Category Archives: Trans life
I really enjoyed our discussion! We talk about why I left academic philosophy and a bunch of trans stuff. Be sure to subscribe to her podcast, Always Another Way, on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And leave a review for her podcast if you enjoyed our discussion.
A Day in Gender
Did that customer just “sir” me?
When he said “Thanks man” would he have said that to a cis female or was that just for me?
Did that person just say “dude” to me in a gender neutral way or not?
Is my co-worker going to use the right pronoun for me at the end of this sentence? Is there any hesitation in their usage of “she” pronouns for me or is it natural, automatic?
Did that customer just include me in their reference to “ladies?” *internal leap of joy*
Pronouns are the primary fuel of the gender machine. The gender machine is the whole apparatus of gender, the constant way in which life on Earth is filtered through the lens of whether you are a man, a woman, or something else. The gender machine is omnipresent, though if you aren’t paying attention it can seem like it doesn’t exist at all. The gender machine is brutal and impersonal: you are subject to it regardless of whether you want to be or not. The gender machine is deeply metaphorical: it provides the foundation for our entire understanding of culture, pop culture, songs, movies, etc.
Before I transitioned, I only had a passing familiarity with the gender machine. I knew it existed, of course, and was obviously a product of it and regulated by it, but I didn’t really know it. I never paid much attention with occasional exceptions: being read as a male with long hair and ear piercings was sometimes interesting. Getting punished by my parents as a young child for wearing women’s clothes certainly made me aware of the gender machine and the rules of what boys are “supposed” to be like. My relationships with women exposed me to the gender machine a little bit. Being a husband made me self-conscious of my role within the gender system. I had read a bit of gender theory here and there but didn’t really understand the gender machine on a super personal level. I was like the proverbial fish who lives and breathes water but doesn’t has a concept of water because it surrounds them 24/7.
But nothing prepared me for what it’s like to be a wrinkle in the gender machine, a nail that sticks out, an anomaly, a person who was first assigned male, raised male, and regulated as male but who eventually pushed back and bucked the system, who self-consciously rejected their position in the gender machine and chose another path, the path towards womanhood.
But violations of gendered social norms are highly regulated by misgendering, transphobia, and enforcement of gender conformity. If you don’t look and sound “like a woman” then the mahine will refuse to play along and you will get hurt. You will get “sirred”. You will get nasty stares as you walk out of the bathroom. You will be harassed, threatened, or maybe even violently assaulted or killed. The gender machine will attempt to chew you up and spit you out. You will be called “freak” and seen as less than human. You will be called slurs. You will be slandered as a pervert. Your sanity will be called into question. The gender machine has it especially out for nonpassing trans women and non-binary trans femmes due to the way masculinity and femininity is strongly regulated for those who are assigned male at birth. Any hint of a assigned-male person dabbling in femininity is brutally regulated so much so that trans women repress their desires for decades, or even repress them forever.
Does my adam’s apple stick out too much at this angle? I worry about this as I stand at the counter and adjust how I’m standing so the customer won’t see it right away. I maximally “prime” them with my available feminine cues, minimize the cues I want to hide, and slightly adjust the way I’m standing and holding my head to hide my adam’s apple. But I know they’ll eventually see it. They always do. That or my voice will reveal my history of being exposed to testosterone. What will they think of me? Not how will they treat me. Most people are nice. But how will they internally think of me? “Oh, there’s one of those ugly trannies. Freak.” Or worse. My paranoia about this runs deep. It affects my relationships with people I don’t know extremely well. Many TERFs these days are hardcore TERFs but keep their opinions to themselves. That’s almost worse. The fake smile. The deference with the pronouns, but secretly thinking “You’re a man.”
