Pink, cermaic necklace with the transgender symbol.Feature image: Ceramic necklace with transgender symbol made by SurlyRamics.

Why Do Trans Women Transition in a Sexist Society?

The facebook page “Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia” posted an email they received on their page. It was an email from a feminist cis woman asking about trans women. I’ll try to split up the email and respond to each part of it. The email is quoted with the permission of the author.

This is probably a really stupid question to y’all, but to me trans issues are kinda complicated and I don’t really understand, I’m trying to learn not trying to offend, I apologize if I do. But could you explain, in simple non academic language if possible,

Yes, trans* issues are complicated. The main reason trans* issues are complicated is that the existence of trans* people challenges the very core of society’s norms about gender, sex and sexuality. These norms are so engrained that they even introduce a significant bias in the sciences trying to understand the behaviour and development of humans and other mammals. Luckily several academics are challenging these biases now. I’ve written a bit about this on my English blog before, for instance here, and even more on my Norwegian blog here and here.

People sometimes complain that the language trans* activists use is too academic. Actually a lot of it isn’t academic at all, but terminology developed by activists themselves. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily straight forward to follow of course.

If say a transwoman considers herself feminist right, that would mean she agrees we get the short end of the stick in the gender department right, lower pay, rape and violence from men, all that shit. Why would someone who sees the raw deal women get, choose to transition to a place, that lets be honest, sucks to inhabit.

Yes, men have a lot of privileges in our society that women don’t have. In other cultures it’s even worse. It seems you think it sucks to be a woman. That is certainly a valid feeling, but keep in mind that the “raw deal” is not something that is inherent to being a woman, as one of the commenters on the page points out. Sexism is a product of society, not a result of being a woman. That is a very important distinction in my opinion.

I have no more choice in being a trans woman than you have in being a cis woman. It is a fundamental part of who I am. There are several examples in history of women living as men to avoid the sexism and lack of opportunities available to women in for instance education, politics and choice of profession. Some of these would undoubtedly have identified as trans men if they lived today, but I don’t think that explains all of them. Posing as male is of course a lot easier for someone assigned male at birth (AMAB) as myself, and yes, it certainly did award me male privilege for as long as I could stomach living the lie; or being “closeted” as it is commonly called.

It varies greatly how long trans men and women manage to do this. I managed it for two decades from the time I realised I was transgender at 15. Some people manage this for their entire lives. Hiding who you are can be an incredibly painful experience. What made it easier for me was the fact that I identified as gender queer for most of that time. My identity is however much closer to female than male, so living as male became unbearable eventually. It is much easier for me to live as a woman while just being myself. While neither “man” or “woman” fully describes me, “woman” is much closer to who I am, and for me personally the female role is less restrictive than the male role. Still, these are roles constructed by our society, and the way gender is constructed in different cultures determines how easy they are to adapt to for each of us.

How I see my own body is a little different. Our bodies do develop in two different directions depending on your exposure to hormones (which isn’t necessarily directly linked to your chromosomes). Even in a genderless society I would have wanted hormone treatment, but there would be no painful social transition. I am less concerned with abolishing human cultural diversity of expression than I am with abolishing restriction of which bodies are allowed to adopt what expressions. How you express yourself should be your choice alone.

I think if I were born in a male body, even if I felt feminine, I would just stay in that body for the perks of being a man, and I guess act “normatively” in work and etc and then be my possibly obviously feminine self in my own time with people who aren’t douches and probably not want to go through all that surgery, hormones, not “passing” harassment and whatever else y’all have to go through just to get to the place where I will be treated like a second class citizen for not being male. I realise you must see a reason in it or you wouldn’t do it, so it must give you something, but I see nothing to be gained by being imprisoned in a female body and subjugated to men by society in general. What’s the deal?

Being a trans woman has nothing inherently to do with femininity. I understand where you’re coming from though because it is a very common stereotype of trans women. Gender identity (woman, man, neither, gender queer, etc) and gender expression (feminine, masculine, androgynous, etc) are completely different aspects of being human. There is absolutely no reason to assume all trans women were “feminine boys”. I myself was pretty gender neutral and androgynous for much of my life.

