Male privilege was a Faustian bargain for me

Faustus contemplating a deal with the devil. Image Credit: James Hansen

This post is a part of Blog March 2017, a movement for Raising Voices for Freedom of Expression, Knowledge, and Information. We will be broadcasting voices throughout the month of May. Previous blog marcher was Christiana Gaudet at Dark Forest on May 2, next blog marcher will be Wendy Sheridan at WendyDesigns on May 4.

Warning: this is a far more personal post than I’ve made on Medium before. But I have some stories from my life regarding gender that I think deserve to be told.

I recently came out as transgender (you may have noticed the name change for me on this account and other social media accounts of mine). I suppose I should say I began the coming out process recently — as there are still plenty of people for me to come out to, including coming out right now to all of my Medium followers. (Hi, Medium followers! My preferred pronouns are ze/hir… or they/them or she/her if either of those are easier.)

I haven’t decided how far my transition will proceed, all I know for sure is that I need to get to the point where I’m not automatically (and erroneously) perceived as male. I’m working hard now to make sure that when I present myself to people, they are uncertain of my gender. If they think I might be male, that’s fine, so long as they aren’t sure. And if they are pretty sure I’m female, whether cis or trans, that’s also fine. But if they are pretty sure I’m a man, that’s a problem for me (and way off base from how I see myself). Presently, I’m using gender neutral pronouns, and I’ve chosen a gender-neutral name— which will hopefully be my legal name within a year or so.

Eventually, I may realize that things will be a lot simpler for me to function in society if I present in a more distinctly female way and/or use strictly female pronouns, but for now erasing any trace of maleness from my gender presentation is the priority. While I’ve used terms like genderfluid, genderqueer, androgynous, and non-binary to describe myself for at least a decade or so, and I think all of those still apply to me, today the term that seems to best sum up my experience of gender is transfeminine. I’m non-binary in that I don’t think I fully align with either of the 2 traditional genders, but I know from experience and introspection that my natural personality is closer to what people usually think of as feminine than masculine.

This misalignment between my natural personality and the gender I was assigned at birth has caused a lifetime of inauthentic behavior on my part, always trying to imitate male behavior and hide my feminine behavior for fear of being ridiculed, and so that I can fit in and pass as a normal male.

Growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s, the only concept I had of gender was that of biological sex. I knew that some boys were more masculine and some were more feminine and that I was one of the more feminine ones. But as far as I understood, I was by definition “male” since I never had to sit down to pee and my crotch has never bled, among other biological signs — it wouldn’t be until around 30 when I first started learning about the social construction of gender, and today the language I use to talk and think about gender is very different. I grew up in a culture (in suburban Florida) where every day boys teased other boys, calling each other “fags” if they detected any feminine behavior in their peers. I did my best to hide any sign of femininity in me, but occasionally it slipped out and I got ridiculed for it — I was frequently the target of words like “fag” and “gay” even though I had only ever been attracted to girls at the time.

Often I was physically attacked — and occasionally just outright beaten up — by male bullies. One of the times it happened, I asked the bully what he had against me that made him feel the need to hurt me. He answered with a sneer “I’m doing you a favor. I want to toughen you up, so you won’t get picked on as much later on in life.” What a considerate guy! When I declined the favor, he further explained that his father beat him at home, and that this had helped toughen him up and make him a man. He also added that the beating I was going to get would be nothing compared to what he had to endure at home. Even while I was getting punched in the face, the truth is I felt sorry for him. I continued to feel sorry for him as I was punching and kicking him back, but it was the only way I could defend myself. I knew that if I didn’t at least try, I would just be beaten up again and again on a regular basis. He was picking on me because I was weak and sensitive, and I had to try to convince him best I could that that wasn’t true. Despite my best efforts, I cried during the entire fight — not because of the physical pain, but because I hate violence and I felt so sad for both of us and so sad that I lived in such a sick world, where it was somehow necessary for people to inflict so much pain and suffering on each other.

