Most people think of gender as some kind of inalienable property of individuals — as something we either are or have. Decades of scholarship on gender have uncovered a perspective at odds with the conventional wisdom. The thing about conventional wisdom, though, is that it’s difficult to challenge even when we can prove it wrong. It’s much more accurate to talk about gender as something we “do” than as something we simply “are” or “have.” While this might initially seem like splitting hairs, people’s lives, legislation, and more hang in the balance. Sociologists Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt just published a new study on how the media manage moments of conflict over who “counts” as a woman or a man, and they’ve uncovered new reasons why we ought to care more about this distinction than you might have thought. Their study of how media navigate transgender individuals tells us more than why transgender people challenge conventional wisdom on gender. They continue a tradition in the sociology of gender of relying of the experiences of transgender people to provide new insights into what gender is and how taken for granted gender inequality has become.
Transgender individuals have long been of interest to sociologists of sex and gender. Transgender people are a powerful illustration of some of the cracks in the ways we think about gender and gender difference, and they often have the most to tell us about what gender is and how it gets produced. But, before I explain why Westbrook and Schilt’s new research is so important, I want to provide a short history of why the experiences of transgender people are so important. Perhaps the most famous transgender woman to be studied is a woman who scholars refer to as “Agnes” to protect her anonymity. Agnes is an American woman who, in the 1960s, was in her late teens when she heard about study at UCLA concerned with “disorders of gender identity” on the radio. The research team was interested in coming up with a set of medical guidelines for determining who ought to be allowed to undergo what were then called sex reassignment surgeries (now more accurately and respectfully referred to as gender confirmation surgeries).
Agnes first came in to meet with the research team because she was had a dilemma she couldn’t solve on her own and she was hopeful they could help. Agnes had all of the bodily signs of femininity you might expect with one small exception. She had a small waist, slender fingers and wrists, long hair, feminine breasts, and more. Beyond this, Agnes had the gamut of feminine intangibles. She was soft-spoken, moved slowly, sat with her legs together, crossed at the ankle. She waited to have doors opened for her, rarely interrupted. She was, in other words, a paragon of femininity. And, despite coming in to talk with a group of researchers concerned with disorders of gender identity, there really wasn’t anything “disordered” about Agnes’ gender at all. She was completely comfortable with and confident in her gender. Her real problem was that she had a penis and was interested in receiving a surgery that would better help her body confirm her gender more completely.
Agnes was studied by surgeons, endocrinologists, psychologists, all manner of medical professionals, and — as fate would have it — a sociologist named Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel wasn’t a sociologist of gender; indeed, the sociology of gender didn’t even really exist at that point. And it may very well be Agnes that we should thank for its production. While the medical professionals meeting with Agnes (among others) were all concerned with helping her, they were also all casually in agreement that it was Agnes who was the one with the problem. Garfinkel’s great insight was to recognize that while her desire for surgery may be statistically rare, there was nothing at all “problematic” about her gender. In fact, Garfinkel found that Agnes knew quite a bit more about her gender than most. Rather than teaching Agnes how to better “fit in” or “pass” as a woman, Garfinkel became increasingly interested in what he could learn from Agnes about gender.
Having been raised as a boy in her youth, much of what Agnes understood about femininity was learned a bit more deliberately on her part and practiced more intentionally than it is for many young women. She was able to talk about the subtleties of gender in ways that are invisible to many people. Transgender communities and medical professionals still use the term “passing” to assess how well transgender people are able to “pass” as the gender with which they identify. Indeed, having successfully passed as a woman or man for a defined period of time is often considered part of the criteria for receiving a diagnosis that enables transgender people to undergo gender confirmation surgeries (if they so desire). But it was Agnes’ intricate insights into her daily performances of gender that allowed Garfinkel to realize that gender is a performance for everyone. It wasn’t just Agnes who was passing; we’re all passing as men and women. Agnes was just better able to talk about it than most. It becomes so much a part of who we think we are that most of us don’t even recognize the daily work we do to pass as men and women (shaving, make-up, clothes, hair cuts, styles of walking, talking, sitting, how to interact conversationally, carrying wallets or a purse, and more). It’s exhausting once you list it all out, and we’re constantly at work.