We all know cis women with all sorts of gender expressions. In our culture gender expression and sexuality is also often mixed together. I have feminine lesbian friends who aren’t always believed when they say they are lesbians because they’re “too feminine”. Likewise I know masculine women who are assumed to be lesbians, but aren’t. Gay men suffer the same expectations of stereotypical behaviour, and so do trans men and women.

For trans* people this stereotyping is strengthened by the way we have been treated by the medical profession when we have wanted to access medical transition. There has often been, and still is in for instance my country, certain restrictions on this access. In my country access is still limited by the assumption that only people who behave in certain stereotypical ways are “true transsexuals” and therefore have the right to hormone therapy and surgery. This is a highly misguided approach deeply rooted in outdated sexist and cissexist stereotypes.

p.s. I’ve read some nasty radfem comments saying very offensive things to transwomen and I want you to know even tho i subscribe to radical feminist viewpoints – as is my understanding of feminism based on my personal experiences of sexism as a born female – I can accept that a transperson, having different experienced may have different viewpoints based on them, and I think they may be valid to me and feminism in general not just trans people, I want to learn to be a better feminist, I have no ill will toward transwomen, I’ve never even really met any. Sorry if my question isn’t tactful, but i just find getting straight to my confusion will enable someone to get straight to an answer – if y’all choose to answer me that is, I don’t think it’s your job to educate me, but google isnt gettin me the info I seek and I was just hoping, from feminist to feminist, you’d talk to me. Thanks.

The transphobia and cissexism from certain individuals that label themselves feminists is often based on critique of a caricature of trans women, i.e. based in stereotypes, and not in the actual diversity of the transgender community. The claim that we uphold traditional gender roles and gender stereotypes is based in a lack of knowledge, wilful or otherwise, of actual trans* people and our life stories.

Sure, there are trans women who conform to society’s expectations of women. So does a large number of cis women, and a lot of feminists. To require a higher standard of gender non-conformity of trans women is a double standard and quite unreasonable. I do actually find trans* people to display a much larger diversity in gender expression and gender identity than the rest of society though. That shouldn’t be surprising given that we have to fight these gender roles and expectations every single step of the way, and for large parts of our lives. That also explains, in my opinion, why so many trans* people are feminists.

Many trans* people do find comfort in traditional gender roles too. How each of us adapt to surviving in this highly gender segregated world varies greatly. Some of us become rebels, some of us don’t. To demand all of us fight on the barricades is an unreasonable demand, especially given how much many of us had to fight on a personal level, often against our own families and loved ones, to get anywhere at all.

* * *

Yes, transitioning has made me have to face the sexism of society. The sexual harassment has taken the longest to learn to deal with. For example on the 10 hour flight I had three weeks ago I was stuck beside a drunk married guy that kept propositioning me and at some point asked me to go with him to the rest room to give him a BJ. As a consequence of being seated next to him I didn’t sleep for a second during the entire flight. The asshole was completely oblivious to how incredibly uncomfortable he made me feel.

The bullshit I have to face as a woman wasn’t even on my mind when I decided I had to transition. I did enjoy male privilege when playing the male role though. I was a feminist before I transitioned, and learned about women’s challenges through listening to other women, but it is completely different experiencing this first hand. I have avoided most of the additional transphobia a lot of trans* people face because people tend to assume I’m cis (passing privilege), so my load of intersectional discrimination is lesser than what it could have been. But, yes, I have exposed myself to more discrimination by coming out, and the difference is absolutely noticeable and affects my every day life.

Every single trans* person have to weigh the pros and cons of all this. The truth is that we have no idea up front how things will play out. You have no idea in advance how people will treat you. You also have no idea how well hormones will work for you. Age is a clue, but mostly it’s anyone’s guess. How well your body, after a year or two on hormones, conforms to society’s expectation of how a person of your gender is supposed to look like, is a gamble. I know several trans women who changed their mind and wanted to go back because it really was too hard. They usually change their mind due to the way society treats them though, and not because of regretting the transition on a personal level. That makes me sad.

So yes, you do have a point about the shit society throws at you whether it is for being a woman or visibly trans or both. Being a person of colour on top of being a trans woman puts you at the very top of the list of people at risk of violent hate crimes, yet these women still choose to transition.

