The Emotional Labour of the Closet: A Look at Trans Women’s Socialisation

Recent comments by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have highlighted a recurring thread in ciscentric feminist thought. Under the guise of gendered socialisation, the idea that we are shaped by the way in which we are treated during childhood, transphobic claims take form. If socialisation is determined by our assigned gender, those feminists claim, it means that trans women are socialised as men insofar as most have begun their social transition during their teenage or adult years. This analysis is appealing. However, as I will demonstrate, this portrait of socialisation is incomplete since it does not take into account how those social teachings are received. All communication implies not only a speaker but an audience. Thus, we must ask: do trans girls receive gendered teachings the same way as cis boys?

Unsurprisingly, trans communities have rejected those claims. Trans women aren’t socialised as men. Trans communal responses have been largely elaborated on social media and remain under-theorised. Nonetheless, they all seem to share much in common. We can’t be socialised into a gender we don’t have, as this attempt at socialisation would be ineffective or have very different effects. In this short text, I will mobilise the notion of emotional labour to support that argument. I owe a great inspirational debt to the many stories and arguments written by trans people in my communal circles.

The closet of plausible deniability for butch trans women who aren’t out yet

Gender socialisation is a large concept. In its broadest sense, it refers to the social processes through which we learn gender norms. Since we learn that some behaviours are befitting of men whereas other are for women, we are all socialised into an understanding of gender. Insofar as we learn the norms which apply to others, this gender socialisation understood in this first manner creates the necessary foundations for gender policing and plays an important role in gender oppression.

This broad conception cannot explain the claim that trans women would be socialised as men: each and every one of us is taught the gender norms applicable to everyone, including men. However, we can see where further arguments could be drawn by asking: how else, other than by knowing, can we relate to norms? We can know the existence of a norm, of course, but we can also internalise this norm as a personal goal or align our direct desires with it. This gives us two further arguments as to the male socialisation of trans women. Trans women could be socialised as men in the sense that they adopt masculine norms as a personal standard of behaviour, or in the sense that they adopt direct desires in line with the satisfaction of male gender norms.

A desire is said to be direct if it is about something considered desirable in itself, rather than towards a mere means to an end. A desire to play Pokémon because I like the game and value the relationship I develop with each of my little monster would be a direct desire, whereas a desire to play Pokémon because everyone cool plays it wouldn’t be. In the latter case, the desire would be indirect: I am indifferent to Pokémon in itself, but play it because I am not indifferent to trends and being perceived as cool.

Although it is not impossible, it’s hard to imagine that a plurality of trans women have authentically adopted uniquely masculine desires. Of course, I’m not denying that many trans women believed, at some point in their life, that they had those desires: denial is one hell of a drug. However, this belief is usually in bad faith and is contradicted by our emotional landscape. At the heart of transfeminine subjectivity is a profound discomfort with manhood.

We’ve rejected the first two conceptions of gender socialisation: in the first one, it’s trivial to say trans women are socialised to know male norms; in the second one, it’s quite simply false that trans women adopt distinctively male direct desires, insofar as this hypothesis is contradicted by the very essence of transfeminine subjectivity. Let us now turn to the third. Do trans women adopt male gender norms as personal goals?

Surely some do. I know that I did. However, understanding this as socialisation and internalisation obscures how we negotiate our existence in a world that categorises people on the basis of their anatomy in ways that may contradict our gendered subjectivity.

I didn’t adopt those goals because I rationally recognised their value despite their disagreement with my deeper desires. On the contrary, it is by denying my desires and managing my emotions that I adopted them. I did it to maintain my interpersonal relationships, facilitate social interactions, and ensure my emotional, economic, and physical health.

It’s a form of emotional labour: we offer emotional services that are often invisible to others in order to prevent the discomfort they would otherwise experience. Trans women do this emotional labour because they know that gender is strictly policed and that non-conformity sows discomfort and conflict. Non-conformity often means the collapse of important relationships with family, friends, or others with whom we interact on a recurring basis. It also means risking violence from strangers and close ones alike. Failing to meet gender expectations is punished with ostracism, when it’s not outright violence. Many of us learned this brutal reality being bullied in childhood and adolescence.

This emotional labour which aims at managing gender expectations is costly for trans women insofar as it arises from a conflict between gender norms and our most intimate desires. Satisfying the objectives that we have set for ourselves due to those norms is neither natural nor easy for us. On the contrary, it is sufficiently emotionally tiring that we decide to transition despite our hyperawareness of the gargantuan difficulties which trans women face.

I remember having to constantly and consciously keep in mind certain questions, such as asking whether a piece of clothing, a behaviour, or a movement was too feminine. In a crucial sense I had not internalised gender norms and couldn’t rely on my subconscious leanings to preserve my masculine façade.

Physically and emotionally, it was a heavy load. I spent substantial amounts of time thinking of how others would perceive me instead of following my desires and enjoying life. Overthinking is a source of social anxiety which led to isolation and alienation. Although I still enjoy alone time, I would often avoid social events before my transition whereas I now take great pleasure in meeting new people and spending time with friends.

Those “masculine” behaviours aren’t adopted authentically, but as a social strategy. Of those behaviours, I abandoned those which didn’t come to me naturally shortly after my transition. Of course, it wasn’t an instantaneous change. But although I have kept some undesired traits which I adopted due to the imposition of male gender norms on me, it is a problem that most cis persons share. It’s a problem that is made more complicated due to the double stereotype threat that trans women face: behaviours perceived as more feminine invite accusations of stereotyping women, whereas behaviours perceived to be masculine invite accusations of male socialisation. You can’t win! Nevertheless, tendencies attributable to male socialisation in trans women are ephemeral on the whole, and disappear rapidly behind individual idiosyncrasies.

Conceiving the gendered past of trans people as a form of gender socialisation inevitably misconstrues the complexity of trans realities and ignores the profound implications of emotional labour in pre-transition lives. Trans women are not socialised as men in any meaningful way. By seeing the social past of trans people through the lens of emotional labour, namely as a carefully constructed and maintained façade, we can better understand the nuances of trans subjectivity and resist dangerously cisnormative conceptions of gender socialisation which can only lead to further animosity towards transfeminine folk.

Published in the original French in Boucle Magazine no 2.