Saturday • 2017.03.18
Are Trans Women Real Women?
A couple of stories have come out recently about incidents where cis women commentators have courted controversy by opining that Trans women aren’t “real” women, on the grounds that we have (to some degree) lived experience of male privilege.
Morgan Page‘s excellent response article on BuzzFeed thoroughly addressed the ideological conflict between Second Wave feminists versus trans women, placing it in a historical context that is highly useful in criticizing the issue analytically, but when trans identity is directly attacked in media, an emotional response is also called for. Here is mine.
Does some experience of male privilege invalidate a female gender identity?
Let’s put aside for the moment the veritable tsunami of little baby trans girls coming out this decade, begging their parents to let them wear “nice” clothes and have long hair as early as age five or younger… Who seem increasingly more common, from the stories in the media, to the influx of “help” and “advice” emails I receive having shifted from mostly young adults to the parents of trans children: Kids who’ve never yet been forced to live as their assigned gender in adult society.
Unless we’re counting as a form of privilege forcing 5-year-olds to present and act in certain ways and punishing their “deviance” to make them stronger, then it’s safe to say we’ve got an entire generation of little trans girls incoming who are going to grow up without that assumed-experience of male privilege, a group for whom the question is moot.
But the questions raised by the would-be pundits of womanhood, regarding adult-transitioning trans women (who unlike most women, have lived for a time as men), have obtained clicks. And so perhaps, as we judge these days, they bear some examination.
I can’t speak for others (many trans women consider themselves never to have been men, and that’s their business), so let me instead be accused of navel-gazing and spew forth a slice of “when I was a man.”
There was a time when I wore a suit and a tie, or polos, and cut my hair short. Success at my job came so easily. I was lucky enough to be employed in a field well-suited to my capabilities, and I learned how to win quickly. I spoke bombastically, I led, I was empowered with the ability to persuade effectively. I rose through the ranks quickly and ended up in charge of the IT department where I worked. I was legitimately the smartest person in that department (or at least I think I was, and I was allowed at the time to confidently believe I was).
I reported to non-technical business guys, and so more often than not, the ultimate decision in any room mostly rested with me. Drunk on my own charisma, I rode an easy career train to success, and I naively deceived myself at the time into believing it was purely a matter of my skill and superiority— Because that’s what I had been raised to believe. I also, coincidentally, had been raised to believe women get a fair shake (spoiler alert: We don’t).
Although I was attracted to women, relationships with them were few and far between because they frightened and intimidated me. I didn’t understand why at the time, but in retrospect, it was clearly my own gender and body dysphoria. So instead, I proudly picked up a “gay” identity because I was very comfortable with my male attraction, and I stormed the world of digital marketing services with my young professional queer brand.
As a white, ostensibly cis man, resistance in the face of my defiant choice to speak openly about my relationships with my “gay boyfriends” was the only adversity or oppression I had ever known. And I railed against it. I could hold my own in conversations with homophobic men, stand up for myself, and even keep up with the occasional “your mom” jokes. I remember debates over who was, or was not, “the bitch.” It helped that I was “gay, but not that gay. I mean, you’ve been with women, right?” Yes Phil, I like being with women. I got teased because I “liked dicks, like a woman,” and I had to fight back on their terms.
Often in a room of men, humour at the expense of women is not only encouraged, but required if you want to fit in. In service of my career, and in light of my discomfort around women, I willingly committed misogyny and (therefore, some would insist) should be branded forever a traitor to women (or never a woman in the first place), and thrown face-first into a volcano.
There’ve been nights I would have gladly thrown myself into that volcano.
The tragedy of it is, I was actually really good at “being a man.” Probably because I was raised, trained for it. I was much better at it than I am at “being a woman.” But my life was a constant stream of lies and fabrication, trapped in painful disgusting play-acting of a role that I was rapidly outgrowing. For a time it seemed like death was my destination, until I accepted the next-worst outcome and came to terms with the idea that I might be transgender.
Male privilege. For the first four-and-a-half years of my career, I enjoyed respect, support, and opportunities. Because I showed up as a man, looked and sounded like a man, and acted like a man. Career-wise, I was doing great. My parents and grandparents were thrilled. Sickeningly, this may prove to have been the highlight of my professional career.
I would lay in bed at night, crying. I knew everything was wrong with my life, but I just didn’t know what “everything” was. The first time I met a trans woman in real life, at a kinky sleep-over, I confided in her my questioning of my gender identity. “I don’t think you’re trans,” she rebuked me. “You seem so comfortable as a man.” Well, she was the authority in these matters, so I went back into the hole my parents and I had dug for me, for two more years.
