It is not uncommon for people who wish to delegitimize trans women and transfeminine people (either as individuals or en masse) to invoke our supposed “male socialization.” I discuss the many problems inherent in such claims at great length in my 2007 book Whipping Girl and in my 2022 essay Why are AMAB trans people denied the closet?
I won’t reiterate everything that I argued in those pieces, but I do want to hone in on one point: Nobody actually believes in “male socialization.” Or at least, not in the way they are implying when they deploy this phrase against trans female/feminine people.
Granted, there was a time (read: mid-1900s) when behaviorists like B. F. Skinner ruled psychology and argued that our brains were basically blank slates shaped entirely by the positive and negative reinforcement we received while growing up. But nobody believes this anymore! Humans exhibit well-documented innate cognitive processes and internal desires. And individuals naturally (and inexplicably) vary greatly in our personalities, aptitudes, interests, and tendencies.
If socialization really was an all-powerful force that irreparably shapes who we are, then there would be no trans or queer people, as we would have internalized all the cis-hetero-normative conditioning that we were barraged with as children. If socialization worked like that, there would be no butch lesbians or trans male/masculine people, as they would have all turned out to be perfectly feminine women doting on their cis-het husbands in accordance with patriarchy.
If socialization really worked the way that some people imply when they wield “male socialization” against trans female/feminine people, then gender conversion therapy would work every single time. But it doesn’t. In fact, medical professionals largely agree that it is ineffective and unethical. Because socialization doesn’t work like that!
For trans female/feminine people, “male socialization” was our conversion therapy. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it was thrusted upon us anyway. For some of us, it didn’t stick at all. Some of us pretended to go along with it out of fear (read: we were in the closet) until we were finally in a place that we could safely escape it.
So what is male (or female, or cisgender, or heterosexual) socialization then? Well, I’d describe it as like wading in the ocean, with waves constantly pushing you in one direction. Although sometimes there are other currents (e.g., the undertow) pushing you in another direction as well. If you’ve ever gone to the beach and watched people in the ocean, you know that they don’t all automatically wind up in the same place. Because every individual has some degree of agency. We can choose to float with the current and see where it takes us. Or we can walk or swim against the current — which is admittedly harder but totally doable — and wind up someplace else.
All trans and queer people have pushed against the waves of our cis-hetero-normative socializations and wound up someplace else. So we should all be able to relate to this. We also understand that the waves of socialization don’t stop once you reach adulthood, and they certainly don’t stop if you transition. Here’s a short passage from my book Sexed Up, wherein I describe the “in between” period of my transition when I was never quite sure what gender people were reading me as:
As I began working on this chapter, I reread the diary that I kept from my transition and found that I often used water analogies to refer to this period in my life: I was caught in the currents of a raging river, or surfing a wave of other people’s expectations, or adrift out at sea without an anchor — basically, I felt untethered and not at all in control in such situations. [p.29]
I felt this way because the waves of socialization were literally shifting all around me. Eventually, once the rest of the world began reliably perceiving me as female, those were very different (and often harsher) currents than what I experienced when I was perceived male. But they were still currents and they continued to push me in directions that I did not necessarily want to go. As before, I found myself swimming against the tide much of the time. Trans male/masculine people in my life tell similar stories: Being perceived male isn’t some kind of panacea, as you still have to navigate waves of expectations, assumptions, and meanings that may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable or anathema to you.
I feel like everything I’ve said so far should be pretty relatable, especially to other trans people.
Given all this, it’s extremely frustrating when other trans and queer folks invoke “male socialization” as a reason not to trust, or listen to, or accept trans female/feminine people. The fact that this “male socialization” argument is complete bullshit first struck me back when I was doing outreach for Camp Trans, which worked to overturn the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s longstanding “womyn-born-womyn”-only policy. In Whipping Girl, I describe this conversation I had with a cis lesbian who supported that policy.
