Everyone understands trans men. They see a world where men earn more, have more power and more options, and in some societies have legal rights over the bodies and futures of adult women. It seems straightforward to reject membership in an objectively oppressed class in favor of membership in a more powerful one.
People also sometimes understand why someone would want the status of women temporarily, to hide themself or their power, even to trick someone else. They have a much harder time understanding any other reason: why anyone would want to be lower-status, lower-power?
In practice there are several reasons why people might want to be women, given the choice. One I’ve never heard discussed is that when some of us first felt that desire, we lived in a world where women were powerful.
When I was a boy, I woke up every day in a house owned by my mother. I went to school, where my teachers were all women, and so were the Cub Scout den mothers. I went home and the house was often dark until my mom got home from work, because my big sister was still at school, in track team activities. When we were younger she locked herself in her room, leaving me to amuse myself. That was better than the times she insulted me or even pushed me around.
There were men, but they didn’t have much power. My mom had moved us a hundred miles away from my dad, and had a boyfriend who didn’t want to take care of us. Later she threw him out and dated a guy who turned out to be a liar. Some of my mom’s friends were nice, and so were our next door neighbor and my elementary school principal and janitor, but none of them had much responsibility for me.
Even our cat, with her maternal energy, felt like an authority figure. There was one point, in between my mom’s boyfriends, when we also had a female dog, so I shared the house with four females.
Of course I knew that men treated women badly. I saw it in the way my father ogled waitresses, and heard the contempt in his voice when a woman disagreed with him. I saw it in the way boys chased girls in the elementary school playground. I heard it from my mother and my sister and my mother’s friends.
But I could also see my father’s loneliness after having rejected lots of worthy women and alienated all the rest. I could also see that boys who chased girls, whether physically on the playground or metaphorically in bars and parties, were not much happier. And it seemed that all the men I knew were in some way responsible for mistreating women, but at least some women managed to live free of guilt for mistreating men.
In my teens, my mom settled down with a man who treated everyone decently and showed me new possibilities in life. A few years later I spent some time moving in the world, being seen as a woman. Not very much time at all, but enough to get a taste for how women are treated on a regular basis. I also heard more from women about their experiences. I decided not to live full-time as a woman.
Once that decision was made, you might expect that I would no longer feel any desire to be a woman. But I discovered that things were not so simple. I continued to imagine myself as a woman, and occasionally to go out in the world as a woman.
One reason is that it is difficult to live in our society in any gender, and deciding to live as a man did not wipe away the bullshit that we put on men. And it turned out that once I had imagined that womanhood could be an escape from that bullshit, I kept thinking about it.
It seems the habits of thought and action that I had begun when I was a teenager had gathered too much momentum. If I tried to stop the actions, the thoughts kept coming back. If I didn’t act on the thoughts, it felt like I was denying myself.
You can be aware that women are treated as second-class, know about the bullshit women put up with, and still feel a desire to be a woman. When you’re a boy of ten or eleven surrounded by teachers, mothers and older sisters, it can still look like an improvement. This is just one of the ways that our lives are influenced by decisions that made much more sense when we were kids.