Shaming Feminine Trans Women Is Not Feminism October 31, 2015

Shaming Feminine Trans Women Is Not Feminism

Gender stereotyping is the oldest trick in the book. But according to Jennifer Fitz, it’s the “hot new thing.”

In a recent piece for her Patheos blog, Fitz denounces the existence of transgender identities, saying that trans people are merely playing into gender stereotypes when they transition. Describing her own brand of feminism, she writes:

I was raised on the kind of feminism that was about rejecting false stereotypes.  Your hobbies, your tastes, your talents — none of these are what defines you as “male” or “female.”  You can be a girl who likes sports (curiously, both my grandmothers played high school sports in the 1930′s — but that was Catholic schools, so it was different than normal, I guess) and woodworking and car repair, and that doesn’t make you less of a girl.

In another piece (which I’ll get to in a bit), she talks about rejecting traditional femininity as a kid, believing that “femininity involved sexual license, athleticism, and a talent for mathematics.” That’s all well and good; each woman’s femininity is different, and if that’s how hers looks, that’s great.

Here’s the thing, though: If your feminism shames any kind of woman for her choices or interests, it’s not good feminism. And Fitz’s piece declares that trans women are not only not women, but that they’re hurting cis-gender (non-trans) women because they sometimes participate in behaviors and traditions that society has declared “feminine.”

In short: She’s blaming trans women for society’s sexism.

The current craze for gender-switching is a rejection of that ideal. The reason is simple: It depends entirely on perpetuating the stereotypes we were supposedly trying to eliminate.

When a man claims to be a “woman,” the only way he can make that case is to don as many outer symbols of “womanhood” as he can. Get himself some high heels and some fake breasts, slather on the lipstick, and try to convince people to buy the veneer. The trouble is that pretty shoes and a nice figure and good make-up aren’t what make you a woman. You can be utterly frumpy in every detail, and if you’re a woman, you’re still a woman.

Fitz is right about one thing: pretty shoes and nice makeup don’t make you a woman. Knowing you are a woman makes you a woman. A trans woman who chooses not to have surgery, not to wear makeup, or not to shave her legs is still a woman, just like a cis woman is still a woman whether or not she’s into traditional femininity. Fitz wants liberation from mainstream feminine standards for herself; why can’t she give the same respect to trans women?

By arguing that feminine trans women are part of the problem, Fitz is shaming traditional femininity, which for some women (cis or trans) is the most empowering and honest way they can express themselves. Productive feminism, on the other hand, equally respects the woman who likes calculus and the one who likes cosmetology, the one who likes sports and the one who likes shopping.

Furthermore, trans women are not to blame for Fitz’z problem, but rather, it’s everyone else who’s perpetuating unfair ideals: cis women sometimes have society’s permission to be less feminine (and even that’s a stretch, but that’s a story for a different day), but it’s trans women who are held to a higher standard of femininity in order for their identities as women to be respected.

What troubles me is that Fitz seems to know, on some level, that devaluing traditional femininity is a problem, but she’s still doing it.

Here’s another reflection on her growing up in an it’s-okay-for-girls-to-like-boy-things culture:

This was the dogma I grew up with, and yes, people got carried away trying to pass on the dogma. In a desperate attempt to prove the point, girls were shunted into “boy” things just-because, and sometimes there was a scent of disappointment at girls who were perfectly happy with the traditional “girl” things. It was an imperfect process, and often tainted by other terribly mistaken notions, but at its heart it was a good one. I reached adulthood fully confident I could pursue whatever interests I liked, with no threat to my femininity perceived or feared.

Read that last line again. Fitz is saying outright that cis women are encouraged to break out of traditional femininity for the sake of feminism with no repercussions: wear pants! Play sports! Shun makeup! (Again, it’s arguable whether this is really a message all women are getting.) But trans women simply do not have that option. Trans writer Tamara Wiens explained it clearly in a Quora piece that appeared on Slate:

For many of us, acceptance as women is just as important as our internal sense of gender; this acceptance is hard to come by when there are numerous cues, both conscious (behaviors, for example) and unconscious (shoulder width, height, brow ridge) that conspire against us. It is relatively easy to spot a man wearing women’s clothing, dressed as a woman — unless he is an actor and has trained for the role, he’s likely to pick inappropriate clothing, demonstrate discomfort with the clothes and role that he is playing, speak and act and walk and sit in ways that will out him as a “man in a dress and a wig” regardless of how flawless his presentation may be, from a two-dimensional perspective.

