Monday, August 10, 2009

Feminine presentation for trans women is a life or death Issue

[Tami's note: Last week, while we were talking about privilege here on What Tami Said, I read this article by Monica. It helped to highlight a privilege I have as a cisgendered woman: I can choose to embrace or reject some societal standards of femininity and beauty without much concern for my safety or acceptance. I had never considered that before--that my nails are almost never "done" and often bitten and that I haven't worn pantyhose in years and that I rarely wear heels (though I love a good pair of hot, high-heeled boots)--but my eschewing all these societal markers of femininity is okay, because people are unlikely to challenge my womanhood. Thanks to Monica for continuing to be a voice for her trans brothers and sisters, ensuring that their voices are heard.]

written by guest contributor Monica Roberts; originally posted at TransGriot and Global Comment

My cisgender girlfriends tease me sometimes about the amount of time I spend perfecting my feminine presentation. They will also needle me about the lengths I will go to ensure it is as flawless as I can humanly make it.

But if they walked in my pumps for a minute, they would look at it in a fundamentally different way and understand why I and other transwomen place so much importance on a flawless as possible feminine presentation.

I know how to apply my makeup to compliment my face and own a set of makeup brushes to do so. I experiment with new ways and various color combinations to create my various looks. I own three makeup books for African American women that I refer to on a regular basis. One is written by Oprah's Emmy winning makeup artist Reggie Wells, another is by makeup artist Sam Fine, and my third is one authored by Patricia Hinds for ESSENCE magazine. I go to the nail shop twice a month to have manicures and pedicures done and keep a few bottles of my favorite nail polish shades at home to touch nit up between visits. I keep my eyebrows plucked, waxed and arched and do relentless maintenance on it. I ensure that any body hair that shows up on my legs, arms and underarms is expeditiously removed. One of the first things I did when I started transition in 1994 was spend countless hours and cash in my electrologist's chair getting my face zapped. I'm planning to get laser done to hit the areas that stubbornly will not die when my cash flow improves.

In addition to stuffing myself in foundation garments, every now and then I indulge myself and get some of my bras and panties at Victoria's Secret on sale. (My inner Taurus still refuses to pay full price for them.)

I get my hair done and in between trips to the beauty shop I have a wig collection that is approaching Regine Hunter levels. My shoe collection is constantly evolving and expanding, and I can comfortably walk and stand in heels up to 3 inches in height. I do it so well that I once had a cisgender female co-worker ask me if I could teach her how to walk in heels.

I'm always on the lookout for fashionable clothes and accessories to go with them at reasonable prices. And yes, I shop for pantyhose in various shades and styles to complement and complete my look.

Even though I'm 15 years into my transition, I make sure my feminine deportment and gestures are on point, I'm speaking using a feminine speech pattern and maintaining a feminine pitch level.Much of the rationale behind me doing this is because of my speaking engagements, Trans 101 presentations and lobbying. I'm also considered a role model in the trans community as well and the image I project to others is important to me and the community I represent.

Another reason is I simply wanted to be the best woman I can be and I enjoy reveling in my divatude. When you grow up in the wrong body, you tend to appreciate that suppressed femininity more when you finally get the chance to openly express it and live your life. But one of the other reasons I'm so diligent about it is because in the back of mind, even though I'm consciously making the choice of projecting my evolving femininity in this way, I'm cognizant that performing my feminine gender presentation as flawlessly as possible impacts my life.


recursiveparadox said...

I'm lucky in a lot of ways. I can be a tomboy without a lot of issues because my skeletal structure and facial shape are very stereotypically feminine.

Even though I have small breasts (like many trans women), I'm also very slim in build, so they show up in a very stereotypically feminine way. HRT did a lot for me.

My voice's pitch had always been mid line, the only thing I had to do with it was adjust the harmonics to get rid of the extra rumble.

But sometimes, even I have to blend in. Even the risks get too high and I have to put on more of a feminine mask over my normal expression just to be safe.

I can't figure out how people can criticize me for doing that when people in virtually every part of America continue to kill, assault and harass trans women simply for being trans women. When I have to blend in, sadly, the only way to do that is with feminine presentation.

And I'd rather not be a statistic. And I'm tired of being criticized for my efforts to prevent such a thing from happening.

CaitieCat said...

Thanks for spreading the word on this one, Tami. I've been saying this same thing for years, it's good to see it expressed so well by Monica.

funnie said...

The fact that homophobic men violently police gender and femininity to such an extreme degree that even persons born male feel they must obliterate any trace of masculinity in order to avoid retaliation is hardly a "cisgendered" "privilege" for any woman. But particularly not for lesbians.

Tami said...


I am reminded of something Susan said in my post about privilege:

"I am going to say something that I feel very cautious about saying but I feel compelled to do so - and I am going to say it within a huge awareness of the context of my privilege (a white woman raised poor/working class but through education, family changes including white flight and affirmative action (can we talk about aff am and how it has been racialized when it has also helped countless poorer white folks/women/etc) now firmly middle class and lesbian) so with all of that prelude - I think that in the US we generally err on the side of understanding the ways in which we have not "had enough" rather than spending time on the ways in which we 'have.'"

