that stepping outside the female role and temperament makes one not female. This belief that being/acting a certain way puts one outside “woman” or “female” can be an unconscious policing of the female category, a way to ensure that its boundaries are maintained. These judgments and assumptions are also linked to the belief that “man are like this, women are like that” and that these differences are fixed and innate and due to biology, not culture. Therefore if a female is “like a male” then they must be biologically male in some sense because biology is what makes someone “like a male” or “like a female”. There is constant propaganda that women and men are different and that these differences are rooted in the body and there’s not too much out there challenging these beliefs with the same force of those promoting them.
Another part is treating the presumed trans man’s behavior and self expression as more acceptable because they’re trans/male. This “masculinity” or whatever isn’t supposed to be present in a female body but being trans explains and makes it acceptable. What was unsightly, confusing or unnatural before is now something this person can feel entitled to. Males are still generally treated better than females and male “masculinity” is certainly better respected than female “masculinity”. I’ve found that people will treat me more like a human when I’m seen as a “normal” male instead of a female genderfreak. When I pass I don’t get stared at, people don’t get confused or disturbed and not know how to handle me and I don’t need to be as anxious about people fucking with me. Being seen as male can grant females more freedom to express themselves, ease some social burdens. We should not be surprised to find some females taking on trans male identities because of this.
Coming to see oneself as male can make regularly passing as such a more pleasant experience. If a female passes as a male and decides they’re a man then every time they pass they’re being affirmed as what they are. If she passes as male but sees herself as a woman, then what she is is being rendered invisible and other’s treatment of her conveys the message that women like her are socially unthinkable. This culture doesn’t want to admit that women with “male traits” exist because it doesn’t want them to exist.
The social benefits conferred on a female passing as male can a lead them to take the “maleness” people read in them and make it a part of their own understanding of self. When friends and acquaintances who know they’re female-bodied see them as trans/male this understanding is reconfirmed and the idea that their actions, looks and so forth make them male is further solidified and rewarded. The outside world tells them that they pass for male, their close associates tell them their behavior makes them trans male and nowhere is femaleness being reinforced. Instead they’re being told again and again that they’re not female and will often find little to no representations of females who resemble them. They might hear, as I did, about a lot of females who used to identify as dykes and/or butch but now identify as trans and maybe transitioned. In my own case, many of the women I came across were not like me or what I wanted to be and many of the female-bodied folk who were like me were trans-identified or became so.
In this present society, many women who don’t fit into conventional “femininity” are going to spend some time seeing themselves as trans/male or genderqueer before accepting themselves as women. A young female who’s “masculine” enough to pass as male is likely to be presumed trans or genderqueer at some point because those identities have become popular models for explaining why some people don’t match the prescribed qualities of their sex. A lot of women who’ve run up against the limitations of the female role in this society spend some time dissociating from being female before they’re able to accept what they are. Being socialized “trans” can extend this dissociation and encourage it. It can inhibit self-acceptance and feed self-hatred. In this context, taking hormones and getting surgery can be self-destructive.
Being trans can be a phase. We need social spaces to accommodate females who go through this phase and help them come out the other side because in this context being trans is about self-denial, self-hatred, internalized misogyny and/or homophobia and facing and working through that bullshit sucks. Realizing that you created an identity to fit into society because you learned that what you are is unacceptable can be really painful, overwhelmingly so, and there is virtually no resources for women going through this.
Radical feminists are some of the only people who acknowledge and provide support on issues like internalized sexism leading a person to transition. I don’t agree with every radical feminist analysis of gender but I end up going to Rad Fem sites a lot because they are some of the only people talking about issues that have deeply effected me. I find radical feminist perspectives on gender very compelling after my own struggles with it. And people wonder why so many ex-FtMs end up radical feminists. Could it be that sometimes they have a point and they’re the only ones willing to say it? Plenty of people will say similar shit privately but not openly because they’re afraid of how they’ll be judged. The trans community contributes to a backlash against itself when it fails to acknowledge that there are problems, that not every person who comes out as trans or transitions is really finding themselves.