The fact that socialization is a specious argument became obvious to me during an exchange I had with a trans-woman-exclusionist who insisted that my being raised male was the sole reason in her mind for me to be disqualified from entering women-only spaces. So I asked her if she was open to allowing trans women who are anatomically male but who have been socialized female — something that’s not all that uncommon for [trans female/feminine] children these days. She admitted to having concerns about their attending. Then, I asked how she would feel about a person who was born female yet raised male against her will, and who, after a lifetime of pretending to be male in order to survive, finally reclaimed her female identity upon reaching adulthood. After being confronted with this scenario, the woman conceded that she would be inclined to let this person enter women-only space, thus demonstrating that her argument about male socialization was really an argument about biology after all. In fact, after being pressed a bit further, she admitted that the scenario of a young girl who was forced against her will into boyhood made her realize how traumatic and dehumanizing male socialization could be for someone who was female-identified. This, of course, is exactly how many trans women experience their own childhoods. [p.241]
Obviously, it was hypocritical for this lesbian to believe that she was capable of transcending the cis-hetero-patriarchal socialization that she faced, but that trans women are supposedly incapable of doing the same. But like I said, she wasn’t *actually* talking about “male socialization.” In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she, like many trans-woman-exclusionists, shifted her argument from “male socialization” to “male privilege” or “male energy” instead (which are similarly flawed when invoked in this way, as detailed in Whipping Girl and Why are AMAB trans people denied the closet?).
While male socialization, privilege, and energy are completely different things — the first typically refers to one’s upbringing, the second refers to social advantages experienced by those who are perceived male, and the third seems to refer to masculine gender expression — they are rhetorically levied against trans female/feminine people in the exact same manner: to insist that we are permanently poisoned by maleness, and therefore inherently oppressive and dangerous.
I get why the cis lesbian I encountered all those years ago might have bought into this framing. After all, if maleness and masculinity are inherently poisonous, oppressive, and dangerous, then she (as a so-called “real woman”) must be inherently “pure” and “safe” by comparison. But it confounds me as to why a small yet vocal contingent of trans male/masculine people seem to buy into this line of thinking too.
So yes, I am talking about The Discourse™ now. If you are unfamiliar with it, Jude Doyle’s recent essay, Trans Masc Misogyny and the Red Six of Spades, thoughtfully discusses some of the dynamics involved. I have less hands-on experience with it: The trans male/masculine people in my life get along fine with trans female/feminine people and vice versa. I only see The Discourse™ on occasion online, when it gets retweeted/shared on my social media feeds, or when trans male/masculine individuals whom I’ve never met call me a “TERF” for posting about transmisogyny or refer to Whipping Girl as a “landlord positivity self-help book” (yes, these things have actually happened).
These claims don’t make any logical sense, but they’re not supposed to make literal sense. Much like “male socialization/privilege/energy,” they serve one purpose: to depict me (and potentially other trans female/feminine people) as inherently poisonous, dangerous, and oppressive.
Rather than litigate inane things that people on the internet say, I want to talk about the dynamics behind this Discourse™, as they impact all trans people to varying degrees. I’ve come to call this the “cultural feminism doom loop” — I discuss it in far greater detail in my essay, Penises, Privilege, and Feminist & LGBTQ+ Purity Politics, especially in the penultimate section “Cultural Feminism and Transgender Purity Politics.” But here’s a quick TL;DR:
Cultural feminism is arguably the worst strand of feminism, but unfortunately it’s everywhere. In Whipping Girl, I describe it as being invested in oppositional sexism but flipping traditional sexism, such that women are now deemed inherently “good” and “pure,” and men inherently “oppressive” and “dangerous.” Cultural feminism forms the backbone of “gender critical”/TERF ideology, but it also informs mainstream feminism, for instance, in the idea that there would be no violence or other societal ills if female politicians ran the government, or if every company had a female CEO, and so on. It’s extremely anti-intersectional. And it’s obviously bullshit, as many women commit acts of violence and act oppressively toward other marginalize groups. But it’s popular because it’s simple and it paints cis women as victims who are entirely free of any culpability.
Because it’s everywhere, cultural feminism has seeped into trans politics. And if men are deemed an “oppressive” “corruptive” force, and women the “pure” yet “vulnerable” victims of male oppression, then trans people must be either one of the following three things:
- Trans male/masculine people are the victims of male oppression because they are AFAB and experienced “female socialization.” Which, if true, implies that trans female/feminine people are “male oppressors.”
