Saying it and meaning it: trans women are women

General apology: this is a bit of a mind dump, but since I feel the lying awake I’ve done over it has brought me a tiny bit of clarity and therefore may possibly help someone else, I am sharing.

On reflection, I owe much of any enlightenment I have reached on this topic to Arrianna Marie

So a smart and well-intentioned person has written a problematic blog post that has helped me to understand what is wrong with the argument that trans women are ‘genetically male’. I might have carelessly said something like that before reading the piece, which was brought to my attention by @Artemissian. I teach biology after all; I’m always explaining how the sex of the zygote is determined. It’s all in the Y chromosome, end of. Except it isn’t! Look, here are some women with XY genotypes; they have a hormone condition, AIS, that causes them to be assigned female at birth (AFAB) and thus ‘raised as girls’. And it’s perfectly OK to call them ‘genetically male’ so it must be OK to say the same about trans women who probably have the same genotype, right? Well no. Actually no, it’s really not OK.

The first reason it isn’t OK by me to say that came to me from @radtransfem who said she had realised that many trans* people use the concept ‘born this way’ for survival, even though it goes against feminist gender theory they themselves accept. In a similar way, lesbian and gay people have used ‘born this way’ to gain a relatively broad margin of acceptance from the general public, but academics and gender-critical people have argued (incontrovertibly in my opinion) that sexuality is a social construct, and is fluid for many individuals. Given the level of hostility faced by trans* people I think it’s completely unacceptable to undermine their claimed identity with statements like ‘trans* women are genetically male’, as if when we say male it calls to mind only the strict, denoted meaning of a particular genotype and not a sackful of connotations. This statement is fine for AIS women (apparently) because, unlike that of trans* people which is constantly denied and fought over, their identity comes packaged with a complete, respectable and rational (I use these fraught terms deliberately and I hope to return to them critically later, if not today) explanation that satisfies everyone from radical feminists to the cis het white dude on the street who knows nothing about gender theory, but unfortunately will probably determine your access to healthcare, education, employment, social care and leisure activities. That last sentence kind of indirectly bears the crux of my argument, ICYMI. If you can’t get that guy to recognise your humanity to some degree, you’re under the bus.

(And while I consider myself radical, in that I want to change systems completely rather than make them more ‘tolerant’ and choice-friendly, I can’t accept radical ideology that allows people to be sacrificed to a ‘greater good’. My basic political tenet is ‘nobody under the bus for anything’)

This first reason doesn’t get us far enough in my opinion, We don’t get past where I suspect many radical/gender-critical feminists are getting at the moment – saying trans women are women, because we don’t want anyone to be oppressed by gender and think people should be allowed to express their identity however they like, but not being able to explain it because our theory boils down to something like: our socialisation makes us women, and our female bodies are what make us vulnerable to many pernicious effects of the gender hierarchy, such as rape culture and the denial of body (particularly reproductive) autonomy. The fact that trans women suffer from these effects of misogyny too, as well as specifically transphobic othering, abuse and violence, should imo make us trans* inclusive. Some who have really thought about how we understand ‘woman’ have concluded that oppression by gender is the most useful description, and this applies to trans women (I took this idea from Marina S, who is mentioned later).

Milinovich takes issue with the idea of what I call ‘internal gender’ by pointing out that gender is socially constructed, with reference to the brilliant book Delusions of Gender by social psychologist Cordelia Fine. I am about as far from thinking that ‘woman’ is a natural category as it’s possible to be, but trans* people have an overwhelming reaction against their assigned sex, which is quite obviously not the same as the traumas and irritations cis women like myself have experienced as women and girls, and also obviously different from the rage feminists (cis or trans*) feel about the status of women as an oppressed class. Milinovich makes some frankly belittling comments about people wanting new sexual organs, which are implicitly aimed at trans*people and suggest a lack of understanding that I feel is quite widespread.

