Disclaimer: I am transmasculine and identify mostly as a transgender butch or simply transgender. I do not identify as a binary trans man, nor do I have the internal or psychological experience of many binary trans men. Whiteness shapes my experiences, which may not resonate with people of color from otherwise similar gender/class/ability demographics. I do not speak for any group of people.
Content Note: While it does not make up the majority of the article, I do mention sexual and other abuses of humans and other animals in this writing.
Please take care reading it.
Because I, like many trans people, lack the gatekeeper-prescribed narrative of, “I knew I was really a boy when I was 3 years old,” it took me a long time to figure out my gender and sexuality. I loved unicorns and wearing tights and princess outfits just as much as I loved playing rough and tumble and getting muddy with the boys. I honestly think most kids probably like princess outfits and getting muddy, it’s just that half of them aren’t allowed to.
I noticed binary gender differences at a young age. Children in my elementary school divided lunch tables between girls and boys sides. My best friend Nathan and I would always sit on the boys or girls side together and people would make fun of us. We did not do this because we were trans, we did this because the side did not matter to us. I also liked playing sports and the boys usually wanted to play hard. I would compete with them, even though I just wanted to play, not compete. However, when I wanted to play with dolls or toy horses or dress up, that was something I had to find other girls for. I was a both a “tomboy” and a “princess” which speaks volumes about me today, despite my masculine appearance.
One thing always transcended my mishmash of gendered behaviors: a fascination with and love for other animals. Disney’s portrayals of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in the woods surrounded by and talking to all the creatures were images I wanted to experience as reality. This reality involved villains doping these same princesses into death-like states, whereupon the true hero- a man- would save them. Of course I did not see boys or men interacting with animals in Disney movies, except to ride, possess, or kill them, about which, more later.
My mother tells me I didn’t want to eat animals as a child, but she told me I had to because the pediatrician told her I would fall ill if I did not consume their bodies. So I did. I mostly ate the bodies of birds, but I often shied away from eating other animals. It was not because I had made the connection to who they were yet, but simply because I did not like the taste. As a very sensitive child, I liked very plain things- which is odd today given my preference for a 7 or 8 on the spice scale. Despite eating the bodies of animals killed in hidden places, every nonhuman animal I met in person was someone I wanted to know. I spent a lot of my childhood in southern California where there were tarantulas in the morning paper, pheasants in the backyard, giant snails slithering around after the rain, and lizards running all over the place. As a child, still stuck in the egocentric mindset, I wanted all animals to be my friends, and I wanted them all to come live with me. This led to some of them, particularly snails, losing their lives in captivity. I had to learn ways to enjoy animals that also allowed them to be free. My mother taught me that collecting snails after letting them crawl all over me was actually harming them. I never trapped a snail again.
Caring or love for nonhuman animals did not seem to acquire gendered connotations until I was older. Girls and boys are allowed to like nonhuman animals. But when boys grow into “real men,” they learn hardline rules about how to treat nonhuman animals, women and girls, and gender nonconforming people. At this time, boys may learn to hunt or fish, they may be exposed to pornography, they may graduate from kids foods to men’s food which, of course, must be the dead bodies of nonhuman animals in as large quantities as possible.
As I matured, both my gender and my relationship to animals became more and more shaped by influences around me. I like to think of myself as an independent person with decent critical thinking capabilities, but the truth is I, like all other humans, was and am susceptible to my environment. In line with the focus of this writing, gender norms affected my relationship to nonhuman animals and vice versa.
Once my single mother’s multiple jobs paid off, I could stop wearing hand-me-downs and start exerting more influence over my clothing. I initially selected very androgynous options. I looked at what boys were wearing and often wanted to wear that, too. Since female-designated children are allowed to experiment with gendered clothing far more than male-designated children, this did not cause me too much strife, though the bullying did move more in the direction of me being a dyke than me simply being a nerd. There was some freedom in this androgyny, but at the same time I wanted the bullying to stop. So with the help of a controlling and abusive best friend (a whole other writing), I learned to toughen up. I started fighting back against boys who attacked me and called me names. Violence became an option. As I grew tougher, my relationship to other animals changed. I did not realize this until later, because it was mostly my relationship to whose body I was eating and whose skin I was wearing that changed.
