The Tightrope Trans Women Walk
Whether we express sincere femininity or break gender stereotypes, trans women are punished for it.
On Twitter today, I saw a transphobe implying something I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of times before: that trans women think womanhood is about what toys you play with as a kid or what clothes you wear, and that men should just be allowed to do these things — I agree with the last point, but the former aren’t why I know I’m a woman. On the flipside, on numerous occasions I have had various things about me held up as evidence I’m not feminine enough. I code, I swear, I’m a lesbian, I like the outdoors — I could go on. This damned if you do, damned if you don’t policing is the reality for trans women.
From a very young age, I knew I was different — some trans people take longer to realize, and that is okay too. But I also sensed it made me different in a way people would see as bad. That it made me a freak. The first time I ever saw people like me depicted in media was on The Maury Povich show in the 90s, as something scandalous and to be ridiculed. As an elementary school student, I was very into the puerile humor of Jim Carrey’s early comedies but horrified when a plot twist in Ace Ventura revolved around a character secretly being trans — and that being disgusting.
During the early 2000s, I did a lot of research on the internet. At the time, sites were overrun with a now-discredited theory called “autogynephilia” that stated that many people who claimed to be trans women merely had a sexual fetish for the idea of being a woman. According to the theory’s proponents, real trans women like men. I’m a lesbian. I never felt romantic feelings for a man once in my life. But, at the same time, my womanhood was not linked to any sort of sexual fantasy, but I figured the so-called experts must know something I did not. Interest in male-dominated career fields — I wanted to be a coder — was also seen as secondary evidence that one was merely an autogynephilic faker. During high school, this was tearing me apart.
This theory thankfully fell out of fashion across the 00s. Studies demonstrated that the substantial majority of cis women answer self-image questions similarly — turns out cis women like feeling beautiful and desirable and sexy too. Autogynephilia took deeply sexist standards about what it means to be a woman and militantly applied them to trans women. In fall 2008, I finally accepted this was definitely who I was and that my transition was inevitable.
Nonetheless, I felt ashamed and scared to be trans and ran away from it until it caused me to drop out of college from depression over inability to face it in 2010. It took me until I was twenty-four in 2012, the year that Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! came out and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix fame finally confirmed long-standing rumors about her — rumors that had persisted for years at the time and whose scornful murmurs about them contributed to my feelings of fear.
The day I finally came out publicly to everyone was in August 2013, the day Chelsea Manning came out, because, at that point, I had spent eight months on hormone replacement therapy — I was committed to transitioning — and tired of hearing people talk about her like a trans person was not listening. People have said plenty of terrible things to me since, but I no longer wanted them to be able to do so as a friend. My coming out clearly also prompted a lot of people who knew me to re-think things.
Everything about my personality was picked apart by the people who knew me — thankfully a relatively small minority. Everything about me and everything that I loved served as a basis for proof that I could not actually be a woman or that I needed to give things a chance. A couple of my relatives repeatedly insisted it did not make sense for me to transition if I was not into men and that I should at least try men. No thanks.
Of course, I went into that male-dominated field I was interested in when reading about autogynephilia in my teens. But programming was originally a field dominated by women before being seen as lucrative and in-demand enough to warrant men’s attention. One of the things that even drew me to programming in the first place is that, when I’m fully immersed in the code, I’m practically immune to dysphoria. Programming gave me a world of logic flows and data processing where physical form temporarily did not matter.
Many of my hobbies are seen as stereotypically male. I played so many fantasy games, which some saw as largely the interest of men. Fantasy games like World of Warcraft, where I could play women characters of my creation. Fantasy games like those in what remains my favorite media franchise of all, Final Fantasy, where I could imagine myself as Rinoa or Garnet/Dagger or Rikku. Hell, Final Fantasy X-2 was all about a trio of girls and a battle system that revolved around cute dresses.
That said, contrary to stereotypes from transphobes, my transition was not at all about a desire to wear dresses. For a few years after coming out, I almost always wore t-shirts and jeans — the exact same outfit I had worn before. In the summer of 2016, my girlfriend insisted I try on a dress kind of as a joke. Much to my shock, I actually loved how I looked and felt. My bust lines and hips had filled out a lot from three-and-a-half years of estrogenic puberty. Since then, I have largely worn dresses, but they were so profoundly not a part of my desire to transition that I assumed years into the process, I would never be into wearing them.
The reality is that I could never satisfy these people. That’s the point — to create a definition of womanhood that is impossible to satisfy, even for cis women! Cis women are simply exempted from that sort of scrutiny. My cisgender girlfriend likes most of the same things I do, and she’s a digital illustrator especially into drawing sexualized images of women. But the same doubts about her womanhood would never be applied to her personality and interests because they are solely meant to police trans people.
Our definitions of womanhood need to be inclusive, not exclusive. Womanhood includes anything that women, cis or trans, embodies. Anything that is deemed as definitively “unwomanly” is, even if used to transphobic ends, also built atop a foundation of sexism. Likewise, as discussed in a prior article, nothing should be grounds for losing one’s “man card” — men often intensely police the masculinity of even other cis men. None of this is healthy or good.
Being a man or a woman — or neither! — should not limit who you can be or the ways you can express yourself. The more we accept and support the ways that other people understand and define themselves, the more welcoming and comfortable a society we will be as a whole. As a trans woman, I am exhausted at simultaneously not being feminine enough and being too feminine to be seen as “real.” No one should waste what could be pleasant moments playing gender police against cis and especially against trans people. I have lost out on so much time because I worried my identity did not meet the bullshit standards of others — you are robbing others of time if you do it too.