Bullish: Trans Men On Male Privilege And Locker-Room Bullshit


A few months ago, in Bullish: When Men Are Too Emotional to Have a Rational Argument, I twice quoted Ben Barres on whether women are truly “more emotional” and on the idea that society is biased in favor of “pushy, aggressive people.”

Here is another, oft-recounted incident involving Barres, from the Wall Street Journal:

Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, “Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.”

There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn’t have a sister in science. The Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.

Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.

And then I wondered how common this sort of thing really is. So I put out a call on Facebook: “Do I know any trans men who are willing to talk (anonymously is fine) about having access to sexist discussions one would not, as a woman, have access to?”

And, oh, did I hear some amazing shit.

Okay! So here’s what Awesome Guy #1 had to say:

Well, I am a trans man and I have had experience with brief moments of sexism that I did not experience before transition. I’m sure I experience it way more than I happen to be recalling right now. But, yes, it certainly happens and exists. The only real story that springs to mind, though, is the following experience I had when I sprained my ankle at work once. Because it was from a fall at work, they had to call an ambulance to come check me out. The EMT was a big, burly New England guy. So he helped me into the back of the ambulance and was asking me his clipboard questions, one of which was, “Are you taking any medications?” So, I tell him my meds which include testosterone. Then I explain it’s because I’m transitioning. He looks confused for a minute and asks if he can ask me something personal, sort of apologetically, and says, “In which direction?” So I laughed and said “female to male.” We both had a chuckle and then he says, “Welcome to the winning team” with this nudge-wink thing, which, at the time, was kinda sweet but definitely sexist.

Aww. I agree! Sexist but kind of sweet. Okay, here is Awesome Guy #2!

I was in a gym locker room a week or so ago and the bro talk was intense. Two men in particular were having a fairly unfiltered discussion about the female staff of a different gym and where their proclivities lay. It’s not that men wouldn’t have that conversation anyway, but that there is something about the “safe space” where you don’t really expect to get called out on that. And in fact, I think it would be a kind of outing of one’s self to challenge those dialogs in the safety of men-only space.

As a trans guy, this gets really thorny when you’re not only an observer, but also – in passing – often included in the wink and the nudge. Trying to perform a more responsible version of “socially appropriate” masculinity when you already feel at a bit of a disadvantage not having the birthright men get is really challenging. Once you pass, many guys expect you’re just another guy to affirm the “Man look at her ass” “She’s so hot” “You know what I mean, right?” mentality. So when and if you don’t, not only are you betraying the unspoken social understanding of the space, but, depending on how well you pass, you may also be outing yourself.

The locker room thing is not just a cliche!

Awesome Guy #3 is someone I know a little better, and we had a long talk. He works in international development, including in countries where government figures routinely call for the death penalty for gay people. I’m just going to reprint our chat:

Jen: Hi! I was hoping you would reply, as one of my favorite thoughtful people out there doing things in the world.

So, I recently wrote this article, in which I quoted Ben Barres, a scientist who transitioned from female to male, and who wrote quite a bit on the topic.

AG3: Right. Just read it. Interesting. By the way, in politics, the phenomenon you described in that article is totally exemplified by the Joe Walsh/Tammy Duckworth battle in which he was an incoherent, emotional, gibbering idiot, and she was calm, cool, and collected the entire time (well, duh, she was a FUCKING BLACK HAWK PILOT).

It took an extreme case (him being EXTREMELY emotional and her being EXTREMELY calm) before people could see it. In the same way as black people have to be 150% better than white people before people see them as competent.

Jen: Ah, good comparison.

AG3: On a personal level, my immediate reaction to that article is that “emotional reactions” are really any reactions that men aren’t equipped to respond to. As a man, I do feel this paralyzing sense of “Oh crap, there is no right way for me to handle this situation” when a woman has what is often called an “emotional” reaction.

And because privilege works the way it does, I get to stick a label on her so I don’t ever have to learn to deal with that general class of reactions.

Jen: So, you are saying that it’s tempting to behave in a way that you know is sexist, knowing that it’s possible to get away with it?

AG3: Well, I don’t know that I’d say it’s tempting (I’d like to think better of myself than that) but I try to be aware when I could act like a jerk and then decide not to.

Jen: Interesting. So, my idea for an article — based on some of Barres’ comments — is that perhaps trans men get to hear all kinds of sexist comments that others would not have said in front of them before they transitioned.

AG3: Yes, I’ve read his work. Astounding, especially those people who commented on how much better his work is than that of his sister (who was him, pre-transition).

Jen: Yes! Holy crap. He’s a fucking hero for bringing all of this to light. I was thinking that maybe in your international travels, you’d encounter a lot of the same kind of sexism.

AG3: A lot of people say ridiculous stuff in front of me…I hear anti-Muslim garbage, misogynistic nonsense, and a lot of homophobic bullshit.

Men like me, men who have transitioned, and who live their lives unambiguously as men? We have assumed male privilege, and so I don’t feel we get to then use the trans card when it suits us.

