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Talkin’ ‘Bout My S-S-S-Socialization

So a little while ago a twitter-friend of mine, LifeInNeon, linked this interesting post by When Cylons Dream (a bit nsfw) over at her blog, on the question of trans women’s socialization (the manner in which we were / are raised, relative to gender). I found it very interesting and wanted to share.

Yesterday, in a post all about how not all feminists practice the same style of ninjitsu, I discussed some of the history of transphobia within feminism, and various policies (both official and unspoken) that often exclude trans women from feminist spaces or conversation. One of the more common justifications for this attitude is the issue of socialization, that because we were not raised as female, and did not experience the same form of socialization (with its attendant forms of oppression, such as stereotype threat, being trained to be passive, submissive and docile, being trained to make yourself an appealing object for pursuit by men, being sexualized as an object from an early age, etc.) that we do not, therefore, understand female experience, cannot participate meaningfully in feminist discourse, and that, at the extreme end of the scale, are in fact in possession of male privilege- the argument often being extended to a sort of Catch-22 wherein our wish to be included in feminist or women’s spaces is a demonstration of the male sense of entitlement, and when we become angry in response to these trans-exclusionist policies or statements, we are demonstrating male aggression, and are part of a male attempt to control women and appropriate feminism.

Thus in voicing our desire for participation, we are “proving” exactly why our participation should be barred. In objecting to the bigoted, discriminatory policies, we are “proving” why they need to be enforced. In attempting to assert our right to not be subjugated under cultural conventions of the female role, in asserting our choice not to be docile and passive, in simply attempting to live up to feminist ideals of strength and self-confidence, we end up being painted as the privileged oppressor. A girl just can’t win.

But to me, the concept of socialization seems far more complex than how it’s presented when used to invalidate the experiences or identities of trans women. On a direct level, there is not, as I mentioned yesterday, really any such thing as a universal female experience or universal narrative of being a woman. There is no singular event or story that all cis women experienced and all trans women did not. And although the issue of gendered socialization, and the manner in which girls are treated and raised, is indeed highly important and obviously has consequences that very much deserve consideration and relate to issues of oppression and privilege, it seems like treating it as some kind of universal trait that cannot be overcome and singularly defines someone’s gender and its legitimacy is to reify the process of socialization and create a new form of gender essentialism. If we cannot overcome our gendered socialization, and if it defines us and who we are, then what the fuck is the point of feminism in the first place? We must believe a woman is more than what her socialization taught her to be.

There is no singular, universal woman’s narrative. There are as many stories and experiences as there are women.

To go further: to what extent is a trans woman’s socialization inconsistent with the socialization of cis women, or consistent with the socialization of cis men? Can we really claim that young trans girls respond to the same lessons of gender in the same manner that cis children do? Or are our responses, our childhood experiences, and the process through which we internalize the cultural messages of gender roles unique? Can you really dare claim that while a trans girl may have received some of the relatively advantageous treatment offered to boys that she experienced this as a positive, that it was a privilege? That she was enjoying male socialization as a boon, and that she was fully being conferred those social benefits at the expense of cis women, the oppressed party in this dynamic? And state that claim in such a way as to imply it isn’t worth bothering to weigh those social benefits against the attendant harm of the gender into which she is coercively shuffled being inconsistent with her sense of self? Let’s remember our intersectionality 101. Presence of many aspects of male privilege, yes, absolutely, but definite absence of cis privilege.

A touchstone I’ve come across in such conversations is the issue of rape culture, and the internalization of it by girls. The argument was presented to me just a few weeks ago, by a trans woman claiming that we do all still possess male privilege, one of these privileges being the long term consequences of the fact that trans girls did not have to undergo the internalization of rape culture. Citation needed. Just as there is no universal narrative of cis women’s experiences, there is certainly no universal narrative of trans experience. How and when we fully define ourselves as female can vary wildly, and often occurs very, very early in childhood. For trans girls who came to understand themselves as girls at a young enough age, the same cultural messages about what a girl or woman is supposed to be, relative to status as sexual object, and the various messages of rape culture, will be internalized as messages about what they’re supposed to be, to want and to fear; internalizing them as messages of self-image, just like most girls would, not messages regarding the Other (such as what you “should” desire in her), as in the case of boys.

It’s often been noted, typically in rather insensitive ways, that there are often noticeable differences between the image, presentation and stereotype of a late transitioner versus those who transitioned earlier in life and came to understand themselves as female relatively early. This difference between two apparent “types” of trans women has led many not-so-trans-friendly theorists to come up with various half-baked, cissexist, not-quite-getting-it / should-have-asked-for-our-input descriptions of multiple trans etiologies (for instance “the homosexual transsexual” and “the autogynephile”). But considering it from within, from a perspective that looks at this from a position of directly understanding trans lives and experiences (rather than a perspective that looks at us as curiosities, paraphilias, oddities, and men), this difference isn’t terribly hard to understand given the question of socialization, and hardly justifies a concept of two different “types” of transsexuality.

