A friend of mine, a cisgender man, recently posted this question to my Facebook wall:
Okay, so a question that’s thrown a wooden shoe into my gears: I’ve been raised to accept that gender roles are generally bullshit. It is acceptable for women to fix cars. It is acceptable for men to bake cakes. A woman fixing a car does not make her less “ladylike.” A man baking a cake is not more feminine due to the baking of said cake. Transgendered [sic] people seem to welcome gender roles (beyond dress and outward appearance) as a method of reinforcing their identity. Is that regressive, and if not, how?
It’s a fair question, based on his experiences. I assured Emmett (his name is Emmett) his experience is specialist, anecdotal, and wrong. I know hundreds of transgender people, men and women, and their range of acceptance or rejection of gender roles and expectations is as broad as it is for cisgender people. Also, it’s possible there’s confirmation bias at work: Maybe he’s not noticing the clichéd behavior in cisgender people so much because subconsciously he’s more evaluative of transgender people.
It may be true that transgender people as a group are slightly more likely to exhibit stereotypical gendered behavior and preferences. That’s probably true, in fact. Several factors contribute to that. Here are some that come to mind.
First, and probably most significantly, many transgender people go out of their way to embody gender stereotypes when they’ve just begun their transitions. This is a way for them to revel in and celebrate this aspect of themselves that they’ve finally come to accept. Transwomen may buy of floral prints and jewelry; transmen may complain about shopping or buy cowboy boots. Chaz Bono talked in a 2011 interview (early in his transition) about how “testosterone” had changed his behavior:
There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much.
Elsewhere in the interview he talked about his growing interest in “gadgets,” implying there’s something essentially male in that interest, or that male hormones (and transitioning) had brought it to the fore in him. It’s a cartoonish and untrue stereotype that has historically (and wrongly) discouraged women from entering math and science fields, but apparently Chaz believed it, and used it as an example of his new “maleness.” Really, he was just being a jerk. Maybe he even believed “being a jerk” is also a male trait.
I wrote above that new transitioners “celebrate” their gender. That’s not always the right word. Some low-information transgender people indulge in this hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine behavior because they believe they should want to. Their understanding of gender is as simple and wrong as everyone else’s, and badly outdated.
Outdated at least back to the mid-twentieth century, when Johns Hopkins University was the only place in the United States to get reputable treatment for “transsexualism” (as it was called at the time), the university’s diagnosis protocols required people seeking hormones or surgery to conform to these stereotypes. Transwomen had to pretend to like crinoline dresses and dating men, even if they didn’t. The university was the gatekeeper, and if its diagnosticians doubted their patients’ sincerity, they got no treatment. While medical and psychological care has improved vastly since then, but many transgender people still think this way.
Also, especially for transgender women, conforming to stereotypes is simply a survival strategy. It’s easier for a transgender woman to “pass” if she’s wearing makeup and a skirt and walking with a sway in her hips, and if she fails to pass, she could literally be risking her life.
There’s a lower-stakes version of this, too. The world misgenders us all the time, calling us “sir” or “ma’am” where the reverse would be preferred, or using the wrong pronouns with us. It’s not always malicious; some folks just do it absentmindedly or subconsciously. I briefly worked with a sixtysomething man a few years ago who had been a military pilot, and the whine of aircraft engines had destroyed his ability to hear the upper registers of human speech. As a result, certain qualities in my voice meant he often said “he” when mentioning me to a third party. He didn’t mean to, and always hastened to apologize. The cognitive error got into his brain at a deep, primitive level, and it was hard for him to excise it. I corrected him, and he was contrite when I did so.
Firmly asserting our gender identity from time to time, in small ways or large, can be a subtle, nonconfrontational way to remind others how to be respectful of our gender identity.
Perhaps most of all, transwomen are still women and transmen are still men. If they perpetuate behaviors stereotypical of their gender, it’s because at least a plurality of people of that gender exhibit those behaviors. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with women being feminine or men being masculine, as long as we acknowledge that’s the norm, but not normative. It’s fine for women to be masculine and men to be feminine as well.
I myself love embrace my femininity without fetishizing it. I like high heels and usually wear makeup, but I more often wear jeans than skirts. I’ve been known to cry when watching insurance ads on television, but I’ve also been seen to drool when browsing the tool department at Home Depot. If the 21st century is teaching us anything, it’s that we should all finally feel free to simply be who we are.