A sentence by sentence trans-positive reimagining of Elinor Burkett’s transphobic screed “What Makes A Woman?”
Do women and men have different brains?
Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. We rightly recognized he was using this argument to discredit the accomplishments of women and explain away the continued systematic discrimination women face in academic fields of math and science.
Interestingly, Caitlyn Jenner, only recently publicly out and struggling to give an easily digestible narrative of her life and transition in the face of ridiculous levels of public scrutiny, used a similar analogy for a completely different purpose — to tell her life story — in her April interview with Diane Sawyer. People couldn’t help but empathize with Caitlyn’s honesty about her struggle and the obvious personal pain she’d gone through.
“My brain is much more female than it is male,” Caitlyn told her, explaining how she knew that she was transgender.
This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into how Caitlyn Jenner chooses to express herself at this point in her transition: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup. People cheered Ms. Jenner’s happiness at finally not being forcibly coerced into a gender expression she’s not comfortable with. ESPN announced it would give Ms. Jenner an award for courage. President Obama also praised her. Not to be outdone, Chelsea Manning reflected on her own emotions on Twitter: “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).” (or actually, she spoke to someone who transcribes her tweets since she is unable to access the internet from prison, a fact which which makes me reflect on how privileged I am to be writing op-eds instead of locked up for keeping the American people informed about their government),
As someone who up till now understood gender only from the position of having always taken my own gender for granted, these statements challenged my beliefs about womanhood.
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. While I recognize that both of these women, Caitlyn and Chelsea, are in many ways fighting the exact same fight I am, the fact that they’re doing it from a perspective very different than mine and using messy explanations to describe their own personal journeys means I have to push my own boundaries to understand their struggle.
But I also know that patriarchal systems of thought inform everyone’s journey. The desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves doesn’t mean I can’t also recognize the ways that internalized patriarchal notions of gender shape their self-understanding just as they shape my own.
People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define anyone but themselves. But I guess looking at what Caitlyn actually said she really wasn’t even vaguely attempting to do so. I really need to remember not to make everything about me — that’s something men have been doing for much too long. I guess we all struggle to deal with our internalized acting out of patriarchal impulses — no matter who we are. That’s why it’s so revolutionary to see people born with male privilege consciously throw off the mantle of maleness. Of course, transwomen grow up and learn about gender within patriarchal system, so its natural that they too have some unlearning to do as well.
All of us have own truths. Our identity is shaped by our particular experience in life. Newly out transwomen haven’t yet traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. Once they’ve been out for even a few months, they’ll have suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts. They’ll discover that hormones make you permanently sterile, and the alternative is to pay exorbitant fees to preserve sperm. They’ll have to deal with massive emotional swings if they can’t afford to keep their hormone prescriptions regular, and certainly they’ll experience a major loss in pay — they’ll suffer the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks and their cisgender female partners checks were far larger than theirs. And they’ll be among the most likely groups to get assaulted or raped.
For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, trans and non-trans, we want to rally behind the movement for transgender rights while at the same time resisting language that promotes limited notions of femininity. I’m so glad that many high profile trans women like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Julia Serano speak out regularly on this exact topic. It would be ridiculous to assert that all women endure a common set of experiences — women of color feminists thoroughly debunked that idea decades ago. Yet we all are limited by notions of femininity none of us created — and that were put in place primarily to benefit cisgender heteronormative men, not trans people or cisgender women.
While I’m tempted at this point to spice up this pop-culture feminist rant with some shoot from the hip science ‘facts’, I’ll avoid that and go right to the largely self-evident fact that our brains are deeply influenced by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment.
THE drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience certainly includes the material benefits of male privilege. It also includes the deep emotional trauma of understanding yourself as a woman while being forced to perform maleness against your will for 65 years. The ‘drip, drip, drip’ experienced by women varies vastly, with no core common set of experiences. The ‘drip’ I experience as a career minded white middle class woman in America is certainly different from the “drip” the women in China who build my iPhone experience. Yet I think we can recognize that a late transitioning transwoman like Caitlyn certainly benefitted from male privilege (and white privilege) prior to transition without even thinking to somehow question her womanhood. To do so would reinforce boundaries around gender, and make gender even more compulsory. And we know the purpose of rigidly defined genders: to help uphold a system of sexism that deprives half the populations of opportunities in virtually all walks of life — from athletics to employment — and to uphold a rape culture that teaches cisgender men that women’s bodies are their property.
By defining womanhood the way she did to Ms. Sawyer, perhaps Ms. Jenner at this early point is feeling a strong need to express the femininity she’s been kept from expressing her whole life. Yet I hope with time she comes to also incorporate an analysis of how femininity too can be compulsory. Thank goodness that practically every single well-known transgender advocate incorporates a feminist analysis into their advocacy work for transgender rights. I mean I’d have to be obtuse to have never heard of any of these people. Academic scholars like Talia Mae Bettcher, Susan Stryker, and Sandy Stone have been writing for decades on the way trans experience illuminates new ways of deconstructing, reconstructing, and reconstituting ideas of being “female”. As someone who’s a former professor my journalistic credentials would be considered dubious if I launched into a long op-ed piece without even glancing at the academic writing on this topic.
