Confronting uncomfortable trans women truths
In the 23 years since I really started digging into what it meant to be trans via the nascent internet, several things kept cropping up that made me distinctly uncomfortable. One was the hyper feminisation that many trans women invariably do when they start to transition, and the other was the overt sexualisation of trans women by both themselves and the online community. Both issues were/are intrinsically linked, and for me personally these are things that I am still unpacking. My discomfort about both probably stems from my Christian upbringing, but also a significant degree of naivety that I entered the trans world with. Thus, the truths I am confronting are very much ones that I to grapple with to write and think about trans issues in 2021.
The deep irony is that I see myself is inherently femme and sex positive. Being a trans woman should be as much about you finding your own path through womanhood, which all women must do, as it is about being any one particular look or way of being a woman. Feminism is not about policing police boundaries or dress codes, so for me to say that hyper femininity is somehow inherently wrong is completely misplaced. Rather, personally I think my discomfort is more to do with the absolute need to be feminine to prevent harm or death, and that when one transitions you are confronted in the internet by a beauty standard that almost unachievable even to most assigned female at birth women. To be a trans women is seemingly about a beauty aesthetic that keeps us safe, but also makes us chase a passing dragon that potentially could cause us significant mental harm if we do not achieve that standard.
This is compounded by the secondary issue that trans women are hyper sexualised, and that seemingly the majority of trans women present on the internet have some form of OnlyFans just to make ends meet. On top of that, the heterosexual cis-male gaze dominates, turning the transitioning process into a broad subsect of porn, pretty much up until the moment of gender reassignment surgery when trans women become just another vagina. I judge no-one for their career choice or sexual proclivities, but I think the two issues are intrinsically linked because in order for trans women to feel safe from violence they are culturally conditioned to play up to those fantasies.
Male violence boomerangs all critique of societal expectation and sexuality. If you eschew the male gaze, are only into female sexual partners, and step outside the bounds of the traditional trans female gatekeeping it can get tough and lonely. Indeed, medical gatekeeping has long considered heteronormative norms to be the gold standard, and if you do not present as close to the ideal cis woman as possible then how can you possibly say you are a woman? This has long been internalised within trans circles post-World War Two, and the tragedy is that while cis women had their Waterloo in the 1960s and 70s, for trans women the cultural barriers are ever increasing.
Granted the millennial and Gen Z transitioners are redefining many gender issues, but even they are still building their houses on nearly a century of gender ideology that seeks to bind them to a very binary gender perspective. Of course, we can all point to trans folk who buck all these boundaries, who push against them and demand that the old way of looking at trans women’s external appearance and sexuality shatter and reform into a more personal mode of being. Yet, when a trans woman publicises her external changes invariably it still follows those old tropes. Trans women must appear feminine to gain validity, to be fuckable, to be scions of the femme. Butch trans women do exist, t-shirts exist.
Is this demonising femme heterosexual trans women? Of course not. Every trans woman must make her own decisions on which path she chooses. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being femme or finding men attractive. However, when society pushes both as the norm and the expectation trans women face an almost impossible choice. Be femme, be hyper femme, or face the wrath and brutality of society. Yet, if you become too femme, too good at passing we will kill you anyway in trans panic. These uncomfortable truths are a social trap, for if trans women live their best femme heterosexual lives they are at the mercy of finding a man who will not beat or fetishise them. Much like cis women in some respects.
The awful truth is that these twin issues are exactly the same for many cis women, with hyper sexualisation and societal fashion expectations rammed down all women’s throats in the media and advertising. To go against the grain, to eschew heteronormative femininity is to say that society is wrong. Wrong for selling us a hypersexualised version of womanhood, wrong for forcing the male gaze, and wrong for making everything about the D. Slight hyperbole aside, what makes me so uncomfortable is that the central issues many feminists have been fighting for decades have become so entrenched in trans women culture that to tease them apart and offer something fresh and personal becomes a mission unto itself.
Truth is always a matter of perspective, and I assume that many trans women who read this will argue that femininity is an armour, a personal choice, or indeed something that they must explore when they start to transition. Or that I am simply jealous. I would not call you wrong if you said any of them, though I would never say I am jealous of anything. Trans women have the right to exist as sexual beings, to dress as they wish, and face no social backlash for doing so. Over the last 23 years much has changed, yet the things that have become entrenched really do need to be challenged and critiqued. This is why I believe that grappling with why we assume all trans women must be femme or automatically straight is just as vital now as it ever was.