“Hi, what can I get started for you today?”, I speak over the intercom in a strained voice, desperately doing all I can to avoid the inevitable “Sir”. Often I don’t get it. But sometimes I do. I wonder if I would get misgendered more if we lived in a time when the gender machine regulated gendered communication and encouraged “sirs” and “ma’ams” at all times. Nowadays, thank God, people more lax on the honorifics. I personally try to never use them unless absolutely necessary. What’s the point? They do practically no good and often cause much harm to trans and GNC people. My voice is the Ur-factor in how I am perceived within the gender machine. It determines everything. Unfortunately, I know my voice is not perfect and still gets read as male to those unsuspecting strangers who might expect something else out of my mouth based on my appearance or dress.
I wake up super early for work to placate the gender machine with makeup. I know many cis women across the world are pressured by social norms to wear makeup to work in order to be seen as “professioanal”, “hygienic”, or even “competent”, but I am pressured into waking up extra early to shower, shave, and put on makeup in order to maximize my available gender cues, minimize the negative ones, and ultimately reduce my chance of getting misgendered, avoiding dysphoria as much as possible. With my voice and my adam’s apple and my masculine features, makeup is a defense mechanism for me, a way to reinforce the gender cues I give off. But what I’d give to have the option to just wear a bare face but still be so effortlessly feminine that no one in their right mind would question my status in the gender machine.
Whether I eventually get misgendered or not depends on many factors, mainly to what extent these people are self-conscious regulators in the gender machine aka transphobic assholes. But it’s also ignorance. And not paying attention. But still. Regardless, the most common thing that happens is that people don’t gender me at all. I get greeted as female all the time but rarely depart as an acknowledged female. When others around me get pronouns, I often get none. Which isn’t too bad I guess. Could be worse.
My coworkers, or “partners” as we call them at Starbucks, are my literal life blood. Their acceptance of me as a woman and their automatic usage of “she” pronouns are my primary coping mechanism for dysphoria and misgendering at work. The small little genderings that happen through the day literally sustain me. It means so little to them, yet so much to me.
Life as a non-passing trans woman for me means constant vigilance. Professional pronoun detector should be written on my business card. Constant awareness of all things gender defines my worldview. When I am hanging out with cis males, I can’t help but notice their masculinity and define myself as apart from them, down to tiny little mannerisms like the small inflection they put on the end of a word, or how much space they are taking up. When I am around cis females, I can’t help but compare myself to them and get self-conscious about every little feminine detail that comes so naturally to them. Even hanging out with butch lesbians does little to make me feel better because even they are so dripping with womanhood that I can’t help but feel “less”. Such is life as a non-passing, late transitioning trans woman.
The gender machine is fueled by pronouns, and regulated by conformity. It is all around us. Even in today’s post-modern liberal society of increasing LGBTQIA diversity awareness, the gender machine is working harder than ever to regulate gender. It might seem like we are now living in a laissez faire world when it comes to gender, but don’t let surface trends fool you: The growing acceptance of trans and GNC people in society has done absolutely nothing to placate the gender machine. It is still hungry – it still needs to feed. It simply finds a new tactic, a new way of regulatation, new rules, regulations, associations, connotations, expectations, etc.
Gender is still all pervasive, as any trans or observant person will tell you. Some gender theorists like to talk about a future, hypothetical society where the gender machine is no more. But that’s a thought experiment only. A fantasy. A utopia that will never come to be. All we can do is force the gender machine to evolve in small, hopefully progressive directions. But despite the gender machine’s dominance and finality being out of our control, we can as individuals take self-conscious steps towards understanding our place within the gender machine and working to make sure everyone feels safe as they can be within the machine. Respecting pronouns and reducing the usage of honerifics is a huge part of this and definitely something cis allies can do. Good luck.
Content warning: this post contains mentions of trans porn, trans slurs, and descriptions of transphobic violence.
Porn featuring pre-op/non-op trans women (aka “tranny porn”)* has always been popular among straight men and continues to be widely popular. I specifically mention the terms “pre-op/non-op” because that’s the only kind of trans woman that seems to be popular with straight men. Everyone knows, if you wanna be a trans porn star, you better keep your dick.
