This post is a part of a series of posts based on the book Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Holly/Aaron Devor. My introductory post on the series can be found here.
There is a fascinating chapter in which Devor documents their journeys through lesbianism. Some of the FtMs she interviewed put two and two together and decided that since they were female and attracted to females, they might be lesbians. They joined lesbian communities, they compared themselves to lesbians and found that they were significantly different, and decided that this identity wasn’t right for them. They continued to feel like they should be male and did not see themselves as women loving women. One could argue that any female attracted to females is a lesbian regardless of how she sees herself, or one could argue that the intense desire to be a man proves they aren’t lesbians. It all comes down to rather subjective feelings and interpretations.
This chapter contained a lot less internalized homophobia than the chapters on their adolescence, but there was still occasionally some. In this chapter, the primary issue now was that as they attempted lesbian relationships they strongly felt they should have male bodies and didn’t wish to use their female parts during sex. This reminds me of the lesbians who used to be called “stone butch.”
“As Harry continued to try out lesbianism in other relationships, she found that she could not find any sexual enjoyment with women who in any way wanted to relate to the specifically female aspects of her body. Therefore, as had many other participants, Harry generally kept her clothes on throughout her lovemaking sessions (p333).” Harry is quoted as saying “I didn’t orgasm. I didn’t feel comfortable. I was basically a dead fish…It seems to me she was very excited about my femaleness, and that was the one thing I didn’t want her to be excited about (p333).”
I have to agree that this is not typical of lesbians, and there is definitely something else going on here. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to jump right into belief in the “man trapped in a woman’s body” trope either—that theory still doesn’t make much sense. It seems more plausible that there are psychological problems that cause people to dissociate from their bodies than that people who are female can somehow be inherently male.
Some participants wanted to have sex in a way they considered masculine and this is offered as evidence of them being different from lesbians and more similar to men.
Participant Lee said:
“If you’re a true lesbian, you’re a woman who enjoys being a woman who enjoys being with women. So, I don’t fit that. Because I very rarely acknowledge being a woman. It even bothers me to have to say that. I have to feel that I am the aggressor. I don’t want to be loved as a woman wants to be loved (p330).”
There are two assumptions here that I find suspicious. One is the assumption that lesbians universally enjoy being women. I actually doubt that’s true. Judging by the way women are mistreated in this society, I’d be surprised if any entire group of women could be said to universally enjoy womanhood. Surely there are women of all types, including lesbians, who don’t particularly enjoy being women because of all the difficulties that come with it? I understand there is a difference between “not enjoying living in a patriarchy” and having gender dysphoria, but I also think there is an overlap between these two things, they are not entirely separable. Some women have unraveled their gender dysphoria and found that it was definitely related to “not enjoying living in a patriarchy.” Plus, even those women in this study who obviously do have gender dysphoria have been continuously talking about social reasons why they feel uncomfortable being women (being expected to perform femininity, etc.)
The other assumption in this quote is that there is a specific, universal way that women want to be loved. Lee didn’t specify the way she believes women want to be loved, but she did say she likes to be the aggressor. If being the aggressor is the opposite of the way that women want to be loved, then it looks like Lee believes women want to be submissive, or passive, or receptive. Women don’t all have a passive sexuality, some of us want to be an active/insertive partner, and that doesn’t make us men, it’s a legitimate way to be a woman.
The following is a long quote full of interesting stuff. This is participant Aaron describing a lesbian relationship in which she decided she couldn’t be a lesbian.
“Basically she wanted a woman. At the nitty-gritty deep level I wasn’t a woman…Okay, concrete example. She didn’t mind if I went to a party in a male shirt, a male pair of pants, and so on. But she wanted me to wear a chain around my neck that she had bought for me and I said, “No…I’m sorry. I’m not compromising…I can’t do it.” And our lovemaking. She would resent it when I got too masculine…When I became too aggressive and too demanding, too macho, whatever, it ruined it for her. As long as we were equals, or I was being the passive one and let her be a little bit aggressive, it was alright. But…hey, I want to be on top part of the time…figuratively and literally. And it would…slow her response down and turn her off right when mine was speeding up. We didn’t match. Out of bed, the same kinds of things. I could get sarcastic and smart enough with the guys just like I do at work or something like that and she would resent it. “Why are you behaving this way? You don’t have to act this way with company, you don’t have to show off.” I wasn’t showing off, I was being me. It’s the way I learned to be with a gang of guys, we have a good time. But it offended her…It bothered her enough that she knew…there was something basically wrong there. And what was basically wrong was my maleness (p328).”
Oh boy, where to start? Okay, first thing. Her partner wanted her to wear a necklace that didn’t suit her masculine presentation. It seems like she didn’t really get that Aaron couldn’t wear it because it didn’t suit her. I wouldn’t buy feminine stuff for my partner and expect her to wear it, because she’s a butch, and that’s something I understand. However, having a masculine personality doesn’t make Aaron literally male, either.
