Life

One of the Guys

Fragile masculinity is pushing trans folks out of male spaces.

Man holding up hand of refusal.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The first time I came across a group for women and nonbinary people, it was soon after I’d come out as a trans man. The group was a queer meetup organized by a friend of mine, and there was room in it for transgender women, cisgender women, and nonbinary people of any presentation or birth-assigned gender. Transgender and cisgender men were not invited. Since then I’ve come across other events, parties, groups, and spaces that bill themselves as being for women and nonbinary people. There are remarkably few spaces, though, that cater to trans and cis men, and nonbinary transmasculine folks.

Why is that? Perhaps there’s more of a desire on the part of cis women to have safe places for discussion and support, which in turn led many of these spaces to think about transgender inclusion, and subsequently open themselves up to trans women and nonbinary folks. There seems to be some common assumption, however, that “women and nonbinary people” makes sense as a category while “men and nonbinary people” does not.  In a society that was, until quite recently, strictly patriarchal, men are still widely seen as “the norm” while women are a deviation from the norm. This way of thinking leads people to (perhaps unconsciously) append nonbinary folks to women as an asterisk, part of the deviation from a norm of maleness. But that greatly exaggerates the similarities that women and nonbinary people have with one another. And it erases the similarities that I and other men, including cis men, have with nonbinary people (also known as NBs, or “enbies”), particularly those who identify as transmasculine.

The transmasculine umbrella is a loose category, used in the queer community to describe people who were assigned female at birth but are more aligned with masculinity than femininity, and who don’t consider themselves cisgender women. Transmasculine people generally present themselves in a masculine style, they may or may not experience gender dysphoria, and they may or may not take steps toward medical transition. In contrast to trans men, transmasculine enbies don’t align themselves with either a male or female identity; their gender falls somewhere outside or in between. There are also transfeminine enbies, and nonbinary folks who don’t align with the transmasculine or transfeminine camps.

Transmasculine enbies are often grouped with women—if their nonbinary identities are recognized at all. This phenomenon can be quite irritating. Here’s what Ben Melville, a 26-year-old from California who identifies as genderqueer/nonbinary and transmasculine, had to say about the lack of trans-inclusive spaces that aren’t primarily aimed at women:

My access to queer and LGBT+ spaces has often meant me being grouped either in general trans and nonbinary spaces, or in spaces that are meant for women and nonbinary people. While I typically do feel safer in the company of women, being assumed to be under a broad category of “women and enbies” has often been difficult—my expression and identity are much closer to transmasculine than anything feminine, and not having access to spaces that are inclusive of both my being nonbinary and transmasculine has been inconvenient at best (forcing me to in some capacity be grouped with women when I am not one), invalidating of my identity at worst (sometimes meaning my being misgendered, or my identity being brushed off entirely). More than this, while I appreciate the fact women have worked to foster inclusion of nonbinary people in their spaces, it’s often made me feel as though people ultimately only see me as a woman, which is a difficult mental struggle to say the least.

In real life, I’ve noticed that masculine people seem to gravitate informally toward one another. A group of mostly cis men who go to the big game might easily come to include a very masculine lesbian or a male-passing nonbinary person every bit as much as a group of mostly women that goes to the mall might include a femme gay guy or someone who was nonbinary and feminine. But this sort of natural simpatico that masculine people feel regardless of gender doesn’t often translate into mostly male spaces or events that include transmasculine enbies. In fact, there aren’t many spaces that explicitly welcome regular old trans men. For men, trans inclusivity simply doesn’t seem to be on the radar the way it is for women.

It’s no surprise that so few male spaces include trans men, cis men, and transmasculine folks all together. Patriarchy tells us that men deserve a place of privilege that is untainted by femininity. At some point in their lives, many men experience the threat of emasculation, the fear of seeming womanly. In response, individuals whose identity calls into question the purity and privilege of traditional masculinity may be seen as a hazard. We are left out and find refuge instead in groups for women and nonbinary people—a category that still doesn’t make much sense but certainly beats total exclusion.

That’s really too bad. As a transgender man, I enjoy spending time with cisgender men whether they’re straight and masculine like I am, or queer, gay, or bisexual. I notice a lot of antipathy toward men and maleness in feminist and queer circles, and while I don’t take it personally (and understand where it comes from), I’ve never shared it. I also really enjoy spending time with my nonbinary transmasculine cousins and find we have a lot in common. Many transmasculine people choose similar options to the ones I’ve chosen for my medical transition, including injections of testosterone, packing, and chest surgery. Many transmasculine enbies have also had the experience of being outwardly perceived as female while having an inner experience that didn’t match that perception, and those who transition medically experience a shift, like trans men do, after which they begin to be perceived as male. Nonbinary people may want to feel like one of the gang—or “one of the guys.”

Having trans-inclusive spaces for men might also be a way cisgender men who are interested in facing the contradictions of maleness in 2018—but who still value spaces with a more masculine energy—might try to grow past the toxic, femme- and female-shaming versions of masculinity that they grew up with. Trans men and enbies have wrestled with our masculinity from a somewhat different angle. Many of us have been seen as women at some point in our lives, and we’ve had close nonsexual friendships with women (something a lot of straight cis men seem to struggle with). We’ve also learned to hold on to female coded interests or pursuits without allowing our sense of our maleness to suffer for it. Enbies—particularly transmasculine ones—have a lot to offer male spaces. They deserve more than being perpetually lumped in with women as an asterisk or an afterthought.