Helen G considers why some feminists are hostile to transgender women
Hello. My name is Helen and The F Word has generously invited me to post a short piece about my recent experiences, in the hope that other readers may find it interesting.
A little bit about me: I live in London, where I work in IT support for a medium-sized company. I don’t socialise much – as a diehard computer geek, after a long day in front of a computer monitor, there is nothing I like more than spending my free time in front of a computer monitor. I stopped smoking over a year ago and am in the ‘reactionary born-again non-smoker’ phase at the moment. I believe that women are inherently equal to men and deserve equal rights and opportunities…
…And I’m a trans woman.
I was diagnosed as being gender dysphoric in October 2006, although it was many years earlier when I first realised that I was somehow ‘different’, that something ‘wasn’t quite right’. Despite having lived with the condition all my life, it has taken me a long time to start to accept myself as I am. I reached my biggest crisis point in August 2006 and finally I knew it was time to ask for professional help to begin my transition.
Over the past 18 months, my life has changed, and continues to change, in many ways, not least of which has been undergoing my Real Life Experience on my journey towards making myself whole and real in the world. Although my transition has been a rocky road with many ups and downs, I consider myself fortunate to have had the benefit of a support network of friends and colleagues to help me through some of the more stressful and traumatic times. I passed one of the major milestones of my transition in September, when I underwent Sex Reassignment Surgery in Bangkok. In the time since then my gender dissonance – the idea that my subconscious gender and the one I was born with are incongruent – has improved substantially and I have no doubt that transitioning and surgery were absolutely the right options for me. No regrets.
During my transition, I have discovered in others depths of understanding, wisdom, humour and caring that I feared may not exist. The experience has not been without its negative aspects – as a consequence I have developed an interest in gender politics, feminist theory and trans feminism. There are any number of resources on the web covering these subjects in many ways; in terms of feminist sites, many of them – such as The F Word (obviously!), Feministe, Mind The Gap, and so on – have become firm favourites on my Bookmarks list for their provision of inclusive and informative spaces. As regards trans-related content, Lisa Harney’s Questioning Transphobia blog stands out from the crowd. And I have to mention Julia Serano’s book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity: essential reading.
I have been concerned, however, to find hostility towards trans women (in particular) from some radical feminists online. It is a truism to say that, to some ‘womyn-born-womyn’ (and that term in itself reflects a worryingly biocentrist viewpoint), while women are second-class citizens, trans women are simply second-class women. I’m still not sure if that’s trans-misogynist, transphobic or both.
To be told that as a trans woman I am variously reinforcing the gender binary, supporting the patriarchy, using male privilege to gain access into women’s spaces, that I ‘take up too much social space’, that my experience and identity is not valid and that I am not a real woman (whatever that may be), demonstrates an insulting and offensive attitude which can only have come from bigoted transphobes. They would deny not only my lived reality as a trans woman but also what it takes to change sex. This is not something I have ‘chosen’, any more than anybody ‘chooses’ to suffer any medical condition.
To my mind, there is a parallel with another section of the public. Early in my transition, when the oestrogen patches were beginning noticeably to feminise my body, even though I still appeared obviously male; when I was starting to assemble a more ‘feminine’ wardrobe and experimenting with mascara and lipgloss; when I was out in public, on the street, on the Tube. Time and again, complete strangers, random passers-by, would take it on themselves to sneer disapprovingly at me, denigrating me with stage whispers as I walked by. Was I an effeminate man or a butch woman? “I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman.” Hurtful remarks like that can demolish one’s fragile self-confidence in the time it takes to say them.
Nowadays, I am more confident and increasingly able to shrug it off. “Why do you think my genitalia are any of your business?” – because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Prurience and sheer, bloody nosiness. Part of me tries to be tolerant: it’s just human nature, we all judge each other in a whole variety of ways in addition to sex, including size, shape and skin colour. If you present to me as, let’s say, a woman, I will respect that.-why, then, do so many people believe they know what’s beneath my knickers and think they have the right to make such judgmental and ill-informed comments, to objectify and tokenise me? I give you my respect, the least you could do is return the compliment. But remember: I have done this for me and nobody else. And I don’t have to justify my existence to anyone, thank you very much. This is who I am.
Some might ask why I even bothered trying to pass, why I was perpetuating the gender binary? After all, isn’t a major goal of some feminists to completely dismantle gender? Maybe, and I wish them lots of luck in their quest, but my primary motivation was simple: I was – I am – a woman. I was not at some other part of the gender spectrum. My brain was expecting a body with female characteristics and my focus was on correcting that discordance. By all means, let’s scrap gender, if we can. But I am still a woman and will remain so. Dismantling gender will not change that. I can’t help thinking that there may well be almost as many genders as there are people – the binary is an illusion – which, in turn, makes me wonder how realistic a hope it is that gender can be scrapped. Perhaps we might consider instead accepting and embracing all manifestations of gender.
