The Rise of Trans Women Models Has Nothing To Do With ‘Socialization’

A record number of trans and non-binary models walked runways from New York to Paris during this season’s fashion shows, marking a larger, if tenuous, shift in the industry toward more inclusion and acceptance.

The Marc Jacobs and Prabal Gurung runways were graced with Dara Allen while model Teddy Quinlivan walked over a dozen shows for designers like Michael Kors, Chloe and Maison Margiela. The Marco Marco show in New York was especially notable. The designer cast the show with nothing but trans men and women and non-binary people, a global first and a stunning representation of the beauty and diversity of the trans community.

Trans icon and singer Laith Ashley was one of the models chosen to represent the designer’s sexy and over-the-top creations on the runway. Given his opportunity and visibility, it was disheartening to see him part his perfect lips and say the words “trans women who may have been socialized male.”  

During an interview with Mic Dispatch that seemingly dichotomizes the relationship between trans men and women, and suggests that there is some mystical force barring trans men from the hallowed halls of fashion campaigns and runways, editor Evan Ross Katz asks Ashley why trans men are underrepresented and trans women proportionally overrepresented in modeling.    

There’s a patently obvious answer: trans women are, on average, taller than cis women and usually have narrower hips and stronger bone structure — all benefits in modeling. Also, trans men are typically too short to meet the average male model height requirements. But that point seemed lost on Ashley, even though it is brought up later in the piece by Katz. That modeling is a exploitative industry based in the patriarchal commodification of women’s bodies (thus requiring increased female participation) escaped both men.

Instead, Laith articulated a line of thinking almost indistinguishable from an introduction to a White Feminism curriculum or a TERF tweet, collapsing all cis men and trans women (really all people who are assigned male at birth) into one homogenous, teeming mass, Ashley states that trans women “are taught to take up space, to be louder and more boisterous.” News to me.

Speaking for and about the trans community is a huge burden, and not everyone is up to the challenge. What Ashley said was incredibly ill-informed but we cannot ignore the platform he was given by Mic to disparage the lived experiences of trans women. And in the end, his statements only pit trans men and women against each other.

It’s not just modeling where trans women are more visible and take up more space. We’re also overrepresented in porn, sex work, prisons and morgues. More of our names are called during Trans Day of Remembrance, more of us are misgendered when we are murdered, more of us are harassed in bathrooms and gyms, marked as pedophiles and rapists. 

Visibility is not a privilege, and neither is a history of avowedly innocuous male socialization that purportedly offers us protection in our pasts and advantages in our presents. Having a painful past spun as a positive experience is not only insulting and ahistorical but seems like wish fulfillment on the part of Ashley, a fantasy of what his childhood could and should have been like.

Socialization applied to a certain assigned sex is not something that we passively receive; we are not lackadaisical bottoms in this exchange. We, in many ways, enact and police the behaviors of others; we learn how and when to apply pressure to those whose bodies and sensibilities are marked as deviant, as devious. We all learn to become what critical scholar and feminist theorist Sara Ahmed calls the “straightening rod.”   

Ashley here acts as a cis interloper, as a straightening rod, using our painful pasts as a cudgel when we step out of line, are too loud, take up too much space or are more successful. Too often, claiming any male behavior on the part of trans women is a technique designed to shame and silence, and it’s a technique that is borrowed wholesale from cis misogyny. 

Unfortunately, Ashley lacks the wherewithal to turn this analysis on himself or other trans masculine people, choosing instead a truncated argument. His own burgeoning music career, with accompanying blue-lit video, blurred visions of him grinding his hips into a lingerie clad cis woman (who is black with dark skin, thank heaven for small miracles) highlights the fallacy of this totalizing, immutable socialization he implicates upon trans women.

These are not the behaviors of someone who was successfully socialized as stereotypically female. These are not the behaviors of someone who was told to be quiet and internalized it.

Lacking nuance and sophistication is not a crime, and I cannot wholly blame Ashley for ingesting and regurgitating harmful and ignorant stereotypes in an effort to downplay the fact that the real reasons he hasn’t found more mainstream success is due to systems within modeling that require bodies to fit certain characteristics. Socialization has nothing to do with it, especially not that of models who have found more work.

There was an opportunity here for a context-sensitive discussion about the hyper-visibility of trans women and the ways in which trans men are obscured and removed from narratives (sometimes of their own volition), and that opportunity was missed.

Perhaps, in the hands of a more enlightened team, the interview would have been different, but allowing cis people to turn us against each other to compete for meager scraps of attention and affection is not the look.

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