Someone who comes to understand themselves as female relatively early in life is, as I described, much more likely to internalize cultural messages of femininity and end up subconsciously believing that to be the image of self she must aspire towards in order to be a “good” girl. Conversely, someone who suppresses her female identity and instead embarks on the path of trying to live up to a conventional male image and role (which will never, for her, feel quite right… even a butch tomboy is not and cannot be a manly man), will instead not end up internalizing the cultural concepts of femininity in the same way, and therefore her own presentation will often not, from an outside perspective, seem to quite fit the stereotyped concept of what a woman is supposed to look, dress and act like. Though she is indeed female, she hasn’t been conditioned in the same manner as most women and this gets picked up on by others. The fact that this act of not “properly” conforming to social expectations of womanhood is seen as a failure, shortcoming and negative trait even amongst feminists is a disturbing sign about the degree to which our cultural conventions of gender role have been engrained.

It’s evident that at least for many trans women, internalization of a male identity is rejected entirely, and to insist that these women experienced something so wholly apart from female socialization that they cannot possibly understand the experiences of other women is to hold her to a ludicrously strict standard of how she was supposed to have experienced female socialization, a standard that a great many cis women themselves would not meet. Are you to say that all cis women internalized the prescriptive cultural messages of the female gender role? Because if not (the only realistic position), there’s no way you can exclude such a trans woman from your clubhouse on these grounds without also excluding any cis woman who managed to dodge the bullet of fully-internalized female socialization.

And is the statement here that one’s right to be present in a women’s or feminist space conditional on the degree to which you ended up being victimized by patriarchy, and internalized its messages? Do we really wish to define ourselves by the oppression rather than by our cooperative fight against it?

Even those trans women who did believe their identity to be male until later in life did not experience male socialization in the same manner as cis men did, and would likely be extremely insulted to be told that male socialization was a privilege.

The expectations for how a boy is meant to behave, while being on the advantaged side of the binary coin, are typically much more strictly enforced than the expectations placed on girls. Femmephobia (the fear and hatred of that which is feminine, based on a misogynist attitude that maleness and masculinity are superior) has a strange and darkly-comic habit of harming AMAB people (assigned-male-at-birth) in ways much harsher than its impact on AFAB people (assigned-female-at-birth). While deviation by anyone from gender binaries is never openly embraced, there’s typically much more leeway afforded to AFAB folks in that as long as masculinity is assumed as the superior quality, breaking gender expectations in order to pursue masculinity is subconsciously accepted as understandable, and “only natural”, given just how awesome masculinity is, and how stupid, weak, pathetic and frivolous femininity is (don’t worry, this is sarcasm, Reader. I use it a lot). An obvious example is the much broader range of accepted ways an AFAB person can express their gender through clothing. An AMAB person, on the other hand, is typically ridiculed or pathologized for dressing in a manner culturally coded as feminine… as I’ve noted in past blog-posts, “transvestic fetishism” is a diagnosis reserved exclusively for men. It’s also worth noting that gender variance in an AMAB person is much more likely to be met with violence than analogous AFAB gender variance.

Growing up amidst male socialization when one’s gender identity is not consistent with it is a horrifying and traumatic experience. Nothing about it is in any way a privilege, and one does not internalize or adapt to it in a manner at all similar to how a cis man does. Rather than it being a means through which one develops confidence and a sense of power and entitlement, eventually taking one’s vantage point for granted, it is instead a painful, self-erasing performance one has been forced to adopt. One has a constant inner checklist of the behaviours and mannerisms you’re supposed to display in order to avoid being seen as girly and consequently ridiculed or beaten up. Instead of gaining the benefits of being the “superior” class within our cultural gender dynamics, you’re instead experiencing an extremely harsh, constraining prison of gender’s unspoken rules and regulations. Instead of internalizing a sense of being the default, favoured, normal gender, you internalize scripts, shame, self-hatred and the need to police your own gender- police your expression, your personality, your interests, the ways in which you interact with others, anything that could end up with you getting “caught” and revealing how you’re not normal, you’re inferior, broken and wrong.

Every aspect of socialization that for cis men becomes the groundwork for privilege, entitlement and patriarchal mentalities is instead perverted into our oppression.

We do not experience male socialization. We experience transgender socialization. A system that explicitly subjugates us and forces us to suppress our own identities in order to fit into cultural standards of biological destiny, or destroys us trying.

If you’re to try to argue that this socialization was my privilege, that it makes me the advantaged party relative to a cis woman whose experiences I can’t understand, that it means I’m a poser and not a real woman, that it makes me the oppressor who must be excluded from feminism, wellllll… I would ask you to remember the number of occasions where you, as a child, were permitted to freely express your gender as you chose, such as wearing a bow in your hair when you felt like it or opting for pants instead of a skirt when you felt like that. Then subtract from that number the number of times that expressing your gender was met with violence. If you end up with a positive integer, that is the number of times I’d like you to go fuck yourself.