The moment I heard about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, I wanted to write up something about how this is proof that we’re making great strides in trans visibility in the mainstream sense, but still not acknowledging the following:
- the trans women of color that made it onto popular magazine covers before Caitlyn Jenner;
- how her success is from standing on the shoulders of those that came before her (and didn’t get nearly as much press); and
- how this doesn’t represent the bulk of trans people, who are frequently poor, living in dangerous conditions, and don’t have access to the same procedures or general healthcare.
But the rest of the Internet pretty much beat me to the chase. Like, their blogs and articles were already online while I was still thinking about making a grilled cheese.
From a personal perspective, it’s been awesome to see so many people responding with a strong, healthy awareness of what Caitlyn Jenner’s cover does – and doesn’t – do for the trans community.
But from a professional perspective, I was all, “Dammit! Now I have write something else!”
So I decided to turn it towards something I’ve wanted to touch base on for a while now: issues surrounding cis approval of trans looks and how screwed up it is.
Admittedly, I didn’t really notice it until I went through my own transition. Suddenly, I was being cooed over by straight-identified cis women and gay-identified cis men. I was “cute,” I was “adorable,” I was “darling.”
And in this way, I was accepted as a man…
…by being likened to a neutered puppy.
Then I started becoming more aware of the trans woman side of things, how they get gushed over when they’re “beautiful” or “gorgeous” or otherwise “way more attractive than most cis women.”
And in that way, they become accepted as women…
…by being perceived as having gone above and beyond to become something for cis men to theoretically bone.
And suddenly I found myself looking around and thinking, “Uhh, wait a minute. This is wrong.” Because not only does it speak to how cis people view trans people, but it also speaks to how cis people, therein, view themselves.
It’s a serious double bind for us trans folk.
Only those of us deemed “attractive” by cis people have a chance of being respected and recognized in our correct genders by them – and yet that same “attractiveness” causes cis people to use us as tools to perpetuate toxic norms of gender, thereby completely invalidating our correct genders.
That was a mouthful. So let’s break it down based on common comments well-meaning cis people say about trans people.
1. ‘S/he Was Born a Wo/man? But S/he Is So Hawt!’
We’re going to refer to this as the Surprise Response.
The Surprise Response is the assumption that trans people are always identifiable as the freaks that they’re presumed to be and could never actually be mistaken 100% as cis (read: normal).
Also, this comment is a thinly veiled attempt to shield one’s own identity instead of trying to say something about the trans person in question.
Some manner of sexual binary-phobia is usually at play here, the speaker finding the trans person attractive, becoming startled by this fact, and then looking to cover it up with statements that reassert their heterosexuality (or homosexuality, since plenty of self-identified cis gays and lesbians have been not incredibly kind to the trans community).
2. ‘Ugh – She’s a Man, and Even She’s Still Prettier Than I Am’
No! Bad commenter! Bad!
You’re using the Self-Loathing Response, and it’s only succeeding in destroying both of you.
The Self-Loathing Response is the internalized pressure of mainstream beauty culture on women across the spectrum to look a certain way in order to be considered worthwhile as human beings.
Descriptions such as “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “cute,” or “adorable” are all feminizing words in regards to looks. And this is a pretty big problem for women at large since it reinforces the pressure to look a certain way for men.
Male gaze, anyone?
Basically, you’re throwing trans women under the bus in order to further your self-deprecation. You’re putting down someone else in order to keep yourself miserable.
This is pretty messed up since a) trans people aren’t objects to be used for cis desires, regardless of what those desires may be, b) it perpetuates the male stronghold on female attractiveness, and c) hating yourself to such a degree is just plain unhealthy. Reclaim yourself, dammit!
Also, it’s incredibly disrespectful toward trans men. By using misogynist-attractiveness and feminizing words toward trans men, it either states or directly implies that you still see that trans man as female.
It’s a pretty big gamble to automatically assume we’re okay with that.
3. ‘I Never Would’ve Guessed! You Look Just Like a Real Wo/man!’
Yes. It’s a motherfucking magic trick. With $10,000, three gatekeeping letters, and two years of red tape, my lovely surgical assistant and I shall make my breasts disappear! Ta-da!
The Magic Trick Response is pretty much masked (and sometimes, not-so-masked) invalidation. It’s the belief that respect for a (trans) person’s gender identity and as a person must be earned – and can only be so based upon certain body parts or physical characteristics.
It’s like this big sigh of relief from the Cis Kingdom when a trans person is viewed as achieving cis standards of beauty.
“Thank God,” the subtext reads. “Another trans person who has actually succeeded in being just like us. They can be normal if they just try hard enough.”
But see, you seem to be a tad confused here. So allow me to make something painfully clear:
We’re not trying to be you.
We’re not trying to be cis.
We’re trying to be us.
It’s cissexist to have not considered that there are other ways of being and acting and presenting and looking. And it’s downright transphobic if you know these ways exist, but refuse to acknowledge or respect them.
Remember that transphobic people sometimes use the same exact comments on a trans person’s looks as well-meaning allies do. (See above.)
That really should tell you something about how coded these beauty messages are.
4. ‘You’re Trans? Wow! I Just Want You to Know That You’re a Gorgeous/Handsome Wo/man’
This is a tricky one, the Validation Response.
I know in my little heart that lots (lots) of cis people who utter this one have nothing more than good intentions in mind. They want to show their support for the trans person before them, and so they compliment us in the best (or, perhaps only?) way they know how: by telling us our physical looks achieve some of the highest marks possible in the gender we identify with.
But brace yourself, I’m about to get nasty.
A major reason the Validation Response is a problem is—well—because it assumes your opinion validates our identity. To be blunt, you’re still only seeing us through the cis lens.
But here’s the thing, if I may repeat myself: Trans people aren’t trans so they can be cis. And yet cis criteria is being used on a trans existence.
Determining a trans person’s validity as a trans person by seeing how cis they look has absolutely nothing to do with anything. I truly, truly don’t know how to make this clearer.
Yes, plenty of trans people identify as a man or a woman – but not as your definition of a man or a woman. Our genders are not your genders. This is why plenty of trans people also identify as genders that don’t exist in your world or have no gender at all.
In our culture, this makes sense. In yours, not so much.
A sub-reason the Validation Response is such a problem is because it by-and-large comes from well-meaning cis people. They want to help. They’re trying to help.
But durnit, they’re just not quite thinking things through. And they’re so innocent about it that to try and correct them can feel like we’re dropkicking a duckling.
But I’m finally going to just say it: The Validation Response is the act of cis people – even the best, most well-meaning ones – subconsciously exercising their power as cis people.
Letting a trans woman know she’s a beautiful lady or calling a trans man a handsome gentleman does not automatically make you an ally.
But the good news is there are solutions.
So What to Do?
I recognize that you’re well-meaning. I do. But that doesn’t make it okay to believe that paying cis-beauty compliments is one of the top ways to support a trans person.
Trans men are “handsome gentlemen,” trans women are “gorgeous ladies.” Such phrases only support a person’s rightful gender (if they even identify with these two sparse choices) by ironically re-appropriating it to the cis category of appearances.
Being told you’re physically attractive to another person can feel good, I’m not going to lie. And feeling validated that you look enough like one of the two cis genders to not be stabbed, strangled, shot, or fired in this unforgiving cis world admittedly eases the soul, too.
But that’s often where the support for the trans community begins and ends for cis folk.
So if you’re already helping fight for trans rights, have trans loved ones you care for dearly, and/or are eager to be more welcoming to trans people, what’s a well-meaning ally to do?
Easy. Before you comment on a trans person’s looks, reflect on what you’re saying and why.
But let’s say you’re a super awesome ally. (Yay you!) Let’s say you comment on their looks only in a healthy, respectable way. That’s still not enough. Now you must follow up with something else about them.
In this culture of lookism for all people, the trans identity is often whittled down to nothing more than how we physically look to cis people. But just like anybody else, there’s a lot more to us than our appearances.
Pay a compliment to a trans person’s intelligence, their fashion sense, their humor, their laugh, their talents. Pick anything that isn’t directly related to their body parts and doesn’t invoke inspiration porn. It’ll further ensure us that you’re not giving us a backhanded compliment, fetishizing us, or being patronizing. We’ll know we’re actually human in your eyes.
If you can’t do these things, then please keep quiet.
If you can’t validate us as humans with your comments, then don’t talk about our beauty, our cuteness, our hotness, our passibility, or anything else that’s nothing more than opinion on how someone stacks up against misogynistic and cissexist standards.
Because seriously, there are no winners in that game no matter how hard you coo over us.
By the way, your hair looks awesome today.
James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He works as a transcriber for super-duper secret projects, tends to keep to himself, and is currently pitching a novel that scares agents. He uses his experiences as a way to reach out to others, usually by way of not keeping his mouth shut. When he’s not busy making cis gender people uncomfortable with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play vintage video games and eat candy. You can praise him on Twitter @JamesStJamesVI. Read his articles here.