NaBloPoMo #13: In which I wrangle, again, with my fury around queermasculine privilege

Good morning good morning. My sweetheart was up at the crack that precedes the crack of dawn so that she could get on an airplane by6am, so I followed in her wake, pulling myself out of bed. It’s quiet this morning, and raining. I put on a little music to mitigate against the silence. Under the throb of the baseline, I hear the tick of raindrops against the windows.

The writing I have to do today feels sticky and messy and is absolutely full of energy, and I’ve stopped myself from writing out of fear that I’m voicing things that aren’t supposed to be said. Out of fear that I’ll offend the exact people I’m angry with. And so I stop, freeze up at the page, write off in different directions whenever I try to tackle the subject. The words remain, tarry and complicated in my belly, and I keep swallowing and swallowing my anger and disappointment, and I end up feeling more isolated, and less able to write or speak about anything. I’ve found over these years that when I silence myself in one area, I end up feeling silenced all throughout the different parts of my life. I’m not going to repeat that Audre Lorde quote about speaking up whether or not one is afraid, but it’s absolutely pushing me forward here.

(Some of you who aren’t all knotted up in the interweavings of queer women’s/trans* gender politics might want to break away and go find something else to read just now … or, you know, if, as you’re reading, you’ve got questions about terminology or anything, please do let me know.)

[ETA: Thanks to my friend Marlene, who informed/reminded me about “the space” when writing about trans* folks — I’ve made adjustments in this post to reflect this learning!]

A month or so ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about trans men at historically women’s colleges. The author of the piece profiled a handful of trans men at Wellesley college who have felt, it seems, wholly entitled to demand that, now that they have transitioned and are living in the world as men and desiring that the world see and meet and treat them as men, these colleges that were developed for women (and have grown up around the belief that there should be some places in male-supremacist society that privilege women’s voices and thought) should alter their language and lens to be more welcoming of men. That they should quit speaking of sisterhood. That professors should quit using “she” as a neutral or default pronoun (as an answer-back to the hundreds of years in which all readers and interlocutors were meant to hear themselves included in the pronoun “he,” regardless of their gender). That, in fact, the school might even want to consider not calling itself a women’s college — as that denotation was now oppressive to these folks who had enrolled, intentionally, at a women’s college, in order that they might be welcomed for all of who they are. And the colleges are acquiescing to these demands. Made by men. Never mind that, until only very recently, and still at only some of these historically women’s colleges, folks who are living in the world as women (who the colleges are ostensibly dedicated to serving and educating) have been shut-out without a thought. Trans women continue to be seen as men-in-women’s-clothing, as infiltrators, as frauds. These women are denied access to the very resources made available to the trans men who now want to change the culture of these institutions that they may feel more comfortable.

I was astonished at how much anger rose up in me as I read this article. I would pause in my reading, throw the magazine to the couch and start ranting, then pick up the pages and start reading again, only to throw it down again a few moments later. I didn’t know what to do with all this fury — but I understood that it would be dangerous for me to go to facebook or twitter with it. We are supposed to be good and vociferous allies of trans men, we femme dykes. My job as a member of the queer ladies auxiliary was to jump into the comments section and defend our brothers’ right to undermine our cultural institutions and demand  that they be made more comfortable. It is my job to bolster their masculinity by standing up for them — that’s what girls do.

Meanwhile, my sisters are left outside the gates, and there are trans men inside who defend that policy — parroting the same sort of transphobic, transmisogynist bullshit that gets used at Michigan to keep trans women out:

“Others are wary of opening Wellesley’s doors too quickly — including one of Wellesley’s trans men, who asked not to be named because he knew how unpopular his stance would be. He said that Wellesley should accept only trans women who have begun sex-changing medical treatment or have legally changed their names or sex on their driver’s licenses or birth certificates. ‘I know that’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old just applying to college,’ he said, ‘but at the same time, Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women. What if someone who is male-bodied comes here genuinely identified as female, and then decides after a year or two that they identify as male — and wants to stay at Wellesley? How’s that different from admitting a biological male who identifies as a man? Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it’s like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women.’” (from the NYT Magazine article; emphasis mine.)

