Performing Transgender

Good morning, lovelies! Pride Month may be over, but I’m still here and still queer, so I’m going to keep writing about all the queer things as long as I damn well please, and nobody can stop me! *insert evil laugh here*

One of the criticisms I frequently see directed at trans people is that we “perform” our gender “too much”. This is one hell of a criticism, and it has several layers of bullshittiness, so I’m going to unpack it a little bit at a time. The first issue is the idea that some people don’t perform their gender. If you haven’t read Judith Butler lately, most feminists explain gender expression as a form of performance—not necessarily like acting, but our gender expression is a way of interacting with the world, of letting them know who we are, what kind of general traits we might be expected to have, what kind of behaviour might be expected of us. Of course, there are as many different ways of performing gender as there are human beings, but cisgender and gender-conforming people tend to perform their gender in ways that are recognisable to the rest of society. Trans people and gender-nonconforming people may not.

So to accuse trans people of “performing” gender as though this is some terrible crime completely ignores the fact that 100% of people perform their (a)gender*. We signal our gender to others using clothing, language, posture, interactions, relationships, hobbies and a million other choices that may appear “natural”, but are actually heavily influenced by the world in which we live. Now, this is not to say that gender is not “real”—just because you are performing your gender, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a real impact on your life, and doesn’t mean you’re somehow “faking it”. But your choices will be coloured by the kind of performance you want to give, because, at its heart, the purpose of this performance is to show other people who you are. Gender is meaningless when it doesn’t interact with other people and other genders, and the purpose of performance is to give your gender meaning.

For cisgender people, this performance feels natural. It doesn’t feel like a performance, because cis people don’t usually spend a lot of time questioning their gender. They feel mostly comfortable with their style of performance, because it roughly matches up with what their culture expects of someone with their body type. Born with a vagina? Your culture will have a rough code of behaviour that goes along with that, a code you learn from birth, and one that seems so natural that you don’t even realise you’re learning to perform it. And yet, you are still learning a particular set of behaviours that people teach you based on your exterior genitalia, one that differs from culture to culture, and across time. So for cis people, the idea that they might be performing is very uncomfortable. It can somehow feel like they’re being told their gender isn’t “real”—and this discomfort is a very strong indicator of how we’re taught to think about trans people’s genders. Cis people’s genders are “natural” and “real”, while trans people’s genders are “unnatural” and “performed”. The reality is that all genders are a performance, an interaction between people, and a way of signalling to others who you are. Cis people just have the luxury of not having to be so conscious of this.

So we all perform gender. But the people criticising trans people for this performance are often familiar with Judith Butler, and claim that trans people are performing their gender too much, that trans people are conforming too closely to gender norms, and are therefore harming feminism in some way. This criticism is particularly levelled at trans women, usually by trans-exclusionary feminists (who are basically scum). They claim that trans women who conform to normative notions of femininity—who perform their womanhood in ways that seem “normal”—are antifeminist, that they’re trying to enforce gender roles. Can anyone else say “bullshit”?

There are several factors at play here. First: not all trans women are super feminine. There are butch trans women, non-passing trans women, sort-of-feminine trans women—every variety of trans woman (all of whom are beautiful and absolutely women). The argument that “all trans women are destroying feminism because they enforce gender roles” is immediately nonsense.

Second: trans women have as much right to perform their gender however they are most comfortable as cisgender women. So shut up and stop policing gender expression.

Third: trans women often do perform more feminine femininity because it’s literally a matter of survival for them. Trans women are some of the most vulnerable and oppressed people in the world, particularly trans women of colour. They are frequently subjected to acts of violence—physical, verbal, and sexual—as well as being refused homes and jobs and services, and all manner of other shitty things. Trans women who can “pass” are less likely, at least on a superficial level, to be faced with these shitty things. (They are still at risk, so don’t assume passing trans women no longer suffer transphobia and oppression.) So of course they perform femininity in a way that’s going to improve their quality of life.

Fourth: most trans women grew up being told they weren’t women. They didn’t have their gender recognised until they forced people to recognise it by performing it in a way that other people acknowledged as feminine. This is true for all trans and agender people—women, men, non-binary, or no gender. The vast majority of us grew up being told we were getting it wrong. People constantly tried to give us the wrong script, and we often didn’t understand why. So when we were finally able to decide on our own script, we often choose one that makes absolutely goddamn sure that other people will recognise us for who we are. We don’t have the luxury of unconsciously performing our gender. We chose our mode of performance, often after a lot of trial and error, specifically so that we could not only feel comfortable in ourselves, but so that other people would finally acknowledge our gender.

Not all trans people experience (a)gender this way, but most of us experience some level of it. We go through a lot of questioning and experimenting before we settle into a particular gender performance, and even then, it can change over time—just like anyone’s gender changes with age and experience. Many of us will perform our (a)gender in a way that’s more “obvious” or more “extreme” than we otherwise might, if the world didn’t require us to constantly signpost who we are, but that in no way makes our gender (or lack of it) “not real”, or “wrong”. Everyone performs their (a)gender. Trans people are just more conscious of it. And until we live in a culture that doesn’t force us to conform to certain modes of performance in order to be recognised, that’s going to keep being the case.

Until next time, lovelies, misandrist witch out.

*(a)gender: agender people do not experience a relationship to gender, and/or do not have a gender. They may often perform this lack of gender, although how they do this differs from person to person. Yes, this is a real thing. Yes, it is possible to have no gender. Just because you can’t understand it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Text: All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017.

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