Tag Archives: transphobia
content warning: this article contains transphobic ideas and terminology
Autogynephilia is the gift that keeps on giving and by “gift” I mean “punch in the face”. Autogynephilia is the theory from hell, a literal weapon of the anti-trans brigade to delegitimize trans women and prevent them from transitioning, restrict their access to healthcare, and eradicate their existence from public life. In a nutshell, the “theory” of autogynephilia, or AGP, says that there are two essentially distinct kinds of trans women: those exclusively attracted to men and everyone else. The ones attracted to men are seen as “legit” by the AGP crowd because they are essentially just oppressed femme gay men who are struggling to survive and find men as dating partners.
But what about the trans women who are either bi/pan or exclusively into women? Those people, according to AGP, are just perverted “adult male late transitioners” living out some fetish they have where they get off to the idea of themselves being women. They’re freaks. Deviants. Confused, twisted heterosexual men who transitioned merely to get their rocks off and abdicate familial responsibility. Furthermore, according to the larger ideology of the AGP crowd, letting “autogynephiles” transition was a big mistake and has invariably started the new movement of “genderism” which says that you don’t have to pass as a cisnormative woman in order to be valid as a woman. Genderism has now led to The Modern Era of trans rights, the “tipping point” so to speak.
Really? That’s all I got to say about AGP. As someone who knows many bi/pan/gay trans women, as someone who is a “late transitioning” pan trans woman, this “theory” is totally invalid as a plausible description of the dozens of bi/pan/gay trans women I know. Most trans women I know lead boring normal lives like any other boring normal citizen in America. The idea that trans women would spend hundreds of excruciating hours and thousands of dollars getting facial hair removed as part of a “sexual kick” is the most ridiculous idea ever. The idea that trans women would voluntarily put themselves through so much shit merely in order to enhance their sex life is laughable.
Furthermore, for the way the AGP crowd talks you’d think that gay and straight trans women are from two different planets. While yes some things are statistically different, such as average transition age, with straight trans women transitioning earlier, but the way AGP folks talk you’d think that all trans kids are straight and all trans adults are gay. But the average age for straight trans women to transition is like 30 and for gay trans women it’s about 35 or 40, which isn’t really all that different. It certainly doesn’t suggest they are entirely different species just because of who they are attracted to, which is the only significant difference between the two groups. The AGP crowd likes to talk about how all gay trans women are “pigs in wigs” and all straight trans women are pretty and feminine, but besides being grossly transphobic, I know many counter-examples to that statement and you just can’t read off someone’s sexual orientation from their “passability”. That’s the whole problem with AGP “theory”: it attempts to make massive generalizations about an extremely diverse group of people all based on a simplified account of sexual orientation.
Zinnia Jones and Julia Serano have both dissected and debunked the “science” of autogynephilia in much more detail than I ever aspire to. My point in writing this article is merely to ridicule the theory, to laugh at how absurd it is to say that trans women persist in their transitions merely in order to live out some twisted fantasy. AGP ignores the large swath of trans women who are simply asexual or who have such low libidos as to be practically asexual. There is nothing sexy about being denied healthcare or being forced to go through the gatekeeping system simply to get access to hormones or life-saving surgery. There is nothing sexy about getting murdered in the street. There is nothing sexy about getting your facial hair removed. There is nothing sexy about facing laughter and ridicule by co-workers, friends, strangers, etc.
As Serano has explained, many trans women, before they transitioned, do have what she calls “female embodiment fantasies” – but if you were experiencing dysphoria about your gendered body wouldn’t you too have an active imagination that revolves around the idea of having your correct body? And as Jones points out, when you are forced by circumstance to explore your gender in secret behind locked doors there is going to be an element of novelty and excitement that goes away once you have the freedom to be yourself 24/7. Transition and hormones typically transform female embodiment fantasies into what doctors call “mundane reality”.
There is nothing especially fun or thrilling about being a bi/pan/gay trans woman in 2017. Sure, it’s better than the alternative: being forced to live as a man and suffer your gender dysphoria in silence. But that in no way makes post-transition life some kind of thrill ride of sexual adventure and arousal. The idea that people could think that about such a large and diverse group of women suggests they are not really creating their theory from the data but using propaganda to stigmatize trans women in order to further their political ideology of morally mandating trans women out of existence.
