Healthy Masculinity Does Not Equal “Nice Guy”

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve had a nebulous fear that every time I say “healthy masculinity,” people are going to mistake it for something else , and I’ve just recently realized that something else is “nice guy.” Then, as I began working on this post, I realized that “nice guy” in turn has two separate but related implications that I want to unpack. There’s the nice guy aesthetic, and then there’s Nice Guys TM.

To me, “nice guy” provokes a very specific image. It is of a cisgender heterosexual man wearing a powder blue buttoned shirt. He might be wearing slacks or jeans, but if they are the latter then they are very clean and pressed jeans, not something worn for manual labor. He might work as an accountant or software engineer, or editor or any number of other jobs, but its definitely something that requires him to wear a tie. You would not know how to describe his hair because it is cut in a style so simple the eye slides right off of it. He’s clean shaven. He drives a car, not a motorcycle. He drinks coffee and beer, but not too much of either, and he definitely doesn’t smoke. If he’s been married for more than a year or two he has kids. If not, he plans on having them soon.

In other cultures the image of a nice guy might vary, but I suspect they all have one; a hodgepodge of fashion, career, and lifestyle choices that are guaranteed to be inoffensive. Ultimately though, it is not a proof of inner character. It’s an aesthetic. And, while it’s also perfectly fine. Some people who fit the nice guy aesthetic are secretly rather immature or even outright manipulative jerks underneath, but others are as wholesome and nice under the surface as they seem to be at first. That shouldn’t be surprising. Basic human decency doesn’t come with any particular fashion sense.

What I do have a problem with is the Nice Guy TM; the above image, but with a morose look on his face because some guy with tattoos and probably a motorcycle is getting all the girls. You most likely have heard plenty of “nice guys finish last” spiels, and I certainly hope you have heard some of the awesome smackdowns that are out there. Here are a few good ones, including one by Ginny.

Because of all those great preexisting commentaries, I don’t want to go into all the issues with the Nice Guy TM. Plenty of people have covered that already. Instead, I want to point out an unspoken assumption. There is this idea that with the correct gender expression comes a range of benefits and entitlements. This idea appears twice in the Nice Guy TM spiel. There’s the idea that because the speaker fits the nice guy aesthetic, he is entitled to girls, and then there’s the idea that the hypothetical bad boy is winning girls by virtue of his more edgy gender expression.

There are a number of ways that our culture encourages people to expect rewards or punishments based on their gender expression, and all of them are shitty. You aren’t entitled to a job or a relationship or anything else based on your hobbies, appearance and lifestyle choices. If you are doing what feels right and makes you happy, that should be reward enough; if not, try making a change.*

That’s the issue I have with many people who I have seen talk about reforming masculinity. Often they end up essentially arguing for everyone to solve the problem by putting on the Nice Guy Aesthetic, and that’s not going to work. It’s just another rigid gender role. In my last post I went into what I meant by healthy masculinity, but to recap; I mean an attitude towards masculinity that embraces a diversity of expression. It includes everyone who performs masculinity, whether men, women or non-binary, and it allows everyone to perform it in their own way, as well as validating those who don’t identify as masculine at all. I call this healthy masculinity because it is incompatible with the gatekeeper attitude that enforces and underpins toxic masculinity.

The nice guy aesthetic is compatible with healthy masculinity, it just isn’t inherently any more compatible than a tattooed motorcycle rider aesthetic, or a cowboy aesthetic, or a dapper steampunk gent aesthetic. Whinging that “nice guys finish last,” on the other hand, needs to go.

*I realize that some people do live in circumstances where their most comfortable gender expression would be highly stigmatized and might result in serious bullying or loss of a job that they need to survive. If this is you, I’m so sorry, and I hope you don’t mistake my earlier statement for judgment on your situation. There’s a difference between compromising your gender expression to survive and feeling entitled to certain things based solely on that expression.

