The following piece is the eleventh installment in “Dressing the Part,” a twelve-part series exploring cultural issues and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy.
This essay contains graphic descriptions of sexual harassment, physical aggression, and body mutilation.
“It’s a woman’s right to choose what she will do with her own body.”
A single lamp illuminates my friend Ava’s face as she speaks, making her seem like she’s addressing an enraptured audience of thousands rather than two other twenty-three-year-olds in a darkened kitchen. “I’m so sick of old white men attempting to regulate my reproductive system when they don’t even know the difference between a vagina and a vulva,” she spits, two bright pink splotches appearing on her cheeks. “It’s beyond gross.”
“I bet that Mitch McConnell has never even made a woman orgasm in his life,” my other friend Zoey scoffs, tapping her half-full whiskey glass with her pointy black nails. “What is this, 1950? First they pardon Trump, and now this shit. I fucking hate being female in this country.”
It’s February 2020, and the Senate has just acquitted Donald Trump of both articles of impeachment. Fifty-two of the fifty-three Republican senators voted against the charge of abuse of power, and all fifty-three voted against the charge of obstruction of Congress. Barely a week later, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell set up votes on two strict anti-abortion bills that would limit access to late-term abortions and jail medical professionals who attempt to perform them.
Ava and Zoey, cis women both, are right to be worried and outraged. I, too, have the sense that I’m living in a twisted modern dystopia. How dare the government meddle in my personal affairs, passing laws that would harm millions of citizens on the basis of a shaky moral argument? The three of us are hanging out to de-stress, but my friends’ snarky comments about powerless women and the ignorant men out to control them aren’t doing anything to ease the stress. In fact, what they’re saying is starting to bother me more than the issues at hand.
“Not to be too ‘not all men’ on this,” I begin.
Both friends turn to look at me. My mouth goes dry. Damn, maybe I shouldn’t have gone for that third glass. Alcohol has a way of dulling my thoughts, keeping the sharper, harder-hitting words out of reach. I never write drunk; maybe I shouldn’t be speaking tipsy.
Oh well, it’s too late now. I’m already speaking.
“… plenty of trans guys and nonbinary people have uteruses, too.” I pause, heartbeat racing. “Isn’t a little cissexist to say that abortion is a women’s issue alone?”
I grip my empty tumbler in my hands, remembering a trick I’ve learned in therapy: using I-statements so as to not come off blame-y, accusatory. “I feel” — dysphoric, invisible, neglected, just plain fucking annoyed — “overlooked when people frame reproductive or physical safety issues as ‘women’s issues’ because they ignore the fact that not everybody who experiences these issues identifies as female.”
Zoey and Ava exchange glances. I wince internally. So much for choosing my words carefully.
“Right,” Ava says after a moment, “but not everybody is as … aware of trans terminology as you are. I don’t think that it’s bad to acknowledge that the main group of people affected is cis women.”
“Is it?” I challenge. “A lot of trans guys keep their wombs and their ovaries and their vaginas, even if they take hormones and pass as men. And plenty more, like me, either haven’t or don’t want to physically transition. I think it’s messed up to imply that they’re women.”
“Why do you have to derail every conversation about gender-based discrimination and make it a trans issue?” she shoots back, a steely edge creeping into her voice. “Women are oppressed, too. It’s not bad to acknowledge that fact.”
I raise an eyebrow. “So you think that I wouldn’t be affected by these bills that they’re proposing?”
“I mean, you obviously would. It’s just that, like, you insist on making everything about gender identity when it’s sometimes just about biological sex.” Ava sets her glass down on the table and crosses her arms over her chest. “I don’t think that it’s bad to use the word ‘woman’ when everybody knows which people you’re talking about.”
“Come on,” Zoey pleads. “Obviously, we’re all a little on edge tonight. Why don’t we pour another round and have this conversation when we’re sober?”
