A big part of unlearning black-and-white thinking is learning to speak in “and also” statements; this technique is popular among both prison abolitionists and dialectical behavior therapists. I have been harmed, and also I have harmed others. I accept myself as I am, and also I need to change. I am a man, and also I have always been a woman.
I am, historically, not very good at this. As a young queer, my first foray into radical politics was through a rather public declaration of my own trauma—Tumblr as 21st century consciousness raising. Newly equipped with structural analysis, I had learned to understand the world in terms of two classes: survivors and perpetrators. This, I imagined, was called “materialism.”
Learning that my experiences of harm were because of patriarchy allowed me to see myself as a victim and stop blaming myself for violence done to me. But it also meant that my conceptualization of my own reality, and my right to label these experiences as violence, was inextricably tied to seeing myself as a woman—or at least, within this binary framework of who harms and who is harmed, as not a man. A lot of people conceptualize transmasculinity as “wanting to be a man” rather than simply being (or inevitably becoming) one. This was not true for me, at least not always. Transition was an urge, a need, but what I wanted was just to be content as a woman. I wanted it so much that a few years after coming out as nonbinary I tried to switch back to using she/they pronouns with close friends, as opposed to simply they/them, in the hopes that doing so would help me retrieve my misplaced womanhood. This attempt didn’t last long; while I still felt some level of dissatisfaction with claiming nonbinariness for myself, hearing the people I trusted call me she/her was a level of dysphoria far worse than the sort I’d grown accustomed to.
To try to resolve this dilemma, I dutifully chronicled my gender processing on Tumblr, hoping to make logical sense of how I at once felt dysphoria toward my assigned gender, alienation from our entire gender system, and a strong sense of solidarity with women and womanhood as the social class I’d been assigned. With each Tumblr milieu I encountered came a different explanation for this feeling, but I found the argument that my dysphoria was rooted in internalized misogyny—and contrary to my interests as a feminist and “woman”—to be particularly compelling.
So while I had said very little to my therapist about my transness to begin with, I soon decided to explain to her how, ultimately, who you are has to do with how you’re classed socially, not how you identify.
“What about ‘anarchist’?” she asked me. “Isn’t that an identity?”
“No, that’s affinity. It’s who you fight alongside, not who you are.” But I don’t think I ever really trusted myself to know the difference.
As a self-identified anarcho-communist, I of course knew that my economic position under capitalism influenced whom I saw as a comrade or fellow traveler. But was political kinship—or lack thereof—a necessary determinant of who I was or should be? As someone who identified with women, in the sense of a personal and political dedication to sisterhood, why did I find it so hard to identify as one?
In response to radical feminism’s legacy of abuse toward trans women, some feminist women (cis and trans) have developed a “trans-inclusive” politics oriented toward encompassing trans women in a fundamentally binary “sex class” framework. In the new radical feminism, much like the old, women (including trans women) constitute a class exploited by men (including trans men). This is, of course, far less objectionable than the idea that trans women are misogynists mocking and appropriating womanhood, or rapists seeking to prey on lesbians in feminist spaces. But this framework puts transmasculine people at a really painful crossroads: Do we transition and self-actualize, with the knowledge that doing so will render us complicit in the oppression of our sisters, the same oppression we’ve experienced all our lives? Or do we force ourselves to live as women (or else non-men of a different sort, though this ideology leaves little space to conceptualize nonbinariness), repressing the parts of us that call toward a transition away from womanhood and/or into maleness?
The figure of the class traitor is typically invoked to refer either to someone who crosses class lines through economic mobility or to someone who goes against their own class interests in an act of betrayal (a cop, a scab; a trust-fund kid who defects and joins the black bloc). How a transmasculine betrayal of “sex class” is conceptualized depends on the particular brand of radical feminism involved. To trans-exclusionary radical feminists, true “(sex-)class mobility” is impossible. As such, trans men remain classed as women through immutable socialization and/or biology; our transitions merely reflect our succumbing to patriarchal pressure, against our true interests as women. To “trans-inclusive” radical feminists, however, trans men have actually crossed class lines—or else have always been men (and therefore class enemies), a fact that is retroactively revealed upon transition.
