When I was twelve, I wanted to be a man. Out loud, grinning, I told teachers and friends that I would grow up to be a wrinkly old chap in a leather armchair, beside the mahogany mantle of some Trumpian country club, swilling scotch and ashing my cigar. Even then I knew where the power in this world lies.
But I wanted to be a man in more quiet ways, too, ways I never told my best friend, or my mother, or even the therapist she sent me to see when the panic attacks wouldn’t stop. After I spent the night at my best friend’s house and realised I wanted to touch her how I had never touched anyone. To hold her. No, that can’t be right. I’m not a lesbian. I can’t be. I was twelve: I was obsessed with making myself normal.
For the same reason, I did not permit the word “transgender” between my ears. But I remember looking down at my lap, wondering if something else ought to be there. Feeling like it already was there. Something powerful was. What if I was just born wrong?
Nobody ever told me a cunt could be powerful.
I was six feet of angles and limbs. I remember prodding my pitiful budding breasts in the mirror, willing them to grow voluptuously huge, like a porn star’s, or not at all. What woman hasn’t stared in the mirror, hating pieces of herself? Feeling like a prisoner in her own body?
Myself, it took me a very long time to feel okay here.
Will fluidity set us free?
An LGBT+ meeting on campus brought my personal past to a public head: could we theme our conference around gender? The ways it constrains us, the way fluidity sets us free? What if we can all be whatever we want to be?
That always-passive verb, “triggered,” is such a cliché.
My chest tightened. If that is our theme, I said, then I would respectfully recuse myself. Gender is a topic between me and my therapist.
I can’t help it. My face always grows hot to hear people talk about how liberating and freeing it is to call themselves a woman–a real woman, a woman who knows the fullest extent of what womanhood means. A trans woman giddy to tell me she’d been interrupted in a meeting and mistaken for a secretary. I try to feel happy that so many have found peace in femininity.
In modern, liberal feminism, it’s not up for debate: womanhood is not about biology. I tried hard to support this line. The worst fight my ex and I ever had was triggered by his deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner. But I witnessed lesbians worrying about their own transmisogyny for not being keen on girl dick. It was starting to feel a whole lot like gaslighting. How well can we support women when we erase “female biology” from our collective vocabulary? The erasure of these realities has had dire consequences already for women’s health in the U.S.
I believe the intention of allies has been pure. Dysphoria is painful. I know. I am fortunate that mine went away on its own, like it does for a vast majority of teenagers, many of whom grow up to be well-adjusted homosexual or, like me, bisexual adults. To come to terms with womanhood took me much longer.
“Gender isn’t something I chose. Gender is something that was done to me.”
Gender is why I didn’t think I ought to study computer science in college. Gender is why I wasn’t allowed offshore on the rig sometimes, because they didn’t have the “female bedspace” or didn’t want some yankee bitch hanging around. Gender is why my performance reviews five years running commented that I was “too aggressive,” in the same breath commending me that I got the job done that nobody else could. Why my friends and I ran across campus from the new football recruits, and then blamed ourselves for having danced too close. Why my mom prepared dinner for my dad every night. He woke up from a nap just in time to lead my siblings in a chorus of ridicule against her. Why my exboyfriends were right to slut-shame me for the sex I’d had, for the sex I wanted.
Further back in time, that rail-thin teen, always awkward in groups of girls. Sisterhood was out of reach, incomprehensible if I could not master wearing makeup and chasing boys and gossiping over magazines: the performance of womanhood. My mother wasn’t any good at it, either. I hated her for not possessing a tangible femininity nor passing one down to me.
Feminism finally taught me that it was patriarchy to blame; only then could I place disappointment where it belonged. Femininity was no evidence of womanhood. It was gender, not women, who had let me down.
I cannot overstate how liberating it has been for me to recognise the biological basis of women’s oppression. Because in naming it, we can fight it.
The gender of violence
In many ways being born a woman today in the West is better than it’s ever been. Any talk about the oppression of women (those of us born with XX chromosomes who still identify as women) must be tempered by the acknowledgement of “cis privilege.” It’s well-meaning. I understand: I don’t want anyone to hurt anymore, either. But I don’t feel “cis.” I didn’t always feel happy in the gender I was born into. I thank God now nobody ever gave me another choice.
Nobody gives another choice to girls in India, who are living through a national epidemic of rape. Nobody gave that choice to girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped as political pawns. Nobody gives that choice to daughters in China, abandoned for dead because their parents value sons. None of these women, if they live to be women, get to opt in or out of their gendered oppression.
Violence against the transgender community is a vast problem, too, one perpetuated almost entirely by men. We do a disservice to the trans community, and to women born women, when we fail to adequately interrogate the nature of all the crimes committed under patriarchy.
Insisting that “trans women are women” will not make transphobia disappear, any more than insisting that “women can have it all” will make misogyny itself disappear.
Where misogyny comes from
If a woman is anyone who looks or feels like a woman, then misogyny is a response to feminine manner or presentation. But the gendered concept of femininity is itself a social construction rooted in misogyny. Femininity is weaponised by patriarchy. Men are hostile to anyone, male or female, who challenges the supposed natural dichotomy that man = masculine and woman = feminine. That’s why Dan Savage is fond of saying that homophobia is misogyny’s little brother. The nature of transphobia is indeed rooted in misogyny, but it is critical to acknowledge this fold of nuance.
To pretend otherwise is dismissive of the struggles of women, and disingenuous to the reality of gender dysphoria. Every individual ought to be free to craft an identity that feels true to him or herself. But forgive me if I am wary of a trans advocacy movement that encourages boys and girls to change their bodies and pronouns in response to dysphoria, the causes of which are manifold and ever-changing (especially in puberty.) Does ideology that espouses hormones and surgery help us, as feminists, challenge the construct that passive and self-conscious belongs to her and powerful and assertive belongs to him? To abolish, rather than expand, the role gender plays in defining us?
Where we go from here
Believe it or not, I do want to stand beside the trans movement. I want individuals suffering from gender dysphoria to have access to real dialogue and reliable statistics on the success and side effects of hormone therapy and/or gender affirming surgery, and I hope they can come to the decision to transition as informed adults, under the guidance of qualified and compassionate medical and mental health professionals.
But I won’t abide by a movement that fights to make potentially-sterilising hormones available for young girls and boys. Or one that shouts down respected feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for asserting evidence that biological females face unique injustices.
If a woman is anybody who calls herself a woman, then I suppose I opted into the same identity I used want out of desperately. But does everyone have the privilege of opting in or out? And if we all did, who would be left to speak for the women, born as girls, who never got to make that choice?