(Thankfully, Mills College recently shifted their policies to welcome all women, including trans women.)

I have been horrified at how our queer women’s community turns itself inside out to adulate the male and masculine. We fawn over the masculine woman, the butch dyke, the trans-masculine, the masculine of center (MOC). We fall over ourselves to make excuses for MOC folks who have assaulted, harassed, or raped our femme sisters. We call it he said-she said, and don’t (apparently) see the irony — and then we turn around and talk about trans women are a threat to women’s safety because there’s (maybe) a penis in the house.

Hello? Have you been in a room full of butches? Do you know how many cocks are being psychically wielded in that space? I’ve been in the room while the (at that time, majority butch) SF Dyke March committee argued — again— about whether or not trans women were to be explicitly “allowed” at the march (as though anyone could keep anyone from entering a public park — and as though the place wasn’t always crawling with the male friends of attendees), and experienced the butch group members shouting over one another, and certainly over the couple of femmes in the room, to make sure they got across their point that it was trans women who brought male energy into the space.  Whew.

I’m not trying to get into a conversation about the border policing of women’s spaces, or defining who is a woman (folks define that for themselves, thank you), and I am not saying, of course, that there should not be queer spaces open to all queer folks and those we love and those who love us. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t adore our beloveds who transgress gender toward the masculine side of the spectrum. This is a piece about the unquestioned privileging of masculinity — and how fucking tired I am of it.

I think we get to have queer women’s spaces where it’s ok to be a woman. Where it’s ok to call yourself a woman. Where it’s ok to talk about womanness. Where woman gets to be something that’s good, as well as fraught and challenged and challenging. Where I don’t have to swallow my tongue when I want to speak about what I deal with as a queer, femme woman in the US because someone masculine of center might not resonate with what I’m saying. Meanwhile, MOC takes over the cultural conversation around queerness,and I’m supposed to act like that’s right up my alley. Universal “he,” anyone?

Of course, I get it that the NYT Magazine article wanted a readership and manged to find trans men willing to articulate extreme positions — I am certain that there are trans men at historically women’s colleges who value the space exactly because it was created by and for women, and understand that they have transitioned into a role that gives them a measure of privilege (even as it may also (for some trans men) bring with it cultural baggage and hostilities that accrue to men of color) and who allow themselves to acknowledge the very great honor they are receiving as men in a space designed and historically set aside for women. Understanding that everywhere else in the world, given that they are now read and received as men, their voice will be given primacy and privilege, they allow themselves to listen more than they talk — they go about the business of learning to be different sorts of men.

For me (admittedly a plain old cisgendered ostensibly-femme dyke), it’s pretty straightforward: if you don’t identify as a woman, go ahead and step out of the handful of spaces set aside for folks who do identify as women. Affinity spaces serve a purpose. Some places are not open to everyone — and historically oppressed folks get to set aside some spaces for themselves in which to gather, heal, educate, collaborate, and grow. Just because you don’t get to be inside those spaces anymore, because you have decided that your body and soul are better attuned to a different gender, a different way of being in the world, does not mean that you get to go about fissuring those spaces, breaking them open in order to serve you better. That, right there, my friends, in this case, is male privilege speaking.

I can remember my ex (who once identified as a trans-butch dyke, and may still, for all I know) raging about the way queer women allowed their spaces to be coöpted — he told the story of The Cafe in San Francisco, once a dyke bar, from which the women fled once men started coming in to dance (straight men, I think, mostly). Why didn’t we stand up for ourselves? Why didn’t we claim their space? Why don’t we? he wanted to know. But women are trained at a primal level to bow to the masculine, in order to keep ourselves safe. So we tuck our tails, mumble under our breaths, and walk away, only to complain later about how good that space used to be when it was ours.

