Did you know that parents tend to see newborn boys as larger and newborn girls as smaller, even when they’re the same size? Welcome to Gender Analysis.
Last time, we talked about how transgender people are affected by the expectation of passing – the idea that we should blend in as if we’re cis people. We discussed how this can force us to become secretive about every part of our lives, how it can keep us from advocating on our own behalf, and how it can isolate us from other trans people.
Now I’d like to examine passing in practice. Most people think of passing as a one-way street, as though the responsibility for passing or not falls solely on trans people. We often see cis people feign helplessness and protest that they just can’t see us as our gender. This serves as an excuse to misgender us.
But we’re not the only variable in this equation. It’s easy to assume that perception is an objective sense – that we all reliably see a person exactly as they are, just like pointing a video camera at them. Yet perception isn’t really like that at all, and this means that there are aspects of “passing” that are completely external to trans people.
Passing and media exposure
In episode 04, I mentioned a trans support group from the 1980s that largely refused to be a part of any media coverage about trans people (Bolin, 1988). They felt that any wider public awareness would only serve to inform people on distinguishing features that could be used to identify us. In other words, they believed that passing isn’t just about what we look like – it also comes down to how much other people know.
I’ve received hundreds of thousands of comments on my videos since 2008, and I’ve heard from people who always thought I was a cis woman until they learned otherwise. And yet, to this day, I also get commenters saying I still look like a man. They’re looking at the same person, but their perceptions couldn’t be more different.
This is a real phenomenon, and there are numerous studies showing that our impression of someone’s appearance is based on more than just their appearance. These judgments are influenced by what we know about a person, the stereotypes we hold, and biases against people outside of our social groups.
Attractiveness and assumed personality traits
Passing is about appearances, but what we believe about someone’s personality can influence how we see them. In a 2014 study, people were asked to rate the attractiveness of a series of faces. Two weeks later, the same participants were asked to rate the same set of faces – but this time, one group was also shown words for positive personality traits, and another group was shown negative personality traits. Faces accompanied by positive personality traits were rated more attractive on the second pass, while faces accompanied by negative traits were rated as less attractive.
Another study offered data on judgments of attractiveness and attitudes toward trans people. Participants were shown several composite images representing trans people, and were asked to provide their opinion on various character traits of these hypothetical people, one of which was attractiveness. The participants who scored higher on a measure of transphobic prejudice rated the images as much less attractive.
False alarms: Bias and over-exclusion
Passing can feel like being under a microscope, and there’s a reason for this: prejudice can change the way that people are scrutinized and categorized. A study in 1975 asked participants to classify people’s photographs as Jewish or as Gentiles, and found that subjects who ranked higher on a measure of anti-Semitism classified more photographs as Jewish. The authors state:
“…it appears that anti-Semites do achieve higher accuracy scores than unprejudiced subjects at the cost of a higher false alarm rate.”
In other words, people with higher levels of bias tended to err on the side of incorrectly excluding people like themselves, rather than risk including outsiders in their own group.
Another study on categorization by race asked participants to classify photographs of black people and white people. It was found that subjects with higher levels of racial prejudice spent a longer time looking at ambiguous photos than they did at photos that were clearly black or white.
Imagination and gender perception
Our perception of gender can be especially malleable. Recent studies on adaptation in perception asked subjects to imagine a woman’s or man’s face, then showed them a set of androgynous faces. After imagining a woman’s face, people tended to evaluate these faces as more feminine; after imagining a man’s face, they tended to rate them as less feminine. They were looking at the same faces, but they perceived the gendered features of these faces differently.
Ignoring and misperceiving: Appearance and genital knowledge
People can even ignore what’s right in front of them based on their interpretation of someone’s gender. A study in Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach used overlays of gendered features to create drawn figures with a blend of different traits: long or short hair, wide or narrow hips, breasts or a flat chest, body hair or no body hair, and a penis or a vagina. All of them had a gender-neutral face. People were then shown these figures and asked to assign them a gender.
When they believed a figure had a vagina, they would often interpret the gender-neutral face as “feminine” and even decide that a shorter hair length was feminine. Conversely, when they thought a figure had a penis, they saw the face as “masculine” and often decided that longer hair was a “‘reasonable’ male hair length”. They would even believe that wider hips were narrow. When people will so rapidly shift their standards of feminine and masculine appearance based entirely on assumptions about genitals, how can they accurately judge a trans person’s appearance? Really, does this dick make my hair look shorter?
Gender-stereotyped body size perception
Even the straightforward perception of height can be distorted by gender stereotypes. A 1974 study examined parents’ perceptions of their newborns, and found that daughters were more often described as “little”, while sons were more likely to be described as “big”. But the difference in the average weight of each group was fewer than five ounces, and their body length differed by less than half an inch.
This distortion continues into adulthood. A study in 1990 asked subjects to estimate the heights of women and men in photographs. Every photo of a woman was matched to a photo of a man of equal height, so that each group of pictures had the same average height. Yet the women were still estimated to be several inches shorter than the men – even when subjects were specifically told that the women and men had the same height, and that they shouldn’t use gender as a basis for their estimations.
Passing: A rigged game
Not all trans people aim to pass as cis people – and we certainly shouldn’t be expected to. But no matter how we choose to present ourselves, there can be a substantial gap between how we appear, and how we’re perceived. People aren’t helpless to change how they see us, and we already know what influences that. So stop stereotyping men and women. Stop thinking that trans women are actually men. Stop fixating on our genitals. And please, stop staring at us. It’s not your job to decide whether we look the way you think we should – we’re not here to be pretty for you. And if you expect us to put that much work into passing, you can start by doing your share.
I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.
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