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Transmasculine musings in the #MeToo era

How trans and cis targets of sexual abuse can support each other

Shawn Demmons and Jenna Rapues speak at the San Francisco Trans Day of Visibility celebration, March 2018. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Whenever a news story breaks about a U.S. politician or celebrity accused of sexual abuse or harassment, most posts by liberal sources frame the issue as an example of the continued oppression of women by men. This framing is not inaccurate; the vast majority of sexual abuse victims (and survivors) are women and girls, and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. However, there is often an unstated assumption in these posts that the parties referred to are cisgender women and men, and that these are the only two genders in existence.

For those unaware or misinformed about the definition of “cisgender”, this term simply describes a person who agrees with the sex designation, female or male, that they were assigned at birth. Referring to a person’s assigned sex is preferred by trans people and our allies over describing someone as “biologically”, “anatomically”, “genetically”, or “born” female or male, though some trans people do choose to use those terms to describe themselves.

Cisgender women were assigned female at birth, whereas transgender women were assigned male. Both groups are primary targets of sexual violence based on their presentation as women. Non-binary transfeminine people, who were assigned male but identify as neither men nor women, also face misogynistic attacks when they present as women or femmes.

In contrast, transgender men — men who were assigned female at birth — do not normally present as women once they have transitioned. However, all trans men have at least some life experience being viewed as a girl or woman, and treated accordingly. The same is true of non-binary transmasculine people, who were assigned female but identify as neither women nor men.

Being transmasculine and a victim/survivor of sexual abuse and harassment, I often find myself conflicted as to where I fit in and how I should respond to calls for action. I feel that trans men, being men, should use their male privilege to speak up in support of women, both trans and cis. But the amount of male privilege transmasculine people have is dependent on how well we “pass” for cisgender, and mitigated by other factors such as race.

It’s important to note here that trans women who have not yet transitioned do not necessarily benefit from male privilege either. Many are bullied for being presumably gay or effeminate men or boys. The presumption that masculinity is superior to femininity is one reason for the continued oppression of queer and trans people as well as straight cisgender women in US-American culture.

When transmasculine people read posts and memes that state or imply that men don’t have vaginas, can’t get pregnant, or can’t know what it’s like to face woman-targeted sexual harassment or violence, how should we react? These statements are true for the vast majority of men, so it seems that to point out that many trans men and non-binary transmasculine people also share these experiences would be taking the focus away from women. Co-opting women’s discussions to center our own needs is something men do far too much of already.

At the same time, it hurts to be invisible. The lack of awareness of transmasculine people has devastating implications, both for our physical and psychological well-being. Many have difficulty finding trans-aware health providers, and might avoid or delay screenings for cervical cancer and other conventionally-female medical conditions. A study published recently by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that half of trans men aged 11–19 had attempted suicide.

Some self-described radical feminists readily accept trans men into their women’s groups, yet shun trans women. These groups, some of which view trans men as merely misguided females, are not doing trans people any favors. Transmasculine people cannot achieve visibility or respectability while misgendering or excluding our transfeminine sisters.

Despite public perception to the contrary, trans men and non-binary transmasculine people are not a new or “trendy” phenomenon. Nevertheless, we comprise a tiny percentage of people compared with the billions of women whose voices have been suppressed for centuries. Our small numbers do not mean that we are unimportant. However, we are more likely to be viewed dismissively by cis women if we respond to their trans-unaware memes by centering our needs over theirs.

Trans men and non-binary people can help by offering ourselves as allies to women, making it clear that we are not ourselves women or female. Good allies acknowledge trans as well as cis women, and demonstrate awareness of women who are marginalized due to race, class, disability, and other factors. Beyond sharing posts on social media, acts of allyship include amplifying the voices of women in workplaces, schools, government, and every other place where men dominate discourse.

Women can reciprocate by acknowledging that we transmasculine people exist and that our genders are valid. Recognizing that many trans men share some of the life experiences and physical characteristics of cis women does not take anything away from the struggle for gender equality. On the contrary, welcoming gender diversity helps dismantle the false, hierarchical gender binary that forms the basis for misogynistic oppression.