I’ll spare you the lengthy hackneyed trans narrative and just say that when I finally gave up on happiness in manhood, I decided to bite the bullet and went on hormones.
I went from being a sexy, confident party-cruising boy-hunter, to the passive recipient of my gay live-in boyfriend’s unwanted sexual attention in no time flat. He “accepted me” as a woman, but he missed my testosterone-fueled libido. I would have been fine if he’d wanted to go find what he needed elsewhere, but he didn’t work like that because he was honourable, monogamous and jealous. So the path of least resistance for him was to wait until I fell asleep and then rape me, five times. That’s how many times I “let him” do it, before I kicked him out and decided I was better off alone.
But on those hormones, I was as happy and stable as I had ever been before.
I grew my hair out long and got sick of waiting, for months, for my company to “let me” transition at work, so after nine months I started coming to the office in work-appropriate dresses and blouses to force the issue (see, trans women often force their obscene delusions and lifestyle on others). But you know, a funny thing started to happen…
The men at work no longer listened to me. I stopped getting taken on client visits. My white boss at the time, the company president, formerly my steak-and-cigars-sharing “boys club” buddy, began deferring my questions around when I could “officially” transition to his white wife— The payroll and HR manager. I was increasingly uncomfortable using the men’s room, particularly in light of the awkward way the “other” men at the company were treating me, but the question of switching to the women’s room went from an uncomfortable series of conversations to a full-scale battle, featuring printed pamphlets from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “Don’t you know the Muslims at this company will have a problem with it?” she asked me. Oh, okay, I guess we’re blaming the Muslims then.
Eventually I insisted on the name change, female pronouns, and access to the womens’ room. They never did bother to print new business cards for me; Shortly thereafter, following a five-year career at that company replete with constant raises, promotions and leadership opportunities, I was unceremoniously fired because they were “no longer satisfied with the quality of my work.” It took two painful, stressful years before I got a new job at a better company.
But even here, at this place that I love, my contributions aren’t respected as much anymore… And men often steal my ideas. But apparently if I don’t shrug and take it, I’m a bitch. I also don’t smile enough. Surely I’d know better if I’d grown up as a little girl instead of a little faggot. But I’ve been a woman for almost nine years now, and that’s longer than I was ever identified (externally) as a man. If you want to go purely by life experience, I’ve racked up the miles. So am I pissed off because I had, and lost, male privilege, or am I pissed off because women are treated like shit compared to men? Fundamentally, is there a difference? Why should trans womens’ experiences of misogynist oppression be considered invalid while cis women’s aren’t, just because we started out on the other side of the fence?
Male privilege? It was okay, I guess. Then I lived with no job for two years, lost my savings, and almost lost my home. And I could have done without the crying and the semi-constant existential horror (most men have that, right?). I feel bad for the women that likely got trampled under the boys club I was drafted into (especially since that happens to me, now). It’s an interesting philosophical question: Do I forever forfeit my hypothetical “woman” card because I played the miserable role I was dealt when I was younger?
Let’s see, what are some other traditional “woman” experiences I will never know, as a consequence of my cursed birth? If you think body parts and biological functions make a woman, then let me be honest with you… No amount of Sex Reassignment Surgery leaves you bleeding once a month. My body does not regulate its own hormonal cycle— Instead I need to take a ridiculous amount of pills every day, and live with side effects, to get even close to where I need to be. What a treat.
Catastrophically, I will probably never be able to carry a pregnancy. Besides other women who suffer from involuntary infertility, I doubt that any cis person will ever understand the ever-present sorrow and distress this causes me. If you think I’ve got it better than most women because you imagine I can maybe pee standing up, or because I don’t “suffer” from a menstrual cycle, then you have the wrong fucking idea about what I am as a human being. A trans body is something you love and enjoy if you’re lucky. Regardless, it’s something you live with. I would trade in a second if I could, and I’ve never met a trans person who wouldn’t. But’cha can’t, so fuck us, I guess.
A twitter user (probably a TERF) once told me I would never be a real woman because I could not be raped. When I told her I was a survivor of sexual assault, she replied that I’d never be a real woman unless I could “go out and become pregnant from rape.” I walked away from that exchange feeling shitty about myself, but feeling shittier about that person’s concept of what it means to be woman.
Women are too often defined, by misogynist men and TERFs, according to their body parts, and to their (archetypical) reproductive function. For trans women, “post-op” or not, only some parts of that reductive definition will apply to us. So to anyone who defines a woman as a pussy and a womb, I am not a real woman. But if that’s your attitude about women, you are not a real human.