We’re halfway through 2016, and the completely unnecessary controversy over trans people in public restrooms has not gone away. North Carolina and the Department of Justice are suing one another over H.B. 2. Several more states filed suit against the Obama administration over the federal directive that trans students be allowed to use the public school facilities matching their gender. And in the midst of this, the forces of transphobia are working tirelessly to paint a more moderate face on their naked hostility toward innocent people.
It’s common nowadays to hear someone make the apparent concession that, for instance, a transgender woman should be allowed to use women’s restrooms – provided she “looks like a woman”. This standard has been advanced by opinionated cis people ranging from Joey Salads to Peter Sprigg, a spokesman with the Family Research Council.
Peter Sprigg: A lot of transgender people are not – a lot are not convincing in their presentation as the opposite of their biological sex, and so it’s obvious to the people who see them that this is actually a man in a dress and not a biological woman. And that can create – I can understand how that would create fear and anxiety on the part of women and girls in a ladies’ room.
Jessica Taylor: Oh, so only well-dressed women can go into the ladies’ room, is that what you’re saying? Only women that are attractive – just like the Donald Trump thing – only women that are attractive can have these positions, or use the restroom in this case?
Sprigg: Well, if you appear to be female then you probably will not be challenged with respect to something like this—
Taylor: Okay, so who’s going to set the standard to appearance of ‘female’? Is there gonna be a TSA watching the door of the bathroom, and you’re gonna say ‘oh, you’re not womanly enough’? I know a lot of women that are very, you know, neutral in their gender, and you’re gonna tell them they gotta go use the men’s restroom now in North Carolina? Boy, that makes sense.
At first glance, this seems like an intuitive idea. It would supposedly minimize any disruptions, and many trans people do voluntarily choose which bathroom to use based on their current gender presentation. But this expectation could never function as a consistently applicable standard in practice, because it relies on false assumptions about how individuals perceive gender. In everyday life, interactions between the expression and interpretation of gender are so diverse that whether someone “looks like a woman” isn’t always entirely predictable.
Biases, stereotypes, and other influences on subjective gender perception
This naïve model of gender perception treats gender as a property emitted from an individual, with all others as passive receivers who simply accept this expression at face value. Yet this is precisely backwards – expressions of gender are not objective and singular; they are subjective, interpretative, and multiple. The same trans person, on the same day, with exactly the same appearance, can still have their gender read entirely differently depending on who’s looking at them. Why does this happen?
At least in part, it’s because many of the variables involved here aren’t located within the one person being observed, but rather the multiple people observing them. Research on gender perception has provided extensive evidence that there is a wide array of factors which can influence how each person will see and interpret someone’s gender or the gendered features of their appearance.
In one study, viewers looked at images of men and women of the same height, and consistently perceived the men as taller than their actual height and the women as shorter (Nelson, Biernat, & Manis, 1990). This effect persisted regardless of whether the images depicted men and women who were standing or seated. A similar trend has been found among parents of infants, who consistently estimate newborns of the same size as being larger if a boy, and smaller if a girl (Ruben, Provenzano, & Luria, 1974). Whether a person sees someone as male or female has a direct influence on the perception of their height and size. Considering a trans woman to be a “man” could mean seeing her as taller or larger than she really is.
There’s also evidence that a person’s own imagination can skew whether they view a face as more masculine or feminine. In one experiment, after subjects had either been asked to imagine a feminine face or a masculine face, each group was then shown the same androgynous-appearing face. Those who had imagined a feminine face also saw the image as more feminine, while those who imagined a masculine face saw it as less feminine (D’Ascenzo, Tommasi, & Laeng, 2014; DeBruine, Welling, Jones, & Little, 2010). A person who imagines that trans women appear stereotypically “manly” may perceive a trans woman as more masculine than she really is upon learning that she’s trans.
