is crossgender expression ethical?

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Is crossgender expression–specifically, the expression by a man of typically “female” traits, such as wearing women’s clothes, or painting his nails, etc–ethical behavior?  As with any area of ethical inquiry, the question is hardly clear-cut, and as a feminist, an ally of sexual minority communities (which includes transgendered persons), and a man who strives to be moral, I really need to get this figured out insofar as I’m able: I need to reconcile competing value sets as well as I can.

It might not occur to some people that the ethics of feminine crossgender expression is even really a “question” at all.  In the modern, more tolerant and inclusive era in which people are free to explore and express alternate sexual orientations and gender identities, we might assume that any identity or form of gender expression is free for appropriation with little or no philosophical consequence.

But very few such things are without any philosophical consequence, especially in the sensitive arena of sex and gender politics.  I’ll admit, I myself was ignorant of how transgender expression might be controversial until I read some literature by feminists who fall on the more TERF end of the spectrum.  (‘TERF’ being an acronym for trans-exclusive radical feminist; these are feminists who, to describe it briefly, either deny the validity of the male-to-female transgender experience and/or claim that it is an ideology and set of behaviors that perpetuate sexism.)  I disagree with a fair number of TERF arguments and overall find them to be regressively radical and ironically hierarchical, but I do think there is sufficient merit in their concerns regarding female identity and gender to address the present topic.

So here’s what I aim to do:  I will lay out each point that I can conceive for thinking that male-to-female gender expression is NOT ethical, and then I will attempt a self-rebuttal.  Maybe in this manner I’ll come to some sort of insight that resolves the matter for me.  (I’ll assume for argument’s sake that there are no relationship issues involved: no deceiving a spouse or partner by hiding crossdressing, no causing a rift in a marriage with such behavior, etc.  That would render the whole discussion moot, because it would obviously be unethical.)

Why male-to-female gender appropriation is NOT ethical:

1.  It is predicated upon envy, a “sin” in the classic sense.  When a man sees female objects or bodies that don’t belong to him, that he can’t possibly hope to ever “possess” in the fullest possible sense he (perhaps sexually) desires, he grows envious.  Obviously, unethical.

2.  It is deliberate, conscious, willful, and selfish.  It is not an innocent pathology or mental illness in which the man has no idea what he is doing; he very clearly knows that he is appropriating female gender forms and is largely careless that what he is doing might have gender-political consequences.

3.  It draws from women’s exclusive set of gender forms.  The man who chooses to dress, speak, or behave “like a woman” is doing so exactly because those forms are more or less unique to women.  Accordingly, if these gender forms are unique to women, then he is appropriating things that are not “neutral” or “common” in a way that would make them free for his personal use.  He is invading feminine space and removing feminine content.

4.  It ignores the significance of the history and lived experience behind the gender forms that are being appropriated.  A man who “feels like a woman” and dresses in a skirt and paints his nails cannot ultimately know what it is like to have gone through female puberty, adolescence and menstruation, to be catcalled and sexually harassed, or to live an entire life of womanhood in a patriarchal society.  MtF gender appropriation in this sense is at best ignorant, disrespectful, and counterprogressive.

Self-rebuttals:  Why male-to-female gender appropriation is at the very least ethically neutral:

1.  While I’m not sure that it’s ethical or healthy to envy anything, neither am I sure that it’s particularly unusual or unethical.  “Oh my god, I wish I had his abs.”  “Damn, why can’t my hair look like hers?” and so on.  Now, there is likely a deeper pathology here than simply wishing you had someone’s beautiful ab muscles who happens to be of the same sex as you, but that’s beyond the scope of the present essay.  But suffice to say, I don’t think even that is unethical, as it stems from a psychological need, not simple covetousness or vanity.

2.  I think this is the most serious criticism and the most difficult one to deal with.  But even it operates under the assumption that there are always gender-political consequences of male-to-female gender expression.  This is not necessarily the case.  Not all women or feminists view the issue the same way.  Further, it assumes that all crossgender-expressing men are aloof and selfish.  This can hardly be the case.  Surely there must be a great number who are conscientious, well-intentioned, and who engage earnestly with TERF-minded women on these issues.

3.  This one is rather tricky.  If we say that one set of gender forms is exclusive to women, we run the risk of staking out an “essentialist” position, ie, that the two-X chromosome female sex has an inherent set of gender forms that correspond to it.  That’s a reductionist, sexist, and well…patently false ideology.  However, neither can we truthfully say in this context that gender forms such as makeup, nail polish, etc are totally non-exclusive to women, because the very reason the man seeks them out is because they are more or less exclusive to women; appropriating womanly forms is his entire goal.  So I’m in something of a catch-22 with respect to wanting to adhere to my simultaneous feminist and LGBTQ+ values.  But I think perhaps there is middle ground: such forms are exclusive enough to women to draw the interest of the crossdresser, but they are not so exclusive as to prescribe a woman’s essential identity.  Accordingly they are free for ethical appropriation.  Clothing, for example, cannot be used as an absolutely defining gender marker.  If a woman claims that a skirt is “hers” and hers alone by dint of her sex, then she is ironically making the same sort of argument that in olden times men would have made to prohibit her from wearing men’s garments.

4.  I don’t have much of a rebuttal for this one because I’m not sure that it amounts to an ethical argument against MtF crossgender expression in the first place.  I truly fail to see how just because a man might not understand the full lived experience of being a woman, that he cannot ethically and respectfully express feminine gender forms.  Would it not be a sexist statement for an old man welder to tell a novice woman welder, “You don’t know what it’s like to work in the shop as a man your whole life, surrounded by men…the camaraderie, the bonding, the testosterone, the difficulty of the work.  Just because you wear the mask and the gloves and hold the torch, doesn’t make you a welder.”?  Of course it’s patently sexist.  Women absolutely do have legitimate cause to be concerned that their lived experiences may be ignored, devalued, or misunderstood by men who crossdress or otherwise express “their” gender forms, but this has little to do with ethics on an individual basis.  Further, there is the question of empathy: Again, just because a man has not fully lived life as a woman, does not mean he is completely detached, unfamiliar, or otherwise aloof to a woman’s life experiences.  He could have grown up with a mother, aunts, sisters, friends, etc, observing their lives and deeply empathizing with them as they navigated life.  So to say that a man shouldn’t express female gender forms because doing so ignores the significance of the history and lived experience behind the gender forms that are being appropriated, is to deny that man’s capacity to exercise gender empathy.

image credit: AnonMoos, 2009 (WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain).

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