Defining Healthy Masculinity (Or Not)

So, this year I want to talk about healthy masculinity, and I should explain what I mean by that.

By healthy, I mean something that is generally good for you and the people around you; something that encourages you to take care of yourself and treat others respectfully and responsibly. I mean it to contrast toxic masculinity, which encompasses the attitudes that encourage people to abuse themselves and others in the name of seeming more masculine. That part of the definition, I think, is fairly straightforward.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is anything but.

If you look throughout history and across different cultures, our conceptions of what is and isn’t masculine have changed drastically. Nowadays the association between male homosexuality and effeminacy is widespread, but this wasn’t the case for the Ancient Greeks or Japanese military, while in Norse culture men on the penetrating end of homosexuality weren’t emasculated, but those on the receiving end were. These days, Western male fashion is supposed to be very understated and dressed down, but go back a couple of centuries and men were decked out in frills and tights and had long flowing curls.

cavalier-man-2

Aw yiss. Check out my manly lace.

Often when a word has a meaning that changes over time or depending on context, many people try to pin it down. They want it to find an objective meaning that lies beneath all the alterations, and throw out everything else. I used to be one of those people. Now, I think that some concepts are most useful when they are allowed to evolve and adapt to the needs of the current time; concepts like marriage, gender, grammar, art, language, even values like honor and justice. If there is some objective underpinning behind those concepts, it does not need defending, and if not, why fabricate one? And I definitely think masculinity is one of those concepts.

In fact, when I look at toxic masculinity, a constant feature is rigid, unyielding gender expressions and roles. Masculinity must be chained to maleness, and maleness must be changed to a positively Victorian concept of gender roles. As a society, we are trying to correct our ideas about women’s roles, but not update our corresponding ideas about men’s roles. Given that old ideas of masculinity were wedded to outdated and oppressive ideas about femininity, it is easy to see how this rigidity harms everyone. It hurts women because it reinforces sexist behavior, it hurts men by creating identity crises and insecurities where none need to exist, and it hurts people who don’t identify as either by erasing their very existence.

So when I imagine a world of healthy masculinity, I don’t have a specific image of what that masculinity would look like. Instead, I see a world where masculinity is acknowledged to be a social construct, and in future generations is constantly evolving to suit the needs of people of all genders.

But for now, what I want to see is masculine people rising up and taking back the definition of masculinity from those rigid gatekeepers. Whatever your gender is, and however you express your own masculinity, I want to see you recognize that masculinity is not some object that someone else rations out. I want the whole concept of revoked and bestowed “man cards” to die a swift yet painful death, and I want this bullshit idea that masculinity has to defend itself against being tainted with femininity to die even quicker. If some aspect of masculinity resonates with you, then that is yours, and nobody can take it from you. Whether you’re a knitting stay-at-home mom who also loves cars, sports, video games and Clint Eastwood, a person unsure of their gender but drawn to a butch aesthetic, or a classically masculine hetero cis man who doesn’t like how his culture has been associated with sexism and gay-bashing, you have a right to whatever part of masculinity feels right to you, and you don’t have to put anyone else down to claim it.

A Year of Healthy Masculinity

Sometimes, I care a lot about a subject, but I’m afraid to talk about it because I’m not sure I fully understand it. Sometimes I get over this fear, and talk about it anyway. When I do that, so long as I acknowledge that I’m still figuring it out, I often find my understanding of it grows. People give me feedback on my ideas, share their own stories, and point out flaws in what I think I know. And sometimes, simply trying to express my thoughts forces me to improve them.

There’s an issue that I care about a lot. It doesn’t have a good name, though the phrase “toxic masculinity” covers part of it. I love masculinity, but I hate patriarchy. Men are granted significant power under the patriarchy, but at the same time, all too often, they are held to ridiculous standards. Toxic masculinity interferes with good relationships, reasonable expectations and self-acceptance. It teaches men that to express a full range of normal human emotions is shameful and worthy of mockery. The patriarchy is the only system I can think of that dehumanizes both the group it oppresses and the group that it privileges.

