This post was originally written in 2012 and posted on a defunct blog. It’s been migrated here because I still think it’s worth sharing. My gender has further morphed since the time that I wrote it, however.
Disclaimer: This post is in direct response to another one that deliberately solicited thoughts from individuals with, I quote, “trans* masculine experiences,” which more or less includes myself even if I do not consider myself a masculine individual; I understand the sense intended. The post also solicited others’ general experiences. Since my thoughts are far too wordy to go into a comment at the source, and since some thoughts were likely to wind up here anyway, I’ve written this up, so please note that I do not take credit for the original idea being discussed, and I’m only speaking for myself because it was implicitly asked of me.
I doubt the idea of a gender ternary is instinctive to most people. Your average ignorant cis person would, if pressed, undoubtedly answer the question, “How many genders are there?” with, “Um, duh, two,” and quite a few trans people, queer people, and/or gender theorists would tell you that there are more than two (or none) but we generally all have a gender binary forced upon us. The notion of an enforced ternary is so uninstinctive, I find myself now questioning my immediate positive response to the idea when I saw it introduced so very recently over at A Radical TransFeminist. However, the argument is curiously compelling, and I think that with an open mind we may all want to consider its merits. I’m going to attempt that here.
First of all, you should really, REALLY read the entire post, but the best one-paragraph summary I can give of her theory is… 1) In addition to the commonly named genders “woman” and “man,” Western society has a third option of “freak.” 2) She finds support for this possibility in how genderqueer individuals who actively assert their identity as such are dismissed specifically for “weirdness,” i.e. discrimination against nonbinary people is justified through placing them in a category that is indeed beyond the woman/man binary but that carries sexually/socially monstrous connotations not derived from the monstrosity assigned to women. She notes that male or female trans people are also put into this category when they do not pass for cis. 3) She also finds support in how this model helps reconcile trans feminist concerns with radical feminist concerns (radical feminist in the Second Wave sense of Dworkin, not the broader idea of being feminist + otherwise politically radical), primarily re: the question of trans women having/not having male privilege.
One reason I’m not sure this works is because I haven’t seen (or may have missed) any responses from gq/nonbinary people, AFAB or AMAB or intersex, who can provide reports of lived experience in this assigned “freak” gender; even though I’ve reached the conclusion that by at least some criteria, I’m gq, I don’t really go around asserting that as much as I do assert a desire for male pronouns and other mostly-male terms of reference, at least at the moment, so I’m just not comfortable touching this issue. Consequently, room is still open for other people to pinpoint problems with the way gq identity is handled here. Another reason I’m uncertain is simply that while I see precisely how the freak category exists, I’m skeptical about it semantically qualifying as a gender when it’s a category used, by Lisa’s own admission, for people with disabilities, people with deformities, people of color, and others. Or perhaps it can be a gender, but if it is, this new dimension takes theories of intersectionality onto a whole new plane.
Really, from all this I have to conclude that I’m not entirely sold on the gender ternary idea, but I’m also not opposed to it. Meanwhile, what gets me about the post in which it was proposed is the excellent breakdown of faceted privilege, and I want to explore THAT some more here— so I’m willing to use the ternary as a framework in discussing my own experiences of (trans) male privilege. Maybe that can help test the idea’s value, but really, the breakdown of faceted privilege is worth exploring in its own right. By faceted privilege, by the way, I mean what Lisa describes as the following:
A common theme in radical feminist discourses around transsexuality is the assertion that a transsexual woman retains male privilege and that admitting transsexual women to women-only feminist organising spaces admits male privilege to those spaces, undermining the reason they were set out as women-only.
A quick google will find you any number of articles arguing for or against this point, but predictably, as a radical feminist transsexual woman, I’m going to tackle it a little differently, with the help of our ternary-gender model. We’ll need one existing model as well, which is the privilege knapsack model of male privilege, where male privilege is constructed as a network of multiple privileges.
I loosely categorise these privileges into internalised, social and power-over privileges.
• Internalised male privileges are about who you are or who you feel yourself to be
• Social male privileges are about treatment in society or access to institutions
• Power-over privileges are those which give men influence and control over women
Of course, male privileges interact with each other and also inhabit multiple categories. For example, a man might come to feel his opinion is important (internalised) because he isn’t talked over in a group (social); he’s able to avoid street harassment (social) in part due to a confident body language which becomes part of his self-image (social); and part of the pressure he can place on consent (power-over) comes from his expectations (internalised) and the response society would make to non-consent (social). So it might be more accurate to say that male privileges have elements of internalised, social and power-over to differing extents for each privilege or set of privileges.
