The following piece is the fourth installment in “Dressing the Part,” a 12-part series exploring transgender spaces, cultural issues, and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy. I’ll be publishing every Wednesday until October 21, 2020.
“Ladies, welcome Marty.”
Six gray ergonomic chairs swiveled around, directing twelve pairs of eyes toward my seat at the far end of the conference-room table.
“She’s the newest addition to the engineering department,” my manager Jessica continued. “She’ll be working on the systems documentation. And she’s only here for two weeks, so if you want to be friends with her, you should get to know her soon!”
Jessica may not have known that that forced corporate cheeriness was the height of cringe, but she definitely knew about my pronouns. I’d disclosed that I was trans during my interview for this temporary contract position, making sure to tell her again on my first day of work. Yet here she was, misgendering me over and over and over again.
Should I say something? Should I not?
“He, actually,” I corrected her, giving the room my best cheery, no-of-course-you’re-not-offending-me smile. “I’m a guy. I use he/him pronouns.”
“Right, he.” Jessica’s smile retracted for half a second before it was replaced an even larger grin. “I’m so sorry! I keep forgetting. You’ll have to remind me again, I’m sure.”
“No worries.” I kept my gaze level, wishing that those six pairs of eyes would look at the table, the laptops in front of them, the ceiling — anywhere but directly at my burning face. Had I been rude just now? Unprofessional? Why did I feel like such an asshole?
Get me out of here.
I didn’t normally attend “Women in Engineering” meetings, but it was my second real day on the job and I wanted to meet as many new people as I could. The meeting invite mentioned that male allies were welcome; I figured that I would come, make introductions, and listen quietly for the rest of the time — shut up and get out of the way, like a good male ally should. But I was being given entirely too much space, entirely too much attention. It was clear that I was not being welcomed as a guy, but as a woman in engineering myself.
The group started going through their agenda, discussing upcoming conferences, mentorship programs, whether the term “hey guys” was problematic or not. There was something almost conspiratorial in the way they spoke, as if they were only amongst fellow women, away from the prying eyes of men.
One of us, everyone seemed to say. One of us.
I should have felt safe. I should have felt welcome. But this sense of unguarded intimacy only made me feel more out of place. I wasn’t a woman, but here they were, lumping me in regardless. Was a space still empowering if it was forcibly inclusive? Was it still welcoming if I felt overlooked, disregarded, invisible?
“Society will treat you as though you are female due to your appearance,” organizers of these spaces told me over and over and over again. They maintained that my femme presentation would force me to navigate the world the same way that a woman would, that I’d run into the same obstacles, setbacks, and frustrations. Despite “identifying as” a man, they told me, I still had the same lived experiences as a woman.
Did I, though? Even if I had to wade through the same societal bullshit, what made these organizers so sure that I perceive or react to that bullshit like a woman would?
Part of coming out, for me, was acknowledging that I had always been male, had always seen the world from a male perspective. Whenever I encountered sexism or misogyny, all I felt was dysphoria from being perceived as a woman. I would be angry about the bigotry itself, of course, but it was a detached sort of anger, stemming from a moral conviction that such things shouldn’t happen in the first place.
My feminist rage was never personal. It was “fuck, I hate the fact that society sees me as a woman, and it also sucks that women have to put up with this,” not “fuck, I hate the fact that I have to put up with this because I’m a woman” — a small but important distinction that disqualified my lived experiences as a “woman.” In women’s spaces I felt like an interloper, a man who could only sympathize, not relate.
Women have to put up with terrifying, vitriolic nonsense every day, and I’m certain that having female-centered spaces help many. But the same events, programs, and language that raise women up makes me dysphoric, as if my identity is superficial, my “preferred” pronouns a mere accessory, my aesthetic a substitute for my entire personality.
I can only speak for myself when I make these statements, but I suspect that they hold true for many trans men. I am not a woman, and being vulnerable to misogyny and sexism does not make me one. I am operating within a wholly different paradigm. My internal processes should be given just as much weight as my external situation.
When people invite me to a group intended for women, they’re essentially saying that they’re the ones who get to decide my experiences and my reality for me. It’s a form of transphobia so subtle that it registers more as an icky gut feeling than a conscious thought. And it’s often unintentional, which is why I often feel bad pointing it out.
I’m getting better at doing so, though. I’m beginning to say no to places where I know I won’t belong, while making more of an effort to seek out places where I will. I’m now a member of several spaces for trans men, where I can talk freely about dysphoria and post pictures of myself in a dress without ever being mistaken for a woman.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m fully seen without having to prove myself first, like I’m not alone in my thoughts and experiences. I now understand the appeal of such spaces — it is nice, perhaps even life-altering, to have others who have been in your position encouraging you, opening up doors for you, and making you feel heard.
I can see why people would want to invite me to women’s spaces, why they think that being in one would help me. I know that the invitations come with good intent. I just don’t think that these places are right for me. ✦