Skewed perceptions of our gendered appearance can be based on unseen features as well. In their 1978 book Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, Kessler and McKenna reported on the results of an experiment where participants were asked to determine the gender of a series of drawn figures with various combinations of gendered features. They found that even when the genitals of a figure were concealed, once subjects decided which genitals they believed it to have, this belief then influenced their interpretation of its other attributes (Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Those who decided a figure had a penis would more often view that figure’s long hair as still being within the range of an acceptable “male hair length”. They were more likely to disregard such a figure’s wide hips or even judge them as being narrow, and tended to consider its face to be masculine – even though the same androgynous face was used for every figure. For someone who’s preoccupied with thinking about the genitals they imagine a trans person to have, this could influence how they evaluate that person’s masculinity or femininity.
Another study found that subjects were more likely to rate a walking human figure of ambiguous sex as being male when they were exposed to the scent of male sweat (Hacker, Brooks, & van der Zwan, 2013). This effect was observed even though they were not consciously aware that the scent was present.
Straight men who score highly on a rating of insecurity about their masculinity have also been shown to direct greater attention toward more accurately recognizing faces with a gender-atypical appearance (Lick, Johnson, & Riskind, 2015). Researchers have theorized that this occurs because these men perceive gender-atypical people as a threat to their own identity. A person who doesn’t feel secure in their masculinity might be more likely to look for trans people and notice that someone is trans.
Gender attribution is also known to be affected by a persistent bias toward categorizing individuals as male. Kessler and McKenna found that masculine-coded and feminine-coded cues are not weighed equally when evaluating someone’s gender; instead, multiple feminine cues were needed to counteract even a single masculine cue and ensure that a figure would be perceived as female (Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Over the years, this “male bias” has been repeatedly observed in many studies. The size of a person’s hands is often used as an indicator of their gender, and when a hand is of an ambiguous size, it will be interpreted as male more frequently than female (Gaetano, van der Zwan, Blair, & Brooks, 2014). The same skew towards categorization of individuals as male has been observed in the interpretation of waist-to-hip ratio as well as overall body shape (Johnson, Iida, & Tassinary, 2012).
Studies of gender attribution have described people as generally “conservative in their judgements of targets as female but liberal in their judgements of targets as male” (Gaetano et al., 2014). This may partially explain the widespread perception that trans men are able to achieve a clearly male appearance more easily than trans women can achieve a clearly female appearance. It may not be the case that they are actually expressing more clearly visible gender cues than trans women – instead, this apparent ease could be an artifact of the general tendency to require very few masculine cues before viewing a person as male.
Increasingly in 2016, even many cis women are being harassed in women’s restrooms by self-styled vigilantes who felt that they were insufficiently feminine and judged them to be men. Male bias has a more pronounced effect as gender cues become more ambiguous: getting an uncertain or unclear look at a person’s face is associated with a greater likelihood of perceiving them as masculine (Watson, Otsuka, & Clifford, 2016). This may have an outsized impact on trans people and how their appearances are evaluated, as their physical sex characteristics are sometimes seen as at least temporarily occupying an intermediate or mixed state.
Being insecure in your masculinity, thinking too much about our genitals, or just refusing to accept trans women as women, can all come to bear on what you actually see when you look at us. A model that treats trans people’s visible genders as a simple fixed property has failed to account for the many well-established social and cognitive phenomena that make gender perception a complex, subjective, and ongoing process.
How transphobia mediates interpretation of trans people’s genders
Transphobic prejudice is another factor that can influence how an individual judges our appearance. One study found that those exhibiting high levels of transphobia tended to rate images of trans people as being less attractive (Gerhardstein & Anderson, 2010). In the course of my own work on outreach and awareness online, I’ve had the opportunity to receive rapid feedback from thousands of viewers on the trans-related topics I cover. What I’ve found is that certain subjects will tend to elicit distinctly different transphobic arguments having to do with my gendered appearance.
When I’ve discussed the question of whether a trans person should disclose their gender history before entering an intimate relationship, many commenters have claimed that this probably isn’t an issue for me because, to them, I’m immediately visible as a trans woman regardless.
