Note: This is a response I wrote during a conversation when one of the participants asked “when does a trans woman become a woman?”. To say that my response ruffled some feathers would be an understatement. I answered:
“A trans woman is a woman. She never wasn’t one. She might have believed society’s message and thought herself a man, but she was really a woman who had been deceived into that.”
For a short while, chaos ensued. Some participants immediately blocked me, others posted short messages of shock and disgust at my answer. But I appealed for them to allow me to explain why I answered that way. Thankfully, one of the participants (who had blocked me minutes earlier) re-engaged and asked me to proceed. Below is what I wrote (slightly modified for formatting and continuity, and to correct errors in grammar).
Thank you for being open to hearing me out. When I say that a trans woman has been a woman all her life, I’m not referring to her anatomy, but to her experience. Of course her anatomy is going to have an effect on her experience, but every woman’s anatomy affects her experience, and every woman’s experience is unique to her. I believe the basic/frequent objections to the notion that “a trans woman is a woman and has always been one” are: “but she has been raised/socialized as a man”, and, “but she has a penis”.
Let’s start with the penis.
Yes, trans women typically have had a penis at some point but their lives. But to point to a single body part and say that this part is what defines them as a person flies in the face of feminism — women have fought long and hard to *not* be defined by their vaginas and uteruses, because who we are as women isn’t defined by our ability to carry a baby. It’s completely hypocritical for us to then turn around and tell someone that their penis defines them.
What’s more, I’ve heard a lot of arguments against allowing trans women into women-only spaces on the basis of “but they have a penis”, or more insidiously, “we have to protect women and children!” I understand that many women have suffered trauma at the hands of men, and that for some women, the sight of a penis can be triggering. But I can’t think of the last time I saw another woman’s genitalia in a woman-only space.
In conversations with trans women, I’ve asked them about their experiences in women-only spaces, and the near universal answer I get is that trans women (especially ones who still have a penis) are extremely conscious about their anatomy, and are very careful to not expose their genitals. If they need to get completely naked, they will go into a bathroom stall or shower and close the curtain to change clothes, or, if one is not available, cover with a towel or change under their clothes. Or, more commonly, just forgo whatever they were changing for – skip the workout (or come and go in their workout clothes without changing), to not try on clothes or purchase them without trying them on, or, in the case of bathrooms, just hold it.
Did you know that trans women have higher rates of UTI and kidney stones? This is because they will forgo relieving themselves if they don’t feel they can do so with privacy, and they learn to drink less liquids so they don’t have to pee as often (which leads to kidney stones). They do this for the comfort of other women, not their own.
And more to the point, underlying the narrative of “protect women and children” is the notion that penises are inherently evil. If there’s something about a penis which makes the person attached to it do evil things, then why aren’t we cutting these evil things off?! And logically, if we do believe that penises cause their owners to do evil things, then we give penis-bearers a built in defense against their crimes: “it wasn’t me, it was my penis!”. No, penises don’t rape women; it’s the evil people that are attached to the penises who rape women with their penises.
Getting back to trans women, one perspective is to see them as women who have an unfortunate congenital condition where their body doesn’t reflect the person they really are. Society is so focused on the anatomy that we have a hard time understanding that a woman could be born with a penis. So when the doctor sees a penis, he proclaims “it’s a boy!”, and the newborn is effectively branded with that label.
Which leads to the second objection:
That trans women have been raised/socialized as boys/men.
I get this one. I understand the logic behind it – that how we raise and how we socialize people makes them into who they are. But that’s not the whole story, is it?
Straight parents raise gay kids all the time (even the homophobic parents). In a family of artists and musicians, one of the kids may grow up to be an engineer. Sometimes there’s some other factor at play – something which overrides nurture. How we raise kids informs who they become, but it does not dictate it.
So imagine if we had an experiment where we took an infant who would typically be assigned female (based on anatomy), and raised her and socialized her as a boy. We would take steps to ensure that she had no access to any information which would tell her that her anatomy wasn’t typical for boys – textbooks and websites would be adjusted so that she’d be told that her body matched that of other boys.