*”tranny” is our word. Just because I say it does not give a cis person the right to use it as well.
The fetishization of women with penises is at the very heart of why trans porn is so popular. But why? Why are straight men (and there are female trans chasers too) so obsessed with trans women who have penises? How could it be that many straight men would not date, love, or marry a trans woman but he will jerk off to her on the internet? If you want to see the fetishization of trans women happen in real time it’s easy, just go to craiglist’s “m4t” section and read and weep. Straight men will fuck us, but not love us. All they care about is that we are “passable”, not that we are strong, determined, beautiful women.
They don’t really see us as females, they see us as a third sex. We are never simply women, or even trans women, but rather trannies, tgirls, gurls, tgirls, transsexuals, TS, TS gurls, shemales, ladyboys, chicks with dicks,etc. TERFs third-sex us as well, calling us male-to-trans, MtTs.
What’s the one glaring difference between cis porn and trans porn? The genitals are different. That’s all it is. But why do straight men consume so much porn featuring women with not-commonly-seen genitals? I hesitate to wager a speculative hypothesis: novelty and taboo are dominant factors. For straight men used to having sex with cis women and watching porn of cis women, trans women represent something they see as “exotic”. Trans women make up roughly 1% of the population. Many Americans don’t personally know any trans people. Perhaps they have heard of Caitlyn Jenner. But you bet they’re watching trans porn. Our rarity makes us anomalies to the cis world, strange creatures who are Othered so strongly that we become a separate metaphysical category: the tgirl.
When you combine the novelty factor with the social stigma against trans bodies it creates a taboo whereby trans porn becomes “dirty”, “naughty”, or otherwise scandalous. This why straight male celebrities who get “caught” dating tran women often end up in media scandals and their masculinity is challenged. It’s why so many straight men might hook up with trans women but not bring them to thanksgiving dinner. The taboo nature of trans people, and especially trans women, fuels the fetishization against trans women. When straight men consume too much cis porn they become bored and the taboo nature of trans porn leads to it’s long-time, overwhelming popularity among straight cis men.
Why does this matter? Why am I talking about this? Because let me give you a scenario, a scenario that is drawn from real life. A straight cis male is horny, watching trans porn. He gets so horny that he wants to find a trans sex worker to fulfill his fantasy. He goes on craigslist and finds someone. He has sex with her, cums, and then has a sudden feeling of disgust (stemming from the taboo), feels his heterosexuality and manhood are threatened because he just slept with a non-cis woman and possibly got off on her having a dick. He gets enraged and defensive, “panics”, and then brutally murders the trans woman for having the audacity to be herself. I am not making up this scenario at all. It is straight up pulled from real life, often involving trans women of color. Sadly, this so-called “panic defense” is admissible in court as an excuse for murder in most states.
This is why the fetishization of trans women is so dangerous. It fuels violence against trans women by men who have been so poisoned by the stigma in society against trans people, especially trans women, that they want to fuck us or be fucked by us yet are so disgusted by us that they will kill us afterwards. Or maybe they will skip the sex and just kill us for being who we are. Or beat the shit out of us until we are an inch from death. It happens. all the time. all across the world.
So next time you internally Other a trans woman, remember, your attitude of fetishization and objectification of her body is indirectly fueling the exploitation of trans bodies and the brutal violence against those bodies. Your fetish is dripping with blood.
But don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being attracted to trans bodies. I get it, trust me: trans people are beautiful and our bodies are special and wonderful as well. The problem is not finding trans women attractive. It’s the automatic mental operation of putting us into the metaphysical category of an Other, an automatic third sex option ticked off, why it’s so common for straight men to only call us gurls because they want to highlight how we are so different from cis girls, a whole other creature: a tranny. mtf. tgurl.
