Hey son. Hey, hun. What would you rather be called? I mean, what are your preferred pronouns? Hun, right? Because that’s what we think girls say to each other (probably while they’re doing each other’s hair and nails). Maybe you don’t like my tone, but stick with it. You’ve been through worse, right?
I’m a bit like you. I was a boy who didn’t fit in, who grew into a young man who didn’t fit in, and wanted, and wished, to be a girl. You were the same. But maybe you don’t think about it that way any more. You’re going to tell me you were ‘assigned’ male. You were never a boy, you declare, you were just a baby, and the docs forced maleness on you! Maybe you now tell people you were always female, and the people around you, in your life or on social media (which might be most of your life anyway) agree and say, hun, you were always female, don’t let anyone tell you different!
That’s a recent thing, and you wouldn’t have said that five, ten years ago. Your friends wouldn’t have told you that either. Because times change, and trends change.
I was born a bit earlier, see, which means I had slightly different experiences and didn’t get told all that stuff. My story is going to be the same as yours in many ways, because that’s how we know what we are – we all tick the same boxes, don’t we, and compare it to a ‘trans narrative’, and realise it fits us better than the normal masculine one – but it’s also slightly different.
You don’t like what I’m saying, so let me tell you, I went through the same hoops. Wanted girl toys. Wanted to play with girl things, Barbie dolls and Strawberry Shortcake. Wanted to hang with the girls at school and do hair and nails. Took every opportunity to wear dresses. Then as I grew up, that kind of thing wasn’t cute any more and no doubt like you, I got caught doing it and made to feel ashamed.
I felt ashamed about it all through my teens into my twenties. People made me feel bad. At college I went to a club night wearing a skirt and make-up, and a woman from the feminist society told me to get out of the girls’ bathrooms. She said, wearing a skirt doesn’t make you a girl. That felt bad. It felt so bad I still remember it clearly, every word.
I found some other club night, for guys like me who wanted to dress that way. It was on the other side of town, a little place down side streets, and it took all my guts to go out on the street in my girl disguise, and catch a train into the city like that. Some jerk with his friends shouted at me. ‘Hey, woman-man! Hey, woman-man!’ They laughed. I was lucky they didn’t come over and hit me I guess. That felt bad.
See, I still remember it. I remember every bad thing people said about me, even if it was years ago. I remember when I came out to my close relatives and they said it was weird and sick. I kept doing it, and feeling the way I did, because I couldn’t change it. So yeah, there is bravery involved, I know.
I kept on doing it, and times changed. Famous people came out, in the media. There were TV shows and movies about trans women. Suddenly the way people reacted to me changed, and it took me by surprise. They almost treated me like a celebrity! Girl friends seemed to love the idea. They invited me out to their ‘girl nights’ and told me I was so brave. One of them was a lesbian, and when she said how brave I was and how special, and how hard it must be for me, something kind of clicked in my head: a little caution sign, like a TILT warning on a slot machine. Sure, it was wonderful to be accepted and embraced like that, but I knew lesbians had it really hard. It just didn’t seem right for her to put me first and make out I was the victim.
Another of my friends, a bisexual girl, asked me if I was attracted to men or women. I said women, and she was all, oh cool, you’re a lesbian. TILT! Sure, it was great to feel like I was special guest on their chat show, but it wasn’t right for them to think of me as a lesbian. Even though they were being super-nice, something in me started to resist. There’s an old song that popped into my head, by another guy who also didn’t fully conform to masculinity: Morrissey, the singer in The Smiths. He used to sing, ‘you just haven’t earned it yet, baby. You just haven’t earned it, my son.’
Well, I definitely hadn’t earned being called a lesbian, and though it was really tempting to accept these girls calling me a woman, I started to feel I hadn’t earned that either. But by now, things had changed, and anyone calling me names or shutting me out of places was being considered as bad as a racist. How things changed! I went to a club, wearing a skirt and make-up, and the organizers made it clear that if you identified as a woman, you should go in the women’s bathroom. And nobody complained or said a word against it. But you know what. When the women came in and saw me, standing at the mirror, I knew they didn’t feel fully comfortable about it. Sure, they didn’t say anything. They wouldn’t. But anyone who wasn’t totally focused on their own self-importance can sense it when someone else is uncomfortable, and if they’re a decent person, they take action about that.
