Unaverage

Gender – WTF?

by on Jan.12, 2011, under Trans

So I’ve had this post floating around for a while, but I’ve never gotten around to finishing it. Rather than have it rotting on my server I thought I’d publish it and come back to it later.

It’s rough, I haven’t finished my conclusions and I’m sure there are some bits that are contradictory. There is so much more that I want to write about on this but I just don’t have the time. Hopefully I’ll get back to it soon!

Butch girl = normal boy?

I’m sitting in my family living room, where we are all sat blankly watching the television, like a precognisant tribute to The Royle Family. This isn’t so unusual – it’s 1988, I’m 9 years old and I’m stuck in a dead-end Northern town – what else is there to do but gather around the glowing box? Besides, it’s after dark and there’s no way I’m being allowed outside after setting fire to the dining room. Again.

Onto our Rumblow’s rented TV set (insert 50p to get half an hour’s viewing!) comes this show favoured by my dad, but which I’d never really watched. Something about a man in a long scarf, with a hat? Or is it an umbrella with a question mark handle?

I sit playing with my lego, building spaceships that would take on the Evil Empire. As I play I become aware of the programme with the weird intro. There’s this girl on the screen who is acting just like how I like to act. She’s insolent, rude, wears Doc Martens and carries explosives. I stop playing with my lego. She acts like I act, but she’s a girl? I sit transfixed for the next forty minutes. The girl I’m describing is Dorothy Gale McShane. Better known as Ace, the companion of the Seventh Doctor.

Now, you’ve got to understand who I was back then to fully fell why my emphasising with this girl was so incredible. I was an introverted 10 year old boy who wanted to be a girl. I couldn’t figure out why I had the overwhelming urge to be a girl when I didn’t like any of the things that girls were supposed to like. I didn’t like dolls. I didn’t like pink. I enjoyed getting messy and running around in fields. I was a pyromaniac who set fire to things for the sheer joy of it and blew things up in isolated fields with snaffled gunpowder. So how the hell could I be a girl? Finding a woman on TV who I looked up to, who I wanted to be like, who was like me, was a rare thing.

Being a trans kid is tough to deal with when you’re in a pre-internet age and have no knowledge of why you are as you are. But it gets a whole lot more complicated when your gender expression matches the sex you’ve been assigned at birth. I pretty much ID as butch, even if I’ve hidden it for a long time. So a boy, who wants to be a butch girl? That’s a hard one to figure out.

Even as adults, those of us who are trans, MAAB (male assigned at birth) and who don’t identify with the femme corner of gender space have it tough. Because to most people, including a huge number of trans women, the process of coming out as trans is obviously one where you put on a dress, apply the lipstick and wear the heels.

You’ve seen it and you know what I mean. Every trans woman you’ve ever seen on TV is shown putting on make-up, while whimsical, fairy-like music plays in the background.  It’s one of those things that has become a trope, necessary to establish to a cis world that the person being portrayed wants to become a woman. Because to the world at large a woman is defined as pretty/make-up/hetro.

So what’s a butch girl to do? If you’re living as a pre-teen boy, well, be confused as fuck.

Why so femme?

Most trans women end up portraying themselves as femme, even if they don’t necessarially ID that way. The reason for this lies with the patriarchal psychiatric system that oversees trans people. Y’see, we aren’t allowed to make body decisions for ourselves. Bodily autonomy, taken for granted in abortion, reproduction and body modification, is denied to us. Gender psychs (an overwhelmingly masculine profession) have to make sure that we’re “suitable” for treatment. How does a psych “tell” if a boy wants to be a girl? Why, by them dressing up in pink! By them playing with dolls! By them fluttering their eyelashes and being submissive.

This patriarchal bias means that gender norms are rigidly enforced. I submitted to it myself, turning up to psychiatrist offices wearing a dress, made up to the fucking nines. Because there’s this voice, whispering to you, created from the experiences of the thousands gone there before you: “what if he doesn’t think I’m pretty enough?”

Let me say this loudly, just so I’m sure you understand. I WAS WORRIED ABOUT HOW A CIS MAN, A MAN WITH POWER OVER ME AND MY BODY, WOULD JUDGE MY LOOKS AND MY “FEMININITY”.

This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a fucked up situation. It is an *abusive* situation. It meant that I subsumed my natural self, who I am, to fit in with a pre-determined notion of what a woman is.

It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that trans women are so reviled by the hardline feminists. Yes, we do reinforce gender stereotypes. Not because we want to, but because it’s a patriarchal institution making us act like simply so that we can attain basic medical provisions. It’s an abusive relationship that would not be tolerated in any other field.  Being non-femme with a psych means missing out on treatment. That’s why, Julie Bindel and other second-wave radical feminists, trans women so often “look like characters from Grease“. Because they have no other fucking choice.

Of course, a large number of trans women succumb to the societal diction that certain traits belong to certain genders and equate woman with pink/pretty. Those people I’m disappointed by. Transitioning should open your eyes to the gender restrictions that exist in society. Not criticising you for being femme, but criticising you for not questioning the woman/femme combo meal that has been served up to you.