There is nothing wrong with third sex/gender, or thinking that you are third sex/gender. I actually prefer to think of myself as third gender. It’s what I feel most comfortable with. But I would never say that all other trans people are third gender, because many feel they are firmly within the gender binary and I respect that. It’s the way in which we are thrown into the third sex/gender category without our explicit consent. It’s the way our bodies are seen as exotic and other worldly, like a living breathing sex doll with “unique features”. This widespread attitude is dangerous and fuels much of the transphobic violence against trans women.
If we are going to put an end to transphobic violence and the dangerous fetishization of trans bodies, we need to, as a society, become more accepting of trans people, especially trans women, as normal members of society, not deviants or perverts. We need to end the Jerry Springer-esque “freak show” phenomenon that fuels the stigma against us. We need to end medical gatekeeping. We need to stop the myth that trans women who like women are autogynephilic predators and the falsehood that trans women who like men are just hyper-gay. We need for more people to get to know us on a personal level, to see that we are people like everyone else, with hopes, fears, and a desire to be safe, loved, and respected. But most of all, we need cis people, especially cis straight males, to do their own work of educating themselves about the dangers of cis normativity, cis sexism, and toxic masculinity.
My gf Jacqueline and I share our feelings about the recent Ru Paul controversy and how it relates to the broader phenomenon of trans people, drag, and LGBTQ+ history.
I’ve been dating another trans girl for a little over 5 months now. It was practically love at first sight. We first met last summer at a local support group for trans feminine people – I was immediately fascinated by her but I was in a relationship at the time. After that ended, I was single again and we happened to hang out together with some friends one night after the trans support group got together for our usual Wednesday meetings. We ended up staying up to like 4am talking and connecting – I could feel serious chemistry between us. After she went home, I messaged her on FB saying that I felt like kissing her when we were saying goodbye but I chickened out at the last minute. To my surprise, she echoed similar sentiments.
We set up a date for the next night. We went to some little cash-only hipster bar next to a place called Steve’s Hotdogs. We were feeling each other totally. I was intoxicated by her presence. I don’t even remember what we talked about that night but I knew right away this was something special. She came home with me and spent the night. It was amazing. After I drove her home the next day we immediately made plans to hang out again later in the day. And the pattern repeated the next day. On the third night we were lying in bed after crazy good sex and whispering sweet nothings to each other. I could feel myself falling in love. It was intense. I knew she was feeling the same thing – I could see it in her eyes and in the way she was talking to me. She said “There’s something I want to tell you but I’m afraid of saying it…” I knew instantly what she wanted to say but I beat her to it: “I love you” I say. She returns the sentiment, saying “I love you” back. This was unusual for me. Usually it takes weeks or months for me to be capable of saying those three words and sincerely meaning it but with her it was like some supernatural force came over me causing me to fall deeply in love.
I didn’t want her to go home, ever – at the time she was living at her parents place. Sensing that she wasn’t comfortable with her living situation at home I impulsively asked her if she wanted to Uhaul it with me, to move in right away in classic lesbian fashion. She said yes. She couldn’t wait to move out. It was an admittedly crazy proposal. We barely knew each other. It was irrational, impulsive, rash, short-sighted, etc. But it worked. Five months later and I couldn’t be happier. The risk paid off. Big time. Turns out we are very compatible domestic partners.
I’m convinced that part of our success is the fact that we are both trans girls. When we first met she was actually boy crazy. Wasn’t even on her mind to consider the possibility that the love of her life would be another trans girl. But now that we’ve both experienced trans4trans love we wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s amazing to be with someone who knows exactly what your own dysphoria feels like. To be with someone who you don’t have to feel weird about being so excited when someone gendered you correctly at the supermarket. Someone with whom you can share the small joys of transition and know that they understand perfectly what you mean. Someone who understands your identity in all its complexity because they’ve gone through the same evolution.