A huge part of how it does this is with the concept of masculinity. Men are controlled and shamed with masculinity just as women are with femininity. On top of that, in the name of masculinity boys are often encouraged to learn behavior that is demeaning towards others, especially women and boys whose gender expression is more feminine. I hate that, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it is possible for masculinity to exist without misogyny or homophobia, and I think when that happens, masculinity will also lose its aspects that are toxic to men.

This is a serious issue, but its difficult to talk about for a number of reasons.

  1. People who bring it up are often just trying to attack feminists.
    I remember when I was a little trans boy, not yet out of the closet, and discovered this thing called men’s rights activists. I was so excited that someone was talking about the ways society was unfair to men and I was sure such a movement would be full of thoughtful, intelligent men who would merge all the best aspects of feminism and maleness. God, was that ever disappointing. So many of these legitimate issues are brought up by men who don’t seem interested in actually solving them, but simply silencing other people who happen to be standing up for other important issues. This has created some knee-jerk responses from feminists, many of whom have defensive, pre-determined responses to anything that smacks of “what about teh menz?” It sucks for everyone.
  2. Some women feel this issue comes under the jurisdiction of feminism, others do not.
    Feminism is about gender equality. Many feminists are fantastic at recognizing the legitimacy of these issues; some of the most intelligent discussions I’ve had about toxic masculinity have been with women. Contrary to the image of the vitriolic feminist, quite a few feminists care about men too. At the same time, many women have been deeply wounded by the way men in their lives have treated them, and the way the misogynistic rules of society have enabled those abuses. Some women need feminism to be a space where its okay for them to be angry about that without worrying whether they have made some man somewhere angry. That’s just one reason why women might object to campaigning on behalf of men, and its a pretty valid one.
  3. When men try to discuss men’s issues under the umbrella of feminism, it can create problems.
    Men are granted a lot of space for their voices in our society, and when they come to the world of feminism, they often expect that same level of attention. Feminism has a lot of important battles to fight on a number of fronts, most of which men shouldn’t lead. Now, I don’t think that masculinity is something that only male-identified people can discuss. But I do think a discussion of how to reform masculinity and deal with men’s issues should include male voices. At the same time, I can’t help but see the point of feminists who say that men have so many platforms to speak on, they should let women lead discussions that fall under feminist umbrellas. Women should feel free to focus on the vast injustices perpetrated against them and should have a space to recover from misogyny, without having to also fix everything for men.

Because of the last two points, I don’t think feminism is the right movement to fix toxic masculinity. Instead, I think there can exist a separate but allied movement that seeks to reform masculinity so its no longer so closely allied with the patriarchy. I want to see a healthy masculinity movement that is not synonymous with either feminists or men, but makes life a better for both.

I just don’t know how to make that movement.

So I’m going to dive in and talk about it. For the next year, all of my posts on this blogs will center  around the topic of healthy masculinity; how to recognize it, how to create it, and how to defend it against toxic masculinity. Hopefully by the end of it, I will have some good groundwork laid.

Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping I find something helpful in the coming year. Stay awesome, peoples.

In-Fighting Among Trans People

My sister recently sent me this very interesting article by Jen Richards on the topic of in-fighting in the trans community. We have both observed and talked about the phenomenon. While every community has issues with members not getting along, trans people in particular tend to pick on each other for… god, at this point nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen flame wars that erupted over whether you put a space between trans man and trans woman or whether it’s okay to write transman and transwoman*. Most commonly, though, the issue revolves around fights between people whose experiences of their transition were different; because one had intense physical dysphoria and another felt indifferent to their body but more comfortable socially after transitioning; because one person was fairly binary and one very genderqueer; because one was an FtM who resents the way MtFs dominate the trans narrative and the other was an MtF who resents the way FtMs fly under the radar and get slightly less murdered. There are even more examples in that article, and I’m sure anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in trans circles has their own stories.