The theory of AGP actually does accurately describe a small segment of the population but it’s not gay/bi/pan trans women: it’s cis men who self-identify as autogynephiles. Such people do exist. There have been books written about them, chronicling their narratives. A very small percent of that population does go on to transition but essentially identify as AGP males. But most true AGPers identify as men but have “crossdreaming” fantasies of some kind. Whether or not they’d actually change their bodies to fulfill their fantasy if given the option is another question. And yeah, it’s great that some people positively self-identify as AGP. But don’t turn around and say it must be true of all trans women either.
AGP just makes no sense as a theory of why trans women go through all the trouble of transition. Can it really be true that out of the millions of trans women across the world they call all be strictly separated into two mutually exclusive groups with no overlap? Could it really be true that the primary reason why trans women transition is either to become “super gay” and attract men or because they want to live out a sexual fantasy? Or, maybe, just maybe, trans women transition for the same reason trans men do (who are TOTALLY left out of AGP theory building, btw) i.e. gender dysphoria, the sense of incongruity between your gender identity and your birth assignment. Furthermore, trans women have existed for thousands of years in cultures all around the world – all that culture is nothing but the product of sexually deviant minds? That would be too incredible.
AGP is the kick in the face that keeps on kicking because it can’t be falsified. Any evidence to the contrary is spun into an epicycle and explained away by the transes being “deceptive” or essentially in bad faith. The AGP crowd has never explained what exactly it would take to prove the theory wrong even though it does not sit with the available evidence. But it fits into a convenient narrative that is spread by both the gender critical crowd and fundamentalist conservatives: trans women are sexual predators and they shouldn’t be allowed in women-only spaces. This is the narrative at the heart of AGP. It’s why the theory is so pernicious. AGP and bathroom bills are two sides of the same coin. They are spun from the same fabricated cloth. The only way bathroom bills are going to die is if AGP also dies a painful death.
First off, disclaimer: I didn’t actually attend the local Women’s March, so read what I have to say with a grain of salt.
With that said, I want to comment on the current controversy about whether the cornucopia of pussy-themed images at the Women’s March is inherently transphobic.
The first thing I want to say is that the mere mention of vagina and female anatomy is not inherently transphobic. It is perfectly fine if a cis woman or AFAB person (or post-op trans woman) wants to talk about their anatomy in the context of furthering reproductive rights, such as the right to a safe abortion or access to birth control or in the general context of bodily autonomy and female empowerment. When the Republicans are dead-set on attacking these reproductive rights it is perfectly ok for vagina-owners to talk about their vaginas, pregnancy, rape, and anything else relevant to reproductive health or any other issue facing vagina-owners.
Furthermore, we need to place the pussy images in the proper context, which is Trump’s comments about grabbing women’s pussies. I don’t believe it is inherently transphobic for vagina owners to use pussy imagery to respond to Trump’s misogynistic comments that centered around grabbing AFAB anatomy. Take, for example, the following sign:
I don’t believe this sign is inherently transphobic because it’s dealing with the GOP obsession with restricting the reproductive rights of people capable of getting pregnant. Furthermore, nothing about this sign indicates that only women have vaginas or that women are defined by their genitalia are that vaginas are the Ur-symbol to represent the Women’s Rights movement, femininity, or feminism in general. So we have set an example in which it is possible to use vagina imagery in a way that is not transphobic. In contrast, let’s look at this other sign:
This sign is much more problematic than the previous sign. It is obviously a play on “we the people”. In my opinion, the underlying implication of the sign is that the “we” is referring to all women who are fighting back against Trump and the republicans. The problem is that not all women fighting back have pussies. The picture is clearly trying to make a general statement about feminism and the Women’s Rights movement and it is not explicitly focused on the GOP obsession with taking away reproductive rights from vagina-owners. This image is arguably transphobic because it ignores the way in which non-pussy owners are just as much part of the “we” which is fighting for body autonomy and Women’s Rights. This sign is problematic in the same way the next sign is:
“Pussy power” with a female symbol next to it. The underlying implication is that female = pussy and pussy = female and that the power to fight the GOP lies only with pussy-owners. This is transphobic because not all females have pussies. Furthermore, the underlying context of the sign is supposed to represent the power of women to protest Trump and fight back against the Republicans who are taking away women’s rights. But obviously not all the women who have the collective feminine power to fight back have pussies.
