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Passability And The Toupée Fallacy

So, I wanted to take a moment to briefly look at one of the more common logical fallacies I encounter in terms of people’s perceptions of trans people. Although it’s a pretty simple fallacy, and the kind that once explained suddenly seems embarrassingly obvious, it nonetheless ends up having some pretty severe consequences for trans people, the cultural perception of us, our own individual processes of self-acceptance, and even carries a lot of complex political implications.

I’m not sure if this is the proper name for the fallacy, but I’ve seen it used, and I like it: “The Toupée Fallacy”. It works like this:

“Toupées always look fake. I’ve never seen a single toupee where I couldn’t tell what it was!”

See the fallacy?

Take a moment if you need to.

If the toupée looks real, you don’t end up noticing it’s a toupée, you just assume it’s real hair. So in terms of how you think toupées typically look, you end up with an extremely skewed perspective.

This applies to perceptions of trans people in the conception that we are never, ever able to pass, and always look obvious or “off” or grotesque in some way. It results in statements like the one from Germaine Greer I quoted in Feminist Dogma, “who to us seem like a ghastly parody”. It results in conceptions of us as being failed half-way attempts at our identified gender, it results in parents fearing that their children’s wish to transition will inevitably result in them becoming outcasts and unlovable, it results in terrible mocking stereotypes of trans women in the media as burly linebackers with five o’clock shadows wearing gaudy floral dresses. It results in my hearing people say, far too many times for it to be funny anymore, “I’ve never seen a single tranny that looked like a real woman”.

One of the saddest ways this fallacy can play out is in terms of how young people in the process of deciding whether or not to transition end up perceiving the fate that awaits them. Typically long before they see any positive examples of trans people or any evidence that transition can result in a happy, fulfilled, loved and accepted life, they end up seeing the incredibly negative media portrayals in which trans women are almost always a punchline or a tragic victim. From that perception they may look to real life to see if the trans women they see there confirm or deny the media portrayal… but the visibly gender variant individuals that they’ll notice in real life will only deepen the sense that they’ll never be able to be a “real” woman or man, only one of Greer’s “ghastly parodies”.

(I do not mean this to blame or demonize visibly gender variant people themselves. It is not their existence that is in any way harmful, it is society’s perceptions of gender variance that are.)

In my own experience, when I was living in Olympia, WA and contemplating transition, there were only two trans women in town (that I knew of) and both had very severe mental health issues, and one ended up taking her own life. Both were very difficult people to socialize with, both were very far from being conventionally attractive, and both presented a terrifying image of transition to me. One of the many tragic elements of this (such as my own inability to look past appearances and understand that their psychological difficulties were likely partly a result of being ridiculed and hated by others for their gender variance) was how in truth there were likely many happy, well-adjusted trans men and women all around me (it was Olympia, for chrissakes!), they just weren’t as visible, largely a result of being happy and well-adjusted (and the happiness and well-adjustment certainly aided, in turn, by their gender status not being a huge visible marker subsuming the rest of their identities and making them a target for hatred and ridicule). It took me an embarrassingly long time before I began to notice, and actually began to meet trans women who were, for me, positive images of transition.

One of the most embarrassingly transphobic things I ever said, still burned into my memory, was, while discussing transgenderism on the internet with a friend: “I’ve never met a single trans woman who wasn’t batshit insane. Some of the trans men seem stable and okay, and maybe some of the trans women in documentaries and stuff, but in real life they’re all fucking crazy and damaged.”

My friend has probably long since forgotten I ever said that, but I haven’t. It was, sadly, one of the things I genuinely believed about transsexuality at the time… and consequently, secretly, about myself.

I also said numerous horrible things about the woman who ended up taking her own life. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.

I’m not sure I deserve to.  And at least it serves as a reminder of just how easy it is to hate and fear, how easy to leave our compassion and empathy aside in favour of prejudice and scorn.
Internalized transphobia can be a truly monstrous thing. As in the self-flagellation school of repentance, at least my guilt is mitigated by remembering that for ever nasty thing I ever said about trans women, I inflicted a hundred times that cruelty on myself.

