Trans women are under intense pressure, internal and external, to perform femininity to a high level. They are seen as more “valid” in their identities the better they pass for cis women and in order to compensate for testosterone poisoning some trans women are pressured to wear makeup, accessories, and feminine styles of clothes to be gendered properly by strangers as well as fight their dysphoria. The common assumption is that trans women who are uber feminine are just narrow-minded 1950’s housewife artificialities who are putting on a costume to validate their own womanhood. Our femininity is never seen as natural – always artificial.
But in reality it’s often about pure survival, a defense mechanism. If we don’t perform femininity at a high level we get accused of being too manly and our womanhood is challenged and we are at more risk of misgendering, harassment, violence, and being discriminated against in general. But if we are feminine we get shit for just being caricatures of womanhood who think being a woman is all about dresses and heels. It’s a double bind: damned if you do, damned if you don’t – trans women lose either way.
But I don’t think the problem here is about femininity. The problem is that people don’t like the idea of a male-assigned person transitioning socially and medically. It’s the very idea of trans women that gives people a problem regardless of how well we perform femininity. The double-bind is thus a product of transmisognyny and not fundamental to femininity itself. The problem is that cis identities are seen as fundamentally more healthy and normal than trans identities. And I mean “normal” as in “normative” not “statistical”. Trans people are obviously in the statistical minority – but that alone doesn’t make our bodies or our identities pathological. Anomalous but not necessarily pathological. Trans women often get a lesser metaphysical status in the realm of valid identities but there’s nothing about our transness that is itself intrinsically pathological.
As philosophers like to say, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. It is the case that trans people are rare, but from that it doesn’t entail that we ought to eradicate trans identities. Imagine if we found a “trans gene” that caused transness and scientists had the power to edit that out before or after conception. We has a society would then have a choice whether to eradicate transness out of existence or not. My view is that the world would be much worse off if trans people weren’t around to shake up the cis-normative world.
Part of the pressure for trans women to perform femininity comes from a desire to relieve dysphoria. If I lived on a deserted island that had a Sephora I would still wear makeup because I just enjoy it and it makes me feel better about myself. But part of the pressure comes from how trans women are judged as less valid if we are not uber feminine.
But here’s the thing: trans women are often not even given a chance to grow into our femininity. As soon as we come out as trans we are expected to perform femininity flawlessly. We are expected to know how to do makeup, how to be stylish, have an extensive wardrobe of gender-affirming clothing, look sharp, natural, etc. But cis women have had decades to learn how to perform femininity, experiment with makeup, style, and figure out what looks good for their body shape. Not to mention, not all trans women can afford laser or electrolysis and the makeup techniques to flawlessly cover beard shadow are pretty advanced even for experienced makeup junkies.
Some trans women have been performing femininity from a very young age but that’s not true of all trans women. Some trans women such as myself repressed their feelings deeply and went through very “macho” stages to prove their masculinity to the world before their feelings finally surfaced fully and it was no longer possible to perform masculinity without great pain. But the little crossdressing I did in secret since childhood did not even slightly prepare me the pressure to perform femininity as a transitioned woman. The pressure is felt by all women but trans women feel it especially acutely. So I basically had to learn in a couple years what it took decades for cis women to figure out. Some trans women are just not interested in all that though and they should not be judged for it, no more than cis women should be judged for being butch or tomboys. The “tomboy” trans woman is often judged as less valid than feminine trans women. Many cis women say they are not scared of highly feminine cis passing trans women who have medically transitioned – it’s all those other, “bad ones” they are scared of in women-only spaces, the one who don’t perform femininity to some arbitrarily set cis-normative standard.
We need to let trans women grow into themselves. We are expected to perform femininity flawlessly within months of transition but often it can take years to come into a natural sense of style just like it takes years for cis people to figure out how to perform their genders. We need to let trans women have the space and time to explore themselves before we judge them as “successful”. Or better yet, how about we stop judging people who don’t conform to any gendered expectation and stop placing judgments on whether a transition is a “success” or not. If the trans person is happy at the end of the process it was a success, period. TERFs like to talk about how many trans women are just “pigs in wigs” but usually they are just selectively sampling from trans women just starting transition. Give them a few more years and get back to me. Let trans women grow. Give us time to figure this shit out without invalidating our identities because we have the audacity to look or sound like ourselves and not just flawless imitations of cis women.
Trans people are valid regardless of whether people have a hard time telling whether we are cis. That shouldn’t be the standard. There are no standards. Find me a rule book in the universe that tells me how men and women “ought to look”. There is no such book. There are just atoms in the void – but we place value on some arrangements of atoms and not on others. All value is created from the minds of creatures such as ourselves. Cis people often don’t place much value on trans lives. Our lives are seen as diseased. Just today someone commented on my youtube telling that I am “sick” and “need help”. Yeah – that’s a fun notification to get on my phone. That’s just part of what it’s like to be trans in 2017. And I have it easy! I am very, very privileged as a trans woman, both in terms of passing and my material status, but I still get constant reminders that my existence is seen by many in this country as an existential threat to the moral fabric of society. Here I am just trying to survive and somehow I am the threat to society? Yeah, right.
Let trans women grow. Not all trans women have had a strong sense of identity since childhood. That’s the narrative that plays well with cis audiences and trans women are under immense pressure to reshape their histories to conform to that narrative but it’s not representative of the diversity in the community. Some of us need time to unlearn old patterns of behavior and learn new patterns of behavior. Some of us need time to figure out simple things that cis women take for granted like putting your hair up in a bun. Many of us were not taught by female members of our family how to perform femininity. If anything, we were usually punished for displaying the slightest amount of femininity. So how can cis people turn around and expect trans women to be perfect exemplars of femininity when they at the same time stamp out femininity in their own male-assigned children? It’s the double-bind of trans femininity.
When you start to look, the double-bind is everywhere. We cannot escape it. But we must. The liberation of trans women cannot happen unless the double-bind is loosened and we are allowed to grow.