However, there is nothing wrong with taking pride in having a pussy, or thinking that pussies are powerful, or in trying to organize with people who also have pussies. But why exclude trans women from the symbolic image of those with the female power to fight Trump and the GOP? Trans women are incredibly powerful fighters. We have so much power to contribute to the fight. Furthermore, trans women are female. We have just as much claim to the female symbol as pussy owners. By associating the female symbol with pussies this works to alienate trans women from the collective female fight against Trump and the GOP.
In conclusion, pussy hats and pussy imagery are not inherently transphobic. Wearing a pussy hat is not inherently transphobic. But the context certainly matters. The nuance of language certainly matters. There are non-transphobic and transphobic ways to use pussy imagery to represent the fight for Women’s Rights. If feminism is going to work in the 21st century it needs to do better to be inclusive of trans women. This is not to say that everything has to be about trans women or that people should give up on using vagina-based imagery altogether. The pussy is still a powerful symbol because the vast majority of women have vaginas and conservatives have traditionally focused on controlling pussies. But the fight for bodily autonomy is a fight that is equally shared with trans women and trans women are powerful allies that feminism excludes at the risk of losing amazingly powerful allies. We can do better.
Gatekeeping is a direct product of transphobia. Transphobia manifests in the ideology that being trans is a malady that needs to be prevented at all costs – that a child or adult transitioning represents a failure of character, a sickness, a failure or breakdown of what is right and proper for normal development of gender identity. Gatekeepers seek to limit the amount of people transitioning to it’s lowest possible number. The more cis people created, the better, since trans is a disease, a negative outcome that must be stopped. Gatekeepers are ultimately worried about cis people transitioning and then regretting their transition because they weren’t “truly trans”. This is why gatekeepers go out of their way to find reasons to discourage people from transitioning. Maybe you’re just a crossdresser. Maybe you’re too masculine/feminine to be trans. Maybe your hobbies do not align with the stereotypes that dwell within a therapist/doctor’s mind. Maybe your childhood doesn’t conform to classical “true trans” transsexual narratives.Maybe you walked into your doctor’s office wearing the wrong item of gendered clothing, making them doubt you are “really” trans. These acts of gatekeeping are direct products of transphobia.
Gatekeepers universally believe that trans people who pass better are more valid or real in their gender identity than trans people who pass less well. The is the basic function through which gatekeeping occurs. One of the most historically prominent endocrinologists, Christian Hamburger, was explicit in his recommendation of HRT only for those trans women who were not overly masculine. In discussing recommendations for HRT in trans women he writes:
The attempts at feminization have better chances of being successsful in patients having a neutral or not pronounced masculine appearance.If the patient presents a black and vigorous growth of beard, deep voice, excessive hairiness on trunk and limbs, strong muscles and prominent veins, it is unlikely that the estrogen treatment will give a harmonious result. In such extreme cases it may be possibly wise to try to persuade the patient to abstain from any endocrine treatment unless the psychologic disposition makes such persuasion out of the question (Green & Money, 1969, p. 302)
Hamburger represents the essential gatekeeping mindset. Passing equals validity in the mind of the gatekeeper. Non-passing means you are a deluded freak, a pervert, a confused cis person, and faker, a trans-trender. Strangely, gatekeepers think they are helping us – preventing us from making a mistake that we will later regret because of not having a “harmonious result” where harmonious means replicating the cis body to perfection such that society does not torment you to suicide or detransition. Notice how gatekeeping feeds off the larger transphobia of society. Because society shits all over trans people gatekeepers want to prevent “weak” trans people from transitioning because they will be chewed up and spit out by the transphobes of society, unable to find employment, housing, or love. If there was no transphobia, there would be no gatekeeping except for the minimal kind used to make sure the patient is rational and of sound mind in their desire for medical treatment.
The anti-thesis to gatekeeping is radical informed consent. Radical IC insists that trans people themselves are the best authorities on deciding whether medical transition is a rational decision. IC is fundamentally about respecting the autonomy of persons to decide which gendered body they want to live in: male, female, or something in between. It is the right of every rational person to have access to treatments that rectify fundamental incongruities of the mind-body that lead to psychosocial dysfunction. The difference between gender dysphoria and diseases like anorexia is that if anorexics had their way, their condition would lead to severe physical dysfunction. But if gender dysphorics had their way, their resulting condition post-HRT/GCS is not physically unhealthy when done under the supervision of doctors. If anorexics had their ideal body they would be physically unhealthy. If gender dysphorics had their ideal body, they would be perfectly normal functioning humans, aligned in their gender and their sexed body.
