A Mere Question of Attraction?

http://https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/the-straight-men-who-have-sex-with-trans-women

Very thoughtful piece about trans women and their (male) partners. I share its underlying purpose and point of view and thought it offers many opportunities to discuss problematic issues. I’d have many things to say about various points discussed in this article, but one statement that stayed with me particularly was:

“When I asked Alex how important it is that a girl is able to pass well, he responded, ‘I’m attracted to femininity, not masculinity. It’s that simple.'”

No, sweetheart. Unfortunately it is not ‘that simple’. Or, better still. It might be ‘that simple’ for you because it’s easier to reduce a very complex phenomenon to a mere question of attraction which – as everyone knows – is exempt from any form of judgement because it’s a matter of ‘personal taste’. Being ‘passable’ (and I know a part of me cringes whenever I evoke this concept) as a cisgender woman has only partially to do with femininity. Otherwise logic would want that we would be unable to find even the slightest trace of femininity in anyone but cisgender females who identify as women and exhibit a conventionally feminine gender expression; which is patently not the case if we look at the reality of things. Our hegemonic cultural formation, that strives to represent male and female as opposite, complementary but mutually exclusive categories, each with a set of non-overlapping characteristics, may well encourage and validate that view, but a look at the complexity of our gender expressions and identities very easily disproves this assumption. So I just happen to wonder: if we are able to dissociate the concept of being ‘passable’ as a cisgender woman, for a trans woman, from an idea of intrinsic femininity, what does the statement above really say about our culture? I’d say it reveals a lot more than mere personal taste – as the interviewee was probably keen to get across. It reveals the profound stigma that still surrounds transgender individuals – and even more trans-feminine people because of the sexist bias of our culture which I have explored in other posts – and reflects on anyone who more or less genuinely has an attraction to them. I am convinced that a trans woman can forgo ‘passability’ and still be feminine and beautiful, and therefore attractive to anyone who likes femininity. But I am willing to bet that that same trans woman, by virtue of her forgoing passability, would have less of a chance to date a straight man than a ‘passable’ one, who might be equally attractive and feminine, or even less so, in our cultural formation. And that has little to do with attraction, and all to do with societal expectation, and social pressure to appear to be ‘normal’. As the piece beautifully concludes.

What this ultimately says to me is that we need to strive towards a goal of gender and sexual inclusivity in society, making room for the essential fluidity not just of gender identity and expression, but also – quite logically – of sexual preference and orientation. Until we do this, we can challenge models, call paradigms into question, accuse this or that (hetero)sexist/racist/genderist regime of thought, but we will never be free of their dominant influence in shaping and making sense of human relations.

A Short Post on Sexist Beauty Standards (again)

What I find interesting about this project is not so much the exposure of what our tyrannical beauty standards drive us to consider ‘beautiful’ or not – which is nonetheless a very important aspect to investigate. What really strikes me is how the project shows the impossible double-bind in which women, all individuals along the m-to-f spectrum, and all otherwise feminine-identifying people constantly find themselves. Or, to put it more bluntly, the maxim according to which whatever you do, if you happen to be one of the individuals mentioned above, you’re doing something wrong. And this has less to do with normative perceptions of beauty than with plain old traditional sexism, whereby anything female/feminine (and there is a difference between the two albeit lumped together in sexist views) is systematically devalued and represented as inferior, contrived, artificial and so on.

For anyone interested in reading more about how traditional sexism (mixed with cissexism and heterosexism) affects the lives of everyone who identifies along a feminine spectrum (which does not only include women, but also people who identify as a different gender identity but whose gender presentation is predominantly feminine), I suggest Julia Serano’s book: Whipping Girl. You can read more about it here. It’s a book whose rigour and lucidity have inspired me to think further on this issue, and it’s full of wonderful insights from a specifically trans* perspective, which we are always desperately in need of.

(Trans)Women, diversity & the impossible beauty standard

Just a few weeks back this image was ragingly popular across social media, mostly accompanied by thousands of likes and positive, light-hearted comments. I absolutely don’t mean to spoil the party but, I found it interesting that my immediate reaction to it was not one of similar joy or cheerfulness.

So I asked myself why. And got to these conclusions.

If I can say something about this is that I am not sure whether messages like this do trans women justice or not. Of course I appreciate the positive message this is supposed to convey, but I can’t help reflecting on how this is being conveyed.

These women are all incredibly beautiful, they are all to different extents in the mediatic spotlight and many of them are models or actors. These photographs are clearly taken from professional photoshoots which have been created with the help of stylists, make-up artists, professional photographers and digital enhancement programmes. What I’m trying to get at is that the reality for most trans women (just like for most women as they are represented in the media) is that we do not look like this, and many of us, added to the impossible beauty standards imposed upon women in general, also feel the additional burden of having to ‘erase’ our masculine/androgynous features (when we do have them), in order to better fit in and ‘be beautiful’. What all these very beautiful women have, regardless of their open status as trans women, is a form of ‘passing privilege’ for their adherence to western hegemonic beauty standards, which are misleading, restricting and cause a lot of suffering and feelings of inadequacy.

And I am not interested in debating – at least not in this post – whether ‘passing’ is a thing, whether it should be relevant or not to trans people – and trans women in particular. The truth is that ‘passing’, whether one likes the concept or not, affects us ALL (and by us I mean people within the transgender community) in very tangible ways. And we are still judged upon the same old aesthetic standards, with the added burden that, if we fail to pass, we can incur in all sorts of discriminations and it does make our lives harder. What I would like to see would be the real diversity that is present in the community of trans women, because we are all different. I would like to see more pictures of us, not only our ‘public’, ‘media-palatable’ face. And I would like to see a message of positive inclusion or appreciation next to these diverse pictures, which include a wide range of us, with all of us being encouraged to feel confident in our beauty, or that we are somehow desirable, or even just likeable. (discussion on how our perceptions of our own beauty are linked to social appreciation and to the number of people who would potentially date us is sadly material for a different discussion)

And I am saying all of this from a very privileged position myself, which has come after years of painful discrimination as a gender-variant individual. But in my mind, and in my heart, are the looks and hopes of many of my friends who really suffer because of this, who are haunted by feelings of inadequacy all the time.
And I am sick of messages that impose impossible standards on us, intentionally or unintentionally implying that, in order to be accepted, successful or desirable, we need to be flawless, above average, ‘perfect’. This is so damaging on so many levels, this can literally break you. Personally, I’ve been broken by this, and I am still in the process of finding the bits and splinters and trying, with a little patience, to glue it all together again. I really want this to change.