Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst
Perfection is the disease of a nation.
Beyoncé’s recent song Pretty Hurts sums it up very well. The pressure on women to be “feminine,” and on men to be “masculine,” is a disease in our nation. It plays out even more dramatically for transpeople: those who “feel” female want to “appear” female, and those who “feel” male want to “appear” male. That “want” is rooted in and shaped by the gender images we’re provided while growing up—i.e., you can be Barbie or you can be G.I. Joe. I knew, at a very young age, that I wasn’t 100% male. But the only alternative I saw was “female,” and the definition of that was rigid. Once I began school it was “all over but the shooting.” And there was plenty of that.
In her book, The Bully Society: School Shooting and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools, Jessica Klein explains that “bullies often act as gender police, enforcing traditional gender norms and punishing those who deviate.” While it’s not as blatant, a similar policing of genders occurs in the work world. For some whose physicality doesn’t match the popular image associated with their gender, the use of make-up, clothing style, hormones, and surgery might get them by. But it takes more courage than many of us have to overcome the pressure to fit the “appropriate” image.
Even at the biological level, we’ve been taught that males have an X and a Y chromosome, while females have two Xs. What we’re not taught is that, even here, there are many variations, including Turner Syndrome (only one X chromosome), Triple-X syndrome (three X chromosomes), Klinefelter’s Syndrome (one or more extra X chromosome), and XYY syndrome (an extra Y chromosome). Furthermore, babies whose gender cannot be readily defined occur in about one in 4,500 births.
A person might appear female on the outside, but have male anatomy inside. Or they may be born with genitals that seem to be in between: a girl may be born with a large clitoris or no vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a small penis or with a scrotum that is divided so that it looks more like labia. Or a person may have some cells with XX chromosomes and other cells with XY chromosomes. Search the topic and you’ll come up with a long list of so-called deformities, but these facts only support the normal distribution in any population. It’s a bell curve, and even though the “bump” in the middle may be the majority, the distribution of variance at each end of the curve is normal and natural too. It occurs with all things in nature. But we continue to try and squeeze everyone into just two categories.
Sadly, despite the rise of the diversity bandwagon, gender variance doesn’t get a seat. There are just two categories, and you would do well to fit clearly into one or the other—although a simple glance at the people sitting around you as you read this shows how unrealistic that is.
When it comes to fitting the image, transmen are at something of an advantage. It’s easier to add the muscular biceps and thighs than it is to get rid of them. And testosterone helps with that, whereas no amount of estrogen will shave off muscle. Men in our culture don’t have to be attractive the same way women must. Nonetheless, it’s the extremely feminine, pretty transwomen and the buff, handsome transmen we usually see in the media: Laverne Cox (on Orange is the New Black), Alexandra Billings (in Romy & Michele and now as Davina in Transparent), Loren Rex Cameron (photographer and author), and Chaz Bono. These are the “representatives” of the transgender community. While there are plenty of transpeople who are successful in business, academia, medicine, and sports, they often don’t fit the gender ideal, so we rarely see them. The public’s fascination is with looks, which are what “sells.” The media loves the stories about the transwoman who looks like “a real woman” or the transman who looks like “a real man.” (Witness the ongoing saga of Bruce Jenner.) Even if we understand that gender is not an either/or thing, we still think in terms of what we’re “supposed to be.”
Even the terms I’m using here belie diversity. If you are transgender, you have to be a transman or a transwoman (and then you have to be pre-op or post-op). Were it not for the cultural imperatives that limit the choices to two, it’s very possible that a lot more people would decline those choices. Given that freedom, they might very well leave the checkbox blank or even invent new categories.