Disclaimer: this post is not specifically inspired by or directed towards ANY of my friends, family, colleagues, readers or fans. I am very appreciative of all of your kindness and support.
A couple weeks ago when I posted about how to ask trans people questions without doing so in an insensitive or invasive way, I made a point about unintended implications or underlying assumptions. I also used as a brief example the compliment mentioned in this title. I wanted to explore that a little bit more, focusing on the context of compliments and support.
First of all, let me clarify that I really don’t hold this kind of thing against people. It’s a cultural, social issue, related to our generalized assumptions about gender. It’s not a fault of the person in question. They’re usually just trying to be friendly and supportive, and that’s not the kind of thing that ought to be met with someone biting their head off. So please just know I’m not attacking or judging anyone here. Just explaining a problematic aspect of the way we sometimes approach transgenderism.
Consider the compliment “You look amazing! If I didn’t already know, there’s absolutely no way I ever would have guessed you were trans!”. The person making this compliment has nothing but good intentions, but they’ve accidentally brought along a set of cisnormative standards and are applying those standards to their trans friend.
The main issue is that such a compliment equates passing with beauty. By treating the “I wouldn’t have guessed!” as flowing directly from “you look amazing!”, rather than treating the two issues as wholly distinct, it implies that passing is beauty and beauty is passing. It implies that the only way to be good-looking is by not looking trans, by blending in to cisgender standards of beauty. It holds a trans person up to those standards, and suggests that therefore transgenderism is not and cannot be beautiful. If someone is to be proud of the ways in which they look cisgender they need also be ashamed of the ways that they don’t.
Most compliments always carry these kinds of implications… for every trait regarded as a positive and worth praising someone for there is almost always a corollary trait implicitly regarded as negative. It’s usually a good idea to bear those things in mind.
As a general thing, cis friends, (supportive) family and allies of trans people are eager to demonstrate their support and acceptance. They feel empathy for the struggle and pain the trans friend or loved one must be going through, and want to let them know they’re on their side, that it’s okay, they care about them, and they want to make them feel better. But it all gets rather tricky in that a cis person is necessarily approaching from a cisgender perspective, and aren’t quite always going to be able to consider what their words will mean from a transgender perspective, or what consequences or hurt they may cause, no matter how much they’re motivated by compassion, friendship or love. They’re not always going to be aware of the implicit cissexism stowing away aboard their kindness.
So there’s a few things a cis person should try to keep in mind…
- Don’t make assumptions about what our goals and desires are. You may for instance assume that we’re trying to look feminine or something when we really aren’t, and are actually just going for a laid-back look.
There’s an annoying tendency for there to be this sort of universal trans narrative that gets bandied about and indiscriminately applied to all trans people. It contains assumptions like that we’re ALL straight, that we’re ALL aiming to be either feminine or masculine (in accordance with our identified sex), that we ALL want surgery, that we ALL want to pass, that we ALL are trying to look conventionally attractive, etc. When you compliment us on meeting some kind of goal we never were actually pursuing, it sort of enforces that concept that there’s only this one particular way to be trans and that our individuality doesn’t count. So try not to make those assumptions, and don’t congratulate us on what you perceive as meeting or progressing towards a goal unless you actually know we have that as a goal.
- Be careful not to reference stuff we might be really self-conscious about. Almost every woman has body image issues. With trans women, it’s practically a guarantee that those are going to be amplified by quite a bit. We’re exposed to all the same belittling, self-confidence shattering images and messages about what a woman is “supposed” to look like that everyone else gets. Trans men are no exception either. They may easily feel bad about not quite living up to societal expectations of how a man is meant to look.
When you take that kind of standard self-consciousness, and weigh it against the lingering pain and discomfort of gender dysphoria, and, well… there may be things about our bodies that we’d REALLY rather forget.
A well-intentioned ally may remark that he finds something about us that is kind of unique or unconventional to be beautiful or cool or sexy or something. That is not always a good idea, as it may be reminding us of something that is a very painful reality that we would want to change if we were able. Like if someone were to compliment me on having a husky voice that they like, or saying that they’re jealous of my height, they may mean it as a compliment but it’s still really going to sting.
Now, I think it’s healthy and good for a trans person to work towards accepting and loving their bodies as best as they’re able, and not spend their whole lives moping about the things they can’t change, but still… a little extra sensitivity and care is worth taking when remarking on a trans person’s bodies. Our relationships with them are typically complex, to say the least.
