The Transgender Narrative and the Female Body

It’s been a bizarre past year of current events and news updates when it comes to the transgender narrative.

“President Trump abruptly announced today on Twitter that the military will no longer ‘accept or allow’ transgender people to serve,” read one New York Times alert in the ever-surprising 2017 news cycle. Throughout that day, I watched as my various news feeds were flooded with messages from trans people and their allies, joining in the social conversations to proclaim that #TransRightsAreHumanRights.

Truth be told, the trans rights movement had been on my mind a lot since Trump took office. I watched in sadness as the number of trans people murdered last year crept higher and higher, and was outraged at the transgender bathroom bills that appeared on several states’ legislative floors. Why couldn’t people just respect and recognize trans people as the gender they perceive themselves to be? I’d rage to my friends. Is it really that difficult?

But apparently, for some, it can be. In fact, earlier this year, even famed feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie became embroiled in a transphobic controversy when, in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 news, she said: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.”

Understandably, this touched a nerve among many trans women and their allies, as the implication of Adichie’s comment seemed to say that trans women are not, in fact, women, but are rather something else—something different. Though Adichie did later apologize and attempt to clarify her stance, she did not appease those who were angered. That’s because, according to an article in Vox, “Adichie’s comments touched on a long-running, often deeply divisive debate within feminism over what womanhood really means.”

What is a ‘real woman’?

I was floored. As a feminist myself, I’d assumed that we were all welcoming our trans sisters with open arms. I had no idea that there was such a fierce controversy raging over whether or not trans women could (or should) be afforded the title “woman.” Indeed, Adichie was not the only prominent feminist who’d spoken about the topic this year—BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray released a hotly-debated article in March entitled, “Be trans, be proud—but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman.’”

A little more research on the topic revealed that this idea of “real women” can be traced back almost 40 years, to the heart of the second-wave feminist movement. In 1979, radical feminist Janice Raymond, incensed over discovering that a trans woman had “invaded” a female space, wrote a book called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which she argues that transsexualism reinforces the patriarchal ideals of traditional gender roles, and that transsexuals “rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”

The idea that trans women were using male privilege to invade women’s spaces and that they, by dint of the fact that they were not biologically born female, could therefore not truly be given the title “woman” became a central tenet of what is known as trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). Though a minority, TERFs and those who believe similarly have voiced their opinions about the trans-female community loudly and publicly since the 70s. One of the most famous examples of this occurred during the heyday of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. In 1991, a transgender woman was asked to leave the women-only music festival because, as trans, she was essentially deemed not “female enough” to participate. The founder of MichFest later released a statement that refuted the accusations of transphobia but reaffirmed the festival’s policy of only allowing in women-born-women.

Learning about the many multifaceted and nuanced opinions on both sides of the cis vs. trans debate was both enlightening and confusing. As much as I want to consider myself an open and inclusive person, I can’t deny that I understand Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and others like her that believe in a fundamental difference between cis and trans women. I can appreciate an argument that posits cis and trans women differently, because on many levels we are.

A cis woman and a trans woman discuss the female experience

I’ve been writing for female-focused publications on and off for awhile now and as a result, I’ve become pretty familiar with the usual categories such platforms are divided into when discussing the experience of life in a female body. For me, a cis woman, the division of “female experience” into pillars relating to sex and intimacy, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, miscarriage and abortion, and menopause makes sense, because those are (or at least could be) my own lived experiences—in fact, at age 27, I’ve lived over half of them.

But I’ve been questioning lately how a trans woman’s experience would fit into such platforms. Can it? Should it? I do believe that a person is the gender that they perceive themselves to be—but with categories such as menstruation and childbirth, incorporating a trans voice into these lived experiences would be near impossible. So how, then, would a trans woman view platforms that focus on cis-women? I turned to a close trans female friend, Hannah, to help me understand.

What are your initial impressions when reading over a list of usual topics that cover “experiences within the female body?”

Mostly that “female body” is a misnomer or assumes a level of uniformity that doesn’t exist. Not all women’s bodies are the same—this is obvious, but only to a point. I am a woman, but my body isn’t what most people picture when they say a woman’s body or a female body. Does that make me a woman in a man’s body? If it’s a man’s body, and I’m a woman, is it still my body?