From here she goes on to relate how she has experienced different privileges at different times, as a trans woman— how privilege for her has temporal impermanence and varies according to the aspect of one’s life. My interpretation of this is that she simultaneously recognizes a) how she has been privileged by others in the past and how she has internalized some components of this, right alongside b) how she has experienced transphobia and misogyny as linked but unique phenomena, the more that she’s transitioned, and this has coincided with a loss of privilege bestowal/loss of internalized privilege. (Since I think she may be reading this, I hope I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong.) This seems like a valuable viewpoint to share when the most frequent response I see from trans women and their allies about whether or not trans women have male privilege is, “Of course we/they don’t, because we/they have never been male; transmisogyny has been experienced since day one.” Ditto for nonbinary AMAB people. That frequent response is perfectly valid and I entirely see the importance of asserting it, but for some time, I’ve been baffled about how this serves as a universal retort when not everyone has a static gender identity and not everyone with a static one realizes it correctly during their childhood.
I grew up having an intense dissociation from any idea of myself as a female entity, and also from several parts of my body. The latter dissociation was (and remains) coupled with a sense that I should have some other body parts instead. The extremely short way to describe the outcome is that I’ve figured out I’m both transgender and transsexual, though for the purposes of this post, the transsexuality is mostly irrelevant; imagine that instead of physically transitioning I still took steps to change my appearance/presentation/grammar for both loved ones and random people to instinctively gender me as male, even if they weren’t permanent changes, e.g. binding, packing, very short “masculine” hair, using male pronouns, wearing unambiguously male clothing, etc. But that aside, it took me seventeen years to actually decide that publicly presenting a male or semi-male identity was both accurate and advisable, which is to say it took me seventeen years to “come out” even to myself. Before then, I absorbed facets of male privilege through internal identification— and simultaneously internalized patriarchal oppression vis à vis my own person, because of what society handed to me. Now, I have absorbed more of those facets and at a quicker rate, but I’ve also retained some traits that clearly came from others gendering me as female; I do not expect to ever fully lose those traits, regardless of my actual gender, and I also do not expect to fully gain every possible privilege that a cis man would have, also regardless of my actual gender. I’ll break it down into some of the same categories.
When I used to be mostly misgendered as female…
• My power-over privilege was extremely limited. I would argue it did not exist except on the few occasions online where I early on displayed an overtly male persona. Outside of that, I could control girls/women around me by any patriarchal means, I think it was only in the same ways that patriarchy encourages girls/women to control each other, because they couldn’t respond to me as they would to a guy if they didn’t know I was one.
• My social privilege was questionable. I often had the courage, if you will, to readily place myself in all/mostly-male spaces and subcultures, and I was not inherently discouraged from it once I tried— the way that many women are. On the other hand, I did not have the courage if the guys whose sphere I was entering didn’t have much in common with me besides being guys. They could not see a reason for me to be there because they didn’t see that common ground, and usually neither did I. There were also many ways that people responded to me as an individual, on a daily basis, that were nakedly centered around my being “female” and that I couldn’t change without facing the usual charges of being “a [insert slur]” or “stubborn” or “impolite” or… hey, a “freak.”
• My internalized privilege was noticeable and came from three things: 1) insofar as I didn’t identify as female, I eschewed some female-stereotyped qualities because they felt unnatural; 2) insofar as I hesitantly understood a degree of male self-identification, I instinctively patterned my behaviors off of boys/men because it was natural, and consequently some male-stereotyped qualities themselves also felt natural; 3) insofar as I found some female-stereotyped qualities to be servile, I eschewed them because servility itself was both ethically objectionable and personally unnatural. I was a strange kind of “feminist”— 100% convinced of gender equality, 100% determined to not let anyone set me back in life on the grounds of “being female,” yet frequently unable to relate to pro-choice arguments, and I will admit to making some very rape-apologist arguments at the tender age of 14. More frequently, though, my problem was just that I simultaneously admired “strong” women and viewed weaker ones with disdain. I was strong, so why couldn’t everyone else be? In any case, I often felt entitled to my opinion, entitled to speaking it, and entitled to academic & career success, but damned if I could tell you how much had to do with actually believing in women’s rights vs. feeling like women’s rights had nothing to do with my personal situation.
All in all, therefore, my experience pre-outing and pre-transition was a mixed bag where privilege went. I had what I could manage to absorb under the circumstances, but while it increased the self-confidence I would have already had without it, it’s the kind of self-confidence that I imagine belongs to some fallaciously convicted prisoners, who can take pride in their innocence but are completely unable to use that pride or that innocence when they’re still sitting in a fucking cell block. (Not an actual analogy, but I hope that loosely points to what I mean.)