Then there’s the stuff about being aggressive in bed. I wasn’t there and I don’t know what she was doing. Of course, if she was being aggressive to the point of abusive, then that wouldn’t be okay whether she was a lesbian or a man—that’s not even a “gender” issue, that’s not okay behavior coming from anyone. But she also uses the word “aggressive” about her partner, and I wonder if she just meant something like enthusiastic or the initiator or the active/insertive partner.
This is where I will have to discuss the word “top.” The words top and bottom are often understood by feminists in a BDSM context where the top is a sadist/abuser and the bottom is a masochist/victim. The words top and bottom can also be used in a homosexual context where one person prefers to be an active/insertive partner and the other prefers to be a receptive partner but there is no power imbalance being acted out or pain/injury being inflicted. Sometimes two homosexuals might enjoy each other’s company but not be sexually compatible because they are both “top” or both “bottom,” and this is not necessarily referring to BDSM. Please note that when I call Aaron a “top” here I am not saying she is a sadist.
When I read this paragraph it looks to me like Aaron is a top and that’s not what her girlfriend wanted. Aaron says they didn’t match. This is normal, sometimes two people don’t match! It’s just a matter of moving on and finding someone else. But the way this situation is presented in the book is like this: “Aaron further found that she did not respond to her lesbian lover in the ways which both of them believed were characteristic of lesbians (p328).” This makes me highly suspicious that Aaron had a relationship with a lesbian in which they were not compatible and that she interpreted this incompatibility as meaning she wasn’t a lesbian. What if her lover had been a bottom and enjoyed Aaron’s lovemaking style? Then would she still have concluded her sexuality made her male?
The final thing is her behavior and speech being “like the guys.” Again, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what was said. If she was being gross and misogynist, then that wouldn’t be okay coming from anybody, male or female. But she just said she was being “smart and sarcastic” which to me sounds pretty normal for anyone, and doesn’t seem like an issue. It sounds like Aaron’s girlfriend didn’t get her personality and didn’t particularly like her personality. To repeat a commonly used phrase around here, any personality a woman has is a woman’s personality. A woman has zero “maleness,” because male is a biological term referring to the member of the species that produces sperm. A woman can certainly have “masculinity,” which is a collections of traits, mannerisms, speech patterns and behaviors that society attributes to males, but which some females actually have. I think Aaron’s girlfriend just wanted to be with a more feminine woman. We all have our preferences. There is nothing here that provides convincing evidence that Aaron has an innate maleness—only an innate masculinity, which is fine for a woman to have. If we didn’t have the social constructs of masculinity or femininity then there would be no judgments about Aaron’s behavior resembling a man’s.
The author follows this quote with the words “Aaron construed these events as evidence that she did not belong among lesbians (p328).” But how would have things been different if Aaron had found a partner she was compatible with? Then would she have continued to live as a lesbian?
One participant, Stan, assumed that being a lesbian was a “liberal” thing and a political thing that she didn’t want any part of.
“I knew about lesbians but it just didn’t occur to me that’s what it was…What I knew about lesbians was that two women can be together and it’s okay if you are a lesbian…It was something they did on the coast in the big cities, more liberal people did. I just didn’t consider myself that liberal, that open-minded…To get into being a lesbian, like, you have to march for things, and you gotta go to caucuses, you gotta hate men, you gotta dress butch, and you gotta get into all that stuff, and I didn’t want to do that (p335).”
Just because Stan said here that “it’s okay if you are a lesbian,” doesn’t mean that’s what she believed. Just one paragraph before that she is quoted as saying that lesbians are sinful and sick. The thing about internalized homophobia is sometimes it’s not immediately apparent, sometimes a woman says “it’s okay to be lesbian” on the one hand but then underlying attitudes come out if you dig deeper. Stan obviously didn’t want to be one of those sinful liberals, she wanted to be a “normal” person. (There is an entire paragraph following this where she gushes about how becoming a man makes her “normal.”)
The stuff about having to march for things is funny but sad. No, you don’t have to participate in marches or have any particular set of politics to be a lesbian. You just have to be female and attracted to females, that’s it!
There may be a connection to be made between the belief that lesbians are liberals who participate in marches and that if you are a “top” then your sexuality is not compatible with lesbianism. Some of these participants were around during the “lesbian feminist” movement which promoted a politically correct sexuality where top/bottom sexualities were oppressive and lesbianism was promoted as a political strategy to end patriarchy. Some people have suggested that masculine lesbians got effectively kicked out of lesbianism by the politically correct feminist brigade. When I look at how these women were comparing themselves against the ideas and assumptions they had about who lesbians were, I wonder if it could have been the case that the “woman-identified woman” view of lesbianism did convince them they were something other than lesbians. However, even though I have my suspicions about this, I also think that if a woman didn’t have any gender dysphoria, no amount of “lesbian feminist” politically correct group norms could have convinced her that she was male. These women were truly convinced that they should have male bodies and the desire to be male ran deep.
