A version of this article was originally written for a local feminist zine themed around sex.
The poster I see is on the London Underground, but I later find out they’re part of a wide campaign backed in part by the National Health Service. On the poster is a photograph of a person’s face that, due to the limitations of our language, is all too easily described as “masculine”. This individual is wearing somewhat exaggerated make-up: bright blue eye-shadow, bright red lipstick, and a heavy layer of foundation that’s clearly covering up an extensive five o’ clock shadow. Said make-up is quite heavily smeared.
“If you drink like a man”, the poster declares, “you might end up looking like one.”
Although the model used in the photograph may well be a man, this poster is hardly a reassuring one for women with a “masculine” appearance. “If you’re a woman who looks like a man”, it says, “you’re a skanky whore who drinks too much”. Needless to say, this is a pretty misogynistic message. As a post on the F-Word points out, it relies on narrow and incredibly stereotypical ideals of beauty and gendered norms of acceptable behaviour.
But there’s a further subtext to this poster, and a pretty blatant one at that. “If you drink”, declares an advertising campaign that was apparently “approved” by various equality bodies, “you’ll end up looking like a dirty, ugly tranny*, and then how are you gonna get laid, huh?”
And this is the crux of the issue, and it’s why I’ve been pretty pissed off every time I’ve seen one of these bloody posters. They’re just a tiny, tiny part of the message that can be found on billboards, in magazines, in the cinema, on the television, in newspapers, in books, and in even in freakin’ academic papers. It’s quite a simple message, and it runs as follows: transsexed women are deeply unattractive and undesirable.
I understand where this idea is coming from. Trans women tend to have lived as men (or at least as boys) for some part of their life, and what’s more undesirable than a man? Hell, she might still have a penis. That’s disgusting. What kind of red-blooded male could possibly want to bed one of them? (Since we’re talking larger societal trends here, it is of course men who are supposed to sleep with women…what are you, some kind of lezzer?)
Actually, scrap that last point. This is an issue which is prevalent in the so-called LGBT community as well. Whilst it’s true that not every daughter of Lesbos is a card-carrying separatist who annually attends the Michigan Festival for Womyn-born-Womyn, I’d wager that the majority of gay women – and even a large proportion of bisexual women – are a bit funny about the idea of being attracted to a trans woman, let alone sleeping with one. It’s pretty telling after all that the one trans character in The L Word (that seminal piece of lesbionic television) is a trans man, ‘cos it’s the lady bits and tits that count, innit? The actress who plays him is even made up deliberately to look like a pretty (if slightly butch) woman on the DVD covers. What a cheek.
It took me a fair while to become confident in my own sexuality. Some of that was down to my own body image and related issues, but the media bombardment (“you’re ugly! No one will ever love you!”) hardly helped, and neither did the attitudes of people around me. If a girl’s a bit ugly or has a radical dress sense, she might “look like a tranny”. That, of course, is meant to be an insult.
Regressive stereotypes obviously play their part in this. After all, in this very image-obsessed culture with its very limited repertoire of available attractive body types, why would any self-respecting straight man or gay woman accept their attraction to a woman who looks like a man? (this is, of course, assuming that said man or woman is gracious enough to accept a trans woman’s gender identity in the first place). It’s an attitude that goes beyond image though: if you were to present our disappointingly average straight man (and our gay woman) with a trans woman who conformed to society’s ideals of an attractive female body, they’re still likely to be wary. Once a woman is known to be transsexed, her appearance often becomes irrelevant as gender essentialism and/or misguided homophobia comes into play: she’s innately unattractive.
In an impressive twist, this can even happen retrospectively, with a trans woman becoming hideously ugly after someone has had sex with her if they found out she’s transsexed (or: if the person she slept with already knew and was trying to keep it quiet, but then someone else finds out that a bit of rumpy-pumpy occurred between the two). This kind of idiocy would be hilarious, if not for the treatment trans women get as a result of this. There’s even an exciting legal manoeuvre known as the “trans panic” defence, whereby the defendant attempts to excuse a transphobic assault or murder by claiming that after having sex with the victim, they “panicked” upon discovering that they’d done the dirty with a trans person.
It’s at this point in the article that I realise things are getting a bit depressing. Let’s face it, this kind of bullshit isn’t particularly pleasant. It’s not a lot of fun knowing that these attitudes are highly prevalent. I’m fortunate enough to “look just like any other woman” (whatever that means), which is all very well and good for ensuring that I don’t get beaten up on the street, but I’m perfectly aware that I’m not meant to be sexually desirable to, like, anyone. This situation is a lot worse for trans women who find it harder to pass as cis women; no wonder the trans community often places so much undue emphasis on looking like “normal people”. It certainly makes life easier if you happen to do so.
But you know what? Fuck ’em.**
Trans people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I’ve been talking a lot about transsexed women, but there’s also transvestites, genderqueer people (who might not necessarily consider themselves to be female or male), genderfluid individuals whose identities regularly shift, and a whole spectrum of gender diversity under the trans umbrella. We all tend to look quite different, act quite different, have different interests and ideas and aims and projects, but we’re all bloody gorgeous.
That’s not just my stubborn pride talking either. There are those trans people who do, in fact, conform to societal ideals of beauty. As for those who don’t: in many queer circles, androgyny and gendered ambiguity are highly valued (and the actual gender identity of said androgynous individual is usually respected, regardless of whether that identity is female, male, or something entirely different). In butch/femme lesbian communities, extremely “masculine” woman are often considered to be incredibly hot. We’re all attracted to different people in different ways. I’m pretty certain that there are straight men out there who fancy heavily built women, gay men who fancy men with vaginas, straight women who can handle androgyny. There’s also a good reason why trans men are sometimes fetishised by lesbians and shemale porn is consumed by many, although I’d prefer for that attraction to be there without us being reduced to mere sex objects.
Still, for all our supposed undesirability, I find it pretty telling that most trans people I know are in a happy relationship with someone who’s also pretty damn attractive. Actually, a lot of the trans people I know have several partners; I figure once you’ve dealt with society’s disapproval of your gender identity, you don’t tend to give a crap what others think about ethical, negotiated polamory. By contrast, I personally happen to be a serial monogamist, but to each their own, y’know?
People who have serious body image issues can find someone who has the hots for them. These individuals aren’t deluding themselves in the slightest. The real lie is in societal norms of acceptable attractiveness, but sexual attraction can’t always be restrained by those norms.
And we have a lot of fun sex too. Vanilla sex, kinky sex, gay sex, straight sex; I’m talking everything from straightforward sex to really weird sex. We’ve all got our own ways of negotiating desire, identity and our own bodies. Some trans people just don’t care and will go at it any old how. Others will throw essentialism out the window and redefine their own bodies. I know pre-operative trans women who describe their genitals as a large clitoris; I know non-operative trans women who describe their penis as a penis. It’s just, y’know, a girl penis. It’s on a girl’s body after all, so what else could it be? Meanwhile some trans people are asexual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t enjoy happy love hugs.
Quite frankly, a bet a whole load of women would love to be as confident and good looking as I am. I’ve got a pretty face, great hair, fantastic legs, and I’ve recently grown some rather shapely breasts (going through puberty during your twenties is a pretty weird experience, but better late than never!) I’m in a long-term relationship with a sensitive, caring, bloody handsome man, and we have awesome funtimes.
Do you look like a transsexual this morning? No? Well, unlucky. You’re missing out.
* I deliberately use this word only in a sarcastic fashion. It’s a loaded term and can be deeply offensive, so please think carefully about any context in which you use it.
** Actually, don’t fuck them. Find someone else who actually deserves a good shag, and do them instead.