As Prince is mourned by millions across the world, his life and artistry are rightly being embraced as unconventional and as boundary-pushing in many ways, including in terms of gender. But, whereas 10 or 20 years ago, a man like Prince would have been celebrated, in death, as someone who did not conform to gender norms, today he is instead being transed. And this is a problem.
It’s not a problem, to be clear, because people who suffer from sex dysphoria or who don’t conform to the gender binary are a problem, but because we need to allow people to push past gender stereotypes without being forced out of their sex. It is not progressive to say that a male who does not act like a stereotypical man must actually be a woman — it is regressive.
First, some basics: Gender is a hierarchy and a social construct. It exists to reinforce male dominance and female subordination by naturalizing gendered characteristics and attaching those characteristics to humans who are born male or female. So, women are said to be (and are socialized to be) passive, nurturing, emotional, delicate, weak, etc., and men are said to be (and socialized to be) aggressive, unemotional, violent, tough, strong, etc. What feminism tries to do is not, as some believe, embrace “femininity,” but reject femininity (and masculinity) — this isn’t a yin and yang kinda thing wherein we celebrate the “feminine” and “masculine” energy within us, it’s a “femininity”-and-“masculinity”-are-not-real-things-and-reinforce-sexism kinda thing.
Dan Zak at The Washington Post wrote that, “Bowie and Prince were transgender, in that they transcended gender,” but he’s wrong.
Refusing to adhere to masculine or feminine stereotypes does not make one trans, it makes one human. Which is to say that, while humans may be biologically male or female, they are not biologically feminine or masculine. A man can wear a skirt and still be a man and a woman can have facial hair and still be a woman. If we start to say that anyone who refuses or isn’t able to perform gender in the way society teaches them to is “trans,” we assume that the gender binary is real — that a person who is big and tall and hairy and who acts aggressively or pursues sex with women is a man and a person who wears heels and dresses and is gentle and polite and is objectified by men is a woman. Anyone who strays from these norms is, then, proclaimed “trans,” leaving no room for the rest of us to exist outside of these stereotypes.
What would be far more progressive would be to, as a society, accept that people are people, and that they should be able to wear and behave however they like. It would be even better is the ideas of “femininity” and “masculinity” didn’t exist at all. If not feeling comfortable or fitting into societal rules for gender makes one “trans,” then we’re all trans to some degree — not just those men who prefer dresses and those women who don’t want to be the object of the male gaze, not just those of us who’ve never felt comfortable behaving as women are meant to behave, like me.
We aren’t there yet, to be sure. Both men and women alike are punished harshly for defying gender norms and, more often than not, our “performances” of gender are not even something we are aware of, as it’s been so ingrained in us. But surely the freedom for men and women alike to escape these oppressive boxes entirely is the long-term goal.
Let’s celebrate men like Prince and David Bowie and women like K.D. Lang and Patti Smith for refusing to fit into the stereotypical boxes patriarchal society laid out for them, not assume that those who rebel must, naturally, be the opposite gender or trans.