On the Fear of Transness

This morning, I was reading Twitter and clicked through a link to John Pavlovitz’s swag shop.

I got distracted, though, when I saw that two of the dropdown options were “Women’s” and “Men’s/Unisex”. Given that Pavlovitz has been a reliable LGBTQIA (including the trans part) ally, those options were a reminder of what the current cultural war is really about.

The rules bubbling out in the bigot states against “drag” aren’t the gender-neutral laws they’re written as. They’re about “men” dressing as “women”. Cis women have been allowed to wear whatever clothing they want for most of my life.

I grew up in the 1970s, era of Ms. Magazine and “9 to 5”:

One of the scandals in that era was over whether women could wear pants: As the movie poster shows, women in “pink collar” corporate jobs were still expected to wear skirts and dresses. Some women had been wearing pants for decades prior, but it was generally seen as a political statement, not as “oh, this is just what I happened to put on this morning.”

These days, clothing is pretty much separated into “women’s clothing” and “everyone’s clothing”. There is still such a thing as a “men’s” clothing store (or department store section), but men’s clothing styles for women is non-controversial. A woman wearing her man partner’s clothing is seen as romantic or cute, while a man wearing his woman partner’s clothing is seen as freakish and perverted.

A portion of a screenshot. The Google image search was "boyfriend cut t shirt". There are various photos of t-shirts, some of them worn by models. One model appears to be masculine, while the rest appear to be feminine.

The truth is, the men who are writing these “anti-drag” laws don’t generally care about what cisgender women are wearing. It’s about reinforcing toxic masculinity. It’s about forcibly keeping “men” in the fold through shame and bullying.

Recently, Jordan Peterson said a part of this aloud when he wondered how he was supposed to interact with a nonbinary person. He admitted that he has scripts for interacting with men and with women, generic scripts that apparently differ so fundamentally that he can’t create a similar script for people whose gender he doesn’t know.

This is a position that, in turn, confuses me deeply. Having different generic scripts for men and for women is rooted in misogyny and patronizing attitudes. Even if you want to keep “chivalry” alive, you could do what the clothing manufacturers have done: Women’s Script and Men’s/Unisex Script.

The men writing anti-drag laws (which often conflate drag performers with transgender women) are largely indifferent to women wearing pants. There are certainly some folks who would love to return to the men-in-pants/women-in-skirts era, but that’s a pretty small minority, small enough that I haven’t seen it as part of the current national dialogue.

Likewise, these men don’t really care about women’s sports. The most obvious comparison is the NBA vs. the WNBA. The NBA makes an annual revenue of $10B; the WNBA, $60M, less than 1%. The average NBA salary is just shy of $10M, 100 times that of the WNBA’s average of $100K.

In fact, these men care so little about women’s athletics that the government had to enforce equity through Title IX, something which many of the same forces currently worrying about “boys” on girls’ teams are also still fighting against: A 2021 report, for instance, found “gross gender inequalities” throughout the NCAA.

So let’s talk about bathrooms.

A still from the vulgar teen comedy "Porky's". Five women in towels stand as a group looking at a camera. There are shower heads behind them suggestive of a girl's locker room; there are also lockers visible to the side. The edges of the photo form a circle to suggest a peephole.

I believe a significant portion of the men worrying about trans women using bathrooms is jealousy. There is a well-established cultural trope about men peeping on women. It is the promotional “joke” for “Porky’s” (a still of which appears above). It appears in “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds”. These are fictional representations that appeal to suppressed prurient desires.

So when such men hear that trans women (who they see as men) are going into women’s restrooms, it feels like a loophole, and they get jealous. Why can’t they go watch women pee?

(I mean, if that’s your thing, PornHub and other sites have plenty of adult videos involving women urinating.)

At the same time, there’s a scenario where a man picks up a woman for a sexual encounter, only to discover that the woman in question has a penis. Even now, the majority of the United States allows for a “panic” defense for murder or battery, in which the defendant argues that the victim’s SOGI status led to a violent emotional response.

With trans women victims, I believe this violent response is largely rooted in a two-sided coin: Homophobia and fetishization. Many cishet men, discovering that they have been attracted to a person with a penis, get overwhelming feelings about their own sexual interests, and that comes out through repulsion and violence at the person who caused those feelings.

This is how drag queens and trans women hurt them: It’s the emotional pain of unresolved feelings.

In defending her attitudes in 2020, JK Rowling writes: “When I read about the theory of gender identity, I remember how mentally sexless I felt in youth. … As I didn’t have a realistic possibility of becoming a man back in the 1980s, it had to be books and music that got me through.” She suggests that her cultural inability to transition at the time kept her from making a mistake, but another interpretation is possible: Her self-perceived inability to transition forced her to suppress feelings and channel them elsewhere.

Only Rowling (and perhaps not even her) can know for sure where her own identity truly sits, but I do think it’s important for everyone to have an honest reflection for themselves.

In our culture, men are not taught to have those honest reflections. Quite the opposite: Boys are taught from a very young age to suppress any thoughts that go against the Alpha Male model of masculinity.

In “The Will to Change”, bell hooks writes: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

I remember the first time I read this. I literally felt as if hooks had torn open my chest and exposed my heart and soul. It was a very violent, very vitriolic reaction: I was torn between urges to scream, cry, and vomit.

This was while I was still identifying as a man, as I was looking towards the Nonbinary Forest and wondering where I fit. That quote pushed me towards that forest.

I have felt so much internal violence in my lifetime over manhood, over transness, over sexuality, and over identity in general. This is the violence that so many men, and people raised as if they were men, feel.

When you have demons that you do not want to reckon with, you may feel compelled to attack anyone who reminds you of those demons.

Over 96% of mass shooters are men. This is not an unrelated statistic: It is part of the same system.

Title: "Number of mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and February 2023, by shooter's gender". There is a bar chart that shows 135 male, 3 female, and 2 male and female. Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/476445/mass-shootings-in-the-us-by-shooter-s-gender/

Men are enculturated to suppress their feelings. About sexuality and identity. About anger and sadness. And that suppression comes out in violence and in laws that bully children.

Despite the mention of Rowling, these comments are centered on why putatively cis men would be so strident against trans and drag issues. There is also the matter of interest convergence to consider.

Interest convergence basically says that different groups can have different reasons for wanting a thing, and that the dominant/privileged group may well feign support for an oppressed group in order to consolidate power.

Derrick Bell argued that the Brown vs Education decision was not about white people in power suddenly realizing the inequity of education. Instead, it was because the white people in power had, for a window of time, a vested interest in improving education for Black people. This window was related to Cold War anti-Soviet attitudes as well as to post-WWII efforts to appease Black veterans. On one level, it was about furthering oppression by giving Black war veterans and their cultural allies a bone to keep flames of dissatisfaction from burning hotter.

In this current case of LGBTQIA book censorship, there is a white Christian woman stoking flames in Muslim-dominant school districts in the Metro Detroit area. That’s interest convergence.

In the case of transgender issues, many cis women have a legitimate interest in keeping cis men out of spaces where women are vulnerable (bathrooms) or disadvantaged (sports). Interest convergence -> consolidated power.

My purpose in pointing this out is to recognize that not all opponents of transgender rights are cis men struggling with their own sexual demons. But while it’s a separate issue, it’s being disingenuously leveraged by the cis men bigots.

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