Not So Fast, Macho!: On Having a Dialogue on Transphobia with Feminist Professors

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QueerIcon-NewsletterThe majority of the policing, critiquing, questioning, and criticizing of my gender “transition” has been from radical feminists of color, a.k.a. my professors.

I’m a student of Latin American and Caribbean Studies who is concerned with and researches patriarchy, gender systems, and masculinity in the context of (trans)men of color. Intersectional research is always difficult, as each individual field seems to limit what you are allowed to talk about and how you talk about it. The gender studies department is white dominated with little to no room to talk about race, connected to  the fact that the foundational scholars of the curriculum (i.e., Butler) consistently gloss over matters pertaining to this social reality.

I refuse to speak of and think of gender without race, so I made the conscious decision to pursue my research in Latin American and Caribbean studies – a field dominated by discussions on class and race. However, the field is still riddled with male-identified scholars and Latina feminist rhetoric oriented around cis bodies.

It must be said that, like many radical feminist scholars of the 1960s and ‘70s, my professors have a nonnegotiable, everlasting allegiance to the welfare, quality of life, and experiences of all women. Butchness, androgyny, and other “conventional” ideas of “gender-bending” are accepted and even implicitly encouraged, as gender abolition is believed to be the path to dismantling harmful patriarchal oppression.

I want to say that above all, I appreciate these women forcing me to critically think of my own actions and desires. These interactions have not all been negative and my growth as both an academic and a male-identified person has been thanks to these brilliant women, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to gain their insight.

Like these professors, I also have a nonnegotiable, everlasting allegiance to the welfare, quality of life, and experiences of women. I am also committed to the ongoing effort dismantling patriarchy and the ways in which it leaches into all social relations. I believed that our common goals would facilitate radical, even revolutionary dialogue in regards to gender and modes of action to challenge patriarchy. I wasn’t totally right.

In this context of openness to gender presentation, I did not expect to be the subject of transgression while talking about gender/ sexual transgressions. My professors seem to all interpret my transness as both an abandonment of my birth-given female gender identity and a desire to gain male privilege/ power. The end question of the argument seems to always be, “why not just be butch?”

This is interconnected with other prevailing questions such as, “how can you be political and choose to identify as a man?”, “how can you say “xyz” things make you a man when you are critical of gender roles?”, etc. One professor – a dyke – told me they “would have dabbled with hormones” when they were younger so they could be stronger. For me, I’m thinking that the overall idea is “how can you just BE a guy?”.

I have found it fascinating (in the worst way) that both in conventional feminist literature and my interactions with my professors, trans* people are seen as, written about, and understood as constructing/ understanding their gender differently from cis people. There is this strange, imposed “Third Gendering” of trans* people that inherently separates them from those considered “men” and “women”, as well as an expectation of them to do something radically different with gender. Perhaps this “third gendering” – both intentional and subsconscious – of trans* people lead feminists to believe that trans* people aren’t men and women, but that they are transgender people that just happen to live as men or women.

The “living as” part – as opposed to “being” – is both a contradiction of feminism’s critique of gender being a social construction and is most likely the source of my professors’ discomfort. For them, gender is a dangerous system of oppression and there is very little room for their to be less/ no oppression as long as fixed ideas of gender exist. For my professors, trans* people just contribute to this fixed idea of gender, and therefore just contribute to the issue of patriarchy and gender oppression. For my professors, I am part of the problem both for identifying as a man and not being critical enough of how I want to present myself as one. I am criticized for buying into the medicalization of the body by using hormones and aspiring for top surgery, but not so much for my “mens clothes” and “mens haircut”.

This is where this expectation for trans* people to do something radically different with gender comes in.  Why aren’t we critiquing cis-men who spend fortunes on clothes/ supplements and hours of time into exercising all to achieve that HYPER-MASCULINE body that we all casually refer to as “fit”? Men who wear toupees and cut their hair? Men who are self conscious about their high pitched voices? Men who are frustrated they cannot grow facial hair? Why is all of this accepted mostly without question by cismen, but when transmen aspire for these things they are “not critical enough”?

In an ideal world, I can just exist as I have always existed but be called by my preferred name/ preferred pronouns without question, assumption, or hesitation. But that is not reality. I am personally on testosterone (almost 8 months), and I personally hate it. I think a lot of other trans* people will say the same. The self-injections are stressful, it’s expensive, my body always aches, and the side effects are just THERE all the time. Sure, I pass all the time now and the best thing about “T” was being able to go out in public without people questioning my gender or misgendering me altogether, but its unfortunate that these are the measures trans* people have to take just to exist in the phobic public sphere. These measures are exactly what my professors are critical of, but their position of being cis entirely changes the context of the critique. Trans* people critique each other all the time but overall understand why we take certain measures, and that is survival. Survival in the public sphere and as a way to not take our own lives when the dysphoria becomes unbearable. For cis people, the critique’s message ends up being “But you know that doesn’t mean you are a man right?” and “Do you HAVE to do that?”

This is all further complicated by the power dynamics that exist between professors and students. Regardless of how much professors try to create a space that is non-hierarchical, a hierarchy exists no matter what because there is always that background implication that the professor ultimately knows best/ more and that any friction in dialogue is probably just tied to the student not being critical enough or undereducated. I would love to just straight up tell my professors, “I think you don’t have a clue about trans people and their lives, what it means to be trans. So, I think you should stop talking and starting listening.”

I’m not writing this to explicitly advocate for different ways of presenting gender, to discourage use of medical intervention, etc. For those who are not trans, you will just never understand the insufferable discomfort we feel, and that taking particular physical measures to be comfortable is not a reflection of how critical we are of gender. I’m writing this just to simply say that trans* people are essential to feminism, that feminism is not feminism without trans* people, that trans* people are currently missing from feminism, and that space needs to be opened within feminism by feminists for us to be part of the discussion without being the subject of discussion.

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E.J. Dávila

is a FTM transgender Boricua. He is a graduate of sociology and latin american & caribbean studies at SUNY Binghamton. In his spare time he likes to read and write poetry, play guitar, immerse himself in local/ sustainable food movements, and fight the white power structure.