One common criticism leveled at trans people is an objection to the particular way in which trans women embody their womanhood in appearance and mannerisms. We’re frequently generalized as being “stereotypically” feminine or enacting an exaggerated caricature of femininity, often verging into accusations that we’re responsible for “reinforcing” stereotypes or that our idea of ourselves as women is itself based solely on these stereotypes. At times, these accusations turn to focus on young transgender children and their parents, who are alleged to believe wrongly that their children are trans based merely on gender-typed dress or play behavior, such as wearing dresses or playing with trucks.
While trans women are as diverse in their expression and understanding of gender as cis women, these criticisms pervasively misunderstand trans people’s individual relations to gender as well as our place within society’s system of gender. For instance, condemning a 5-year-old trans girl for “stereotypically” enjoying dresses and dolls means ignoring the fact that at that age, gender expression and interpretation comes with a very limited vocabulary that’s often limited to contrasts and extremes: princess tiaras vs. crew cuts, Barbie dolls vs. Tonka trucks, and so on. Because they lack visible secondary sex characteristics from which others can interpret their gender, they may not have more subtle options for expressing themselves in a way that makes their gender immediately clear. Younger children are also far less likely to have a thorough education in the nuances of gender in society – just because they may not yet be at an age where they understand that trans women can be butch or andro dykes, that doesn’t mean their simple existence as themselves is some kind of attack on feminist values.
Trans women also face structures of gender which encourage abundant femininity. Male bias in gender attribution – the tendency to be overbroad in seeing perceived edge cases of uncertain gender as men rather than women – means that trans girls and trans women likely need to take on more overt elements of femininity in order to be read as women. Kessler & McKenna’s studies of gender attribution based on various combinations of “conflicting” features found that male-associated traits are weighed far more heavily in interpretation of gender than female-associated traits. To avoid any perception of a male gender, trans women may find themselves forced to outweigh this by expressing many more visibly feminine attributes. This isn’t a matter of trans people “affirming stereotypes,” it’s a matter of trying to navigate an absurdly complex system that we never necessarily approved of in the first place.
Moreover, blaming trans people’s gender expressions for the continuing existence of a society-wide system of gender stereotypes requires believing that we exercise influence on social norms out of all proportion to our size and marginalized status. Who is more responsible for the continued performance and reinforcement of gender roles and expressions: the 99.4 percent of people who are cis, or the 0.6 percent of people who are trans and pervasively mocked and disrespected by much of the population? This especially makes no sense given that trans women, in our upbringing as presumed “boys,” typically are not encouraged to enact any sort of normative or stereotypical femininity. Most of us don’t have the same background of consistent and pervasive gender regulation that cis women are often subjected to as children – instead, we frequently faced far more mixed signals or were vocally discouraged from expressing any kind of womanhood or femininity. Who here is more likely to enact feminine stereotypes, having been raised in them from a young age?
In encountering these objections, I often pick up a tone of negotiation, as if these individuals are trying to persuade me that I don’t need to be a trans woman. “Men can be feminine and do that too” is a common refrain, and while that’s plainly true, so is the flip side: that women can be feminine and do all these things as well, and this will sometimes include trans women. The distribution of gendered traits – not to mention much of society’s compulsive need to gender nearly anything – means that practically anyone, cis or trans, is likely to end up embodying one or two features that any motivated and hostile person could use to condemn them for aligning with gender stereotypes. These criticisms ultimately commit the same sin that we’re accused of: asserting to the world that there is an appropriate or inappropriate way for us to be women or men.