Thursday, January 8, 2015

On my Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Context of Conditional Male/Masculine Privilege

A cautionary note that this article contains somewhat explicit details about a sexual assault.

I have a lot of feelings about how trans men fit into male privilege discourse.  I am quite firm in my stance that trans men are not somehow magically exempt from male privilege, but there are some common narrative strains up-and-coming that come to the bizarre conclusion that not only do trans men unconditionally have male privilege, we somehow have it from birth, because--as the current popular narrative goes--"trans men have always been men."

This has repeatedly ruffled me because I absolutely loathe having my experiences erased, and this narrative erases a lot of experiences I have had on the target end of misogyny, experiences that many women have come out as sharing.  People insisting beyond a shadow of a doubt that trans men do not experience misogyny--ever, not even before transition--erases over eighteen years of my life in the name of promoting a shady narrative of dubious effectiveness as far as combating transphobia.  The reality is that a significant number of us do not adhere to the belief that we were always men.  Some, including myself, value our histories as girls and/or women as informing the kind of men we are or hope to become.

I had a whole thing written about this that went into extreme detail as to why male privilege in trans men is conditional, why it harms us, a run-down of the many experiences I've had both pre- and post-transition, and a million etceteras about the subject, but instead I'm going to tell a singular story that pretty much encapsulates for me why the way trans male privilege is framed is so offensive and painful to me.  And that's the story of when I was sexually assaulted.

I have picked this story for a variety of reasons.  First, it's from the period in my life after my social transition was well underway but before I was able to get hormones.  Second, the reasons it happened were very explicitly related to misogyny.  Finally, it's a story that has repeatedly gotten me harassed by a fringe minority of trans women who have made it their goal to "call out" trans men who talk about our experiences of oppression.

It goes like this.  I had been out as transgender for seven years.  I'd been living in-role as a man for most of that time, and had even gotten my name legally changed, but was having an extremely difficult time finding work.  In desperation I got a job at a summer camp for disabled adults across the state, where I found myself closeted and working as a butch woman.

It was against the rules for men to work with women, but women were able to work with men if they consented to it, so I signed the form saying I'd work with men and pretty consistently did throughout the summer.  Because I worked with men--and also to relieve some of the dysphoria--I slept in the men's dorm.  This went on for weeks with no problem.

One day I was about to go to sleep when three men stumbled drunkenly into the dorm and surrounded me.  They were laughing at me, grinding against me, and one of them grabbing and kissing me.  I repeatedly told them no, that I just wanted to go to sleep, but they'd only back off a few feet and then would resume harassing me.  When trying to get into my bunk bed, one of them kept trying to follow me up the ladder as the other two laughed.  Finally I kneed him a couple times and, flustered, went into the common area of the dorm where I hung out with some people who weren't asleep yet, unable to really say anything.

A different guy came and asked what had happened, since I was so visibly shaken.  He stood up for me and talked to the men who had assaulted me as well as one of our bosses.  He also was instrumental in me understanding that what had happened to me was an assault.  But during this process I also wound up with many moments of clarity that really dug what had happened to me deeper.

One of the men who assaulted me apologized for it.  While doing so, he explained that the reason they had done it was because they thought it would be funny to target me because I was butch and apparently sexual assault is hilarious when you're convinced a woman is unattractive.  My masculinity had not protected me from misogyny, and in fact had made me more vulnerable to it in this particular context.

The response by the administration was even more appalling.  Rather than acknowledge that what had happened to me was wrong, they instituted a policy that women could no longer sleep in the men's dorm on nights off.  The situation was treated as if I had knowingly walked into a trap--the dorm that it was literally my job to sleep in on any other night--and was responsible for the assault.  None of the men were reprimanded in any way for what they had done to me.

This was not a sexual assault perpetrated by men against a man to emasculate him, as many sexual assaults against men are.  It was a sexual assault perpetrated by men specifically because they saw me as a woman, specifically because they saw me as a butch woman.  What I experienced was misogyny.

And this is one experience of mine among hundreds of others, from assumptions of academic ineptitude in math and computer classes to gender-targeted fat shaming to men who wouldn't leave me the fuck alone until I said I was taken and endless pulling apart of my gender expression by people who not only implied but flat out stated that my concern should be how attractive I am to men.

I have been on hormones now for three years, and many of these problems have been mitigated.  There is absolutely no question that I have male privilege in the vast majority of contexts.

But even with all the medical help I've gotten, with facial hair and an easily-concealable chest and a deep voice, there are plenty of people--mostly relatives, but others as well--who do not fully acknowledge my maleness, and those people regularly throw microaggressions at me, implying that I'm weak or don't understand things just because I happened to spend 18 years as a woman.

These are things that have not only informed my current understanding of misogyny, they have affected the way I handle things, how I interact with people, how I read the ways people interact with me, and every other facet of my existence.  As popular as it may be to fantasize about, there is no possible way for me to divorce myself from my female history.

I haven't always been a man.  I used to be a woman.  I identified as a woman.  And even after that, I was a man who was almost universally viewed as a woman.  I reject the assumption that that part of my life should be rewritten as anything else, and any attempts to do so I consider malicious erasure of my experiences.