About a year ago, when I was first starting my female-to-male transition, a male co-worker of mine said to me, "I guess men and women are just different." The context? He had just asked me, "What are you more into? Tits, ass or pussy?" I was already annoyed with him, because I get this type of question all the time from men who are both fascinated by my sexual orientation and bewildered by my gender identity, and decided just to respond with a simple, "I don't really care." Astonished that I, a female-bodied but male-identifying person, didn't spend large swaths of time pondering the relative sexiness of each part of the female body, my co-worker continued to press me for conclusive answers. He finally announced that men and women must be different, classifying me as female because I didn't seem to think about my genitalia (or other people's genitalia) as much as he considered normal.
The conversation led me to ask myself, "Are men and women really that different?" I've never felt like a woman. But maybe my female body has kept me out of the loop of this exploitive culture? Or maybe men and women are not different, and he was just an exception. This interaction, along with countless other similar interactions in my life, has stuck with me as I proceed with my medical transition. I took my seventh shot of testosterone just a few days ago, and I still don't have a way to reconcile my utter disgust with misogyny and personal commitment to feminism with my male identity. I find it hard to believe that feminism and masculinity are mutually exclusive, considering that my father, a passionate humanist, raised me, and considering that many of the men in my life break the stereotypes society assigns to heterosexual male-bodied people. However, my personal experiences leave me without a definition for masculinity and how it might be expressed outside the culture of exploitation.
I am halfway through my fourth year in college, and during that time I have learned a lot from my cisgender female friends. I recently comforted a friend who went to a male classmate's house to study for a final in the class they shared and was met at the door with not-so-subtle hints that the study date was not happening if she didn't put out first. I go to bars with friends and watch men a decade older than they stare at and comment on their bodies. A close friend of mine accepted an offer to sleep at a male friend's apartment last week after a late night out with mutual co-workers in a part of the city far away from her apartment. After repeatedly asking him to stop groping her, she fell asleep to be awakened periodically by his wandering hands. The next day she told me that she felt guilty for not sleeping with him, as if the expectation in society is that women will reward men for nice gestures with sex. What's more, had she rejected his offer to stay at his apartment, she would have been waiting for a bus late at night downtown and risking her safety through different means.
Although I loathe that the term "risking her safety" is even in my vocabulary, I feel that the patterns of rape culture and misogyny that I have witnessed merit such phrases' existence. When I recount the experience of women in my life, I feel compelled to assess the privilege I am gaining in assuming a heterosexual male identity. I ask myself, "What kind of gender am I joining?" I am walking away from a lifelong, societally projected identity as a lesbian woman to become something that will make me feel considerably more comfortable with my own body and experience, but does assuming this privilege somehow make me inherently anti-woman?
Another experience with my co-worker helped me break down these questions into terms that I can understand. He told me once that he couldn't think of anything worse than a woman he was dating leaving him for another woman. Context unimportant, something like that, for him, would be a personal assault on his penis. When I came out to this guy as trans, he was not non-supportive. He said something like, "Wow, I always knew you wanted a dick!" His attitude isn't necessarily transphobic; it's actually more vagina-phobic. It is my impression that penis-centric/vagina-phobic culture creates this norm that labels everything as "male" or "not male" based on whether or not you have a functional penis. If you're a trans guy, you are "not male" and thus a woman. If you're intersex, you are not male and thus a woman. And there is something intrinsically weakening in society if you are female-bodied. Unlike the perception of my penis-centric co-worker, I don't walk around hating my vagina and wishing I could assert my dominance in society with a large, erect penis. My transition is based in identity as much as it is in biology. Had I been born biologically male (the way I feel was "supposed" to be born), I can't imagine I would be as vagina-phobic as our society at large is, but it is hard to know.
As I progress further into my transition, I feel more and more affected by the gender inequalities swirling around me, and more and more uncomfortable with the privilege I am in the process of inheriting. I'm not sure if I will ever be able to reason with the distinct gaps in power and perception that exist strictly based on individual genitalia. Luckily, there are cisgender men in my life who challenge society. My father challenges me to see the possible union between feminist ideology and male identity. Although I occasionally spend sleepless nights deeply concerned about the political and philosophical implications of my transition, I realize that change can only come to our society by those people willing to lead by example.