Blanket Content Warning: This blog may include mentions, descriptions, or other media with information involving menstruation, pregnancy, sexuality, breast care, abortion, and anything else generally considered relevant to inhabiting an assigned-female body, but centering a genderqueer trans male experience.

In addition, please make sure you read the disclaimer at the top of the site policies page which has important information about how health information on this site should be used.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Too-Visible Man: Why Aydian Dowling Needs To Not Talk About Trans Male Invisibility Anymore

A note before you continue... there's a habit in the trans male community where we declare certain trans guys to be "goals" and the person I am talking about here is one of those trans men.   He generally speaking has done a lot of great things for the community... but this is not one of those things.  A warning that he uses some out-of-date language and says some really offensive things about trans women that I've quoted here.

A couple years ago I wrote for a different blog (that has since been deleted) a rebuttal to a terrible article.  I was reminded of that today as I was thinking about some of the toxic myths about trans men out there, and realized that this was a take I didn't want to withhold from the world.

The article in question is called "The Invisible Man: Why Have Trans Men Been Left Behind?"  It's written by Aydian Dowling, most famous for his attempt to get on the cover of Men's Health Magazine (regardless of the other stuff I'm going to say in this essay... he was totally robbed).  It's a choppy essay written in the opinion section of an NBC news page, and it is... well, it's just a pile of shit.  Whiny shit.

Why was I thinking about it?  Because every once in a while I stumble on a trans woman's bad take about trans men, and I immediately think about this article.  Whenever someone says trans men experience male privilege from birth, and I want to get really pissed off about it?  I think about Aydian Dowling's article.  Whenever somebody implies that trans men can just stick up a GoFundMe and fund a whole surgery in two days because people just ❤️love💛us💚so💙much💜?  I think about Aydian Dowling's article.  Whenever a trans woman on Twitter tweets out some under-nuanced garbage about trans men?  I think about Aydian Dowling's article.  Because I always want to remind myself that these beliefs about trans guys don't come from a vacuum.  They come from years of having to deal with people who say things like Aydian Dowling has in this article.

So let's go back... way back into time (OK, only like a decade and a half or so ago).  Things were kind of rough for trans guys.  There were resources for trans people "in general" but they were really just for trans women, sometimes with a token mention about trans men that was often wrong (once I read on one of these resources that trans men regularly get jaw implants, which is... wrong).  Trans men often had to reverse-engineer resources because almost everything was built for trans women.  Trans men have been transitioning for as long as trans women, but had never gotten the same amount of visibility.  When I first came out, even trans women largely did not know that female-to-male transition was "a thing."  Once, when I tried joining a support group, I was pushed out because the concept of a trans man was so off-the-wall to the members that they thought I was a chaser.

We called this "trans male invisibility."  One could argue that trans women's visibility was actually super shitty, but nonetheless, for us it was a really big issue that compromised our ability to get care, and we grew a very deep cultural complex around it.  We emphasized our transness to an extent that would be considered problematic today, calling ourselves "trannies" and carving out our own spaces to compensate for the lack of spaces accessible to us.

Soon after I came out, spurred on by YouTube and other social media, the trans male community started connecting and growing.  We built resources, we started getting more media attention, and eventually it got to the point where trans men were no longer so invisible.  In some spaces we are given way more attention than trans women, especially in some queer communities.  But here's the thing:  The idea that we are the red-headed stepchildren of the trans world is a really deep cultural idea that we haven't really been able to break that easily.  So you still have a lot of trans guys who are convinced that trans women get more attention than trans men, and that this is a bad thing.

Enter Dowling's article.  I'd really gone to bat for him during the Men's Health thing only to be just... incredibly disappointed to see this.  Because it is thoroughly terrible.  It's actually embarrassing.  It took me multiple tries to actually read the whole thing because having a trans man as prominent as Aydian Dowling write this, I knew there was going to be a big mess to clean up.

And it's not just one issue, either.  It's several.  If you choose not to actually click the article to read it... well, I've quoted some of the worst parts of it, which is pretty much all of it anyway.
I googled the word “transgender.” No "man" or "woman" after that -- simply “transgender.” Google Images pulled up 402 images on the first page of my search. I was scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling until I realized something: All of the photos were transgender women.
I get that he's trying to get a narrative to this issue, but I can almost guarantee that this didn't actually happen.  This isn't something you do unless you're already trying to prove a point.  But I did the same thing and... my results varied based on search engine.  Shocker, right?

On my usual search engine (DuckDuckGo) these were my results:
  • Several pictures of Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner.
  • Some cis male actors playing trans women. 
  • Some off-putting stock images representing "transgender" including a stock image of somebody wearing half a face of fem makeup and many copies of the same "celebrity woman with a beard" photoshop.
  • A picture of Aydian Dowling.
Using Google, my results were more mixed:
  • More pictures of Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner.
  • A violent photograph of a trans woman who was permanently disfigured in an acid attack.
  •  Several "before and after" transition pictures, with about an equal number trans men and trans women.
  • More off-putting stock images.
  • A picture of "human Ken doll."
  • Some pictures of trans male top surgeries.
  • A picture of Buck Angel.
OK. So how about Bing? Exactly the same as DuckDuckGo.  Down to the order.

Oh, and did I mention a good number of the articles were actually transphobic hate pieces?  So people had written bullshit for Breitbart and a lot of transphobic clickbait and their go-to photographs were all of trans women.

So this "Google search to prove trans women get all the love" experiment proves pretty much nothing except that when people think "trans person I hate," their go-to is a trans woman.
In a time when the identity transgender is at the very beginning stages of recognition and understanding in the larger culture, we are still missing something. It seems the only household names in the transgender community are all transwomen.
Trans women have accumulated quite a few household names... but so have trans men.  Aydian Dowling himself is a household name because of that damn contest he was in; my cis relatives couldn't wait to bring him up while that was happening as a sign that they knew My Community.

