So, I haven’t done one of these for awhile. Yes, I’m a bit rubbish, I’m aware.
Anyway, onto the next trope. This might seem to be two tropes, and indeed they can and do work separately, but I’m going to do them together because I think they very often work together (especially in the criminal justice system). This one is trans women specific.
First, there’s the frequently touted idea that trans women are really just men in dresses. The man in a dress is a pitiful figure, trying and failing miserably to pass as a woman. The notion occasionally touted by some online feminists that trans women will be immediately and obviously be readable as trans–and hence able to be kept out of womyn’s “safe space”–relies on this idea. This is often the figure of trans women in popular culture, the laughingstock who can’t gender themselves properly (always played by a cis man, with bonus hilarity points if there’s facial and body hair).
This second half, the stealthy deceiver, is closely allied to my first trope (“Really a [assigned birth sex]“) except that it posits the trans person as actively fraudulent. The idea is that appearances are deceptive, that we are able to mimic cis femininity so well that we can trick innocent people (usually men) into believing we are something we are not. To live your life in your gender, and most particularly, to expect to have sex with someone, is inherently a lie.
This is the trans person as surprise plot twist that fuels movies like The Crying Game, though it’s more pervasive and pernicious than sheer entertainment. The figure of the stealthy trans woman fuels the notorious “trans panic” defense that seemingly every murderer of a trans woman seeks to defend themselves. Unsurprisingly, it is nearly always almost an enormous bloody lie, the evidence frequently conclusively points to murderers having known their victims were trans and then cold bloodedly killing them.
What remains profoundly foreign to this trope, of course, is the perspectives of trans women ourselves, that being born forced to attempt to live in a male gender role and sexed body might have been far more a profound lie that living as women.
So, these tropes seem to in one sense be wildly opposed – in one, transness is immediately apparent, in the other, it is a secret. But in another sense, they work together, because one can easily move from one to the other, because a cis view of trans people tends to scrutinise, looking for signs of inauthenticity, of our “real” genders. So, trans women are placed in the double bind of coming out – either come out and have your gender disregarded and ridiculed, or remain stealth and risk being exposed as a deceiver.
Both, I should point out, have incredible risks of violence.
What is more incredible is how they can both appear at the same time. Trans women are ridiculed for the obvious and apparent inauthenticity of our genders – massive bloody attention is paid to appearance, to make-up, clothing, shaving, to shoulder size, to Adam’s apples. See, for instance, this article about the murder of Sanesha Stewart:
Stewart, more than 6 feet tall, was known to wear stylish, provocative outfits with towering high heels, neighbors said.
Stewart also apparently had undergone surgery to give him larger breasts and other female characteristics, neighbors said.
“She looked like a girl but when she turned around, you knew it was a man,” a 17-year-old neighbor said. “She had a big jaw and an Adam’s apple.”
And yet the original title of the story, I should point out, was “Fooled John Stabbed Bronx Tranny” (until GLAAD complained and the title was changed). The article proceeded typically, without any evidence whatsoever besides the fact that Sanesha Stewart was a trans woman of colour, from the later-proved-to-be-faulty assumption that she was not only a sex worker, but a stealthy deceptive one at that. The incoherence of this, that she was somehow both immediately and obviously trans, and yet able to fool a man into thinking she was cis, should be immediately obvious to anyone with even a quarter of a functioning brain. And yet.
Transphobia doesn’t work on the level of literal sense, instead it proceeds along a path mapped out long before, relying more on a cis common sense of how things “should be” (and therefore are) than on any real knowledge of trans lives. And so, this trope appears again and again and again – in Kellie Telesford’s trial, she was described as possessing a man’s strength (ludicrously unlikely given the time she’d been on hormones), yet simultaneously she was able to deceive the defendent into having sex with her.
The point is then, trans women do not have stable position in cis-sexist discourse, moving instead through incoherently contradictory counter-propositions as needs permit, but all the while denied an authenticity and truthfulness for our identities which cis gender normative people take for granted.