Reinforcing the Binary

One of the things that really annoys me about the way that trans women are treated is the way that we are constantly called out for “reinforcing the binary”. I think we can all agree that having rigid gender stereotypes that force everyone into strict and distinct roles as either Real Men or Real Women is a bad thing. However, the way this discussion is framed is very different in the case of trans women than it is for everyone else.

I should note here that I’m not too upset about non-binary people who accuse trans women of reinforcing the binary. The trans community is very diverse, and in every sub-group there are those who insist that everyone else is “doing trans wrong”. This is more about bolstering their own self-confidence than anything else. There are groups of binary-identified trans women who say awful things about non-binary people too. I try hard to let everyone be trans in the way that is most comfortable for them. I mean, why exchange one set of enforced stereotypes for another?

No, the people I am talking about call themselves “feminists”, though in my book one of the last things that feminism should be about is policing other women’s behavior. They are generally academics, probably into gender studies or something similar, and they may well have spent far too much time misunderstanding Judith Butler. For them, everything that trans women do is wrong.

Wear pretty clothes? Reinforcing the binary. Wear makeup? Reinforcing the binary. Wear our hair long? Reinforcing the binary. Read romance novels? Reinforcing the binary. Are attracted to men? Reinforcing the binary. Go on a diet? Reinforcing the binary. Have any sort of cosmetic surgery? Reinforcing the binary. Enjoy crafts such as embroidery or knitting? Reinforcing the binary. Cry? Reinforcing the binary. The list is seemingly endless.

And let’s not even think about anything to do with children, because that would be all, “Urgh! Paedo!!!” Right?

Such discussions are generally accompanied by talk about how trans women seek to “pass” as female, couched in similar terms to the way a black rights activist might talk about a neighbour who tries to “pass” as white. In other words, it is a deception, a bad thing.

Trans women are, of course, under tremendous pressure to “pass” as female. The doctors and psychiatrists (most of whom are men) on whom we rely for treatment tend to withhold it if they think we fail to conform to their idea of how women should look and behave. Well-meaning friends and family are forever nit-picking our supposed performance because they are convinced that we can’t possibly have any idea how to be women, even when we are a damn sight more fashionable and stylish than they are. And of course if you are out in public and look visibly trans then your chances of getting beaten up or even killed are massively higher than if you look gender-normative. For trans people, and particularly trans women, “passing” is a matter of personal safety.

Women who are assigned female at birth generally don’t get called out in the same way. They might attract attention if they dress like Barbara Cartland, or if they drone on about how women should stay at home and have kids rather than get jobs. But for the most part they are allowed to do feminine things because their femininity is deemed innate and natural, whereas ours is deemed fake.

Trans men don’t get called out for reinforcing the binary very often either. They can grow beards, watch sports, drink beer, work out and do all of those supposed manly man things without attracting anywhere near the same level of opprobrium. It is past time that many feminists took a good long look at how they accept default male behavior as “normal” but decry default female behavior as “fake”. It is not for nothing that Julia Serano invented the term, transmisogyny, to denote the particular hatred of trans women that happens precisely because our behaviour is deemed feminine.

What comes across very clearly in all of these denunciations is that these “feminists” believe that trans women have no right to behave in a feminine manner because we are not “really” women, we are just men who are playing a role. They don’t want us to “pass” because they don’t want us to, in their eyes, get away with having other people think that we are women. When I hear “feminists” denounce trans women for “reinforcing the binary”, this is what I hear them actually saying:

“We don’t want you deceiving people, we want you to look like the men you really are.”

Well you know what they can do with that attitude, don’t you.

“One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself “constructed” and, therefore, not real. And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality. I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory.” — Judith Butler.