One way to overcome these cues is to modify all the conscious cues that we can (sit and walk demurely, speak appropriately, wear age-relevant and accepted clothing) and minimize all the unconscious cues to the degree that we are able (hairpieces for baldness, electrolysis for beards, clothing styles that flatter our height and hips, or de-emphasize our shoulders, holding our hands in ways that make them appear smaller) — in essence, aggressively conforming to every single stereotype for women that we can.

For a cis woman, who has the unconscious cues built in to her genetics, she can mess with the conscious cues and not be misgendered in most circumstances — in my experience, a butch woman is still a woman, no matter how unfeminine, stereotypically, her dress and behavior may be. For a trans woman, every cue that we miss on the conscious side just adds to the weight of the unconscious cues that we didn’t fully mitigate. This leaves us in situations where we can’t get access to the washrooms that we need, or where we can’t find a romantic or sexual partner, or we get stared at and laughed at and generally marginalized, all because we didn’t fit the stereotypes.

We police trans women’s femininity to a much higher standard because we’re asking them to prove their womanhood, like we don’t believe them when they tell us who they are. For many trans women, your options are full-on femininity or outright denial of your identity, which can mean harassment, assault or death. Maybe Fitz grew up in a world with “no threat to [her] femininity” as a result of liking “masculine” things, but trans women do not have that privilege. Any hint of masculinity is cause for dehumanization and disbelief.

Fitz continues:

Gender stereotypes are essential to the transgender effort because without them, you just have a regular person. People might wonder on first acquaintance, if you have a sufficiently ambiguous outward appearance, whether you are a man or a woman. But, having established my credentials as a bona fide woman, it doesn’t matter how un-feminine I look, I still get to use the ladies’ room.

First, transgender people are no less “regular” than cisgender people. Trans identity is less common than cis identity, but that doesn’t make it bizarre or unworthy. Second, being perceived as a woman is not a given, no matter what your body looks like. News flash: Plenty of women, regardless of whether they’re trans, get harassed and misgendered in bathrooms for looking too masculine.

What I’d especially like to ask Fitz is what makes her a “bona fide” woman and at what point she “established her credentials.” After all, earlier in this same piece, Fitz actually challenges the tired “vagina equals woman” trope that conservatives so often fall back on:

Being a man or a woman simply is not about how well you stack up to a particular gender “ideal.” It’s not even about how well your anatomical parts function — you can be infertile, impotent, or missing whole components of your genitalia altogether, and your femininity or masculinity is in no way compromised.

If not genitals, appearance, or choice of hobby, then what are these credentials? The inherent knowledge that you are a woman?

Because trans women have that too.

Earlier in the piece, Fitz mentions a post she wrote for the blog series Looking Closer at the Hail Mary in which she “had to give serious thought to my reflection on the word ‘women.’” Here’s the conclusion she came to in that piece:

Four children later, puzzling over what this “Women” thing might be about, the answer is intuitive: Motherhood.  Not stay-at-home motherhood, not lovely-thanksgiving-dinners motherhood, not fifteen-children-and-counting motherhood.  Just Motherhood.

Motherhood is who we are as women, regardless whether we ever marry, ever conceive — whether we ever even see light of day on this earth.

I don’t care if Fitz was raised to like sports and math; this is still the most salient example of gender essentialism out there. And guess what? Some women don’t want to be mothers. Some trans women are mothers. And both of these groups are still women. Nowhere else in her Patheos piece does Fitz say what exactly a woman is; she only says it’s a fact. And if she can’t point to anything but the possibility of motherhood, her facts are deeply flawed.

So, yes, Ms. Fitz. In some ways, gender stereotypes are a big part of trans identity — but not in a good way. Not all trans people want to fit into binary notions of gender identity and expression. (And some do! And both are perfectly okay.) But as it stands, society often extends greater acceptance to trans people who do fit that idea of what a man or woman “should” be, requiring trans people to perform fully the masculinity or femininity that society expects of their cisgender counterparts. And that’s messed up.

When stereotypical gender portrayals are necessary for survival, that’s not a trans person’s fault. It’s the fault of a society that refuses to validate them if they’re anything else.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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