In a recent interview, I was asked if I would "always stay transgender," or if I would one day identify "fully...as a woman." I laughed, grimaced, then sighed. The idea that I could ever be anything other than transgender was hilarious, and grim.
I'm trans! It is what it is, and I'm proud of it.
The idea that I was not "fully a woman" because I was trans was infuriating, then crushing. Call me an optimist, but different-from-most shouldn't mean less-by-default.
I'm visible, trans, and visibly trans. Though I'm having a great time, transmisogyny prevails in my day-to-day. I can't speak for all trans people or even trans women, but there are a few things I'd like to try and clarify.
Jill Soloway's Transparent -- a Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning dramedy streaming on Amazon Prime -- explores transness, queerness, and feminism. Season 2 premieres today, and one scene from episode nine has stuck with me (I got to watch it early because I'm on it: so tune in!). Maura - a transgender woman in her seventies - faces off with a group of radical feminists at a music festival with a "women-born-women" policy. One of the women explains to Maura that the festival is meant for "people who were born with a vagina and a uterus." Another explains, "a lot of people here are triggered by penises." The first interjects: "because we've all been raped." Another woman seems exasperated: "see this is where it gets really weird because, you know, suddenly the conversation is all around you and all of us are trying to make you comfortable...I don't give a shit about your goddamn penis. It's about the privilege." Maura, shocked, insists: "I was in way too much pain to experience what you're calling privilege."
This scene portrays a tough but inevitable conversation: how are trans women to be included in discourses of feminism and womanhood that-up until recently, it seems-have been constituted by cisgender women?
I'm not sure it's a perfect explanation, but I have an idea.
1. are not cis women...and that's okay.
2. are women, and that's a fact.
1. WE'RE NOT CIS WOMEN
Some trans women begin their transition before they hit puberty; some begin their transition after puberty; some begin their transition long after puberty. Though there is no way to account for the bodies and experiences of trans women in toto, what bonds trans women is the assignation of male identity at birth.
"It's a boy!" is a shovel that digs a trans woman deeper and deeper into a hole out of which she must eventually crawl. Cis women start on level ground, inheriting femininity - the good and the bad - without a hitch. Being a woman is hard, but being cisgender is a privilege.
Prior to transition, trans women will never know what it's like to be raised as a girl in the eyes of others, educated as a girl in the eyes of others, and yes: oppressed as a girl in the eyes of others. She will never know what it's like to menstruate once a month, and she will never bear children. Regardless of whether her "boyhood" lasts 4 years, 11 years, 20 years, or 60 years, a trans woman's gender emerges from a brutal rift between itself and the world. Nevertheless: she chooses womanhood over a manhood she didn't ask for, and which wounded her deeply.
Trans women - for 4 years, 11, 20, or 60 - negotiate with the offer of male privilege. Whether a trans woman accepts, internalizes, and utilizes male privileges is another matter entirely. The emergence of trans femininity implies a crisis of masculinity: a failure, refusal, or abdication of manhood and male privilege. Some trans women palpably fail at maleness and transition as soon as they can; some trans women give stunning, durational performances of maleness, secretly suffering for years. Every trans woman has her own relationship to the maleness she inherits at birth and turns away from when ready. Male assignment at birth does not make someone a man, but it does color and shape her life experience in a way it never could for a cis woman.
And yes: men abuse, oppress, rape, and demean women, and the vast majority of these men have penises. I would argue, however, that it is not penises that rape women, but patriarchy: a global gender hierarchy where manhood yokes and plunders womanhood.
Not all men have penises, and not all women have vaginas and uteri.
If feminism counters patriarchy, then a feminist discourse that essentializes binary gender to binary bodies seems counterintuitive. Indeed, patriarchy itself is built upon this rhetoric. I have always wondered at the rift between trans women and certain radical feminists, as both have an exceptional understanding of what it means to suffer under patriarchy.
2. WE'RE WOMEN
Defining a woman becomes complicated when one ceases to define her on the basis of gender assigned at birth. When experience varies so much from woman to woman, blanket statements fail. Though I am not an expert on gender studies - and I hope to keep my opinions fluid - I arrive at a definition of womanhood by looking at men: what they do, what they have, and whom they prevent from doing and having. I define womanhood by who suffers for not identifying or presenting as male, and why.
This year alone, there have been 30 reports of unlawfully killed transgender people. 27 of these victims were trans women. All of the murderers suspected or convicted of these crimes were men.
In 32 US states, it is legal to deny a trans person housing and/or employment based on their gender identity. Trans people are unemployed at twice the national average, and 1 in 5 trans people will experience homelessness. Only 9 states mandate that health insurance covers trans-related care. Roughly 80% of seats in the United States Congress are held by men, and there has never been a woman president.
The above statistics don't define womanhood on their own, but perhaps they point to a general trend of men as the persecutors of not just women, but trans women specifically.
While trans women remain exempt from certain challenges unique to cis women, their struggles under patriarchy are severe and unique. Most trans women struggle to shape/frame their bodies in accordance with patriarchal beauty standards - not because these standards are good or valid, but because they preserve dignity and even save lives. Trans women who are outed or "clocked" are reviled and ridiculed. Trans women who do pass, on the other hand, join the women of the world as second-class citizens. Let's say, for instance, that a trans woman internalized certain "masculine" values of confidence and assertiveness during her so-called "boyhood;" as a trans woman - erased, reviled, and ignored - these ghosts of privilege cannot do her nearly as much good as they could before.
When men - in a world run by men - have long defined what it means to be a woman, it seems to me that both cis and trans women suffer from a definition of womanhood they didn't write. They suffer as women - as not-men - sometimes in different ways, but together nonetheless. A discussion of non-binary identities is imminent in the near future, but I focus now on the global gender binary that persists.
Answers for womanhood evade; questions for womanhood abound.
Text Hari Nef
Photography Kathy Lo