Passing privilege

The aversion of trans women to the butch expression is not limited to psychiatric abuse. “Passing” plays its part as well.

Most trans women are not gifted with physical attributes that put a hypothetical naked body within female norms. Discounting genitals, hormones can only do so much to the typical male body. Unless you started them as a young teen, which is still utterly rare, you’re not likely to wind up with wide hips, a slight frame, or a hairless body. So the typical trans woman has to compensate. Hyper-femininity is used to counteract the physical characteristics that cannot be rid of by hormones, electrolysis or surgery.

Gender cues are complex, but what is for certain is that we judge gender almost instantly. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s the first thing that we assess about a person. Big, confident, short hair? Man. Slight, timid, long hair, adorned with colour? Woman. You do it. We all do it. We’ve been raised to do it by parents and society. It’s why our brains fuse slightly when we meet someone who doesn’t conform to the gender binary, or who throws up contradictory gender cues.

Because of the bodies congenital masculinity some of those cues have to be over-emphasised, to a degree that is sometimes verging on parody, simply in order to overcome the built-in “male” cues. That’s why the vast majority of trans women reside at the femme corner of gender space: it’s hard to be butch if you’re physically masculine – you’d get misgendered almost instantly. And misgendering, for a trans person, is a painful experience.

So….

What does all this mean then? I’ve railed against the enforcement of gender, that we should be allowed bodily autonomy and taken a potshot at radfems. Do I have a point? If I was with you in person and had consumed some vodka I’d be gesticulating at you wildly and shouting something like “Just fuckin’ do it! Just be who you wanna be! Don’t give a shit! Don… *hic* …don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Which I think sums up my position pretty well. I’m pretty sure gender is an irrelevance. I don’t think that conflicts with my being trans, as that’s to do with my body, my sex, bits that are relevant to me and to those I choose to share them with. “Gender” is the facepaint that we face the world with. Gender is societal. Gender is power.

Fuck gender.

Postscript

Butch is the nearest word I can use to express how I present to the world, even if I don’t agree with the way gender works. We’re still mired in gendered language, after all.


6 Comments for this entry

  • Quiet Riot Girl

    Thanks for writing this its excellent and gives a much-needed first hand account of how gender roles can be imposed upon/adopted by trans women in particular.

    I think you may know that I don’t believe in ‘the patriarchy’ so every time you use that word you lose me, but I still get what you are saying about the way the psych system works to reinforce stereotyped roles for all trans people.

    I just don’t think it is ‘patriarchal’.

  • Schala

    “I couldn’t figure out why I had the overwhelming urge to be a girl when I didn’t like any of the things that girls were supposed to like. I didn’t like dolls. I didn’t like pink. I enjoyed getting messy and running around in fields.”

    I knew about that age too, but I think being aspie let this dilemma go way over my head – I never thought girls or women were supposed to act a certain way in an essentialist way. I knew there was pressure for it, and social power gained from following such, and penalties for not doing so.

    I was all so aware of the penalties, that I fled anything anyone could ever count as feminine.

    Btw, I don’t use feminity with two “ni”, because it sounds way too long and the second “ni” sounds useless – especially since it doesn’t even exist in French.

    I wasn’t masculine, and I’m not butch by any standard even now, after 5 years transition. I’m probably more feminine than before, more due to restrictions placed on males than anything else (ie I appear feminine because I’m slightly more femme than pre-transition).

    I went to see the gatekeepers, and when they didn’t do anything to help me, I gave them my middle finger and went my own way. I found docs and all, and eventually, after a shrink could only see the “fait accompli”, I asked for a diagnosis (for name change and endo acknowledgement). That was way easier than the other way around.

    I went in pants to most my appointments at the psychiatrist. Also t-shirts and sneakers. It was winter after all. No make-up. Hair unbrushed and down (even if long). I got the “I’m better than you because I’m a real woman” (from my shrink herself) speech, but survived long enough to get that piece of paper with GID on it. She pegged me as more “gay effeminate” than “woman feminine”, according to her. Too bad 99.999% of the world doesn’t agree with her (and didn’t back then, 2 years after starting HRT).

    “Of course, a large number of trans women succumb to the societal diction that certain traits belong to certain genders and equate woman with pink/pretty. Those people I’m disappointed by.”

    I counter those people whenever I can, but I wouldn’t say they are a larger number any more than cissexual women who may believe the same. They’re probably much less in % who think so – especially butch trans women like you. I’m femme and I don’t believe that for a minute either.

    “Unless you started them as a young teen, which is still utterly rare, you’re not likely to wind up with wide hips, a slight frame, or a hairless body. So the typical trans woman has to compensate. Hyper-femininity is used to counteract the physical characteristics that cannot be rid of by hormones, electrolysis or surgery.”

    I started at 23 years 9 months old on HRT. I don’t have wide hips, or wide shoulders either. I do have a slight frame, and a mostly hairless body (chest and armpit hair? none). I was very lucky in NOT having to overcompensate like this.