I could go into years of similar events growing up, but I think you get the picture. Gender roles were always strictly enforced — sometimes through verbal abuse and social derision, and other times with brute physical violence. Even when physical violence didn’t break out, the implied threat of it was always there. For me, just about everything in childhood felt like living in a prison. If there were any male-assigned kid on the playground who didn’t seem fully dedicated to becoming a man, it was up to the other boys to help make him a man — one way or another. They made sure nobody stepped out of line.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself a lot why it took me so long to realize I was transgender and to start coming out about it (dressing and acting the way I feel inside, changing my name, and discussing my gender openly with more than just my close friends). I think one reason is that for so many years, I carried around a lot of shame about being feminine. Consciously I saw nothing wrong with it, but somewhere deeply ingrained in me was a feeling of shame about being feminine — a shame that had been literally pounded into to me by so many other boys while I was growing up.

Around 9 or 10 years ago was the first time I seriously considered transitioning to female. I had a gut feeling that I was transgender, but my always skeptical brain came up with many reasons why my gender was probably more complicated than the traditional male-to-female transgender story. I realized that in an ideal world, having a more feminine body and being treated as female by others was something I strongly desired. But after a lot of thinking and discussion with my therapist about it, there were several reasons why I decided not to. Some of it was the economic cost, but the main one was the social cost. These both seemed scary enough that I pushed it to the back of my head and just stopped bringing it up to my therapist — if it wasn’t going to be feasible, I didn’t want to think about it any more.

Since adolescence, I don’t think I’ve been the victim of any more physical violence against feminine people. (I’ve only been punched in the face once as an adult, and that was at a heavily male-dominated physics conference for stepping peacefully in between two drunken graduate students getting ready to fight, urging them to consider other solutions to their disagreements besides violence.)

Young Mitt Romney

Thankfully, the majority of adult males don’t usually behave like that. Most grade school bullies, such as Mitt Romney (who bullied and assaulted a classmate at his prep school for appearing too feminine), eventually grow up and realize that violence is no longer an acceptable way of gaining peer approval. Many of them have continued to act as bullies into adulthood, but even most of those have found subtler means of intimidation — through words, or with social, economic or political power rather than with fists.

For many decades, feminists have worked to document and highlight the ways in which our patriarchal society gives special privileges to men and leaves women at a disadvantage. At home, in the workplace, in public spaces — women face many obstacles which men never have to worry about. While there were also other reasons I decided not to transition a decade ago, I’m embarrassed to admit that this was one of them. In a straight up cost-benefit analysis, it just didn’t seem rational for me to want to give up all of those special privileges and have to learn to cope with all of the bullshit women have to face on a daily basis.

While men are usually evaluated primarily on non-aesthetic criteria — how well they do a job, how charming their personality is, how aggressive they are, how honest or trustworthy they are— women are often evaluated primarily on their looks. No matter how great a job a woman does at something, and no matter how good a person she is, it’s less likely she’ll be fully recognized for it unless she measures up to societal standards in terms of physical attractiveness. Obviously this affects the range of potential romantic relationships she might have, but it can also affect the friends she’ll have, the kind of jobs she’ll get, chances of promotion, etc. In all areas of life, there is a lot more pressure to look good while doing whatever else it is she’s trying to get done.

Emotionally, I felt a strong desire to live openly as a woman; but I just kept hearing this voice in my head saying: “this is nuts, it can’t possibly be worth it!”. I had lots of other things I wanted to do with my life, and plenty of other problems, why should I willingly face these kinds of pressures and disadvantages as well? And why should I add to my problems all of the difficult conversations transgender people have to have while coming out to friends and family? (Where all too often, “difficult” means people will never speak to you again; or if they do they will never respect you again.)