I think the author described the phenomenon very well, but I’m not sure I agree with what she identifies as the cause. She suggests that queer white trans women are typically the most visible, and so they lead the narrative, but often they have little experience of overt oppression. The shock of the change is one they are ill equipped to deal with. Many do become wonderful advocates (love you Kate Bornstein!) but some do not, and the loud, ugly voices can drown out the others. This makes sense, but the reason I disagree is that most of the aggression I’ve seen has come from white trans men… but that might be just because I’ve mostly been exposed to trans men. So initially I discounted that, but then I thought, “well, maybe she’s overrating the number of vitriolic queer white trans women for the same reason.” Maybe if you polled any type of trans person, they would say their type is the worst, simply because they see plenty of the good and bad while the only other trans voices that transcend the boundaries are the most decent, level-headed ones. Or maybe not. I really don’t know.

Her post did give me another thought though; the trans movement may be at a disadvantage because of how much intersectionality is inherently involved. Intersectionality always complicates discussions of privilege and oppression. Most groups get to talk about intersectionality as a secondary issue. You can talk about the way society treats women, and come up with some things that apply across the board, and then get into how race, ability, economic status, queerness etc tweaks their experience of misogyny. This makes it easier to come up with a basic message and platform, and intersectionality can branch off of that. But if you are talking about trans issues, no less than three identities intersect.

First, there’s the gender identity itself. Depending on whether you are MtF/transfeminine or FtM/transmasculine, the rules you are raised with, the rules you need to get used to and the way people react as you present opposite to your assigned sex are all very different. Second, there’s orientation. Now, who you are attracted does not have anything to do with who you feel you are… except that society conflates the two so often that orientation inevitably becomes part of a discussion about gender identity, if for no other reason than to clarify. Furthermore, switching from gay to straight or vice versa is such a shift in dating worlds, it does become a significant part of many trans experiences. Even bisexuals have to tread some new waters. Finally, there’s binary vs non-binary. Do you feel wholly male, or was male just closer-enough, or are you not medically transitioning because even though you have “man days” being seen as a woman is comfortable enough that full transition isn’t worth the hassle? Do you fall outside of that spectrum completely?

Just imagine if every discussion of race had to also include gender and disability, with the latter requiring an intensive discussion of how disabilities can be invisible or visible, cognitive or physical, and include everything from your basic paraplegia or depression to something as rare and complex as progeria or Harlequin Ichthyosis? It would be so difficult for anyone to get even remotely close to honest, accurate representation of their unique combination of identities. Unless the situation was handled very openly and delicately, you would end up with a lot of people getting completely pissed at each other for hogging their spotlight.

Because this is what we have to deal with in trans spaces, people who want to be included end up feeling vulnerable and neglected in the very place they went to feel safe. Some of them take it out on other trans people, and a vicious cycle emerges.
I do think there is one bright aspect to this issue. It is true, I think, that trans advocates tend to be more bitter, vitriolic and in-fighting-y than other social justice groups. But I also think that when they aren’t like that, they are some of the best groups out there. In trans advocacy, the learning curve is steep, so you either grab up the nastiest tactics of activism and use them to get revenge on everyone who you think is hurting less than you, or you learn quickly to be truly sensitive and accepting of everyone.
I’m not sure how to end this, so I’m going to blatantly steal. This is from Jen Richards’ conclusion in that article linked above; “There is no simple solution to these issues. Which isn’t the point. Truly supporting trans people will require education and patience. It will require an effort to know us and our issues well enough to make informed decisions… There is a crisis facing trans people, and the response will need to be as intersectional, sophisticated, and persistent as the causes. There doesn’t need to be a singular trans movement to rise to that challenge.”
Well said. Good luck to all of us.
*I think the space looks better, but people, let’s not lose our heads over this. Especially if the context is “um, hi guys, I’ve felt really awkward all my life and I think I might be a transman… I don’t know what to do nobody I know is trans somebody please help I’m 17 btw.”

