Zinnia has a terrific post from last December explaining how and why trans people got shoved into hyper-gendered boxes.
When it comes to transitioning, many people seem to equate living as a woman with being stereotypically feminine. It’s a common assumption that trans women express their womanhood via conventional or even excessive femininity. Movies and TV shows often depict trans characters as far more feminine than most cis women – at times absurdly so. Tabloids focus on conventionally attractive models and actresses; when Christine Jorgensen became one of the first widely known trans women in 1952, front-page headlines described her as a “blonde beauty”.
Sound familiar? It sounds to me exactly like the reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. It sounds exactly like that patronizing “ooooooh great job of being a gorgeous woman!!” commentary, as if that were the whole and only meaning of being a woman.
A 2002 study in Poland used a derivative of the Bem Sex-Role Inventory to evaluate 132 trans people and 438 cis people. Among the cis men, 4% were classified as feminine, 48% as masculine, 24% as androgynous, and 24% as undifferentiated. In comparison, trans men were more likely to be rated feminine, less likely to be masculine, and more likely to be androgynous. These results don’t really align with the suggestion that trans men exhibit stereotypical or excessive masculinity. And among cis women, 34% were rated feminine, 16% masculine, 28% androgynous, and 22% undifferentiated. While no trans women were classified as masculine, only 52% were rated feminine, with the remainder being androgynous or undifferentiated. Trans women were actually more likely to be rated androgynous than cis women.
A 2012 study in Spain used the inventory to examine 156 cis people and 121 trans people, with somewhat different results. Here, trans women were less likely to be rated feminine than cis women, and more likely to be rated androgynous and undifferentiated. Trans men were, again, more likely than cis men to be classified as feminine, and less likely to be masculine.
Neither of these studies supports the idea that trans people are any more extremely masculine or feminine than cis people. Instead, we see that trans people express their gender in diverse ways, much as cis people do.
So, she asks, why do the stereotypes persist?
To understand this, it’s necessary to look at the history of how gender dysphoria is defined and diagnosed.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the medical community finally began to recognize gender dysphoria as a treatable condition. They now faced the questions of how to determine if a person is trans, and whether transition treatments are appropriate for them. At a time when the very idea of medical transition was widely unfamiliar to the public, therapists and doctors aimed to make the process seem legitimate and unchallenging to social norms.
How to do that? By “ensuring that any trans people who were accepted would conform closely to gender stereotypes.”
In a 1973 paper, Dr. Norman Fisk of the Stanford gender clinic listed certain factors pertaining to “the overall team decision as to acceptability for sex conversion”. Among these were “appreciation of core gender principles” and “physical passability” – the degree to which a trans woman was perceived as indistinguishable from a cis woman.
So what exactly were those “core gender principles”? A 1971 paper by Stoller contains a lengthy description of what he believed to be the defining features of trans women and trans men. As children, trans women are depicted as “developing a feminine gracefulness of movement”, drawing “beautiful women”, identifying with feminine women in television or movies, and enjoying “trying on jewelry and makeup”.
And so on.
Trans people had a powerful incentive to meet these clinical standards: their ability to transition was at stake. The problem, of course, was that these criteria were based on archaic gender norms. Women were expected to be feminine, conventionally attractive, interested in jewelry, straight, emotional, lacking sexual interest, and married to men. Men were expected to be masculine, interested in sports and construction, and take straight women as partners. Dr. Fisk actually stated that the Stanford program offered “grooming clinics where role-appropriate behaviors are taught, explained and practiced”.
In short, these clinics seemingly aimed to produce only people who were as stereotypical in their gender as possible, perhaps not realizing that cis women may also be tomboyish, sexually outgoing, or attracted to women. There is evidence that this kind of selection process is still occurring: a 2004 study of 325 trans people seeking treatment in the Netherlands found that patients were more likely to be referred for hormone therapy when their appearance was perceived to align more closely with their gender.
Boxes boxes boxes. Rigid hard immovable boxes.
Cis people set these stereotypical standards. We conformed to them against our own inclinations. And cis people now have an entrenched stereotype of us as overly feminine. Well, whose fault is that?
I’m gonna guess cis people’s?
For trans women, transitioning tends to involve a reduction in attributes perceived as male, and an increase in attributes perceived as female. On our own, we can grow our hair out, change the way we dress, and practice altering our voice and how we walk. Medical treatment can change our facial appearance, give us a more feminine body shape, reduce our body hair, and enhance our breast growth. If the Kessler and McKenna study on gender cues is applicable to everyday life, this suggests a newfound abundance of female cues could mean we don’t have to pay as much attention to maintaining all of them. Once many of them are solidly in place, it might start to feel less like we have to push our gender cues to the maximum.
In my experience, the difference has been substantial. Before, I felt like I was walking a tightrope, constantly making sure my presentation was in perfect balance to avoid being misgendered. But after two years of transitioning, I’ve realized that I just don’t care – and now, neither does anyone else. Nowadays, makeup is a rare indulgence. I’ve shaved half my hair off because I just felt like it. I don’t need padded bras anymore, and I don’t usually bother with bras at all. I have a huge trans tattoo on my chest. For me, transitioning didn’t mean turning into Bree from Transamerica – I’m more like some kind of frumpy dubstep housewife. That’s because my gender is finally for me, not for everyone else.
I used to get mistaken for a man occasionally – but the difference is it didn’t matter. That was my privilege.
[This is a long and brilliant piece, with illustrations; read the whole thing.]