And the reason why I say that is because – try as I might – there are times when I find myself culpable, because misogyny is so fucking systemic and pervasive.

This happens a lot in the workplace. I try not to speak over women at meetings, I am very conscious about giving them credit for their ideas, I try not to be That Guy, right? Well, shit still happens.

I’ll give you an example. We’re interviewing people in Kenya. Three of us interviewed this guy, thought he was great. Had him do some tasks for us, and he delivered.

Then, we happened to have two team members pass through Nairobi, and we said, “Why don’t you guys interview him while you’re there.” They did, and came back with feedback like, “He was arrogant beyond belief.” and “He picked up his phone during the interview — I stopped counting after the third call.”

Jen: Because they were women?

AG3: None of these warning signs were displayed when the rest of us spoke to this man. And the only thing we could come up with was that these two colleagues who interviewed him later were women, and the rest of us were men.

Jen: I think I saw that on Mad Men. ARGH, PEGGY, WE FEEL YOUR INDIGNATION.

AG3: And this is the second time that’s come up — the first time, a guy came across as great to two people, and when the third person (a woman) interviewed him, he let on that he didn’t really think there was anything wrong about beating his wife a bit if she was disobedient.

Jen: Incredible.

And so, we were like, “Well, hell, maybe we need at least one woman on every interview panel.” But frankly, that had never occurred to me before to do. Probably because my privilege blinds me. The women on the team were like, “Mmmhmm.”

Jen: Can I tell you that that is already my favorite part of this interview?

AG3: And that’s just one example. Stuff like that happens to me all the time, where I just get blindsided by misogyny and sexism in a way that the women on my team obviously don’t (because they’re the ones that have to deal with it all the time). The only thing I can do is to NOT make them feel like THEY’RE the problem, because I can just imagine how much worse that would be. (No, sorry, we’re going to hire him. Clearly you did something wrong for him to come across as arrogant and creepy.)

It’s things like this that make me realize that no, I don’t get a pass on things like male privilege just because I may have at one point not wielded it to the extent that I do now. Everybody grows into male privilege. Boys don’t have it, either. That’s why young boys from very conservative cultures can be so sweet, and then when they become men, watch out.

Jen: Wow. These stories are so extreme. It’s like what I imagine would happen domestically, but dialed up to 11.

AG3: My life is kind of extreme. One time I was in Ghana in a business meeting, standing in for my boss (who is British), and the person I was meeting with said, “Thank God it’s you meeting me and not That Simon.” I said, “Oh, you prefer to meet with me?” Turned out, yes, because “Simon and Tom Smith and all those British people” were going to cut aid to Ghana if “we don’t all become gay.”

Jen: WTF?

AG3: I reasoned with her to whatever extent I could. I said they weren’t trying to turn her gay. She said, “Why can’t you understand that you people eat potatoes and we eat yams?” I said, “I think what we’re saying is that if some of your people like to eat potatoes, then that shouldn’t be cause for them to be jailed or killed.” She said, “Hmph,” and then called the meeting to order.

Jen: Being gay = eating potatoes. I will remember that and be sure to tell the Irish.

AG3: I think I trust in their better natures. I have to. And then I tell these stories and laugh.

Jen: Oh, I was wondering — I assume no one at your work knows that you are trans?

AG3: My bosses know, but none of my co-workers do — and I’m happy to talk more about why, if you’re curious. Everybody knows I am queer as a three dollar bill, though.

Jen: Potato eater! No, seriously, I’m very curious! I would think it might be the reverse — you’d reveal more of your history to coworkers your own age and less to bosses.

AG3: Well, I had to tell my bosses because there was some paperwork-related matter we had to deal with that came up. Oh, a transcript I hadn’t changed, maybe? Something.

When I talk about my sexual orientation, I call it coming out, because I believe that having people know that I’m gay or queer allows them to better understand me. They can adjust their social expectations accordingly when issuing +1 invitations, they know which pronouns to use when we talk about dating, etc.

Jen: Right, there’s a social aspect to being gay/queer.

AG3: When I talk about my trans history, I call it disclosure, because I’m revealing private information, and a large part of that is my medical history. My gender presentation is fully in line with my gender identity, so I don’t have any social expectations I need to adjust. If anything, social expectations get weird after I disclose, because people are less informed than would be ideal.

A lot of things that I do get mistakenly attributed to my trans status. Like… oh, so you’re a feminist because you’re trans. Well, thanks, I’d like to think I’d be a feminist regardless, but okay.

And often, the level of scrutiny gets annoying. Like… oh, so you have that weird high-pitched laugh because you’re trans. Gee, thanks, I didn’t transition to be self-conscious about every single minute thing I do.

Jen: Yahsar Ali kind of gets that. He’s a feminist because he’s gay, or a person of color…

AG3: Yup. And that same thing gets amplified many times over when the thing that one is disclosing is not well understood.

Jen: This has given me a lot to think about. Thank you so much.

Originally published on The Gloss.

As first published by Alloy Digital, LLC. Image via xkcd.