The culture in which we swim

Thomas Page McBee regularly writes about his experiences as a trans man. On he writes about the tension between wanting to be masculine and wanting to avoid toxic masculinity, and there are some really engaging ideas in the piece.

I particularly liked this bit.

I have another body within this body — we all do. All of us have the capacity to take hormones that will turn on the genes that lay dormant inside us, unlocking a twin of sorts.

That’s something I think many cisgender people don’t realise, or think about. We’re all born with the same template, and our hormones then decide what particular bits of the recipe our bodies should follow – so for example in the womb a rush of hormones tells us whether we should grow male or female gonads; in puberty hormones tell us whether to grow breasts or beards. But the template for both sexes remains, so if you take somebody born male, suppress their testosterone and increase their estrogen then their body (and their emotions; jeez, the emotions…) will change.

Reproductive systems aside, men and women aren’t that different: the idea that there are huge biological differences between the sexes is largely based on status preservation.

Did somebody say status?

Experience of social privilege is cited often by trans men, Bridges says, as “the recognition that comes with presumptions about authority, a capacity for violence, and sometimes respect and other forms of social advantage.” He points out, powerfully, that trans women experience a much different early awareness of social transition.

Many trans men say that they experience a dramatic change in their social status when they begin presenting male; many trans women report similarly dramatic changes when they begin presenting female. The changes go in opposite directions.

“Many trans men’s early experiences with social recognition are associated with power and privilege, while many trans women’s experiences with social recognition are associated with disempowerment.”

Let that sink in for a moment, whatever your gender.

I’m still surprised by how much my status has changed since coming out. I’m taken less seriously in my personal and professional life – whether it’s a videoconference or a pub quiz, my opinions and knowledge are often and obviously considered less valid than the men’s – and I’ve become used to being treated as lesser by men in all kinds of situations where my comfort, my personal space and even my personal safety are secondary to the priorities of men that in many cases I don’t know and will never encounter again. As I’ve written before, the world is a very different place when you walk in women’s shoes.

This isn’t just “welcome to womanhood”, because in transition you don’t just experience the world in a differently gendered way; you also experience a significant change in your own status.

If you transition from male to female in any kind of visible way you are likely to experience a loss in status; go the other way and you are likely to experience an increase in status. That change will be tempered by many things, so for example if you don’t have “passing privilege” – ie, if you are visibly trans rather than the gender you present as – then you will experience other challenges to your status, such as homophobia and transphobia. But generally speaking if you join the boy’s team you get taken more seriously, and if you join the girl’s team you don’t.


Trans men have an advantage, I’ve found, in highlighting the toxic aspects of masculine conditioning in two key ways: We tend to understand that we have a gender (privilege hasn’t rendered masculinity invisible to us), and for those of us who transition in adulthood, we are sensitive to socialization, and can therefore use that sensitivity to do the hard work of identifying and refusing the worst aspects of masculinity in our own becoming — if we choose to.

I think this is really fascinating. All too often people condemn criticism of toxic masculinity by assuming the bit being targeted is masculinity. It isn’t. The problem is the toxicity that limits the range of masculine expression and experience.

That toxicity goes hand in hand with privilege. To be a man is to have a status that women don’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is brilliant, but it does mean that your life isn’t made even harder because of your gender. If you’re not just male but straight, white, middle class and Christian, your life is not going to be made more difficult because of your sexuality, the colour of your skin, your class or your religion.

If you’re not careful, and most of us aren’t, privilege can blind you to the experiences of people who don’t have that privilege: the attitude of “I haven’t experienced it so it can’t exist” is widespread whenever the experiences of women, of LGBT people, of poor people, of people from particular ethnic or religious groups are discussed.

I’m not immune to this. As a straight, apparently cisgender man I was blind to so many of the things women and LGBT people have to deal with daily. That’s changed, of course, but even now there is privilege that blinds me: I’m still middle class and white, so I’m ignorant of the realities that people of other ethnic and religious groups experience.

McBee’s article asks a really interesting question: when you move from a lower status group to a higher status one, such as when someone assigned female at birth transitions to male, what do you do about the dominant narrative about the group you’re now a member of? Do you become one of the lads, turning a blind eye to behaviours and beliefs you know to be toxic?

For trans men who pass, like me, the visceral discomfort of that privilege can feel like a crossroads. Would I accept the dominant narrative about what being a man means, or give up what little “status” I have in this paradigm to challenge it?

McBee argues, and I agree, that trans people can help change the narrative. As he puts it, the trans man:

…can be the man he wish he’d had as a role model. He can tell the truth, and in that truth-telling, he can join the voices of a diverse and growing legion of men who refuse to conform to expectations that harm us, the planet, and everyone on it.

It won’t be easy, but it will be better. For all of us.