“Good idea,” Ava says, avoiding eye contact with me as she holds out her glass. “I just think that it’s kind of egregious for Marty to call me a cissexist for using female-centric language.”
Are you fucking serious? I want to retort, biting down on my lip to keep from saying it out loud. My mind is spinning. Why is my friend acting as though I’m an asshole for simply wanting acknowledgement? Have we not talked about gender identity at length? Hasn’t she herself sat with me through multiple dysphoric episodes?
Shouldn’t she, of all people, understand the cognitive dissonance I experience when I hear the word “woman” being used to refer to people like me?
I take deep breaths as Zoey pours honey-colored liquor into Ava’s tumbler. She’s right. Now is not the time to be starting shit. I will gather up my thoughts, polish them into claims, and find a time when Ava and I can sit down and talk things through.
In high school, my grades dropped as I became increasingly preoccupied with how miserable I was at an all-girls’ school. Worried about the college applications that were just around the corner, my mom got me a tutor — Seamus, a family friend who offered to go over calculus and chemistry with me two evenings a week for free. I hadn’t seen Seamus since I was a kid; in my hazy memories, he was a kind man who’d once given me a beautiful stuffed cat for Christmas. I was touched that he was willing to put in such an effort for a kid he barely knew, and looked forward to our upcoming sessions.
I came to the first meeting straight from school, still in my academy-mandated polo and kilt. I’d been expecting a warm handshake or maybe a hug, but instead I was very aware of Seamus’s eyes on my outfit as he ushered me into his home. They slowly made their way down from my unbuttoned polo shirt to the plaid skirt I’d rolled up twice.
“You’ve become absolutely stunning,” he said. I made a face, but didn’t say anything. I figured that he didn’t mean any harm by it. He was divorced with a young son; he probably had no idea how creepy he sounded. Plus, I was there to learn. I cracked open my math textbook and pretty quickly put the whole incident out of my mind.
Except that it kept happening. Whenever we weren’t talking about derivatives or isotopes, Seamus brought up my appearance, my crude sense of humor, and the fact that most of my friends were cis guys. “Those boys are probably all in love with you,” he’d tell me on a study break. “I’d be careful around them.”
He had a way of sexualizing everything that I did, said, and wore. The poem I’d written for English class was ‘sensual.’ My group chat with my friends was ‘flirtatious.’ My dresses were ‘too short’ and ‘exposed too much.’ Even when I showed up in sweatpants, he proclaimed that, if he were my father, he wouldn’t let me go out in public in such a ‘revealing’ outfit, citing my tank top as the main offender. Sometimes he’d pick me up from school and spend the forty-five-minute drive back asking me prying questions about sex. Have you hooked up with anyone? You know what that means, right? You kissed them? Did you two do anything else? How good did it feel, exactly?
My scores had never been higher, but I started leaving our sessions feeling dirty, like I’d done something bad without realizing it. I was sixteen years old and had no idea how to react. I’d been a child experimenting with aesthetics, exploring what it meant to be queer, and openly questioning my gender identity. He made me seem like some coquettish Lolita actively trying to provoke people — him most of all.
Those car-ride conversations crossed a line. I started telling the adults around me that I wasn’t comfortable with Seamus, that he sometimes said and did things that weirded me out. He talked his way out of confrontations, framing himself as the father figure my troubled adolescent self desperately needed. My parents had recently divorced; I could use a strong male to show me the way.
The adults ate that shit up, telling me over and over again that he wasn’t that bad, that I was being ungrateful. My mom, who’d never so much as given me a curfew, grounded me for ‘talking back.’ All the while, the comments and looks and questions never ceased. Don’t let any boy put his fingers in you. Don’t you know that, as a girl, you can’t help but physiologically become attached to any male who you have sexual experiences with?