The core issue here is much deeper than a simple choice. I have no say in who I am. I have no say in how the society I was born into functions. All I have a say in is how I choose to act within it based on who I truly am, and how I want to help fighting the limitations society puts on me and others. The solution is not to have people hide who they are, but for all of us to challenge the structures in society, to the best of our ability, that prevents all of us from being ourselves. Intersectional feminism is essential in this fight, and has been hugely important in the progress our society has made over the last couple of centuries.

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    1. kathy stevenson says:

      when you ask why does a transwoman transition youre inadvertently disaknowledging her as a woman, youre assuming that every trans woman at some point indulges in male privilege and identity recognition,and you cant do that because to bring childhood where gender issues can already be sort of vague into it is a bit complicated and introduces a bevy of intricacies that arent the simplest to decypher. Some trans women have already been women inside and identify that way,and despite what you think, face horrible prejudice that cannot be affiliated with a twisted form of male identity privilege due to their inner state,rather remotely reflected by appearance or not being evident to society. any woman or man who asks why a trans woman would transition because of this or that in a male dominated society is assuming that that trans woman has or would be able to function in a way where theyre appearing as or operating as a man and thats not the case for many trans women. some trans women have lived as men and been husbands and been married,some have been male porn stars and thats great but you have no right to liken them with the whole of such a wide demographic because its like snowflakes and no two are exactly alike and then you have some trans women who since childhood have identified as girls,and havent allowed themselves to be portrayed as boys or partake in male activity, and theyve faced ridicule and scrutiny because of it. when you see a person like that and you lump them into this category of being this “guy whos making a choice to transition into being a girl” its short sided,ignorant and very insensitive. you have to understand that its not a choice to some people,its innate and a part of their identity. you effectively saying shes not really a woman and youre asking her why she as a foreigner to womanhood has chosen to step into the pool of womanhood,because perhaps you see it as a “choice” that comes with persecution and smaller amounts of rights. in reality a true transwoman does not make that “choice” because its born in them and they didnt “choose” anything of the sort, theyre already a woman and actually its painful for society to address them as something they are not,a guy and so the physical “transition” you witness is simply a secondary reflex of action to compliment what is already in place,the trans woman being a woman inside. theres alot of people who at the end of the day might be men who are simply confused,maybe their mother didnt treat them right maybe theyve given up on their manhood because their buddy beat them up or something whatever the case….but to a small several there are such things as women in bodies that they cant identify with,and those women are not obligated to answer to or explain to any OTHER women,trans or not or any men who would assume fraudulence identity and its also very low and cruel for the world to constantly put them under intense scrutiny. that answer in no way is attacking the author because she seems to have simply wrote an inquisitive article,but some people really should become more familiar with the idea that being transgender isnt a choice but is actually a societal label to address somebody who is probably born not identifying with their body not everybody is a husband with four kids and an a wife getting overwhelmed in a midlife crisis and choosing to grow breasts. some people are simply aiding the outside to reflect the inside of who they are

    2. Veronica says:

      Hi Kathy!

      It is a little hard to follow what you’re trying to say, but this post is a response to a person asking all these questions about why a trans woman transitions. The whole point of my response is to highlight why many of the assumptions that underpin these questions do not make sense from a trans* person’s perspective. I’m not sure if this is directed at me or the person asking the question in the first place. It’s a little unclear. I feel much of what you’re saying is already covered in what I wrote, so I’m not sure where all this is coming from.

      One of the question she’s asking in the email is why trans women want to leave male privilege behind instead of acting “normative”. So that is the main scenario I am addressing, and it is absolutely a valid one as a lot of trans women have gone through trying to live the normative male role. That does in no way make us less women and our gender identity less persistent or valid. It’s a survival strategy in a cisnormative and bigoted world.

      Male privilege comes from the outside, not the inside. People put you in a box based on who they perceive you to be, not who you are. If I am closeted about my trans* status and am very good at hiding it, there may be no cost in terms of privilege. Of course many do not have that history, and have been openly trans* since childhood. That is not the group of trans women I’m talking about because it is not what the person is asking. There’s absolutely plenty of trans women around who’ve never enjoyed male privilege and have been raised as girls since childhood, and who face a lot of discrimination because of it. There’s also a lot of people who fall somewhere in between these outer points. Everyone’s story is different, but there’s also a lot of things that many of us have in common.

