Justin Bieber looks like a girl. Isn't that hilarious?
If my 2,200 Facebook friends are any indicator, we LGBT people sure think so. After his arrest last week for drag racing on the streets of Miami, my feed quickly filled with photoshopped shots of the Biebs: in a dress, in garish makeup, or placed alongside fellow headline grabber (and avowed female person) Miley Cyrus to emphasize their uncanny resemblance. For a couple of days, we just couldn't get enough of it. The queer zeitgeist caught a severe case of rapid-onset Bieber Femme Fever, the symptoms of which are finally beginning to wane as a new week begins.
So now that we're through the worst of it, let's reflect on just what we found so funny about the whole thing.
In our culture, people get assigned a sex at birth, either male or female. That assignment puts you on one of two socialization tracks: You're either raised to become a man or raised to become a woman. You're taught ways of appearing and behaving that are considered appropriate for your assigned sex, expectations that are constantly reinforced by society at large. And you're welcomed into society only to the degree to which you are willing and able to live up to these expectations.
People who can't or won't live up to them are first corrected ("Honey, little boys don't play with dolls"). If that doesn't work, they are punished, either emotionally or physically, to show them what it means to forfeit the protection of the group, the true cost of nonconformity. Those who still don't respond are finally shunned, both to isolate the threat they represent and to serve as a deterrent for others who might be tempted to deviate.
Ridicule, the use of humor to show contempt or disdain, plays a powerful role in this normalizing process. Queer people ought to understand that better than most--which of us hasn't at some point been mocked or made fun of for being too butch for a girl or too femme for a guy? We also understand how frequently ridicule is paired with or leads to violence to get norm-violators like us to toe the line. This is especially true of people born boys, for whom being called a girl is the ultimate insult.
Though it's rooted in sexism, this kind of ridicule isn't really misogyny--because it's generally not directed at women. It's actually transphobia, the prejudice that targets people whose gender expression or appearance doesn't conform to the norm.
So then, why did a bunch of queer people feel comfortable engaging in a little casual transphobia, mocking Justin Bieber because they perceived his appearance as veering a bit toward the femme? I don't know, but I hope we'll give it some thought. Because as long as our society considers it a joke for someone who was assigned sex male at birth to look like a woman, transgender people like me will keep dying for it.
Allyson Robinson is principal of Warrior Poet Strategies, advising select clients in organizational design, diversity management, and movement entrepreneurship. She was the first out transgender person hired by the Human Rights Campaign and, later, the first to lead a national LGBT organization as executive director of OutServe-SLDN. She's also served as an Army officer and Baptist pastor, studied at West Point and Oxford University, and earned degrees in physics and theology. Follow Allyson Robinson on Twitter.