Toughness demanded “authenticity.” “Genuine” cow skin adorned many of my garments. Toughness meant eating flesh. Not just any flesh. Red flesh. Bleeding flesh. I recall a time I ordered a medium burger at a restaurant on a school trip, glorifying the way the cow’s flesh bled onto the bun and how delicious it was. The truth is, when I saw blood I instinctively felt something was wrong. But I spent many years going against my instincts.
Complicating factors arose throughout my life governing the choices I made to stay safe, for example, maintaining a jarring aesthetic. I’m still a goth kid, and I still wear mostly black to this day, but when I started being seen as a scary satan worshiping vampire devil dyke in school, people were more afraid to attack me, though sporadic bullying often grew worse. Simultaneously, I feminized my appearance and clothing. Two impulses pulled on me- to be undesirable and feared and to be desirable and hyper-sexually feminine.
As I feminized my looks, my actions became more and more toxically masculine. I became emotionless as much as possible in public, and if I showed emotion, it was anger. Privately I was dying inside and losing my mind, but publicly I was promiscuous, loud, and aggressive. My severe drug addiction further detached me from self-awareness. I dissociated completely through more and more negative experiences. My relationship to humans and other animals became more and more detached. I made myself into someone who could be one of the guys while also whetting their desires. I stopped eating. I constantly tried to fit my presentation and gender into what I thought it was supposed to be. I’d pair the shortest skirt I could find in the juniors section with men’s leather jackets and boots. I’d constantly look at what men and boys wore and envy them, yet a wall remained between me and the men’s section of clothing stores. I desperately wanted to appear more like those men and boys, but didn’t know how. My resulting version of femininity was therefore always flawed enough to mock, abuse, and hate. But, of course, it was still good enough to fuck or abuse.
Navigating those years, more and more fell apart. I couldn’t focus on much of anything other than myself, satisfying only the bare minimums of survival. Horrendous things happened during this period that I still work on healing today. It was not until I got clean and started stripping off the toxic armor I created that my relationship to myself, my gender, nonhuman animals, and radical politics began to properly develop. I try to remember who I was when I carry radical messages to other people. Many people are scrambling to survive like I was.
In 2005, about a year after gaining some real freedom from the hold drugs had on me, I was exposed to an undercover video at a fur farm. Somewhere around then I was also exposed to the realities of nonhuman animals on whom cosmetics are tested. For some reason, these two issues, both associated with the social expectations on wealth and femininity sickened me beyond belief. I didn’t connect until later how our culture exploits nonhuman animals to achieve and enforce its gender norms. In order to create and market products telling women they are withered, dark, and ugly, cosmetic companies subject captive nonhuman animals (and impoverished human volunteers) through toxicity testings, covering their asses for corporate gain. They turn profits telling women they must be prettier, younger, lighter skinned, expending the flesh and lives of nonhuman animals. Fur, stripped and stolen from the bodies of nonhuman animals, markets itself as the ultimate capitalist accomplishment in clothing, usually for women. Connections did not yet register between misogyny, classism, speciesism, capitalism, but knowing what happened to animals made me violently ill.
The only vegan I knew, I sought information from books and the internet. I stacked my shelves with Animal Liberation, The Case for Animal Rights, Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, and other well known single issue texts about animal rights and exploitation, but it was not until I read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, and countless vegan feminist bloggers, that I truly began to understand the intersectional and parallel oppressions occurring within and between gender, bodily autonomy, and nonhuman animal liberation. Initially, I was still so unaware of the gravity of my own experiences with oppression and abuse based on my gender and sexuality, that nonhuman animals were my focus. It was an easy way to allow myself to continue ignoring my internal turmoil and my recent traumatic past. Throwing my entire focus into other animals’ suffering was a way to acknowledge abuses I suffered in my own life. I empathized with them and still do.
