resistance,  transgender experience

On Being “Socialized as a Male”

If someone says that I have been “socialized as a male” they usually mean that social forces are so powerful that my brain has been formed into being a man’s brain. Therefore, any patriarchy or toxic masculinity conditioned into cis men has also been conditioned into transfemmes to a similar degree. And that any patriarchy or toxic masculinity cis women internalize exists to a lesser degree.

This line of thinking relies upon several simplistic and misguided assumptions. Each assumption is worthy of it’s own dissertation. But, for the sake of brevity, I will name them and move on:

  • a transgender person who is designated as a male at birth is as receptive to some sort of brainwashing into toxic masculinity as a cisgender man
  • a cis woman is more capable of recognizing and rejecting the “internalized oppression” of patriarchy than a trans woman
  • transfeminine people who want to resist patriarchy must do so from a posture of uprooting “internalized domination” rather than “internalized oppression”
  • “internalized oppression” and “internalized domination” are predominantly psychological qualities rather than socio-cultural phenomena
  • transgender women in particular (and transfemmes in general) are categorically less feminine than cisgender women

There are often other assumptions interwoven into this as well…but I’ll save those for the future.

“Male socialization” often comes up as a way of explaining experiences of aggression or general shittiness from them. Or, perhaps, as a way of signaling the threat we pose, since, under the surface, we remain abusers or rapists. That, deep down inside, we’re still men attempting to pass ourselves off as women.

More charitably, some recognize that such aggression or threat isn’t permanent…that after years of therapy and feminine experience, we might arrive at the status of women (or almost-women). In the meantime, we are almost as likely to do bad man things as cismen.

Socialization and Internalization

Socialization isn’t a monolithic experience. The dominant myths and structures of our society shaped us all, each of us. And we internalized those things differently.

Socialization is the process by which we learn how to perform or behave in our society. Internalization is the process by which individuals adopt and absorb the beliefs, attitudes, and values of a group.

When folks say “male socialization” or “socialized as a male” they are usually suggesting talking about both learning to perform the script and absorbing that script as one’s own set of beliefs, attitudes, and values.

In our society, we tend towards psychological and moralistic explanations for social problems. The dominant myths and structures of our society shaped us all, each of us towards individualistic understandings. We are more likely to psychologize or moralize about issues than we are to grapple with systems and social ethics.

But, more and more, I learn that socialization and internalization are more social than psychological.

Socialization isn’t primarily the process by which an individual internalizes social beliefs, attitudes, and values. Rather, it is better to understand socialization as us learning how the system works. And instead of that learning coming through a process of “internalization” it is better to use the lens of “appropriation.”

Here, I’m drawing upon the work of Mark Tappan who writes:

I use the term appropriation, rather than the more commonly used term, internalization…to ensure that the process by which individuals acquire cultural tools is not viewed as one in which something static is taken across a boundary from the external world to the internal psyche, but rather to foreground a process by which persons actively participate in the ongoing process of gaining proficiency and expertise in using specific mediational means, whether they are physical tools or linguistic tools.

From Reframing Internalized Oppression and Internalized Domination

We appropriate the logic and skills to move through our society akin to how we appropriate other sets of skills. And while that can shape our consciousness and imagination, it is a mistake to push things too far and suggest a fundamental and irreparable rewiring of our consciousness.

Tappan writes:

Appropriated oppression does not require years and years of internalizing and intrapsychic processing. It can, and does, occur almost instantaneously; just as one picks up a tool and begins to use it, one’s physical and mental functioning—one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions—begins to change, as one appropriates…[Members of a dominant group] very quickly assume the role of the privileged group. Imagine, therefore, the power that these cultural tools amass over the course of many years and many generations, as people experience repeated opportunities to appropriate and use either oppressive or dominating cultural tools/mediational means. Imagine also the challenge that this poses to critical educators seeking to change both oppression and domination.

Here, we find resonance with systems theorists like Niklas Luhmann, anthropologists like Mary Douglas, philosophers like Hannah Arendt, and educators like Paulo Freire…all pointing to the power of social systems and the depth to which those systems contain and reproduce their own logic.

In a somewhat counter-intuitive way, this insight ends up both undermining the power of individual consciousness while also giving it power. If the process of socialization/internalization is primarily socio-cultural, it means that the individual human being isn’t the primary unit of society…society has a logic of its own.

Socialized Within a Patriarchal Society

We are all socialized within a patriarchal society and discern and grapple with what that socializing does to each of us, each with our own complicated social locations and experiences of oppression. Some of us can “perform” the gender we were assigned confidently and competently. Some of us are not. The tension we feel with patriarchy isn’t just from without but also from within.

