Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gender stereotypes and the regulation of trans women

Feminists and LGBT activists have made great strides in fighting the legal enforcement of gender stereotypes. Laws against cross-dressing and homosexuality have gone by the way-side in most developed countries, firing women for failing to wear make-up and feminine clothing is increasingly (but not always) illegal, and trans people are increasingly (although, again, not always) permitted to change their legal sexes to match their identities.

Unfortunately, however, the legal mechanisms for allowing trans women to change their sex and assert their rights have frequently been used, not to challenge gender norms, but to reinforce them.

To obtain a legal sex change, a trans women must almost always convince a mental health professional to diagnose her with Gender Identity Disorder and recommend her for sex change surgery. This should give pause to anyone familiar with mental health professionals’ long and troubled relationship with women, particularly their pathologization of women who refuse to conform to gender norms. As one trans woman explains “You must conform to a doctor’s idea of a woman, not necessarily yours.” (Julia Serano, Whipping Girl 136 (2007)).

Julia Serano writes that "most trans women underst[and] that they need[] to show up for their psychotherapy appointments wearing dresses and makeup [and] expressing stereotypically feminine mannerisms" (Serano 123-124). Many trans women have stories of being rejected for treatment when they showed up for therapy in stereotypically male or unisex clothing, and then immediately approved once they showed up in dresses and make-up (Serano 137).

For trans women who transitioned in the 1970s and before, doctors’ behaviors could be even more sexist. When deciding whether or not a trans woman was “really” a woman, many male doctors were openly influenced by whether they (the doctors) were sexually attracted to the trans woman and whether the trans woman responded to the doctor’s flirtation. (Serano 135, Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, The Transgender Studies Reader 68 (2006)). This reinforces the idea that women’s value is in their sexual appeal to men, and ignores the fact that many trans women are lesbian, asexual, or simply not interested in being sexually attractive to every man they meet.

Media coverage of trans women’s efforts to expand and enforce their legal rights similarly emphasize trans women's feminity and appeal to men. Trans women who show up for interviews ostensibly about trans legal activism say that reporters ask to film them putting on make-up and dresses and cut their interviews when they refuse (Serano 44-45). And if it’s no longer acceptable for doctors to emphasize trans women’s appeal to men, the media is still happy to do so. An interview with trans activist Calpernia Addams about the trial of her boyfriend’s murderers opens by recounting the men who hit on her during the interview.

Much feminist criticism of trans women has focused on trans women's perceived embrace of female stereotypes. However, to the extent that trans women do embrace make-up, dresses, and other attributes of femininity, they do so not just because they believe in or enjoy them (although many trans women, like many cis women, certainly do), but because (again, like cis women) they face serious legal and social consequences for refusing to do so.

Feminists have long fought against laws and practices that pressure women to wear dresses, apply make-up, and behave "femininely." Regulation of trans women is just one more way these pressures are brought to bear and must be part of feminists' fight.


N.P. said...

The idea that trans-women have to be diagnosed with a disorder is one that I had not heard of before. To me, this is very reminiscent of how women were treated in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, primarily how psychotherapy was applied to women. Primarily, the way women during this time were treated for "depression" or basically the unhappiness of the middle class woman forced to stay at home and cater to her husband and children, was either through sexual therapy or very male-centric - trying to further the woman's role under her husband. In a similar sense, by diagnosing trans women as "feminine" is only furthering this concept and creates a divide between women and trans women - when in reality, both are women in the broad sense. Moreover, diagnosing this as a disorder also further excludes these individuals from society.

Dusty said...
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Dusty said...

I really appreciated the perspective and information in this post. Especially as a trans person who is often deeply affected by social expectations of gender conformity. And especially the call out to step up the solidarity amongst feminists. In a guide I read recently about good ways to be an ally to trans people and how to end transphobia, it suggested this as one tool: recognizing that expecting trans people to transition towards conforming gender roles (like trans women being forced to feminize) in an act of transphobia and one that invalidates a trans persons experience. Serano's book is a great resource, especially for addressing the sometimes rampant bigotry that transwomen can face in the feminist community. And in reference to N.P.'s surprise about trans people's bodies being heavily regulated by the medical industry, it is all trans people not just trans women and the medicalization of our trans bodies has a long and often very sad history with many costs, including the social exclusion you brought up.

Kate said...

I just wanted to add a little more information on the disorder thing, for you and anyone else who's interested. (Anyone who knows more about this than me should feel free to chime in and correct any errors.)

To be eligible for sex reassignment (in the U.S. at least- I think procedures may be looser in some other countries), trans people must be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder.

G.I.D. is controversial within the trans community because, on the one hand, it's key to obtaining medical treatment, but, on the other hand, it perpetuates the idea that trans people are disordered.

I've heard talk of making G.I.D. a medical rather than a psychological disorder, thus preserving access to medical treatment while acknowledging that trans people's "problem" is with their bodies, not their minds.

The other big problem with G.I.D. is that it's also diagnosed in kids, where it's treated very differently. Rather than support, trans kids are given what basically amounts to a "de-gaying" treatment. The G.I.D. Reform website has more information on these issues.

I do wonder how the gender stereotyping of trans women Serano describes maps to trans men. I know I've read a couple of trans men critique how much easier it is to get breast implants than chest reconstruction surgery. I might do some research and write a post on it and I would definitely be interested in reading a post by anyone else who's interested.

Also, do you have a link to the guide you mention on being a trans ally? I'd love to read it, and I'm sure others would too.