The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric, favored by some because it is easy for cisgender people to digest, is problematic in its own way and reinforces an essentialist view of gender. If only trans people weren’t forced to deliver easy narratives of their experience to cisgender people in order to be accepted, most trans people would welcome the opportunity to tell their more complicated stories. Trans people themselves often dislike this narrative because it promotes a kind of a body self-hatred that many find at odds with feminist values. If only trans people had just a few seconds more to elaborate on their personal experience before cisgender people inevitably skipped right to asking them what surgeries they had!
Many cisgender women I know, of all ages and races, struggle to reconcile the language used by some newly out transgender women with our own understandings of gender and feminism. After Ms. Jenner talked about her brain, one friend called it an outrage and asked in exasperation, “Is he saying that he’s bad at math, weeps during bad movies and is hard-wired for empathy?” I immediately told her to talk to any trans woman who’s been out for more than a couple years about how they understand gender. If she did, she’d likely find they sympathize deeply with her concerns — and share her feelings about the need to challenge limiting notions of femininity. It’s too bad that trans people fade out of the media spotlight after the initial phases of their transition, because it’s usually then that they adopt a more nuanced view of femininity. After the release of the Vanity Fair photos of Ms. Jenner, Susan Ager, a Michigan journalist, wrote on her Facebook page, “I fully support Caitlyn Jenner, but I wish she hadn’t chosen to come out as a sex babe.” I wrote Ms. Ager to tell her how Caitlyn Jenner chooses to come out with is none of her goddamn business.
For the most part, we reserve the anger we openly and rightly heaped on Mr. Summers, cause what does the behavior of a sexist university president have to do with trans women. Unfortunately, a small extreme group of cisgender feminists are so convinced that somehow trans women are engaged in the same kind of project as Mr. Summers that they’ve actively worked to make the lives of trans women worse. In addition to exclusionary events limited to “women-born women,” they lobby to deny trans people access to bathrooms or domestic violence shelters. The insult and outright fear that trans men and women live with is all too familiar to us, and how awful that some misguided feminists actually work to make trans people’s lives worse.
As the movement becomes mainstream, we should ask pointed questions to make sure the radical vitality of the trans movement remains intact — and that it remains just as subversive to the patriarchy and other systems of oppression. It’s right for trans women and cisgender women to ask what makes a woman — to not accept patriarchal notions of gender at face value — as long as it doesn’t begin from the cissexist assumption that trans women speak with less authority on the topic than cisgender women. And certainly we should never invalidate any trans woman’s identity by intentionally using male pronouns and their assigned-at-birth name while we’re having these discussions. To do so would make plain that we’re not interested in questions of feminism but rather in demeaning and insulting transgender women, and also that we don’t care too much about consent. It’s similar to the erasure that happens when people list past social justice movements by saying “African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women” — as if those were separate and distinct groups. Obviously we recognize that erases the reality of queer people of color, women of color, etc. We need a radical intersectional feminist movement to end to the violence and discrimination, and to demand all people are treated with a full measure of respect. The vitality of the current trans movement only enhances that.
In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” A few trans activists on twitter used the moment to raise questions about whether the use of “vagina” might exclude trans men who could need to access abortion services but aren’t comfortable with their genitalia being called ‘vagina’. It’s a relevant question since repeated empirical studies have shown trans men often don’t access vital healthcare services like pap smears or abortions because they are afraid of perceived as female by their providers.
WHEN Ms. Plimpton explained that she would continue to say “vagina” — despite the very real potential problems that might arise from that — trans activists continued to dialogue and challenge her. At that point, Michelle Goldberg, perhaps the worst hack working in the field of journalism today, selected key quotes out of context for yet another of her radical shaming articles that somehow continue to get published in the Nation. If I were to extrapolate this anecdote to an exaggerated and irrelevant conclusion I would say “Ms. Plimpton became, to use the new trans insult, a terf, which stands for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist.’” But I won’t cause there’s really not actually all that much to be concerned about here.
In January, Project: Theatre, a student run and self governed group at Mount Holyoke College, a college for women, decided to retire Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because for god sakes we’re all tired of performing the same play every year. I mean what kind of feminist movement would call itself vital but rely on a single theatrical piece as its one true manifesto for two decades? Also, the students wanted to try new material that was more actively inclusive of transgender people. Thank goodness these students were open to new ideas and new directions!
