A common understanding among gender activists is that most people think of gender as a binary, and that most institutions are built around a fixed concept of two genders.
I suggest that mainstream society actually uses a threefold ‘ternary-gender’ model of gender, dividing people into ‘women’, ‘men’ and ‘freaks’. I use this model to discuss a common area of disagreement between gender activists: male privilege as experienced by transsexual women.
This article also discusses the concepts of transgendering (gendering somebody as trans*) and unpacking ‘male privilege’ into internalised, social and power-over privileges.
The way I talk about gender here is definitely limited by the social models of gender I’ve grown up with, based on the fact that I’m white and live in the UK. I’m aware that many other models of gender exist, but I don’t know enough about them to talk about them in a useful way. Likewise, when I talk about coming into contact with others’ models of gender, I’m talking about the models that I encounter, living here and moving in the circles I do. I suspect that the further the locus of experience is from my own, the less accurate this article will be.
Women, Men And Everybody Else
Anyone who’s ever taken an organisation to task over a form containing only the restrictive options ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ knows the first concession that will be offered (if anything’s offered at all, of course). They will add a box marked ‘Other’ to the form. It seems inclusive. Genderqueer people can now complete the form without having to affirm a lie about their gender. But that’s also the problem; a genderqueer person can now complete the form and access the service it offers. The system sustains itself by manifesting an exceptional category into which it puts the people who don’t fit.
Transsexual people might experience this when around cis folks. As a transsexual woman, I’m treated in broadly three different ways when out and about. There are the people who misgender you as male and interact with you in a male gender register. There are the people who gender you correctly as female and interact with you in a female register. And then there are the people who gender you as trans, or, as I like to say, who transgender you, and, if they interact with you at all, can come out with a wide variety of responses, many of them not very pleasant.
In the Matrix: Revolutions (actually, I kind of liked it, now you ask) the Architect describes the secret to creating a perfect binary system:
You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden to sedulously avoid it, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control.
In other words: you cheat. The exception is the pressure valve which allows most people to remain within the two primary categories and to conveniently dismiss anything which doesn’t fit. The alternative, when confronted with a person who doesn’t fit the gender binary, is to contemplate gender in its beautiful and breathtaking complexity. And how often have you had that reaction?
While many people, when asked, will tell you that there are two genders, the behaviour of individual and institutions reveals a more nuanced model of gender. Repeatedly, this ‘other’ category emerges, complete with a feeling of pushing away. As a genderqueer person asserts hir gender, sie is eventually told that sie’s, “just weird”. Safely categorised, sie and hir arguments can now be dismissed, rather than hir existence shattering hir interlocutor’s worldview.
The Ternary-Gender Model
In the ternary model of gender, there are three genders. ‘Man’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Freak’. I use that last word deliberately and not without some affection, as in Mia Mingus’ keynote speech at the 2011 Femmes of Color Symposium.
What about those of us who are freaks, in the most powerful sense of the word? Freakery is that piece of disability and ableism where bodies that are deformed, disfigured, scarred and non-normatively physically disabled live. Its roots come out of monsters and goblins and beasts; from the freak shows of the 1800’s where physically disabled folks, trans and gender non-conforming folks, indigenous folks and people of color were displayed side-by-side. It is where “beauty” and “freak” got constructed day in and day out, where “whiteness” and “other” got burned into our brains.
I think that Mingus uses the word in a stronger sense than I’m using it here, and I hope she (please correct me if I’m mistaken about Mingus’ pronoun) doesn’t mind my borrowing it. I hope Mingus would agree that, while the othering of a white, mid-transition, transsexual woman doesn’t really compare to the othering performed on queer disabled women of colour, our bodies are both delegitimised by the concept of ‘freak’. Because of the differences between the way Mingus and I experience ‘freakhood’, I don’t feel as comfortable reclaiming the term as she does, but this piece doesn’t attempt to reclaim it – here, I use ‘freak’ to speak about a worldview used by others over trans* people, without making a claim about the legitimacy of ‘freak’ as an identity.
Like all models, freaks/women/men isn’t actually real. It’s a useful template to apply to people’s thoughts and actions, offering a framework in which to understand, predict and potentially change them. Real people’s thoughts about gender are complicated and individual, and people can often say one thing and think another.
In this model, most cis people are gendered as a cis gender almost all of the time. Many trans* people are also either gendered as their correct gender, or misgendered as the ‘wrong’ gender. Occasionally (or not so occasionally for some of us) we are transgendered into ‘freak’ by those around us. Some people and institutions will explicitly maintain an ‘other’ category in their worldview. Others will do so implicitly and reveal its existence through their behaviour. Some people and institutions won’t maintain the category either explicitly or implicitly, but it may exist potentially, in that when confronted with information, or an individual who does not match their gender binary, they may create this category. (I’ve often seen this happen.)
