Since the early days of medical transition, people have remarked that there are differences between trans people who transition and those of us who don’t. Often this is ascribed to a difference of essence: some believe they can divide male-to-female trans people into the “true transsexuals” who are essentially women with a destiny to transition, and “just cross-dressers” who are essentially men. I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” for this post, but there are similar claims made for female-to-male trans people.
Nobody has yet found a foolproof test for this essence of femininity or masculinity. What people use instead is a gut feeling: the supposedly real trans women just “feel like women,” even without making an effort to present as women, while the supposedly fake trans women “feel like men.” Many trans people stress these claimed differences. They argue that non-transitioners who look like “men in dresses” give true trans women a bad name and claim protections they don’t deserve.
My experience has run pretty much counter to those claims. I have met trans women who transitioned decades ago but “feel” like men to me, and trans women who have never transitioned but “feel” like women. I myself have never transitioned, but when I present as a woman anyone who doesn’t know me but knows I’m trans assumes that I transitioned long ago.
If you talk to anyone who believes in this “gut feeling” and show them these counterexamples, they will explain them away with circular reasoning. A transitioned trans woman who “feels like a man” is an impostor who should never have transitioned, and people like me are just in denial and will change our minds pretty soon.
There is a simpler explanation for this discrepancy between “gut feeling” and reality: there is no essential gender. But the “gut feeling” is not always wrong. Where does it come from? If we examine it, what we find is a more subtle form of passing, one that works even if the observer knows whether the person is trans. There is no need to assume some inner gender; all the normal passing factors are enough to explain it:
Some people just get the luck of the gene draw. Shorter people with narrower shoulders and mouths, broader hips, smaller hands, feet and brow ridges, and higher voices tend to feel more “naturally” feminine, while taller people with broader shoulders and mouths, narrower hips, bigger hands, feet and brow ridges, and lower voices tend to feel more “naturally” masculine.
Age plays a huge role. The effects of hormones on secondary sex characteristics don’t stop at puberty. Trans women who transition early in life will have narrower shoulders and broader hips, while trans women who transition late, or never transition, will have broader shoulders and narrower hips.
Body modifications and grooming are as relevant for this “feeling” as for the better-known forms of passing. People who have committed to a transition are more likely to get surgery, hair removal and hair transplants. These treatments are just as artificial as wigs or heavy make-up, but often less noticeable.
One of the biggest factors is socialization. Mannerisms are just habits, and habits develop with experience. Someone who spends a lot of time around women and is treated like a woman will act like the women around them and “feel” like a woman, and someone who spends a lot of time around men and is treated like a man will act like the men around them and “feel” like a man. These effects are cumulative: the more time a person spends living in one gender, the more naturally they interact with others in that gender.
Some trans women have pointed out that their socialization was not like typical male socialization. I agree, but I don’t think they were socialized female, either. There are finer grains of male socialization: we are socialized as girly boys, nerdy boys, gay boys and others. When we get older we can be socialized as gay men. This means we are given the space, or take the space, to speak and gesture more softly, taking as role models softer men, gay men, or women. These differences may be felt by some as cues that we are “really” girls or women.
There’s another kind of socialization as well: trans socialization. I know a lot of trans women who socialize primarily with other trans women. This may be out of choice, or because they’ve been rejected by non-trans people, or because they’re afraid of being rejected or worse. If a whole bunch of trans women spend most of their time together, they’re going to wind up moving and sounding like each other, and like their ideas of women. If none of them have any significant female socialization apart from that, then they may not “feel” like women to other people.
Some trans people are just good actors or good mimics, and are able to move and sound like their target gender. Does that mean that they’re less “real” than other trans people? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes you have to fake it ’till you make it. Some may have a strong desire to sound or move differently from the way they did before. On the other hand, some may feel uncomfortable with any change in the way they move or sound.
Between genes, aging, body modifications, grooming, socialization, alienation and just plain good acting, there are plenty of explanations for why some trans women “feel” like women, some trans men “feel” like men, and some don’t. There is no mystical essence of gender, no “brain sex” required to explain this. If you’ve pinned your hopes on the idea of being a “woman trapped in a man’s body,” you may not like this idea.
On the other hand, thinking of this “feeling” as just another form of passing means that people who have some of these factors going against them may be able to eventually overcome them and “pass by feeling.” It also means that those of us who have some of the factors in our favor can decide whether or not we want to transition based on what works for us, not whether we “feel like a woman” to someone else.