Through a healthy and respectful heterosexual partnership of all things, with a man who remains my friend, I found a safe enough space to tune into my own gender and sexuality. Meanwhile I met radical and queer people who revealed queer and trans identities outside the gay cisgender man narrative to which I was previously limited- especially radical dykes, fem* women and trans guys, stone butches, and anarcho-feminist queers. When I finally came out and traded the heterosexual partnership for a friendship, it was the first time in my life I honestly felt I was discovering my true self.
I grappled with this difficult gift and the necessity of navigating both my internalized toxic masculinity and the toxic masculinity and femme-phobia in queer spaces, anarchist spaces, and nonhuman animal rights movements. The more time I spent clean from drugs and alcohol and amongst feminist queers, the more my vast stores of trauma confronted me. I could interpret, but never excuse, my toxic behaviors as a result of surviving traumas which continue to shape me. As someone who did not start physical transition until I was 30, and who has spent most of my life being read as a nonnormative or very butch woman, my experiences with toxic masculinity are nothing like those of cis men. I view toxic transmasculine misogyny differently from its counterpart perpetuated by cis men; my own behaviors grew from experiences of rape, abuse, neglect, and other products of patriarchy and cis male violence directed against women. This is not to say cis men are never abused, but power relationships ensure it’s a different experience from what trans people endure. Neither do I defend toxic behavior. Contrariwise, I believe we must find and empathize with the roots of someone’s toxic behavior to dismantle it and stop it from harming others. Unlearning toxic masculinity and relearning to be vulnerable and sensitive is an ongoing project. Ironically, the development of several concurrent disabilities taught me how to seek and receive help from others, rather than keeping up the charade of being too tough to need anyone.
It was also difficult in these spaces to see the lack of care for nonhuman animals. Dyke communities boasted more vegetarians than others, but I met precious few queer and trans people who saw and cared about nonhuman animal suffering. Sometimes I saw masculinity behind this- pretty much anywhere outside veg contexts, people shoved the bodies of nonhuman animals into their mouths or joked about their their deaths. Animals are, as Carol Adams says, the absent referent. Sometimes even vegans would play along, especially women. Masculinity glorifies flesh-eating as a symbol of strength, and femininity urges women not to make a fuss. Hence a profusion of vegan women who continue to cook the bodies of dead animals for their male partners. Like many other groups, queer and trans people loved their dogs and cats, held fundraisers for their medical care, and treated them as parts of the family, while they piled their plates with slaughtered pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, and others.
Have you ever watched a video on how to “pass” as male? Or tips for trans men? Even though I do not identify or see myself as a man, I have sought out videos like this to figure out how to survive. I believe it is a huge mistake to lump trans men and transmasculine people into the same category as cis men when we examine toxic masculinity. Even though there are a variety of ways masculine of center people identify (e.g. some trans men do see themselves as equivalent to cis men), the way masculinity is performed by trans people comes from different roots, is performed in different ways, and is sometimes done for different reasons (survival instead of power). Assimilation for reasons of survival cannot be placed in the same category as assimilation for reasons of power and control. I am not saying transmasculine people always fit into the former and that cis men always fit into the latter, but survival needs are different between the two. Once I began to spend more time around trans men and trans masculine-of-center people, again I had to resist the influences of toxic transmasculinity.
When transmasculine people, especially straight trans men who want to move through the world the same way straight cis men do, seek out resources to achieve the goal of being read as who they truly are, tips frequently recommend misogyny and speciesism. The prescribed goal is not to change the world to make it less dangerous and more respectful of trans people, but to change yourself to fit more into the toxic ways this world defines masculinity. This means being louder, taking up more space, being more aggressive, not acting, walking, dressing, or talking “like a woman,” and so on. It means that if you dare do something that might be considered feminine like going vegan, calling yourself a feminist, painting your nails, or dating men, that you do so in the manliest way possible.
