Transgender Violence – Society’s Obsession with “Doing” Gender

I wrote this a couple of months ago for my Sociology paper last semester. I would like to see what your thoughts are 🙂  Depending on your responses, I may put up more essays and such like in the future

Concept Exercise – ‘Doing’ Gender

From the moment we are born, we are assigned to one of two genders which we are expected to perform for the remainder of our life. Boys are masculine and girls are feminine. In order to portray the correct image, we must ‘do’ gender as society has constructed it. This is the only way to “[affirm] and [maintain] our gender identities” (McLennan, McManus, & Spoonley, 2010, p. 107). Gender is something we learn to ‘do’, being encouraged by our parents, teachers, even friends and public spaces (such as male and female public toilets). Because it is something we have to learn, it is therefore not “a pre-determined state” (Connell, 2009, p. 5). We are taught to avoid gender ambiguities through the clothes we wear, the toys we are given to play with, the way our hair is cut etc. An example of how socially constructed gender is, is how “[before] World War I, it was not uncommon for boys to wear pink, which the promotional literature of the time called ‘a stronger, more decided colour’. Girls wore blue which was understood to be ‘delicate’ and ‘dainty’” (Garber, 1992 as cited in (McLennan, McManus, & Spoonley, 2010, p. 107)). In the present day, a baby dressed in blue is acknowledged as a boy, whereas a baby in pink is most definitely a girl.

Should we decide to perform a gender or in a way that is not the socially accepted match to our biological sex, this can lead to confusion as to what social discourse should be used. Even though gender ambiguity is common, with many people using a blend of “masculine and feminine characteristics” to form their personal gender identity, we are still expected to perform the one most closely related to our biological sex (Connell, 2009, p. 6). Otherwise we can be labelled with terms such as “effeminate, camp, queer and transgender” (Connell, 2009, p. 6) and more derogatory terms like fag and poof. Because society has been constructed with men/males being masculine and women/females being feminine, any deviation from this can cause fear, misunderstanding and hatred.

The effects of fear, misunderstanding and hatred can been seen with the hate crimes committed against transgendered people, the result of someone not ‘doing’ their gender in the socially accepted way. A recent case in America resulted in the country’s first conviction “of first-degree murder and a bias motivated crime” (Spellman, 2009). Angie Zapata, who lived as a woman after being born a male, was killed by Allen Andrade in Summer 2008. They met on an online social networking site and while “Andrade admitted killing Zapata, […] his defence argued he acted in the heat of passion after discovering Zapata was biologically male” and “asked for a […] verdict such as second-degree murder or manslaughter” (Spellman, 2009). The defence constantly identified Zapata as “he”, while the prosecutors identified her as “she”. “[The] prosecutors […] argued that Andrade knew Zapata was biologically male and that motivated the crime” (Spellman, 2009). She was killed because she was “born in a boy’s body but [was] living as a female” (Miller as cited in (Spellman, 2009)).

Hate crimes against transgendered people is not a new thing. Brandon Teena was killed on New Year’s Eve, 1993 “on account of gender non-conformity” (Matzner, 2004). Teena lived as a man but was a biological female. After moving to Falls City, Nebraska, a small rural town, Teena started to data Lana Tisdel. He was arrested for forging cheques and the police department found that he was biologically female. They provided this information to the local newspaper and they published it, outing Teena. Tisdel bailed him out of jail and did not react negatively to the outing. Two friends of Tisdel, John Lotter and Tom Nissen, “who had become close to Teena were shocked and angered by the disclosure” (Matzner, 2004). At a party on 24 December, they sought to humiliate Teena by pulling down his pants in front of Tisdel. Later that night, they raped and beat Teena, saying if he reported them, they would kill him. Teena reported them immediately and one week later, Lotter and Nissen found Teena at the farmhouse of Lisa Lambert where he was staying. They shot and stabbed him as well as killing Lambert and Phillip DeVine, who was also staying at the house. “Nissen was sentenced to life in prison without parole [and] Lotter received the death sentence” (Matzner, 2004). Teena’s mother filed a civil suit against Richardson County and its sheriff and was awarded $98,223 for the failure of the County to protect Teena by arresting Lotter and Nissen straight away after the first incident (Matzner, 2004).