I wasn’t brainwashed. I wasn’t indoctrinated. I just started thinking about it, and I realized what was going on, and inside me, it crossed a line between right and wrong. Are you going to say now that I was never truly trans, and that my story doesn’t count? Well, that would go against what you believe and preach, wouldn’t it? About how everyone can define their own identity and we shouldn’t question what someone says they are, and how they feel inside. So don’t twist your own rules in an effort to exclude me and discount my experiences. Yes, I fit the trans narrative. I just chose to get a little perspective, and I’m sharing it with you in case you want to get a different perspective too.
Those women around me, the ones I knew, and the strangers? They were all feminists, the nice kind of feminist. They were great people. They were generous, and kind, and accepting. But you know why? Because women have been told they have to be that way, ever since they were little girls and someone tells them to share, and to not be unladylike, and to be polite and not be loud or difficult. They were feminists – a certain type of feminist, the nice type – and they weren’t going to say anything even if they felt uncomfortable. Which means it was for me to take some responsibility, and not put myself and my own wants and needs first.
‘You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.’ And maybe I was never going to earn it. I had to think hard about what it really meant, to be a woman. Growing up, ‘being a girl’ meant nothing much more to me than pink toys, dresses, sitting around talking and doing nice stuff, instead of having to play rough games about soldiers, and pretend to be interested in sports. Even as a teenager and young man, what were my ideas based on, when I felt I wanted to be a woman? The reality of being at risk from rape every time I went out alone? The fact of earning less than men and not being promoted, or not getting hired because I might get pregnant? The pressures of wearing make-up because otherwise people were going to think I looked ill or ugly? No. I didn’t even have any real idea about basic biological stuff like menstruation, outside what I learned at school. No. My idea of being a girl was based on cute stuff I saw on TV and in movies; having best friends, going shopping, confiding in sisters, talking about emotions. It was the stuff that masculinity made it hard for me to do, and I mistook that for ‘being a woman’.
I’m never going to truly know what it’s like to be a woman. But what I believe is that being a woman in our culture isn’t just about the cute stuff, or even the biological stuff that men are never going to understand, however much you might want to twist words and facts into some fairytale about ‘female penis’ and ‘male periods’. Being a woman is, I believe, about being an oppressed minority group, being put in a different, inferior social class because you’re female. It’s bending biological facts out of recognition if you try to make ‘female’ into some flexible category that anyone can fit into, just cause they feel that way inside. It’s also truly insulting. If you do that, you’re saying the oppression of women isn’t a thing at all, because anyone can be a woman; anyone can opt in and out.
But it gets worse. The second worst aspect of that implication is: since anyone can opt in and out, based on how they feel inside, the women who still ‘identify’ as women must be actively choosing their own oppression. And the worst yet is, that those women are now told they’re privileged, because they don’t have the trouble of being trans! They’re told to accommodate trans women or get labelled a bigot, and they do it because women are trained all their lives to put other people first, to be ‘nice’, to not speak out or make things difficult. That’s why they do it. That’s why they accept you and call you the pronouns you want, and let you into their spaces. It’s not necessarily because they want to, or because they believe deep inside that you’re just like them. It’s because they have been told all their lives to be nice, kind and decent, and to make other people feel comfortable, accepted and welcomed.
Well, here’s an idea. Why don’t you also try to be nice, kind and decent. Why don’t you try to genuinely show respect and understanding.
Yes, not fitting into the role and expectations of your gender is rough. I know that, and ironically, the majority of women know that: unless you genuinely think they want to be considered inferior and put in the box of impossible, contradictory pressures and demands that women experience for their entire lives.
You want to act like a woman? Start by being a decent human. Respect people’s boundaries. Respect their need for space and their experience of oppression, which you will never truly understand. Yes, trans people are an oppressed minority, and yes, the prejudice you’ve experienced overlaps in some ways with the way our culture treats women, but it is not the same, and please get it out of your head that it’s worse.
Being female is a biological fact. Being a woman is a social category. Some feminists may feel that a person born male can truly become a woman, in the social sense, if they genuinely engage with, address and dismantle the male privilege they grew up with. Other feminists will tell you that you can never be a woman, and while that’s upsetting and distressing, they’re saying it for a reason – because being a woman is a lifelong experience from the day you were born with female biology, not something you can cross over into. It’s not something you become when you put on lipstick, and it’s definitely not something you can become by just waking up one day and changing your mind. It’s the experience of belonging to an oppressed class of people.
But if you genuinely like and respect and ‘identify with’ womanhood, then the way to get closer to that is not to insist that women follow your whims, and listen to your voice, and accept your definitions and your rules, and let you into the few safe spaces they have. You know what that makes you look and sound like? That makes you come across as the worst kind of man.