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Wearing dresses when you’re trans is about survival not sass

As Hari Nef says, we use feminine aesthetics in order to be recognised by the world as women – because we have to

“Men are scary pigs and patriarchy is real” Hari Nef declares about half way through her recent TED Talk, ‘#FreeTheFemme’. It is a bold statement and one that receives cheers from the audience. It is a searing truth that should unite all feminists, but it comes in the midst of a video in which Nef attempts (and achieves very successfully, in my opinion) to contradict discussion around one of the most uncomfortable fault lines in feminism – the divide between those who see trans women’s feminism as genuinely capable of challenging patriarchy and those who argue trans women’s existence (and their appearance) is inherently upholding patriarchy by recreating old feminine stereotypes.

To those unfamiliar with this “debate” it may seem like a trivial topic but for me and no doubt thousands of other trans feminine people, Nef’s talk is a much-needed breath of fresh air. The feminist Germaine Greer said in 2009: “nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women's names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn't polite to say so.

On the contrary, Germaine, people never stop going on about how much we seem like parodies. I am regularly told such. Last month, for Prospect magazine, Lionel Schriver wrote “Nevertheless, the whole trans movement does seem to have awfully to do with clothes. Especially in the male-to-female direction…“feeling like” a woman seems to imply feeling like wearing mascara, heels, hair extensions, and stockings….I hate to break it to the converts to my sex: women who were born women schlep around most of the time in jeans and trainers.”

When I wrote earlier this year for Dazed about transfeminine people and fashion, I was told about ten different times on social media “you can’t just put on a dress and call yourself a woman”. In one sense, I completely agree – dresses have nothing to do with my gender identity and I will make a bold confession: I am 28 years old and I have not worn a dress since 2005, when I played a 19th-century German woman in a school play at my all boys’ school. I do not own a dress and have no current intentions to buy one. That people believe my trans identity is to do with what clothes I like is exhausting and untrue. Interestingly, when I have a day where I am wearing no makeup or haven’t shaved meticulously these same people are often the first in line to tell me I look like a man.

“That people believe my trans identity is to do with what clothes I like is exhausting and untrue. Interestingly, when I have a day where I am wearing no makeup or haven’t shaved meticulously these same people are often the first in line to tell me I look like a man”

Enter Hari Nef, who dispenses with this absurdity entirely by arguing that feminine aesthetics for trans women are not about identity, or even about political statement – they are, as she says, ‘aesthetics of survival’. Nef points out –with searing honesty about her own physical transition - that femininity is often the only means by which a trans woman can be readily interpreted as the woman she is. Speaking of Caitlyn Jenner’s much-discussed Vanity Fair cover last year, Nef asks: “What if Caitlyn had appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in a pantsuit – no makeup, her hair pulled back, arms crossed — yeah, I think she would have looked really cool, but would we all have accepted her so readily as a woman?”

I encourage any feminist – cis or trans – to watch Nef’s video in full. Beyond the topic itself, she reinforces what I have long believed. Trans-feminism (that’s a type of feminism, not a rival movement) will only advance when trans women are allowed to articulate their own experience of womanhood and their feminism on their own terms. Nothing written or spoken about trans women that is not by trans women can avoid falling into huge generalisations at best or wilful misrepresentation at worst.

“What if Caitlyn had appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in a pantsuit – no makeup, her hair pulled back, arms crossed — yeah, I think she would have looked really cool, but would we all have accepted her so readily as a woman?” – Hari Nef

Several years ago a female friend said to me: “It’s interesting that we almost always hear from the male-to-female people in the trans movement and never the people born female.” It was before I had come out as trans myself. I made no response but it has stayed with me. I’ll never know precisely what she meant by it but I have the uneasy sense it may have been this idea: perhaps trans women are more vocal because they have all the confidence of ‘male privilege’ -  a sense of entitlement and a confidence that being raised male gives them over cis women or, indeed, trans men who were raised as girls. This is simply wrong as a starting point – relying as it does on a very simplistic idea about how patriarchy and gender work.