Given the combination of social and economic costs of transitioning, it just didn’t seem worth it — especially at what seemed like an “old” age of 30+ at the time. I had heard plenty of stories of transgender people with a lot more dysphoria than myself, where they attempt suicide several times before eventually realizing that transitioning is the only way they can be happy. I had gone through depression once, but thankfully I never tried to take my own life. Perhaps, I thought, I just don’t want this badly enough to have to deal with the huge downsides — I figured I’m not as desperate for it as some people. I decided it was best to focus on more immediate problems and stick it out — I’d have to wait for another life to be born in a female body. Why not try to make the best of the hand I’ve been dealt in this one?

But after going through a second — much worse — depression in recent years, I grew impatient. A lifetime just seemed too long to wait for something like this. And society is becoming less brutal and intolerant and more aware of transgender issues every year now, especially in areas like San Francisco (the area where I relocated to recently). I’m a decade older now, and sadly I have missed out on even more years of life where I could have been living openly and authentically. I envy trans people who grew up in more tolerant parts of the country and in more recent decades, many of whom even feel comfortable enough now to risk coming out in their teens or twenties. But I’ve decided it’s never too late. At 40, I probably still have about half of my life ahead of me. The first half I have spent awkwardly trying to imitate men and fit in as a man, even though I’ve never seen myself as such and the very word (applied to myself) makes me recoil in horror. I have a feeling that it would be much easier for me to fit in as a (queer) woman, although only lived experience presenting female can tell me that for sure.

The two main fields I’ve worked in — theoretical physics and software development — are both known for being extremely male dominated. But it’s not just about the raw number of people working in each field, it’s about the culture. There is a lot of competitiveness associated with these fields, and a lot of arrogance. Where feelings matter little and everyone seems out to prove their superior knowledge and natural talent. People can get interrupted a lot while they are talking, told they are wrong, stupid, or foolish. Often irrelevant facts are brought up during conversations just so someone can show off their knowledge of trivia. In this kind of environment, having a thick skin where you’re not easily hurt or offended is a big advantage — as is being bold and aggressive.

But women tend to be socialized to be polite and timid, and scolded when they are too aggressive instead of praised. When they speak up, they tend to get interrupted more frequently than their male peers are, and talked down to. This happens at least somewhat independently of how good their ideas are. So even if a particular woman has the personality traits to thrive in such an environment (despite all of the social conditioning training her not to), it can still end up being tougher to be listened to, heard, and taken seriously. Personally, I believe this is one of the biggest reasons there are few women in either of these fields — and I don’t think that will change unless the culture starts to change.

As someone who was socialized male, and has chosen to present male so far in professional environments, I’ve had the privilege of not having to worry about most of that. To be honest, I don’t have a particularly thick skin — I know myself well enough to be able to admit that I can easily get hurt or offended, even by unintentional remarks. But at least because I have been perceived as male, I have always had the advantage of people giving me the benefit of the doubt when I express controversial or bold ideas. And although I feel hurt sometimes, I’ve spent enough time around men in my life to know how to swallow those feelings and move forward — and to convince myself (sometimes after a lot of repeating it in my head) that they don’t mean to personally attack me, that’s just the way in which men like to communicate. They tease, they joke, they condescend. It’s usually not intended to be personal. Most difficult for me to admit, I’ve even caught myself at times (mostly when I was a lot younger) acting the same way to try to fit in to male culture without being suspected of being feminine.

When I mentioned to a friend recently that I was planning on publishing a book, she mentioned that she was also writing a book — but under a male pseudonym since she had seen studies which indicated male authors are taken more seriously than female authors. Having already begun planning to change my name to a less distinctively male one, I wondered if it might be better to stick with my original name, especially when writing on a subject such as physics. But pretty quickly I felt guilty about that and wished I had never had the thought.

Image Credit: Blue Skies Recovery

Male privilege can be an addiction, and one that’s hard to give up. But the consequences of hanging onto it for so long — worrying that I might not be taken as seriously as a woman in areas dominated by men, that I would be at higher risk for harassment and sexual assault, etc.— turned out to be worse for me than the fringe benefits I got from it.