What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

Every trans person, when they start their transition, has to deal with at least one person who doesn’t quite buy it. Someone will think it’s a phase, or a plea for attention. This is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true. Less than one percent of people who transition go on to regret it; of that number, many don’t even regret it because they are not really trans, but because of the overwhelming prejudice trans people face. I once knew a trans woman who had tried to transition earlier and had to detransition because of how shitty people were. When I met her she was in her fifties and transitioning for the second time.

So it’s a bit surprising that during the year I began my transition, not one but two of my friends also began to identify as FtMs, and then changed their minds. This shaped a lot of my thoughts around this issue, so I thought I should share the story, and what I learned from it.

The first thing I think people should know is that who actually transitioned and who didn’t spectacularly failed to line up with the conventional trans narrative. Hailie and Madison (not their real names) were both significantly more masculine than me. Hailie was a classic butch lesbian, deep voiced, athletic, fond of beer and belching. She had her first crush on a girl back in kindergarten. Madison was bisexual and punkishly androgynous. I am sensitive, shy, artistic and exclusively attracted to other men. I had a lot more people shocked at my coming out as trans than either of them, yet I’m the only one who was really transgender.

Lesson one; you don’t know. There is no way to tell from the outside whether somebody is really transgender or not.

A consequence of the first point is that of the three of us, I received the most resistance to my transition. I was actually kicked out of my house, and stayed with Madison’s family until I could afford my own place. Madison’s family was a little nervous, because she was famous for identity crises, but they were still fully willing to feed, clothe, shelter and love her, as well as provide her access to gender therapy and transition services. Hailie’s family was much the same; nervous but willing to be supportive.

Lesson two; there is a school of thought that says the best way to help trans people is to be a gatekeeper. You need to put a lot of obstacles up to make sure they aren’t just confused or whatever. Insert something vague about tough love here to justify making people prove they are really transgender. That’s bull. People in a supportive environment can still figure that they aren’t really trans. People who are trans don’t need to be picked on.

So what did happen to make Madison and Hailie realize they weren’t trans? Well… mostly nothing. They experimented with gender for a little bit, and they figured it out.

Hailie had been assaulted and raped a short time before she came out as trans. Her sister was worried that this was some big unconscious fight to avoid thinking about the rape, rather than an honest transition. When Hailie insisted this wasn’t the case, her sister backed off.

For a few months, Hailie went by a boy’s name and male pronouns. Then she quietly told me that she was having second thoughts. Then, a while later, she said she wanted to go back to female pronouns. A little while after that she said her sister had been right. Hailie had felt dysphoric because of the physical trauma she had just been through. She had needed something other than the rape to worry about. She wasn’t trans. Honestly, I can think of worse ways to deal.

Madison’s story is a little more complicated. Have any of you ever had the experience of being accused of causing drama, or known people who were accused of it when they were trying to draw attention to legitimately awful stuff? Did that experience make you think that people need to just stop making that accusation, because it seems like it’s only ever used to silence people with real problems? And, after thinking this for a while, did you ever run into somebody who would milk every drop of sympathy to their own advantage, who always had to have the biggest crisis in the room, who was every “you’re just causing drama for your own ends” accusation made real? And you tried really hard to be compassionate, but inside you’re just screaming “you! It’s all because of you! We could just ban the word drama entirely and take everybody in the whole world seriously, if it wasn’t for asshats like you!”

Yeah, I didn’t realize it at first, but after living with her for several months, that was Madison. At first I was hopeful that gender dysphoria was the thing that was wrong with her all along, and being trans would solve all the things, but I did start to suspect something when the only thing she ever did to transition was talk about it. We picked out our new names and talked excitedly about them. I did the work of finding out how to legally change one’s name and print all the documents out. I printed out two copies and left one out for Madison. It stayed on the fridge with a magnet for months and was eventually thrown away. She got her letter from a therapist that would give her access to hormone therapy, and the name of a good clinic. I got my prescription filled as quickly as possible. She never did. Her transition only existed when she was coming out tearfully to somebody, at which point she could use their sympathy to control them, of course.