The concept of transmasculine class mobility follows a set of assumptions that, on their surface, seem unobjectionable to many. IF trans men are men (and we are), AND all men participate in the oppression of women (to say otherwise would be to say #NotAllMen), THEN all trans men benefit from the exploitation of (cis and trans) women. This argument makes a lot of sense in the context of how trans people have been forced to construct our narratives and theories of self in response to cultural transphobia. Trans women in particular are bombarded with transmisogynistic accusations of intrinsic, immutable maleness, which, in milieus oriented around feminism or left politics, often take the form of claims of lingering male privilege or entitlement. These claims often rest on the misperception that trans women have ever fully been granted male privilege, or that even those who have it will somehow retain it through transition.
The trouble, though, arises when transmasculine experiences are assumed to be the inverse of transfeminine ones. In reality, the experiences typically called “male” or “female” socialization are both individually and culturally variant, and do not serve as direct opposites of each other. Our culture punishes “men” who deviate from masculinity for being like women, and punishes “women” for not meeting the gendered standards on which our social and sexual worth is based. Both a “failed” man / future transfemme and a “failed” woman / future transmasc are likely to have experiences of gendered violence, subtle or overt, which are fundamentally based in misogyny. Therefore, neither trans men nor trans women are likely to have always been granted the full privileges of manhood in all circumstances.
The question of whether trans men can experience misogyny was a defining feature of my time on Tumblr. But arguing with past Tumblr “discourse” feels a lot like shadowboxing, and many of those posts are now gone for good; there’s no one clear origin, no founding theorist I can cite. It feels risky to reference Tumblr as an influential source of trans thought, as though doing so lends credence to the reactionary stereotyping of trans people as inherently childish and politically unserious. And yet the theory developed on that platform—through collaboration, argument, and reflection on personal experience—continues to inform my work and how I conceive of myself years after finally logging off. The collective knowledge we created there, for better or for worse, still remains, even as SESTA/FOSTA and the resulting porn ban have driven much of Tumblr’s membership off for good.
One construct specific to this strain of Tumblr thought is “misdirected misogyny,” a term for misogyny applied to people who don’t identify as women (usually trans men and nonbinary people). A Google search for “misdirected misogyny” leads to as many posts saying “trans men experience misdirected misogyny, a form of transphobia, but not misogyny” as it does posts saying “trans men do experience misogyny.” “You may have experienced misdirected misogyny or misgendering,” one reads, “but that’s not the same as being a true target of misogyny.” Trans men internalize it differently, as we aren’t women—or else we internalize it the same, but because we aren’t women, it’s categorically transphobia.
But trans men’s manhood is inseparable from our transness, and the relationship between trans men and cis womanhood can’t be accurately understood by separating trans status from gender in order to claim we’re oppressed by one but not the other. The day-to-day operations of gendered power in our lives make no such distinction, and while theories of intersectionality are often invoked to defend such claims, the idea that these “axes” can be neatly separated relies on the exact additive conception of oppressive power relations that intersectionality was invented to disprove.
In the critique where she coined the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw argues that Black women are frequently excluded from antidiscrimination case law, feminist theory, and anti-racist politics precisely because their experiences cannot be reduced to the sum of racism and sexism. She references the case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, in which five Black women plaintiffs were denied consideration of their Title VII claims because the discrimination they experienced was particular to Black women rather than all Black people or women of all races. Because each form of discrimination was treated as a “discrete set of experiences” in this case rather than part of a multidimensional whole, “the boundaries of sex and race discrimination doctrine [were] defined respectively by white women’s and Black men’s experiences.” In reality, however, Black women relate to power differently from either group, and their experiences cannot be understood by combining the experiences of oppression each have. Similarly, trans men’s relationship to gender cannot be understood by adding the privilege of maleness to the oppression of transness; the interaction between these axes substantively transforms both such that it generates an experience qualitatively different from either alone.