I got my first job when I was 16, working for $4.25/hour as a cashier at a Florida grocery store (Winn Dixie). Growing up I had always wanted to have long hair, so by the time I was 17 I began growing my hair out. One day, the store manager came over to me while I was working and had a chat with me. He politely told me that my hair was too long, and that if I didn’t cut it, he’d have to fire me. I pointed out that most of the other cashiers had longer hair than I did. Why were they allowed to work there, but I was being threatened with getting fired just for having medium-length hair? He explained to me that it was because they were girls (I was one of the only male assigned cashiers there —at least in our town, usually the boys applied to be “stock boys” and the girls applied to be cashiers). The official store policy was that boys could not have hair that hung below the shirt collar of the uniforms we had to wear — but this was perfectly fine for girls.

I gave it some thought, and decided that although I really wanted long hair, it wasn’t worth getting fired over. And coming home and explaining to my parents that I’d gotten fired from my very first job for being too stubborn about hairstyle seemed not worth the embarrassment. This was the first of many Faustian bargains I made: I traded my own happiness and freedom to please my corporate masters — and ultimately —I did it for the money. The longer I worked there, the more I felt resentment about the whole incident and missed the potentially beautiful hair I could have had during high school. I vowed that once I got out of that shit town I would never let anyone tell me again how I could wear my hair.

I didn’t try growing my hair out again until graduate school, but I did get my ears pierced at 19 (during a time when that still raised some eyebrows for male-presenting people to do). I remember feeling very strongly that piercing just 1 ear wasn’t right for me. It would have been way too masculine; if that had been the only option, then I knew I’d rather not have either ear pierced. Whenever anyone asked why both (which happened fairly often back then) I just said “1 earring? That’s asymmetric, I just love symmetry too much — and besides, why would I want to look like a pirate?” Usually that stopped the questions coming.

I have an aunt who’s a religious fundamentalist, who — growing up — always came across to me as very arrogant, controlling, condescending, and disingenuous. She saw it as her personal mission to save everyone and make sure they accepted Jesus into their life, and she always tried to act like she was everyone’s best friend in a really creepy way. As many teens do, I felt a lot of animosity toward most of the adults I knew growing up, and toward the world in general. But of any of the obnoxious adults I had to deal with as a kid, I’d always hated her the most. Whenever I was around her, I just kept my mouth shut and tried to be as quiet and polite as possible, but inside it always felt like I could barely stand her. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, was my usual philosophy.

But one day my aunt saw my earrings and frowned, telling me “oh honey — you’re just going through a phase”. I felt the anger welling up inside me, unable to control it. I snapped; in an unusual moment of candor for me, I told her exactly what I thought of her: “I’ve never liked you.” She was a bit startled by this, and then just looked at me waiting for me to say more. But I didn’t have anything else to say to her, so we just continued to stare at each other in silence. She relaxed a bit and asked me, hopefully, “so… you’re just joking, right? C’mon, you’re not serious are you?” I think my face must have been blood red with rage. “I’ve never been more serious in my life.” She started crying, and I walked out of the room.

My parents were upset with me for making her cry. I told them she shouldn’t have said that about my earrings. It took me at least a year, but I eventually started to feel guilty about making her cry, realizing how rude I’d been, so I apologized to her. Since then, I’ve noticed she comes across as a bit less arrogant — I’d like to think that perhaps I succeeded in knocking her off her high horse a bit. I don’t find her nearly as annoying as when I was a kid, but like most religious fanatics, she can still be pretty pushy sometimes. A few years later, she asked me 5 times in one night if I would add her on Facebook, and every time I either avoided the question or told her “no” or “I already told you no”. Eventually she asked me why, and I didn’t know what else to say so I told her “my Facebook is only for personal friends of mine.” That wasn’t quite true, I’ve got various coworkers and acquaintances and random people I barely know on there — but it was the closest thing I could think of saying other than repeating what I’d said before — that I’ve never liked her as a person and don’t think she deserves to be a friend of mine. This time I guess I hit the sweet spot, it was just firm enough to get her to stop harassing me about it but not so hurtful that it made her cry.

