Is objectifying trans women the only way cis people can relate?

Caitlyn Jenner's iconic Vanity Fair cover

Many, many things about Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal to the public struck me over the course of the summer as cis people tried to adjust to the revelation of yet another trans woman in their midst, and as other high-profile trans women weighed in with their own thoughts. One thing that came up again and again for me was the theme of describing Jenner’s attractiveness — something that proved to be a very popular theme among cis people, including those who probably thought they were being well-meaning. Yet, looking at a woman only in terms of how pretty she is remains objectification, and it’s particularly loaded in the case of transgender women.

Most cis women would agree that being treated like a piece of meat is objectionable. It’s one thing to be viewed as pretty or attractive in the context of a larger description or personification, but to be solely ‘pretty’ is to be treated like an object for society’s consumption. All that matters is your body and whether you’re sufficiently fuckable. This is a terrible position to be in and it’s long been an issue in gender justice, with good reason. People shouldn’t be judged on their appearance and people shouldn’t be objectifying women.

That includes trans women, who, like their cis sisters, are about much, much more than their physical appearance. They don’t deserve to be objectified for all the same reasons cis women shouldn’t be, but in their case, there’s another layer that’s not being interrogated. Being ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘hot’ or ‘fuckable’ is a bar needed for trans women to ‘pass,’ because trans women who don’t pass the muster of conventional attractiveness are often labeled as ‘men in dresses’ or treated as failures — they aren’t real women because they don’t look like women should look, i.e. attractive.

Yet, cis people are obsessed with talking about how pretty women like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are. And they are beautiful women — I’m not going to deny that. But this also isn’t the sum total of who they are, and the hyperfocus on that aspect of their identities is really disturbing. It ignores some of the privileges involved in terms of who can access extensive aspects of medical transition to ‘normalise’ their bodies to a standard that cis people expect, and it also ignores the fact that being ‘ugly’ doesn’t make a trans woman not a woman — compare and contrast the treatment of Jenner when people viewed her as ‘ugly’ early in transition. Being just ordinary doesn’t make her not a woman either. And the focus on attractiveness really serves to underscore the notion that trans women must always be attractive to be viewed as women. They must be pretty, they must perform femininity, they must, in other words, make themselves into objects for the cis gaze.

In a way, this reminds me of a similar problem the size acceptance community is encountering with the focus on being ‘pretty.’ There’s so much focus on prettiness as part of body acceptance that people are ignoring the fact that you don’t have to be pretty to be a human being, that there’s nothing wrong with not being conventionally attractive, and that you don’t need to adjust your appearance to satisfy society’s standards. Individual people may find it empowering to do things like wearing fancy dresses and having fun makeup, but their identities are no more valid than those of others who don’t pursue those things.

The cis gaze is a continual problem for trans people of all genders, but trans women face particular hardships as the population that is perhaps most at risk of abusive, horrific behaviours on the part of society. Anything that reinforces notions about how trans women should look and act for cis people to treat them like human beings is a problem. Harping on Jenner’s attractiveness ignores her humanity and sends the message that in order to pass, in order to be a woman, in order to have her gender respected, a trans woman must be fuckable.

Cis people have a lot of trouble relating to the trans community, and that includes those who consider themselves enlightened and committed to gender justice. Many of them are the same people talking about how pretty Jenner is or making roundups of gorgeous trans girls in the media, and many think of this as an affirmational activity, a sort of ‘trans women can be pretty too!’ thing. What it does, though, is reinforce the idea that trans women must be pretty, when in fact, they can be any way they feel like.

This was one thing the My Vanity Fair Cover project set out to explore and push back against, pushing back on cisnormative beauty conventions with photographs of all kinds of transgender people representing all kinds of different aspects of the trans experience. Some might appear ugly to the cis gaze, might look like ‘failures,’ might seem distasteful. Others might be referred to as ‘stunning’ or ‘gorgeous.’ All of them, though, are human beings, and all of them have gender identities that don’t need to be validated through the judgment of the cis gaze.

Until cis people can find a way to relate to trans people that doesn’t involve turning us into objects, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve any kind of gender justice — because being treated as an equal is a key component of justice. Objects are not equals. They are, by their very nature, lesser. My writing desk shouldn’t have rights equal to my own. By assigning trans people identities as beautiful or ugly, the cis community is treating us like my writing desk.

Image: Caitlyn Jenner, Alberto Frank, Flickr