But back to the question of the toupee fallacy, and the political ramifications it has for the trans community…

The question is hopelessly complicated in its political and ethical dimensions, with all kinds of very good arguments on every side of the issue. On an individual basis, stealth (keeping one’s trans status secret and living entirely as a cis member of your identified sex) is something most trans people want for themselves. All things considered, given our social and cultural conditions it’s pretty much the only means available of being fully and completely accepted as a full and “real” member of one’s gender. But when all of us who can go stealth do go stealth, we create a condition of cultural invisibility, which allows cissexism and transphobia to perpetuate, as well as fallacy-driven notions of what a trans person is or can be. We do not demonstrate the full range, diversity and humanity of our community, instead allowing cis people to define that for us, define their conceptions of us for themselves, from highly limited information.

Typically, the most predictive factor by which an individual won’t have bigoted views towards a given group is for that individual to actually know someone from that group.

And we end up with a conflict there, between the instincts of self-preservation and the desire for one’s identity to be accepted that trans people legitimately possess (it is only the most callous and self-righteous who would call the desire to stealth selfish), making various degrees of stealth an extremely attractive possibility, but against that there are the needs of our community as a whole, which requires that we be visible, vocal and present the full diversity of trans experience, lives and, yes, appearance.

We have to very careful here, of course, about not holding passability up on a pedestal. Not reifying it as an inherently positive characteristic (it’s merely a useful one). A trans woman’s beauty should not be defined by her ability to look like a cis woman, and transgender beauty should in general not be evaluated by cisgender standards. When we act like we should proud of our cis-like characteristics, we implicitly assert that we ought to be ashamed of our trans-like ones. It’s also important not to blame visibly gender variant people for their appearance or to engage in imposing those same cissexist tools of body-shaming and oppression against our own. Passing is a matter of privilege, and is usually almost entirely a result of good luck. To a certain extent effort and confidence do play a role, but mostly it’s about being lucky enough to have the “right” bone structure, the “right” features, the “right” genes, having the money for surgeries, transitioning young (which is often a matter of other privileges, like money or insurance, supportive families and living in tolerant cities), etc.

However the concept that trans people cannot pass and that transition is an inevitably doomed undertaking, an inherently flawed half-measure that requires sacrificing one’s ability to be anything other than a “freak” is extremely dangerous and causes considerable harm, particularly to those in the process of questioning. As “shallow” as the issue of beauty and passability is, and as much tact and care may be required in its discussion, it does play a significant role in people’s ability to imagine themselves as being able to be happy through transition, and a significant role in cultural attitudes towards transgenderism itself.

All of these issues are something I’d like to go into in more depth in a future post. But for now I just wanted to demonstrate the danger, harm and implications that can emerge from a seemingly simple logical fallacy.

This is one of the reasons why skepticism plays a very important role in social justice and human rights issues. “Simple” fallacies can quickly blossom into very dangerous, snowballing chain-reactions of ideas, beliefs, conceptions, preconceptions. It’s also interesting how even an entire culture’s superficial conception of one of its component sub-groups can be so starkly defined by a fallacy. Irrational, shallow, crazy human beings, I love them to death, but we should never underestimate the harm that can emerge from a lack of critical thinking.

It’s funny how many people have written me since I started blogging saying “I’ve never met a trans person in real life”. People from majour metropolitan centers, too.

Cis readers, I can almost promise you that you have, at least once, met a trans person without realizing it. But at the time, like most non-neurotically-obsessive-about-gender human beings, you weren’t walking around vigilantly scrutinizing other people’s genders. You simply did your usual near-instant, sub-conscious gendering thing, saw him or her as they were presenting, accepted it, and moved on. Though you may not often notice it, remember that we live amongst you and share this world with you. We can be your neighbours, your friends, your co-workers, the people on the bus or train, cashiers and customers, cafe patrons, waiters and waitresses, anything. We’re not freaks or perverts or otherworldly magical fae-folk or pornographic fetishistic fantasy-creatures, and we’re often completely indistinguishable from the rest of you. We’re just people, trying our best to live our lives.