      What I find most problematic about your comment is that you assume I’m saying some trans women’s identities are less valid or true than others. You also seem to imply this may be true, which I strongly disagree with. No matter what your story is, it doesn’t make your gender identity more or less valid. How your life unfolds as a trans* person is greatly dependant on the people around you and how much freedom you have to be yourself. If I grew up in an environment conscious and supportive of transgender children I would most likely have socially transitioned in my early teenages, Instead I didn’t even know trans* people existed until I was 15, and was still trying to conform to my very conservative community for another two decades. Our environment is in my opinion a major factor in how our stories unfold, and none of this makes any shred of difference to who I was born as and who I am. Nor anyone else.

    3. Niaw says:

      To put it simply, the pain caused by the gender identity mismatch is far, far greater than the potential pain of living as a woman in a sexist society.

    4. Lisa says:

      I have read the above article a couple of times to see if I misunderstood something, but alas I did not. Firstly let me identify myself as a trans-woman. The part that I disagree with is “yet these women still choose to transition.” I believe that we do not choose to transition, we are chosen. If I did not or could not transition I would have died. It is a compulsion. I have spoken to many other trans women both socially & professionally (I am a physician). The story is the same. They had to do it. It is NOT a choice.

    5. Veronica says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment.

      If you read again you’ll notice that the sentence leads me to the concluding paragraph stating: “The core issue here is much deeper than a simple choice. I have no say in who I am. I have no say in how the society I was born into functions. All I have a say in is how I choose to act within it based on who I truly am, and how I want to help fighting the limitations society puts on me and others.”

      As you can see I am not saying this is all a simple choice. You do actually have to make an active decision to transition since transition requires action. It was a choice I struggled personally with for a decade. To say there is no element of choice in there is to erase an important part of my own history. I did have to make a choice between setting myself free or be miserable for the rest of my life. I also had to make the choice whether I wanted to face the risks of transition. My text is discussing the pros and cons of this choice, and I don’t find it meaningful to not call it a choice. Life saving and life preserving decisions are still choices.

      I do, as you can see, go one to say that these choices are not fundamentally changing who I am. I was always transgender or gender queer. It’s no different than being LGB and having no choice in your sexual orientation, but still having to make the choice to come out.

    6. Maria says:

      After reading all the comments here I must say that I agree with both perspectives, It is a choice that we make to transition and one that I struggled with for a few years myself because of the family I already have through trying to conform to the views already mentioned and this next bit is strictly my opinion and views on this but in my opinion although it was a choice I feel it is sort of like what the oracle said in the matrix… although it was a choice it was one that I had made before I understood the question and the years of struggle was more me trying to understand why I had made that choice.

      I am currently transitioning now and while I may not understand the full spectrum of the degree of sexism towards women from personal experience I know I personally would not have it any other way, I would rather deal with sexist pigs than to look in the mirror and see a stranger looking back at me any longer… i would take any level of discrimination to prevent going through this any longer.

      So to sum up what I have said in my opinion I personally may have had a choice but it was more lengthy to understand and come out about why I had made that choice than to make that choice before I was 5 yo but that is just my opinion any way ;)

    7. claire says:

      i think that people should be able to be who ever they want to be if people can’t deal with it then it is their problem

    8. Veronica says:

      Well, let’s not get into a lengthy philosophical debate about free will, and possibly about destiny (which is a concept I personally don’t believe in) :)

      But the point I was making, and what Maria seems to be saying too, is that potential future sexism isn’t exactly the main concern when we start transition. It is something you may be aware of, but ultimately something you discover, much like any other woman does.

      The original question comes from a position of privilege, of not having to deal with the issues that dominate our lives before transitioning. To her the issue of facing sexism is a big one, relatively speaking, while to us it may not even be on our mind. This is also clear in that she thinks staying in the male role we were assigned is trivial and much easier than facing potential sexism. That only shows how far she is from understanding our perspective. Fair enough. Only after transitioning have I started to understand a bit of what cis people feel when body and gender identity are more or less in agreement.

      It’s kind of weird to no longer have those feelings that I’ve struggled with for most of my life. The lack of pain actually leaves a hole where it used to be. My first reaction is a sense of loss, until I realise what I lost: a lot of pain. It is why transition actually is so effective and necessary for many of us. It’s something very few understand, and some refuse to understand.

