The question of where trans women fit into feminism is going round on UK Twitter again – the result, as it so often is, of a controversial article in a Sunday newspaper.
(The article is this piece in The Sunday Times by Jenni Murray, the presenter of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about why she doesn’t think that trans women should call themselves ‘real women’ after living life with society treating them as male – we’ll talk more about that further down.)
A historian colleague, David Andress, was suggesting on Twitter this morning that he and others would find ‘a cogent explanation of why “gender is a spectrum” and “transwomen are women, full stop” are compatible’ useful – so here’s an expanded version of what I said.
Sometimes to people who aren’t trans themselves and know how hard feminists have struggled to undo gender stereotypes and break through gendered expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour, the cases against the male vs female gender binary and the cases for unambiguously recognising trans women as women can look more incompatible than they are. If sexism puts women into a box marked ‘women’, and feminism wants to lift them out of that, does that become harder if we draw fixed lines around the category of ‘women’ so that we can get trans inclusion right?
Not at all – because one of the biggest insights that trans people have gained from understanding their own lives and bodies, but that cis people (people who aren’t trans) don’t get the chance to hear so often, makes both those statements true at the same time.
Gender isn’t determined by genitals: and if that helps trans people who need legal, social and medical recognition of the gender they are in order to lead fulfilling lives, it helps cis people and especially cis women who don’t want to be boxed in by what sexism and patriarchy have told them for centuries that they should do.
Biologically and neurologically there are lots of different ways for chromosomes, sex characteristics like genitals, and the brain to line up. Some people have heard of intersex conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where someone’s body doesn’t process male hormones (androgens) so their chromosomes are XY but externally their body ‘looks female’; this is just one of dozens of ways where most cis people’s common-sense idea that people with XX are automatically female and people with XY are automatically male starts to break down. The animal kingdom shows even more combinations of chromosomes and sex characteristics, which in some species (as biology teacher Grace Pokela wrote earlier this week) can even change partway through life: chromosomes don’t even determine sex completely accurately, let alone the relationships to body and society that humans experience as gender.
Nevertheless, one of the first things doctors in any maternity ward will do is inspect a baby’s genitals and classify the child as male or female – or, for some intersex babies, not be able to decide and make the closest call. (Intersex activists have long campaigned against putting children through surgery in early years to make their bodies correspond to the medical norm for one or other gender.)
Family, state and society all treat children as they grow up on the basis of what gender the doctor assigned them in their first medical notes – even though what the doctor sees is only the outward result of a complex set of neurological and biological processes, well before the child is even old enough to talk about how they relate to what their society calls ‘male’ and ‘female’.
How someone’s body develops on the outside and how their brain has developed on the inside are not necessarily the same: struggling to realise that in your own case, in the face of so many powerful social messages telling you the opposite, is an experience that very many trans people share.
Why does the state even need to determine someone’s gender at the moment they’re born? As well as religious, conservative and nationalist ideologies that enforce prescriptive roles on both men and women, with a far stricter moral standard applied to women then men, a Marxist or other radical political theorist could argue it’s about defending the structures through which property is handed down and wealth is reproduced. The state, as a social institution that maintains these structures of wealth, promotes and regulates marriage because marriage gives men more certainty that a child claimed as theirs actually is theirs.
There are deeply embedded structures of power – the church, the state, the idea of the family itself, all the things that feminists analyse critically – which work against a world where society would just say ‘it doesn’t matter what gender a child is, let them figure it out in their own time.’
Emphasising that ‘trans women are women’ is a way of emphasising that individuals, not social institutions, have the authority over what their gender is. In stressing women’s and everyone else’s autonomy over their own bodies, it fights the same oppressive structures that feminists have organised against from the beginning. (Example: the US religious right’s cases for banning abortion and forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth rest on the same ideas.)
Besides gender as a category – is someone female? Are they male? Are they something else (many human societies have had three or more gender categories anyway)? – there’s also ‘gender identity’, or how someone makes sense of the relationship between their self, their body and the gender system(s) of their social world. When your gender identity doesn’t correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth, that everyone and everything treats you as, you know that something’s wrong – in a deeply felt, intimate, embodied way – even though it often takes years to name the reason why.
(The internet, where you can type the roughest description of what you think is wrong into a search engine and find the words of other people who felt the same way, has played a huge role in why so many people have been able to name themselves as trans so much earlier in life, and been able to see they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that.)
The statement ‘trans women are women’ resists the notion that only somebody who grew up being treated and oppressed as a woman can be one. The same structures oppressing a non-trans woman were oppressing a trans woman too – just in a different way.
Most cis people don’t have a word for how sexism and patriarchy oppress trans women (and trans everybody else). The trans writer and biologist Julia Serano popularised the term ‘cissexism’ to refer to the pervasive idea that trans people’s gender identities are less legitimate than non-trans people’s because they don’t have the rubber stamp of biology to back them up: deterministic ideas about biology are so ingrained in most people’s common sense that feminists are just as likely to make cissexist assumptions as anyone else, even when they’re trying to be inclusive towards trans people on moral and political grounds.
(Cis and trans just mean ‘on this side of’ and ‘on the other side of’, like some words in geography and chemistry: trans writers like Serano realised that to talk about being transgender, or on the other side of the gender you were supposed to be at birth, means there also needs to be a word for not being transgender; while if you’re not trans you might not even realise that you need one until it starts to come up.)
