Saturday, 28 November 2009

Transfeminism, trans stereotypes and attribution of gender

A response to Penny Red's Blog Post "No Feminism without Transfeminism"

Penny Red's wonderful blog post "No Feminism Without Transfeminism" made some very important points and reminded us all of the importance of solidarity between trans people and feminists. In particular her response to the critique of some in the feminist movement who talk about transwomen as having "Fuck-me boots and birds-nest hair" arguing that the feminist movement needs to accept that anyone, newly coming out as female, is likely to want to explore their gender expression through the wide variety of female clothing available to them.

She makes the point about how, in a sense transwomen, many of whom come out in their 30s or 40s are doing just what most girls do when they start grappling with their sexual and gender identities as teenagers. The only difference being that transwomen in their 30s or 40s have usually got a whole lot more money available than 12 - 14 year-old girls. They can not only afford fuck-me shoes, MAC or Chanel make-up and dresses from French Connection, rather than cheap jewelery, nail varnish and stick-on tatoos from Claires Accessories. However this is not the whole story. She makes the very important point that young girls, if they had the resources of a 30 or 40 year-old would probably spend quite a lot of it on fuck-me shoes and other clothing as well.

As an experienced transwoman yes I can afford fuck-me shoes, I can even afford comfortable fuck-me shoes. But I actually don't go around wearing them all the time. Neither do I wear £100 French Connection dresses down the pub. I usually wear a denim skirt, mid-heeled shoes and understated make-up. (OK so I occasionally let myself go with a nice necklace...). I do, however, know many transwomen who wear trousers and/or flats, with almost no make-up. However these tend to be more experienced transwomen. It is all about getting the balance right to blend in and not being "read".

However there is an additional reason for transwomen wearing feminine clothes, shoes and make-up which is slightly more complex but a clue lies in Kessler and McKenna's excellent book, "Gender; An ethnomethodological approach." Here they show how people attribute gender to someone the meet, and the mechanics of this is quite unexpected. Normally what happens is that people, both men and women, attribute someone a gender on the basis of "Male" or "Not Male". In other words people look out for male signifiers, such as beard, 5 O'clock shadow, hair (or lack of it), clothes, walk, speech, etc. They attribute gender on the basis of the presence or absence of these and other signifiers. This is the product of a binary gender system; if it isn't male it must be female. This wouldn't work with more than two genders, but it functions because most people percieve that there are only two genders.

However this "Male" or "Not Male" approach which almost everyone uses to attribute gender is not applied in a balanced way. Generally if there is one or more male attribute present the individual is attributed a male gender. In fact pretty much the only way to be certain that a good majority of the general public would attribute female gender is in the complete absence of any male signifiers. For example, I can remember a couple of years ago meeting a really well made-up transwoman, her hair, her clothes, even her speech were all perfect and would not have given her away. What gave her away was her walk. It simply was not a female walk in any way. Talking to her she was at a complete loss as to why she was constantly being "read" as trans. Just the one element, the lolloping gait like that of a builder, was enough for people to attribute "male" to her as opposed to female, which they probably would not have done if they had only ever seen her sitting down.

I met a trans man at a conference recently and he described how he cut his hair short, wore a loose-fitting shirt with a tight sports bra underneath, men's trousers and a tie and was always considered male, despite not having a deep voice, a beard or many other male signifers, in fact he was even quite short with very small feet. He simply did not have to worry about some aspects, a few signifiers were enough, he did not need them all. Unfortunately for transwomen, we need to make sure no male signifiers are present at all before Joe Public will consider us female.

Now, of course, you may say "What has Joe Public got to do with this?" Well, it would be fine if transwomen could get away with being kind of androgynous and get by with some male signifiers remaining, but this would mean constantly being read as male and also probably constantly being under threat of abuse, assault or worse. So the safest thing by far for transwomen is to aim to pass as comprehensively as possible.

Obviously this means plenty of female signifiers and a complete absence of male ones, but this may be where some transwomen, especially in the early stages of coming out, go wrong. This is where Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and others get their stereotype tranny. The over-use of blue eyeshadow, garish lipstick, towering heels, party clothes when out shopping, of course has the opposite effect. It is also true that these transwomen are generally the only type of transwomen to be read. As such Bindel, Greer, etc. will notice these people, and think all transwomen are like that, when in actual fact they will have passed 20 other transwomen who pass completely, without noticing them.

Fortunately this stereotype is generally becoming much rarer and will almost certainly die out as transwomen become better informed about issues of appearance.

Why is this changing? The internet. There is strong evidence that the internet is helping more trans people to come out and to do so better and with the advice of others in their community. In fact it has been a very long time since I have seen any transwoman with blue eyeshadow let alone 5" stillettos, accoutriments which seem to belong firmly in the wardrobes of Drag Queens or teenage girls.

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