'Forced Femininity Saved My Life:' One Genderqueer on Male 'Privilege'

In Depth

Adding to the discourse around the conceptualisation of male privilege, “Suz,” an assigned female at birth genderqueer individual, offers another perspective on the damaging nature of toxic masculinity. In feminist circles, we often contend with cries of, “but what about the men?” Well, guys, this is about the men.

Could it be that being forced into femininity saved me?
One hot July day in New York City, 1990, I was born a child. I was pulled from my mother’s womb and I was examined. I was determined to have a vagina. It was declared on my certificate that my mother, woman, and my father, man, had given birth to a baby girl. That was the first experience of the life-determining effects of American society’s gender binary, swaddled in pink, not blue, certainly not purple or some other, more ambiguous color. Pink. Moments out of the womb and before even receiving my name, I was being wrapped in gender.
Billions of newborns began their life this way and thousands are, right now, being assigned what they are and what they are not. Some infants cannot be separated into two easily definable camps through genitalia alone, and more often than not are tailored mere days if not moments after their birth into this world to make sure our distinctions continue to “fit”. But I was not one of these cases. My mute infant biology did not threaten the status quo, nor did the circumstances surrounding my birth to married, white, middle class parents. I would grow older and learn the truth- about my father’s infertility, about the secrets of my parents’ marriage and class hidden from view, and about gender. This is what this piece is about- a tell-all tabloid piece where we snap candid pictures society doesn’t want us to see. But for now this is all the whole world knew- I was born a normal, healthy girl.
All children are born a seed. These seeds carry in them all the predispositions we house in our genes, a massive tree with branches sprouting off at all sides. But from the moment that pink or blue swaddling hits our skin, those branches begin being pruned. What should little girls look like, do, be? What about little boys? We are lucky. Unlike parents in prehistoric times, we have books, websites, experts and rows and rows of gender-segregated children’s toys to guide us. But at least in the beginning, I experienced a gendered world quite differently than many of those other little girls.
My father had always wanted a boy. His first marriage ended childless. His second marriage resulted in my older sister. This time, on his third, he wasn’t going to wait around. I was his favorite, his protoge. Who will ever know if it was my potentiality tree essentially being more masculine than feminine or the stimulus I was given growing up. All I know is, in my most formative years, I worshiped him. My father was everything my mother was not. My mother, always around, taken for granted, boring. My father, coming home from work just a few hours before I went to bed, picking me up in his arms and giving me treats my mother wouldn’t allow. My mother, on the floor, bruised up, crying, shaking, weakness. My father, chair raised, threatening, dominance, power. My mother, quiet mouse, tense, never making a movement too fast. My father, relaxed, ordering, reclining in his Lazy-Boy, watching the game. I would sit on the side of that beat-up, overstuffed chair, not understanding or caring about the sports on the television but radiating in my father’s presence. And I would radiate his hate at my mother, a mirror intensifying and simplifying in my child mind what was so much more complex- my mother was weakness and my father, power. I saw him running the house-hold, getting whatever he wanted. I wanted to be powerful too.
When I was three years old, I saw my father break my mother’s ribcage. I also saw my baby sister being born. As she herself grew, Emily became everything I wasn’t- pretty, good at making friends, she just fit in so well as I struggled with interactions outside my home. I was very shy. I didn’t “click” well with other children and would prefer to spend hours or days by myself, making elaborate stories in my mind, playing chess or drawing pictures. Making friends with girls was particularly hard. Most of the friends I had growing up were boys. Emily also had the “natural compassion” that is such the calling card of femininity. When my father would pick a fight, she would try to intervene or console my mother afterward. I usually ignored it outwardly but in my mind, I reveled in it. She’s getting what she deserves, I gloated, for being so stupid, worthless, weak. She’s getting what she deserves for being a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad woman. I was small, she still had power over me. I could not name my demands, dictate the movement of others. I saw weakness in my small, female body and I was terrified of it. But on my father I projected myself. I empathized with him so strongly as if it was a prayer or protection. I thought I was so smart when I would subtly rile up my dad into anger just for the vicarious catharsis of watching his acts of violence. It was easy and such a rush. I never thought much about my own gender- I didn’t think much on being a boy or a girl. All I knew was that one day, I would grow up and be just like him.