When I see arguments about gender flying around, I see trans-excluding-radical-feminists saying that trans* people and their allies believe in an annoying hypothetical person: the naturally pink-frocked sparkly prince-seeking princess girl. I see opponents counter that this straw woman represents gender roles (gender-as-power-structure), not gender identity. I’ve struggled with this latter concept, because as a cis woman it’s hard not to feel that ‘gender identity’ must be a more palatable rehabilitation of sexist gender roles. What uniquely oppresses trans* people can’t be ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ like our sex organs and chromosomes. It must be the same thing as what we understand when we say gender roles. So trans* people and their allies who express belief in a gender identity that would still exist if gender-as-a-power-structure were dismantled (I need to understand this argument MUCH better, apologies for my very rough sketch. Please correct.) get called ‘gender essentialists’

Here comes the crux of my second argument, which I was helped to by a comment Marina S made on the post. She said something like ‘what is cultural is as real as the nose on your face’. Biological sex really is a social construct too, along with the rest of the body of knowledge that science (as a human activity and approach to truth-seeking and meaning-making) has built. The typical fall-back to ‘biology’: ovaries, chromosomes, pregnancy etc, is essentialist. It sets up ‘female’ as a natural category and attempts to reserve it exclusively for people who fulfil a number of criteria such as: possession of XX genotype, designation as female at birth, socialisation as a woman. While there is a large group of people (most cis women) who check those boxes, attempts to exclude people from a category ‘female’ on the basis of any of them will fail because they are leaky on their own terms (eg women with AIS are cis because they are AFAB) AND because all of their meanings are socially constructed. There’s no getting around this; we can’t take our minds out of the helmet of language and culture and see what is ‘real’ outside of them.

I don’t mean to say that every cultural reality has the same claim to truth, but that none of them has a special status. We have to try to understand individual experiences outside of our own while accepting that there will never be one complete understanding of the social world. I’m trying to get to a place where critiquing gender-as-a-power-structure never threatens to erase the experience of trans* people, which is as real as all women’s oppression by that power structure, and as real as the 23rd pair of our chromosomes. This was superbly articulated by @ZJemptv on Twitter in response to Milinovich’s assertion that changes some trans* people (such as herself) make to their biology are merely ‘cosmetic’. Where I am now is with a trans woman in Bitch magazine’s Gray issue, who spoke of ‘female spectrum people’. I’ll keep listening, and I’ll keep thinking.

2 thoughts on “Saying it and meaning it: trans women are women

  1. Thank you for the thought you’ve put into this subject, and for your post.

    Perhaps I can help take another step, in response to this bit:

    our socialisation makes us women, and our female bodies are what make us vulnerable to many pernicious effects of the gender hierarchy, such as rape culture and the denial of body (particularly reproductive) autonomy

    I think the next important stage in transfeminist work is to articulate a concept of body-sense which goes beyond “dysphoria” to speak about our sense of our own bodies.

    I think this, done carefully, will let us talk about the profound differences between a cis man and a trans woman’s sense of her own body, which effectively creates a different materiality in how she moves through the world.

    I think cis women can link up with this work by looking at the way that women’s body-senses in general are impacted and formed in collision with patriarchy. I’m still looking forward to reading Iris Marion Young’s “Throwing Like A Girl” which I hope will touch on the subject.

    I think we may end up realising that the sense of our own bodies we develop has a very strong impact on how we experience the world through our bodies, and hence on the ways in which we are vulnerable to patriarchy through our bodies.

    Again, done carefully, because we don’t want to jump to saying that there’s one “oppressed women’s body sense under patriarchy”. I think the ways that patriarchy hits at trans and cis women and the ways those hits are felt through our sensed bodies are non-identical but contain overlaps.

    For example, we can probably both think of ways that we feel fear of being “too big” in a world that tries to force women into a sense of our own bodies as not taking up space.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to respond so helpfully. The bit you picked is really where help is needed! I will think on. = )

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