(Trigger Warning: This post quotes hateful/transphobic language at points.)
Being a young transitioner I’ve gone through a couple of fairly common rites of passage in my quest to live life as myself. One is, of course, TSRoadmap which has acted a sort of bible for transition; information compiled in one place that can help a broad cross section of the community. The other is Lynn Conway’s well known website, the centrepiece of which is the TS Woman Successes page, which is something even I’ve linked to others.
The younger ones among us with the privilege of a steady internet connection have probably used these sites in one way or another and we may, perhaps, even remember them fondly in the same way one looks back with a smile at a beloved first grade teacher. That is certainly my own feeling. To Andrea James in particular, I feel I owe a great debt as her website was one of the first I encountered on this issue and helped me feel less alone. Without TSRoadmap, which I still link on this blog, things might well have gone a lot slower for me.
Yet in time I came to realise something about both websites. They are definitely, at best, 101 sites and not perfect authorities. They are also very much a narrow perspective on the full spectrum of trans women’s experiences, especially in the case of Lynn Conway’s website, which much to my consternation, I came to have serious problems with as I delved into it. Both websites represent the perspectives of perhaps the most privileged group of trans women, white and upper class. I do not deny that both sites are incredibly useful, and to a trans woman who was just getting started I’d still link them.
Yet I cannot get over my supreme discomfort with Ms. Conway’s website as I think it broadcasts some rather unpleasant and demeaning messages that I’m quite confident trans women do not need to hear. Today I’m going to go through my reasoning on this, with all due respect to Ms. Conway and the work she’s done.
One thing that will often be pointed out in the activist community is that both Ms. Conway and Ms. James still insist on using the term MTF to describe trans women, a crude bit of argot that does tend to reinforce the idea that we were at some point essentially male. That doesn’t quite jive with the experiences of many trans women, including many of the ordinary people whose stories are given prominent space on both sites. This isn’t a simple matter of political correctness (a subject to which I’ll return in a later column) but simply of correctness. There are exceptions, of course, where some transsexual women will identify differently, but in the main one should never presume an innate male identity for a trans woman, and the language of “MTF” or “M2F” should just be ditched. It’s nothing a simple FAQ couldn’t clear up.
But the much deeper problem has to do with Ms. Conway’s views on trans women’s body image, and it borders on body fascism, quite frankly.
The first stop on our tour here will be her SRS warnings page which is actually quite useful. It does pay to make sure one is truly ready, mind body and soul, for gender confirmation surgery and it could be instructive to consider a few examples of people who had these surgeries but ultimately regretted it. Conway does not quote these people for the insidious purposes malefactors like Julie Bindel do (i.e. to undermine and delegitimise us), rather she does so to make sure that any trans woman considering surgery is fully informed.
What troubles me is Conway’s commentary.
The first story she recites is that of Renee Richards, the famous tennis player who in her later years has infamously been quoted as saying some rather demeaning and damaging things about other trans women. Hers is, perhaps, a worthwhile story to tell here but Conway’s psychological commentary gets into some very bizarre territory:
“Part of Renée’s problem with public acceptance, and possibly (though unconsciously) with her own inner self-acceptance, was undoubtedly her unusual facial structure. She had a very feminine, well-toned and attractive body, and must have thought of herself as being very beautiful. She sought media attention at every turn, and her photos were widely disseminated. Unfortunately, she never seemed to realize that she had a very prominent male brow-bulge and large male jaw and chin.”
As I read this I couldn’t help but boggle. Does she even realise what she’s saying and what she’s speculating on?
A bit of background is in order: Conway and James are both major proponents of facial feminisation surgery. They believe that if you have problems “passing” you can make them all go away with a trip to a plastic surgeon. To some extent they are correct that adding female gender cues to one’s face may allow one to gain conditional cissexual privilege more easily, and there is some truth to Andrea James’ assertion that “passing is from the neck up.”
But at the same time, Conway’s nigh-on religious advocacy delves into insulting territory on this website and she starts to sound like a mad barber as she analyses (often very cruelly) the faces of trans women. What is most irksome to me is that both women, but Conway in particular, seem to ignore the fact that many cis women have ‘masculine’ facial features and structures. The kind of scrutiny they may receive for it is a source of huge insecurity for women, whether cis or trans, and Conway’s offensive commentary does little to help that body image problem.
Whatever Richards’ sins in later life may have been, to dismiss her face as ‘unusual’ is incredibly insulting, and to say that she “never seemed to realise” certain things about her face is equally so.
I see myself in the mirror every single day. I am very aware of the fact that I have a slight bossed brow and that my jaw line is a bit more square than that of the average woman’s. Very. Very. Aware. It is an uphill battle to fight the impulse to see myself as lesser, or as not womanly enough because of this. It is a heinous intersection of the body image problems that are heaped on all Western women by the media, and the transmisogynist element of tying one’s womanhood to their ability to “pass.”
