The facebook page “Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia” posted an email they received on their page. It was an email from a feminist cis woman asking about trans women. I’ll try to split up the email and respond to each part of it. The email is quoted with the permission of the author.
This is probably a really stupid question to y’all, but to me trans issues are kinda complicated and I don’t really understand, I’m trying to learn not trying to offend, I apologize if I do. But could you explain, in simple non academic language if possible,
Yes, trans* issues are complicated. The main reason trans* issues are complicated is that the existence of trans* people challenges the very core of society’s norms about gender, sex and sexuality. These norms are so engrained that they even introduce a significant bias in the sciences trying to understand the behaviour and development of humans and other mammals. Luckily several academics are challenging these biases now. I’ve written a bit about this on my English blog before, for instance here, and even more on my Norwegian blog here and here.
People sometimes complain that the language trans* activists use is too academic. Actually a lot of it isn’t academic at all, but terminology developed by activists themselves. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily straight forward to follow of course.
If say a transwoman considers herself feminist right, that would mean she agrees we get the short end of the stick in the gender department right, lower pay, rape and violence from men, all that shit. Why would someone who sees the raw deal women get, choose to transition to a place, that lets be honest, sucks to inhabit.
Yes, men have a lot of privileges in our society that women don’t have. In other cultures it’s even worse. It seems you think it sucks to be a woman. That is certainly a valid feeling, but keep in mind that the “raw deal” is not something that is inherent to being a woman, as one of the commenters on the page points out. Sexism is a product of society, not a result of being a woman. That is a very important distinction in my opinion.
I have no more choice in being a trans woman than you have in being a cis woman. It is a fundamental part of who I am. There are several examples in history of women living as men to avoid the sexism and lack of opportunities available to women in for instance education, politics and choice of profession. Some of these would undoubtedly have identified as trans men if they lived today, but I don’t think that explains all of them. Posing as male is of course a lot easier for someone assigned male at birth (AMAB) as myself, and yes, it certainly did award me male privilege for as long as I could stomach living the lie; or being “closeted” as it is commonly called.
It varies greatly how long trans men and women manage to do this. I managed it for two decades from the time I realised I was transgender at 15. Some people manage this for their entire lives. Hiding who you are can be an incredibly painful experience. What made it easier for me was the fact that I identified as gender queer for most of that time. My identity is however much closer to female than male, so living as male became unbearable eventually. It is much easier for me to live as a woman while just being myself. While neither “man” or “woman” fully describes me, “woman” is much closer to who I am, and for me personally the female role is less restrictive than the male role. Still, these are roles constructed by our society, and the way gender is constructed in different cultures determines how easy they are to adapt to for each of us.
How I see my own body is a little different. Our bodies do develop in two different directions depending on your exposure to hormones (which isn’t necessarily directly linked to your chromosomes). Even in a genderless society I would have wanted hormone treatment, but there would be no painful social transition. I am less concerned with abolishing human cultural diversity of expression than I am with abolishing restriction of which bodies are allowed to adopt what expressions. How you express yourself should be your choice alone.
I think if I were born in a male body, even if I felt feminine, I would just stay in that body for the perks of being a man, and I guess act “normatively” in work and etc and then be my possibly obviously feminine self in my own time with people who aren’t douches and probably not want to go through all that surgery, hormones, not “passing” harassment and whatever else y’all have to go through just to get to the place where I will be treated like a second class citizen for not being male. I realise you must see a reason in it or you wouldn’t do it, so it must give you something, but I see nothing to be gained by being imprisoned in a female body and subjugated to men by society in general. What’s the deal?
Being a trans woman has nothing inherently to do with femininity. I understand where you’re coming from though because it is a very common stereotype of trans women. Gender identity (woman, man, neither, gender queer, etc) and gender expression (feminine, masculine, androgynous, etc) are completely different aspects of being human. There is absolutely no reason to assume all trans women were “feminine boys”. I myself was pretty gender neutral and androgynous for much of my life.
We all know cis women with all sorts of gender expressions. In our culture gender expression and sexuality is also often mixed together. I have feminine lesbian friends who aren’t always believed when they say they are lesbians because they’re “too feminine”. Likewise I know masculine women who are assumed to be lesbians, but aren’t. Gay men suffer the same expectations of stereotypical behaviour, and so do trans men and women.