With her I can share my doubts about my own identity without worrying she will take me any less seriously as a woman. With her I can discuss my own internalized transmisognyny without risking her reinforcing my own internal shit. With her I can discuss my fears and hope and dreams relating to my transition without worrying that she will not understand me. With her I can obsesses about the smallest details of transitioning without worrying that I am being “obsessive” about gender. When I get misgendered I know she will empathize fully. With her I can be fully myself and at ease. If I don’t feel like sitting down to pee I can do so without my feeling I need to prove anything to her about my womanhood. In my past relationships I felt like I had to be more guarded about being maximally feminine. Now, I don’t have to feel self-conscious about my voice not being as feminine as my cis partner’s. I don’t have to worry about constantly effecting a higher pitch. I don’t have to feel self-conscious about the femininity of my body next to hers. I don’t need to “pass” better for her. She gets it on a deep molecular level.
Cis people will never truly get it. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not always black or white in terms of either being 100% cis or not. Gender is messy, fuzzy, and sometimes people can struggle with their gender and question their identity while still maintaining their connection with their assigned gender. These questioning cis people might have a little insight into what it’s like to have gender dysphoria but most cis people don’t struggle with their gender at all. For them the reality and firmness of their gender is simply an undeniable fact that they have totally accepted and internalized, as real as gravity and reinforced by 100% of their experiences growing up. I call the cis people who have never struggled with their gender “basic cis”. It’s the type of cis-ness that fuels the gender binary and cis supremacy. Basic cis people will never come close to understanding what it’s like to have gender dysphoria. They just can’t imagine what it’d be like to look in the mirror and not just be dissatisfied with your appearance but perceive the wrong gender.
It’s an eerie phenomenon, like looking in a funhouse mirror, except the distorted mirror doesn’t just stretched your physical proportions to be grotesque but rather shifts them such that you look like the “opposite” sex. A typical funhouse mirror is like anorexia: being thin but perceiving yourself to be fat or vice versa. But gender dysphoria is more complicated than a simple shift in physical dimensions: it’s a shift in our fundamental metaphysical status as gendered beings. Gender dysphoria is like a snapchat filter on steroids applied to all the hundreds of little features that physically separate the sexes. It’s very difficult for basic cis people to understand this because they are so basic.
t4t usually refers to the craigslist section where trans people and crossdressers try to hook up with each other. But for me, “t4t” represents the queering of romance, an escape from cis-supremacy and the shackles of cis-heteropatriarchy. The way our bodies interact during sex defies easy categorization. Our bodies are not binary and neither is our love. t4t represents a departure from the limitations placed upon us by the old trans gatekeepers, who used to think that the only “successful” transition for a trans woman would involve her getting married to a cis straight man. Anything else was considered deviant and mentally disturbed, a sign of maladjustment to a woman’s place in society. But fuck that noise. t4t is beautiful. Trans lesbians are beautiful. Trans gays are beautiful. Trans guys with trans girls is beautiful. Trans girls with enbies is beauitful. Trans guys with enbies is beautiful. Enbies with enbies is beautiful.
Trans love is a way of showing the cis world that we don’t need them to define our worth.
When I reflect on my early days of transition I often cringe so hard it feels traumatic. The way I would act, my thought processes, the outfits I would wear…It was embarrassing. I had no idea what I was doing. Imagine spending your whole life learning how to act one as one gender and then switching all of a sudden. It’s maddening the thousands of small things that I had to learn and unlearn in the process of transition so as to adjust to my new social reality. Luckily I didn’t have to adjust to wild changes in mood as I started HRT – I remain to this day very stable in my mood. But the learning process was overwhelming at times. Imposter syndrome was in full swing.
One of the primary mechanisms of gendered behavior learning is attention: who do we pay attention to when we are consciously and unconsciously asking ourselves “How should I act?” Do we watch the men or the women? The boys or the girls? Who are the “role models” we look to in times of uncertainty? Having spent my life socialized as male I always looked to the masculine people in my life to imitate their behavior. I was fairly good at this and eventually it became internalized, though I was never super macho.