I’ve little doubt Renee Richards was aware too.
For Conway to feed this insecurity, especially when many of the people reading her site might be young women who could ill afford such surgeries, is the height of irresponsibility.
Further down, Ms. Conway relates the case of Dani Bunten Berry, who regretted her SRS and wrote an essay on the subject. Conway’s thoughts are extensive and she speculates on whether Ms. Berry was a crossdresser who might’ve been happier without the surgery and in the final diagnosis says the following:
“Dani would threfore have been much better advised by her counselors to undergo FFS to correct her very masculine facial structure…”
That this is the first thing she writes is annoying enough. That she seems contradicted by the very picture she herself posted of Ms. Berry just makes it maddening. Berry does not have what I would consider to be a singularly ‘masculine’ facial structure.
But I know that to argue this point with Conway is to miss the point and play her game of turning these people into objects to pore over as if they were lifeless sculptures. To do so to Ms. Berry, who passed away in 1998, seems particularly disrespectful. How Ms. Conway could objectify them so is beyond me.
It is also worth looking at the language: “correct” her facial structure. I believe that if one undergoes FFS it should be a matter of choice. Not one of ‘correction’. Trans women have to fight for years to overcome the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with them, even after coming out, and even after having lived as themselves for many years; then Ms. Conway drops that kind of bomb, implying that, yes my dear, there is something intrinsically wrong with you.
In the end Ms. Conway says this:
“In cases where serious difficulties are expected in social transition, it might be wise to give FFS priority over SRS, because FFS has a much more profound effect on the reactions of others to one’s transition.”
After all this I’m tempted to use the FFS acronym in a different context.
Ms. Conway and her supporters might argue that I am being overly idealistic and unrealistic. That, gee, it would be nice if women could be comfortable in their bodies no matter what, but we have to adapt to the fact that people will judge trans women based on their faces and it’s best if we cater to it.
I post a lot on the aggregator/link voting site Reddit and I came across a thread not too long ago where someone linked to a lovely little game on some website called “Spot the Transgender.” You can see where this is going. The link was to a website that showed ten pictures of Thai women and you had to guess which were trans and which were “real women” as everyone termed it. To say this was an orgy of objectifying hate would be an understatement, but reading the comments was instructive in a grim way.
A lot of the men (and 98% of the people who commented were males) went through their thought processes, proudly telling everyone how they did it and spotted the “men” or the “fakes” or the “trannies”. I quote their othering language to give you an idea of where they’re coming from as these are the kinds of people Conway ostensibly seeks to mollify by frogmarching us into an FFS surgeon’s office.
Guess what? They weren’t looking so much at the faces.
Hands, hips, shoulders, thighs, belly buttons were all mentioned more than facial elements, although a few people brought up things like “creepy smiles” or jaw shape. But the point is that what they were using to objectify and other us were taking parts of the kathoey women’s bodies that could not be “corrected” (to use Ms. Conway’s stupid term) with some kind of surgery.
You could argue that the comment section here had a sampling bias because everyone was told in advance that there would be trans women in the photo gallery, but the point is that if they do not objectify your face, they will objectify the rest of you. One even said that trans women will probably have “ bigger boobs” than cis women.
I am quite sorry, but I’m not going to go under the knife to please these macho, bigoted jerks and as much of a fight as it can be to keep this in mind: I know I’m beautiful. Among the people who matter, I have been told that. Frankly, I’ll go with what my heart says and what those who care about me say rather than what these monsters do. If they know I’m trans, they’ll work overtime to objectify my body no matter how many surgeries I’ve had.
Even when my status isn’t known, I’ve received enough ogles, enough up-and-down looks, enough stares, enough wolf whistles to know I’m being objectified already. I will not do a damn thing, nor spend one cent to please those people, and other trans women should not be guilted or cajoled into doing so either.
This worship of a cis female standard of beauty is particularly pernicious and harmful to trans women, but it does not affect only us. When I see cis models mocked for “looking like trannies” or Ann Coulter being routinely taunted as Man Coulter, or countless cis women berated for thick eyebrows, extraneous facial hairs, square jaw lines, adam’s apples, or any other features that can be plucked out to mock them with, I see where the problem’s source lies: fundamental misogyny. All women are measured very harshly against these models of Ur femininity and are often told they are deficient if they don’t meet that standard; the entire “you look like a man” bullshit meme is part and parcel of the same phenomenon. The idea that you don’t look enough like a particular standard of feminine beauty and you are lesser as a result comes from that.
I’m not saying “don’t ever get FFS.” I am saying don’t do it for the wrong reasons.
I’ll continue this at a later date as there’s more to be discussed about Ms. Conway’s thinking about post-transition trans women that I feel is somewhat harmful and projects too much of her own experience.