TL;DR: experiences of gendered privilege do not determine gender, and homogenizing trans narratives is part of the double standard trans people are subject to that cis people are not and that’s not cool.
It seems so obvious to me, as a disabled person who is often actively discriminated against while passing as ablebodied, how easy it is to experience violence and a form of privilege at the same time. Passing means that I will not face overt discrimination, but the socially imposed boundaries limiting me still exist and affect me. I might not be deliberately left out, as I might when I use a cane, but I still can’t keep up. I often feel the same way about gender.
Divides in the trans community often fall along what it takes to be really trans, who has more privilege, and who uses the “right” language. Often I see statements that say things like transwomen are real women and have always been real women but never how that category is inherently oppressive. I see animosity and harassment towards people whose gender may have changed, against nonbinary people and those who do not medically transition. All of these things boil down to a movement that refuses to acknowledge a plurality of experiences and enforces strict hierarchies of oppression.
A common narrative within these spaces is that many AFAB people are not targeted as readily for presenting as gender nonconforming, which they aren’t *in certain societies and social spaces* because a greater understanding that women’s roles are prescriptive or at least too narrow to encompass all women. Due to the embedded misogyny in many cultures, feminine signifiers are still seen as shameful when placed on people seen as men. This is part of a socially dominant discourse where everything is male by default unless it is only for women, the feminine is a subcategory. This is a narrative that harms everyone in different ways and to different degrees.
When we say it benefits AFAB gender nonconforming people, we say that not being seen as nonconforming is a benefit. It is good to be invisible in dangerous situations, but it’s also “passing” as something they aren’t. Let’s call all the dysphoria and isolation that comes from that erasure. It’s not a privilege to be denied your existence on a regular basis. What’s more, everyone is raised with their social prejudices. This means all people have internalized misogyny and toxic masculinity. To dismantle that takes an active effort, and is often part of embracing one’s gender, whether that means feeling comfortable as cis, coming out as trans, or taking steps to transition in other ways.
Many transmen have spoken about their experiences with misogyny if they were at some point perceived as women. They described how differently they have been treated depending on whether people perceived them as men or women. Transwomen also describe their experiences and awareness of dynamics and microaggressions of which they had previously been unaware. . Being perceived as men has imparted a very specific experience on transwomen if they were at some point perceived as men. Experiencing some form of male privilege at some point in their lives, and that doesn’t negate their suffering. Many ciswomen throughout history have taken steps to access male privilege, such as using fake names to be socially respected yet the validity of their gender does not come into question. Experiencing privileges afforded a different gender does not determine one’s gender. For transwomen who have had that experience, it was damaging for the same reasons: being male means being subject to toxic masculinity, being perceived as male when one does not feel that way is a form of violence. These are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps we need a name for the experience of not fitting into your assigned gender, not knowing, and then knowing and not being able to express it, or not knowing how, or not knowing other people like you exist, or not having access to them. Or not having access to any of the myriad of things that can affirm one’s gender. This doesn’t cancel out experiencing male privilege, or not being street harassed for being trans or looking femme, or any other form of violence experienced by trans people.
It does erase the struggle to learn and embody gender. Many transpeople feel the need to change the way they talk, or sit, or move or interact with the world in so many ways because often what we are taught as children is that we are rewarded for certain things and punished for others until they become automatic, and when we want to change those default settings it can take a lot of work. These intimate details that have a very real negative impact.
All of these things coexist and add up to life is hard for trans people, and transwomen get a disproportionate share of hate, danger and violence and we need to acknowledge and fight that. The problem comes from the attempt to quantify and compare experiences, rather than trying to understand how people are affected in complex ways that need to validated and understood. Erasing the experience of trans people, and how they achieve gender affirmation, is harmful. Affirming gender is necessary. When we say trans women are women, trans men are men, we also need to be saying nonbinary people are nonbinary people too and understanding that that means recognizing individual narratives within those categories. No two ciswomen are the same, why do we expect that from transwomen?
What we are doing is affirming gender. You are your gender. No adjectives. Not chosen gender, not real gender. This is why many of us use AFAB and AMAB for ourselves, we want to acknowledge part of our experience without indicating it as our gender. Many of us were at some point a different gender and that was not less real. Gender can change. Many of us were not a different gender before, we just didn’t have a way or the security to articulate it. That’s not less real. It does mean we have complex experiences of operating in the world as a gender we are not. The process may be easier for some people, but often that has to do with a complex set of intersecting factors such as race, age, disability, socioeconomic status, and so on. For engaged transpeople who want to support one another, that means acknowledging how we benefit or have benefitted at some point in time, lifting up those who pushed down, holding space for those who are silenced, and refusing to exclude one another.