Questions for Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

At The Bilerico Project, Dr. Jillian T. Weiss writes about a man who has been seen at various airports while wearing women’s clothing (picture at the link). Citing his particularly revealing manner of dress, she expresses concern that such attire could be covered under protections for gender expression that she’s been working to promote, and hopes that it would not:

No amount of “gender expression rights” talk is going to pretty this one up. I do not support this man’s right to fly clad only in female underwear.

However, her specific objections to his activity bring up a number of provocative issues that merit further exploration. First of all, must this even be an issue of gender? Certainly many would see it as such, and in the comments, Weiss claims that his clothing would not be a problem if he were female:

The thing is [...] that it would not be inappropriate for a young woman to wear that attire.

I find this improbable. On a woman, the same clothing would likely be considered just as inappropriate – suggestive, improper for the setting of air travel and excessively revealing. In his case, it also emphasizes the outline of his genitals. Note that this is only incidentally the result of his male anatomy, and not inherently due to cross-dressing and wearing women’s underwear; Speedos for men have a similar structure and would pose the same problem. It’s unlikely that this would be seen as any more appropriate, given the setting. So what’s the real issue here? Tastefulness aside, it’s his incomplete performance of femininity – wearing clothes associated with women while remaining visibly male. Is that, itself, reason enough to object to this? That someone is neglecting to adhere to a consistently masculine or feminine presentation? Weiss hints at this when elaborating on her standards:

I respect the right of everyone to dress how they wish, but only up to a point. Why draw a line, you ask? Am I not engaging in dressing behavior, as a transsexual, that was once not only considered improper but illegal?

Yes, I am. But that doesn’t mean there are no boundaries whatsoever. True, the boundaries are artificial, socially created constructs. But I live in a real world, not a theoretical one. I dress like a 50-year old female academic (in law, not fashion or the arts), and, frankly, I look like one.

There may indeed be boundaries, but where are they drawn? Defending your own choice of dressing counter to your assigned birth sex by citing your consistently and traditionally feminine appearance, as well as your transsexual status, suggests that while this should be considered acceptable, anything beyond that may not be. Where does this leave bigender, genderqueer and other people who may present as both masculine and feminine, and whose gender identity may not cluster near male or female or even fall on that spectrum at all? Assuming the passenger in question is a cisgender man, suppose he presented as fully female in traditional and conservative attire – would that still be a problem? Is cross-dressing out of bounds? What about drag queens and other such performances?

It seems unreasonable to say that dressing against one’s birth sex is something to be restricted to people who are actually transsexual. What cause is there for designating any variance outside of that to be an unacceptable expression of gender? If it’s a question of gender-congruent appearance, this could even encompass trans people who, for whatever reason, are often read incorrectly and not seen as their target gender. Though I doubt this is what Weiss intended, her reasons for objecting in this instance have unfortunate implications:

When older gentlemen demand the right to fly while dressed only in female undergarments, it undermines the argument that gender identity and expression are serious issues deserving of protection, because the demand stretches the concepts involved beyond all recognition. [...]

It is heartbreaking to me to think of all those people who have worked so hard simply to have the plain dignity and respect that every human being should receive, to see this man playing dress up on airplanes “just for fun.” This isn’t subverting gender norms, it’s strengthening them because it makes gender variance ridiculous.

Molding oneself and one’s movement to avoid public ridicule is a dangerous game. The same pattern appears elsewhere: masculine gay men will sometimes demean femmes as an image problem and a shameful liability, and LGB people will blame trans people for holding back the progress of gay rights. Does this mean that such groups should be disowned by everyone else because they scare people away and hold back the movement? If we’re to steer clear of whatever gender variance that people may find ridiculous, this will include far more than one oddball airline passenger. Even modestly dressed and gender-conforming trans people like Dr. Weiss may not be any more palatable to the wider public, simply due to the fact that they’re transsexual. That’s hardly a reason to cast them out for being politically inconvenient – but that’s the price you pay when you restrict your movement to include only that which the majority approves of.

This accomplishes nothing. Those who are unable or unwilling to recognize that this man is distinct from trans people are ignorant enough that they likely wouldn’t see trans people as any different in nature – while you may try to placate them with your normalcy, they’ll still regard you as anything but normal. But those who support gender identity and gender expression protections will likely understand that his behavior has nothing to do with the genuine identities of transsexual, transgender and gender-variant people. Pandering to common bigotry is a hopeless endeavor that only serves to diminish your own base of support.

As if to prove her point by example, Weiss goes so far as to suggest that this is cause enough to disavow gender expression protections:

Is this what ENDA is going to mean — that he can come dressed to work like this? Is this what we’re asking employers to support? I am not fighting for that. I do not find it fabulous, and I do not find it amusing.

I’m not advocating arrests of crossdressers, and I uphold anyone’s right to dress however they want in private. But I’m not defending this one. Is this what all my work on including statutory protections for “gender expression” comes down to? This makes me rethink that. Very seriously.

I tend to be suspicious of people whose support of minority rights is conditional rather than principled. It brings to mind the person who thinks their racism is justified by bad experiences with people of color, the person who would support marriage equality if they weren’t so disgusted by pride parades – someone who sees their own personal discomfort as a reason to deny someone else their equal recognition as a person. And it raises the question of just how firm their support really was to begin with. Do they truly stand for people’s rights, when someone exercising them in a manner they disapprove of is all it takes for them to change their minds?

Objecting to gender expression protections which would protect expressions of gender that you disagree with seems to be missing the point entirely. If such an attitude were universal, the emerging consensus would ensnare far more people than Dr. Weiss would likely be comfortable with – and it certainly would not be kind to trans people in the current social climate. If these laws only protected gender expression that everyone found acceptable, why would we even need them? She may be uncomfortable with this, but I’m far more uncomfortable with the alternative.