Saturday, July 9, 2011

Gender Stereotypes: A Trans Dilemma

I went to law school long before I transitioned. At Harvard Law, the setting of One L and The Paper Chase, the large lecture halls were the scene of verbal hazings, where self-confidence in argument and an unwillingness to back down when challenged by professors or peers were at least as important as legal reasoning in securing one's intellectual reputation. This goes far in explaining the fact that while everyone who got into Harvard Law entered with a stellar academic record, women quickly fell toward the bottom of the grade curve. Women in the U.S. are expected to be pleasantly deferential to powerful male authority figures and to avoid confrontation. When verbally interrupted, they're trained to be patient and let a powerful man have his say, then gently suggest why their position might be a reasonable alternative to his.

In the masculine realm of lawyerly identity, these women look weak. They cave; they lack confidence; they're judged mediocre students by their professors. But they're also seen as nice, as feminine, as sweet--and when skewered by an argument, as victims to be pitied. What makes someone a good woman worthy of protection also makes her a bad lawyer. (This interested me so much I eventually studied the phenomenon as a sociologist and wrote a book about it, Professional Identity Crisis.)

Back at law school, I was living as a woman. I looked like one, I dressed like one. But I didn't argue like one--I was cocky, assertive, and would not allow my line of argument to be derailed by peer or professor interrupting me as I laid it out. I did very well at law school as a result, but there's a social cost to being perceived as a woman with balls. Being who I am, it didn't bother me at all to be seen as unfeminine. I had no interest in being perceived as a sweet woman, as the material for a suitable feminine wife, as a "real woman" at all. So I could be as incisive and as intimidating as I liked.

It's odd, but now that I've gender transitioned, I have had to soften up. If I argue as aggressively and cuttingly as I did in the past, I tend to trigger competitive alpha-male reactions from men in authority, and come across as a bully to people with less social power. While this is true for any verbally assertive man, there's more to it for me as a trans man: my argument style, once gender-transgressive, is now seen as a gender stereotype, and comes across to people as forced--as me being a hyperaggressive, hypermasculine jerk to try to convince people I'm a "real man."

My spouse has to deal with this issue in reverse, and it's a worse problem for her. I don't think she was ever the aggressive, self-assured debater I was, and law school would not have been her thing. But she spent some years being perceived as a young white man, and that means that when she spoke, people at least listened to what she had to say, which is something everyone deserves. I can see that one of the things that is hard on her now--one of the things that would drive me totally nuts were I in her position--is that as a woman, she gets interrupted and talked over a lot by men. And like the women at Harvard Law School, she is caught in a real double bind. If she just lets men talk over her, she is treated dismissively and feels patronized. But if she refuses to let a man talk over her, and pushes back, then while she may protect her intellectual reputation and self-esteem, she's seen as unfeminine. And for her, that can be downright dangerous.

When someone is a cis (not trans) woman and acts in a clearly unfeminine manner, she is seen as a "woman with balls"--a difficult but powerful woman. But when a trans woman acts this way, she's just seen as a man. The first situation may be uncomfortable for cis women, but the latter situation is terribly painful for a trans woman, and in some cases leaves her open to transphobic violence. And so my spouse generally just has to let men talk over her and patronize her and mansplain to her things like computer hardware about which she knows much more than they. And if she complains about having to do this when chatting with other women, cis women often tsk tsk and tell her to be a good feminist and let the men have what's coming to them. But they don't get it. The costs for her are much, much higher than they are for cis women when they refuse to conform to gender expectations.

So here you see laid out the horns of the trans dilemma when it comes to gender norms: if we as trans people conform to them, we're often seen as walking gender stereotypes: "Oh, all those trans men with their regressive masculinity, wearing their hair in crew cuts and talking over you! And the trans women are even worse, wearing makeup and heels to the grocery store and letting men talk over them as if feminism were never invented!" But if we transgress the norms of our identified genders, we may pay the terrible price of having our gender identities denied and mocked. "He's a freak--an asshole dude in a skirt who doesn't even know how real women act."

We as trans people are caught in a Catch-22 by cissexism. If we gender-conform, we're stereotyped dupes, but if we gender-transgress, we're not who we say we are, and deserve to be mocked and mispronouned, disdained and harassed. And this is where our friends and allies come in to the picture. We need your help to escape the horns of this dilemma. If you hear someone denying that we're "really" men or women because we don't "look like a real man" or "act like a real woman," please speak up and question why someone would think trans people need to be walking gender stereotypes to have their gender identities respected. And if you hear someone complaining conversely that trans people are too stereotyped in our appearance or behavior, point out to them that we're forced into this awkward position by a transphobic society that will use any excuse to say "Aha! That's really a man/woman." Because like anyone else we just want the space to be full, complex human beings. And we all need to help one another along toward that goal. Most of us are privileged in some ways and marginalized in others, and we need to have one another's backs--so I share with you a dilemma that presses on my trans family in the hope that it will help you help me and mine along. I try to do my best to return the favor when I'm the privileged one in the room.


  1. I sometimes find myself in awkward conversations where people are discussing trans-people, thinking that I too am a cis-female. It tells me that I pass completely, but it also puts me in a very difficult position. I CAN NOT risk outing myself, but I WILL NOT tolerate the degradation of trans-people or anyone else on the spectrum. I have always struggled with finding a balance between being feminine and a feminist. I can be very aggressive and assertive if I need to be, but I'm always concerned that it will come across as masculine. I have a lot of conflicting feelings about social norms and how much I adhere to them. I have avoided anything that I saw as being stereotypical for MTF transsexuals, as a mechanism for fitting in as a woman. It has created a weird dichotomy in my life. Things like avoiding make-up, because I always thought it made me look like a drag queen. I never did anything complicated with my hair either. It was my perception that people would think that only a "real" woman would do feminist things like not wearing makeup and keeping a simple hairstyle. I'm lucky enough to have always had a feminine face and complexion, so I'm sure that helped me pass without make-up. But, twelve years after transition, I basically have no idea how to properly do make-up or hair. I often find that the basic things a girl learns from her mom that she takes for granted her entire life, are absolutely foreign to me. I've lived stealth for so long that I don't have any female friends who know my past. So, here I am, at 36 years old, having lived almost my entire adult life as a woman, and I barely know what I'm doing. I tried to find a support group in the large southern city in which I live, but all of them that I can find are primarily for CD/TV/pre-op people. It seems that the expectation is that after surgery, you're supposed to just disappear into society and never mention it again. I even work with two other trans-women, and none of us have ever mentioned it to each other. I'm sure that one of them just doesn't read me as trans, and the other one might but she doesn't know if I read her. It's not something you can just ask someone.

    I'm glad to see that you've started a trans-focused blog. We have lots of issues to deal with, often silently and alone.

  2. The Catch-22 of being trans is pretty irritating at times. Like Natasha, I've been in similar positions where people complain about transsexuals around me because I'm perceived to have cissexual privilege. Depending on the who they are and the situation, I've outed myself on several occasions just to shut them up. This is when I'm told that I don't look/act/talk like a trans woman, as if this back-handed compliment is supposed to make me feel better. As an aggressive feminist I've wondered about being seen as masculine from time to time, but at this point I don't really concern myself with what others think.