Caitlyn Jenner. Jazz Jennings. Laverne Cox. These are some well-known female celebrities you may have heard of––and are transgender. But what does ‘transgender’ mean? To put it simply, being transgender is having a biological sex that differs from one’s gender identity. A trans man would be someone born into a body that does not match his gender identity, and a trans woman would be someone born into a body that does not match her gender identity. Lesser known but just as important and valid are trans non-binary people: individuals that do not identify as male or female and are born into a body that does not match their gender identity. Alternately, those whose gender identity matches their biological sex are cis-gendered.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to and validate the existence of transgender people. For instance, the brains of men and women are both structurally and functionally different, and it has been scientifically proven that brain structure and function of a trans person corresponds to that of their gender identity. Oftentimes, trans people in the media and general public tend to dress and appear traditionally according to their gender identity. This begs the question: does the existence of transgender people perpetuate gender stereotypes?
The answer is no, but we need to delve in deeper to understand why. The argument that the existence of trans people reinforces gender stereotypes is usually rooted in the theory of gender essentialism: that a certain person or object must be inherently and irreversibly either male and masculine or female and feminine. This theory equates biological sex to gender, failing to recognize the difference between the two and thus erasing the freedom of individual gender identity and expression. Therefore, gender essentialism refuses to accept the concept of a person ‘changing their gender’ by transitioning, when the reality is that the person’s gender never changed since they were simply born into the wrong biological sex.
In Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler explained the clear distinction between gender and sex, thus disputing gender essentialism––the claim that gender is equivalent to sex––and the invalidation of trans people by extension. Butler described gender as something that is inherited and performative, a choice that gives each individual their identity. She concluded that “Genders, then, can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent.” After all, gender expression––the way one chooses to convey their gender identity––varies from person to person and culture to culture, and whether an individual is trans or cis-gendered, they have the choice to appear as masculinely or femininely as they wish.
Unfortunately, trans people who do not appear as either stereotypically masculine or feminine are often mocked or disabused of their gender identity. Are you really transgender? If so, why aren’t you going all the way? Aren’t you just a tomboy? This consequently erases, or at least attempts to erase, the lived reality of butch trans women or non-binaries and femme trans men or non-binaries, who do exist and undermine the limitations in society’s gender-binary. These intrusive and unnecessary questions attempt to invalidate trans people’s gender identity and likely serves as a factor as to why trans people tend to dress either ultra-femininely or ultra-masculinely: it allows them to avoid too much self-doubt and feel more comfortable in their own skin. Hopefully, when society as a whole recognizes the sheer variety of gender identities, trans people will be able to express themselves as they please, no matter what.
Trans celebrities in the media usually closely adhere to gender stereotypes in terms of the way they dress because this generally appeals more to audiences and thereby offers the trans community more coverage. It is important to note that these celebrities constitute a mere fraction of the trans community, and though this offers more opportunity for representation, it inevitably limits the general public’s exposure to the diversity within the transgender community. Ultimately, gender goes far beyond the way one dresses––rather, it is a core sense of being that may or may not be enhanced by the way one socially appears.
Transgender people around the world are paving the way to more free and diverse gender identities and expression, regardless of sex, age, race or religion. It is time for all of us to embrace and accept these new, colourful possibilities––and enjoy the human experience to its fullest. Now more than ever, in the period of #BlackTransLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter, it is of utmost importance to remember that each and every one of us is valid, important, and loved.
Abrams, Mere. "Gender Essentialism Is Flawed — Here's Why." Healthline, Jan. 2020, www.healthline.com/health/gender-essentialism#other-theories. Accessed 2020.
Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 1988, pp. 519-31, seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/TimarAndrea/17a.Butler,performative%5B1%5D.pdf. Accessed 7 July 2020.
Davis, Deborah L. "Are Transgender Women Just Reinforcing Sexist Stereotypes?" Psychology Today, 5 Sept. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/hk/blog/laugh-cry-live/201509/are-transgender-women-just-reinforcing-sexist-stereotypes. Accessed 7 July 2020.
Jakubowski, Kaylee. "No, the Existence of Trans People Does Not Validate Gender Essentialism." OpenDemocracy.net, 23 Aug. 2018, www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/no-existence-of-trans-people-doesn-t-validate-gender-essentialism/. Accessed 7 July 2020.