There are as many narratives of the transgender experience as there are transgender people, so I’m not going to insist that what I write below is The Transgender Truth. There are multiple transgender truths. But here goes:

I think most transfolk would welcome the overall conclusion of your comment— disparate treatment of transgender people is immoral — but reject your description of their gender expression/presentation as a “performance.” I suspect you don’t mean ill with this word choice, but “performance” implies something superficial, volitional, and transient. It travels in circles with words like “theatrical,” “dramatic,” and “acting,” which suggests some of its problems. (One caveat: following publication of Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble the word “performance” started to be used by gender studies scholars in a different way, but I’m going to assume you’re using it in the colloquial sense.)

However, the trans people I know tell me that their gender presentation/expression (their “performance” of gender) reflects a deep sense of identification with the gender that’s being presented/expressed. Yes, of course, some aspects of that presentation/expression are volitional — as is true for all of us — but some of it is not — which is also true for all of us. (We may choose what color shirt to wear but we do not ‘choose’ the shape of our faces or the texture of our skin.) But because of certain kinds of baggage accompanying the word “performance,” that term is not generally used by transgender people to describe themselves (at least in my experience). Again, there are multiple transgender narratives/truths.

BTW there are lots and lots of people who consider themselves “moral” who view presenting/expressing a gender that does not align with one’s natal gender assignment or biological sex to be immoral/wrong. In fact, the basis of almost all hate crimes against lesbians and gay men is an intended punishment for performing gender “badly”: lesbians who acted “like men;” gay men who acted “like women.” In this, they are but another example of the myriad ways societies police or regulate gender. Globally, transgressing societal expectations for gender presentation/expression is met with sanctions ranging from social ostracism to physical violence, even death.

As for my audience: it’s those who insist that the word “cisgender” is “just” a neutral descriptor or adjective, not an indictment of a specific group of people. My argument is essentially this: naming things that wish not to be named is always an act of power. That power should be acknowledged and embraced, not denied.

Michael J. Murphy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2019). He lives in St. Louis with his husband.

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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