A Pox on the Patriarchy
I don’t really know what it is to become a woman. When I started to become one, in puberty, I was too young to really be able to appraise it. I only know that suddenly I started to be followed, grabbed, treated like my body was public property. I never questioned it. I didn’t know any different.
A couple of days ago, a friend of mine started tweeting from her locked account about her experience of transitioning. “so apparently I’ve reached that stage in trannyism where men’s eyes keep flicking down when they’re talking to me. fucking men”, she wrote. “am actually slightly worried some guy will do that then realise I’m trans and get violent […] since most straight men seen pretty insecure in their sexuality”. She then reflected that she would probably get used to it, “like I got used to being called “sweetheart” and constantly talked over, I guess. :-/”. The thought, she said, “actually makes me a bit sad”.
With her permission, I decided to share her tweets. I felt they deserved a wider audience – not only because of what they revealed about the particular dangers faced by trans women from violent men, but also because of what they reveal about what it means to become a woman. What it means to be a woman. What it means to move from the higher social class to the lower social class. I have always been treated as female. From the moment I was born, I was instructed to “stay sweet as you are”; not to sit with my legs wide open; not to eat so much or so fast (that one never took, as anyone who has had the pleasure of sharing a meal with me will tell you). But still. This was how I was trained into womanhood – from the moment I was born.
For trans women, it’s different. They get told to take up space, to be boisterous. They get told big boys don’t cry and don’t be a sissy. No you can’t play with the dolly, no you can’t wear pink, what are you a girl? These instructions will be painful for a child who does not want to perform this role, but there is no denying that what these instructions train you to be, is of the dominant class. You lead; you talk over; you appraise. You may not want to, but that is what you are trained into – and therefore, it is how people treat you. They don’t treat you like a piece of meat that exists only to decorate their world.
Reading my friend’s tweets threw the distinction between men and women into sharp clarity for me. Not because I don’t know this is how men look at me, but, well, you do kind of get used to it. Apart from the really blatant and creepy or frightening instances, it fades into a background sense of being somehow lesser. It’s not up in your face because it’s just so damn ordinary. But for her, this is a totally new experience. This is a shock. This is a transition, from being a person, a full human being, whose words are worth giving your full attention, to someone who is there partly for the words, but also for how pleasing her body is to feast your gaze upon. She is part human – part object. And it’s the contrast she experiences from travelling on that downwards journey that gives her pause.
For me, the value that trans women’s experiences of transition can bring to feminism is self-evident. They have experienced being treated like a man, and being treated like a woman. They have experienced the shift from one gender to another. And their experiences provide empirical evidence of that difference. It’s not that women didn’t know this difference existed – and it’s not that feminists haven’t researched it, written about it, analysed it. But a little extra data never hurts does it – and trans women (and trans men) can bring an extra heft to feminist analyses of the hierarchal structure upon which society is built.
But apparently it does hurt. For tweeting out these thoughts, I was chastised. I was told it was not an act of feminism to tweet these out (a side-note – since when do all my acts have to be actively feminist? Am I being actively feminist when I’m taking a shower?). I was told I was handing out “cookies”. I was told, that if trans women didn’t like how they were treated by men, they should “stop pretending to be women”.
I don’t want to make too much of these assertions – they form a very small part of feminism. But I do think the final contention is worth engaging with briefly, because it is tantamount to victim-blaming. I know I will not gain any friends for writing this, but I cannot see the difference between telling a trans woman to behave differently in order not to get assaulted by men, and telling a rape victim it was her fault because she was wearing a short skirt. And I can’t see the difference because there isn’t one. It would no more be my friend’s fault if a violent man assaulted her because he believed she had “fooled” him into thinking her female, than it was my fault when I was sexually assaulted for being, in my assailant’s eyes, a drunken slut.
I reject the claim that having empathy for any person in the face of male violence is “not feminist”. I reject the claim that in order to be a “proper feminist” I have to take leave of my sense of humanity. I reject a feminism that ever blames the victim, when an assault is always the fault of the perpetrator.
In being supportive to a victim – any victim – of male violence, I do not consider myself to be doling out “cookies”. I consider myself to be acting with basic human decency. And I consider myself to be acting as a feminist: a feminist who stands against male violence in whatever form it takes, without stopping to consider whether or not the victim “provoked “it. A feminist who understands that male violence begets male violence and that therefore caring only about particular forms of it is as useful as a chocolate teapot. Male violence is about a particular form of toxic masculinity – a masculinity that defines itself in opposition to whatever it it considers lesser, whomever it can dominate. It is this mindset that we need to tackle, in its entirety. Otherwise we can keep looking forward to women – trans or otherwise – being harassed, beaten, raped and killed.