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July 31, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Real-Life Test

CW: Discussion of transphobia, transmisogyny, and gendered violence


With the rise in visibility of trans people over the last few years, there is a general sense that things are moving forward for the trans community. Many trans people could tell you that this is not the case. The day-to-day difficulty of moving through the world as a trans person can be exhausting, and often detrimental to one’s well-being. This rise in visibility is not always positive, particularly for those who are already too visible, and whose safety is compromised through hypervisibility. In my view, trans people in public space, just like women in public space, is largely a feminist issue, and it requires the work of non-trans people to make space, and safer space, for us.

I acknowledge I am mainly speaking from my own perspective, which is extremely limited, and also highly privileged as a tall, thin, white transfeminine person who (mostly) passes as (meaning that people perceive me as) a woman. It is so important to recognise and understand the ways that gender intersects with race, class, age, ability, and culture, because those intersections shift the terms of gender and the way that personhood is defined.

I struggle with the notion that more representation is progress; that it is equal to greater acceptance and therefore better quality of life for trans people. Representation does not change the way that power is distributed within our society, and it often correlates with respectability politics. These are politics where trans people are lauded for being “courageous” and “brave” for existing, but the transphobia and oppression that makes courage and bravery necessary continues to work against us. In a utopian way, I think we need an absolute overhaul of the systems and institutions which work against us, not only those of gender, but all structures of power.

In 2016, American activist group The Human Rights Campaign advocates tracked at least 22 deaths of transgender people in the United States due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded. Most of these people were transfeminine and gender nonconforming people of colour.¹ I always feel the need to communicate with a sense of urgency when talking about issues of gender, because, without hyperbole, trans and gender nonconforming people are being killed. In the words of Wu Tsang, these are not always things that kill us directly, but wear us down, and cut our lives short through prolonged exposure to shame, humiliation, and violence. The incidence of mental health issues, disability, and trauma is huge amongst queers, especially trans people.

Before and during my transition, I was visibly gender nonconforming, and this opened me up to a host of negative implications moving through public space. I have been followed down the street, interrogated about my gender, verbally abused, yelled at, spat on, and physically assaulted on more than one occasion. I’ve had people laugh in my face, tell me I’m going to burn in hell, call me every slur imaginable. At a certain point in my medical transition, I started to “pass” as a cisgender woman. Although this wasn’t initially my goal or intention with transition, I can’t deny the safety it affords me compared to my past experiences.

But the violence didn’t really subside, it only mutated. The particular type of oppression that someone like me faces at the intersection of transphobia and misogyny is known as transmisogyny, a term coined by Julia Serano in her pivotal book Whipping Girl. Transmisogyny is how the same men that used to hail me and call me a f****t are the ones now leering at me as I walk by. They hold open doors but they still follow me home. They treat me as a woman, which is to say according to the terms of misogyny and patriarchy. What I initially thought was trading constant harassment for safety turned out to be simply a renegotiation of the ways that harassment was executed.

While I am not interested in drawing lines in the sand or playing oppression olympics, for me it is important to acknowledge the specific struggle of AMAB (assigned male at birth) trans people. Within feminist circles my experience has been that AFAB (assigned female at birth) people have a much easier time being heard and taken seriously, and that AMAB people are often held to higher standards of political integrity. There is a complex privilege at work here, transmisogynistic at its core, which indicates to me that a lot more needs to happen in order to make space for the voices and issues of transfeminine people to be heard.

This means recognising that trans people are coerced into normative gender presentations to access to employment, housing, education, medical care amongst other things. Trans women can be criticised for having traditionally feminine gender presentations, without those critics recognising the relative safety that femininity affords trans women. What non-trans people can take for granted is how their gender is self-evident, because of the way that people connect identity to how you look. We need to move away from the idea that we can know people through seeing them, and making instant assumptions about their body, and the ways they identify. We cannot know someone’s gender or sexuality unless they tell us. This does not mean that certain gender presentations and modes of being don’t carry privilege, because they certainly do, but we do need to recognise there are much more intricate and complex narratives in every person’s experience. Presentation does not necessarily align with identity. It may not always be safe for people to present how they would like, or they simply are presenting the way they would like, and this does not negate their gender, or pronouns, or place in the trans community.

Particularly for trans women and femme people, there is often a focus on and policing of the ways we present ourselves — unsolicited comments on our appearance, sometimes simple compliments, more often than not tinged with a validation that we are performing femininity correctly. At other times, these can be corrective: “if only you did X then: you would look more like a woman/people would understand you.” But, quite simply, if you don’t want your gender policed, we also don’t want our gender policed.

The consequences of a gendered society mean that trans people struggle to access any appropriate healthcare. The enormity of costs is already a barrier, but the ultimate hindrance is that the medical system is severely ill-equipped to deal with bodies outside the binary. The ability to record one’s chosen gender and sexuality in any medical system is often limited, or nonexistent, meaning that assumptions reign over informed treatment. Unless you know that the doctor you’re seeing has experience with trans patients, you are likely to receive a mixed barrage of inappropriate questions, blank stares, and deep misunderstanding. Particularly in terms of sexual health, it can be really awkward to have to constantly explicate on how exactly you have sex, or why you don’t need the exam they think you need. Having someone assume your gender and use the complete wrong name/pronouns is just the icing on the shitty trans health cake.

If you are seeking hormone replacement therapy, or surgery through the medical system, there are many levels of gatekeeping which can prevent you from accessing those services, not to mention excruciating wait times. I was discouraged from transitioning until I was in a more stable place in terms of my mental health. This meant that I ended up waiting a year from the time I first sought out hormones to the time I actually got my first prescription. Bodily autonomy is something both trans and intersex people have to fight for in our communities.

Feminism is able to, and should, make room for the mutability and self-determination of gender and bodily morphologies. Not only do we have to understand that there are many ways to be woman, but also that there is much more than just two genders or sexes, and more than just Western cultural concepts. The notion of gender as a distinct arena of experience has its roots in colonisation, while other cultures have entirely different concepts related to what can only tentatively be termed “gender” and “sexuality”.

Yes it’s all incredibly complex, and yes it’s always changing, but that is part of the world; the terms upon which we found ourselves will inevitably shift as our culture does, as we do individually. This is not meant to diminish the role of women in feminism, but to complicate our perception of all the ways to be a “woman”, or in a “body”, or even to have a “gender” at all.


  1. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” Human Rights Campaign
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