Spy In The Patriarchy, Diary Of A Transgender Man
The author describes his experience as a transgender man: How his physical transition has given him access to new spaces and conversations that were previously inaccessible to him as a woman, and how it's made him feel like a spy within the patriarchy.
MEXICO CITY — At the beginning of my social transition, I felt like a spy. The 250 milligrams of testosterone that entered my body every twenty-something days brought physical changes that gave me access to spaces, conversations, and situations that were previously foreign to someone perceived as a woman.
When I found myself in those situations, I laughed, imagining I'm a spy, embedded deep inside the patriarchy.
If you met me for the first time, you wouldn't know that I spent 20 years of my life being perceived as a woman. As the Spanish writer Paul Preciado says, the strangest thing about becoming a man is keeping intact the memory of the oppression.
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The sudden changes in my body became clear when, on a lonely street at night, a woman changed sidewalks when she saw me walking towards her. I felt strange; I felt the need to run after her and explain that I wasn't one of “them," that I'm trans, and that she didn't have to worry about me. But imagining the scene made me laugh at how ridiculous it would be to run after a total stranger, and just scare her more.
I noticed this too when I went to clubs and partied during my first few months on testosterone. I felt my space invaded as strangers touched me in places where before they weren't even allowed to touch by mistake.
I watched as my friends passed through a security lineup, assumed to be harmless – when in fact every group of friends has the one who stashes contraband in some forbidden place we know the bouncers aren't allowed to touch – as I stood there, a bouncer touching my body and looking for weapons or drugs. He stopped as he reached the height of my chest, getting scared as he felt my breasts. He let me pass and I laughed. There was nothing better to do.
In the eyes of others, my body was now a weapon. This realization came with the transition, and I don't know if I was ready to deal with it.
I say I wasn't ready because accepting this new reality meant looking inside myself. It implied questioning who I had been before, and asking myself what “she” thought about how the binary assignment of gender makes us see men's bodies.
Black and white
In those days, I did not have a very good relationship with men, I have to admit. I didn't hate them, but my thoughts towards their actions and words were polarized: black or white, good or bad. I had a hard time humanizing them. They made me angry. I didn't understand them, or they me, and it was very easy for me to categorize women as good and men as bad.
"He's a man. What did you expect?" I would often find myself saying.
It's hard for me to admit it, but I did not even understand bisexual women who decided to be with a man when clearly "It was going to go wrong for them." Now, I understand that seeing them like this takes away their agency and reinforces the idea that they are passive victims of circumstances.
Before my social transition, I spent many years talking and thinking about feminism. From those spaces, I learned a lot about gender, capitalism, collectivity and patriarchy. In fact, I owe my transition to those years as a feminist activist. It was within those spaces where I questioned gender that I realized that I was not a woman.
Feminism gave me courage, and a space to be able to think freely about our bodies, lives and the theories surrounding them. It gave me a sense of belonging that I have never again felt so strongly. The first time I got goosebumps in a march was when I was surrounded by others, chanting "Bomb the patriarchy."
What does femininity look like?
One of the places feminism took me was to Zapatista territory, in Mexico. It was 2018, before I had started hormones and while I was just exploring the boundaries of gender.
It was a separatist event, and the instructions were clear: “If you want to come with your children who are boys ... you can; it helps that they begin to understand in their heads that, as women, we are not willing to continue to endure violence, humiliation, mockery and bullshit from men, or the system. If a man over the age of 16 wants to accompany you — he can't."
In some feminist thinking, there is no room for men. Everything there would have been impossible if a single man set foot in the camp where 8,000 women were making history. And then, on the second day of the camp, in the distance I saw someone who I read as a man, with long hair and a bushy beard. Two Zapatista security women hurried over.
Don't you think that femininity has many colors?
I turned to the compañeros next to me and asked: “Look — what's up with that guy who wants to come in? Is it not clear that it is an event for women?" One of them replied, “Well, they say they're going to let him in because he says he's not a man. They said that he was fine, but that if he behaved like a man, they were going to take him out.”
We stared at each other, judging the scene from afar, thinking that maybe he wanted to infiltrate our women-only gathering. We watched how the Zapatista women dealt with the conflict.
Then, a woman about 50 years old touched me on the shoulder. With a smile, in a very strong Argentine accent, she said: "I couldn't help but overhear. Don't you think that femininity has many colors?"
I did not know what to say. I felt as if I was in front of a mirror, vulnerable. Her words were enough for me to notice that everything I was saying and thinking about the person was what I asked others not to do when I asked them to please use non-binary pronouns to refer to me. I don't remember how I responded. I was frozen, overwhelmed by my thoughts. I felt ashamed. By then, the woman had already disappeared. I kept thinking about it during my time at the camp, and on the way back home, too.
The transgender flag painted on eyelids.
No matter how “deconstructed” I was, my thinking was still patriarchal. It was based on the idea that bodies assigned male at birth cannot be feminine; that they are inherently, inevitably violent, rather than being made this way through complex socialization. It is a macho idea, founded on contempt for femininity in non-hegemonic bodies.