The worst part was dealing with the underlying message that I was a weak little girl who couldn’t help myself because I was female. Since speaking up hadn’t changed anything, I took matters into my own hands. I chopped my hair off, slathered on layers and layers of self-tanner, dragged dark eyeliner around my eyes until they resembled a raccoon’s, and draped myself in the brightest, most unflattering clothes I could find.
The overall effect was that of an emo Justin Bieber cosplaying as a butch lesbian on Jersey Shore: campy, somewhat masculine, and unapologetically queer. At the time, I told myself I was just experimenting with my style. Looking back, I think I had two additional goals — to make myself as unattractive as I could to Seamus and other cis men, and to assert my identity as a transmasculine individual.
It worked … somewhat. Seamus’s comments went from prying to openly defamatory. Look at you, dressed like that. You’re a freak. All you want to do is fuck around. If it weren’t for me, you’d be at the bottom of your class. You’re going to get into a good-enough college and party your way through. Try not to get pregnant. You’d better find some guy who can take care of you because you’re so intent on ruining yourself.
Eventually, my mother saw firsthand what was happening. Horrified, she pulled me out of any further sessions and cut off contact with the man for good. But I couldn’t unhear those comments he made, couldn’t unsee his gaze on me, preying and accusatory all at once.
Seamus never physically touched me, it didn’t make his actions any less serious. For years afterward, I wouldn’t be able to think of the whole occurrence without feeling like I needed to break something. I imagined driving up to his house and dragging him out by the scruff of his neck, so strong that I easily overpowered him. In the driveway, I’d beat him to a pulp until he was broken and bloody, his face a mess of cuts and tears. He would beg me for forgiveness, whimpering and pleading in front of the entire world to see, asking me if there was something — anything — he could do to make up for what he’d done. I would yank his face up to mine until we were eye-to-eye, and then I’d say calmly, placidly:
“I’m no helpless little girl.”
And then he would snivel some more, wondering how the hell I’d gotten so big and strong and manly, before I slammed him to the ground one last time and left him there to die.
Intellectually, I knew that I’d done nothing wrong — I’d been a child, a legal minor who’d been blissfully unaware of how my short skirts and high heels could be interpreted. Seamus should’ve never interpreted them as anything other than fashion statements. Still, I couldn’t help thinking myself a failure, a wuss, a doormat. I should have been strong enough, loud enough, bold enough to put a stop to it, I thought. I should have made a big fuss about it the first time he’d made me uncomfortable.
I knew that it wasn’t healthy to drag those emotions around, so I sought out Internet forums whose participants had gone through similar things. Once I got to college, I took advantage of my school’s mental health services and enrolled myself in free counseling. I expected some sort of healing or closure. Instead, I was thrown into a near-constant state of distress as my so-called allies not-so-subtly reinforced the idea that such events had happened to me because I was young and ‘female.’
“When you tell me that you want to ‘kick down Seamus’s door and make him sorry for what he’s done,’ I see a frightened little girl putting up a tough front,” my assigned therapist cooed. “You need to let go of this animosity if you want to move forward.”
“I’m so sorry that such a thing happened to you. Ugh, fuck disgusting men who prey on little girls,” wrote one of my Internet friends after I’d told her some select Seamus anecdotes. “You’re such a brave and strong woman. I’m glad to know you.”
Books, movies, and TV shows didn’t help, either. Sexual violence was always framed as a female plight, a woman’s burden, the victims always ‘she,’ never ‘he’ or ‘they.’ The dominant narrative was one where a broken girl became an empowered woman. There wasn’t a single transmasculine experience in sight. The male survivor stories I sought out came with a good amount of cultural shame for being a cis man, but said nothing about feeling out-of-place, pigeonholed into an identity that felt all sorts of wrong.
Why did every single space center female experiences, female voices, insist that all survivors were girls or women? There was so much cognitive dissonance when I read the words girl, woman, female, as though my brain couldn’t understand that those words were supposed to represent me. It would be years before I came out as trans, but I felt dysphoric all the same. The lack of gender diversity amongst the stories I heard upset me even more than the whole Seamus incident did in the first place.
