I’ve been pretty loud about the relative privilege of trans men, but lately I’ve been hearing this term “AFAB privilege”, which frankly irks me as a feminist. So I wanted to explore the complicated relationship AFAB trans folks have with male privilege and feminism, and debunk some lazy tropes.
Edit to add – just to be clear, although today I am looking at how misogyny affects AFAB folks, I am not turning my back on my overall mission to highlight transmisogyny and the overwhelming inequalities trans women, and particularly trans women of colour, experience. I still think male privilege, and trans male privilege, are real things. But there are some complications . . .
There is no symmetry in our experiences
There is a bogus idea of symmetry that comes from our traditional, binary view of gender and what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism””. If trans women are so doubly disprivileged by their gender and their transness, in the form of their unique experience of transmisogyny, then surely trans men must be equivalently advantaged? But it doesn’t work like that.
In reality, our experiences are completely asymmetric; when they live as themselves, trans women rapidly lose any male passing privilege they had (I don’t think we can call it male privilege because they’re not men), as they become visible as trans women.
We do not gain male privilege with anything like the same rapidity.
Prior to transition, trans women often have the experience of being treated as not being “real” or “proper” boys and men. This is one of the many reasons I dispute the idea that trans women are raised with straightforward male privilege. But we are also a long way off society treating trans men as “real” and “proper” men either, so the male privilege of trans men can be as complicated and conditional as for pre-transition trans women. Trans men such as Ben Barres (pictured left) have reported huge gains when their trans status is not known about, but this again becomes a passing privilege, contingent on our truth being silenced.
Many of us always had some masculine privilege, though. I gained from having a strong inner voice that could dismiss any negative societal messages about girls and women as not applying to me. It’s also much safer and more socially acceptable to be gender non-conforming in the direction of maleness or masculinity than in the opposite direction.
I take issue with the idea that I was “socialised female”. I was socialised tomboy, and that was unlike the experiences of my cisgender peers in both good and bad ways – male privilege, trans disprivilege both playing a part. And importantly, though often forgotten, cis privilege is not a “lesser” privilege to male privilege; the impact of being trans as a child undermined me more substantially than my masculinity advantaged me.
All trans people have experienced misogyny or misplaced misogyny
I’ve fought, and will continue to fight, for the inclusion of trans women in feminist spaces, and I acknowledge “male of centre” folks like myself are sometimes included in women’s spaces where trans women would not be welcomed. That sucks, and needs to be challenged. But I don’t think a full reversal of this is any more of an ideal, where we go back to the bad old days where any hint of masculinity renders someone’s presence within feminism suspect.
It isn’t a zero sum game, and I realise that many people fighting for trans women’s inclusion, myself included, have at times erased trans men’s need for inclusion in feminism. The way forward has to be more nuanced than a full reversal of the second wave status quo. We need to develop an understanding of how misogyny, and misplaced misogyny in the case of trans men who are 100% binary identified, impacts each of us differently, and a continually self-reflective view of how much our voices need to weigh in on each issue.
Labelling non-binary folks according to their birth assignment is oppressive
The terms AFAB/AMAB are as difficult to avoid sometimes as MtF/FtM, but they’re just as problematic. In another triumph of “biology is destiny”, the non-binary world is being categorised not according to the genders people are, but according to their birth assignments.
“AFAB privilege” is often lazy code for masculine privilege, but once that false connection is made we’re once again mired in the binary. There are plenty of ways in which an AFAB person can be trans without any sense of maleness or masculinity at all, because there are not only two genders. Equally, an AMAB person might not have a shred of femininity. At the same time, we might struggle to communicate our complex genders through the limited language of the gendered clothing currently available to us.
I love pretty things that some might consider feminine, but if I wear them, I am more likely to be misgendered. I dress to communicate my gender ambiguity, to balance out my female-appearing face and body – not to express masculinity. And the fact is, no matter how masculine my clothes appear to be, I continue to be treated as and gendered as a woman in most situations, with all the casual misogyny that goes with that. A suit and tie is not magical armour against misogyny, or misplaced misogyny. As the picture, right, taken at a recent wedding, illustrates, it takes a ridiculous amount of overtly masculine dress and hairstyle to make people hesitate in gendering me female, which, to be clear is my only goal in dressing this way. Testosterone will change this for me, and I will accrue male “passing” privilege, but alongside this I envisage a struggle to express my “not-male”ness, in ways that could put me at risk of misogynistic violence.
Visibility is not directly related to privilege
“AFAB non-binaries are too visible” I have lately heard some folks say, citing Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus, and ignoring the fine and very visible tradition of AMAB folks queering gender and getting famous for it for decades. At the same time I hear equally strenuous arguments dismissing invisibility as a problem when hyper-visibility can have such lethal consequences.
There is nothing beneficial about either invisibility or hyper-visibility, and comparing the two is like comparing bananas to bicycles. They are two very different consequences of oppression and neither of them is a symptom of privilege, even if the consequences of one oppressive tactic is far more dangerous than the other. I’m enjoying this little moment of AFAB non-binary visibility, superficial as it is, but let’s be real, it’s a mere moment amid millennia of silencing.
Misogyny is a continuum
Eddie Izzard and Richard O’Brien both identify as transgender and are both internationally well known and successful. These folks live with primarily, but not entirely, male identities. I’m sure they’ve both been affected by misogyny. Yet Izzard (pictured left on the Labour campaign trail) is contemplating the possibility of a successful campaign to become the 2020 mayor of London, and O’Brien is returning to the Rocky Horror stage amid noisy adulation. I think the calculation of either of their gender privilege is more complicated than simply AMAB+Trans=All The Bad Things.
Misogyny is a continuum that affects trans people in complicated ways that are more related to our actual genders than to our birth assignments. With the possibility of multiple genders and presentations, and our complicated bodies, there are simply no straightforward ways to do maths that will be infallible in our attempts to play “Top Trumps” with each other over oppression issues.
For nonbinaries like me, and probably for a lot of trans guys, the variable mixture of male privilege and misogyny or misplaced misogyny we experience is difficult to negotiate. I have moments of frustration on the occasions someone tells me I have all the privilege. But I’m aware that trans women are unfairly told they have all the privilege much more often so I try and take it on the chin. And yet, it’s not right for anyone to make such lazy assumptions about any of us.
As a whole trans community we have so much in common in our experiences of misogyny and gendered oppression, our difficult relationships with women’s spaces that have been created for a safety we all might need, our perilous negotiations with the oppressiveness of invisibility and the unsafety of visibility. We need to let go of our unhealthy need to use our birth assignments as a point of reference, and start to explore our current genders and bodies, our losses and gains, in all their complexity.