I want to talk about the preoccupation some cis people have with the gender presentation of trans people, and how the positioning of gender performance as something exclusively trans contributes to gender policing, specifically with regard to a focus on what I think of as process fascination.
I began to think about this in earnest when I read Julia Serano’s Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels in Bitchfest last year. Particularly these bits:
‘At the moment of exposure, the “deceiver’s” appearance (her femaleness) is reduced to mere illusion, and her secret (her maleness) becomes the real identity.
[…] the media often dwells on the specifics of the feminisation process, showing trans women in the act of “putting on” their feminine exteriors … it is their intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels, thereby making it clear to the audience that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.’
In April, I wrote Say, we haven’t filled our daily quota of dehumanisation! Let’s go do that then. It’s about a transphobic ninemsn article primarily on Samantha Stratford, a trans woman who auditioned for the upcoming season of Aussie Ladette to Lady but didn’t get through. (As Xands notes in comments, as much as that’s sad for Ms Stratford, knowing this show, maybe it’s a good thing she isn’t going to compete.) The article is riddled with phrases like ‘dreams of becoming a true lady’ (because… she isn’t now?) and ‘decided to become a woman’ (which would be okay if that’s how she describes her experience of her own gender, but does she? Maybe she has always been a woman). Maybe the focus on process wouldn’t be so out of place, especially considering the makeover-type nature of the show. But then we have a side-by-side photo comparison of Samantha pre- and post-transition captioned “Samantha Stratford and as a man before treatment.” (Presumably she provided the photographs.) Again, there is no indication given that she identified as a man before, and they probably didn’t ask. This photo comparison is entirely unnecessary. They could have had a photo of the group of contestants the article is supposed to be about. And hey, look, they’ve got a link to a slideshow of those, and also a video! It’s just an excuse to gawk. It’s another way to construct trans people’s identities as things of a external process, and trans people themselves as deceptive.
Next we have Erika Moen’s “Transmen” (yep, lack of space and all, which is of course a means of distinguishing them from the “real men”) which is a part of her comic diary DAR. With a trigger warning, here’s a link to the comic. I’m not going to describe it in detail, because I want to keep this piece as untriggery as possible. Nixwilliams has a good post on the comic. Suffice it to say that it features Moen fetishising trans men, including a couple of panels showing ‘the transformation of gender perception’. When I first saw the comic, I thought that surely Moen was going to turn it back on herself and confront her behaviour. And in the second last panel, she almost does. Which makes it so much worse when, in the last panel, she dismisses how problematic her attitude is. Trans men are not subject to the process fascination I’m addressing nearly as much as trans women are (I’ll get to gender non-conforming trans people). Julia Serano suggests that this is because the media ‘are unable to sensationalize them the way they do trans women without bringing masculinity itself into question’. While not as common, this sort of objectification and delegitimisation functions similarly. Again, the focus is on unpeeling gender presentation to show what trans folk “really are”. Moen even has the comic’s trans man use feminised poses; similarly to what Julia Serano describes in her piece, the mixing of masculine and feminine in this instance is meant to show that manhood is a state trans men can never really reach.
When trans women have a very feminine presentation or trans men a very masculine one, cis people will often use this to justify their notions that trans identities are really something of fetish or drag, that their gender isn’t real after all. This is totally ridiculous, especially when you consider that gender presentation may well be a life or death issue. Gender presentation can be very important (psychologically, for safety) and approaching it as a mask is a means of policing trans people. This is even more ridiculous when you realise that all of us perform gender, trans or cis. Identity is about how one relates to oneself, not exclusively about how one presents.
The representations of trans identities above are obstensibly about confirming and supporting these identities. What they really do is serve to code trans people’s genders as illegitimate. They are aiming to show that womanhood or manhood is something that specifically trans people come into. But this is inaccurate because womanhood is something that all women develop, manhood is something that all men develop, even though there are differences in everyone’s journeys.
All this erases trans women who don’t have very feminine presentation and trans men who don’t have very masculine presentation, some or all of the time – where such presentation isn’t used to say they have fake identities (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). Which is not to even mention gender non-conforming trans people, who you don’t ever see in these stories, cartoons and such. Where are they? I suppose they just don’t fit this narrow narrative and so must be invisiblised.
Reducing identities to processes of presentation in order to delegitimise them is not on. These practices of representation are harmful, cis folk, and not right, and I’m calling you out.