The Trials and Travails of Transness: The Intersection Between Feminism and Transgender People

by Shaker Alexmac, a transgender woman studying at the University of Florida.

This series is meant to serve as both trans 101 for Shakers and to explore the relationship between trans women and feminism through Julia Serano's Whipping Girl. I proposed this post the Melissa in response to the "We Matter" thread, in which some commenters displayed an large ignorance of trans issues and used harmful tropes against trans people. While the commentors were not being malicious, many commenters suggested that they read Whipping Girl. This book deals with many of the harmful tropes that society uses to marginalize trans people, as well as the relationship between trans women and feminism. I wanted to offer my perspective on this book and offer some basic education on trans issues. My personal experience is as a trans woman and I cannot speak for the whole spectrum of trans people. This is also the focus of Julia Serano's book as she is a trans woman.

Let's start with basic terminology. Transgender people are people who have gender identity (how they see themselves) or gender expression which does not match their assigned (birth) gender. This includes drag performers, cross dressers, genderqueer people, and others. Julia Serano uses another name in addition to transgender in her book: gender-variant. It simply means people whose gender does not match up with the norm. The transgender community is the place for people who in some way transgress gender roles. Transexuals are people whose internal sex does not match their physical sex and take steps to live as their internal sex. This can involve hormone therapy, dressing as their identified gender and in some cases sexual reassignment surgery. On the other side are cisgendered and cissexual people whose gender identity and expression and internal sex matches their birth sex and gender. I will use the short hand forms cis and trans throughout this post to refer to cisgendered and transgendered people respectively.

How exactly do you treat trans people respectfully? The simplest way is to respect that person's gender identity and expression. Use the labels and pronouns that they identify with. When you meet a trans person, follow their gender presentation to determine what pronouns to use. If you can't figure it out, then just ask, and if you use the wrong pronouns then apologize. If you give a good faith effort, that is all it takes.

Trans people, and especially trans women, are subject to harmful tropes in the media and society. These tropes are described at questioningtransphobia. The major trope is that trans people are "really" a man/woman and not their preferred gender. This trope is often found in the following forms: 'trans men aren't really men, they are just confused butches' and 'trans women are just men in dresses.' This is often used to dehumanize trans people as in the Angie Zapata murder case where the defense used male pronouns to refer to her.

Another trope is that trans people receive patriarchal privilege. This a favorite of some 'radical feminists' in works such as Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire. This trope is mainly directed towards trans women, despite the fact that being trans means high levels of violence, poverty, and a mirky legal status. If that is privilege, then I don't want to see what oppressed looks like!

A third trope (again, often promoted by some feminists) is that trans people confirm the gender binary. Some social constructionists are really bothered by what they see as the suggestion there must something innate about gender, if people who have cross gender identity want to transition to their identified gender. My first response is: So what! I am much happier as a female than a male. My second response is that the ability of trans people to be accepted in their target gender after modifying their appearance and bodies show the extent that gender is socially constructed; it just isn't the whole picture.

The last trope I will address is the pathetic/deceptive or too feminine/not feminine enough dichotomy used against trans women. Trans women are put into a double bind. If they pass too well as a women then they are being "deceptive" and are trying to trick men into being with them. This idea is strongly reflected in the 'trans panic' defense where men attack trans women and try to justify it by the fact that they were 'deceived' by the trans woman. They can also be attacked by feminists for being 'ultra feminine' and supporting stereotypes of women. The other side is the pathetic 'trannie'—this trope is often used in 'trannie' jokes where women who look remotely masculine are accused of being 'trannies' (see Mann Coulter). This is really insulting because it feeds back into the idea that trans women aren't real women.

For actual trans women, it means that if we don't pass we are subject to ridicule, and this trope is best depicted in the 'trannie' sex worker stereotype who has facial hair and is the butt of jokes. I have personal experience with the plight of not passing. I was mocked and laughed at by two women in the middle of the street just a few weeks ago. The deceptive/pathetic dichotomy is just two sides of the same coin and goes back to the original trope that trans women are not actually women.

Julia Serano notes in her book that trans women are often sensationalized by society to a much greater extent then trans men, because our existence is a direct attack on traditional sexism. Society expects women to want to be men, because men are superior to women and trans men (in their eyes) confirm male superiority. Trans women, on the other hand, are men who want to become women (again in their eyes), which show that women have value and are men are no better than them. The idea that people born male would want to give up male privilege to become women breaks apart the whole system of patriarchy. This is not to diminish the prejudice that trans men and other transgender people face. All trans people face oppositional sexism—a concept which I will develop in the next post.

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