- Trans female/feminine people are the victims of male oppression because we move through the world as women and femmes in the here and now. Which, if true, implies that trans male/masculine people are “male oppressors.”
- All trans people have been corrupted/poisoned by maleness/masculinity in one way or another, which, if true, means that we should all be lumped into the “male oppressor” category.
As someone who’s been involved in trans communities for thirty years, I can tell you that #3 was the predominant feminist attitude for much of that time. But with increasing trans acceptance, some cis feminists (specifically, those who adhere to cultural feminism) seem more inclined to embrace argument #1, which not only smears trans female/feminine people as “oppressors,” but it misgenders all of us (see Jude Doyle’s essay for more on this).
In my 2007 landlord positivity self-help book, Whipping Girl, I strived to show the myriad ways in which trans female/feminine people are negatively impacted by societal misogyny. In it, I coined the term transmisogyny to refer to the intersection of oppositional and traditional sexism in our lives. I made it very clear — both in the book and in my subsequent writings — that trans male/masculine people also face oppositional sexism (e.g., transphobia) and traditional sexism (misogyny), albeit not quite in the same way (for more on this, see this essay and a video in-the-works that I will link to when it comes out).
Unfortunately, due to the ever-present specter of cultural feminism, some people have misinterpreted “transmisogyny” as argument #2 from above — even though that wasn’t at all my intention, plus I explicitly critiqued cultural feminism in my book. This seems to have led some trans male/masculine people to either appropriate the term transmisogyny to describe their own experiences, or to denounce the concept entirely. These reactions, together with some trans male/masculine individuals’ centering of their AFAB/“female socialization” status, are often read (or misread) as argument #1.
When I first saw the terms “transmisogyny affected” (TMA) and “transmisogyny exempt” (TME), I thought they were potentially useful nonbinary and non-identity-based ways of discussing the phenomenon. But sometimes, they seem to be used in response to the trans male/masculine reactions to transmisogyny that I described in the previous paragraph. And if you mistakenly presume that “transmisogyny” = “only trans female/feminine people experience misogyny,” then “transmisogyny exempt” will likely strike you as a doubling down on argument #2.
This is why I call it the “cultural feminism doom loop.” It’s a zero-sum game where we all have to assert our female/feminine credentials if we want to be taken seriously. And we may be swept-up into this Discourse™ for different reasons. I’m sure that there are some trans people who are fully invested in cultural feminism and are sincerely making arguments #1 or #2. But many of us are being misinterpreted as making arguments #1 or #2 if we simply talk about our own personal experiences with misogyny and/or transmisogyny.
The only way out of this, as far as I can see, is for us as a trans community to explicitly (and loudly) reject cultural feminism — both its essentialism and its zero-sum conceptualization of gender-based oppression. If we did this, then we could all openly discuss our experiences with oppositional and traditional sexism (and the intersection thereof) without other trans people presuming that we’re implying that they have not been impacted by these forces — or worse, that they must be one of our “oppressors.”
Finally, I want to specifically address one argument that has arisen from this “cultural feminism doom loop.” It goes something like this: Trans female/feminine people have or exert power over trans male/masculine people because we have visibility while they do not. While this may have made some sense in the mid-2010s (when much of that trans visibility was positive), it makes little sense today when trans female/feminine people are regularly smeared as “sexual predators,” “fetishists,” and “groomers” in anti-trans political campaigns.
Invisibility can suck if you are part of a small and marginalized population. But visibility can also suck, especially when it involves you being publicly demonized.
One manifestation of transmisogyny is that trans female/feminine people face undue attention and scrutiny — our every move, misstep, and imagined motives are dissected, overanalyzed, and amplified, often to horrific ends. I’d argue that trans male/masculine invisibility is the flipside of this same coin (insert Jude Doyle’s Red Six of Spades analogy here). To put this a different way, dismantling the mindsets and structures that lead to transmisogyny are likely to dismantle trans male/masculine invisibility as well.
Regardless of whether that last point resonates with you, I do know that our fates — that is, all trans and gender-diverse people’s fates — are tied together right now, especially given the ongoing mainstream anti-trans moral panic. One thing (amongst many) that we can all do to make the world a little more tolerable is to reject cultural feminism and its anti-trans “doom loop.”