Gatekeeping is not compatible in a society that respects the autonomy of trans people. Some minimal gatekeeping is necessary to prevent medical contraindications, obviously. But that kind of gatekeeping is not pernicious. What’s pernicious is the Hamburger-style assumption that non-passing trans people are better off not transitioning at all. Pernicious gatekeeping is reflected in the idea that gender ambiguity is an “unharmonious result” and that the only acceptable result of gender transition is cis-passing. While many trans people of course also aspire to cis-passing, it should not be a hidden criterion implicitly used by therapists and doctors to discourage people from transitioning. At the heart of it all is cis-sexism, the pernicious idea that everything about the cisgender identity and body is superior to the transgender identity and body. It represents a metaphysical hierarchy of gender that places cis-ness at the top and trans-ness at the bottom.
In contrast, radical informed consent assumes that trans identities and bodies are just as real and just as valid as their cisgender counterparts. It accepts that people choosing to medically transition is not a bad thing, that hormonal and surgical treatments should be available to all those seek them with a sound mind and rational assessment of the risks and benefits. Gatekeeping strips the autonomy of the patient and installs a false authority onto the doctor, a false sense that it is up to the doctor to decide whether transition is a beneficial decision. Informed consent puts the nexus of decision making back where it belongs: in trans patients.
If you’re a trans person like me then you’re probably hyper aware of all gendered activities directed your way. Last night I was at Denny’s with some cis female friends and when the server brought the food out she was giving the food to the other girls and was like “And this is for this lady right here”, etc., but when she got to me she didn’t repeat the pattern – she didn’t know how to gender me – didn’t know whether I was lady-enough to warrant being called a lady. In my own assessment it was probably my voice, the downfall of many trans women.
For probably like the first 10-11 months of my transition I put a LOT of effort into trying to make my voice more passable. My results were not fantastic, probably because I never saw a professional voice therapist. And now I’ve just given up entirely because I am trying to learn to say “fuck it” to passing. It’s so hard. So so hard. I want to pass more than anything. I want to interact with people just for once and not have them question my gender. And not just like a fleeting interaction – like I want just for once to have an intimate one on one conversation with someone and not have them suspect I was born male. Oh that would be nice.
I suppose I am lucky though. I fall into that strange class of trans women who don’t pass perfectly but people say are attractive. The very concept of a beautiful nonpassing trans woman is almost a contradiction in terms if you are to believe all the transmisogynist bullshit TERF rhetoric out there. If you don’t pass you look like a man – yet how can a woman who looks like a man be considered beautiful? And yet it’s definitely a thing. Beauty and passing are not the same. You can pass but not be beautiful. And you can be beautiful but not pass. So I don’t have it that bad. I’ve actually be accused by others in the local trans community of being the “epitome” of passing privilege. But I live my own experience and I know from how I interact with strangers that I get clocked pretty much every time because of my voice. So I don’t actually have passing privilege because I don’t pass. I get clocked. It is currently impossible for me to go stealth. Most people are polite/smart enough to not “sir” me but I don’t always get those gendered pronouns I so crave for validation. My experiences are often genderless despite me observing other people around me getting gendered correctly. I pass enough to largely be avoided being gendered male (though it does still happen sometimes) but not enough to be consistently gendered female, especially after I open my mouth. At the intercom for a drive through? Forget about it. Over the phone? No way. Still a man.
So is there is a secret to learning how to say “fuck it” to passing? No. I have no tips. No advice. For some people it’s literally impossible to totally say “fuck it” to passing. Their dysphoria is too high for that. I’ve been blessed to have relatively low levels of dysphoria. Others are not so lucky and they literally cannot ignore the pressing concerns of passing. For some passing is an omnipresent concern. I have no words for these people – all I can offer is empathy and a hug (if needed). My advice instead is for the people who have the privilege of being able to learn to say “fuck it” to passing. If you have that internal fortitude and resolve – it’s possible to learn to care less about passing. If you live in an area of the world that is relatively friendly to trans people, or at least not actively unfriendly, then you too can learn to say “fuck it” to passing.