The decision to transition changed all that. The focus of my attention shifted away from men. What was internalized for cis women after decades of practice seemed 100% natural to them. I had a lot of catching up to do. It’s painful to reflect on my memories of the early days of transition where I didn’t pass very well and still retained much of my old habits and thought processes. It took months and months to eventually find some sense of myself as a trans woman that was natural and intuitive. Nearly two years lately I am still learning to be myself. Nothing feels as awkward as it once did. I have developed my own sense of style and feel at home in my new body. I like being me.
In reality there’s not a whole lot separating the genders. The performative aspects can be learned in no time if you’re a quick study. The part that took longer for me was to internalize the outer performance as part of my personal identity, to truly accept myself as a woman. For many reasons I still don’t quite fully identity as a “woman”, whatever that is supposed to mean. I don’t have a strong sense of sexual identity and my gender identity is nebulous at best. I just feel like myself, a consciousness staring out behind my eyes, beholding the world.
By now I play the part well enough. As I write this I think about how TERFs would twist my words to argue that “Look! This trans woman admits her femininity is a fabricated artificiality of conscious design!” But my response would be that this is true of everyone not just me. Although the unconscious does the bulk of learning, consciousness is still involved in very important types of learning and I believe some of the learning is about gender and gender roles. While one might argue that certain innate neural dispositions are genetic much of human development is learned. The human brain is a fantastically powerful learning machine and it stands to reason that much of our gendered behavior is learned as well and that our consciousness works to direct some part of the learning process.
The thing that makes my learning process different is that it’s done late in adulthood where my consciousness and brain are already fully developed. In some ways this gives me an advantage and in some ways it is a disadvantage. The advantage is that I can largely skip much of the “awkward teen years” of experimentation and get that done in months, not years. As an adult my learning process is sped up because it’s being aided by my full sense of consciousness. The disadvantage is that the “natural” route of learning everything in childhood seems to make it more intuitive because the learning process is so ingrained. Also, children learn about gender more unconsciously whereas I have the advantage of an adult education.
TERFs like to think that the first, say, 10-20 years of our life is our learning destiny, that if we are raised male and socialized as male then we’ll always have those “male-like” tendencies that arose from that learning process. But I think this is a dim picture of the powerful capacity of the human brain to change itself. Learning chess changes the brain in deep ways so surely learning a whole new gender role also changes the brain in deep ways, as does changing the primary sex hormone that your brain runs on. The combination of HRT and gender role change works to reshape the basic way the brain looks at the world.
When I reflect on who I used to be, it seems like a strange dream. I barely recognize myself in certain ways. In other ways I am the same person, with a “new look”. So what is it? New person or not? Has enough of me changed to warrant saying I am a “whole new person”? Philosophers are of no help in giving a decisive answer: it’ll depend on who you talk to. Some might say I am the same biological entity as I was since birth and that grounds my identity so my personhood has never changed. The more “brain-based” theorists might tell me that transition brings about enough significant psychological changes to warrant personhood change.
Some trans people insist that in transition they didn’t change their genders, they changed their bodies to align with the gender they’ve been since birth. But for me, I don’t think I really had a well-defined sense of gender at birth. It had to be shaped into existence by the regulations of society on how boys and girls are “supposed” to act. Don’t get me wrong: I am not talking about “men are from mars and women are from venus” type nonsense. I think there are probably more ways in which men and women are alike than they are different. But there are very different power structures at play in the oppression of women and how women are socialized. To downplay the differences and emphasize similarities is not to deny that there are many stark differences between how men and women act. Man-splaining, man-terrupting, taking up space, etc., are all examples. As someone who has been in the trenches of a gender transition for the past two years and is hyper-vigilant to gendered differences, I can attest to the numerous differences. But many of the differences are differences that stem from different learning experiences not differences in innate “male or female energy” or any bio-social essentialist nonsense that rad fems like to talk about.