Yet when I later posted a video showing that using women’s restrooms is something I do without causing any disruption or alarm, I was repeatedly told by others that this proved nothing because I “look like a woman”. My own real experience as an actual trans woman was dismissed as irrelevant for the specific reason that I did not look like a cis person’s imagined stereotype of a trans woman.
What’s clear is that transphobes’ reaction to my appearance, and their interpretation of my gender, is often guided by what a particular argument requires them to believe about trans people. When we know that prejudice exerts an influence over how our genders are perceived, how can we believe that avowedly transphobic individuals are even capable of making a good-faith appraisal of whether a trans woman “looks like a woman”?
Clashing perceptions at the bathroom door
It’s important to remember that there was once a time when what it meant to “look like” a man or woman was consolidated into an absolute legal standard. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, queer and transgender people in public were frequently arrested by police under local ordinances prohibiting “cross-dressing”. Some of these laws even specified that women were expected to wear at least three articles of feminine-coded clothing. While charges under these laws were increasingly thrown out in the 1970s, they continued to serve as a vehicle for harassment of visible minorities by state and local authorities. I don’t think any of us nowadays would accept the government telling us which gender we have to present as or how we’re expected to do so. So why should we accept someone like Peter Sprigg telling us the same?
The Family Research Council has committed itself to working against any official recognition of trans people’s genders, and does not believe we should have access to medical transition treatments at all. It’s extremely concerning when an organization that seeks to influence the policies affecting our lives can so flippantly discard one of the fundamental principles of an equal society.
It is entirely possible for one person to believe that their perception of gender is consistent, reliable, and is even shared universally by others. Many people just aren’t aware of the diverse factors that can introduce all kinds of distortion into this judgment. It could easily be the case that very many people all believe their own gender evaluations are universal, without necessarily realizing that these perceptions could conflict between individuals. A person may never encounter a reason to reconsider this naïve intuition, even as these many mutually exclusive judgments potentially place trans people in an impossible situation. Ultimately, the proposal that women’s restrooms be used only by those trans women who “look like women” offers a standard that is completely inadequate to serve as a basis for law.
- D’Ascenzo, S., Tommasi, L., & Laeng, B. (2014). Imagining sex and adapting to it: Different aftereffects after perceiving versus imagining faces. Vision Research, 96, 45–52.
- DeBruine, L. M., Welling, L. L. M., Jones, B. C., & Little, A. C. (2010). Opposite effects of visual versus imagined presentation of faces on subsequent sex perception. Visual Cognition, 18(6), 816–828.
- Gaetano, J., van der Zwan, R., Blair, D., & Brooks, A. (2014). Hands as sex cues: sensitivity measures, male bias measures, and implications for sex perception mechanisms. PLoS One, 9(3), e91032.
- Gerhardstein, K. R., & Anderson, V. N. (2010). There’s more than meets the eye: Facial appearance and evaluations of transsexual people. Sex Roles, 62(5–6), 361–373.
- Hacker, G., Brooks, A., & van der Zwan, R. (2013). Sex discriminations made on the basis of ambiguous visual cues can be affected by the presence of an olfactory cue. BMC Psychology, 1(1), 10.
- Johnson, K. L., Iida, M., & Tassinary, L. G. (2012). Person (mis)perception: Functionally biased sex categorization of bodies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1749), 4982–4989.
- Kessler, S. J., & McKenna, W. (1978). Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
- Lick, D. J., Johnson, K. L., & Riskind, R. G. (2015). Haven’t I seen you before? Straight men are vigilant to gender-atypical faces, especially when their masculinity is threatened. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 18(2), 131–152.
- Nelson, T. E., Biernat, M. R., & Manis, M. (1990). Everyday base rates (sex stereotypes): Potent and resilient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(4), 664–675.
- Rubin, J. Z., Provenzano, F. J., & Luria, Z. (1974). The eye of the beholder: Parents’ views on sex of newborns. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44(4), 512–519.
- Watson, T. L., Otsuka, Y. & Clifford, C. W. G. (2016). Who are you expecting? Biases in face perception reveal prior expectations for sex and age. Journal of Vision, 16(3), 1–9.