Her parents handled it perfectly. Instead of obstructing her transition, they gave her responsibility over it. She had a part-time job, and with her parent’s insurance she could afford to use pay for co-pays and fees to change her name herself. She had a driver’s license and could drive to doctor’s appointments herself. They gave her all those responsibilities.

Lesson three; if obstruction is the worst of both worlds, responsibility is the best of both worlds. A genuinely trans person will see responsibility as a wonderful gift and act of trust (provided you aren’t giving them so much “responsibility” they don’t have a chance to actually transition. This level will vary depending on the age of the trans person, but you know, use common sense). For a person who isn’t trans, realizing they like the idea of transitioning more than the work of it can help them figure it out.

And, piggybacking on that, lesson four; I think probably most people who think they are trans for a while, when they aren’t really, are in some way either a Hailie or a Madison. Either they are going through something else that is awful and need some understanding and respect, or they are that once-in-a-while asshole… in which case what they’re really after is for you to not understand them, so they can blow up and use that to control you. Show them understanding and respect from the start, and they’ll have nothing to work with. They’ll have to move on to something else.

I don’t know how people realize what their gender identity is, any more than I know how you know you’re in love, or that your new house feels like home. And I say that, having been through all those experiences. I just know that when you know, you know, except once in a while you think you know but you don’t. But hey, those moments of not knowing that you don’t know are just part of being human, and they don’t generally last as long as really knowing you know. You know?

Anyway…

I wonder at how afraid we are to let people experiment with their gender identities. There’s no harm in it. I think obstructing experimentation causes a lot more confusion than just letting people play around, not to mention pain for people who genuinely transgender.

So in case I wasn’t clear, if you aren’t sure whether or not someone’s transgender, just respectfully back off. You might be right, you might be wrong, but either way it’s their job to figure it out.

Why it’s okay to identify as a different gender but not as a different race

[Edited to add: Kat Blaque has made a fantastic video answering the same question (with transcript for those like me who don’t take in video that well.) I strongly suggest you watch/read that first, then come back and read this if you want.]

