Are FTMs butch defectors who submitted to the patriarchal pressures of conforming to gain greater social access? Or are FTMs simply another breed of queer that tend to be misunderstood, particularly by butch feminists?
As an FTM, I confidently agree with the latter. But, this declaration doesn’t draw from personally-driven justification to account for the tumultuous and often disheartening process I’ve chosen to take on. It draws, I believe, from grounded reasoning and the belief it’s necessary to explore this issue if we are to avoid becoming internally divisionist at the expense of our FTMs (and genderqueers, for that matter).
MasterAmazon’s blog Dykes for Dykes presents, in multiple blog posts, eloquently-written yet highly contentious discussions (‘rants’…?) in which she describes FTMs as ‘sell-outs’ who have forfeited their womanhood for the socially imbued convenience of being male. She explains why women choose to transition: “Impatience for male power and privilege combined with monumental lack of faith in the future of women could explain it” (August, 2010). She seems to find no differentiation between a butch lesbian who transitions and one who doesn’t, aside from the difference in choice made regarding their body. Reductive is this approach, as she categorises all FTMs as former dykes, rather than recognizing that a considerable number never identified as either lesbian or as butch (such as myself). However, this is only the first of many problems I find with her argument. My greatest issue is the blatant conflation of sex and gender.
MasterAmazon writes, “Gays and lesbians have struggled for decades to be able to name ourselves and to BE ourselves. But now, in our own community we are expected to applaud Dykes rejecting womanhood and embrace men taking it over….[B]y rejecting their female bodies along with our shared history, they break our hearts” (August, 2010). The implication that lies within this statement is that being FTM is a choice made by those who feel patriarchy is a system best upheld, or at least never challenged, and that transitioning is a process for those who once were women, in both mind and body, and not only no longer want to support women’s rights but want to work against them for personal gain. Hopefully, I do not have to explain to you, the reader, the dangerous ground such a statement is at risk of treading.
Immediately, I find myself jumping to the sex vs. gender response. MasterAmazon treats the two as interchangeable, and I believe this is her greatest pitfall. The following discussion I is drawn from a lengthy comment I shared on her page when I first saw the blog a few months ago, though I found – not surprisingly – that she had deleted it. I suppose it’s easier to delete a counterargument than to rethink your approach.
Sex is biological and solely biological, and it does not change over eras or cultures. How it is interpreted and treated does change, however, per space and time, but this is where the concept gender comes in. Gender is socially constructed, not biological in any way. It is, as Judith Butler puts it, ‘performative’ and ever-changing. Gender is expressed through our clothes, behaviour, roles, power relations, etc. and it is never the same in any place at any time, though certain gender traits may last for a considerably long time in society.
In this way, being a butch dyke is a deviation from the ‘norm’ of femininity, as it defies the expected gender role of females. However, being trans is biological. It is about sex, the physical body. In the process of transitioning, most FTMs will take on the masculine gender, which is why they are often seen as having once been dykes (and many may have identified as such). However, it is a strategy of indicating male-ness, as it is our gender that operates to inform the greater public of our sex, unless of course you choose to continuously expose your genitalia (!). Admittedly gender as a marker of sex is not ideal for dykes who get mistaken for men, but as gender operates in our heteronormative society, certain presentations are expected with males as with females. This is why the subset of butch women is imperative to the feminist movement: it challenges ideas of what constitutes marking female-ness by presenting it in alternative forms.
However, this is where the differentiation between sex and gender becomes imperative. The experience of a transman before transition is not that same of that of a non-transitioning butch lesbian. The pre-transition transman experiences her female body, the actual physical elements of it, as foreign, uncomfortable, and genetically deformed. It is harrowing and destabilizing, and it is not something that should be ignored for the sake of society, including feminists. [N.B. I do realize I may be erroneously speaking for some transmen, so it must be noted that there are a myriad of experiences.] However, for the general transman, transitioning is a process of altering the body so that it matches what the mind expects the body to be experienced as. This is often related to the phantom-limb syndrome. The mind operates in such a way that it expects the body to have certain parts, just as it expects us to have two arms, two legs, etc. But the absence of such causes a painful dissonance between mind and body. While there are multitudes of transitioning processes and endpoints in the trans community – meaning, no one singular experience – being trans is a physiological, not social, process. At the crux, transsexuality is about sex and not gender. It is for most transmen apolitical in nature, unlike the butch lesbian movement. It is simply escaping what has been a life of what has felt like physical deformity.
It must be clarified that I recognize the fine line I am toeing when I say the experience is “apolitical”, as anytime power relations are in any way being challenged or altered, as is done by becoming men, it is by default political to some degree. However, I would argue that energy is poorly spent worrying about women defecting to manhood and becoming part of the oppressive regime. We want men to understand women’s struggles and become agents in aiding us to rectify the inequities, and, in all honesty, who better to act from the men’s side than a man who was once a ‘woman’?
I must say that I find it rather entertaining that the Feminist Movement of the 1960s often rejected butch women for fear of it diluting and hence weakening the advancement of women’s rights. This parallel is ironic given that it is the same women’s subset that once had to fight for the recognition that their identity was valid that now challenges the identity of a further marginalized group on much the same premise: that they are defectors and thus can only hinder women’s efforts.
I’d like to clarify that I too once battled with the fear of ‘defecting’. I had two primary personal demons to address before making the final decision to transition. First was the response by my family (TBD...); second was the fear of being not only white, middle-class, well-educated, and American, but also a man. I was afraid that any non-normative or marginalising qualities I’ve used to keep myself in touch with social issues (which are the basis of my career in academia) would fall to the sideline as I became a member of the most powerful social group. However, though there are various ways of identifying for FTMs, I myself will always identify as queer and I will always be openly trans. This is a personal choice, and not necessarily better or worse that other personal choices in any way. For those who transition and do not use their special knowledge for bettering society in some way, there’s an argument to be made, I’ll admit. However, for most who do remain hidden as trans and only navigate public spaces as fully male, it does not necessarily follow that they become part of the oppressive group, even with their being socially received as male and the privileges that come with such. As I said above, men who were once women could prove an invaluable asset in our fight for gender equality. So to reject, or worse vilify, FTMs, particularly those who are not open about their transsexuality, is to cause a tension that we in the queer community cannot afford. It is a battle that cannot end well, as transitioning is not about gender expression as it is for butch lesbians, as it is socially embedded; rather it is about one’s sex, which is genetically embedded arguably pre-determined (if we believe the medical discoveries around trans brain chemistry). Thus, those who claim that all FTMs are just “girls [who are] so eager to run”, as MasterAmazon writes it, are missing the most important point: Just as our right to alter our gender expression, no matter the reason, should be understood as a given and not as a point of contention, so should our right to alter our bodies. The queer movement, after all, is about uniting to construct a space safe enough for the freedom of expression and embracing the identity that is right for each of us. To negate this, even for a small subset such as FTMs, is to become our own oppressors.
MasterAmazon’s blog, as cited: http://masteramazon.blogspot.com/2010/08/alixx-dobkins-emperors-new-gender.html