Passing is important to many transgender people on different levels: from issue of violence personal safety to the psychological pleasures associated with being publicly recognized with who we understand ourselves to be. Yet, transgender people struggle with more than simply being publicly recognized. They also struggle with recognition from a variety of institutions, and it’s here that Westbrook and Schilt break new ground in research and theory on gender and inequality. Transgender men and women struggle having government documents altered to reflect their identities. But, access to legibly and legally gendered identities also comes with access to institutions, like workplaces, housing, competitive sports, and all variety of public accommodations (like, restrooms for instance). We don’t often think about this, but like Agnes, transgender people often make gender more visible — they lay bare gender arrangements in our society, like our fierce allegiance to the idea that bathroom and sports teams (among other things) ought to be gender segregated.
Deciding that a transwoman “counts” as a woman is done on multiple levels. It’s done in our interactions when we publicly recognize her identity. But it’s also done institutionally, if we consider whether or not she ought to be allowed to change her driver’s license to represent her gender or whether we ought to let her compete against other women in competitive sports. A great deal of anxiety is often provoked around these issues — what Westbrook and Schilt refer to as “gender panics” — and Westbrook and Schilt use the media as a litmus test of that collective angst. Surveying newspaper articles surrounding gender panics to do with three separate issues (transgender rights legislation, a 2006 policy proposal in New York to remove genital surgery as a requirement to change sex markers on birth certificates, and controversies over transgender athletes), Westbrook and Schilt provide a new way of thinking about and measuring gender inequality.
It turns out that the criteria for determining a person’s gender vary — they’re not the same everywhere. As Westbrook and Schilt argue, while most people “keep the same classification in all spaces, transgender people may be given different gender classifications… depending on the type of interaction occurring in the space.” So, for instance, while we might collectively acknowledge transgender women as women in their daily lives, we are often less willing (or have a different set of criteria) to acknowledge them as women in restrooms or on sports fields. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — the body that, among other things, makes decisions about the gender categories in which transgender and intersex athletes can compete — has an elaborate set of criteria for considering whether or not transgender athletes can compete as the gender with which they identify. But we don’t rely on these same criteria in most social interactions. Gender-segregated settings are much more heavily policed and women’s spaces are more heavily policed than men’s. Gender-integrated settings — like workplaces — involve fewer gender panics. It’s those spaces we think men and women ought to be separate that provoke the most powerful reactions.
Westbrook and Schilt also found that the criteria for being considered a man are much less demanding than the criteria to be considered a woman. The real anxiety appears around people who have penises who enter women’s-only spaces. Not everyone with a penis identifies or is identified as a man, nor do all those without penises identify as women. But, the penis is a powerful cultural proxy. Thus, in Katie Couric’s recent interview with Laverne Cox (a transgender woman and actress), it’s not surprising that Cox was asked about the status of her genitals. Cox deftly dealt with the question by refocusing the conversation on transgender people’s lives rather than their genitals. Westbrook and Schilt found that a great deal less anxiety appears around transgender people — even in gender-integrated settings — when the transgender person is penis-free (regardless of whether the person in question identifies as a woman or man). This interesting insight enables Westbrook and Schilt to say something really powerful about gender inequality and our collective investment in its existence.
Public reactions to and acceptance of transgender people function as a sort of gender inequality Rorschach test. This cultural anxiety provoked by penises in “women’s” spaces belies a larger investment in a twin set of cultural ideals: the belief that all people with penises are uniquely capable of violence and the belief that those without penises are uniquely vulnerable. While this anxiety might be easily upset by recognizing that transgender women are most often the targets — not the perpetrators — of violence, Westbrook and Schilt’s research shows that this fact is less publicly recognized than it should be. Indeed, Schilt and Westbrook address violence against transgender women in their previous research as did Cox in her interview with Couric. And our collective failure to recognize violence against transgender women is a testament to the power of conventional wisdom about gender. While transgender people have a unique capacity to help us understand gender as more flexible than we often imagine, Westbrook and Schilt’s research illustrates the ways that the challenges brought about by transgender individuals are often dealt with in ways that have the effect of shoring up our faith in gender as innate and gender inequality is inevitable. This research helps us learn more about some of the most deeply held beliefs in our culture about gender. Their findings show that, despite the many gains toward greater gender equality, we still fervently hold onto a set of beliefs that speak to the endurance of inequality and just how difficult it will be to overcome.