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The Assimilationist, or: On the Unexpected Cost of Passing as a Trans Woman

The trouble with finding my true self in the beauty aisles.


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a timid-looking woman at a store, shopping

Photo by Annie Mok for Vox

In March 2018, a handful of days after I came out to my therapist as a trans woman, I decided to buy a razor to shave my legs.

For the first time in my life, I was aware that my legs had hair on them, and I was at once irritated by that hair and a little anxious about it. I didn’t know why, but I wanted it gone. Even though I had a perfectly good razor I used to shave my facial hair, I felt strongly that I needed something pink or purple to tackle the thicket on my legs.

So, standing there in a Target razor aisle looking for something functional but also cute, my anxiety growing as I was sure people were looking at me and seeing my secret true self and judging me accordingly, I found myself torn. The pink razor marked as explicitly “for women” was so lovely and sleek — but it was also functionally the same product as the black-and-neon-green razor for manly dudes right next to it. And the pink razor was $1 more expensive.

Intellectually, I knew the “pink tax” existed because I had spent most of my adult life reading up on women’s issues. (I wonder why?) But this was my first encounter with it in the wild, with the fact that you could want so badly to feel a sense of belonging that you would let capitalism gouge you over and over again. I wanted so desperately to indicate my essential woman-ness that I was willing to pay extra for it.

Screwing up my courage, I grabbed the razor, keeping my head down at the cash register, ready to say that it was for my wife, should anybody ask. (Newly out trans people are terrified of the gender police, who generally don’t exist except in our heads.)

That pink razor was a piece of crap, and within six months, I had to replace it. My old men’s razor — which I still use to shave what facial hair I have left — is going strong after years of use.

In the months thereafter, money seemingly poured out of me. It was so, so expensive to be a woman. I found myself having to buy an entirely new wardrobe, one I’m still struggling to fill out here and there. I needed new shoes. I needed makeup. Buying all this stuff in aggregate was expensive, of course, but each individual item was expensive in and of itself.

Can a man spend a lot of money on clothing? Of course. But he also has many affordable options. Finding such options in the women’s section was its own challenge. It was as if I was experiencing the market pressures of being a teen girl in the space of about three months instead of over several years.

Even beyond that, there’s the cost of laser hair removal and electrolysis to get rid of my facial hair. There are regular sessions with a therapist who specializes in gender dysphoria. There was a crash course in voice training, in an attempt to coax my old rumble into a reasonable alto. Changing my name cost almost $500, and a printout of the paperwork proving my name was changed was another $50. There are so many expenses to come, including surgeries and more documentation of my identity, and so on and so forth. It’s expensive and exhausting, and it will never end.

And yet I never ask myself why I’m doing all this. I just am. I need to.

There’s a word that comes up in trans circles often, and I think it probably describes me (or, at least, people have used it to refer to me at times, when they think I don’t know they’re doing it): assimilationist.

The best way to describe an assimilationist is to describe myself, so here’s what I’m wearing right now, on a chilly California day at the start of the year: My hair (on which I use somewhat expensive lightening shampoo to coax it toward a dirty blonde) hangs just past my chin. On my nose sit round-framed blue glasses ($500). I’m wearing a full face of makeup (my first visit to Sephora ran me $250, good fucking God), and I have on a pink sweater, a gray undershirt, black tights, and a ruffled black skirt (around $120, all told, mostly from Target). Cap this off with some dark purple running shoes ($75) and you’ve got the whole look.

This outfit would not seem out of place on just about any woman in her 30s who works in the media. It’s a solid everyday look when I don’t have to make any on-camera appearances. (I have a more expensive wardrobe for when I do.)

That’s precisely the point of the assimilationist claim: As trans people, we’re supposed to complicate the gender binary, not uphold it. By trying my damnedest not to stand out but to blend in — to tilt whatever little equation you run in your head when you see me away from “man” and toward “woman” — I’m propagating a system that hurts both trans people and women disproportionately, via everything from broad, systemic violence to the relatively minor sin of the pink tax.

Here’s the thing that gives me a thrill but probably shouldn’t: It’s working. I can count the number of times I’ve been misgendered in the past six months on two hands, and it now happens so infrequently that I can chalk it up to somebody misspeaking far more often than to a deliberate attempt to make me feel like shit. I’ve even had a few encounters where someone was shocked to learn I was trans, not cis. I’ve developed camouflage.

My justification for my style, from the first, has always been that if you Google my name, the very first page of results is filled with stories about how I’m trans. Even as I increasingly “pass” for a cis woman, I can’t escape the fact that I became a vaguely public figure and spent more than a decade publishing journalism (and a book!) under a man’s name. Even if I am invisibly trans in a crowd of people on the street, I am visibly trans once you know who I am, because unlike so many trans women, I was already visible when I transitioned.

