TW: Transmisogyny and dysphoria, mostly.
Full disclosure: This is a version of a column that’s sat in my drafts for… probably two years or so now? Certainly the last draft is dated to at least six months ago. The reason I start there is because I can’t stress enough how this isn’t a reactionary post; it’s something that’s on my mind a lot, and that I struggle with how to word. Being autistic means that if I think too hard about wording something, it comes out stilted; if I don’t think about it enough, I fall back on a script and I usually say something I don’t intend to. Being too genuine, as well, usually opens one up to bullying and harassment, or even just unintentionally cruel comments.
But earlier today, I saw a mutual of mine say something that stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase it, since I’m fairly certain sending more attention her way is a bad idea, but essentially, in a reply thread, she said – almost casually – “I’ve never seen someone apologize for individual acts of transmisogyny, let alone participating in larger acts.” (She is transfem, in case that wasn’t clear.) Maybe I wouldn’t have stopped and heard that so clearly if I didn’t already have a growing friendship with her. Maybe I would have; like I said, this is something that’s on my mind a lot. I can’t possibly know.
But here’s the thing. I’ve been drafting apologies over and over again… and the reason I’ve always given up is ridiculous, really. I get embarrassed. I get squirmy. I get self-conscious. “Am I doing this for kudos, for attention, for a reward? For moral dessert?” It’s hard not to ask that, especially for someone like me who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and gets accused of being manipulative all the time. It is silly, though, because it buys into the idea that standing up for trans women gets you… well, much! If that was the case, wouldn’t everybody be doing it? It’s like when people claim that accusing powerful men of sexual abuse is a surefire way to get million-dollar settlements. (Spoiler: it’s not.) And at the same time, it’s not. I care, so much, about standing up for what’s right. It’s a core part of my personality, enough that it’s affected the characters I identify with, the way I write, the choices I make about my own life – and enough, apparently, that when I’m wrong, it sticks with me longer than it should. And I’ve been wrong. A lot. Not always by accident, either. I’ve been cruel for the sake of being cruel, because when you’re at the nexus of so many intersections at once, it’s really hard to get out of the habit of assuming everybody’s out to get you, and that your only weapon is how hard you can hurt them back.
I talk a lot on social media, in my essays, etc. about how trans women have been a huge part of my life. But I need to be more honest about the fact that as much as they’ve been there for me, I was not there for them. Sure, I tried to be. I can’t be too hard on myself for the faulty decision-making of a manic-psychotic teenager. But I wasn’t, and I’m lucky that to my knowledge I haven’t lost any of them permanently, to suicide or murder – more lucky than I can ever possibly express. It’s easy to talk about how nobody’s perfect, but a lot harder to apologize. So – I am sorry. I am genuinely so sorry, because it’s taken me this long not just to be able to face the harm I’ve done, but to understand how much harm it was. I always knew; there was a reason I hated myself so much. But transitioning, finally getting to love myself properly, means that avoiding looking at myself in the mirror isn’t an option anymore. It’s a weird duality. The longer I convinced myself that I could live as a girl, after all, or that I could live in the middle ground of not transitioning but vaguely existing as Masculine, the more angry I got with those who – from my perspective – “had what I wanted”. Not all the harm is like that, either. Sometimes, of course, it’s not as simple or clear-cut as someone lashing out. Good intentions can be just as harmful; for example, the mess around Isabel Fall’s story is too much of a mess to ever be neatly untangled at this point, but the point is that someone was harmed.
I’m sure someone’s rolling their eyes and wondering why it took me so long to say anything – I mean, first off, see point one! But second of all, I try to sit back and listen. (Which sounds funny when it comes to how much I talk, but trust me, I only say about 20% of what’s in my head. Take that as you will.) Another phrase I remember, that stuck with me, was someone – another trans woman – saying that it was all well and good that people “felt bad about Isabel. But how are you going to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” And I had nothing. No response. Because I didn’t know how to make sure it didn’t. Trying to figure it out from the basis of that particular discourse alone hasn’t gotten me anything but a migraine and dissociation problems, but it’s still stuck with me. It’s not enough to take each separate controversy and go “This woman doesn’t deserve it – but the next one might!”. It’s about figuring out how to stop it from happening. And no matter my opinions on the story, or the handling of the story, or anything like that – the reason why there was such a strong response in its defense isn’t really about the story. It’s because every single transfem person has either directly experienced or seen first or secondhand the consequences of this kind of harassment. It’s an open wound that never has the chance to heal.
You’re not wrong, though. I’ve sort of – glossed over a lot and tried to let my actions do the talking. Which is a nice thought. I mean, ideally, my actions are doing a lot of talking. I have a lot of experience with unwanted and/or empty apologies; I’m nearly allergic to them at this point. Add to that the tension of how people of colour are often expected to apologize in specific ways to white people and my complicated relationship to the concept probably, well, makes sense. But taking in the real scale of the issue – that transmisogyny-exempt trans people have consistently not just left transfeminine people in the dust, but been eager and active participants in their abuse – it’s not really enough to shove my past faults in a box and try to be better while hiding the box in a corner.
So, yeah. I’ve been a fucking dick in the past. Some of it was carelessness, stuff that others might not even remember. Other parts were me buying into ideology that I no longer associate myself with. And others still were me having only part of a narrative and not taking the time to cool my heels and head and get the full picture. There are lines that I know I haven’t crossed, but at the same time, I’m not setting the bar that low. Non-toxic masculinity isn’t meant to be a version of masculinity that abdicates all responsibility. Toxic masculinity already does that. And honestly – I’m happiest with myself as a man when I’m aware of my own strength and power, not just as an “empowered” person or whatever other buzzword you use, but someone who can and has hurt people before, and who is making the choice and the effort to do otherwise.
And, uh, this is dedicated to a girl in a dorky shirt who kissed me in front of the lockers nearly 13 years ago. I should have treated you better, but I’m glad you’re with someone who does. You helped me during some of the darkest times of my life and I owe you more than stolen kisses and bittersweet memories. One day I’ll make it up to you.