This qualitative difference is particularly salient for Black trans men and transmasculine people, whose experiences at the intersection of race, gender, and trans status are especially ill-captured by a sex-class approach. The assumption that masculinity necessarily means freedom from gender oppression ignores how race/ism is always gendered, and in particular how Black masculine people are gendered as inherently dangerous (and targeted for anti-Black violence on the basis of that “danger”). By attempting to conceptualize shared female experience independently of race, sex-class theory upholds white womanhood and manhood as definitive of gendered experience. In reality, however, Black trans men are frequently denied the presumption of innocence shared by the implicitly white “female sex class” even before transition. The moral credit of perfect victimhood which I feared transition would take from me was never a unifying trait of womanhood to begin with.
The fundamentally binary nature of sex-class-based thinking is equally inadequate for understanding nonbinary people, as evidenced by its proponents’ various attempts to sort nonbinary people’s experiences into one or the other sex class. In one version, nonbinary people are oppressed as “non-men,” and thus functionally members of the sex class typically designated female. In others, “non-men” is replaced with “non-women” (in order to center womanhood, and the impact of misogyny), or else nonbinary genders are divided into the “female-assigned” and “male-aligned” (which, of course, risks reattaching binaries to those who have explicitly rejected them). And while they rarely directly invoke the language of sex class, there are certainly many who theorize gender oppression as specifically cis men’s exploitation of, well, the rest of us.
For me, claiming that my childhood experiences of misogyny do not influence my current relationship to gendered power relations is as invalidating as saying that me having had a girlhood means I’ll never be a man. To believe that would render my past inexplicable, and leave me with no context for understanding the man I am now, and the ways in which I differ from the cis men I organize with, fuck, and love—as well as the ones who have harmed me.
But to be clear: Trans men can and do participate in misogynistic oppression, and our participation clearly offers us some immediate benefits, even if misogyny also harms us. Just like cis men, simply resolving not to oppress women isn’t enough to avoid participation in structural violence, no matter how pure our intentions. But it also isn’t true that this behavior is a necessary consequence of being men, in some essential sense, or that naming ourselves as men (or starting hormones, or passing as male more often than not) is itself what leads to assuming this role. And importantly, perpetrating misogyny in no way means that we haven’t experienced it, or that we don’t continue to experience it to varying degrees even after transition.
Trans people of all genders are frequently subjected to the burdensome demand that we serve as experts on all aspects of trans experience and identity in order to justify existing as we are. Meanwhile, leftist and feminist social milieus each carry with them their own traditions of interrogating individual desire, which have been applied normatively as anti-consumerist directives and separatist sexual politics. This combination can be poisonous for trans radicals if we’re made to feel that the way we experience our genders is incompatible with our structural analysis or liberatory vision.
In her 2018 n+1 article “On Liking Women,” Andrea Long Chu begins to present a critique of feminist conceptions of gender as they relate to individual desire. She connects the history of trans-exclusionary radical feminism to a broader tradition of lesbian seperatism and, more specifically, a tendency to seek political purity through the policing of personal manifestations of gender and sexuality. Ironically for her argument, however, the connections Chu draws between transfeminine transition and political lesbianism themselves parallel a narrative frequently used to condemn transmasculine desire. Trans women, she writes, are “the OG political lesbians: women who had walked away from both the men in their lives and the men whose lives they’d been living.” If turning your back on manhood is an ultimately feminist act, what are we to make of the decision to become a man?
Thankfully, however, while generous toward both historical lesbian seperatisms and their transfeminine counterparts, Chu ultimately shies away from attributing inherent political righteousness to trans women’s rejection of maleness, which she sees as obscuring the true nature of transition. Transition, after all, is as much about desiring one gender as it is about rejecting another. And desiring femaleness itself involves desiring trappings of normative femininity that are, from a strict second wave perspective, politically suspect. Therefore, Chu sees little use in trying to deny that call, as desire is “childlike and chary of government.” Furthermore, she writes, “when we begin to qualify it by the righteousness of its political content is the day we begin to prescribe some desires and prohibit others.”
