We’re living in a time of gender panic.
Arguably, we always have been — that panic is just boiling to the surface lately. In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair spread, a certain school of feminists are worried about how trans people could be redefining womanhood for everybody. (Others, not so much.) Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose are giving big, famous faces to gender fluidity. In response to the acknowledgement of that fluidity, queerness as an identity and an umbrella term is on the rise — what does that mean for the future of old-school labels like lesbian and gay, or femme and butch? Since more people are coming out as trans than ever before, might identities like the butch lesbian be endangered? Do we care?
Basically, straight people are nervous — and in a way, so are queer people forced to reckon with how tightly they hold onto their own labels. With gender barriers slowly but steadily wavering, we wanted to check in with a few smart thinkers on these messy topics — but we thought we’d take a moment to flip the hyper-femininity script.
When we think of gender, we tend to think of women, and by extension, femininity. Men (and masculinity) are more neutral, blank-slate kinds of identities, at least in the popular consciousness. This construction of masculinity is, of course, a very narrow view of gender presentation — its facets, its complications, its privileges, its powers.
I asked Thomas McBee, Ari Fitz, Gabby Rivera, and Dr. Van Bailey to join me by group Gchat for a discussion of masculinity — specifically, masculinity as it is performed and embodied by those who were assigned female at birth. Trans men, masculine-of-center women, and gender-nonconforming people perform masculinity in ways that subvert the gendered expectations of their bodies. What do they all have in common, and what sets them apart? I wanted to know what these smart humans had to say about gender panic, sexuality, and the future of the masculine versus feminine gender dynamic, from their own particular positions and perspectives. Here's what they had to say.
Shannon Keating (LGBT editor, BuzzFeed): I'll kick off: In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair debut and the resulting vitriol, there’s been a lot of talk about the pressures of trans women to perform a certain kind of womanhood. Some have accused Jenner of buying into capitalist and heteropatriarchal beauty ideals; others have countered that trans women are held to the standard of enlightened gender warriors more so than cis women are. With all this talk about the “right” way to be a woman who doesn’t bend to the will of the male gaze, where does this leave masculine-of-center women? How are trans men held to standards of “appropriate” masculinity/manhood in ways that mimic, or diverge from, standards placed upon trans women?
Dr. Van Bailey (member of Brooklyn Boihood): I think that what’s real has always been a fascinating topic that’s layered in all types of complexities. I think it depends on the culture, time, place, and space. Often the stories that do not get told are [of] those who have lower class status, lack of access to queer spaces, those who have differently abilities, those who may “pass” but it’s unsafe for them to be out in certain environments, so let’s not forget about those voices and experiences. Also, there are folks who refute the idea of passing and move through space as a visible queer person, like myself. But, as I gain more passing privilege it’s important for me to enter spaces I didn’t always have access to in order to address masculinity and its relationship to misogyny and patriarchy.
In order to reimagine a safer world, all those who identify along the masculine spectrum must come together in order to address gender justice in which healthy masculinity includes unwavering self-love (including understanding your identity and what stake you have in this world) and accountability. I think we can be healers and have direct action in dismantling patriarchy and uplifting our trans women (especially trans women of color) sisters. We are continuing to expand our understanding of sex, gender, performance and power and privilege in the queer community, and I think that’s a great thing!
Ari Fitz (producer, Tomboyish): Agreed with Van in many ways, but one that hit hard for me was there's no need to break down each other to help us better define each other.
Van: Exactly! There's room for everybody.
Ari: Quite simply, womanhood isn’t defined by its relationship to men — it exists on its own. My womanhood most definitely isn’t and never has been. How Jenner presents womanhood is just as beautiful is how I present womanhood. Our womanhood is not mutually exclusive. They coexist, we all coexist. What we're fighting for is the freedom to do just that: exist.
Van: *snaps* get into it!
Ari: *hair flip*
Gabby Rivera (QTPOC Editor, Autostraddle): "Where does this leave masculine-of-center women?" is a funny question. Where did we go? I don't understand how it connects really. We're not any place we weren't before. All of this talk about the "right" way to be a woman is strange, like how would Caitlyn Jenner's decisions on how she presents herself affect me? I present masculine, even though I think that word is strange sometimes. I don't put myself together intentionally to go against what's considered acceptable for women, I just do what feels right for me. I hope she's doing the same. It looks like that's what happening. I mean, I'm more concerned with some class issues as it is. You know access to that level of self-care is a thing.
Gabby: Yes! "Our womanhood is not mutually exclusive" — love it.
Thomas Page McBee (writer and author of the memoir Man Alive): I agree, and to address the question re: how trans men are held to different standards from trans women broadly: We benefit from sexism. When we're on the covers of magazines, our masculinity is celebrated, not critiqued. Like cis men.
Ari: Thomas, are you saying the broader public celebrate trans men’s masculinity more than trans women’s femininity? Or generally, masculinity is simply more celebrated so that leads to wider acceptance of trans men vs. trans women?
Thomas: I think re: the original question regarding standards applied to trans men and trans women: Trans men, like cis men, benefit from sexism and women — all women — deal with its ramifications. The "standards" we deal with as trans folks are inherently different. Seems obvious, but usually useful to point out.
Ari: Definitely, and agreed.
Van: I agree, and I think it depends on the layering of identity.
Shannon: Would you like to speak more to that, Van?
Van: Well, I think it's how I look at race, class, and its intersections with gender and fashion/style.
Gabby: The closer any of us get to the ideal standard of beauty for men or women, the more praise we receive from the public at large. If you're a dyke, be a dyke, but don't be a "manly one." If you're a trans woman, they want you to look as much like what's considered a "real woman" as possible. Universe save you if you fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and don't rush to make a choice they consider appropriate — they don't want us. And as a brown person of color without considerable means, reaching those standards in either direction is challenging.