It’s true that I have a lot of anger about the ways in which the masculine is revered as the be all and end all of dykehood. Perhaps you know this already, having attended one of my performances recently at which Althea Xtravananza makes an appearance. I experienced a profound loss of visibility and respect in the community (and the world, let’s be honest) when I transitioned from butch to femme — suddenly, I turned back into a regular girl, nothing queer or subversive going on here anymore. No more sexual agency (unless I explicitly and actively perform femme top/mistress or femme sub/little girl), no more recognition by other queer women when walking down the street, and suddenly my voice is just a little less valuable, even among other women, and my worth is just a little more about my sexual availability. Lovely.

I wonder what it means for us as a queer women’s community that we are unwilling to deal directly with the ways in which we continue to privilege and revere masculinity, undermine and devalue femininity. Femininity, even among queer or lesbian-identified women, continues to mean weakness and frivolity. Masculinity continues to be equated with strength and seriousness. This lens impacts the weight and value we give to different voices in our community — the masculine voice continues to be privileged, whether that masculinity is packaged as butch or trans male or MOC or whatever masculine-identifier of choice you’d like to use today. Why are historically women’s colleges so afraid of a backlash that they would so quickly begin to question and even alter their admission policies, when trans women have for decades been asking to be recognized as the women they are, as women who should be welcome on these campuses? When will we begin to decenter (queer) masculine voices with the intention of holding persons of all genders in the same high regard and respect?


9 responses to “NaBloPoMo #13: In which I wrangle, again, with my fury around queermasculine privilege

  1. Right on, Neon — thank you so much for this comment. I hear you on the trickiness, and around the fact that femme/-ininity is ridiculed/targeted regardless of the gender/sex assigned to that particular femme person at birth. Yes to more femme-inclusive spaces! One thing I’ve really appreciated about the Femme Conference is that all femmes (and interpretations of femme/-ininity) are meant to be welcome (although I know some femme amab (“assigned male at birth”) and femme trans male folks have felt unwelcome there) — what an opportunity for femmes of all stripes (trans male & cis male included) to come together and discuss femme solidarity, resistance strategies, self care practices, and the direct and indirect actions we take to uproot and undermine male/masculine privilege. xo!

  2. This is so trick.
    It’s part of why as a transmasculine person (albeit a hard femme brown one) I completely understand why I don’t always get automatic acceptance or trust from trans women. Because my kind benefit from the oppression of your kind. The same ideas which allow transmasculine people in womens colleges, events, and other spaces keep transfeminine people out of womens spaces.

    And given that the same over value on masculinity which gives me and elevated status also gives more feminine gendered people a lowered status – I would expect the same distrust from cis women femmes too… but that doesn’t happen.

    I guess trans women have been pushed out enough to have a healthy distrust for afab masculine people. Fuck, I have the same distrust too, even though in some ways I am one.

    Actually it’s really awkward when I get invited to women only things, not because I feel misgendered, but because of this. I don’t go, not because I don’t want to, but because it’s not my place.

    Also lines in the sand – when the writer discusses being in a room full of butches arguing – mmm hmmm. Women spaces are still full of them, masculinity is still high priority amongst afab femmes, butches, queers, etc.

    I think that’s one reason why I gel so strongly with most trans women who I know too – the celebration of femininity and innately giving femininity a higher status than masculinity.
    Like, at any cost.

    This stuff is also one reason why I dig gender inclusive events and spaces the most too – because my femme brothers (trans and non-trans) are awesome! And they face the same femme-phobic crap if not transmisogyny based crap too.
    It’s like, femininity is always devalued. Femmes are always undervalued. Femme amab people are always ridiculed and targeted for violence.
    Why would we close our doors to femme boys?