It is also not the reason why, of all trans people, it is trans women who are often forced to be the loudest voices in the trans movement. Some of this is purely medical – without expensive laser hair treatments and months of vocal training, trans women cannot blend in as quickly as trans men who take testosterone – whose voices lower while their beards grow. I have several trans male friends who have had to tell me they’re trans – I simply wouldn’t know otherwise. With trans women this is less common. "We are the most visible or, rather, hypervisible people in the LGBT community (Nef has previously written on hypervisibility - a concept originally coined among Black feminists).

Being “hypervisible” means you are widely seen – but not as a person. Your own feelings and experiences are rarely taken into account when people offer interpretations of you. It is common to see this in the media – as the coroner found in the inquest into Lucy Meadows’ suicide, an ordinary schoolteacher became fodder for national headlines and jokes just for being trans. Richard Littlejohn wrote a column for the Daily Mail naming her and making various unfounded arguments about how her transition may affect her pupils. After coming to this unwanted notoriety, Meadows’ health declined and she took her own life. Hypervisibility kills trans women (and most murders of trans people are of transfeminine people specifically).

So trans women are forced to speak over the interpretations people read into their existence every single day. But, more than this, there is a very specific reason trans women bear the brunt of anti-trans prejudice: misogyny. The trans writer Julia Serano rightly points out that while trans men can be dismissed as deluded for identifying as male their perceived desire to be male cannot itself be scorned or mocked – to do so would be to undermine the patriarchal message that to be male is the ideal (‘who wouldn’t want to be a man?!’) and that to be female is inferior. While the existence of trans men can actually support patriarchal messages, the existence of trans women does the opposite.

In the popular Netflix drama Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox plays trans inmate Sophia Burset. In Season One, when the character’s access to hormone treatment is being discussed, the prison’s female assistant warden, Natalie Figueroa, says to her male colleague: “Why would anyone ever give up being a man? That's like winning the lottery and giving back the ticket.” In a nutshell, Figueroa explains the unease trans women produce in a patriarchal society – to have “given up” being male is inherently suspicious: either we must be mad or we have an ulterior motive: we’re perhaps gay men trying to sexually deceive straight men by just existing or we are the sexual predators, trying to sneak into women’s refuges, female toilets or prisons.

There remain some feminists who continue to perpetuate the idea that trans womanhood is just cosplay for rapists. That the Orange is the New Black writers put the lottery ticket metaphor in the mouth of their most powerful female character is also relevant: her complete confusion as to why Cox’s character would ‘want’ to be a female comes from her own internalised misogyny. It is why the radical feminists who attack trans women as interloping men are, ironically, being sexist. While they claim to be pro the liberation of women, they have internalised the sexism around them which suggests femaleness is an undesirable state. They argue, instead, for the ‘abolition’ of gender – though what this actually means in real life still evades me.

It is also worth remembering that we are emerging from a period in which access to trans womanhood was solely held by male doctors. In the UK, to have gender reassignment surgery a trans woman must still ‘prove’ to her clinic that she has been living “as a woman” full time for a year. Historically, doctors made trans women prove this by reference to stereotypes – trans women were encouraged to wear dresses to their appointments to satisfy doctors, for example. In her 1987 essay, The Empire Strikes Back: A Postranssexual Manifesto, the writer Sandy Stone provides examples of how trans women were refused healthcare if they admitted to masturbating with their penis. Use of the penis at all was judged a “male” behaviour that disproved their womanhood and surgeries could be cancelled.

Those feminists who are quick to judge trans women’s embrace of femininity must remember that we, too, have our own history of being policed and told how to look by men. What Hari Nef’s video ought to remind us all is that no woman can begin to engage in feminist politics successfully when her own survival is jeopardised. To expect this of trans women specifically is to set us a test we are bound to fail. To then use such failure as a stick to beat us with is no feminism: it is cruelty. Next time you hear something critical about trans women’s choice of clothing – be a sister, link them to Hari Nef’s ‘#FreeTheFemme’