The number one goal is to learn to not care what others think of you. Easier said than done. But it is possible to foster this attitude within yourself through deliberate cognitive practice. Say to yourself “I don’t give a shit. Fuck you.” It helps. Or at least it helps me. If someone misgenders me, I try to just tell myself it doesn’t matter what strangers think of me. What matters is how I am gendered by my friends and people who know me and are close to me. If they see me as a woman, then that’s what matters because they actually know me as a person and respect my gender in its true authenticity. Strangers are just judging you based on cis-sexist stereotypes about how people are supposed to look or sound. Trans woman with deep voice? You’re fucked. But I’d rather spend time with people who don’t assume that a deep voice makes you less of a woman. It is the company of people like that that I cherish. Strangers are just reacting to surface-level gender cues. But gender is not a surface level phenomena. It goes into the core of my being. Strangers can’t see that, nor should I expect them to.
There are two types of transphobes. Those who can be educated to change their minds and those who can’t. The latter type of people are always going see me as a man so why not just blow their minds with how much a “man” can shatter gender stereotypes by embracing their femininity? In a way, TERFs use misgendering as a political weapon, used to upset trans women and get under their skin, provoking anger which can then be used to “prove” they’re still male socialized. Another tactic is to call trans women “male to trans” (MtT) instead of “male to female”(MtF) because they don’t believe trans women can actually change their sex. Once male always male. But one of my personal strategies for learning to say “fuck it” to passing is to flip TERF logic on its head. If they’re always going to see me as a man no matter what I do then it ultimately doesn’t matter if I put more effort into passing. I’m not going to change their minds. They are a lost cause not worth stressing about. But TERFs are supposedly all about shattering the stereotypes associated with what “males” are supposed to be like. So go ahead. Think of me as a man. You’re not going to change my femme identity. Femme man or femme woman – ultimately these are just labels with no concrete definition. People are free to define these terms for themselves how they wish. I have long since given up on getting the world to unite behind what it means to be a man or woman, male or female. Everyone has their own pet theory. TERFs think they can dehumanize me by saying I only transitioned from a male to a tranny. But echoing Kate Bornstein – I am proud to be trans! It’s an identity I welcome and embrace. Not because being trans is without its problems but because being trans is the only way I can genuinely be myself. My trans identity is a source of many difficulties but it’s also a source of great happiness through the power of self-determination and self-actualization.
But I recognize I am speaking from a place of privilege. Not all trans people are lucky enough to see their being trans as anything but a nightmare, a horrible biological malady that they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Oh what has the world done to you? How has the cruelty and transphobia of the world twisted something so beautiful into a tragedy? I am a strong believer in the hashtag #transisbeautiful. It’s a powerful message precisely because so many don’t believe it’s true. They have been convinced that trans is ugly, sinful, diseased, pathological. But it’s only those things because we lived in a fucked up world. In a utopia there would be room for trans people to not just exist but flourish. Think about that. Think about life in a trans utopia. The very possibility of that imagination proves that trans is not inherently pathological – it’s not an intrinsically horrible experience. In a perfect world being trans would be like having freckles, just another thing that makes us unique individuals. In a perfect world, passing wouldn’t have the all-importance it does now because safety wouldn’t be an issue. If trans people could be assured 100% that the world did not pose a physical threat because of their existence I guarantee so many more trans people would come out of the closet and transition. So many trans people would learn to say “fuck it” to passing because they can finally just be themselves without worrying about all the pressure to pass.
It is the first type of transphobes, the ones who can be educated, that I truly care about. They are the ones who are merely ignorant about trans identities. Their minds can be changed. They can learn about gender and how it’s different from physiology. They can learn about neuroscience and the biological basis of gender. They can learn about pronouns and how important they are. These are the people who can learn to feel bad after they misgender you. They can’t help it. But they can learn. They can change. They can learn to see me as the woman I really am. They can learn to move beyond the rigid male-female binary essentialism that fuels cis-sexism. It is through this process of education that trans people have any chance of approximating our trans utopia. By holding onto that ideal, we can develop the all important idea of hope inside our hearts. Hope leads to optimism and optimism leads to change, even if just internal change. We are ourselves our own best source for mental contentment and satisfaction. By giving ourselves a chance to accept ourselves we can learn to say “fuck it” to passing and just be ourselves. Easier said than done (there is my privilege speaking again). But I am a dreamer. I can’t help but imagine a better world for trans people. A world where passing is done only for ourselves, not for others. A world where passing is about being true to our internal image of ourselves not a defense mechanism against transphobic violence.