A tool is best explained with a demonstration, so let’s talk about…
A common theme in radical feminist discourses around transsexuality is the assertion that a transsexual woman retains male privilege and that admitting transsexual women to women-only feminist organising spaces admits male privilege to those spaces, undermining the reason they were set out as women-only.
A quick google will find you any number of articles arguing for or against this point, but predictably, as a radical feminist transsexual woman, I’m going to tackle it a little differently, with the help of our ternary-gender model. We’ll need one existing model as well, which is the privilege knapsack model of male privilege, where male privilege is constructed as a network of multiple privileges.
I loosely categorise these privileges into internalised, social and power-over privileges.
- Internalised male privileges are about who you are or who you feel yourself to be
- Social male privileges are about treatment in society or access to institutions
- Power-over privileges are those which give men influence and control over women
Of course, male privileges interact with each other and also inhabit multiple categories. For example, a man might come to feel his opinion is important (internalised) because he isn’t talked over in a group (social); he’s able to avoid street harassment (social) in part due to a confident body language which becomes part of his self-image (social); and part of the pressure he can place on consent (power-over) comes from his expectations (internalised) and the response society would make to non-consent (social). So it might be more accurate to say that male privileges have elements of internalised, social and power-over to differing extents for each privilege or set of privileges.
Traditional models of transition, based on an understanding of a social gender binary, describe how a transsexual woman gradually loses (or doesn’t lose, according to some arguments) male privileges as she socially transitions, and becomes viewed less as a man and more as a woman.
I’d argue that different types of privilege are given away, suspended or destroyed at different times in transition and that understanding when and how this happens can be done with help from the ternary-gender model.
Loss of Male Privilege via Misogyny and Transphobia in the Ternary-Gender Model
My experience of transition has not been that I’ve moved from ‘male’ to ‘female’ in anything approaching a linear fashion. Over time, elements of my body, presentation and psyche have found themselves moving from ‘male’ to ‘freak’, ‘freak’ to ‘female’ and often back again, as different things take personal priority, and work together to construct gender presentations that cause me to be treated differently in different situations by different people.
As I’ve moved from ‘male’ to ‘freak’, I’ve found that my social male privileges have been largely suspended in that, by people not treating me as male, I’m not offered most social privileges. As I’ve moved from ‘freak’ to ‘female’, most of these haven’t returned. In general, I’ve experienced these privileges as ones which are removed from me by society based on its perception of me. Broadly, I characterise the removal of these privileges as misogyny, i.e. the normal condition of being a woman under patriarchy.
My power-over privileges have felt the most situationally different, in that they’ve been most dependent on how an individual genders me, rather than how I’m gendered by society as a whole or how I experience society. Because I’ve deliberately avoided much interaction with people who transgender me as a ‘freak’, my experience is mostly in being treated as female. If anything, I’ve (unwillingly) retained the most power-over people who have previously experienced me in a male social role; power relations are enduring and take some time to change, if they ever do.
As I’ve moved from ‘male’ to ‘freak’, some of my internalised male privileges have stayed with me and others haven’t. I’ve said before (not on this blog) that, if you had to design a system of social conditioning to strip away self-assurance, the transition process expected by the NHS of a transssexual woman would be a good candidate. Some of us have better experiences than others – mine’s been pretty good, all told, so quite a bit of my internalised privilege has stayed with me. I usually feel that I have a right to an opinion, that my thoughts and choices are valid. But broadly, I characterise this process as experiencing transphobia, the normal condition of being considered trans* under cis supremacy.
Still on the subject of internalised privileges, and more problematically, my sense of when to speak up in a group is sometimes still closely matched to the patterns taught to men, which given that I spend increasing amounts of time in women-only organising spaces means that I need to work hard to consciously speak less. As I’ve moved from ‘freak’ to ‘female’, I’ve begun to experience some of the policing mechanisms experienced by women since birth and which act to suppress self-worth and confidence in women under patriarchy. Nowadays I can expect to be censured if I speak in a way that’s perceived to be ‘too confident’ for a woman, in the same way as most people assigned female at birth (AFAB) are censured. Because it hasn’t been happening to me for as long as it has to AFAB women, it hasn’t had as much effect yet. Like with loss of social privilege, I characterise this as misogyny.
Since publishing this article, I notice that it’s been picked up and discussed by Gendercast. In the podcast, Tobi Hill-Meyer disputes the implication here that transsexual women have an entirely “male” privilege prior to transition. I agree with her, and that implication wasn’t intended. I think the situation prior to transition can be complex – complex enough that (along with some other concepts) I’ve since devoted an entire article to discussion of it.