- Try not to treat us as special, exotic or fascinating. While it may to you seem like a compliment to remark on how interesting it is that we’re trans, or how you’ve never met someone like us before (yes you have, you just didn’t notice), or you think people like us are really brave or really fascinating or really sexy or really whatever, those kinds of statements are inherently Othering. They push us away from you and into the realm of the exotic and unusual. They remind us of how we aren’t simply accepted as normal human beings, but instead as this strange separate category. It can make us feel profoundly alienated, like we’re being treated as a specimen, and also like all of our particular human individuality is being ignored in place of this ONE single element of who we are. It sucks. It hurts. And it also makes it just *that* much easier for people to not try to understand us or empathize with us, or consider our common, shared humanity.
It also sometimes reminds us of our minority status. How few of us there are. And that can be a very lonely thing, being reminded that your experiences are so distant from most people that you routinely encounter people who have literally never knowingly interacted with someone from your particular background. It gets worse when they rub in just how unknowable your identity is to them. Even lonelier.
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice or suggest a particular path for us. This is pretty bothersome and problematic, especially when it isn’t even dressed up in compliments, but cis people, especially cis women, will often feel they’re being helpful by deciding to offer us a bunch of advice on how we can look more like women or men or prettier or whatever. Please, please don’t do this. Being cis does not automatically give you some kind of special authority over a particular gender and make you the boss on the “right” way for a woman or man to dress and present themselves. If I want some tips on how a bit of blush would keep me from looking so washed out, I’d ask for it. And wrapping up these suggestions by complimenting on something you deign me to have done right doesn’t make it much better.
See, the thing is, it’s kind of messed up for people to be deciding there are particular right and wrong ways for a person to be a certain gender, and designating given paths for entering that gender. It gets especially messed up when this is all presented as sort of conditions for being accepted as a member of a given gender. I can fuck up my lipstick, not bother plucking my eyebrows, wear sweatpants to the grocery store and still be every bit a woman, thankyouverymuch. And relatedly…
- We don’t need your approval or permission. “You know, to me, I think you have every right to be whatever gender you feel yourself to be. You’re just fine in my book. I wonder when our society will finally start accepting trans people?” …um, maybe when you all stop acting like we need your permission?
It’s all well and good to offer words of support and kindness. It’s appreciated, really. But there are certain ways of framing “support” where it ends up sounding more like you are allowing us to be who we are, that you’re exhibiting the generosity of accepting our gender, and that although you’ll accept the identity we’ve presented, you want to ever-so-subtly let us know that you’re in charge of that interaction, you’re in charge of whether or not we are gendered appropriately, that you can revoke your acknowledgement at any time, and ultimately you’re the boss of a trans person’s gender. Cis people make the rules but the really really kind, benevolent ones will extend their mercy to us. That’s not okay.
Offering support is great. But do so in a way where you do not undermine the fact that our gender is our own to dictate, not yours. It’s not your place to decide that we are who we are, you are not owed any special thanks or gratitude for you respecting our identities, and our identities are not conditional on your acceptance.
And you REALLY don’t need to let us know when we’re doing our gender “right” in your eyes. Like, “wow, that dress is great! You look very lady-like! To me, you’re completely female right now!”
Thanks, but I don’t really give a fuck. What matters is that I’m completely female TO ME.
- Don’t hold us to cisgender standards, or treat cisnormativity as something to be aspired towards.
I kind of already covered that earlier in the post, but it can’t bear enough repeating. Our value, worth, beauty and the validity of our gender is not conditional on the degree to which we are able to look, act or seem cis, or how well we play along by cis rules. We are trans people, and that has value, worth, beauty and validity all in itself.
I was almost about to write the sentence “I hope this post didn’t come across too much like biting the hand that feeds” …but then I realized how monumentally fucked up it is that cisnormativity should be so entrenched that I conceptualize cis people as the hand that feeds me, and that I’m supposed to be eager for their approval to the extent that I daren’t risk them withdrawing it by pointing out how sometimes the ways that approval is offered can sustain systems of bigotry.
So… rethinking, rethinking…
I hope none of you take this as personally directed anger, or a lack of awareness of your good intentions. I very much appreciate every bit of support our cis allies offer. Really. Thank you. But it is important to remember how sometimes the structure of that support itself enforces the system that keeps us as the secondary, oppressed, othered class. Until it is generally recognized that the worth, value and legitimacy of trans identities is not dependent on cisgender acceptance and approval, we will never achieve actual equality. So while a compliment every now and then is certainly appreciated, bear in mind that we don’t need them… what we need is to be able to accept ourselves, and have acceptance of our gender be a given that does not require any special effort or notice. And please try to be sensitive to our position, please try to bear in mind the context, implications and assumptions you’re bringing in with you, and please don’t define the standards of beauty or our gender for us.