I think defining a body as a man’s or a woman’s is a problem in and of itself. A lot of the ways that women are oppressed are linked to our bodies—how we measure up to an image of what our bodies should look like, how much we deviate from that image, what we’re allowed to do and not do with our bodies. If you say one body is a woman’s and one isn’t, then there’s a limit to how much you can work against that idealized, unreal image. The societal idea of what a woman’s body is, what it does, and what it’s good for is fake. It’s meant to make women work harder, feel less important in the world, and experience shame.

When asked to think about what it means to be a woman, many cis women would cite many of these categories and experiences. As a trans woman, how do you feel about the fact that you’ll never be able to relate to having a period or bearing a child? What does being a woman mean to you? What categories, so to speak, would you use to define your own unique experience?

I think it’s a matter of perspective—I could easily ask you if you feel like you’re missing out on experiences like being able to pass as a man, or if being left out of discussions about gender dysphoria (which different people experience in wildly different ways) is frustrating. It’s not exactly comparable, and it’s hard to feel any kind of way about discussions on experiences I don’t have. I don’t care that much about it. It’s hard to explain what makes me a woman—it’s what I feel, it’s how I relate to myself, it’s the way that telling myself I’m a man makes a part of me scrunch up and get smaller. It’s extremely hard to communicate because I’m not sure how much cis people have a similar experience.

The upsetting part comes down to how cis-centered discussions tend to take precedence and space, and how they’re presumed to be both universal among and exclusive to women. Trans men menstruate and experience pregnancy as well, but they aren’t women. There are cis women who can’t experience pregnancy, but they’re still women.

Do you feel that when discussing the category of “women” there should not be a distinction made between cis and trans (since we are all women)? Or do you feel that there always should be a distinction made? Why?

I think there should be a distinction made, actually. I’m not a cis woman, so my experiences are different—but that doesn’t make them less real than yours, and it doesn’t mean either one of us should have less space to talk about them. We can’t pretend differences don’t exist. That’s closer to erasure than equality. We do have to be careful about one group, one set of voices, having disproportionate power over others. I’m honestly not totally sure what absolute parity in terms of dialogue would look like because it’s never happened, but I believe that it can.

Do you feel that there is a place within the kind of dialogue female-focused platforms are sharing for the trans experience? If yes, how/where does it fit in? If not, how would you want to see it included/shared?

As a general concept, absolutely. Trans women are women, we have diverse experiences and opinions that deserve space in feminist dialogue.

I’m honestly not sure. As in a lot of feminist discussions, the focus is heavily on cis women’s bodies and assumes that cis womanhood equals womanhood in general. That’s just not true, and that philosophy erases women like me. I’d like to see a wider concept of what a woman’s body is, I’d like to see trans writers being actively solicited, and I’d like to see trans people working behind the scenes as well. One of the problems with many of these kinds of platforms is that they’re run almost entirely by cis women; the focus then, predictably, tends to be on cis experiences.

What would be your biggest piece of advice towards people looking to learn more/understand more about the trans female’s experience?

Listen. Read. Avoid the temptation to poke in your own commentary—ask questions and be respectful, but don’t barge into a discussion on issues that don’t involve you with an unsolicited opinion. Being trans means that I am not like you, but my experience is not less because of that. It’s just different. Be prepared to be challenged and probably uncomfortable.

Are we reducing the experience of womanhood?

I can’t say that there isn’t a part of me that understands where the “real woman” argument comes from. I was born a woman, and therefore I do take part in what are considered the “universal experiences” of womanhood. But something I read in the comments of a Buzzfeed article about this topic sticks with me: that in dismissing trans women, we are “reducing womanhood to the ability to bleed and give birth.” Though those are certainly important markers in many (cis) women’s lives, I cannot believe that they are the sole indicators of whether or not someone is female.

At the end of the day, I do believe, like my friend Hannah, that there are differences in cis women’s and trans women’s experiences—just as there are between the experiences of a white and a black woman. But, for me, the emphasis is not on the first word, but rather the second one: we are all women.

Featured image by Elvin Ruiz 

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