This is probably going to be more challenging to write than possibly any post I’ve written for this space. The potential for being misunderstood and provoking unwanted drama is high. But that potential is also what makes the topic such a compelling one to address.
My thoughts tonight are activated by an article by Juno Roche which can be found here. It’s a very dense, thoughtful article with a lot to unpack. I do not propose at this moment to even begin to address all the layers to be found there but the “framing” (if you will) proposition is one that seems worth addressing. For starters, let me be clear – nothing I write here will be in any way a attempt to police Juno’s expression or identification. Above all, I resist the temptation to tell anyone else “how to be trans correctly”. However, with that said I do believe that her position here perhaps inadvertently trends towards doing just that, by implication. I certainly don’t think this is intentional, or the goal of the piece, but rather that it is a subtle but clear implication of the reasoning.
I can’t, however, address the framing point without first resolving the interconnection with her onw personal experience with being trans. She asserts that not “passing” is an intentional choice, and that for her there is value in expressing her transness not as non-binary per se, or gender fluid or deliberately androgynous but, to use her words, trans as a destination rather than as a way-station between binary poles. I have no quibble with that being the place where she finds her best self. But that description is not what I want to speak to.
The point that is on my mind though is that the reasonable argument that a person does not HAVE to gravitate towards one of the poles (which is a legitimate position) is perhaps gaining so much momentum among he trans community that it inadvertently becomes a questioning of those who DO gravitate towards a “cisnormative” binary presentation. The author notes correctly that some feel pressured to conform to the binary for the sake of safety, or other external considerations and it’s a point well made and why the conversation is necessary. But some of us conform because it’s where WE find our best selves, because we feel most at home in our souls with a “cisnormative” presentation and that should not be seen as conforming out of fear or intimidation or just a placid unwillingness to challenge the binary. For us, for me, the binary is not something I want to challenge or defy. I support those who do wish to challenge it, I do not think it should be legalistically enforced, but I and probably most trans people do not see it as a dragon to be slain either in terms of our own personal “happy place”.
I would argue that often discussions of resisting “cisnormativity” become implicit suggestions that those who are comfortable conforming with the social expectations of our identified gender are somehow surrendering to an oppressive system. It’s only oppressive in the sense that conformity is demanded of those who don’t wish to, but it’s not oppressive if it’s where you find your peace and relief from dysphoria. Both options are, or ought to be, valid. I do agree with the author that often cis institutions play at transness in inauthentic ways by fronting “gender bender” performance in the absence of an actual non-conforming identity and that should be challenged. I would go beyond that and suggest, and this is one of those dangerous assertions I was speaking of, that there are in point of fact people who assert the self-identity of being trans who are, if the truth be known, seemingly much more about a performative challenge to societal gender norms than about actually expressing an identity. I’m not suggesting that fully transitioning transsexuals are “more” or “better” transgender people than those who non-conform via mixing male-associated and female-associated gender typing (such as the person who dresses fem and wears female-typical makeup but also wears a full beard) but I’m saying there’s a distinction between those who find relief from dysphoria in that gray area and those who are doing “gender as performance” in order to make a cultural point about gender roles. I would argue the latter are not technically trans at all, or else we’ve allowed the term to be so broad that it’s impossible to cogently define. To be clear, while it does make it much more difficult for transitioners to clearly communicate their needs to cis-society (let’s be frank, it’s much easier to get people to accept “switching teams”than it is to get them to be cool with dropping all distinctions between the “teams”) I’m prepared to acknowledge that there’s a role for people who challenge those expectations, but it would be productive also to make the distinction about what is actually happening there.
Finally, and this is the point I’d originally set out to make, the author’s framing point had to do with what we’ve been calling “passing privilege” which is to say that the culture is much more likely to accept and revere the individual trans person in direct correlation to how fully that person “passes” as the gender with which they identify. And that’s not untrue, but it’s not what it seems and not limited to trans people. What this phenomena actually is, is “beauty privilege.” Our culture places a high premium on physical attractiveness, and the scale of attractiveness for women (and men) normalizes a certain range of outcomes. Those who fall outside that range, trans or cis, generally suffer some loss of stature. There are, of course, cis women who are physically manly in appearance (not just choice of presentation) in terms of the physical traits stereotypical to males (such as facial hair) and such women are routinely outside the parameters of “beauty” and suffer loss of status thereby. Even so, a trans woman who’s “afflicted” with unchangeable male-type physical traits (such as the large hands the author mentioned) to a high enough degree to lose “beauty privilege” are in the same boat, not specifically because they are trans but because of the arbitrary standards of what is considered “beauty”. And all too often the cis-woman is caught up in chasing that standard just as passionately as the trans woman.
the “ratified standard” we find ourselves chasing is not just about passing – I “pass” as a woman, for all typical purposes, just not as an attractive one (to be clear, even the word “passing” – implying getting away with some deception- is highly flawed but that’s a discussion for another day). Rather, it’s about beauty. Judging ourselves by what’s on the runway or the magazine cover or the screen is going to leave most folks, trans or cis, feeling deficient. The added layer for some trans people is that we find ourselves walking the tightrope between that which we do in the interests of physical attractiveness, in the same sense as many cis people do, and that which we do because we feel obliged to conform to a minimum standard of what constitutes “looking cis” whether or not the given individual even wants to.
Photo by: Stefania Ballerini