    I like lolita fashion and the likes in dresses, but I don’t need it to be considered female…in fact people peg those as costumes and are MORE likely to question my sex. That’s too bad, because I really like those dresses…

    “That’s why the vast majority of trans women reside at the femme corner of gender space: it’s hard to be butch if you’re physically masculine – you’d get misgendered almost instantly. And misgendering, for a trans person, is a painful experience.”

    Cissexual butch women also get misgendered, so it’s not just about starting from a male template. Though those butches usually have thicker skin and are less hurt deeply by it than trans women who’ve been misgendered most of their lives already. More of the same to us.

    I agree with how you end the post. I’m myself, and fuck expectations. In as much as there are expectations I fulfill, it’s something I judge worth doing on its own merits (like shaving my legs, about once a week). I don’t think I’ll be shunned to hell if I don’t, I just prefer smoother skin, and it’s a hell of a lot cooler in summer, if wearing pants.

  • Vivien Weaver

    As a cisgendered woman, I fully admit I went through a period in which I was acquainted with hyperfeminine trans women and annoyed by it. I often thought, “Whyyyy would you doooo thaaaat?!”

    Hyperfeminine behavior makes me uncomfortable from cisgendered women, so I suppose it made me extra uncomfortable from trans women, who I didn’t want to see fit that stereotype. At that point in my life I was confused as hell about gender in general and wasn’t, I suppose, comfortable enough saying “fuck gender.” I was just barely beginning to explore my own weird mix of traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine behavior. Ironically, I’m big and broad (barely shorter than the average man, broad-shouldered) and I have short hair. But I am, uh, quite obviously female. I identify, I suppose, more toward the butch end of the spectrum. I’ve been misgendered, especially back in my days of being really butch. It never really bothered me (though it puzzled me).

    I suppose this is because I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with femininity in general (therefore more comfortable with being labeled masculine). Purely personal reasons there. I don’t want to continue to see the stereotypes that reinforce the idea that women are submissive and have no voice other than to please people with their bodies. Having a voice is really important to me and I’ve always felt a little powerless as a woman to have that voice.

    Well. Now I understand the idea of femininity and the struggles with it a little better. So thank you.

  • Cel

    As a young feminist I was so nauseated by Greer’s description of trans women as hyper-femme parodies that I delayed transition from 17 to 20, and didn’t wear a dress until age 27. I was also too scared of the kind of beatings that queer and trans woman friends had received to wear either Doc Martins or heels for many years, as I couldn’t run fast in either. The point is definitely that gender policing of any kind is harmful and effects everyone in a lot of nasty ways, though the effects on trans women are particularly visible.

    I always wanted to be Tasha Yarr from Star Trek: TNG. I now own several dresses and a lovely pair of cherry docs.

  • quarridors

    Great post, and it touches on a lot of complexity about how gender perceptions are negotiated between two people (something I should really blog about myself).

    I personally don’t believe in neat gender roles like ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, ‘butch’ and ‘femme’, except as roles one can intentionally adopt in order to aid ‘passing’/blending (by conforming to people’s expectations).

    This doesn’t have to be about intentionally following a role. Adopting any particular label has a tendency to affect the way we think about ourselves and so the way we act around others. And this isn’t just a binary gender identity thing. Identifying as intergender or androgyne can also lead to the tendency to identify male or masculine traits and female or feminine traits and then try to express each half of the time (or simultaneously). Just about any identity you can sum up in a word implies a simplicity that doesn’t really exist.

    I always found myself considerably more comfortable when forgetting about roles and identities and just focusing on being myself and doing what I enjoy and find comfortable, regardless of whether that’s ‘following the rules’ or ‘consistent with my identity’.

    And yes, I’m talking as someone with a non-binary gender identity, but I think this is something everyone could potentially benefit from. Gender identity shouldn’t automatically decide gender role (or even whether one needs to transition or have surgery). I always find it worrying when gender is presented as a package deal, not least because I’m someone who needed one part of the package but didn’t correlate with the others.

    (And Ace was hugely important to me too :)

  • Andro Ecstacy

    @ Quiet Riot Girl – “I think you may know that I don’t believe in ‘the patriarchy’”

    Shaking my head before banging it on the desk.

    Now… in reference to your post, I feel much the same way. So many trans women go femme, even hyperfemme, and it’s a little jarring to me. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they didn’t give me so much shit for not being some super femme stereotype and thinking less of me for it. In that sense, I do agree the radical feminists have a point about trans women. A lot of what they say do have good points really, it’s just.. sweeping generalizations, lots of misplaced anger, and things that they obviously, obviously don’t get either. Oh well.

    I do wish I masculinized less, even I don’t push it as far as I’d love to, and seeing girls who can really push it in terms of presentation, I envy them and hope I can pull it off that well someday! Or maybe not… I guess I have all my 20′s to achieve that dream though.

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t come off too hard for a first comment, I liked this entry. I found you through the mtfbutch site thing by the way. I hope it grows! I’ll read through more of your stuff as well.

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