I came out while at a relatively trans-friendly college. This meant that right away, saying I was male didn’t relegate me to freak status in most people’s minds, but of course, because I was mostly shifted to male in their minds, with or without transition, I could rapidly accumulate internalized, social, and power-over privilege, which I did for a time. However, this backpedaled to freak for a while, once I wound up in a relationship where my cis female partner read my accumulation of male privilege as a deliberate pursuit and also presumed my (waning) insensitivity to some feminist issues said things about my moral character that merited outright verbal and emotional transphobic abuse. In other words, it was a classic “trans men are gender traitors” situation from someone who professed pansexuality but seemed more like a lesbian who chased trans women and happened to confuse that chasing with across-the-board chasing for a short time. Under those conditions, which I will not go into here in detail, I swiftly lost most power-over privilege thanks to the imbalance of cis privilege/trans oppression in our relationship, and thanks to us reaching a shared level of isolation/agoraphobia/depression that I barely interacted with anyone else. I lost track of whom I was for a time, and I said I was genderqueer only to avoid further emotional abuse, even though that persisted through my sheer refusal of a female identity and it also became sexual abuse for a certain time period. As for social privilege, well, again, I interacted with almost nobody except for professors and classmates who largely didn’t know I was not a woman. As for internalized privilege, I was a fucking psychological mess, so who knows about that. During that time I think that in some ways I actually was not a guy because I could not attach myself to any gender whatsoever, even though that was not purely my choice— and I don’t believe that I, personally, have a gender that must necessarily be permanent, so I’m entirely open to the possibility that for a time, because I couldn’t want to be anything else, and because people got such a fragmented view of me, that if I had to exist in anyone’s consciousness for those years, I was a freak by sheer accident.
Once I finally got out of that relationship, I was able to slowly start reasserting a male identity and also start hormones like I’d basically wanted to do for years. Once again, all the different facets of privilege have been building up again. If I ever pass for a cis guy— I doubt I will until I can grow facial hair— then the shift of privilege will be complete, but I have been through a lot both pre-outing and post-outing that I think has fundamentally augmented the way that I interact with people, an augmentation that no cis guy will experience. Likewise, I have come to my male privilege(s) as if they were a sudden shocking blessing— a blessing at others’ expense— instead of living my entire life under the assumption that this is just how it goes for the planet. And of course some of those social and power-over privilege(s) are immediately removed in circumstances where people do not actually gender me correctly, whether I pass for cis or not. But most importantly, my experience of abuse within a relationship is actually the main catalyst for my feminism; factually speaking, I was abused by a woman, but factually speaking, it’s impossible to ignore how the vast majority of people who share my status as an abuse survivor are women and in fact my own abuser was a survivor herself who merely perpetuated the cycle. How could I not be a feminist after realizing that? Yet meanwhile, throughout my transition, I find people sometimes treating me as a “freak” more than as a man or a woman, and there’s a part of me that hates it but a part of me that wants to say, “Well yeah, fuck you, I’ll be a freak,” which is why I’m not sure I ever do want to entirely pass for cis, and why I keep prodding at the possibility of gq— a very complex, more-than-nonbinary gq.
At the same time, to reiterate, this is all just me. Some trans men and other AFAB trans people grow up with more social and power-over privilege than me, depending on how much they instinctively comprehend their maleness or non-femaleness, and how early that comprehension starts. Some are not raised in a pro-feminist environment like I was, so all the weird ideas and dissociation I had re: feminism are amplified in these people by a lot. Others might grow up similarly to how I did and still become douches. Finally, others are probably better feminists than me, as much as I try, and others face even greater roadblocks to asserting their maleness than I ever have had. In other words, some trans guys et al. are born dudebros, others are made into dudebros, and for others the story is far less simple.
This is why I get frustrated by debates within the trans community over the right of trans AFAB people to discuss their lives while they were largely misgendered, or over the necessity of trans AMAB people to not discuss their lives while they were largely misgendered. This is also why I get frustrated by cis feminists who think they know even a single goddamn thing about what any trans people, especially AMAB ones, go through. This is why I don’t think it’s productive or accurate to say that trans AFAB people constantly suffer under patriarchy— and implicitly, why I don’t think it’s productive or accurate to say that trans AMAB people constantly retain male privilege. Indeed, it’s also wrong to say that the former NEVER are hurt by patriarchy, and it’s wrong to say that the latter NEVER benefit from it. It’s wrong all around to generalize.
And thus, I guess I continue to warm to the gender ternary idea, even if I think it needs a lot more refining. Because it helps clarify and speak to the fact that transition is not a flip of the switch, that asserting your gender is not a flip of the switch, that different trans people run into different roadblocks from different varieties of discrimination along the way. Transphobia as hatred of a specific gender— the freak gender. Yeah, I think that’s something we should all probably be discussing a lot more.