THE BLOG
02/20/2014 07:08 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Call the (Gender) Police!

Shutterstock / smikeymikey1

Two of my closest friends are a pair of trans men who have a lot in common. They were born a week apart, chose the same first and middle names, are veterans, and are amazing writers. They even look a bit alike. However, the way they express their gender identity is very different. One is all steel and sinew, a soft-spoken man of few words who reminds me of some of the special-operations types I have known. The other is happiest in queer spaces, appreciates the value of a good mani/pedi, and really couldn't care less about stereotypes of what a "straight guy" should be like.

They're both awesome people, but one of them faces a lot more pushback for not conforming to social expectations.

You can probably guess which.

"At work and school, I'm expected to have opinions on every woman I pass, rate her from 1 to 10, want to see naked pictures on phones, and talk explicitly about sexual exploits," he says. He ends up in a no-win situation as a result. "Conforming leaves me with a guilty conscience and feeling uncomfortable. Not conforming brings questions, ridicule, more notice than if I had assimilated, questions, being called 'gay,' my gender being called into question, and being excluded."

It isn't just queer people who feel like their gender expression is grounds for personal judgment. My spouse, a straight, cisgender (that is, non-transgender) woman who grew up as a rural, no-nonsense tomboy, felt pressure to conform growing up.

"If you weren't feminine enough, you couldn't be one of the popular kids," she explains. "People assumed I was a lesbian, and that further limited my social opportunities. I was kind of doomed to be alone or live on the island of misfit toys with the other drama-club kids."

Even people who should know better police gender and define what is masculine and feminine enough. There are still therapists out there who won't give recommendation letters for HRT to transgender women unless they show up to every appointment in a dress and heels. These therapists seem oblivious to current professional standards for transgender clients, much less the fact that there are plenty of cis women who never wear either (including the one I've been married to for almost 14 years).

When I sought a letter of recommendation from a psychologist recently as part of the gatekeeper process, she asked me, "Do you always dress this way?"

I was in my work clothes and answered in the affirmative.

"Good," she said. "So many of the transgender women who come to me overdo it."

"Well, of course," I replied. "They believe they won't get a letter from you if they don't."

This creates the Catch-22 that Julia Serano noted in her book Whipping Girl. If you express your gender in a way that is seen as too stereotypical, then you're trying too hard and not "real." But if a transgender woman doesn't conform closely enough to stereotypes of femininity, then she isn't "really female" either. Given the overlap between the two, there's no space where one is safe from being criticized as a fake.

Still, these policing actions around gender are mild compared with what happens to youth who are gender-nonconforming, even those who are not transgender. Sasha Fleischman, a teen who identifies as agender (that is, neither male nor female), was set on fire and severely burned on an Oakland bus for wearing a skirt. Eleven-year-old Michael Morones was relentlessly bullied until he attempted suicide because he is a fan of My Little Pony. Larry King was shot twice in the back of the head and killed by a classmate at point-blank range in a crowded computer lab. Larry's family sued the school, claiming that they were responsible for his death because they allowed him to express his gender in a nonconforming way.

As one friend noted when we discussed this, when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer kids are attacked, they are usually the ones who are gender-nonconforming. This highlights the underlying problem: Our culture isn't killing people for being transgender; they're doing it for failing to stay within gender boundaries. We just happen to be the most visible example. The further you get from where you're supposed to be in terms of gender norms, the worse it gets. This goes double for individuals who deviate from male norms toward female norms.

Still, all these observations might serve to shed light on some of the toughest questions in the LGBT movement today. What comes after marriage equality? How do we mobilize membership on issues that relate to being transgender? Where do "LGB" and "T" issues overlap? How do we most effectively work on transgender issues? How do we combat bullying of LGBT youth? How do we leverage the intersectionality of feminism and LGBT issues? How do we work on LGBT acceptance rather than simply kicking in the door legally?

One answer to all these questions is changing cultural narratives on gender. This might seem impossible, but consider how the movement has completely changed the narrative on marriage equality, and on whether being gay is a sin, in the past 20 years.

The new narrative of the movement needs to be that there's no one right way to be your gender. It's time to call off the gender police.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post erroneously stated that Sasha Fleischman was attacked on a bus in San Francisco. In fact, Fleischman was attacked on an bus in Oakland, across the bay. This post has been updated accordingly.