I realized when I crossposted Monica's piece that it is possible to dig much deeper into the issue of how feminism is enforced. ALL women suffer under pressure to conform to societal norms of femininity. Some women, black women like me among them, face particular scrutiny. (I know that lesbian women face this, too.)

By airing Monica's piece, I am not denying how the tyranny of enforced feminism effects cisgendered women, but recognizing the ways that it specifically touches trans women. I am also saying that, despite my own membership in an "oppressed class" (black women...DOUBLE TROUBLE), I realize that, in this case, I have more privilege than a sister who faces triple (or more) oppression. I am not saying that I am "privileged," just a smidge less oppressed, maybe.

And I can't be sure about this, but I think many trans women might argue that they were "born male," but might say that they were born female with a male physicality that does not match their true gender. Maybe someone can clarify this.

funnie said...


I'm sorry I don't have time to respond better and more thoughtfully now -- I'll try again later.

For the time being, just FYI: I'm not trying to be a jerk, really. I've steered clear of discussing any trans issues on the internet for years, now, because of how ugly things get, and I don't want to go there.

And I don't have a problem with you airing Monica's piece on your blog. I just don't think it's so great, frankly -- it's a very long, detailed, and nearly fetishist explanation of beauty rituals, with a VERY short analysis tacked onto the end: "I'm cognizant that performing my feminine gender presentation as flawlessly as possible impacts my life."

That's what it all comes down to, the actual "meat" there. And it does sort of make me snort "no shit, sherlock." :p

The problem with the term "cisgendered" is that the word itself contains some version of the idea that [biological females raised as girls, whatever you want to call us] have a "correct" gender and that it's therefore somehow less-bad, less-harmful for us to be stuffed into our gender-box, due to its "correct"ness, than it is for biological males to be stuffed in the "wrong" gender-box.

If you think the gender-box IS the problem (not "too restrictive to include everybody all of the time," and not "an exaggerated view of what men and women like and are good at" but THE PROBLEM), that's just utter crap. And it doesn't address the harm done to girls' brains and emotions and expectations, because it doesn't view the fact that they're being treated as and trained like "girls" (in a girl-hating society) at EVERY stage of their development.

If you had said:

"I am not denying how the tyranny of enforced [femininity] effects [ALL] women, but recognizing the ways that it specifically touches trans women" I'd probably have left well enough alone. The precise brew of misogyny and homophobia that trans women face is horrifying and scary and its own particular thing. I agree.

Being raised as a girl with female biology in a misogynist culture is, likewise, its own particular thing.

And I dislike the train of trans analysis - which I don't hold you personally responsible for, but it's clear you don't consider to be as harmful as I do - perpetuated by the use of misogyny-obscuring terms like "cisgendered," and by concepts like privilege as compared to transwomen - that portrays growing up as a girl with female biology in a misogynist culture as something normal or natural, or at least preferable, to some other state.

It's not. It's just another process of becoming "cognizant that performing my feminine gender presentation as flawlessly as possible impacts my life."

funnie said...

Just to be clear, too -- I understand what you're saying about being "double trouble." And I recognize that I have a host of privileges as compared to -frankly- most other women.

Race, class, orientation, mental and physical ability/health, education, economics, addiction status (such a huge deal for so many women it sometimes should be mentioned specifically)...I may be brainwashed and gaslighted and threatened and harrassed and treated like crap for being a woman, but I *do* have a lot of comparative privilege.

I just don't think having a vagina is one of them.

Tami said...


We disagree on this issue and that's cool.

The position of my blog is this: Trans women ARE women and should be embraced as sisters. On that, I won't debate.

You'll never hear me say that women are gender privileged in this society, but I do believe that on the scale of oppression (I know, getting close to oppression Olympics here) some get it worse than others for a variety of reasons. I do think trans women face oppression that cisgendered women can't understand, as lesbian women face oppression that straight women don't understand, as WOC face oppression that white women don't understand...

funnie said...

The position of my blog is this: Trans women ARE women and should be embraced as sisters.

Okay, that's good to know. I had assumed (forget based on what, just now) that it was more along the lines of "Trans women ARE women [as far as I'm concerned] and *I* will embrace them as sisters."

Which is why I didn't initially ascribe the prescriptive weight of "cisgendered" and "privilege" language to you. Sorry for the mistake.

Monica Roberts said...

Thanks for posting it, and thanks for supporting your transbrothers ans transisters as well.

It's past time our fellow African-Americans realize that just because we transitioned, we didn't forfeit our humanity or our 'Black Like Me' cards.

Monica Roberts said...

If you have a different take on the issues, then start your own blog and talk about them.

I'm expressing my thoughts and observations on transgender issues based on growing up Black in 1960s and 1970's Texas.


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