The other day, I was walking on the street. It was past 8 PM, after dark, on a week day. Suddenly, I hear a group of noisy people. There are about half a dozen men in a building entrance, apparently having fun. One of them approaches, walks in my direction and stop in my way, on the sidewalk, while the others watch. When I get nearer, he addresses me, in a voice that’s impossible to correctly describe — it was certainly scary, in a creepy way. I thought this could not end well, there’s no way this doesn’t lead to some sort of harassment. But suddenly, one of the group said: “Fuck, it’s a transvestite.” Everyone started to laugh.
The problem with being a trans woman is that whether your trans identity is recognized or not, you will experience discrimination.
In my example, there are two times. In the first time, I am passing, taken as a cis girl, and men see me as a sexual object or a weak person, someone to whom they should express their dominance. In the second time, I am not passing, taken as a “transvestite” (i.e. a boy in a dress), denied my basic identity and object of slurs. In the first time, my identity is recognized, and I am target of misogyny; in the second time, it is denied, and I am target of transphobia.
This is not anecdotal. In fact, one of the few ways to know you are treated as a woman by strangers is when they act in a sexist manner with you. This is obviously ambiguous, as the experience of sexism comes to be seen as a positive moment of recognition.
In my personal experience, the most frequent show of sexism I’ve had was men holding doors. For the record, in general, I think it’s polite to hold the door for other people if it’s practical. In fact, I do it all the time (before and after transition, to men and women). The problem is that how men (I didn’t notice a difference with women) react to me is totally different now. I’ve had men refuse to cross doors I was holding — not just hesitation not to hit each other, complete refusal despite clear signals on my part –, and other men hold the door for me while I was quite far away and wait till I am through. I notice the difference.
I also receive more comments on my appearance (from men and women) than before. Personally, I don’t mind getting compliments on my appearance. In fact, sexism aside, they are expected, in that I put a lot of effort (and money) into looking good, so it’s normal that I do and that people notice it. Compliments contribute to my happiness — it means I’ve succeeded something. Similarly, discussions about makeup, clothes, hair, etc., are characteristic of female social interactions, so, as a trans woman, being included in them is very validating — even though the fact that it’s important for women and not men is the result of patriarchy. Do I think it’s problematic that men’s appearance is not important when women’s is? Yes — on both counts. From a more global perspective, it reflects sexist attitudes against women, how women have to look nice and follow a very specific view of beauty, how they are seen as irrelevant and subordinated to men, how they are objects rather than subjects. But from a more individualistic perspective, I think it’s sad that men who attempt to look nice, e.g. for a social event, are unlikely to have their efforts validated. Finally, will I feel the same when how I look will interact with how I am perceived as a historian? I don’t think so. Anyway. I digress.
Yes, all those are instances of people being nice, but being nice doesn’t mean it’s not sexist, and doesn’t mean it’s neutral of consequences. Even “benevolent” sexism can have real consequences.
I’ve talked a lot about being recognized as a women, but what about being denied your identity? Apart from slurs and attacks or obvious misgendering, it’s relatively rare to know that other people don’t see you as a woman in your daily life. Personally, I am very obviously presenting as female, so I imagine that people who clock me for whatever reason have at least the impression that I may not be a man, and if they have minimal decency, they will just avoid the issue. I get more stares than before, but that may well be because I’m a woman, not because I’m trans. However, there is one situation where people sneakily misgender me while being nice/neutral.
In Quebec, for a given level of intimacy, the greeting protocol looks like this: if two men greet, they shake hands; if there is a woman (two women or a man and a woman), they kiss each other on both cheeks (“faire la bise”). (I feel uneasy with this tradition, it has a vague smell of sexism. I don’t know why, it just feels wrong, beyond the gender differentiation.) So you see where this is going: if a man sees me as a woman, he will move to kiss me on the cheeks; if he doesn’t, he will present his hand. For the moment, I’m mostly getting handshakes, which is hurtful because I’m not treated as a woman.
Another interesting instance of this alternate experience of sexism or transphobia was my parents’ reaction to my transition. It took them some time to recognize it, but one of the ways they used to accept me as a woman was to use sexist discourses. “You’re a woman, and women keep their place clean.” “Now, you will have to learn to cook.” And so forth. I don’t blame them, for the record, but it’s significant anyway. It’s the reverse of the harassment example I gave earlier.
As a trans woman, I have two basic options: marginalization as part of my target gender or marginalization for my gender trajectory. And the sad thing is, it depends entirely on other people, on whether they see me as a woman or as a trans person. I’d prefer sexism a hundred times. At the moment, as an early transitioner, I actively want my identity to be validated, and if validation only comes from sexism, so be it, I will welcome every sexist crap you can throw at me (so long as my security and physical integrity is not at stake). Also, I feel a stronger identification as a woman than as a trans person. But I can’t decide. My only influence is how I work up my femme presentation. Once I’ve put makeup and put on my cutest flowered dress, it’s up to other people to settle my own dilemma: Will it be misogyny or transphobia?