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In The Company Of Men

Clara Barnhurst examines how men treat her since transitioning.

“I’m really shy. You’re an attractive woman,” said the guy who followed me home. Well, most of the way home before he finally called out to me and I stopped. I didn’t let him go on. I gave him a smile and a, “No thank you,” before moving on. The feeling was potent: this guy was interested in me enough to follow me for a while before plucking up the courage to talk to me. It was sweet, if a little weird. I remember thinking I could have been nicer to him. That was the first time a man on the street approached me in a serious way. It was fairly early in my transition - perhaps three months - and I had no idea what to do. But I liked it.

It seems obvious, but men react quite differently to women than they do men, even if they claim to ‘just see people’. Nobody ‘just sees people;’ we all have our set of personal biases that we can’t really do anything about except remain aware of them. The above example is an extreme. The ways the treatment changes are subtle. I’ve never worked in an office environment, and always in a female dominated workplace, but even in those spaces I noticed I was listened to less about the job even if I was listened to about my feelings more.

The shift, for me, was immediate and obvious. It was so sharp that I wasn’t sure how to talk to men for a little while, apart from my closer friends. I remember taking the time to ask my brothers if they felt they treated me differently and they said no. But they do. Certain subjects don’t come up as much. Certain jokes not taken as far. There’s a lot more saying we love each other (something we did in the past but not as a standard good bye). My own behaviour with them changed as well so it’s tricky to know how much was them treating me differently because of their awareness that I’m a girl and what was just in response to what I did, but the change was there.

“I’m afraid of men too, and for damn good reason,” said a friend when I confided in her that men scared me. Even in the first example, there was a threatening element to what was happening: this guy was following me home. If he hadn’t spoken sooner, he might of seen me go into a house - discovered where I lived. Turned out, he was harmless and possibly as sweet as I thought he was. But what if he wasn’t? Following someone is threatening behaviour. Men have followed me around since. Why?

"THERE IS A CASUAL ENTITLEMENT THAT MEN CARRY THEMSELVES WITH."

There is a casual entitlement that men carry themselves with. Even the ones that are aware of their privilege and do what they can to undermine it wield that same privilege unconsciously. That doesn’t make them bad people: privilege is assigned. It’s not something a person has any control over, and it takes a sudden shift to reject privilege, like changing one’s gender expression to match an identity they haven’t expressed in the past - particularly a lower status gender. So basically, in most Westernised societies, transfeminine people get to notice this. Transmasculine people get to learn about it too as they internalise their status, but even transgender men wield their male privilege in a careless way despite the awareness of the same that their status comes with.

It’s a bit of a hot topic, but transfeminine people at one point were assigned male privilege, even if that assignment was painful and unacceptable to them. It was a mixed feeling for me, losing that assignment. On one hand, I wasn’t being given this thing I didn’t want. On the other, the world was a more dangerous place to be. The strongest indicator that being transgender is not a choice is probably that so many would rather be sexually harassed and assaulted on a regular basis. It means they’re filling the role in society that makes the most sense to their brain. That the safety of privilege is not worth it - that is not a thing one willingly discards under normal circumstances.

“I am a woman when it’s enjoyable. I’m also a woman when it’s difficult and dangerous,” wrote a friend one day. Much of that danger comes from the idea that men aren’t safe - and that idea is justified enough of the time to make it valid. But as I mentioned, the obvious stuff that most reasonable men would consider unacceptable like following someone around town isn’t the only threat. Sometimes, the perceived boundaries and relative status just sets up a situation where even a reasonable man is unsafe.

"I HADN’T EXPERIENCED ATTENTION OF THIS KIND FROM MEN THAT DIDN’T FEEL THREATENING; I SOAKED IT UP."

I was at a close friend’s place with her, her husband, and one of her friends I hadn’t met before that evening. We were all exceedingly drunk. My friend’s husband put his arm around my shoulders, and we were leaning our heads together, just chatting quietly. Their friend started rubbing my feet. It was nice. I hadn’t experienced attention of this kind from men that didn’t feel threatening; I soaked it up. When he got done with that, he rested my foot on his leg. I didn’t move it, largely because I wasn’t really paying attention.

As we wind down, he suggests that the two of us go upstairs together. I say no. My friend backs me up, reminding him that I’m engaged and there will be none of that. He backed off, but on the way upstairs to bed he grabbed my bum several times. I didn’t respond; I didn’t want it to become a game. I go into the spare room, and I’m out like a light, but I wake up the next morning feeling vulnerable and unsure of myself. I find out from my friend that nothing happened and it was fine, but a bit later their friend asked her, “Do you think your friend would mind if I jumped into bed with her?”

“No man gives out free foot rubs,” a friend of mine said to me when I relayed the story. Not assigning blame, just making me aware of the point where the boundary blurred. This reasonable guy that I quite enjoyed chatting to at the pub decided it was more on the basis of my accepting that thing. And he decided the boundary wasn’t firm even after it was set. I had friends there to keep me safe, but this perfectly normal guy became a threat that night, however small. I was naive, and I allowed things to perhaps go longer than I should have, but he still had a boundary to respect, and his reaction was to push it.

That the reaction of my friends was that this was normal and their advice to me was to just be a little more careful speaks volumes. They’re not wrong, but they’re still heightening my responsibility in the exchange. Why? Because I’m the one in danger. Because men have the power and they’re accustomed to taking it - even in small, subtle ways. Because it’s not in the man’s interest to be respectful, at least on a superficial level.

I fear men, and for good reason. I have male friends, and I’m happy to make more of those, but as a group they are dangerous. Playing with fire hasn’t dissuaded me, either, but I’m becoming more aware of how to respect the danger it represents. And I never feared them before. It’s a place in society I understand and accept, but haven’t the experience to navigate - yet.

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