She expounds on this further in her new book, Females, in which she writes that “gender is always a process of objectification,” in which no one, least of all trans people, can consent to our genders without the recognition of others, and our internalization of others’ expectations for us renders us all female. Femaleness, she writes, is “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another” and “a universal existential condition.” This state is just as fixed as our traditional conception of sex, but refers to an ontological, not biological, essence. So as all transitions are rooted in our desire to be seen—inherently an object position, and thus inherently female—transmasculine transitions are, under Chu’s framework, no more anti-woman than any other. But this also means that transmasculinity, like all masculinity, is fundamentally a defense against our intrinsic femaleness, and the extent to which, on some level, we all desire feminization.
This is, of course, a troubling prospect, as trans men (like all trans people) regularly face accusations that our fought-for identities merely disguise our true nature. Yet it rings true for certain experiences I’ve had after transition, which I’ve traditionally blamed on “internalized misogyny”—a scapegoat vague enough to be applicable to most forms of transmasculine neurosis. If I want to be wanted—by cis men, even—am I objectifying myself? To exist in an object relation doesn’t necessarily mean being an object of misogyny, but when sex is involved, the two are difficult to separate. As Chu has written previously, the line between wanting women and wanting to one isn’t so clear cut; as a man attracted to men, the lines between wanting men, wanting to be men, and wanting to be wanted by men are just as blurred.
But a self-concept constituted by male desire is as easily attributed to misogyny as it is to transness, making me sometimes wonder whether— as trans-exclusive feminists frequently claim— this reflects some “female experience” of my past I haven’t been able to escape. There’s some comfort in Chu’s reminder that gender renders us all through each other’s eyes. But this provides little explanation for transmasculine desire before transition; a desire to be seen and/or desired as a man, while equally dependent on external recognition, nonetheless requires some identification with maleness beyond just the self-repression all “females” experience. And that maleness carries the baggage it always has: that of the subject in a subject-object relation and, therefore, the one doing the objectifying.
Accordingly, it’s hard not to try to qualify gendered desires in moral terms, particularly coming from a feminist tradition that understands one gender position as inherently and violently oppressive. While liberal feminisms prefer to draw a distinction between “healthy” and “toxic” masculinities, a sex-class-oriented approach necessitates treating all maleness as at least suspect, purely by nature of the class relation. As a young communist politicized through feminism, and radicalized through my dissatisfaction with individual solutions to collective problems, I did not find the call to be a “good man” particularly compelling, at least as a solution to patriarchy. And yet, the call to be a man—of any sort—remained.
Conveniently for me, the years I’ve spent began reckoning with radical feminism’s implications for my own gender happened to coincide with a major revitalization of this debate within Marxist and feminist academia. In 2014, Viewpoint Magazine released Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gender,” a primer on three different theories of the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. I was 19 at the time, living with my parents and attending my local community college; my only off-line leftist community was my then partner, a nonbinary anarchist I met on Tumblr who happened to live in the same suburb as me. I first spotted Arruzza’s article in a Facebook group they had added me to—a split from a split from a different communist meme group, which had since evolved into a general discussion-forum-cum-selfie-gallery for queer communists dissatisfied with both LGBTQ+ identity politics and the heterosexual left. Someone had posted it for me in response to post(s) I’d made venting about my guilt and frustration over my then nonbinary trans identity, which, intended as a reprieve from dysphoria free from the baggage of manhood, had neither resolved the former nor wholly avoided the latter.
Since then, I’ve added it to multiple reading lists, recommended it to guilt-stricken transmascs, and picked at least one fight about it with a particularly frustrating boyfriend. The article’s conclusion—the part I found so transformative—was an endorsement of unitary theory: the belief that patriarchy and capitalism (along with race, disability, and other forms of social domination) constitute one complex social order, rather than separate systems that at points overlap. Much in the way that class relations organize production, under capitalism, gender relations organize reproduction: the creation, formation, and provisioning of people, for the purpose of regenerating the workforce so that production can occur.
