As a transgender woman, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about something that most women take for granted: What does it mean to be a woman? Having breasts? Carrying children? Long hair? Dating men? Having pink toys as a child?
Many women have some of these characteristics, but no woman I’ve met really has all of them. None of these characteristics are really a requirement. And while lots of women do not have them, they are still accepted as women.
So what about transgender women? These days, many people have accepted the idea of transgender women as women, but I’ve also noticed that only certain transgender women really get accepted as women.
Transgender women are often held up to a higher standard of womanhood than cisgender (people who are not transgender) women are. Cisgender women can present as femme, butch, girly, tomboyish, goth, hipster, tattooed... but when a transgender woman doesn’t follow strict and narrow feminine stereotypes, their womanhood is questioned.
In the transgender community, there is a concept of passing—when a transgender person can be easily mistaken for someone who is cisgender. The problem with this concept is that it’s rooted in the idea that it’s better to be cisgender than to be transgender. If there is an acceptance of transgender women as women, then we need to be able to say that there is nothing inferior about transgender women versus cisgender women. We must accept transgender women as women regardless of whatever form that comes in.
That is not to say that passing isn’t desirable within the transgender community. The rest of society often treats transgender women who can’t pass with ridicule and violence, and all women to some extent learn to internalize an unattainable standard of beauty. Transitioning is something that we do for ourselves, but passing is what we do for the rest of society.
Cisgender people do not realize the struggles and pains associated with living life as a non-passing transgender woman. These women know before transition that their chance of passing is very low, and they understand that society may never accept them as women, yet they decide to transition anyway. They risk losing friends, family, careers, and their well-being to live their lives as their genuine selves, breaking away from the gender roles that were forced upon them.
I am very fortunate in the fact that I pass very well. Even in instances when people do notice that I’m transgender, I’m often still granted cisgender woman privilege.
Still, passing isn’t without its problems, as it creates an interesting dynamic when it comes to dating. (I’m single and looking, everyone!) My online dating accounts are full of conversations where I come out to men as transgender, who then accuse me of being deceitful and tricking them. I’ve had countless numbers of encounters with men who have found me attractive, only to suddenly lose interest when I tell them that I’m a transgirl.
This is transphobia, plain and simple. It is not a preference. If you say that you won’t date any girl who is black, that is not a preference. It’s racism. I am reminded that while I’m accepted as a woman, it’s only at arm’s length. Society still has too much transphobia to accept my raw transgender self as I am.
While cisgender women take their womanhood as a birthright, I will continue to fight for mine.
Sophia Lee is a transgender Korean American immigrant, software designer, activist, and board member of Seattle’s Gender Justice League. Follow her @GeekGirl1024 and read more of her writing at transgirltheory.com.