    9. Annabelle says:

      Thanks for a great article. One question I think might be interesting to ask this woman is, given the option, which is possible in this society, and given that you think being a woman is so disadvantageous, would you consider transition to being a man? Don’t you think the extra privilege and advantage of presenting as male would be worth giving up your womanhood? Because this is the core of the question. She hasn’t considered transition and will not because she is gendered female (just like a trans woman) and therefore the biological imperatives behind that far outweigh any perceived advantages of being the opposite sex.

    10. Fiona says:

      Very good article. One has very little idea of what one is getting oneself into at the start of transition but there are rewards to following your path.

    11. Maria says:

      I just want to add to my earlier post after reading Veronica most recent post… I am in agreement that philosophical debate would be overly lengthy… so what I want to add is with the sexism issues that the lady was asking about… I feel it is easy to see sexism as a single sided coin especially for cis -gendered but it is far more fluid than that and most trans people get a unique perspective of this having lived as both genders at one point or another… sexism goes both ways and men are subjected to as much sexism stick from both men and women as women face from men and women.

      Unfortunately we live in a world where both genders have views and opinions on the other and themselves that have been there for thousands of years and that is hard to break away from, yes after transition we will most likely face sexism that women have experienced for years but we were dealing with the male side of that before transition along with all the issues that come with being in the wrong body… and with that in mind is it really harder to live in the body we are rather than the body that is viewed to be easier, i personally don’t think it is… but as was said before each of us is different and need to make that choice for ourselves based on the information we have.

      But to finish I just want to reinforce that for myself at least no matter how much sexism and discrimination I knew or did not know I would face after it would not have influenced my decision because in the end it all came down to who I am inside and who I need to be outside dealing with the sexism is just an unfortunate byproduct I would have faced all my life had I been born right.

    12. Amiee says:

      I think my problem with the question of why do Trans women transition is because it logically assumes that men experience privilege the same way, and also experience the desire, or should experience the desire to retain it.

      I know that the thought that men experience privilege the same is not true.

      It isn’t wrong to ask though. It cannot be wrong to ask. But I love the discussion in the comments.

      What I dislike is that there is an argument about whether Trans reassignment is a choice or a need. It shouldn’t have to be an all consuming need that the patient must show the increasing detrimental effect of not having reassignment before they should get it. Choice or need. Everyone should be able to express their gender however they chose.

      I understand why there is an argument. People feel belittled, devalued and sometimes I worry it really isn’t our (cisgendered) place to ponder.

    13. Kim Schicklang says:

      To say, that trans*-women are on the one side and cis*-women on the other is sexism, babe (cause you divide via body-parts). If you talk about being “other” that “others” and define yourself via the non-being the other and try to describe it too with “gender identity” then it is the opposite of feminism.

      The concept of being “trans*” (and to see yourself as being part of a different sex race) is the failure. As long as there are rules how women should act (“gender expression”) or bodys of women should look like to be seen as “real” (and “biological” women) there would be unequality between the sexes.

      In the last years women who are born as girls with masculinized body-parts (transsexual!) had been defined as “gender idenity disorderes” “gender dysphoric” people with a “gender variance” aso. This is the mainpart of male suppression of women.

      I am a woman. I had been born with masculinized bodyparts. I am transsexual. But I am not “Trans*”. I am myself.

    14. Juli-Ann. says:

      When you are a trans person, and the world shoves gendered sexist assumptions and expectations apon you it is really a struggle, enough of a struggle to often commit suicide in a world you feel you have no place in.
      Being a trans femme child was really difficult my mom saw me as a femme child she taught me that private parts are private, and to be aware of men who may want to prey on me, and they did.
      I was not raised like a boy. I was raised as a femme trans kid.
      Other boys and girls often objectified and sexualized my body at a young age,
      Name calling, and sexually harassing me, ” come on suck it”/jock boys.
      The girl’s were better we would hangout.
      I never experienced male privileges, I was seen as week, and feminineby everyone@ school,even the medical community, it was like they were a wolf pack preying on the smallest and weakest.
      That’s my experience so if that’s a privilege? I clearly do not see it as one.

    15. aaniki says:

      You are very brave. I’m a woman. I’m a bit androgyne, I’m not feminine, but I still feel like a woman, but because of being a bit “manly”, people assume I’m lesbian. And sometimes I wish I as, all men I’ve known are so chauvinist and close minded and they treat you like shit if you wanna make them feel good in bed. I’m serious.

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