Photo of me from 2009, the year I completed my PhD

By the time I finished my PhD, I had beautiful long hair. I always got a lot of compliments on it. But when I graduated in 2009 the global economy was in shambles, nobody was hiring, and I struggled a lot to find a job in an industry which I hadn’t worked in for many years. Having lived for the past 6 years in one of the most expensive places in the country (Santa Cruz, California) on a teaching assistant’s salary of less than $20,000/year, I had almost nothing left in the bank. So for at least 6 months or so, I was living entirely off of credit card debt (I opened several 0% introductory cards for this purpose) — I also had student loan debt, but fortunately I wasn’t required to start paying that off until I actually found a job. I didn’t know what I’d do if I didn’t find anything — I had a lot of images in my head of myself living in a cardboard box on the street begging for change. The thought of having to move back in with my family in Florida seemed much worse, so I hoped if it came down to it I would choose the cardboard box — but I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

Toward the end of this tough period for me, my sister told me rather forcefully that I needed to cut my hair if I wanted to find a job. I explained to her that I wouldn’t want to work at a company that required me to have a particular haircut. I’d done that before, and refused to do it again. She then explained to me, in a very condescending way, that as a corporate executive she had been on many hiring committees, and she assured me that often they made their final decision not based on how well the person could do the job but on “cultural fit”.

Photo of me from 2012, the longest my hair got

She was openly admitting that if an otherwise male-presenting person like me wearing long hair walked into an interview with her, that she and her colleagues would actively discriminate against me because of my haircut — and according to her, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, it’s just “cultural fit”. After I reiterated to her that I wouldn’t want to work at a company which makes irrational non merit-based hiring decisions, she became visibly angry and started accusing me of wanting to become a bum who leeches off of people like her. (I have never borrowed anything from her or benefited from her in any way.)

She explained to me her twisted logic: if I was too stubborn to cut my hair, then it would be hardworking people like her who would have to pay the taxes that went to covering the unemployment checks I would have to live off of, just so that I could have the perfect hair I wanted. I’ve had some cruel things said to me in my life, but this was definitely one of the cruelest. According to her, I have no right to express myself freely and if I do— that puts too much of a burden on her and the rest of society. But it’s absolutely her right not to hire me if I don’t conform to corporate gender rules. I had no words, and this time it was me who ran to the other room to go cry. This hurt way more than anything any bully has ever said or done to me. (And just for the record: no, I have never collected any unemployment insurance — and hadn’t even thought of that as a possibility until she mentioned it. Apparently, I was fully eligible for it during that period, but never realized that until later.) Thankfully, the software industry is very comfortable with anyone of any gender wearing long or short hair, and despite my sister’s warnings I was able to find a decent job soon afterwards (the only catch was I had to move to Illinois, despite feeling very attached by that point to California). After a couple years in frigid Illinois, I managed to get back on my feet, completely out of debt and started saving money for retirement.

When it comes to false assumptions being made about me, dating has probably been the most difficult thing for me. I generally prefer to date women (although I have also dated men and have always been pretty flexible; specific personality traits tend to matter to me a bit more than gender or biological sex does). But I’ve found that I can almost never date strictly cis-het women, for a number of reasons. One is that even if they are superficially attracted to me, they lose interest once they get to know me and realize how not-masculine-at-all I am. But most of the time, it never even gets that far because I’m usually only strongly attracted to people if they make the effort to hit on me and actively pursue me. Very rarely have I ever gotten up the nerve to tell someone else I’m interested in them, and when I have— it has always felt extremely awkward and uncomfortable for me.