I don’t often write about current news stories — in part because my writing process is way too long — but this Rachel Dolezal thing has taken up occupancy in my brain and won’t let go… specifically, the question many people are throwing out, “Why is it okay to identify as a different gender but not as a different race?” The part of me that loves to educate meets the part of me that’s still working to comprehend issues of race and racism meets the part of me that goes all Big Sister Bear when trans* acceptance is threatened. And, coincidentally, the day before the Dolezal story broke, I had been texting with Lane about why I don’t think it’s fair to compare cross-dressing to blackface. So I was already primed to have this discussion. Gender and race have some stuff in common. They’re social constructions, centered around aspects of our bodies. They’re axes of oppression. They’re important parts of many people’s identities. But just because they have those things in common doesn’t mean they’re the same, and it doesn’t mean an analogy between them is valid. In this case, it’s hugely harmful to black people and trans people alike. Janet Mock lays it out, but if you want more detail and explanation, I’ve tried to hash out some of the issues below. I know a fair bit about gender, and a little bit about race. I’m indebted to several black (and other PoC) writers and tweeters for helping me understand the racial aspect of this question better, and I’ve linked to them at the relevant points. There’s a lot I’ve left out and probably a couple of things I’ve gotten wrong. (Up until yesterday, I’d been saying that “transracial” isn’t a thing. Turns out it is, just not in the way it’s being used here.) If this is an issue you’re interested in, I urge you to keep searching out other writings on it, especially writings by trans people and people of color. One more note: while most of the current buzz has been comparing “transracial” to transgender identities, there are also comparisons to be made with men who identify as men in their everyday lives, but who sometimes present publicly as female/feminine — drag performers and people who cross-dress socially on occasion. At different points below, I talk about cross-dressing men, trans women, or both. Please don’t conflate or confuse the two groups: trans women are women who were assigned male at birth (AMAB), and cross-dressing men might be genderqueer, but often are quite comfortable identifying as men who sometimes express themselves through femininity. The important similarity here is that the same question has been raised around both groups: “Isn’t that just as bad as blackface?” Okay, let’s get to it: some of the key differences between gender and race, that make the transgender=transracial analogy just plain wrong. Different histories around cross-presentation Blackface, historically, has been used to entertain white people, mocking and caricaturizing a white view of blackness. It centers around exoticizing and “othering” blackness, while affirming the whiteness of everybody in the space. Even in cases where blackface performers thought they were showing respect and appreciation for pieces of black culture, what they were actually doing was hugely appropriative, carefully calculated enjoy what they wanted while distancing themselves from actual black people and their needs and humanity. (See below for more on appopriation.) And, of course, many times blackface was simply mean-spirited and contemptuous. Male cross-dressing*, on the other hand, has historically been about self-expression of the man himself. While I’m sure there have been times and places where men put on exaggerated femininity for the amusement of other men, it’s not a big piece of our cultural consciousness the way blackface is. The closest I can think of is in cases where a junior man is forced to wear a dress or act feminine as part of a hazing-type ritual. This is clearly a case where femininity is being ridiculed and masculinity affirmed, but in these cases the person doing the cross-dressing is being compelled by higher-status men, and part of the point is humiliation of the cross-dresser. Men who voluntarily cross-dress and put on femininity, whether on a stage or on the streets, are doing a very different thing (and most men would be very careful to distinguish between the two.) Rather than “othering” femininity, they’re embracing it. If the distinction still isn’t clear, consider: a white person who performed in blackface wouldn’t face any questioning of his whiteness, while a man who voluntarily cross-dresses instantly faces questioning of how much of a man he really is. Blackface serves to reify whiteness and otherize blackness, while crossdressing blurs the line between masculine and feminine. *(Trans womanhood isn’t applicable here at all, since womanhood is not a role trans women put on and take off.) Different histories around appropriation Appropriation and colonization make up a large part of racial oppression. We white folk have a nasty habit of saying to communities of color, “Oh you’ve got something we like? Cool, it’s ours now.” It happens with land, with neighborhoods, with music, with language… we take what we want and leave the people who created or nurtured it to fend for themselves. It’s not the only shitty thing white people do to people of color, but it’s a big one and covers a lot of the turf. So when a white woman occupies black spaces, takes scholarships designed for black women, and claims black experience as her own, it comes in the context of an overwhelming trend of appropriation, which can’t be ignored. Sexist oppression contains some forms of appropriation — men taking credit for ideas women had years earlier comes to mind — but it’s much less central and common. On the contrary, sexist oppression tends to involve male contempt for femininity and rejection of the feminine, except as a means to be served (sexually or maternally.) It is the cis female body that patriarchal maleness claims ownership over, not femininity or womanhood itself. So a man or male-assigned person taking on femininity does not resonate with years of former oppression, as this Rachel Dolezal thing does. Oppression of AMAB femininity