The Double Bind of Transphobia and Misogyny-Recipient-Privilege
Here’s where I think a lot of confusion enters understandings of transsexual women’s experience, and where I hope to dispel it. Not all transsexual women immediately experience the full burden of misogyny upon beginning transition. Paradoxically, the absence of misogynistic treatment can be painful. We learn that normal female experience under patriarchy includes the experience of misogyny. Not receiving misogyny is nice, because misogyny is not nice, but it’s also a sign of not being considered a normal woman – i.e., it is a sign of being transgendered as a ‘freak’.
Sexual objectification is a good example. I’ve been involved in some annoying conversations about street harassment with cis men, which have largely consisted of them arguing that street harassment is a nice thing, because it’s a compliment. Of course, AFAB women’s true experience of street harassment is often very different. The two views are summed up very well in this comic about street harassment (trigger for harassment, rape culture).
When transsexual women speak tentatively of how it feels painful not to receive street harassment, we can be dismissed as holding the view of the man in the comic, who says,
If women on the street said I look nice, it’d make my day!
What we’re actually saying is that one of the ways we know that society considers us freaks is that it treats us differently to the way it treats women, and we know that if we’re not a man, and we’re not a woman, we’re a freak.
In my experience:
- When I used to be mostly misgendered as male, I tended to receive most forms of male privilege
- When I am transgendered as a freak, I experience some but not all forms of male privilege and also experience transphobia,which works slowly to break down some forms of male privilege
- When I am correctly gendered as female, I experience a few lingering forms of male privilege and experience what Julia Serano calls conditional cis privilege, some trans women call passing privilege, and I describe as a combination of conditional relief from transphobia (conditional on not being outed) and misogyny-receipient-privilege, a misogyny which works slowly (as it is designed to work on all women) to strip away confidence, happiness and agency
That last phrase is somewhat sarcastic. It’s a cruel irony that the penultimate (more on this later) stage on a transsexual woman’s journey (if you want to construct it as a journey; I think there’s a certain problematic element to that construction but it’s useful here) involves the crowning achievement of qualifying for misogyny, a kind of treatment society reserves for its sex class, women, a class widely treated as less-than-human, disposable and abusable; and that it still feels like a privilege to reach that stage. As Melissa McEwan writes on Shakesville:
What a choice: Acknowledged but harassed, or ignored and denied recognition of one’s womanhood.
To understand why this stage can be desirable requires the ternary-gender model. Someone who has travelled directly from ‘male’ to ‘female’ (do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred thousand pounds’ debt in electrolysis bills) would immediately comprehend misogyny as an undesirable state. If a magical regendering ray existed which could flip somebody’s sex and gender in an instant, not only would it be a wonderous thing for transsexual people, it would also be the most persuasive tool available for feminism – zap a man, let him live for a month in a woman’s place, zap him back and he’ll be a radical feminist, guaranteed. The disparity between men and women’s conditions is too great, too obvious, that it would immediately be apprehensible.
But transsexual people don’t use the gender ray. We go through the process slowly, and in doing so, we move through a place of disprivilege different to misogyny; the ‘freak’ stage of the ternary-gender model and a stage in which we experience transphobia, which is delegitimisation, violence (mostly but not entirely reserved for trans sex workers and trans women of colour), alienation, sexual isolation and exclusion from even queer spaces.
The ‘privilege’ of experiencing misogyny is (conditional) relief from transphobia. For feminist transsexual women, it can also be a recognition of sisterhood with AFAB women and an experience of legitimacy. It’s no wonder that sometimes we aspire to it, and this doesn’t mean that we deny the harm misogyny does to all women.
A Radical TransFeminist
Let’s come back to the word ‘penultimate’. For me, misogyny-recipient-privilege feels like the last-stage-but-one on my so-called journey. The final stage, for me, is a radical feminism which comprehensively rejects every form of misogyny, including trans-misogyny, and every felt entitlement of every other human being and every institutional structure to impose their gender stereotypes on me, whether gendering me as a freak or as a member of the sex class.
That is why I am a radical transsexual feminist, that is why I want radical feminism and transsexual feminism to work together to destroy patriarchy (and its weapon, the gender ternary) and that is why I’m writing here.
Call for Responses
There’s a lot missing from this article. Things I’d like to read about but didn’t have the time, knowledge or experience to write include:
- One-gender models (such as the medieval sex paradigm), where men are considered the most fully human people, and all other people lesser degrees of human. I think these also describe our current situation very well. Perhaps these intersect better with the ways that, for example, impairments and Whiteness are viewed.
- Ways in which the othering of trans* people as ‘freaks’ interact with other othering. I’ve experienced only one or two axes of othering – how does the experience of more kinds of marginalisation change the applicability of this model?
- Your uses of the ternary-gender model to investigate experiences in your own thoughts about gender, or your experiences of others’ treatment of your gender.
- Uses of the ternary model beyond gender. I think it’s likely that more than one binary out there is really a ternary, sustained by an ‘other’ category. I’m interested to see what other problems this idea can solve.