The truth is, feminism had given me the tools I mentioned earlier, and it was where I had found community, expansion, voice and teachings. But also, the current of feminism I had embraced made me spread harmful narratives about masculinity and men, which hurt me, prevented me from healing past situations with masculinity, and made my wounds deeper.
The current which reinforced the negative narratives I believed about men, and which therefore also impacted my narratives about women, is what we usually call white or radical feminism, which feels mainstream. I am referring to a feminism that is easily accessible (especially for young people), found in places like Twitter. It tends to be very reactionary.
It is a feminism that seems to reduce all problems to a struggle between the sexes — specifically, between men and women, leaving out all of the other categories and ways in which the patriarchy crosses them. It's a white and hegemonic, biologist, reductionist — blind to the reality on the edges. It is a city feminism, incapable of questioning itself. And above all, it is a feminism that feeds the dominant narratives that indicate that women are hopelessly victims and men are natural violators.
The way in which society collectively refers to men and their ways of being is deeply damaging. Continuing to feed the narrative that men are bad is counterproductive for our fight. Unintentionally, we feed the monster that kills us. The patriarchal system empowers men to be violent, but men are not a homogeneous group that is violent by default.
Assigned violent at birth
I saw how the world began to treat me more harshly as I was perceived as a man, while at the same time granting me new privileges. The police treated me as a suspect, and women saw me as a potential offender; other men treated me as an equal, but also a rival. I saw how my masculinized body in feminine clothes was much more hated and reproached than being a woman in masculine clothes.
What would it do to the psyche of a child to have the world treat you like that?
Walking down the street hand-in-hand with another man, feeling the rawness of homophobia more than before — I wondered, what would it do to the psyche of a child to have the world treat you like that? How does it feel to come into the world and be assumed violent? How could I not end up sacrificing my vulnerability, my tenderness, my feminine parts at such a young age, if they had left me no other option? How do you resist not becoming a monster, when everyone seems to see one in you?
I was grateful not to have grown up as a boy, but as a girl. That also made me rethink my ideas. I felt guilt for realizing my responsibility in this game, for all the times I was surprised when a man taught me "human decency" — that is, all the times a man showed me his vulnerability when I expected violence.
It is not essentialism to recognize that gender violence exists, but it is to believe that all men are potentially violent. Because men are not a homogeneous group, but individual people with agency and stories of their own.
Don't misunderstand me: I am not here to defend men who cause violence. I have been a victim of it myself, and I will continue to be. But it is clear to me that men should also talk about the violence that they experience because they are men. I firmly believe that the moment they start to do so, the picture will change for those who identify differently.
March 8, 2023, Bogota, Cundinamarca, Colombia: Women participate with signs and messages during the international women's day demonstrations in Bogota, Colombia on March 8, 2023
Patriarchy robs men of humanity
Every time they were told “Don't cry,” every time they were told “Don't be a girl,” every time they were called “faggot” — they were robbed of a part of themselves. Each of these teachings mutilates one end of the complex and diverse identities that men inhabit in all their expression as persons. Hegemonic masculinity is an identity built on what they must not be, to be men: they must not be women, they must not be children, they must not be "fags." Only then can they be men.
If you can't be all of those things, there's very little left that you can be, and you lose a lot of yourself.
The moment men stop being violent between men, then and only then will things change.
It is clear to me that, from a young age, cisgender men and everyone assigned to the category "man" at birth are systematically trained to exercise power and oppression. It is not a biological determinism — it is a socialization process that strips them of a part of themselves, that strips them of inherently human characteristics like love, tenderness and compassion.
The moment men stop being violent between men, then and only then will things change. Men are violent with others to the extent that they are violent with each other and with themselves.
Men have a tendency to look to the side, trying to figure out how to be less violent towards women, when the answer lies within themselves. There is no possible path to follow to stop the wave of gender violence if they do not manage to turn to see each other and first resolve the violence that they experience among themselves.
"Their relationship with masculinity is the cause and effect."
There's no way out if they do not resist the ways in which they have been taught to dominate, to reproduce the logic of oppression and violence that they have been taught since childhood — and if they don't build other ways of inhabiting masculinity and being in the world, abandoning the patriarchal logic that shapes how they relate to their own bodies.
There will be no way for the climate of violence to diminish until men can see and recognize their wounds, and understand that their relationship with masculinity is the cause and effect of the ways in which they hurt themselves, and us.
The problem is that men are not used to thinking about their pain in a collective way, or to thinking tenderly about themselves or questioning their ways. In that, we have a great advantage over them. Men cannot see everything they have lost, or how this structure that seems to give them privilege also kills them. They have not been able to turn around and question how the patriarchy has taken so much from them. Because in the world of masculinity – in this patriarchal world – domination is more important than vulnerability, power than more tenderness, control more than love. So, in their eyes, they have lost nothing.
Today, it is clear to me, like some feminist theorists, that the first victim of patriarchy is the man. I am convinced that men, in the process of becoming men, kill their femininity first – and it is in doing so that they also kill everything related to the feminine.