While some trans people go to great lengths to claim they’re transitioning to make peace with their bodies, not to fit into gender roles and stereotypes, many other trans people and much of the more widespread conceptions of transsexuality are bound up with traditional ideas of gender. There is a reactionary current within the web of ideas and practices that make up transsexuality and it can fuck people up. Transsexuality isn’t one thing. People don’t call themselves trans or transition for the same reasons. I’m inclined to see people shaped by their social circumstances, so I’m also inclined to questions how those circumstances effect people’s identities and behaviors. I don’t think trans people are any more or less shaped by their culture than any other groups of people, nor do I doubt that most trans people are just trying to live as authentically as they can. Still, I see how people can be influenced to take on a trans identity in response to how gender operates in this culture, either to conform to it or consciously “subvert” it (The same person can do both, as I did) and I find both tendencies questionable and worthy of examining critically. It’s worth asking if people could be transitioning for social reasons rather than innate drives. Overall, this phenomena of females being socialized “trans” or denying their femaleness for a time is a product of the overall society we live in but the trans community is often complicit with this and any community that colludes with sexism and misogyny deserves to face criticism.
Many queer and trans people say they think gender is a social construct but they don’t always acknowledge the full implications of this. It doesn’t just mean that gender norms are made up and we can defy them or make up our own genders. It means that we are influenced by these norms even if we rebel against them. If gender is socially generated then a person’s sense of gender can be influenced by cultural trends and as culture changes, new norms and rules can arise. Something formally taboo can become a standard people are measured against and I see this happening with trans identities. Trans can be another definition forced onto people, another idea through which a person’s being and behavior can be interpreted and judged. Just as there can be pressure for a male to be a “manly man” or a female to be “girly”, there can be pressure to call oneself trans or transition if one’s actions are considered “inappropriate” or strange for one’s sex. This is no theory, it’s a reality people live through. I have been socialized “trans” and I know I’m not alone.
If trans dudes and butch, “masculine” and otherwise unconventional females are going to coexist we need to talk about this shit. If trans people are serious about supporting all people who get fucked over by gender then this needs to be addressed. The trans community needs to acknowledge that social forces like sexism can lead people to transition and that for some people being trans is a phase and a harmful one at that. I’m tired of seeing any mention of social pressures to transition dismissed as transphobic. Not all trans people are guilty of this. I’ve met some trans folks who straight up said that they’re not sure if they’d have transitioned if society was different. Recently too, I looked up some old discussions I first read years ago on an FtM online community about whether transitioning was becoming a trend, whether it was cooler to be a FtM than a butch female, and concern that many people were rushing into transition or transitioning for the wrong reasons. I recall reading similar conversations on other sites as well. Today though, it seems that these conversations have become less acceptable and un-PC.
Silence about these issues in the trans community is not the only problem though or even the main one. The root problem is this whole genderfucked culture and the people who buy into it and reinforce it, the vast majority of whom are not trans. Most of the people who assumed I was trans were not trans themselves, many had not knowingly met a trans person before. Many non-trans folks who thought I was trans had very narrow ideas of what being trans was and only supported those trans identities that fell in line with their own assumptions of gender. When I was a teenager, people would tell me how they though my ex and his boyfriend, both of whom were FtM, weren’t really trans because they were both too feminine and “unmanly”. These people, who were mostly gay or bi, couldn’t understand trans fags at all. They told me their doubts because to them I was a “real” trans guy who could substantiate their judgments. At the time though, I was far from sure that I was actually trans. These folks assumed I was “really trans” because I was “masculine” and easily passed but questioned people who actually identified as trans because they didn’t conform to conventional manhood. This “trans” socialization then is often not so much about promoting any and all trans identities as using transsexuality to reinforce already established standards of gender. The core problem is that we’re living in a patriarchy and the ultimate task is to challenge it and the sex/gender order than sustains it.
In the meantime, there needs to be more support and resources for females who don’t fit gender norms. More specifically, there need to be spaces created for women who’ve denied their femaleness, transitioned due to internalized misogyny, called themselves trans, and/or lived as men before they found a way to accept themselves as women/females. There seem to be quite a lot of us out there but we’re nowhere near as organized as other communities. There isn’t really a community of us yet but I feel the need to help create one.