I haven’t quite learned how to truly say “fuck it” to passing. I still care about passing very deeply and perhaps always will. But I’m learning. I’m learning there is an alternative way of existing, even if it’s an existence that is fleeting. But the moments where I can truly say “fuck it” are magical because it’s in those moments where I learn to be myself.
If you hang out in trans circles long enough you start to realize the controversy surrounding the concept of “passing”. First off, what is “passing”? Typically, for a trans woman to “pass” is for strangers to not realize they were assigned male at birth. In other words, for a trans woman to “pass” is for the random passerby to think she’s cisgender i.e. not trans. For this reason, some theorists talk about “cis-passing” because that’s exactly what it is: passing for a cis person when in fact you are not cis.
And therein lies the controversy: why should cis people be the standard through which we define and understand the appearance of trans folks? To say that cis people are the ultimate standard is to buy into the whole concept of cis-normativity, which is the idea that cis people’s genders are more valid and real than the genders of trans people. Furthermore, the concept of passing implies that we are trying to “pass ourselves off” as something we are not. Thus, to “pass” can imply that we are being deceptive. A trans woman walks into a woman’s restroom and “passes” – does this mean she was pretending to be cis to enter the bathroom?
But that’s false: trans people are not being deceptive simply in virtue of walking down the street. How could we be deceptive when we are just trying to be ourselves? When I go to the grocery store I am not “pretending” to be cis and have zero intention of deceiving anybody. This is the dilemma that trans people face when we have to “come out” to people. Cis people often view this in terms of duplicity but that places trans people in a double-bind. Should we be expected to wear a sign on our heads? There is no way to be “non-duplicitous” in virtue of just being ourselves. I am not constantly lying with every footstep I take in public. I’m just being myself.
But there’s a conundrum here which is that trans people, including myself, go out of our way to “pass more” or “pass better” in many circumstances. When I go to the drive-through I try to pitch my voice up higher than normal in order to get gendered female over the intercom. Does this mean I was “faking it” in order to pass myself off as something I’m not? If you look at forums like reddit’s /r/transpassing it’s very clear that the vast majority of trans people, if not ALL trans people, care about passing to some extent. If they pass already, that’s great – they’re happy. And if they don’t pass, that’s a reason for much consternation. The belief that one will never pass can actually be a reason for some trans people to decide to not transition at all.
And there are very good reasons for trans people to care about passing. First and foremost, it’s about our safety. If you pass you are said to be able to “blend into society”. If you don’t pass, you stick out and are at greater risk for transphobic violence or harassment. This is especially true for trans women. Sex workers who are “found out” to be trans are often at risk of extreme violence from men. To pass as cis to be safe. To be visibly trans is to be less safe. So it’s quite rational to care about passing from a pragmatic safety perspective, especially if you are on the trans femme spectrum.
Not passing is also the source of much of gender dysphoria. If you’re a non-passing trans women , i.e. everyone can tell you’re trans by looking at you or talking to you, this can be a source of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Why? Well it’s simple. First off, if you don’t pass you’re more likely to get misgendered, which is painful for trans people. Second, if you don’t pass then that means people in society are less likely to see you as your true gender. Third, if you don’t pass, then your body does not align with your desires with respect to having the characteristics of the “opposite sex”, which leads to dysphoria aka suffering. BUT WAIT.
Weren’t we just saying before that cis people should not be the standard by which the appearance of trans people should be judged? Why are cis people the standard? Why can’t trans people be judged with respect to their own standard? One of the deepest symptoms of transphobia is to think that more you pass the more valid your gender is and the less you pass the less valid or real your gender is. When we see a non-passing trans woman transphobic people are likely to think “that’s a man” because she does not pass. It requires a great deal of internal mental work to correctly internally gender trans people who do not pass because it is ingrained in our minds that men and women are “supposed” to look a certain way. A 6’5 300 lbs broad shouldered trans woman with a deep voice is automatically thought to be “less valid” than a petite attractive passing trans woman.