Of course, behind all this is the perhaps challenging idea that associating “vagina” with womanhood is exclusionary. So many of the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas have taken this association for granted our entire lives. We forget that using other words than “vagina” might be vitally important to some people, just like we forget that having ramped street corners is vitally important to people in wheelchairs. Of course, in a decent society, we try not to ignore things just cause they’re harmful to only a minority of people. Lord knows we still have a ways to go, but didn’t the entire notion of social justice start with the idea of making society work better as many people as possible?
Even using the word “woman” in reference to reproductive and sexual health issues is worth examining; the simple fact is reproductive and sexual issues affect many, many gender non-conforming people who don’t identify as women. While no one is arguing we stop ever saying woman entirely, what harm is there if we update hashtags like #StandWithTexasWomen and #WeTrustWomen with phrases that include gender non-conforming people? And what great harm is done if people are simply raising these questions?
“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, a transgender person who blogged on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Of course this position, unfamiliar and uncomfortable though it may be, is self-evidently a slightly more accurate description of whom abortion affects. Mr. Stoffer was referring to the reality that person with a uterus taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who simply does not identify as a woman, can still become pregnant and need an abortion.
Accordingly, abortion rights groups are making efforts not to leave these people out of the fight for reproductive justice, as Katha Pollitt recently reported in The Nation. Those who are choosing to use more inclusive language to serve more people, like the New York Abortion Access Fund, now offer their services to “people” and to “callers.” Fund Texas Women, whose primary mission to expand access to anyone seeking an abortion by covering the travel and hotel expenses when there is no nearby clinic, recently changed its name to Fund Texas Choice. “With a name like Fund Texas Women, we were publicly excluding trans people who needed to get an abortion but were not women,” the group explains on its website. Given their mission, it makes sense that they didn’t want to limit anyone’s access.
Women’s colleges also are struggling with difficult questions about how to maintain women centered space without rigidly policing the borders of who is allowed in our out. These institutions, whose core mission is to cultivate female leaders, are working to maintain that mission while also recognizing it would be cruel and traumatic for a student to be kicked out of school mid way through their education because they were transitioning.
As Ruth Padawer reported in The New York Times Magazine last fall, Wellesley students are increasingly replacing the word “sisterhood” with “siblinghood,” because that much more accurately reflects the identities of the current student body. And faculty members are justifiably confronted with complaints from trans students about their universal use of the pronoun she — because it erases the entire community of people whose identification is somewhere in-between male and female.
The landscape that’s being mapped and the language that comes with it is challenging to understand, because we’re dealing with new questions and concepts we haven’t grappled with before. The most theory-bound of the trans activists regularly recognize our ways of understanding are evolving, and we have no clear answers yet, while at the same time challenging views that are obviously antiquated and directly harmful to trans people. Ms. Jenner and Ms. Manning expect to be called women, which makes these two no different than the 3.5 billion people on this planet who identify as women and expect people to respect their gender identification. So even while we grapple with difficult questions about the language abortion providers use, we can extend these trans women the same basic courtesy we already give to the vast majority of women.
Women like me refuse to engage in arguments that draw false dichotomies between supporting trans people’s identities and challenging sexism. We were smashing binary views of male and female well before most Americans had ever heard the word “transgender” or used the word “binary” as an adjective (though after transgender women of color largely kicked it off for us during the Stonewall Riots). Because we did, opportunities for women expanded, though not nearly enough, and primarily for heterosexual upper-middle class white women. It’s why some of our daughters play with trains and trucks as well as dolls, but globally women still own just 1% of the world’s wealth. It’s why most of us feel free to wear skirts and heels on Tuesday and bluejeans on Friday, but trans women are still struggling with ridiculous judgments about what they where, even from fellow feminists.
This hard-won loosening of gender constraints for women is great. It even has some benefit for transgender men assigned female at birth who are unable to be out as or can’t afford the extremely expensive surgeries for transgender men. The same kind of gender deconstruction is long overdue for the male gender, which is why transwomen frequently feel strangled (or are literally strangled) in their growing up years by the strict policing of masculinity.
The struggle to move beyond such stereotypes is far from over, and trans women, cisgender women, gender non-conforming people obviously natural allies moving forward. So long as our society stays as it is, most of us will be “assigned” genders at birth based on our genitalia. But what we do with those genders — the roles we assign ourselves, and each other, based on them — is almost entirely mutable.
That’s message coming of the mainstream of the trans community and the feminist community. Though we’ve historically worked on this issue separately, increasingly we’re working together to create space for everyone to express him-, her- or, in gender neutral parlance, hir-self without being coerced by gendered expectations. Undermining any women’s identity, transgender or cisgender, isn’t necessary to that struggle — it’s antithetical.
Caitlyn Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what she looked forward to most in her transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. What a heartwarming anecdote about a person who’s finally free to express themselves as they like. I want everyone to be free to self determine how to express their gender. And I want cisgender women and transgender women to work together to dismantle sexism, piece by piece.