The day to day negotiations of being a transgender person come in spaces where categorization of behavior and physical look presupposes a particular sex (genitalia) difference. This is then sustained and policed in various ways via white patriarchy (and by extension racism and misogyny), consumerism (ie: clothing and toys divided by gendered “interests”, cosmetics that presuppose body types, etc), all of which is reinforced by the various institutions employed by capitalism. These particular public arrangements of gender, by design, leave little space to challenge the rigidity of gender expression without the challenge itself be seen as crossing over to the “other” gender, even when those understandings of one’s self and desires aligns with the “other” gender.
South African FTM Leo recounts a time in his youth in which he felt this pressure from the public sphere so strongly that he deliberately performed bad at sports once achieving a high rank to avoid the traveling that would be required to compete at such a high level:
“Going to unknown and meeting unfamiliar people was too traumatic for me. All I wanted to do was stay home where I felt comfortable and safe 1.”
He continues to describe his experience at school:
“Everyone perceived me as a girl and because of my physical body I knew I wasn’t a boy. That distressed me because in my mind it was a big mistake, and I was too afraid to tell anyone these feelings. I used to see myself as boy in my dreams and imagination. I wished that I could be born again or that I would just wake up one day realizing that I had turned into a boy…Every time I was invited to a social event or party I felt the pressure to dress as was expected of me. I felt very awkward and ugly and was convinced that everybody could see this as well. It was a nightmare for me to go to the school’s farewell or to any school events 1.”
The concept of transgressing socially constructed gender boundaries is completely disconnected from the actual lived, day-to-day experiences of trans people. The material, discursive, and institutional locations of trans* people is severely unaccounted for in queer and feminist literature. There is an inherent sense of self that well precedes the process and actions of “transitioning” gender. José Esteban Muñoz uses the term disidentification to describe the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship 2. I would like to think of gender transitioning – in its physical, social, and person processes – as disidentification. This particularly applies to trans men who opt for hormones, surgeries, and other “stereotypical” male aesthetics. While these processes are argued to be self-destructive, colonial, and even counterproductive, they are simultaneously survival methods from both the violent, phobic public sphere and the deep, debilitating dysphoria experienced by the transitioning person.
Despite the acronym “FTM” (female-to-male) used to refer to transgender men, there is not a sense of “turning into a man”. There is already an internalized sense of manhood, both in its physical imaginary and interpersonal relationships/interactions, as well as the position of that individual to the idea of that man combined with the inner sense of “not woman”. This, however, does not necessarily translate into “hyper masculine” ideas and desires of manhood when met with a sense of “not feeling like a woman”. Butch women can be “masculine” in every sense possible yet still have an intrinsic sense of, pride, and comfort in being a woman and seen as a woman. “Not a woman” does not mean masculine, and equating the two would dangerously erase all the genderqueers, the patos, the bois, and other gender-variant bodies who simultaneously are FTM. This is crucial in understanding FTMs, and I suggest is a possible distinction between FTMs and butch women.
This can be even further interrogated by asking “what does it mean to feel like a woman/man?” or “what is a woman/man?”. These are questions gender, feminist, and queer already focus on, and finding where trans people stand in regard to those questions has been repeatedly attempted. While these questions are both ones I am trying to contribute answers to and are helpful in theoretically dissecting and identifying the areas of life gender occupies, they are the wrong questions to ask when it comes to trans people. They have little application and benefit to the lives of trans people, and at the end of the day tend to water down and reduce trans identities to nothing but erotic desires of privilege and body-hating instead of validating their experiences under the premise that gender is not biological. This troubling contradiction exhibits that there is a much more intricate and complex account of conflicting, multiple hierarchies of access, exclusion, and authority in place that both constructs and distinguishes transgender, queer, butch, and other gendered ways of being.