Some other people that my cis relatives, friends, and co-workers have talked about?  Chaz Bono, Buck Angel, and Thomas Beatie.  Zeke Smith was outed on Survivor and it was a big to-do.

In addition, a lot of trans women become household names because people are being pricks about them.  How many people went as a five-o'clock-shadowed, crotch-bulge-having Caitlyn Jenner for Halloween?
It has been over a year that I have been asking myself the same question, and now my answer has slowly started to change. Why? Why do we not have more of a focus on transmen? Why are the majority of people being discussed in any story about the transgender experience transwomen?
I actually kind of want to know where the fuck Aydian Dowling has been these past several years, because again, trans men are not that invisible anymore when looking at positive, affirming media.  The only place you see trans women overrepresented compared to us is in bigoted media and jokes.  Trans men are "in" and we have been for years, to the point where trans women actually are reporting experiencing the same problems we did ten, fifteen years ago.  There are places today where there are support groups for trans men and not women, for instance.
To me, this seems like a new twist on a very old tradition: sexism. While this may seem complex, at the end of the day I believe it is really quite simple: Many people still see transgender women as men and transgender men as women -- from the time they are born until after they transition.

This statement is just a total dick move.  I can't even see a picture of Aydian Dowling without thinking that he sat down and in all serious wrote this.

Listen.  I really fucking hate the gaslighting bullshit that compels people to say that trans men experience male privilege from birth and other things that are pretty documentably untrue.  But this paragraph is a transmisogynistic garbage heap, and would be even if trans male invisibility were still as big an issue as Dowling thinks it is.

If this were true, trans women would be privileged above cis women because people would still see them as men.  We know this isn't true.  If it were true, trans women wouldn't dominate most of the negative press trans people get.  We know that isn't true, either.  If it were true, trans women wouldn't get murdered at astoundingly high rates (trans men do not compare at all).  We know that's not true.  None of this follows and was apparently just pulled out of his own ass.

It's also important to mention that Aydian Dowling in particular saying this really hurts the trans male community a lot, because he's not actually a typical trans guy.  Most of us aren't super buff, thin, or ultra-cis-passing.  Even on hormones a lot of us wind up with voices that don't pass well, or we have facial features that don't masculinize well enough for us to go stealth easily, or we wind up with scarring on our chests that is extremely conspicuous, or surgery results that are not cis passing (surgeries are often designed with buff trans guys in mind; some doctors don't even operate on fat trans men because they don't want to deal with trying to masculinize our shapes).

When trans women see people who are particularly privileged and have won the genetic and medical lottery (as Dowling is and has), it really feeds into this perception that trans men are a bunch of cis-passing white men whining that we don't get on TV as often as trans women.
There are many transmen today all around the world whose stories are not being told. Not being seen. That needs to change. As we have seen in North Carolina and across the country, brave transmen continue to take a stand on the ridiculous “bathroom bills” by putting themselves out there, like Michael Hughes, who began the #wejustneedtopee social media phenomena.
Funny he should mention Michael Hughes.  Hughes was actually intentionally leveraging his privilege as a stealth trans man attempting to be an ally to trans women.  He acknowledged the legislation was targeting trans women--not us--and that it barely affected him at all.

In addition, this campaign, well meaning though it was, was actually hurtful to a lot of people, including trans women and pre-T trans men who need to use the women's restroom for safety.
The reasons for this may well have its roots in a new kind of sexism, one where some (read: gender-conforming) transwomen are held up with a combination of awe and sensationalism (depending on the media outlet or coverage), and transmen bear a double-edged sword of newfound privilege that makes us somehow less “interesting” as individuals or maybe less able to be exploited. In a world where transwomen -- especially transwomen of color -- are the most targeted part of our LGBTQ population, and we really have no idea how many transmen are targeted for violence are discrimination, this is an important knot to unravel.
"We don't get enough publicity because people don't want to exploit us enough" is a hell of a take, sir.  But it's also wrong:  Gender-conforming, cis-passing trans men are held up with just as much awe and sensationalism, something Dowling should honestly have intimate experience with considering he's famous for being a hot trans guy.

It's also worth mentioning that when I hear the buzz around trans people who are famous for being hot, it's perfectly socially acceptable for cis people who are into men to say they'd totally fuck Aydian Dowling... it's not similarly acceptable for cis people who are into women to say they'd fuck a hot trans woman, and if they do it needs to be with a shield of confusion.

"I'd fuck this man because he's just that hot" is an entirely different attitude than "This person confuses my penis."
I don’t pretend to have all the answers but the conversation needs to happen.
There are zero answers here.

Aydian Dowling actually is right about trans men needing more visibility, but here's the problem:  He turns it into a battle against trans women.

Trans male visibility at the expense of trans women is not what we should be fighting for at all... trans women need all the positive visibility they can get, and the habit among some trans men to try horning our way into that is ridiculous.  What we need is to be fighting for visibility among other men.

Ironically, this is what Dowling himself is famous for--he was a high-profile contestant in a competition to be on an overwhelmingly cis-male-oriented magazine--so it's perplexing that he doesn't seem to understand that the visibility battle is not about trans women at all.

And if it were--it's not, but if it were--about who gets the press within our community, that's not something that should be decided among folks like Aydian Dowling.  I assume he gets harassment and bigoted bullshit just as we all do, but he's still the model trans person as far as cis people's perceptions are concerned--white, thin, traditionally attractive, almost fully cis-passing--and it's people like him who already get most of the positive attention at the expense of trans guys who don't fit that look.