Every so often a straight woman will blurt out some version of “I’m a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.” This might feel like a supportive thing to say, but if you stop to think about what it’s really saying, you should realize it manages to be offensive to trans men, gay men, and women in one short sentence. It’s the trifecta of putting your foot in your mouth. Here’s why:
Trans men attracted to men actually were once gay men trapped in a woman’s body. If you’re not trans, making this statement minimizes and even erases their experience. If you’re not presenting as a man and asking us to use male pronouns when we refer to you, then you’re being glib about someone else’s challenging and deeply felt experience. And that’s offensive.
Often, when a woman pops out this statement she’s identifying with gay men’s taste in clothing or music or approach to relationships or just plain fun. What she’s not doing is volunteering to be afraid to hold her husband’s hand in public, to be legally denied housing or a job in more than twenty-six states, or to have her marriage threatened by the political party currently running this country. She’s making a statement that she can walk away from any time it becomes too difficult. It trivializes our experience. You can like me, you can have a lot in common with me, but you cannot be me.
There’s nothing wrong with being a straight woman. I’ve had so many wonderful straight women in my life. They’re amazing. Why would you not want to celebrate your identity as a straight woman? Saying you’re “really” a gay man denies that identity. It also strengthens the false idea that human characteristics are gendered. In our society, strength, ambition, bravery, sexual agency, power, aggressiveness are all characteristics we gender as male. And that’s wrong. Claim any characteristics you want, but also claim your womanhood.
Now, I can almost hear people clicking away on their keyboards with a lot of “buts,” so I’ll go through a couple of them.
“But, but, but, I say that all the time to my gay BFF and he doesn’t mind.” Here’s the thing. Gay men are not monolithic. In fact, we’re a very contentious group. Your gay friend may not mind, and if you know that then it’s fine to say it. To him. Don’t assume it’s okay to say it to other gay men or trans men, or even other women. And certainly don’t make it your Facebook status and announce it to the world.
“But, but, but, Madonna said it.” First of all, you’re not Madonna. Second, context is everything. The first time Madonna made that statement was about twenty-three years ago. I can see that it was meant to be a statement of solidarity, but a lot has happened in those twenty-three years. Certainly our awareness and appreciation of what identity means has evolved and changed. So at this point, it’s time that even Madonna stop staying this.
“But, but, but, I’m a woman. I feel your struggle.” Women have faced a lot of oppression, I’m well aware of that. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also heterosexuals and therefore members of an oppressing group. Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schlafly and Maggie Gallagher don’t get a pass for oppressing gay men simply because they’ve been oppressed as women. And just because you don’t actively oppress doesn’t mean you’re not part of an oppressing group.
Look, you can identify with what gay men have gone through. I certainly identify with a lot of what women have gone through and still go through. But identifying with is a very different thing from identifying as. Identifying with is empathy. Identifying as is appropriating. And you just can’t take what is not yours to take.