Repulsive. The whole thing was utterly repulsive. Every time I read about sexual violence or had a conversation about physical safety post-Seamus, I would entertain fantasies of slicing my breasts off and taking a coat-hanger and yanking and yanking until my womb turned inside out and slithered out of me, before firmly sewing my vulva shut. I would take all of the things that make me a ‘biological woman’ and throw them out in the trash, be free at last. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Good riddance.
After hundreds of hours of workshops and therapy sessions, I no longer feel active animosity about what happened to me. I do, however, bristle every time I hear sexual violence framed as a ‘women’s issue’, every time a self-defense class is available to cis women only, every time someone insinuates that ‘women’ should be more careful, more alert.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which is the largest study of transgender individuals in the United States with nearly 28,000 participants, 47% respondents had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. That’s almost half — higher than the rate of any cis person’s, male or female. RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) states on their website that “21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.”
So why are mainstream stories about trans survivors so rare? Why is physical safety a ‘women’s’ issue? Why are victims colloquially referred to as she? Why is the hashtag #BelieveWomen, and not #BelieveVictims or #BelieveSurvivors? Don’t we owe them better?
I see these statistics and imagine millions of young trans boys going through what I had or worse, suffering through the double agony of both the incident itself and the gender erasure that would come afterward.
To be assigned female at birth is to be told, over and over again, either explicitly or through a thousand little actions and circumstances, that your body is not your own. To be assigned female and trans is to be told all of those things while slowly discovering that even your allies will not hesitate to overlook your identity when things become a little too inconvenient. It is to be labeled picky and overbearing, like you’re making a big deal out of nothing when you point out that ‘women’s issues’ is a misnomer.
How we experience the world largely depends on what types of bodies we have. Social justice efforts work towards a future where one’s body will not determine one’s quality of life. Unfortunately, even when we mean well, we often fall into cis-centric ways of thinking, talking, and acting when it comes to dealing with people’s bodies. Isn’t it at least a little ironic that we tell people who are assigned female at birth that they shouldn’t be restricted by their bodies, only to turn around and insist that they must be ‘women’ because of their bodies? Can’t we tell people to be safe and healthy and free while respecting who they are?
We collectively understand that femme-presenting people are subject to higher rates of sexual violence, lower rates of pay, and scores of negative stereotypes that materially affect their lives. We know that people with wombs are constrained by laws that try and dictate what they can do with their body parts. But it seems that we cannot stop referring to these people as women, which is both disparaging and inaccurate.
If a trans man is sexually assaulted, will he have to suffer through being considered a ‘female victim’? If he wants to get on birth control, have an abortion, or take parental leave, will he have to deal with being constantly misgendered by people who want to help? At what point does it become too much, the tradeoff too great? At what point will he go “fuck it” and decide that he’d rather not have to deal with this gendered bullshit to get the care he needs? Why does he have to choose between being safe and healthy or being validated?
Different bodies have different needs — but that doesn’t mean that one should have to choose between their well-being and their identity. A trans guy shouldn’t have to feel dysphoria, over and over again, by people who want the best for him. Isn’t not having to make tradeoffs the whole point of social justice?
A small wrinkle has appeared between Ava’s eyebrows. She sits cross-legged on my fluffy duvet, taking in what I’ve said. Her facial expressions change one, two, three times. I feel my hands grow clammy. Will she understand? It’s so easy to reject what I’m saying if you don’t feel that wrongness actively tugging at you.
She breathes out slowly, evenly. “Wow. I had no idea … I mean, I sort of knew, and I saw what you were going through, but I guess I never stopped to really consider how my language affected trans people.
“I’m sorry that I was so dismissive the other night.” Ava nervously interlocks her fingers together, but maintains eye contact. “Is there anything I can do to be more gender-inclusive when I talk about these things?”