Still, my transition has gone much, much better than I expected it to. I had certain advantages in this regard, from economics (I have much more money than the majority of trans women) to race (white trans people have the same built-in societal advantages as white people in general) to geography (California presents few structural barriers when an adult wants to transition).

I also had advantages when it came to my genetic code. My testosterone level has been low my whole life, so my body was already fairly androgynous. It didn’t take that much estrogen to shift androgyny toward traditional femininity. See also:

Same dress, same mirror, 7 months apart. pic.twitter.com/49hKYgynTN

— Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti) January 15, 2020

Many trans women have few or even none of my advantages. They cannot escape the fact that when they go out into society as themselves, they are constantly, visibly trans, with all the horrors that can bring. They can’t pay to eliminate their beard shadow. They can’t buy feminine clothes that fit their frames. They can’t spend countless hours training their voice to sound just so.

And not all trans women are traditionally feminine. Many prefer looks that might skew toward androgyny or butchness. And this is just trans women — I haven’t touched on trans men, on nonbinary people, on gender fluidity, on those who are agender.

Our goal as trans people should be to normalize all of these identities and in so doing push back against an unfairly limiting gender binary that hurts cis men and women, too. That binary imprisons all of us within a limited set of ideas of who we can be and what we are capable of, and many of the rules that govern it are arbitrary and invented by a society built by cis men for the benefit of cis men.

Okay. I agree with all of the above. But I also love to be a traditionally feminine woman. Womanhood and women in general just make more sense to me than anything else I’ve ever tried. (My attempts at male bonding over the years glistened with flop sweat.) The gender binary makes me feel more like me. I want to eliminate it. I also want to hang on to some of it. It feels like I just got here.

The thing about self-acceptance is that when you’re just getting used to it, you become an easy mark. The first time I went to Sephora, I spent way more on makeup than I ever thought possible, because the salesperson who helped me made me feel so good about myself. From the second she learned my name, she called me Emily, even though I was in full guy mode. She used she/her pronouns. She told me I was pretty. I plunked down $250, and I would have spent well over $300 if she had managed to talk me into a $70 foundation. (My wife saved me on that one.)

To be clear: None of this is the salesperson’s fault. None of it is my fault, either. This is just how society is designed to function, and to come out as trans later in life is to suddenly start careening downhill into a newer, truer gender, without some of the guardrails that snap into place when you grow up cis and figure out the ways society tries to exploit you on the grounds of gender.

It’s not like any of us are immune to these capitalist pressures. There are distinct economic expressions of “womanhood” and “manhood” that are meant to help us all find a sense of belonging and centeredness in our own genders by spending money on products to affirm them. We can be aware of this manipulation, can even roll our eyes at it, and still be susceptible to it.

The problem, I suppose, is that I like being an assimilationist. I like it when people just assume I’m a woman without a second glance. I like it when I don’t have to explain myself. I like that if I go to buy a pink razor that’s more expensive than a men’s razor now, I never feel I have to come up with an excuse for why I might be buying it.

This makes me feel more affirmed as an individual, but it also makes me feel like a shitty member of the trans community. The larger political project of dismantling the terrible structures of the capitalist patriarchy continues apace, and here I am cooing over my friend giving me a bracelet that spells out my name in Morse code. (Want to win a trans girl’s heart? Give her jewelry that involves her name somehow. You’ll have a friend for life.)

I cannot ignore that in my attempts to slide headfirst into womanhood, I am more or less appeasing a society that is set up to favor cis people. I am especially doing a disservice to my nonbinary siblings, whose very existences challenge the idea that there are “men” and “women” and that’s it. I am a safe version of transness, corporatized and commodified, fit for mass-market consumption. I do not challenge you to rethink the gender binary in any real way.

But affirmation is not a thing that can be given to us. It is something we nurture and grow from within, and it comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are people. Gender is a social construct, except for all the ways in which it sure seems like it’s deeply ingrained within my very self, and if you tell me I look pretty today, I will smile and thank you for the compliment.

This is not all that different from how a cis woman might navigate the world, or so I’m told. We’re all constantly making our own compromises with some feminine ideal that was created for us at some point, an amalgam of a million different ideas of what it means to be a woman that is internally inconsistent and makes no sense, yet holds this unattainable appeal for way too many of us. (Men do this, too, of course.)

Maybe I run so hard toward becoming that idealized girl because I know I can never be her, due to the circumstances of my birth. Maybe if I run hard enough, I’ll get there and suddenly wake up a suburban mother of two in Omaha, Nebraska. Maybe I wear so many dresses because I really love wearing dresses. Maybe I’m just overthinking it.