So how is insisting that trans women have the experience and authority to know that they’re women compatible with the idea that gender is a spectrum and that nobody should be confined to the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be? They’re compatible because none of the above means there has to only be a binary of gender, that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only gender categories it’s possible for there to be.
In fact, by recognising that gender isn’t determined either by genitals (who can reproduce with whom) or even chromosomes (which don’t even produce the genitals they usually produce all the time), it creates more space to overcome fixed ideas of gender, appearance and behaviour, not less.
One of the most revealing things for me about trans feminism was finding out that gender identity (what gender someone is) isn’t the same as gender expression (how someone uses clothes and other practices often thought of as feminine, and clothes and other practices often thought of as masculine, to present themselves to the world). I can have very similar gender expression to someone with a completely different gender identity – I do – and that doesn’t mean that either of our genders are wrong.
The writer and musician CN Lester, author of the forthcoming Trans Like Me, knows that ‘they’ not ‘she’ is the right set of pronouns for them and that the name they were given at birth doesn’t describe them; it would be as wrong for me to insist that they must be a queer woman because the ways we present ourselves aren’t a million miles apart as it would be for a sexist and homophobe to insist that, because I cut my hair short and deliberately play off masculinity in the way I dress, I must really want to be a man. Everyone knows best what their own gender is; everybody feels it, or would feel it, deeply if they are or were forced to live as something else.
Some people know, or realise after years of confusion, they’re neither male or female, as strongly as a trans woman knows that she’s a woman: gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and standing up for the womanhood of people who know that they are women doesn’t make it any less so.
Coming back to what originally prompted these conversations today – Jenni Murray’s article in The Sunday Times, which was screenshot here – what’s at stake in Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge that trans women are as real as she is, and the pain and anger many trans people felt on reading that, is the same cissexism we’ve just been talking about: who had the right, but also the power, to determine what someone else’s gender is.
Murray is particularly critical of trans women who have expressed stereotypical ideas about feminine beauty standards to her – as if cis women don’t ever say anti-feminist things – and who she implies haven’t faced the same oppression as women whose bodies make them able to have children, with all the sexist disadvantages that means.
But ‘woman’ isn’t one undifferentiated category – as black feminists and womanists have already had to say to white women for many years. (If you’re a history student who’s been linked here, look up work like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s ‘African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race‘.) Racism as another structure of power means that the experiences of black women and white women in the same society, at the same time, are extremely different even if we’re just talking about women who are cis. (And for women in any other racialised category it’s different again.)
‘Intersectionality’, as Kimberlé Crenshaw termed this idea in African-American women’s thought, means accounting for their race and their gender in talking about how they experience discrimination, and how discrimination plays out very differently at each race/gender intersection – which helps trans feminism make the case that trans women have suffered different forms of oppression than cis women but the root cause of that oppression still harms both of them. (While the intersection of race continues to shape trans and cis women’s experiences of discrimination too – see the writing of trans women of colour like Janet Mock.)
When so many trans women have been beaten – and worse – by transphobes and homophobes who targeted them as effeminate or gay men, it rings hollow to say they’ve had the ‘privilege’ of growing up as a man.
Many trans writers on Twitter today – Shon Faye and Mia Violet, Ray Filar and CN Lester, Katelyn Burns – have been writing about how Murray’s article gives trans people less say over knowing what their gender is than cis people get. (If these threads sound angry, it’s because that double standard happens in British media all the time – including the false-equivalence debates that keep forcing trans people to explain why their gender is real to critics and transphobes on Women’s Hour.)
No-one’s going to question that Murray is a woman, because her biological history already makes that case, including the traumatic experiences she’s faced because of what body tissue she has; but biology doesn’t determine her gender or what she should do with it either, even though she’s come out with the relationship between body and gender that most people expect. (And gender identity wouldn’t prevent someone with the same body tissue from suffering in the same ways that she has.)
One reason this is so confusing for many people who aren’t trans is because trans people’s experiences, from their own perspectives, are very rarely part of wider public culture.
If we use racism as an imperfect analogy (because the history of transphobia and the history of racism aren’t the same), many white people do know at least a little bit about racial discrimination and racism even though they can’t have experienced it themselves. Often, and with most emotional weight, this comes through the arts, like literature and film.
Representing the lives and histories of people of colour in the arts has been and remains its own struggle – and the structure of who gets jobs in the arts is still very far from properly resembling contemporary Britain, as the actor Riz Ahmed stressed in a powerful speech this week.
The stories of what it means to be trans are even more disproportionately told by cis creators, and keep coming round to the same tropes that fascinate people who aren’t trans – while publishing pressures trans authors to keep writing in one limited format (memoirs about surgical transition, which not every trans person even wants or needs).
That’s at the cost of cis people never getting to hear what trans people and their experiences have to say about different ways of moving through the world with genders and bodies that don’t fit in: compare CN Lester’s LGBT History Month talk at Oxford this year about the actual life of the Danish artist Lili Elbe and her queer and trans contemporaries in 1920s Europe to the limited, harmful perspectives that filmgoers were shown in The Danish Girl.
The connective fabric we need to see why ‘gender is a spectrum’ and ‘trans women are women’ are both true at the same time is a cornerstone of what trans people know about their own and others’ bodies, helping to explain why they’ve experienced the dissonances that they have; to most cis people who haven’t taken the time to listen, it’s invisible.
Let’s take the time to listen, and make space for trans people’s words and knowledge to reach further when we can.