The years passed. My father would take me to chess tournaments and he was so proud when I won. He encouraged me to do physical things, to be traditionally “masculine”. I did well in school and though I remained shy, I had some close friends. Things were going alright for me. I had friends I would play video games with, participated in the school wide game of Cops and Robbers as the only girl, but this was never really focused on, save a little teasing about being a “tomboy”. Though I was playfully teased, my behavior was much more encouraged than not. This was 5th grade, my last year of elementary school. The next year, the following things would occur: I would get my period and begin rapidly developing secondary sexual traits, my father would leave the family for a new girlfriend, and my mother would fall into a debilitating depression. It was as if the rug had been pulled from under me, leaving my entire life lying on the floor. Suddenly, my role model / surrogate self had left me with my mother and sister. Me! Was I being conflated with them? Demoted? There must have been some kind of mistake! I wasn’t like them! I wasn’t weak, feminine- I was strong! Why was I left with this broken woman who wanted me “to be the mommy”?!
To compound this, when I said I started developing, I mean puberty hit me just as hard as my father’s abandonment. As if overnight, breasts swelled, weight congregated and conspired to give me away. Suddenly, it wasn’t okay for me to play with my friends- my hideous transformation had morphed them too. In the eyes of the parents, teachers and other adults around me, while I had gone from “student” or “my child’s friend” to Girl, they were suddenly told to be very aware of the fact that they were not other kids but Boys. When a year ago our friendship was unquestioned, they were now taught to be wary of me, for I was what they were not, the Other sex. I’ll never forget being invited to play at my friend Andrew’s house. We had come to play his new computer game, the whole gang. I remember being taken outside on the terrace by his father, who had eyed me like I was a predator when I walked into the apartment. He told me, hand on my shoulder and kneeling down so that his eyes could be just above my level, that I couldn’t stay over because I was a girl and that something Bad would happen if I did. What Bad thing could have happened that wasn’t happening then?! I was never asked if I was interested in any of the kids there, I’m sure they were never asked if they saw me that way. Defeated, I walked home.
My blitzkrieg of gender-norming became completely overwhelming- with a small change in hormones, the bars had come down on my visions for my future and way of life. No one was there to combat the messaging I was receiving in crashing waves for the first time in my life. Outside of the house, I hid. I ate and ate, put on a lot of weight. I wore everything baggy and black, with a big trench coat over my body even in warmer days. With my development of breasts, I developed an inability to look anyone in the eye, especially strangers who I always thought were staring at me, judging and seeing something Wrong. But shut away inside, away from the chastising eyes that I avoided more and more, my rage seethed over and exploded. I deserved to be treated right! How dare they treat me this way?! Why was no one doing anything?! With what I now knew was a Masculine identity ripped from me, in my home, a space I could still exercise some control, I put on a parody, a hyper-masculine hyperbole. I reenacted my father’s violence on my mother and sister with the well-rehearsed accuracy of a diligent understudy. No, I took the play even further. I was taught that men don’t cry. With all my feelings of betrayal, fear and anger, emotions I neither understood nor could articulate let alone seek out help for, I railed on those weaker than me with the surge of a tsunami, destroying everything in my wake and holding the entire house-hold hostage, huddled waiting until my energy ebbed. A part of me, a small presence in the back of my mind, felt ashamed and saddened every time I hurt them. Humans are not born violent, especially toward those they are closest to. I was no longer allowed to be a human however, and this feeling was drown in a sea of mind-numbing pain.
It is true that as someone born with a gender conflicting with the one I was assigned, I felt the need to “shore up” my masculine identity with toxic, hyper-masculine actions- dominance and violence to those that crossed me (or those weaker that I used as proxy punching bags). But so many cis-boys and men are also constantly seeking to prove their “manliness”. Drawing on his research and direct experience with perpetrators of violence, psychiatrist James Gilligan notes that “the basic psychological motive, or cause, of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation … and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.”[1]. Competition, posturing, treating women and girls as objects to be won, game pieces in an All-Male Race to the Top where losers are thrown into a gender limbo- failed men. I observed the transformation happen in my former-friends from afar. The only major difference I saw was that while I was in middle school, I was not accepted- my violence and loudness were not just punished, they were not tolerated.
