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.