I don’t believe childhood experience is destiny. The brain can keep on changing for the rest of our lives, sometimes in profound ways. Trans people are testament to that. Biology isn’t destiny and experience isn’t destiny. Nothing is destiny. We all contain within ourselves the capacity to change greatly. There’s been a lot of dribble spewed lately about how trans women aren’t “real” women because our childhood experiences were different and we likely received different learning histories growing up. But the thing is gender happens to be one of those metaphysical categories that is amenable to metamorphosis. And surprisingly, so is sex. The combination of HRT and social transition is remarkably powerful at changing people to their cores. It certainly changed me, for the better I might add.
It doesn’t happen often but last night I got cat-called. I was walking back to my car at a gas station and there was a group of guys standing around outside. Already on edge, one of them calls out “Hey sweetheart, how’s it going?” Many feelings rushed through my head as I answered back “I’m good” and tried to get in my car as fast as possible.
One of the feelings I felt was fear. I was afraid that my response “I’m good” would clock me cuz of my voice and that the man, having clocked me, would feel his masculinity is threatened and then proceed to beat the shit out of me, hence getting in my car as fast as possible.
Another feeling was disgust. I was disgusted at how piggish men can be towards women and felt a twinge of injustice in solidarity with other woman-identified people who get cat-called.
But here is the paradoxical feeling: In addition to fear and disgust, I also felt a boost to my self-esteem because being cat-called is an indication that hormones and my presentation are working such that people perceive me to be female. That is my goal, and it feels good to get positive evidence of getting closer to that goal.
I have seen TERFs talk about this as another example of why trans women have male privilege and don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman: according to them we like being cat-called. But that’s not true at all. The response is paradoxical because it contains within itself competing elements of fear/disgust and a positive feeling of gender euphoria at evidence of “passing” as your identified gender. It’s not that I liked being cat-called – I was afraid of being beat-up or worse and my deep feminist intuitions scream at the horribleness of cat-calling as a phenomenon that negatively affects women. It’s not so simple as either liking it or not liking it. But I would be lying if I said that I had zero positive feelings at being cat-called – the negative feelings were mixed into the positive feeling of gender euphoria, at feeling like I am passing and attractive.
I would be curious to know if cis women ever feel this paradoxical feeling as well e.g. feeling like your outfit and hair must be killing it today because you got cat-called which is unusual for you but also feeling disgusted at the misogyny on display while also feeling fear. I’ve never asked a cis woman about this so I don’t know for sure but I would wager that some cis women do in fact feel the paradox as well.
But I would also wager that for trans women the paradox is felt to a greater extent. For many trans woman, including myself, passing is of great importance and sometimes it’s difficult to garner “objective” evidence that you are passing. Cat-calling is a form of evidence and thus brings with it a positive feeling associated with feeling like you are passing. Nevertheless, we need to do a better job of raising young men to also feel disgust at the practice of cat-calling and call-out and shame fellow men for doing it when they see it.
There is a shockingly large contingent of Americans who believe that trans women should not have access to women-only spaces like bathrooms, locker rooms, shelters, prisons, women’s centers, lesbian spaces, festivals, etc. I will call this contingent the Birthers, because they usually say things like only females who had “female” checked off on their original birth certificate can have access to women-only spaces, which would prevent trans women from using the bathroom they feel in their best judgment is most appropriate for them.
Ironically, Birthers usually place a very high value on the idea of freedom yet deny trans women the freedom to be themselves. Birthers are gatekeepers, they want to restrict access to life-saving medical treatment such as puberty blockers, hormone replacement surgery, and surgical treatments. They want to absolutely reduce the numbers of children and adults transitioning, socially or medically. For these people, the only acceptable solution to the “trans problem” is a form of conversation therapy, an attempt to mind fuck trans people into submitting to the fate of their non-consensual birth assignment. The fundamental goal of the Birthers is to eradicate the desire for transition, the possibility of transition, and the pragmatics of transition. Part of the strategy for inflicting this on trans people is by using propaganda to overly emphasize how gender and thus appropriate social access to gendered facilities is determined by your so-called “innate biological essence”. This is often described by Birthers as a “fact” or “reality” that trans people are somehow “delusional” about. But trans people are not delusional. The difference between the body dysmorphic person and the gender dysphoric person is that the dysmorphic person misperceives the nature of their own body, giving it physical properties that don’t exist. The gender dysphoric person, in contrast, knows full well the reality of their body, that knowledge is usually the basis for medically transitioning and a source of the dysphoria itself.
