Feminism exists for women and has no duty to men. Still, there are ways in which men can help feminism, and vice versa – and trans men have a unique position in this regard.
I am a man, a strong supporter of feminism; a feminist, if that’s appropriate. 3 years ago, as a fresher, I wouldn’t have called myself either. Growing into feminist thinking in parallel with growing into my male identity has given me a few insights into where trans men might fit into the picture. My experience as a binary trans man means I’ll be talking mainly about binary trans men; non-binary folks have a different but overlapping place with respect to feminism which is also in great need of discussion, but not by a binary bloke.
As I understand it, feminism exists for women; to fight for their rights against misogyny and the patriarchy. The process of dismantling the patriarchy brings great benefit for everyone. Traditional views of masculinity and femininity, of gender roles, are challenged, and people of all genders are thus empowered to express themselves and find where they best fit in. In Cambridge, the CUSU Women’s Campaign has been fantastically generous over the past year or so in opening its arms to people of all genders and helping them to embrace these new freedoms. But in an age where pay gaps and attainment gaps still prevail, where misogyny is rampant in the lab, the lecture theatre and the college bar, such open-to-all celebrations of diversity are the icing on the cake. There is still tough work to be done on issues affecting women – both cis and trans – and feminism needs the time and space to do this without men – either cis or trans – trying to appropriate their time and resources. Feminism is not for men.
Trans men are men. We might have to spend a lot of time trying to convince the world of this, but we are. When I took up a male name, called myself ‘Mr’, claimed men’s spaces as my own – not just that, but over a decade ago, when I aligned my identity with the men in my life and started emulating them – I inherited a degree of male privilege. Even under my old name, I was respected for being ‘practical’, ‘tough’, a ‘tomboy’; I was never ‘girly’, or so I’m told. (Ha. ‘I was never girly’ says it all, doesn’t it: my best friend from school was tougher and more practical than myself, and decidedly female and feminine-presenting with it. Think on that.)
Not all trans men present like me; we don’t all fall on the right side of the masculine-feminine divide that society defines, and that makes things really hard for some. But many of us do. Trans men get male privilege, at least to a degree, and this privilege clouds our view when it comes to anything relating to women. Even more obtrusive, for me at least, is the desperate drive to be seen as male, which our society defines as not-female, so we can end up vilifying and running from all things female and/or feminine lest they threaten the perception of our identity. Sometimes, through fear and internalised misogyny, trans men can be among the worst misogynists. So, as men, we need to defer to women when it comes to feminism. We definitely shouldn’t be allowed full access to women’s spaces and our voices should never be raised above those of women on feminist issues. Yes, we suffer some of the same oppressions, but we mustn’t appropriate the resources of a group over which we are in some ways privileged.
Yet there is a more intimate overlap between trans men’s experiences and women’s experiences than there is for cis men. Trans men have greater experience of being perceived and treated as female than cis men and can be wounded by the discrimination that comes with this. For those whose presentation or appearance don’t give them the keys to being reliably perceived as masculine or male, who don’t ‘pass’ (though I hate the phrase), this can be acutely felt and ongoing. The world is a cis man’s space and we don’t always get allowed full access, nor is it safe for us. When I started to visibly transition, I felt like I was stepping out from under the shadow of feminism’s wings into a void; opening myself up to attacks on all sides while I negotiated my way into men’s spaces. For non-binary folks, I would imagine this place of not-belonging is less transient and far more exhausting.
A huge societal shift is required to fix the problem. But in the meantime, we need something, someone to stand up for us in that vulnerable place, somewhere to run and hide when this cis man’s world won’t let us in. Feminism has no duty to men. But feminism can look out for trans men and AFAB non-binary folks by not slamming the door behind them the moment they begin to transition or be open about being non-women. Thankfully, in Cambridge my feelings of being shut out at that time were down to my incorrect perception. I’ve since seen the Women’s Campaign go above and beyond the call of duty to include both binary and non-binary trans people in as many spaces as is appropriate, and know that if I got into difficulties with transphobia or misogyny or the intersection of the two, they would be sympathetic and help out where they could. And just knowing that is at times a huge comfort.
It is an important thing, ensuring vulnerable people don’t slip through the cracks. But then there is a whole ocean of male vulnerability, which feminism most certainly doesn’t have the resources or the obligation to absorb. Trans men who have spent much of their lives being treated as women will carry scars and hurts and vulnerabilities that stem from that. For some, it will just be internalised misogyny. Others will have suffered gendered violence or abuse; for some of them, non-threatening spaces to find help and comfort for that will need to be places where violent, misogynistic cis men cannot be. While doubtless some individuals would benefit from the help feminism could offer at this time, it is up to those we defer to on feminist issues – because they know what they’re doing – to decide whether it is right for those spaces to be shared.
If they decide not to, we might be tempted to criticise feminism for not making space. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we live in a world where violence, abuse and misogyny coming from men is normalised and it is up to each one of us to fight that. The onus is on us as men – cis and trans, survivors, perpetrators, privileged and not in so many ways – to come together and help one another make the world non-violent, non-abusive, non-misogynistic; to make safe the space we have dominated for centuries and open it up. As we shoulder the responsibilities of male privilege, trans men can start to use it to shepherd this change, coming from a place of greater experience and understanding than most cis men.
Some of us are in a place to be fantastic feminist allies, if we only hold fast against the temptations of entering into the oppressive as well as the useful aspects of being male-privileged. As I grow into my identity – and for me, it does feel like a growing-up of sorts – I relish the opportunity to let my manhood be shaped by feminism, and in return use it to carry feminist ideas into male spaces. I am thankful to the feminists who have given their time and patience to explain to me, to teach me, to grow me, who have sheltered me and comforted me while I’ve hidden from the world to come to terms with being trans. I owe them – and even if I didn’t, the only right response would be to be brave and challenge the misogyny of this man’s world knowing that there’s a group of people who have my back, even if it’s not their job to fight my fight for me.
And there I think we have it. Feminism is not ‘for’ trans men, but there is an intersection. Trans-positive feminism and its ideas can be immensely helpful to trans men; we can learn from feminism how to be good men, and with things as they currently are we can find some help and support from feminism when confronted by an impenetrable cis man’s world. Meanwhile, trans men should seek to advocate and promote change for feminism wherever they can and move us closer to that point where, even if the patriarchy still exists, most men will help each other fight it.
Rob Cumming (GR. Comment Contributor)