How Femininity Shaming Helped Create the Divide Between LGB and T

Transgender ladyboy's in high heels
Transgender ladyboy's in high heels

NOTE: When I use the term "trans-feminine" in this article, it is being used as a catch all term for all those who identify under the trans* umbrella on the feminine end of gender identification or presentation. Also, when I refer to "some gay men," it is with awareness that I am referring to a particular subset of gay men which I do my best to describe in the following.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Pocahontas. In fact, more than obsessed, I wanted to be Pocahontas. She was an example of a strong woman, fighting for what she wants and for her people, at least to my 7-year-old brain. I would gleefully run around the house singing "Colors of the Wind," much to the delight of my parents who encouraged it whenever family or friends were over. However, the first moment I was shamed or made aware that I was 'different' because of my femininity was when I informed my parents that I wanted to dress up as Pocahontas for Halloween. I was immediately told, with much hand-wringing, that I wasn't allowed to do that because I was a boy and boys weren't allowed to dress up like girls. Many years later, after I came out to them as trans and began my medical transition, I recounted this memory to them. They understood its significance, but explained that they were protecting me, afraid that if I showed up to school dressed like a girl, I would be bullied mercilessly for it. They were probably right.

However, this experience is not unique to trans-feminine youth, it's also common in gay youth. Many young gay men were also mercilessly shamed for exhibiting femininity at a young age. That shame gets internalized. Before I came out as trans, I came out as gay. It was the only way I knew how to describe what I was feeling at the time. I was a continual target of bullies, especially the jocks, and as I got older, I was ostracized from the girls I got along with better than the boys because of the fact that I 'was a boy.' That shifted as I got into high school and the boys vs. girls mentality relaxed a little bit. But by then I had learned to straighten my walk, gesture from my upper arms rather than from my hands, speak in a more monotone voice etc. For all of middle school, I carefully monitored my behavior for any signs of the dreaded 'femininity.' Masculinity became a commodity that I traded in. Even after I was out as gay, I had so styled myself as the 'straight acting' gay guy by high school that suddenly I was accepted by the very guys who used to bully me mercilessly because I assimilated into their hetero and cisnormative notions of masculinity and femininity. Because of this, I became non-threatening.

These lessons, that many trans-feminine youth and gay youth learn, for some (dare I say most), result in severe self-loathing and internalized homophobia and transphobia. It's the same kind of internalized shame that for some gay men leads to the proud proclamations of 'no femmes' on grindr profiles across the United States, or causes some gay men to run for the hills when they see a Barbra Streisand album in a potential hookup's apartment.

Because of the strictures of the social hierarchy of 'masc' over 'femme' that's pervasive in many corners of gay life, as well as in heteronormative circles, the shamed become the shamers. So much time and energy is spent trying to prove manhood to heterosexual and cis people who deem themselves the gate keepers in climates like high school, that when a trans-feminine person, or feminine gay man for that matter, chooses to fully embrace that aspect of themselves, some gay men find it threatening. Suddenly all the effort to prove their manhood to some unseen force comes crashing down. 'Remember that guy in middle school who was so effeminate? Well now he's a she!' Suddenly the other guy who was also effeminate in middle school who went to great lengths to prove he's still a man 'despite being attracted to men,' feels like that grasp on it is more tenuous. I believe this is one of the subconscious factors which creates distance between some gay men and the trans movement, and in turn, leads some gay men to start petitions to 'divorce the T from the LGBT,' or for the Empire State Pride Agenda declaring mission accomplished with the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality, leaving many trans and gender variant people behind.

Now this is of course not to say that all gay men feel this way, nor is it to say that abject masculinity is inherently unnatural to gay men, it's only to say that femininity shaming is a common experience in those sexually or gender variant who were assigned male at birth. I'm also not arguing that this is the only factor that causes the LGB and T schism. Only that it is one of them. And because it's the subconscious result of many years of hetero and cisnormative programming, it's one of the more prickly and nefarious ones. I believe that this femininity shaming gets carried over to a generic discomfort with those who claim that femininity. Both communities, and for that matter, everyone under the LGBTQIA umbrella has a responsibility to acknowledge and deal with their internalized shame. I'm loathe to say we all have it, but certainly many of us do. I know that I do. But we all have more in common than things that tear us apart. It's our internalized shame and self-judgement that will drive us from each other and keep us from embracing the full breadth of our collective experiences. Us sexually and gender variant folk are much stronger together than we are apart.