For trans* people this stereotyping is strengthened by the way we have been treated by the medical profession when we have wanted to access medical transition. There has often been, and still is in for instance my country, certain restrictions on this access. In my country access is still limited by the assumption that only people who behave in certain stereotypical ways are “true transsexuals” and therefore have the right to hormone therapy and surgery. This is a highly misguided approach deeply rooted in outdated sexist and cissexist stereotypes.
p.s. I’ve read some nasty radfem comments saying very offensive things to transwomen and I want you to know even tho i subscribe to radical feminist viewpoints – as is my understanding of feminism based on my personal experiences of sexism as a born female – I can accept that a transperson, having different experienced may have different viewpoints based on them, and I think they may be valid to me and feminism in general not just trans people, I want to learn to be a better feminist, I have no ill will toward transwomen, I’ve never even really met any. Sorry if my question isn’t tactful, but i just find getting straight to my confusion will enable someone to get straight to an answer – if y’all choose to answer me that is, I don’t think it’s your job to educate me, but google isnt gettin me the info I seek and I was just hoping, from feminist to feminist, you’d talk to me. Thanks.
The transphobia and cissexism from certain individuals that label themselves feminists is often based on critique of a caricature of trans women, i.e. based in stereotypes, and not in the actual diversity of the transgender community. The claim that we uphold traditional gender roles and gender stereotypes is based in a lack of knowledge, wilful or otherwise, of actual trans* people and our life stories.
Sure, there are trans women who conform to society’s expectations of women. So does a large number of cis women, and a lot of feminists. To require a higher standard of gender non-conformity of trans women is a double standard and quite unreasonable. I do actually find trans* people to display a much larger diversity in gender expression and gender identity than the rest of society though. That shouldn’t be surprising given that we have to fight these gender roles and expectations every single step of the way, and for large parts of our lives. That also explains, in my opinion, why so many trans* people are feminists.
Many trans* people do find comfort in traditional gender roles too. How each of us adapt to surviving in this highly gender segregated world varies greatly. Some of us become rebels, some of us don’t. To demand all of us fight on the barricades is an unreasonable demand, especially given how much many of us had to fight on a personal level, often against our own families and loved ones, to get anywhere at all.
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Yes, transitioning has made me have to face the sexism of society. The sexual harassment has taken the longest to learn to deal with. For example on the 10 hour flight I had three weeks ago I was stuck beside a drunk married guy that kept propositioning me and at some point asked me to go with him to the rest room to give him a BJ. As a consequence of being seated next to him I didn’t sleep for a second during the entire flight. The asshole was completely oblivious to how incredibly uncomfortable he made me feel.
The bullshit I have to face as a woman wasn’t even on my mind when I decided I had to transition. I did enjoy male privilege when playing the male role though. I was a feminist before I transitioned, and learned about women’s challenges through listening to other women, but it is completely different experiencing this first hand. I have avoided most of the additional transphobia a lot of trans* people face because people tend to assume I’m cis (passing privilege), so my load of intersectional discrimination is lesser than what it could have been. But, yes, I have exposed myself to more discrimination by coming out, and the difference is absolutely noticeable and affects my every day life.
Every single trans* person have to weigh the pros and cons of all this. The truth is that we have no idea up front how things will play out. You have no idea in advance how people will treat you. You also have no idea how well hormones will work for you. Age is a clue, but mostly it’s anyone’s guess. How well your body, after a year or two on hormones, conforms to society’s expectation of how a person of your gender is supposed to look like, is a gamble. I know several trans women who changed their mind and wanted to go back because it really was too hard. They usually change their mind due to the way society treats them though, and not because of regretting the transition on a personal level. That makes me sad.
So yes, you do have a point about the shit society throws at you whether it is for being a woman or visibly trans or both. Being a person of colour on top of being a trans woman puts you at the very top of the list of people at risk of violent hate crimes, yet these women still choose to transition.
The core issue here is much deeper than a simple choice. I have no say in who I am. I have no say in how the society I was born into functions. All I have a say in is how I choose to act within it based on who I truly am, and how I want to help fighting the limitations society puts on me and others. The solution is not to have people hide who they are, but for all of us to challenge the structures in society, to the best of our ability, that prevents all of us from being ourselves. Intersectional feminism is essential in this fight, and has been hugely important in the progress our society has made over the last couple of centuries.
Feature image: Ceramic necklace with transgender symbol made by SurlyRamics.