There are reasons to blend in beyond self-acceptance. Namely, the world is already cruel, and being trans only ramps up that cruelty. If you can find a way to escape that cruelty, shouldn’t you?

Let me give you an example. While riding the train from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica recently, I became dimly aware that a man standing right in front of me was shouting a homophobic slur at someone sitting behind me, over and over. This other person, whom I could not see, begged him to stop, in a voice deep enough for me to assume masculinity.

I was wrong. When the target of the man’s slurs launched herself at him, I saw she was wearing a woman’s top and skirt. She had long messy hair. She windmilled down the aisle of the train and tried to land a punch or slap or something on the man. She failed, while he dropped her to the floor, flailing at her with his fists and feet, mostly failing to connect. Eventually, they were separated by others on the train.

As the woman pulled away, I felt the lurch of recognizing a fellow trans woman, albeit one who does not pass for cis, whether she wants to or not. I cannot know her situation, but I have seen variations on her in every support group I’ve been to, in every young, scared woman DMing me on Twitter to ask if she, too, might be trans, as though I had the power to lift a terrible curse.

While she retreated, other passengers laughed that exhausted, relieved laugh that arises in any situation where people who’ve just been through a tense situation are simply glad to have gotten out unscathed. But I felt something else in the laughter, something beyond “What the fuck was that?” I figured it out as I exited the train at the next stop, in front of some teenage boys who were still laughing about the altercation.

“You see that dude?” one of them said. “He was in a skirt.” They howled at the thought, while I was two steps ahead of them, wearing a dress. They were oblivious to my presence and to my transness. I passed, because I assimilated.

Here’s the part where I tell you that I turned around and told them to shut up, risking the freedom of passing to do the right thing. Or here’s the part where I tell you I found the woman in the crowd of people exiting the train and walked her to wherever she was headed. Or here’s the part where I tell you that I resolved to do better, to push more against the strictures of the binary.

But I did none of these things. I simply quickened my pace and walked on to my appointment. Assimilation affords me the privilege of not getting involved, of doing the easy thing instead of the right thing. It also afforded the teens walking behind me the privilege of laughing at a cruel joke, rather than trying to push back against it. And it afforded all of my fellow passengers the privilege of rolling our eyes when the man started yelling slurs at the woman, rather than trying to get him to stop. Assimilation lets me be seen but also not seen. I can disappear. And in disappearing, some part of me evaporates.

Could I have said something? Certainly. Should I have said something? I don’t know. I keep wanting to call myself a coward, but I am also right to feel scared. What if everybody had found me out? What might have happened then? The border between my safety and something horrible is so tenuous, and societal norms dictate that I am the one who’s asked to enforce it, not anybody who might dare to cross it.

This is insufficient as an apology to the woman on the train. I’m sorry about what happened to you, and I’m sorry I didn’t stop it. I’m sorry literally anybody else who could have didn’t shout down that man. I hope you are okay. I have no excuses. I blend in because I love to wear dresses. I blend in because I love to go out with my women friends and have no one bat an eye when they see us together. And I blend in because I feel a power in living as my true self.

Assimilation is powerful and affirming, but it is also a bind that traps me, tempting me into closing the door behind me to all of the trans people who cannot assimilate or do not want to. It’s a false choice between the allure of belonging and the power of speaking out against injustice. Early in my transition, a trans guy friend told me that sometimes trans people are so aware of their individual privileges that they become all they can see. I didn’t understand what he was saying at the time. I do now.

But my friend said something else, too, which is that one’s own happiness is not a sin. Assimilating, blending in, is not a choice I made for safety reasons or even aesthetic ones. It’s an expression of who I really am. The challenge is to keep holding that door open, to not close it behind me, to take a sledgehammer to its edges until it’s wide enough for everyone. Womanhood is too expansive a category to be defined by limited parameters, no matter how it’s marketed.

Capitalism feeds off this ideal woman, but it didn’t strictly create her. She’s an outgrowth of all of us, a golem created over millennia by an ever-shifting set of thoughts on what it means to be a woman. To be a trans woman is perhaps to be more aware of this odd set of expectations, of the way you probably don’t need that pink razor but want it anyway. But it’s not to be uniquely aware of those expectations. I am an assimilationist not because I have failed to examine my choices or the options afforded me under capitalism, but because when I find myself affirmed by family, by friends, by random strangers, I realize how deeply intoxicating it can be to love your life.

What a novelty this is! To fight and fight and fight and discover the simple beauty of actually living the life you merely occupied before.

 Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. She has written about anti-trans laws, the ways we are rethinking the American family, and the use of color in TV and film. She is a 2022 Hugo Award nominee for her profile of science fiction author Isabel Fall. She has also been the critic-at-large and culture editor for Vox. She is the co-author of the book Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files.

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This post originally appeared on Vox and was published February 19, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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