But if these women truly were “men trapped in women’s bodies,” as the story goes, then I don’t believe they would have been so strongly homophobic, as we saw in my last post. If it were simply a matter of them not being lesbians because they are men, then there would be no reason for them to be so upset when people read them as lesbians, and any upset feelings they had would just be about not being recognized as men. However, for at least some of them, their discomfort was specifically homophobic in nature. Several women stated very obviously that homosexuality is wrong and that lesbians are scary, sinful and sick, and that they didn’t want to appear to be one of those sinners. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. I cannot brush it off as a coincidence that most of the women in a study on FtMs are same-sex attracted and most of them displayed serious internalized homophobia.
The chapters on their post-transition years bring up more interesting questions. After taking hormones and getting surgery, they became more comfortable with their bodies, and more of them were able to be receptive during sex. A couple of them even became comfortable with vaginal penetration as long as their partners “viewed them as male.” What does it mean when a woman can only feel comfortable having sex with another woman and using her female parts during sex when she has an artificially muscular and hairy body and is being referred to by male pronouns? What does this accomplish, when she still doesn’t have a penis and is therefore not actually having heterosexual intercourse? I still think that this whole transition thing is about looking male so that she can express her masculine personality without looking weird or gay and have the people around her take her masculinity seriously. I still think the underlying problem is sexism— the belief that women have to all be feminine, and that women with masculine personalities and presentations are not doing woman right. In their post-transition years, some of them expressed that if women could be recognized as men without transitioning then transition wouldn’t be necessary. I am going to get back to this in a later post because it’s fascinating. Women cannot be recognized as men because people understand the difference between male and female, so that’s not going to happen. But what if she means that she wants to be recognized for her masculinity and taken seriously as a masculine person without anyone expecting her to be feminine? Because I am all for that! That doesn’t need to involve pretending that she is literally biologically male. That needs to involve people letting go of their sexist assumptions about women.
I’m going to leave you with a fascinating quote from an FtM in her post-transition years.
“I best find sexual satisfaction through tribadism, preferably when I am penetrating a woman with a dildo while the base of the dildo presses against my naturally large clitoris…I prefer tribadism with me on top or, if on the bottom, totally in control of the movements, approach, or mood…I wear a dildo to bed at night, especially if I live with a lover. I do not have sex with people who do not accept my maleness. I discuss my transsexuality before I become involved with anyone. I like to use a dildo. It is part of me so I refer to it as my dick or my cock. I do not call it a dildo except in the nonsexual dating stage of a relationship or to explain my sexual preferences…I like blowjobs with or without the dildo, but mostly with the dildo because the dildo is larger than my clitoris and makes me feel more masculine and in control (p494).”
I’ve read this over a million times in utter fascination. At the beginning of the paragraph I think, sure, she’s just a lesbian top, no problem. Then when she starts talking about how her dildo is literally a part of her and she wears it to bed I think “What…..?” This is her pretending. The dildo, is, in fact, an inanimate object and not a part of her. It’s not a penis. When her partner sucks on it, she’s sucking on an inanimate object, not her flesh. She may get physical pleasure out of it because of the movement of the dildo against her clitoris, but I think mainly she’s enjoying the feeling of power. I wonder if having a “dick” or a “cock” is necessary for her because a “dick” is part of the semiotics of power. (I have noted that FtMs say “dick” or “cock” way more often than “penis” and I think this word choice is deliberate. These words have different connotations.) It seems as though feeling powerful is more important to her than having her actual flesh stimulated. This is indeed “male identification” in the sense that she is identifying with male power and wanting it for herself.
When gender critical feminists say that to abolish gender and patriarchy is to eliminate the existence of transsexualism, that means that if there were no power imbalance between the sexes, there would be no power or powerlessness to eroticize. Having a “dick” would mean nothing to this woman because it wouldn’t represent power, and if dominance and submission weren’t eroticized at every turn, this might not be a feature of the way people have sex. She would just be a lesbian top and it wouldn’t be about power, it would just be about enjoying making love to her partner. The sucking on a dildo thing would lose its appeal. Feminists don’t say that transsexualism would cease to exist because we want to go around killing transsexuals, we just identify that the social factors that lead people to want to be the other sex wouldn’t exist anymore. Women like this would certainly still have their personalities, but all this focus on having a dick and being powerful wouldn’t be a thing if men didn’t have power over women.
(By the way, I would NEVER suck on a dildo. Barf!)
(The next post in this series is Born what way?)