Queer and radical spaces absolutely offer a safer alternative than the rest of the world at times, but we all harbor the ability to act out from internalized oppression. We must work daily to eradicate our internalized misogyny, homophobia, trans antagonism, white supremacy/racism, classism, colorism, sizeism, ableism, and yes, speciesism. Much writing exists on how misogyny and speciesism intersect and feed each other. We also need to look more specifically at how transgender struggles intersect with and feed into speciesism.
Nonhuman animals are oppressed first on the level of species, but an animal’s sex, age, ability, and other factors will govern their outcome. Their human overlords feminize or emasculate them, using and abusing their bodies to best suit their palates and other whims. While reproductive oppression in humans predominantly affects women and female designated people in the realm of childbearing, childrearing, pregnancy, abortion, and more, in nonhuman animals, reproductive oppression affects all sexes in different ways based on species and sex. One of the most traumatic and horrific undercover videos I ever witnessed was that of a male macaque in a research laboratory being electrocuted to ejaculation so the lab could force pregnancy on a female macaque. Sex and reproductive capabilities determine what happens to the dairy cow who can no longer produce enough milk and the male calf who will never produce milk, the egg-laying hen whose egg count diminishes and the male chicks thrown in the grinder because they will never lay eggs, and so forth. Regarding age, most farmed animals are killed before they reach full adulthood. Laboratory animals are allowed to live based on their cost- rats are cheap and primates are expensive. Rats will be tortured in higher numbers and primates will be tortured for longer lifetimes.
What does non-toxic masculinity look like? Does it exist? It is beyond the scope of this writing to delve into value judgments of various aspects of masculine expression, but neither do I want to leave the reader with extensive criticism and no solutions.
This will sound trite, but be yourself. Many toxic masculine traits are learned or forced on us. They may be second nature now, but they probably took effort at one point. Trans and gender nonconforming people have unique experiences moving through the world being read as multiple genders and being treated differently based on how we are read. We who are masculine of center must not let the expectations of a masculinity-glorifying society guide us in how we perform or exist in our gender identities. There are countless ways to be trans and/or masculine of center.
Masculinity without toxicity means sensitivity, empathy, kindness, and supporting both humans and other animals. It means refusing to trade liberation for oppression to be read as the correct gender. It means refusing to use someone’s body without their consent. It means seeking enthusiastic consent, not just in our sexual relationships, but in all interactions in our lives. It means interacting with other masculine of center folks in loving, rather than aggressive ways, without allowing internalized homophobia and patriarchy stand in the way. It means defending nonhuman animals aside from masculinity-affirming dogs without fear of being perceived as feminine. It means self-aware distinctions between dysphoria when misgendered and the misogyny inherent in the fear of being associated with women or femininity. There will be times when we must do what we need to do to survive (like broing it up when trapped in the men’s room of a straight bar if we aren’t always read as men). But non-toxic masculinity means holding each other accountable and being accountable. It means challenging masculine of center people on misogynistic, femmephobic, homophobic, and patriarchal behaviors. It means talking less and making space for women and femmes to speak more. It means listening when they speak. It means making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and giving good apologies (“I’m sorry, I am learning, I will do better, thank you for telling me”). Masculinity is about nurturance of strength that comes from being confident in who we are without needing to harm someone else to prove that confidence. Healthy masculinity is about love, humility, self care, and care for others.
Having kind, respectful, consensual, supportive, nurturing, and humble interactions with all species, including our own, dismantles toxic masculinity and strengthens all of our abilities to interact in healthy ways. We cannot sustain movements, be they for humans or nonhuman animals, without sustaining our own health and our relationships.
N.b., this is a critique of predatory messaging from cosmetic companies, not a criticism of people who wear make up for whatever reasons.
 To this day, The Sexual Politics of Meat and pattrice jones’ more recently published Oxen at the Intersection are the books I lend out when people want to read about animal liberation as so much more than single issue.