Relief, and then a rush of indignance. I have the sudden urge to admonish her, to tell her that gender variance adds an additional dimension to reality that cis people just don’t experience. That it’s not cool how she, a cis woman, hasn’t considered perspectives besides her own. Her inner monologue has probably never gone, ‘Does my close friend still see me as a girl? This person just misgendered me. Is it a teachable moment? Are they receptive to being called in? Oh, here comes the dysphoria, better rein it in because I don’t have time to overthink about gender today.’ I open my mouth to tell her that she should already know —
— and I catch myself just in time. I’ve invited Ava over to have a conversation, after all. I’m here to explain my position and answer any questions that she might have. Plus, Ava’s doing more than I would have in her position. I’m not the most empathetic person myself; I don’t know if I’d be here listening to Ava if our positions were switched. Demanding ideological purity from her seems hypocritical, to say the least. And so I tell Ava what I’m really thinking, instead of coming up with a new social-justice rule on the spot.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “This is a language problem, so we should solve it with words. But I’m not sure how to do that quite yet.
“I personally like just describing the issues, like saying ‘this is a reproductive rights problem’ or ‘this is a personal safety precaution.’ That way, you don’t exclude anyone, cis or trans. And, instead of saying ‘women,’ you could say ‘people with vaginas,’ ‘people who present femme,’ ‘people who menstruate.’
“It’s not a perfect solution, though. This language is anatomically correct, but it’s also kind of dehumanizing, you know?” I pause. “At the end of the day, I just think that it’s important to make trans people who are assigned female at birth feel included, like they’re part of the conversation, like you haven’t forgotten about them.”
Ava thinks for a moment. “So we could say something like … ‘it’s a childbearer’s right to choose what they will do with their own body’?”
I nod slowly, smiling. She’s getting it. “Exactly. Women aren’t the only humans who can have kids, and this phrasing makes things way more inclusive. You could also, for example, say that certain spaces are open to non-cis men if you want nonbinary people and trans guys to join in.”
“So we just play it by ear?”
“That’s what I do.” I shrug. “Different people like different things. One of my nonbinary friends hates the term ‘uterus owner,’ for example, but some of my transmasculine friends love it. It’s all about making people feel comfortable and included.”
“Do you just not use the term ‘uterus owner’ around your nonbinary friend, then?”
“Practically, yes,” I say.
“Then what’s stopping people from referring to these issues as ‘women’s issues’ if everyone is comfortable with that term?” Ava purses her lips. “Doesn’t that just contradict your point?”
“That’s a special case.” I pick a feather out of the duvet, willing the right words to come to mind. “Personally, I think that we should always make it clear, no matter whose company we are in, that these things concern more than just women. How we get that across is what should be played by ear.”
“Do you ever think we’ll settle on an agreed-upon term?”
I snort. “A boy can dream.”
“You should talk more about this,” Ava tells me. “Like, I felt pretty offended when you called me cissexist, but now that I know where you’re coming from …” She looks at me, eyes shining. “Your perspective could help a lot of people.”
“Hopefully those other people won’t be such dicks when I try to tell them about it the first time,” I tease.
“Hey!” Ava warns, laughing.
I catch my reflection in the mirror behind her. I’m wearing a light pink dress and peppermint-flavored lip gloss; it’s hard to believe that I resembled an emo-butch Justin Bieber eight years ago. Maybe, if there had been more awareness around language inclusivity back then, I wouldn’t have gone through such hell when looking for ways to process what happened to me.
Ava is right; I should talk about this more. It seems like such a small thing, but simply acknowledging that not only women face certain problems would make a world of difference for nonbinary and transmasculine individuals. To them — to me — it’s not a small thing. I’m glad that I took the time to clarify what I thought and why.
Even if there is no perfect alternative, I will never stop advocating for more gender-inclusive language. Everybody deserves to be respected, free, healthy, and safe, regardless of how they identify. After all, that’s what social justice efforts are all about. ✦