Building on the previous point, men who crossdress and trans women are, in general, taking a on more dangerous and scorned identity than simply “woman.” If the wrong person reads them, they risk violence or murder (especially if they’re a person of color.) And even without the violence, they are subject to ridicule and contempt at nearly every turn. Sitcoms and stand-ups still feel quite free to use trans women as punchlines, erasing their humanity and treating them as freaks. A trans woman (and, to a lesser extent, a man crossdressing publicly) is not taking a risk-free dabble in the pool of femininity: she is swimming against a strong social tide that says it’s wrong and laughable to be what she is. With the side benefit of wondering if today’s going to be the day some dude assaults her because he finds her existence offensive. What’s going to happen to Rachel Dolezal, or any white woman who poses as a person of color? A bunch of people will get real mad. Maybe she’ll lose her job. She probably will be the punchline of some jokes, but they’ll fade away as the news story fades from public interest. This is what it looks like when privilege takes a dabble in the pool of oppression. The realness of transgender identities For a trans person, gender identification goes far beyond playing. We do not have a detailed and clear-cut understanding of the biological and social factors that make some people cis and some trans. What we do know is that in every culture and every era of history, there have been people who identified as a different gender than the one they were assigned. We have unfortunate reams of psychological data showing that gender dysphoria is real, and potentially deadly. Even before we began to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with being trans, scientists recognized that, for someone with a strong trans identity, it was easier to change the body than the brain. All philosophy aside, it is a matter of human decency to recognize transgender as a normal variant of human gender identity. People literally suffer and die when we don’t. If there’s a similar widespread phenomenon, of people feeling a strong internal identity with another race and suffering acute psychological distress when this is denied (apart from the social advantages and disadvantages that come from a particular racial identity), I’ve never heard of it. I suspect there isn’t, because gender and race are differently situated within the individual psyche. Gender is universal in a way specific race isn’t Gender, in a way, belongs to all of us. Man or woman, cis or trans, we started with the same set of tubes and gonads. They developed along different lines in utero, but we started out the same (and there are more diverse pathways and combinations than you might think). Man or woman, cis or trans, we have both estrogen and testosterone in our bodies. And whatever personality traits our culture associates with masculinity and femininity, we all have some traits that fall on either side of the line. We all have a little bit of male and female within us. Playing with gender, in a spirit of self-expression, is a birthright that belongs to all of us, whether we choose to claim it or not. We don’t have the same kind of claim to different racial identities. I may enjoy, for example, music that came out of black communities, but that doesn’t mean I’m “a little bit black” in any way. No part of my history or genetics gives me the right to claim blackness as a legitimate means of self-expression. Some people do have access to multiple racial identities — people of mixed racial background, or people who were adopted into a family of a different race. These people may have some leeway to play with “racial expression” in the way that all of us have the right to play with gender expression. But it’s still limited: if you’re half white and half Asian, you don’t get to claim blackness as an identity. And this “leeway” comes with a lot of identity struggle and having people deny or erase your identity. And let’s keep in mind that cross-racial identification, even for those whose family gives them that right, is pretty much a one-way street. Someone whose appearance is read by society as white might be able to play with different racial identities, but someone who’s darker-skinned doesn’t get to play at being white. If this whole #WrongSkin concept catches on, is a dark-skinned person going to be able to say, “I’m really a white person born black” and have all of society start treating them as white? Nope. Not gonna happen. The bottom line: you can’t ignore oppression I long for a society where we take a transgender person’s word about their identity and treat them as the gender they have told us they are — whether they’re a man or a woman. In the parallel case people are trying to make, what would it mean to create a society where a black person could say “I’m really white inside” and we start treating them as white? “You’re white now, so we won’t follow you around the store expecting you to steal something, and we’ll allow you due process and reasonable response, and we’ll give you better jobs and not expect you to constantly prove yourself”? This is not the utopia I’m looking for. We don’t want to remove racist oppression by letting black people be white… we want to remove it by, you know, actually not being racist anymore. Race is not just a matter of oppression and privilege, but oppression and privilege are so overwhelming right now that they pretty much dominate the scene when we’re talking about racial identity. We can’t ignore them and just treat racial identity as a matter of personal self-expression. If we were to take this #WrongSkin notion and run with it, all we’d be doing is increasing opportunities for white and very light-skinned folk, while leaving people who couldn’t pass for white in the same position they were in… except more of the jobs and scholarships that we’ve been striving to create for them are being taken by “black inside” white people. Again… this is not the utopia I’m looking for. I hope I’ve helped in explaining some of the “whys”. I welcome questions and corrections in the comments. On the simple “what,” Janet Mock deserves the final word: