Are Transgender Women Just Reinforcing Sexist Stereotypes?
Would transgender women exist if men were free to wear dresses?
Posted September 15, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I received many thought-provoking comments on my last post on what it means to be a transgender person. This follow-up post is inspired by the comments proposing that all sex differences are acquired from cultural norms, that being transgender is a reflection of the social ills caused by sexism and oppression, and that the transgender movement merely reinforces sex stereotypes.
So, let’s continue this discussion by examining these ideas about gender identity and expression.
Are the differences between men and women due to biology or just a result of culture and socialization?
Nature or nurture? Over the decades, researchers have gone back and forth on this question. Some assume that males and females start out the same, and it's culture, education, and parenting that impose all observable differences. To claim otherwise was considered sexist and without merit.
Over the past four decades, as our understanding of biology has increased and we’ve developed technology for brain imaging, researchers are still divided about whether there are significant differences between male and female brains, and which differences are due to biology or society and cultural norms.
This debate will likely rage on, though there has been a shift, where people are starting to consider the effect of confirmation bias on the research. For example, are the differences observed in male and female brains blown out of proportion because we're looking for them and hype them up when we find them? Or are differences dismissed because we don't want to see them?
Whether we eventually determine that males and females are more alike than different or not, aren't we better off simply following every individual child’s lead as to what his or her preferences, interests, strengths, and tendencies are? Forcing a child into a certain box according to their biological sex or gender identity is fundamentally oppressive.
Isn’t gender dysphoria simply a result of being limited by gender stereotypes? What if men were free to wear dresses?
How gender identity expresses itself is of course tied to cultural norms, but there is preliminary research indicating that transgender people have the brain structure and function that is more typical of the gender they identify as. Simply put, a trans woman is born with male anatomy and certain structures and functions typically found in a female brain; a trans man has female anatomy and certain structures and functions typically found in a male brain. It's thought that these misalignments are caused by differing hormonal influences in the womb that happen during the first and second trimesters when anatomy (first) and brain development (second) occur. What’s interesting is that the brain trumps anatomy when determining gender identity, indicating that in some ways, we really do reside in our heads.
As such, gender dysphoria is not cured by simply wearing a dress or a business suit. Being female or male cannot be reduced to culturally assigned uniforms. Gender is a core sense of identity. The transgender person seeks acknowledgment and validation for being, not just dressing like, the other gender.
Do hormones affect male and female appearance, tendencies, preferences, and behaviors?
Yes, hormones affect how we look, feel, and behave. Female hormones result in body curves, softer skin, being drawn to babies, and the ability to breastfeed. Male hormones result in broad shoulders, more body hair, being drawn to competition, and a superior ability to open jars (seriously—testosterone increases grip strength).
Even before birth, the timing and extent of exposure to androgen, a male hormone, affects brain development and gender expression later in life. Culture and socialization also shape gendered behavior, but hormones can facilitate or dampen these influences. In other words, you can encourage masculine or feminine behavior in children, but hormone exposure before birth determines whether they embrace or reject these influences.
As for transgender hormone treatments, when hormones begin to align with gender identity, psychological stress can decrease immensely. This effect is strong evidence that gender identity is a biological, hormonal, brain-based phenomenon, and not just a social construct.
Where do stereotypes come from? And which came first, masculine and feminine stereotypes, or masculine men and feminine women?
Human brains are hardwired to look for patterns, and we humans, men and women, noticed the tendencies, differences, and patterns between and among us, which formed the basis for gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are reflected in masculine and feminine archetypes, which have persisted across cultures and throughout the ages for a reason—because they contain certain truths. And according to evolutionary biologists and sociologists, there are many masculine traits found in men and feminine traits found in women that have served us well in promoting the survival of our species. Still, most people land somewhere between the extremes and can embrace both their masculine and feminine tendencies. Indeed, some men are more nurturing or sensitive or talkative than some women; likewise, some women are more gruff or competitive or nonverbal than some men. Again, it doesn't always serve us to put each other in boxes according to biological sex — or gender identity.
But aren’t stereotypes harmful, especially to girls and women?
Gender stereotypes, in and of themselves, are harmless generalizations that only become harmful when weaponized and used as tools of oppression. We typically think of oppression as happening across a society where stereotypes can be derogatory (“you throw like a girl”), or judgmental (“real men don’t cry”), or require conformity (“women can be nurses; men can be doctors”). But gender stereotypes can be even more oppressive and personally damaging when experienced on a small scale, such as when a spouse criticizes his or her partner for not living up to feminine or masculine ideals, or when a parent insists a son be more “manly” or a daughter be more “girly," pushing against the child’s natural tendencies. When stereotypes are used to oppress, females and males alike are susceptible to harm.
The good news: As the Information Age exposes us to an enormous range of self-expression, our social and individual tolerance for diversity is rising and we become less prone to overgeneralizing and oppression, and realize, for example, that men and women alike can excel in all areas of medical practice, and therefore both can be considered worthy for admission to nursing school or medical school. As a result, more and more people around the world are exercising their right to be true to themselves, without risking personal rejection, social isolation, ridicule, or even death.
Isn’t the transgender rights movement forcing us all back into gender stereotypes?
If anything, this new wave of civil rights is forcing us to examine our use of gender stereotypes, to open our minds, and to become more respectful and tolerant of gender nonconformity, which is the opposite of forcing males and females back into their supposed boxes. Think of the current female icons in our culture and how varied they are in style, mannerisms, values, etc., from sultry kitten Selena Gomez to sassy, smart Tina Fey to badass athletic Serena Williams. Now think about current male icons, from sexy, humble Will Smith to sweetly funny Jimmy Fallon to badass musical Justin Timberlake. (Check out all these embedded links to see what I mean... especially Serena Williams... the best part of this post!) They are a testimony to how people are less required to “fit in” or conform to gender stereotypes, as our society becomes ever more open and diverse.
So then why are the trans women making headlines so stereotypically feminine?
For transgender females, femininity covers a wide range of expression, just as it does for any girl or woman. However, the general public is probably going to be more captivated by a trans woman who is super feminine. So the media will deliver trans celebrities like Caitlin Jenner.
To illustrate the wider spectrum of trans-feminine expression, here's a video, by award-winning journalist Mahala Gaylord, featuring a teenager who puts care into her appearance, but doesn't subscribe to the ultra-feminine ideals embraced by the larger society. Unfortunately, when a trans woman isn't super feminine, some people are confused by why she would go to the trouble of coming out when she's not going "all out." According to a trans woman I know who calls herself "a tomboy," by not looking like the feminine stereotype, people actually question her sincerity. Like, why be a woman if you're not going the whole distance? But even when female gender identity lines up with female anatomy, not all of those women go the whole distance. So why would we insist that trans women do?
Perhaps as society tolerates more diversity of gender expression, all of us will become freer to express ourselves as however masculine or feminine we feel, without being obligated to go to the far ends of the spectrum or cave into stereotypes. You can start today, by simply being and accepting your true self, just the way nature and nurture made you.
January 31, 2017 update: See here, a New York Times feature about a longitudinal research study following transgender youth, and a National Geographic cover story and documentary featuring transgender children.
August 9, 2017 update: For interesting new research and thinking about how males and females are wired differently and how this affects behavior, see here and here.
Remember, differences between sexes/genders don't prove that one is better than the other. It's not a competition. Instead, think, "cooperation" and "complementary" and "our differences are what make the world go around." Plus regardless of any differences, everyone deserves equal rights and protections.