    I see why women love women’s spaces, and I think that’s cool and they should do what they need to do. I’m glad we finally all agree that trans women are women and should be part of womens events and spaces, and I see why those spaces have value, especially for them.

    I also think let’s move forward in other directions as well.
    I am wary of femme solidarity which includes femmes who fit certain narratives but not others, including some genders but not others – eg non binary transfeminine enough to be read as women but not non-binary transfeminine and less feminine than that.

    LESS: ‘cis femmes and butches in solidarity with trans guys’ – (‘afab people stick together’)*

    MORE: masculine gendered folks support feminine gendered folks don’t be eggs.

    *This is my most awks and most frequent experience in ‘the queer community’ and I just flat out refuse to be part of it.

  3. I really appreciated this article, and as with Renee’s comments above strongly identified with the passage about the devaluing of the feminine. It is a hard thing to speak up about in our community, when masculinity in its many forms is so continually positioned as being the “cool kid” in the playground, and femme as being the nerdy outcast. I feel that in the queer community there is often an assumption that because we are queer, everything we do with gender is therefore automatically amazingly radical and subversive. We overlook the fact we are often simply reproducing normative structures of power, albeit in a more sparkly and creative way.

  4. What a great article, I ate the words. As a Butch I have seen strong Femmes become very clingy with me. Our strength is seen as masculinity, but I have never wanted to be a man. I am 5 foot 9 with a crew cut and have always looked like this. I think today of Leslie and Minnie Bruce and Letter to Fifty’s Femme and want to cry.

  5. Thank you, Kiki! <3

  6. I love this post. I love your bravery. I love your brazenness. I love you, Jen. Thank you so much for so boldly putting out there what many of us have been speaking of in whispers or only in trusted circles for years. You are in good company with many of these feelings and points of view–just so happens that you have the ovaries to put it all out there. So thank you for that.

    I don’t see anything you say here to be in contradiction with being a good ally. Just the opposite, in fact! You’re being a good ally to trans women (who don’t receive nearly as much support as trans men do) and also being a good ally to those with queermasculine privilege–calling folks in to address their privilege is a gift.

  7. Renee, I’m so grateful for this comment. I hear you about that wrangling — it goes on for me as well, the desire to be a good ally, and of course, an all-around good egg! 🙂 And yet, I think I’ve reached the place where I want to see/feel some sense of allyship coming from the other direction as well. I’m grateful for the ways you’ve helped me get to this place in my thinking and awareness and analysis — and the ways you model for me a powerful and fearless-appearing-in-spite-of-the-fear sort of speaking out. xox!

  8. Thank you Jen. For all your words today. It should be noted that it took me this long (hours) to “get a grip” enough to comment publically- and that there is this fucking procoess that involves thinking about HUGE feelings EVERYONE’S, the schism between the ally I am and continue to push on to try and adapt and support and listen and perfect… (always being an all around good egg right?) and my loud and angry not inside voice that I share privately and the strange fact that queering or not queering they don’t line up in easy uncomplicated not-dangerous to say out loud ways. All of the fears of (and warnings and loving concern from my peers and advisors that these are the things we think and wrangle with and do not say out loud in public spaces)

    And this, now that I’m here, particularly moved me:

    I experienced a profound loss of visibility and respect in the community (and the world, let’s be honest) when I transitioned from butch to femme — suddenly, I turned back into a regular girl, nothing queer or subversive going on here anymore. No more sexual agency (unless I explicitly and actively perform femme top/mistress or femme sub/little girl), no more recognition by other queer women when walking down the street, and suddenly my voice is just a little less valuable, even among other women, and my worth is just a little more about my sexual availability. Lovely.

    I wonder what it means for us as a queer women’s community that we are unwilling to deal directly with the ways in which we continue to privilege and revere masculinity, undermine and devalue femininity. Femininity, even among queer or lesbian-identified women, continues to mean weakness and frivolity.

    Thank you Jen for cracking this open here. <3