I have always felt restricted by gender roles. Growing up, my family was very conservative. As a “boy”, I was expected to be and act a certain way. I chafed against these restrictions growing up, and it took a toll on my mental health. Much of this in-congruence with male gender roles was likely a result of me being transgender. I was always jealous of family members who were not bound by expectations of “masculinity”. But beyond being transgender, these hyper-conservative gender roles simply did not align with who I was. My personality and ideals were fundamentally opposed to those gendered expectations.
I have recently been thinking quite a bit about gender roles and how they relate to passing. Passing is incredibly important to me; I don’t know if I could call my transition a success if I don’t pass. Passing as a concept is incredibly complicated (and contentious). Many attributes play a role in determining how people perceive gender: appearance, voice, clothing, and mannerisms to name a few. All of these factors influence how people and society instinctively read and assume a person’s gender. Of all the things on that list, it is the matter of mannerisms that is currently bothering me. It feels backward and regressive to assign gender to things as arbitrary as how one walks, talks, eats or sits. We should be moving away from that kind of thinking, not encouraging it.
I am torn on this matter. On one hand, I want to pass. It is safer for me to be able to do so. But on the other hand, I don’t want to perpetuate or lend credence to stereotypes. Every act is a moral act, regardless of if we want it to be. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said it best, “I bear the responsibility of a choice, that in committing myself, also commits humanity as a whole”.1 By making the choice to adhere to stereotypes and traditional gender roles, I would be exemplifying that as the proper course of action. It would be hypocritical of me to be critical of gender roles and stereotypes while rigidly following them for my own benefit.
Beyond mere ethics, I don’t think that I am very “traditionally feminine” by nature. My personal style is relatively gender-neutral. I prefer flannels and skinny jeans over dresses or skirts. I am not very good at makeup either. The whole point of transitioning was so that I could live authentically. Do I need to change myself to fit society’s idea of a woman to get people to respect my gender identity? I don’t want to simply swap one set of rigid, hyper-conservative gender roles for another, even if those roles align with my gender. But I also want people to acknowledge and respect my gender identity. At the moment, I worry that those two things may be mutually exclusive.
There is no single, correct answer to this dilemma. Everyone, even cis people, chooses to what extent they adhere to or ignore gender roles. I just feel like transgender people are held to a higher standard. Society does not give us the privilege of being selective regarding our gender expression, at least, not to the degree that cis people are permitted. It isn’t fair, but I don’t know what the proper response to this state of affairs is. We can work to change these cultural standards over time, but we still need to live in the world now.
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 44.