Tag Archives: Subjectivity

Things are not always what they seem to a prejudiced eye

Trans women “dominate the conversation due to their learned male privilege”, so the story goes. I have heard many variations of this story; a trans woman showed up in a women’s group and took too much attention, spoke too loudly or generally took up “too much space”.

Maybe it’s time to put this trope under the scrutiny it deserves.

Contrary to this stereotype, most of my trans women friends are pretty shy, and many are quite reticent and fearful, understandably, about speaking up against prejudice. They would be unlikely to go to a women-only space, or a lesbian or feminist gathering, for fear of exclusion or discrimination. Many of them rarely even leave their homes, because of the levels of harassment they experience when they do. I’m left wondering, therefore, if what is visible to many is an atypical and “feisty” subset of trans women.

Because let’s face it, given the levels of transantagonism to be found in many women’s spaces, it takes a gutsy trans woman to walk into one.

But even so, I am going to unpick whether the the words “entitled, dominant, male” are appropriate for even these “feisty” women.

Some time ago, I was at a feminist workshop, and found myself doing a lot of the talking.

This got me thinking, because accidentally dominating a conversation is not a new experience for me. I needed to self-reflect whether this was a sign of my own masculine privilege. I imagine, if I were a trans woman, my behaviour would certainly be taken as evidence of my masculinity. Perhaps, as a transmasculine person, it still is.

What was going on for me that day? Well, to be honest I was feeling pretty terrified, because I was scheduled later to deliver a talk on trans issues – I was hypervigilant, wondering how I would be received. I remember the woman I was debating with seemed pretty hostile to my way of looking at things, and I was on the defensive, hoping to talk her round and make myself understood.

Something I have learned is that the less comfortable I am, the more I talk. I am also less able to do basic things like modulating tone and loudness, and making judgements about turn-taking. Some people might diagnose my autistic spectrum traits from that description. I am, of course, totally responsible for my own behaviour; I just want to reflect on the cause.

I suppose it is pretty self-explanatory that in this situation I was caught in a fight or flight response and choosing “fight”. That in itself is, perhaps, a choice that could be ascribed to my male socialisation and sense of self, although I think that would be simplistic. It’s a choice I am responsible for, but it helps me understand there is more than straightforward privilege at work in my own behaviour.

But then I think about other folks who dominate conversations, and I recall a twittery and extremely feminine cis colleague I used to work with who would talk non stop on team days despite being terribly under-confident and quite a lost and lonely character. If she had been trans, would her behaviour have also been seen as “masculine”? Certainly she took up way more than her fair share of the space, but I suspect nerves and lack of social experience rather than confidence were the cause.

The legendary trans woman we so frequently hear about, usually third hand, who disrupted the otherwise “perfectly calm and harmonious” women’s meeting could have been behaving that way for any number of reasons. She could have been nervous, feeling on the spot, desperate to be accepted/included or to prove herself. Maybe she was lonely, or lacking in social interaction due to her marginalisation. Or perhaps on the autistic spectrum, as autism is common within the trans community, and can lead to difficulties with voice loudness, turn taking and reading other social cues. She might have been uncomfortable or on the defensive, because other women were hostile. She could have been experiencing fight/flight symptoms.

She may, based on her difference, have been making not unreasonable demands that nevertheless the group was resistant to accommodating, just like any other “uppity” minority person who doesn’t “know her place”.

And of course it is even more likely that it was the onlookers’ perceptions, rather than the woman’s behaviour, that were problematic; there are plenty of examples of perceptions changing according to whether a woman is perceived as cis or trans, and there are also numerous critiques of the catch-22 in which trans women are accused of aping stereotypes if submissive and of being unwomanly if not.

I think any reasonable human will acknowledge that we will be unconsciously looking for evidence of maleness in an out trans woman, and that our perceptions are often dictated by our beliefs – if you do not believe in the subjectivity of human perception, check out this now famous experiment on expert wine tasters perceiving a tinted white wine as red.

I personally have many times been mistaken for a trans woman online and have been subsequently branded with a list of attributes supposedly unique to those assigned male at birth.

We tend towards self-serving perceptions of situations. If we can pin our discomfort about someone’s behaviour and difference on their “privilege”, then we are entitled to reject and not accommodate them. It is far less easy to exclude a difficult person if their behaviour is a result of vulnerability, marginalisation, or mental health, so we tend not to consider those possibilities.

In reality, any well set up group should have ground rules about acceptable behaviour that apply to everyone equally, and there really is no excuse for singling out trans women. Making sweeping statements about a diverse group of people based on individual experiences is damaging, and this is a trope that needs to die. Particularly when we reflect that our experience of trans women is likely to be in spaces where they are outnumbered and probably being heavily scrutinised. Who would be comfortable and at their best in such a situation?

Brains are Weird

A friend of mine has synaesthesia. This is a condition in which the senses are experienced differently – where you can smell colours, taste names, see numbers, or many other unusual ways of experiencing the information our brains detect. We, the majority, will of course be quite certain that synaesthesics are wrong, that the colour purple most definitely does not smell like oranges – it simply looks like, well, like the colour purple. And we all know what purple looks like, don’t we?

And there is the thing. I know what purple looks like to me – I know what experience my brain has when it receives the energy signatures of the electron transitions that create colour of that particular frequency. I have absolutely no idea if what everyone else sees is what I see – synaesthesics give us a huge clue about the subjectivity of our experiences.

Here is another experience I did not know about until I heard a recent radio program about it. There are some people who are born with parts of their body not wired up to their brain, meaning that although they can see their hand, for instance, if feels like it does not belong to them because their brain does not register its existence in the usual way. This phenomenon has crept into legends of evil, possessed body parts but it is simply a wiring problem, currently an incurable one. In some cases, the feeling is so unbearable, amputation is a solution that helps the sufferer.

Anti-trans campaigners have used this condition to belittle trans people, comparing the two phenomena and saying that sufferers “believe they are really disabled” and are clearly deluded. Having never heard of the real cause, I once dismissed sufferers as cranks who had absolutely nothing in common with trans people.

That’s right, despite knowing very little about the phenomena, having never had an open-minded heart to heart with someone who experiences it, I felt entitled to have an opinion on the subject. Presumably my “normative” (in this case) experience fed my sense of entitlement.

But now I understand  a little more about the complexity of the human brain and how we experience the world and our own bodies, I realise I am in no position to tell another human being that how they experience the world or themselves is wrong. I can only say it is unusual, that it is not my experience and I do not understand it. Hopefully, I am learning not to be so arrogant as to think if it does not make sense to me, it must be nonsense – I might just defer to my vast lack of understanding of life, the universe and everything.

We have developed so much common language and shared meaning we believe we are all having the same experience of the world, but that is simply not true. Sensory information that is pleasant to some is unbearable to others, depending on how the brain receives that information. How we make meaning of our experiences does not just vary across culture but from person to person.  These variations only become problematic when someone insists that their particular subjective experience should apply to others.

And this is why I am trying to learn to say, “I find your take on the world unusual, but I accept your experience is valid for you, and I will not impose on your experience so long as you do not impose on my own self-experience”.