I was not allowed to have the benefits of males to have their behavior brushed off because boys are “naturally” competitive, violent, and in your face. Boys who are violent are sometimes punished, but they are not denied, it is not completely against their expectations and against society. Because my behavior was, I was forced out of it at least in the public eye. If I was born male, I would have been institutionally punished for my actions, but socially if not rewarded than at least given a nod of “correct”. I would have found others quite similar to me in their actions who would have affirmed me, whereas with a female body, I did not find any and was forcibly socialized through ostracism into displaying girl characteristics. If I had continued on my path though, I am sure I would have destroyed myself and everyone around me.
This is the plight of boys and men everywhere. How males in our society are socialized to be stoic, always striving to be on top, rough in words and actions- this constitutes society-wide child abuse. When I was that way, I ruled my apartment- everyone was to answer to me and if they didn’t yield to MY way, they would be punished. As I felt more and more stigmatized and powerless in the outside world, I started to beat my sister and/or mother even when they were doing nothing “wrong” just so I could feel better, so I could feel in control again. But by doing so, I was hurting myself so much. My family was not my family- I could have them under my control, be the top of the hierarchy, but because of my position I could never be close to them, never expose my weaknesses or insecurities. I had to be a wall- rock solid and menacing so no one would dare to question my power. It was a life where I was on top of my sphere, and it was one of the most isolating, painful feelings of my life.
When there is a domestic violence case of a husband abusing his wife, the woman is now seen as the victim and the man is prosecuted, usually given jail time or at least a fine. This is an incredibly positive leap from even 50 years ago, when it was seen as normal for a man to beat his wife, as the wife was in most countries considered chattel. But why would a man do this to his wife? Because he is a bad guy, because he is male? He is told he is wrong for his violence and then sent to a hyper-masculine environment where violence is the only means to survive. What the courts and society as a whole fail to take into account is that the abusive men, who have been socialized from infanthood to believe it is most important to be physically strong, on top of the hierarchy, and closed off from any source of weakness like emotion, are victims too. It’s lonely at the top, and it’s even lonelier when you have been told your whole life your goal to be number one and, in the case of most men, will never be able to reach it. This does not mean these men are justified in their actions or they should be allowed to go free. But by seeing their violence as stemming from abuse and treating the cause on a societal scale, the norms behind the behavior can be altered rather than solidified in the hundreds of jails that are forced to increase their capacity in America year after year.
I’m quite aware of the problems that arise when you treat the abuser as the victim. The pity that women feel to their abusing men, “He doesn’t mean to be doing what he’s doing; he needs me”, is one of the many reasons some refuse to leave the situation and sustain further damage. This is the result of their own abusive socializing into womanhood- the idea that women are supposed to be nurturing and show their love by sacrificing themselves. I know this trap very well, falling into it myself when I began to date as a girl-identified person later in life. Feminisms have done a lot of admirable work in bringing that once invisible norm/assumption of Femininity into the light and refuting it for the damage to girls and women that it is. When once a girl’s tree of possibility was stifled into a shrub, a bonzai tree with only a few models to emulate, we have been able to break out of the Virgin/Whore, Good Wife, Wise Mother mold and helped our trees to thrive in many different ways. However, where is the army of academics to do the same for the equally damaging inversion taught to boys and men? Where are the consciousness-raising meetings, the rallies, the media, from ‘zines to journals, devoted to identifying and ending the oppression of men under patriarchy? Our lower status as women may actually have been our key to escape; we did not have the power or the rights, but under societally-sanctioned femininity we were encouraged to be emotionally expressive, cooperative, and communicative. With those tools of humanity, despite often being on the lowest rung of society we were able to rise up and one by one surmount our oppression, a fight still being waged today.
Interacting as a teenage girl and then young woman in society, feminisms gave me lenses to see myself and a rope to grab a hold of and pull me out of the small box in which I’d contorted to fit. I owe my life to Judith Butler, bell hooks, and countless other feminist theorists. But men are still trapped- those who most accept the social norms forced upon them are the ones who most need to reach out, talk about their experiences, see their individual pain as a shared experience of men under patriarchy, and theorize action, but because they are enmeshed in those norms, this is the last thing they can do. Think about it for one moment. The author of this article once experienced the pain- though not the benefits- of masculinity, but was resocialized into femininity later in life. Would I be able to write this if I was not later socialized to discuss my pain and anger nonviolently rather than lashing out? Even men who have been able to distance themselves from the “privilege” of masculinity are unable to write about their dehumanization under it because as the dominant oppressor, often their words are misconstrued as a shirking of responsibility for their actions or “taking away” from the suffering of women. The irony is that without someone exposing the pathological suffering of males due to patriarchal socialization, it will continue to be evil men versus victimized women and no one will attain an equal humanity.