What this meant for me was twofold: First, it reintroduced me to materialism, not as a weapon for denying my experience but as a tool for understanding it. When our conception of the material isn’t rooted in the social relations of production and reproduction, “material analysis” can easily come to mean little more than the right-wing tagline that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” At its best, though, feminist materialism rejects essentialism, of both the biological and the ontological sorts. In the years since I first learned of unitary theory, I’ve seen many of the same people who first argued me out of my shame take leading roles in developing a queer and trans understanding of social reproduction. They’ve taught me that if Marxism hasn’t yet provided me with the framework to explain my existence, that’s my chance to build it—but it’s not my job to force myself into a shape that’s more easily justified.
Secondly, unitary theory redefined the terms of gender oppression in a way that places the ultimate blame on the bourgeoisie (a group that I, in my entry-level research job, definitely do not belong to, with none of the grey area associated with my maleness). I now understand the ways in which working-class men benefit from oppressing women as analogous to the ways in which scabs benefit from strikebreaking. The gains are undoubtedly real on an individual level but are not representative of workers’ ultimate class interest in either scenario. This allows for meaningful solidarity across gender lines.
I’m thoroughly convinced that believing this —and surrounding myself with people who did, too—is what allowed me to transition. I wouldn’t have been able to overcome the guilt of becoming my own oppressors otherwise, nor the shame of being seen as the enemy by the women I share so much with. Obviously, holding this belief has been deeply unsettling to my conception of feminism—and there’s still a part of me that worries it’s wrong of me to displace total responsibility for patriarchy onto a class I’m conveniently not a part of.
For me, this is ultimately the core tension of transmasculinity. As adamant as some may be, no one’s entirely sure how to relate us back to the male/female paradigm. A few transmasculine theorists, and many more cis female theorists of transness and/or gender nonconformity, have tried to address this over the years, reaching various conclusions. In his 1998 essay “Reading Like a (Transsexual) Man,” Henry Rubin taxonomizes multiple feminist approaches to trans men, which were as present in 1998 as they are now. He criticizes approaches that uphold trans men (“FTMs,” in his words) as feminist subjects due to our essential womanhood and those that reject the potential of trans male feminism due to our status as men. To Rubin, however, this is no different than approaches to cis men’s feminism. He rejects the idea that trans men have in some capacity had female experiences as incompatible with transsexual subjectivity; therefore, as with all men, our reconciliation with feminism is only possible through a feminism that centers action rather than identity. This conception of feminism as something one does, rather than something one is by nature of birth or identification, is of definite value to building solidarity against oppression across genders. And it’s quite possibly the most comforting conclusion for transsexual men, as it allows us manhood without relegating us across enemy lines. But even then there’s something lost by relating us to feminism in the exact way we relate cis men.
More recently, in his 2017 article “Trans, Feminism: Or, Reading Like a Depressed Transsexual,” Cameron Awkward-Rich has critiqued Rubin along these lines, noting that alternate conceptions of transness exist beyond “I was always my gender,” and that vehement transmasculine disavowal of female experience tends to reproduce male power over women (what he calls m>f). Unlike Rubin, Awkward-Rich holds that the tension between feminism and transness is ultimately unresolvable, and in fact need not be resolved. He likens this position to a politicized depressive identity, which accepts bad feelings as a neutral part of life rather than a problem to be solved. Feminism and trans studies, he writes, are “in love” insofar as they both want something from each other that the other cannot provide, yet remain in a relationship with one another in the hopes of gaining “something that will ensure [their] own endurance.” Trans men in particular need feminism to understand the harms we experienced for failing to be women, but want from feminism something it can never give us: to be acknowledged as men within a m/f paradigm, without reproducing m>f.
Marxist feminisms are, now as ever, denounced by feminists as unfeminist almost as frequently as they are denounced by Marxists as un-Marxist. This is clearly baseless, definitionally speaking, insofar as they seek both women’s liberation and the abolition of class society. And yet it is precisely because of how unitary theory is unlike most feminism (in the sense that feminism, definitionally, theorizes women’s oppression by men under patriarchy) that it provided me what Awkward-Rich says feminism could not possibly provide. I’m still not good at holding two contradictory ideas at once, but Marxist dialectics have graciously offered me a synthesis.