Tackling Transphobia

Author and Activist Julia Serano Discusses the Relationship Between Feminism and Trans Communities

Julia Serano believes that assumptions about feminity should be challenged so that society can move forward. Photo Anil Ram

For Julia Serano, the issue of transphobia is rooted in sexism and gender stereotyping.

The 45-year-old author, spoken word performer, biologist and self-declared “bisexual-femme-tomboy-trans-woman” spoke about femininity in relation to feminism at Concordia on March 28.

She noted in particular that feminist discourse can be used to better understand the issues faced by the trans community and vice versa.

The organizers of the event, Concordia’s Women’s Studies Student Association, said many Concordia students identify as trans or queer, but “seldom do these students have a chance to have a speaker present at their university who speaks to their issues and their realities.”

On Nature vs. Nurture

Some people argue that masculinity or femininity is innate. In other words, biology and brain chemistry influence gender expression more than social factors do.

Others, including many feminists, argue that gender expression is a learnt behaviour, acquired from an early age through our socialization when children learn to express themselves as either male or female by internalizing societal conceptions of each gender.

Serano, the author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, said this nature versus nurture argument is ultimately unproductive.

“It’s an oversimplification on either side of the debate,” she said. “Biology, culture and individual experience come together in really unfathomably complex ways.

“People have been looking forever to find the biological light switch that turns people masculine or feminine and haven’t found it.”

If we accept that both nature and nurture contribute to gender expression, how we arrive at our gender becomes meaningless, said Serano.

“What is more important are the assumptions we have about [gender] and the meanings we project onto it,” she said.

Photo Anil Ram

Feminine Stereotypes and the Transsexual Connection

Characteristics often associated with masculinity include independence, maturity, rationality and practicality—leaving femininity to be characterized by the opposite, lesser qualities of dependence, immaturity, irrationality and impracticality, said Serano.

But perhaps even more problematic is the fact that femininity is often seen through the lens of masculinity.

“In our male-centric culture, the most regular assumption that people make about feminine gender expression is that it’s being done for those who are male,” said Serano.

She noted that men who choose to dress to impress often go unnoticed, but that’s not often the case for women.

“If you dress very femininely, there’s this assumption that you’re doing it in order to attract or appease or please men or masculine people,” she said, adding that it often contributes to the stereotype that women are artificial.

She said that this helps to explain why there are more public depictions of trans women than trans men.

“If you’re the media, if you’re someone with a very normative sense of gender, you see trans people as fake,” she said, adding that transgender people are often called impersonators.

“If you believe that, then what better way is there to show that someone is impersonating someone than showing trans-feminine people? Because femininity is ‘fake’ and trans-ness is ‘fake’, and together they’re really, really, really ‘fake.’”

To make her point, Serano showed the audience several different book covers. Some of them were for books written by transsexual women, while others were for books about the experiences of transsexual men.

The book covers about trans-femininity featured images of trans women applying makeup, whereas the men featured on the covers of books on trans-masculinity were shown as being more natural.

According to Serano, breaking down stereotypes about transsexual and transgender people also requires a breakdown of stereotypes about femininity.

The Way Forward

Serano believes that both the trans and feminist movements need to challenge “the meanings, connotations and assumptions that people make about femininity” so that society can move forward.

“We need to get rid of the assumption that femininity exists for the benefit of masculinity,” she said. “I would also say that we need to challenge gender-policing more generally, and specifically challenging compulsory femininity for girls and compulsory masculinity for boys.”

Serano added that “compulsory femininity for girls” hurts women who express themselves as more conventionally masculine, but also affects those who are stereotypically feminine.

“Compulsory femininity forces you to try to achieve an ideal,” she said, explaining that it means women are pressured into trying to look and act a certain way.

But challenging the stereotypes of feminine gender expression doesn’t necessarily mean refusing to wear dresses and makeup or not being girly.

In this, Serano distances herself from many other feminist writers who say women shouldn’t partake in behaviours that could be considered stereotypically feminine at the risk of reinforcing the patriarchy.

Serano is arguing that society should be more open to allowing people to express themselves without the fear of being judged. Her goal is to make gender less oppressive on the whole, so that people don’t have to either conform to or rebel from traditional gender roles in order to fit in.

In an interview with The Link following her presentation, Serano said that a lot of progress has been made in the last two decades because of the greater visibility of gender non-conforming people in society.

But things are still moving slowly.

“I think we’re really good at getting people to realize that, ‘Hey, that’s sexist, or that’s homophobic, or that’s trans-phobic,’” she said. “People can eventually pick up on that and say, ‘Okay, I won’t use that word anymore.’

“But a lot of the more subtle things like the assumptions that we make about people or the meanings that we project onto certain types of behaviours, those run really deep. And a lot of times, those fall outside of what people would call out.”

Serano said the perceptions people have of trans people need to continue being challenged. “If [someone is] thinking about you in a way that’s different from how [they’re] thinking of other people, that’s a little more invisible and harder to raise awareness about.”