Patriarchy cannot exist without the adherence to its tenets by both females, who are the subjugated, and males, who subjugate. Aspects of the status quo at first glance tilt the scales to favor men, such as better access to money and power. But to fetishize money and power, to base one’s critique of current society on the unequal access to such things alone, is to still be buying wholly into the patriarchal system. Why is it that we can argue the patriarchy is evil and should be destroyed but then fail to question its core beliefs, what it values and what it devalues? Why are women striving to emulate and attain all the rights of men, still under the unquestioned assumption that because Masculinity and all that comes with it is valued societally, women will achieve equality by gaining these “privileges” as well? Let me tell you, the benefits under the current society given to males, what patriarchy bestows on males, is anything but a privilege. It is an unnatural hierarchy where they may rank higher than women below them, but at the price of their ability to express emotion, vulnerability, and passivity– in other words, a large part of basic humanity. Not every man is violent, not every man abuses the women around him. But every man was once a boy, a boy who was, to a lesser or greater degree, forced by the patriarchal society around him to either take on these dehumanizing, damaging attributes or to be denied his manhood. We have raised millenniums of these abused boys into abusive men and are still raising boys who are not allowed to cry.
I tried to contact and reconnect with my father in 2009 after living on a Buddhist monastery for a summer, an experience which transformed my life and led me to the beginning threads of realization I am now turning to cloth. I wanted to help him deal with the pain he must have felt, the pain I understood so well after taking his place. When he was growing up, my father, like so many other boys, just wanted to play baseball. However, he had epilepsy, a disease that left him ostracized as a youth and unable to do the things “Boys” and “Men” are supposed to do. How much of the pain that caused him to abuse my mother so badly stemmed from his inability to be the strong, providing husband. When he berated her for being a failure in her roles, how many times had he thrown that very insult at himself. I wanted to show him how he had been trained from childhood to aspire be something that was intrinsically damaging and unattainable, tell him it was not his fault, and tell him I forgave him, that it was time to forgive himself. I found my father and visited him in Michigan, where he was living with his girlfriend. And I tried. But at that point my father was 65 years removed from his first formation into masculinity. He was sick, his alcoholism had gotten much worse, and he had recently tried to commit suicide. Bi-polar depressive, the hospital doctors diagnosed, and gave him more pills to take on the government’s bill. He was not offered therapy though, as he had no health care and could not afford it. I was able to tell him what I wanted to say, but there was only so much I could do. He apologized for what he had done in the family but when I asked him to go into his own pain he refused to talk about it. When I tried to teach him some mediation techniques he laughed it off, and when I tried to buy a different brand of chips than the one he liked at the supermarket, he started to yell.
While it is worth it to reach out to men of all ages, the pressure from all sides to conform to their damaging role in the hierarchy gets more ingrained with every day. Feminism that purely endeavors to raise women to a comparable status with men in society without changing the society itself are not only damning women to a different yet still dehumanizing role, they are doomed to fail. Without changing what it means to be a man, many men would never willingly accept the role of child nurturer and without both partners willing to share equal responsibility for the same child providing activities, women can never escape the burden of the primary caregiver and achieve the “success” men have been able to attain in sports, business, and government.
If feminists are truly interested in achieving an equal, healthy society, they must endeavor to chip away at the “universal” (read: masculine) definition of success and undermine the invisible ropes of socialization that bind men and women separate but equally. After centuries fighting out from under male supremacy, it may be difficult to see the abusive husband or harassing boss as a victim. But hatred can never lead to healing. In fact it only encourages more violence as the sexes are pitted against each other, the antithesis to egalitarianism. While it should not be used to divert attention in spaces discussing the experience of women and gender diverse people, without a masculinist revolution working alongside the feminist revolution, we will always remain divided and none of our children, assigned boys or girls, can ever grow up to be human.

Republished with permission. Image via shutterstock.

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