Hate crimes against transgendered people are a direct result of the social construction of gender. Because society has such a strong influence on what we come to believe as acceptable and ‘normal’, through our parents, education and friends, when we come across something or someone that is not ‘normal’, we do not know how to react. By not performing their ‘correct’ gender with which they were assigned at birth, transgendered people generate fear and misunderstanding among others in the community who are considered ‘normal’. Unfortunately, this fear and misunderstanding often generates hatred which can take the form of physical violence, something that both Brandon Teena and Angie Zapata sadly discovered and paid for with their lives.

Until society stops being obsessed with people ‘doing’ their correct gender, incidents such as the horrific acts against Brandon Teena and Angie Zapata and their results deaths will continue to happen. ‘Doing’ ones gender is so deeply engrained within Western society, it is unlikely there will be any positive change and acceptance towards people ‘doing’ whatever gender they feel most comfortable ‘doing’, whether it be the one that matches their biological sex, the opposite or a mixture of the two. There must also be acceptance that both gender and sexuality are fluid and may change throughout their various stages of our lives. While ‘doing’ your correct gender continues to be the status quo, it will take many years and possibly many generations as we learn the mistakes of our elders, not fully understanding the extent of the damage those mistakes cause. Society needs to learn that what may be ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ for one individual may not be the same for anyone else. Until this changes, the violence caused by the fear, misunderstand and hatred of transgendered people and anyone else who is not considered ‘normal’ will continue to rise.


Connell, R. (2009). Short Introductions: Gender. Cambridge; Malden, MA02148, USA: Polity Press.
Matzner, A. (2004, December 31). Teena, Brandon. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from glbtq: An encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture:
McLennan, G., McManus, R., & Spoonley, P. (2010). Exploring Society (3rd ed.). North Shore, New Zealand: Pearson.
Spellman, J. (2009, April 23). Transgender murder, hate crime conviction a first. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from

9 thoughts on “Transgender Violence – Society’s Obsession with “Doing” Gender

  1. Society is obsessed with putting people in boxes. Anyone who doesn’t fit must be fixed and if they can’t be they are labelled “other” and are considered in some way broken. It has been the same with anyone who defies the norm since the beginning of time!
    I like who clearly you have spelt out “Doing” and “Being”

    The one thing I would point out is the use of the term “Transgendered”
    As Dr. Jillian T. Weiss puts it
    “transgendered” is a problematic term for journalists. “Transgender” is considered an adjective, not a noun. That means that there are no “transgendered” people, only transgender people, just as there are no “gayed’ people or “lesbianed” people”

    That quote is from an article she did on the Randy Cohen article (which you also did a blog post on :)) her resources are linked in the article too.

    • Thanks for the tip re “transgendered”, I’m definitely still learning when it comes to the correct terms 🙂 interesting thgh, that hadn’t been pointed out in my Gender Studies or Sociology courses.

      Does seem as society progress on, it gets more and more concerned with putting ppl in boxes. Intersex ppl for example, back in ancient Greece they embraced an intersex person and they were able to be whoever they wanted to be. It wasn’t until the early church became involved and people then had to decided which gender they were. They were able to be married, but only to a person of the opposite gender they choose. If later on, they decided that they hadn’t chosen the “correct” gender, they weren’t allowed to have any sexual contact with their spouse, because they would be then engaging in homosexual relations, which of course according to the church is a big no no.

      It’s the way that people always seem to be more interested in what goes on in other peoples lives and bedrooms than their own. It’s really none of their business and I wish people would realise and accept that.

  2. This is a fantastic piece. I love how you lay out “doing” a gender. As the child of a transgender parent, this really hit home.

    Honestly, I wish people would relax their death-grip on forced-labeling. If you want to have a label, fine. If you need to use labels inside your owb=n head to keep yourself sane, fine – just don’t let it color your interactions with people who don’t want your labels. And above all: what goes on in someone else’s bedroom is none of your business unless you’re lucky enough to be invited to join them!

  3. Pingback: Bathroom Talk « That Girl, Fae

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