Editors’ Note: Guest blogger Levi Pine is a trans man and a union organizer in Chicago who spends a lot of time with Fierce Ladies in housekeeping uniforms. He appreciates leotards and has spent years talking about starting a fag-punk band called Global Business Solutions.
I’m a trans man who’s been on hormones for about 5 months. My voice is a lot lower than it used to be, and I have a pretty cute, if wily, crop of facial hair going on. As a result, I’ve started passing as male pretty much all the time. It’s a new thing, and it’s a lot to digest.
People often ask me if I get treated differently when I’m read as male versus when I used to be read as female. Hmmmmaybe. Really, there are too many subtle wavelengths to any human interaction to know which are directly connected to how people are reading my gender.
But there is one stark and tangible difference in how the world responds to me, and that’s the types of things that men (specifically cis-gendered straight men) talk to me about.
Men say horrifying and revolting things to you about women when they think you’ve never been one.
Here are some of the more outstanding examples.
1. “What’s that bitch doing begging? Doesn’t she know she can sell her pussy?”
This was said to me by a cab driver at 4 am taking me to the airport in New Orleans. I learned a lot of things about him in that half hour. He was a black man, and a republican, and his life had been completely shattered by the hurricane in 2005. He made a lot of comments about white tourists in town for Mardi Gras (which I was, which he knew), and the things that white people could get away with that he and many people he knows had been incarcerated for doing. By the time he got to the golden quip above, he’d already established that he almost categorically mistrusted me. I didn’t blame him. And, stumbling over white- and class- guilt and 4-AM-brain, I let the above statement pass without saying a thing.
2. “What’s black and blue and doesn’t like sex? The eight-year-old girl in my trunk.”
This was a “joke” somebody told me a few weekends ago while we were rock climbing. He said it was ok because he didn’t come up with the joke. He was standing ready to catch me while I was climbing to make sure I didn’t fall and crack my head open. He was also giving me lots of good advice about climbing. Rather than risk seeming somehow ungrateful for his spotting and good advice, I shamefully kept quiet about his joke.
3. “That bitch ________________________.”
The above sentence can be finished or reorganized in any number of common ways.
“That bitch is stupid.”
“That bitch’s mouth would look a lot better on my dick.”
“Don’t listen to her, she’s just a bitch.”
All of those are things people have actually been said to me.
Bitch is an oppressive word. It constructs women as unintelligent, incapable, and subservient. Women are “bitches” when they challenge male privilege—when they are assertive or self-possessed, or just not deferential enough. “Bitches” are also objects, to be manipulated for male sexual gratification.
Another equally disturbing thing that happens, if not more disturbing, is that it’s not just men who call women bitches when talking to me. Women do too. And I don’t mean the occasional “bitch, please,” I mean like “She should stop being a bitch and just sleep with him.” Women participate in this because of some internalized bullshit - as though to demonstrate subservience or to show me that they’re not a threat to my male privilege.
Inside our radical and queer communities, these kinds of comments are shocking, and they’re not. What really sticks out to me is the fact that I’m only now hearing them in real time from real live people, as opposed to in songs or pop culture. That means people who say these things have begun doing so because they think I’m “one of them,” and that they didn’t say these things to me before because they read me as female and understood some element of how fucked up these things are, and so held their tongues because they didn’t want to offend.
I once got in a big argument with a (white) close friend of mine who had taken to saying “n*gger” in casual conversation.
“But I’d never actually say it in front of a black person,” he insisted.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because that’d be completely inappropriate.”
“Why would it be inappropriate?”
“Because it’s a really degrading and offensive word.”
Yes, and when you try and throw a private degradation-of-black-people party between just you and me, you’re assuming that saying racially oppressive things is both less oppressive when you do it in private and also something I think is cool and fun. Neither are true.
My impression is that cis-men make these kinds of comments to me with the intention of establishing camaraderie, bringing me into the fold. I think it’s an impulse towards some weird version of intimacy—establishing our common reality as “men.” Unfortunately, the reality described (and produced) by the above comments is not the one I live in. I say “produced” because, for the same reason that saying n*gger in private amongst white people creates enduring racism, making these kinds of disgusting comments about women amongst “just men” (which, as a category, is less coherent when I’m included) creates enduring sexism. Our words become our thoughts, which become our habits.
In almost all the examples above, I was too cowardly to speak up against the offending commenters. I was scared of outing myself as trans, and also scared of how these men would react if I rejected what I think amounts to a bizarro form of hospitality - an invitation into the clubhouse.
That’s not ok, and this is my commitment to change my behavior. We all need to make a commitment not to tacitly condone these private oppressive rituals of maleness, whether as trans men, as cis-men, as women, and everyone else. Yes, I have roots as a female-bodied and female-identified person, but you don’t need to have history as a woman to respect women.