But I can’t help thinking that the idea of dismantling gender and the idea that gender is a social construct are mistakenly based on a specific interpretation of gender identity. My own initial simplistic understanding was that our sex is what’s between our legs, whereas gender is what’s between our ears. For the majority of people, sex and gender are synonymous, which may make it difficult to understand how anybody else could have a different experience. What I had to deal with was, as mentioned, a brain that was expecting a body with female characteristics. Now, some three months after surgery, I find that the more I learn, the less I know. Gender is an immensely complex subject and, in a funny way, I’m almost envious of those who see the world so clearly that they can make statements like “gender is a social construct” and that it should, and can, be dismantled. I believe that gender roles are social constructs, definitely, but not gender per se. It would only be possible to dismantle gender if you could separate it from biological sex.
In the early stages of my transition, I wondered about the present as well as the future that I faced. At that point, it was hard to say exactly where my transition was going to lead me. To surgery, certainly, that was never in doubt. The question of reinventing myself as a woman seemed pointless, since I already was a woman, but there was pressure from the medical profession to present myself ‘en femme’, as it was so euphemistically called. The unspoken subtext was that those oh-so-important referrals for surgery would not be forthcoming if I didn’t. But what, exactly, defines a woman? That was a question which preoccupied me for much of that time. Although I was as comfortable in skirts and dresses as I was in jeans, because my body was still undergoing its hormonally driven feminisation, I still looked very much like the stereotypical ‘bloke in a frock’.
Think of those dreadful makeover programmes on television, the ones that we all watch even though we all say we don’t. I’m thinking of the one where the subject of the makeover is taken to a public place and the presenter asks random passers-by what they think the subject’s age is. I’d like us to imagine a similar setup, with one or two variations to make it more relevant.
Okay. There are two of us: me and a natal woman. We’re of similar heights, builds, etc. We’re wearing similar non-gender specific clothes. Perhaps we’re wearing the same sort of things that 90% of my female colleagues wear, for 90% of the time.
So we have simple, plain tops, probably a jumper or a sweatshirt, for the sake of this example. And the universal uniform, blue denim jeans. No particular cut or shape, just plain old, baggy-ish, boring, comfortable blue jeans. Because it’s imaginary, I’ll say that we’re in the middle of, oh I don’t know, Piccadilly Circus.
It’s dark so the bright flashing neon billboards give a suitably action-packed backdrop. Which we need for television purposes because she and I are standing side by side, stock still. Something like those stupid baseball caps to hide our hair styles. Plain white trainers. No jewellery. And no makeup either. We’re looking straight ahead, and we’re silent.
Our irritatingly vacuous presenter is scurrying around, waving a microphone under people’s noses while an irritatingly vacuous camera crew is circling around, taking that shaky, hand-held footage which, frankly, makes me feel a little motion-sick. The presenter is asking one simple question: who is the boy and who is the girl? Without exception, that random selection of, say, 100 passers-by would have identified me as ‘the boy’ and my companion as ‘the girl’.
Which brings me to my question: how do they know which of us is which, when we are dressed identically, when there has been no verbal contact, no eye contact, no physical contact? I had no answer to that question a year ago, and I still have no simple, glib one-sentence answer to it now…
The concept that “the personal is political” (meaning that everything personal must be interpreted as a political act) misses the point when considering trans issues. Transitioning is not, in itself, a directly political act: it is about doing what is necessary for survival. It has been said that, while transitioning is not a question of choice, it is a matter of life and death. To hit rock bottom and then undertake the long climb back brings both good and bad experiences. One learns to cherish the high points because they help you through the bad times. And the darker moments include every single occasion when some random stranger, some anonymous passer-by, has decided that they know what you’re thinking and presume to talk about you as though you exist only as a figment of their imaginations, as if you had no real existence. And that, by anybody’s standards, is presumptuous to the point of arrogance.
But although transitioning has informed my politics, by and of itself it is not politics. I am a real person, I am a trans woman. Denying the validity of my existence and experience diminishes us all. The truth is that all women, be they cisgendered or, like me, a trans woman – are inherently equal to men and deserve equal rights and opportunities. No more, but certainly no less. My understanding that this was a fundamental tenet of the first wave of feminism which developed from the suffrage movement and remains a cornerstone of feminist philosophy. As yet, it still has not happened and is, or should be, something that all women are striving to achieve. Until it happens, we are simply an oppressed class. And from where I stand, it seems clear that those who seek to exclude trans women are themselves oppressors who perhaps should consider their own place in the feminist movement.