I love that in this cultural moment when we’re fixated on bathrooms, Laverne Cox is taking on the issue of transgender beauty, as detailed in a recent Daily Beast article.
Regarding the rallying cry “Trans Is Beautiful,” Laverne explained, “All the things that make me uniquely and beautifully trans — my big hands, my big feet, my wide shoulders, my deep voice — all of these things are beautiful. I’m not beautiful despite these things. I’m beautiful because of them.”
It’s a brave and wonderful thing to say, but it’s simply not true. Laverne and Janet and Caitlyn are considered “beautiful” by the dominant cultural precisely because they do tend to fit with cisgender aesthetic standards.
To the degree that we approximate them, they are willing to consider us attractive (and sadly, too many us are then willing to so consider ourselves).
As Laverne herself noted when she explained that fans who call her “gorgeous” really mean “that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards … [ones which] many trans folks will never be able to embody.”
The emergence of a truly transgender aesthetic, a way of really valuing profoundly genderqueer bodies, does not lie on any nearby horizon.
In fact, the malevolence of cisgender aesthetic hegemony is nearly universal. Almost every trans person experiences it at some point — some of us daily. At times it is actively toxic, people calling us freaks, snickering at our looks, or publicly calling out that “dude in a dress.”
All of this is meant to make us ashamed of how we look — which means being ashamed of not looking like them. Just as often, this hegemony is casually poisonous, even superficially tolerant — the women at my gym who look away when I enter the changing room; those in my yoga class who pointedly look right through me but smile to acknowledge other women. No, I don’t look like you. I shouldn’t need to.
It even takes the form of the cis-sies’ never-ending pronoun assaults on trans people — not just repeatedly referring to us by the wrong pronoun (and of course never bothering to inquire about the correct one), but sometimes even continuing to use the wrong one, even when we correct them.
This kind of behavior is not organized, but it is intentional. This is what a culture looks like when it polices its own standards against those who threaten it; it ostracizes, it ridicules, and it insistently mislabels. In other words, at every juncture, it controls and owns the discourse about attractiveness. It is up to us to fit in.
These are tactics also used by the dominant culture with people of color, people who identify as fat, those whose bodies are differently abled — in fact, the entire aesthetic zoo of those outside traditional standards for “attractiveness.”
So no, Laverne, I don’t think that what you call your “big hands,” “big feet,” and “wide shoulders” are why the cis-sies find you lovely; I think it is largely in spite of them. The fact that you even have to list these attributes shows that they are neither accepted nor acceptable. You may find yourself lovely because of them, and I might as well — but I doubt your cisgender audience does. It is no accident that three outspoken women who have emerged as our community spokestrans at this moment can all be seen as fitting conventional cisgender standards of beauty.
I love that they look how they do. I honor it — along with their courage and political chops. But I do not mistake their popularity for the emergence of a transgender-friendly aesthetic. We will know when it happens, when actors who look visibly, undeniably genderqueer are front and center.
Perhaps naturally, most of those just beginning to emerge in this space are seen as trans males, like model Rain Dove — because such models with “softer” features are less threatening to mainstream audiences (it also doesn’t hurt if you have cheekbones God would kill for). But I think it’s helpful to continue to name and shame just what we’re up against. Personally, I track what cis-sies present as absurd and ridiculous when it comes to gendered bodies, because such images are highly instructive on the boundaries of their aesthetic tolerance and what places they simply will and will not let trans people go. One telling example was widely disseminated by Hooters in its campaign to highlight why it should not be sued for sex discrimination for not hiring males.
Hooters officials used a very hairy, heavyset man posed seductively in short shorts and a low-cut top to make what I’m sure they thought was a killing point — what could be more ridiculous, even revolting? This is the kind of perpetual and quietly malevolent gender warfare that cisgender culture enacts against trans self-respect and self-acceptance every day.
So yes, they let a few of us in.
But the rest of us who are profoundly genderqueer, who go well beyond the boundaries of any possible cisgender notions of attractiveness, who refuse to go back in the closet or to try to pass, and who challenge the aesthetic standards not only imposed upon us but used to shame and degrade and marginalize us — we struggle every day to have our lives and bodies and whatever quiet sort of elusive beauty we might possess acknowledged.