Few of us, live up to the performative ideals given to us by our society. Many ciswomen friends have told me about the discomfort of trying to live up to various ideals of beauty. Many cismen friends have me about their frustration with not being powerful enough.

My inability to conform to masculinity meant that I felt a fundamental antagonism towards the idea of a gender binary in general and masculinity in particular in ways that many ciswomen didn’t experience. My experience of femininity isn’t the same as that of the ciswomen I know, but it is a mistake to suggest that this makes me qualitatively less feminine.

As a transgender person, I experienced cognitive dissonance and pain for years. As a result, I experienced shame, struggled with my mental health, and could not perform the “script” well. My process of transitioning is a sort of exorcism wherein I cast out the false script that didn’t match my actual identity, extroverting my inner dissonance and, simply by existing publicly, nurturing cultural dissonance.

I want to be as clear as possible here. This isn’t the same thing as “rejecting male privilege.” There are, no doubt, overlaps. But I was resisting patriarchal privilege for years as the work of rejecting systems of oppression. I did that work from a place of ethical integrity.

Transitioning is my way of claiming my identity. It is a positive act. Though, I know well that, in transitioning, I resist and refute patriarchy with greater force now, simply by trying to exist, than I did before.

The Limits and Power of Inner Struggle

Inner work is important. But the logic of domination exists, primarily, in the systems themselves. Resistance, therefore, needs to be enacted and embodied. Inner work alone is insufficient; it doesn’t automatically “trickle up” into action.

Therefore anti-racist approaches that focus too much on white catharsis…on white folks feeling shitty and trying to rewire themselves are doomed to fail. White Supremacy is foremost, a social reality. And social transformation requires that we resist the myths of our society through action and embodiment.

The same is true for patriarchy.

Everyone: ciswomen, cismen, transwomen, transmen, those who are nonbinary—each of us have been socialized within a patriarchal society. And so we intuit the rules of patriarchy and our roles within a patriarchal society. We each, to varying degrees tried to enact those roles and reinforce those rules unless we had sufficient reason not to.

I don’t know of a single person who can adequately enact their role or live up to the ideal. While this is, for nearly everyone, a source of some psychological discomfort or pain, there is power in our inability to conform to society.

Cognitive dissonance is a potential gift. Our inability to appropriate and perform gender can causes shame, inner pain, depression, and anxiety. Or, by “extroverting it” that cognitive dissonance can birth cultural dissonance as we collectively challenging the entire framework.

And that cultural dissonance can, in turn, cause individuals to experience cognitive dissonance. This is who inner struggle and social struggle interrelate.

To close, I want to make some assertions:

Socialization has more to do with telling us our roles and reinforcing broad myths than it does with psychologically hard-wiring us. I have both contributed to those myths and challenged those myths, but they haven’t successfully “wired” me to have a manly brain.

My nonconformity to the role given to me at birth is a source of celebration. I, therefore, invite you to celebrate those times when someone’s cognitive dissonance is so great that, because of simply trying to exist healthfully, they confront the logic of an oppressive system.

My experience of femininity, while not being the same as a ciswoman’s is no less powerful. I reject the idea that I am tainted or tarnished by the gender role I was assigned at birth, or even by the decades I spent assuming that I was a man. I am not an invader or interloper; my femininity is as valid and important as any ciswoman’s.

When anyone, including ciswomen, dismiss or diminish my claim to femininity, they are acting as agents of Patriarchy. They not only participate in anti-trans oppression; they are stifling femininity.

Whenever folks (either casually or aggressively) express skepticism or criticism about the femininity of a transfemme, they are causing harm. Even if folks are just “asking questions” or “playing devil’s advocate” or “raising legitimate concerns.” After years of inner conflict, I broke free from the chains of expectations and tore up the masculine script, finally being able to claim my femininity in a rather public and vulnerable way. And then, for nearly six months, rarely has a day gone by where I haven’t faced skepticism, hatred, ridicule, or criticism about my femininity. Often from folks who are initially polite but become increasingly antagonistic.

Meanwhile, I see people more upset and anxious about transfeminine athletes having an unfair advantage than they are about trans children being taken from their homes in Texas. Or that similar measures are being pushed in almost every state.

To summarize: It is misguided and dangerous to suggest that transfeminine people, since we are born with penises and raised as though we are boys, are tainted with maleness. It enables and justifies oppression. It serves Patriarchy. And it even undermines our collective capacity to resist unjust systems.

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Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk (they/them) is the Executive Director at the Center for Prophetic Imagination. Ashe is a writer, teacher, organizer, and spiritual director. For nearly 15 years, they have sown seeds of subversive spirituality throughout North America. Ashe is the author of such books as That Holy Anarchist, unKingdom, and A Wolf at the Gate.

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