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?


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