And therelin lies the problematic nature of the very concept of “passing”. The whole concept reduces gender to a certain set of physical traits. If you don’t meet some checklist of physical traits that are stereotypically associated with a certain gender, then your own gender is up for question. Why that is problematic should be obvious. The validity of anyone’s gender should never be reduced to the question of having certain physical traits. If a trans woman has a deep voice that does not make her less of a woman. Or at least that’s how things should work in an ideal world. But in the actual world cis people seem to have a problem properly internally gendering someone who does not pass. Sure, the good ones might gain a mastery of pronouns and be respectful but there’s always the lagging issue of what they “really” think – of how they are internally gendering someone. It’s quite possible for someone to use she/her pronouns for a trans woman but deep down see her as a man because she doesn’t pass perfectly. And if you think this is just a cisgender phenomenon then you are mistaken because trans people can also be deeply transphobic and harbor the same biases against nonpassing trans people. I’ve seen this in the community over and over, especially in the older generation of trans people who had to make it through the gatekeeping system in order to transition, a gatekeeping system that used to deny HRT/surgery to trans people who weren’t deemed passable enough or didn’t have enough passing potential.
So is the concept of “passing” deeply problematic? Yes and no. Should we do away with the concept altogether? I don’t think so. Clearly passing is important to the trans community. Just looking on online communities should make it obvious that most if not all trans people care deeply about how well they pass to some extent. But on the flip side I think it is our imperative to spread the message that our validity does not depend on how well we pass. We need to also spread the message that non-passing trans people can still be happy, find jobs, be romantically loved, and live successful, fulfilling lives. Passing should not be the gold standard by which we judge someone’s success in transition. However, we cannot ignore the fact that passing trans people have it much easier in our society than nonpassing trans people. If you watch the cis media, usually the trans people interviewed or recognized are highly passing trans people, which is unrepresentative of the whole trans community (this is especially true for the community of trans women, but less true for the trans male community which often has an easier time passing after years of testosterone). We need to do a better job to normalize nonpassing trans people as being “just as trans” as their passing counterparts. A holdover of the “true trans” era of medical gatekeeping is that “true transsexuals” were believed to be more passable than the people who are not “true transsexuals”. But the quest to define who is “truly trans” is a fool’s game – not one worth pursuing because you will inevitably exclude people based on arbitrary criteria such as your height or the deepness of your voice.
Passing is important. And I don’t think using substitute terms like “blending” are really going to by-pass the importance of passing to the trans community. But as we’ve seen the concept is also deeply problematic insofar as it implies deception and reinforces cis-normativity. Many if not most trans people wish they were cis but that’s not true of all trans people. Many trans people are happy being trans and wouldn’t change it for the world. I kind of fall into the later camp. It’s beyond this post to explain in detail why I love being trans, but part of it comes from my intrinsic distaste for normality. I like being different and different I am – I am not your average woman. But many trans people crave normality. They just want to be a normal man or woman in this society. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s also nothing intrinsically wrong with being trans. It’s not an intrinsically horrible life, even in you’re nonpassing. Sure, living in a transphobic society can make being trans horrible – violence, loss of friends, job, family, harassment, discrimination, lack of healthcare, etc. – all these things can make being trans a nightmare. But those things are not intrinsic to being trans – they are a product of the society we live in. If society was lurched forward hundreds of years and trans people became widely accepted in society then things would be much different. The suicide rate would surely go down. Because being trans is not an intrinsically horrible experience. There are many horrible aspects of being trans such as dealing with dysphoria. But in a perfect society, we would be able to use technology to deal with dysphoria such that it would be drastically reduced in most trans people, especially by letting trans kids get access to blockers and start HRT before becoming masculinized/feminized by puberty. Greater awareness of trans people would give trans kids role models through which to identify and the average age of transition would probably go down, making HRT more effective and increasing the chances of dysphoria reducing.
So no, I don’t think the concept of passing is inherently problematic because it’s the only way to adequately deal with gender dysphoria. If passing made no sense conceptually then the concept of gender dysphoria would also be incoherent. But dysphoria is critical to understanding the trans experience and thus passing is critical as well. But we need to realize that passing is not the end-all-be-all of our identities. Nonpassing trans people deserve respect and deserve to have their genders recognized without emulating the cis-body perfectly. Trans people should not measure their intrinsic worth as people by how well they can pass as cisgender. I know plenty of nonpassing trans women who are happy being their authentic selves and go about their life like anyone else without too much concern for whether they pass perfectly. These women are role models on how to live successfully in a society that can be cruel and harsh to non-normative people. And furthermore, we need to spread the message in Laverne Cox’s hashtasg #transisbeautiful, which is that trans people are beautiful not just when they pass for cis, but rather, they are beautiful in virtue of not passing as cis.