Ari: That's the important piece here. The range is wide and far. There are many of us who do not pass — and frankly don't want to! — and those are the narratives we don't see. I present masculine on a Tuesday and sometimes might present feminine on a Thursday. This freaks both queer and larger communities out. The world loves to be "progressive" and stand by you, as long as they understand where you fit.
Gabby: And the public only chooses to elevate one or two faces — they don't uplift communities. Sometimes the faces are great and the individuals put work back into the community and that's worthy of applause and love. Like Laverne Cox, Tiq Milan, etc. Ari: yes! We're stuck still having to talk about masculine versus feminine. Why haven't we gotten past that static dynamic?
Ari: That, Gabby, that!
Gabby: (No disrespect, Shannon, I heart you!)
Ari: All love, Shannon.
Shannon: Lol no worries, I wanted you guys to get into this stuff! What might getting past that dynamic look like?
Thomas: I personally think a lot of reimagining gender, for me, has been about being in touch with it as a mystery, as a spiritual act.
Van: Depending upon your class, national identity, access to spaces, resources, your abilities... How you define yourself is interwoven in these factors. Fashion is such a political force because of its ties to something beautiful like race identification and culture, and also has serious consequences like capitalism and consumerism.
When I think about race and identity, especially from my own lived experience, it’s that POC masculinity is seen as both desirable and dangerous. It’s seen as cool and disruptive. So, when you tie that to clothing, how it plays out through lived experiences is fascinating. When you’re hypervisible, the attention you get from different people is alarming. For instance, as a black masculine person, I’m hypervisible to the police but issues that are facing my community aren’t always to the forefront of mainstream organizations, corporate and nonprofit. So, because of my identity, there’s always a multilayering of consciousness happening. How I dress, which I do for myself, will also be seen and policed in many settings... That’s just the way it goes.
Gabby: Van, yes, that's the truth. All of it.
Ari: To Shannon’s question, that dynamic is simply accepting and acknowledging the ambiguity that comes with gender and presentation. Period. The world has seen a few of us and heard a small few of our stories. I think these inaugural narratives are shaping how all queer people are viewed. Those narratives are digestible, understandable, and marketable. But there are a lot of us that just don't fit into those spaces, which is again why Jenner's womanhood has no relationship to my own.
Van: This also relates to the idea that people's identities are fading away. I think it’s interesting that we look at the expansion of gender and understanding of its complexity as an elimination of what’s possible. I think by opening up more space, we are realizing the multiplicity and layering of gender. It’s a much wider spectrum and its interplay can be seen through its performance, globally. So, I don’t think labels or identities are static — we have opened up our consciousness to what’s possible...including multiple ways of existence. There are so many possibilities! Everybody should have room for their own story-making and self-authorship.
Gabby: Exactly. The idea of the "endangered butch" is at once baffling and irritating. Like, when was the last time anyone who asked that question went to a girl party? Butches are not endangered. To assume that because it's possible to fully transition into a man means that there will be less women who present masculine lessens the identities of all people involved. It's silly. It's as strange as somehow including U.S. soldier narratives in the discussions on Caitlyn Jenner. Like, what now?
Ari: ^ Nailed it.
Gabby: We've got too many distractions and convoluted connections. They keep us from meaningful discussions, especially in the public sphere.
Van: I'm more interested in how we can expand the conversation on masculinity and discuss ways to hold all of our complexities while also engaging in meaningful discussions that will then turn into transformative action.
Thomas: Generally the way people confuse what it means to be trans with all sorts of other experiences usually is rooted, in my experience, in the need to "UNDERSTAND" it. I often remind people that empathy and respect don't require relating in a one-to-one way with someone else's gender. We all have a gender. I think the world would be a better place if everyone started there.
Shannon: Thomas, could you relate that to what you were saying earlier about approaching gender in terms of spirituality/mystery? And separately, Van, what do you envision in terms of transformative action?
Van: I think the more we understand gender and its connections to other identities, the more we can generate love and empathy in the world. We would place more value on the lives in the margins and do what we can to ensure their survival. I say, let’s continue to expand these conversations, let’s discuss ways to create healthy masculinity that upholds accountability and uplifts femme-of-center folks and trans women of color, but also illuminates and recenters self-love for masculine-of-center folks.
Ari: To that point, there's a beauty in us even having this conversation right now.
Van: Agreed. It's so critical to make space for multiple truths and narratives.
Thomas: I've written about gender and masculinity specifically for a lot of different audiences for many years, and I've never sugarcoated my truth nor have I presumed that readers won't understand it. I've approached people with the expectation that they can do better than "born in the wrong body" and I've challenged everyone I've interacted with to think of their own gender, and its intentional construction, as a spiritual and potentially revolutionary act. I don't know why I'm trans. Gender is not a performance for me, in the simplistic way I viewed identity as a young person. It's also not the construction projected on me. It's something messy and beyond. There's a freedom in that, and also a kind of terror for most people. Because if we can't signify with our bodies in legible ways that are easily and entirely translated, in what other ways is our universe not what it seems?
Ari: Per Thomas' point, understanding is not rooted in comparison. You don't have to be me to get me.
Gabby: That's why it's so important to engage in our communities and be active participants. Engage beyond corporate-funded parades and all-you-can-drink parties. The real work comes through organizing and making time for thoughtful communication with each other. The movements are really with the people heading out to AMC and other such conferences, and those engaged in social justice work with community organizations. And those of us like, Ari said, who are discussing these issues with each other. There's this idea that all of us are at the same point in our evolution. It's not true. We're all in different phases and we need each other to grapple with and detangle — if need be — the intersections of all complex identities.
Answers have been edited for clarity.