Even with online dating, which I enjoyed for many years, I almost never sent messages to other people on the site. I just made a profile and waited to be messaged by anyone who was interested in me. Later, after joining the software development team at OkCupid, I found out that the behavior on online dating sites is extremely gendered, at least for heterosexual users. Straight women rarely send out messages, they tend to just wait to receive messages; while straight men tend to send out tons of messages and wait to receive a reply from one of them. As I looked at the data, I was struck by it — I had never realized before how atypical my behavior on the site was compared to most male-presenting people who were interested primarily in women. Somehow, despite all of my male socialization, I have a lot of deeply ingrained feminine instincts, this being one of many other examples I could give. Today I’m happily married, to a bold and beautiful woman who was sick of dating masculine men and initiated contact with me on OkCupid in 2010. The next most serious relationship I’ve had in my life was several years before that, with a person whom I thought of as female at the time, but ended up coming out as transgender to me and everyone else toward the end of our relationship, and completed his transition to male shortly after we broke up.

Living in the closet about any important aspect of yourself takes a toll on you after a while. There are a lot of little things, like every time a man shakes my hand, tries to crush it, and then says to me “what kind of a handshake is that? Here, let me show you how to do a real handshake.” (Somehow, I have tried to master the masculine handshake for 40 years, and I still haven’t figured it out — no matter how closely I watch someone do it, I just can’t seem to get it right.) Every time someone saw me with long hair and asked “dude, are you in a band?” (interestingly, this only happened on the East coast, and I think in Illinois, but never on the West coast). It happened so many times in New York and New Jersey that I eventually cut it because I got so sick of telling every single person who asked that “NO, I AM NOT IN A BAND!” Every time I’ve had to sit in the same room with men who make fun of some of my favorite films, deriding them as “chick flicks”, or who complain that some of the music I listen to (Madonna, Britney, Blondie, Rihanna, Adele, etc.) is too girly. Every time someone asks me what my favorite sports team is (I don’t have any idea what sport most teams are associated with, and can’t imagine caring), or invites me to a superbowl party (I’ve forced myself to sit through it a few times in my life, but only for the commercials and to try to understand what people get out of it.)

This is the downside of the Faustian bargain. Basically, I’ve been a full-time drag king for most of my life (someone who dresses up like a man and tries to act like one but is not). That’s not an easy act to keep up, it requires a lot of energy. I sort of knew that, but had no idea how much more relaxed, confident, and natural I would feel now that I’m wearing strictly feminine clothing rather than masculine (jogging has been the only exception I’ve made since coming out — I still need to buy a female jogging outfit, but otherwise my wardrobe is reasonably complete).

So yes, I’m about to lose my male privilege — and I’m very happy about that. I don’t want or need it anyway, and it took me far too long to realize that it was always more trouble than it was worth. My advice for any transgender people who were assigned male at birth and are tempted to present that way in order to keep male privilege despite preferring otherwise: trust me, it ain’t worth it! (If you don’t identify as male but choose to present that way for other reasons, go for it.)

Also, just in case any men (whether cis or trans) might be offended by this post, let me be clear: I’m not saying there is anything wrong with identifying as male, with presenting as male, or even with having male privilege. Patriarchy is a structural problem; if you have male privilege it’s good to be aware of that, to be an ally for those who don’t, to criticize the double standards our society has, and to avoid actively enforcing such standards (for example, by acting in a chauvinist way). But if being perceived as male has given you certain advantages, that’s not your fault. Presenting how you feel most comfortable is more important, and I fully support your decision no matter how you identify. In fact, the main point of this entire post is to say that in the end, being true to yourself is ultimately what’s most important.

I’ll leave you with a fully up-to-date image of how I typically present today, which is still evolving gradually…

Photo of me from April 2017

Thanks for reading everyone, and be sure to check out tomorrow’s Blog March post at WendyDesigns! #BlogMarch2017