Am I a man? Or a woman? Or something else? Internalized transphobia is what happens when trans people unconsciously buy into the belief that, e.g., trans women are really deep down men and trans men are really deep down women. That biology will never change. That biology is destiny – gender is immutable. Often internalized transphobia is based on the toxic idea of cis-normative “Passing”. The idea is that the more you pass as cis then the more of a woman or man you are. We see ourselves in the mirror and see our assigned sex and the darkest thoughts enter our minds. “You’re just a man. What are you doing”. Or we meet a trans women who doesn’t pass perfectly and we can’t help but think “You’re still a man” – I admit I’ve had thoughts like this – I think we all have. Although I don’t have hard evidence I believe EVERYONE who has met a non-passing trans woman has had these thoughts. Even trans people. Trans people are not immune to transphobia. We live it and breath it just like everyone else. You look at someone, they have “masculine” features, and you think “boy”. But our minds like to ignore that many cis women have “masculine” features too. Oh but you might say even the most masculine cis women still is within the “norms” of cis-standards whereas non-passing trans women are “extreme” examples of masculinity. But this is internalized transphobia. It doesn’t matter if even the trans women before you is the tallest women you know. That is no license to assume she must be a man “deep down” because she is extreme on one or two traits. If a trans woman does not pass as cis female we have to fight against our own internal biases to see them as 100% women. We have to have grace for those trans women who have not had the time or opportunity to learn everything about acting/socializing like cis women. Furthermore, and most important, we must divorce ourselves from the idea that cis women define the standard by which socialization must be codified.
Personally, I don’t care if people think im 100%woman. But that’s just me. I’d be fine with like 70-80% woman. My self identity is not based on rigid binary concepts. I don’t even really identity as a woman simpliciter as in your “average everyday woman”. I see myself as a special kind of woman. A rare kind of woman. A woman that you just don’t meet everyday. But we must be careful. Because just because I’m rare that does not make me less of a woman. We need to reject the idea that the ONLY women are those women who embody cis-normativity 100%. If someone is read as 51% women we need to make room for these being full-fledged members of the category or women. We need to expand the concept of womanhood to make space for trans women who fall into the margins of binary stealth cis-passing normativity. Some trans women are butch, have no interest in passing as cis, and yet are fully comfortable in their own womanhood. Women come in all shapes and sizes. I know this idea is hard to swallow. Many people want to keep things easy were there are only two boxes for gender/gender presentation and everything is neat and tidy and correspondent with biology. But newsflash: biology is messy. Humans are messy. Gender is messy. This isn’t your biology 101 textbook about farm animals. Gender defies easy categorization. This is part of what makes the human experience so interesting. We are generally much more fluid than people believe. The line between men and women is rather thin actually and the boundary is porous.
But the battle with internalized transphobia is to accept this not just at an intellectual level but at a deeper, unconscious, core level. It’s one thing for liberal cis allies to use the right pronouns and treat us on the surface as women. But internalized transphobia deals with those secret thoughts you never share with anyone. It’s that twinge of uncomfort around non-passing trans women. And yes I am focusing on non-passing trans women because non-passing trans men often lead to less unconscious anxiety because they’re simply read as butch lesbians for which there is a socially acceptable category. But there is no acceptable social category for non-passing trans women. We are the fringe. But you know? Confidence is key. Hold your head up high. Be confident in your body language. Have a deep voice? Fuck it? Don’t pass perfectly? Fuck it. I am proud to fly my freak flag. I know not every one is comfortable with that language but for me non-conformity and living outside of society’s shit is a good way to cope with my internalized transphobia and dysphoria. Sure, I still care about passing. I still present femme. But I’m no longer obsessed with my voice. I’ve come to accept my voice. It’s mine. It will probably always be deep. It will always probably bring about occasional dysphoria. But that’s fine. Everyone has something they don’t like about themselves. Cis people also don’t like many parts of themselves. All we can do is work to better ourselves. To be good people.
At the end of the day the war against internalized transphobia can probably never be won. We might win a few battles but the war itself is a on-going lifelong struggle to accept ourselves. And to accept others. To divorce gender from biology. From appearance. From presentation. We will never live in a genderless world but we can live in a world where people internally fight hard to see trans people as their true genders no matter their appearance.