The Birthers are so quick to point to “middle school biology” to solidify their argument but as Dan Dennett once wisely said “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science – there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” The question of whether gender is different from sex is not a question that can be answered purely with science – it is a deeply philosophical question resting on complex questions of personal identity and gender as a performative, socially-embedded, experiential and subjective phenomenom. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.”
Upwards of 60% of trans people say they avoid public bathrooms. Without access to public bathroom facilities trans people are actually at risk of damaging their bladders by being compelled to hold their bladders for too long for fear of using either the men’s room or the women’s room. Either option presents real dangers and for many trans people the reality is that they don’t use public restrooms at all. If they walk out of a movie, rather than waiting in line, they might just hold it until they get home. This is just one basic illustration of the way in which Birthers want to see trans folks eradicated from society. They want us to accept our birth assignments as absolute biological destiny and would, if possible, totally restrict the small little daily freedoms that allow trans people to exist in a public society of citizens.
But here’s the problem: Birthers will never understand the trans experience. They are not trans and have no concept of what it really means to have an incongruity with your gender. They can’t even fathom it. And if they do attempt to get their heads around it, they often just deny that its fundamental basis is true and go on to insist that the morphological shape of genitals we had as babies determines entirely and forever the very complicated phenomenon of our genders and how we fit into society. Talk about reductionist. Talk about rigid, stale, conservative, anti-freedom, anti-justice. They have no appreciation of the arguments in favor of thinking that gender can come apart from physiological properties. Ironically, most Birthers think that consciousness and the soul can come apart from biology but not gender for some reason, though gender is of course both a deeply social and deeply subjective phenomenon.
The Birthers are fundamentally just hypocrites hiding behind the social force of tradition. They value religious liberty, but not the liberty of trans people to make decisions about their healthcare, or about which bathroom they should use. Birthers justify this restriction of freedom by referencing the hypothetical possibility that a male person could abuse this freedom in order to harm girls and women. But it’s not like there’s a lock on the bathroom door. A cis male can walk in at anytime and there is no magic barrier blocking him from entering the bathroom and assaulting a woman or girl.
Bathroom bills are terrible solutions to a nonexistent problem. There might be a handful of problematic cases existing out there somewhere. With a population of 7.1 billion humans, with trans people accounting for, very roughly ~1 of the population, that makes 71 million trans people across the globe. Out of 71 million trans people it seems statistically likely for there to be at least *some* bad apples. But let me emphasize there is no empirical evidence showing trans women commit crimes at a higher rate than cis women. I repeat. No evidence. All there is is that one misinterpreted Swedish study but the author of the study said herself that nothing about the study suggests that your average trans woman who has transitioned circa 2017 is at any greater risk of being a criminal.
Bathroom bills are not created from the data. They are created from the ideological premise that, as Janice Raymond, the famous “radical feminist” who wrote that trans women are all rapists said, transgenderism must be morally mandated out of existence. Notice how this fits in line with many religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic church, who have said that trans people represent a grave threat to the moral order of society as dictated by the natural law of God. When your feminism aligns perfectly with what the Pope says about trans people being akin to “nuclear weapons” – then I think you need to reconsider your feminism.
Trans people have inalienable rights. We have a right to exist in society how we see fit according to our deepest vision of how we want our lives to go so long as we respect the autonomy of other people as well and think about the happiness of others.
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.