Now what if she experienced a sense that she was still different than the other boys in some ineffable way?
What if she felt as though she belonged with the girls? Remember, she has no information which tells her that her anatomy aligns with other girls. She just senses that she belongs with other girls – that she is more like them, that, if she had just been born a girl, everything she’s feeling would suddenly make sense. Would you have such a hard time accepting that this girl, who was raised as a boy and even believes herself to be a boy, is really a girl?
I don’t have a hard time accepting that idea.
I feel like there’s something inside of us which recognizes things in other people, and that there’s something inside us which recognizes ourselves. What if those two senses combine where a person is able to recognize important things about themselves and see themselves reflected in other people?
I think we do that all the time. It’s how we build friendships and relationships – we recognize common interests and behaviors in each other, and those form a basis for a relationship to grow. So what if a person found that the things they have in common with others are things which tend to be significantly more common in women than in men? What if those common traits were the traits which they use to define themselves? Is it a stretch to see that a person who has been raised as a boy could find their defining traits more aligned and more common in other women? And if so, that the person could then be better able to understand themselves by understanding herself as a woman?
Getting back to our thought experiment, I have no difficulty allowing that this person could come to recognize themselves as a girl, and to feel that she really was one, despite having no physical “proof” of that (remember, she can’t use her anatomy to justify her conclusion, because as far as she knows, her body is of a typical boys).
So why is it so hard to allow that this could happen when the person has a penis?
Also, suppose we take a girl at birth, and this time she knows that she’s a girl. But she’s socialized all her life as a boy. She’s taught to have confidence, to be assertive, to be competitive, and she’s rewarded for exhibiting these behaviors. She’s never told “that’s not lady like” or “girls don’t do…”. Is she any less of a girl? Any less of a woman? To me, the answer is clearly no.
Suppose she is given male privilege. She earns the same money as her male peers, she is listened to in meetings, all her clothes have useful pockets, she does not experience misogyny directed at herself. Is she any less of a woman? No, of course not!
Now suppose she’s been raised this way, and now she sees her male peers behaving poorly towards woman (but not her) – they catcall, talk about other women’s bodies, make dismissive comments about other women; does this make her any less of a woman? Of course not! But how do you think she feels about the behavior of her male peers? Being socialized male, she understands that part of how men bond is through these insidious rituals. She recognizes that these men could very easily begin to treat her just as badly as the other women. She recognizes that she is benefiting from her apparent ability to fly under the men’s radar, and that she could easily lose those benefits by speaking up. She understands the wrongness of the behavior; what should she do? Can you fault her for leaving things alone in the hopes that nobody will notice that she is also a woman? I can’t. But is she still a woman? Of course she is.
And with this, I welcome you to a typical closeted trans woman’s experience. She might know who she is, but she doesn’t want anyone else to know for fear of reprisals. I cannot fault a trans woman for remaining in the closet – it’s self-preservation.
So let’s take the thought experiment one step further. How do you think our male-privileged woman will be regarded by other women? Don’t you think there will be some negativity directed towards her? When the other women learn about her upbringing and experiences, do you think that other women might tend to exclude her, saying that “she’s not a real woman – she hasn’t had the experiences of a real woman”?
This is what trans-exclusion is doing – invalidating other people’s experiences based on arbitrary qualifications.
Is our experiment subject a woman? Of course she is!
Has she had the same experience growing up and as an adult as other women? Not really.
Is she still a woman? Yes, of course. She is a woman with the experience of being raised like a boy and been socialized male, but a woman nonetheless.
Is her experience that of a man? No, it’s her experience and she is a woman, so it’s a woman’s experience. She is a woman who had experiences that are more typical for men, but she had a woman’s experience.
So why can’t we extend the same understanding to trans women? Why is it so hard to understand that while a trans woman had experiences that are more typical of a man’s, she experienced them from a woman’s perspective?
Is a penis that powerful?
A similar narrative I’ve heard is that by being raised as a man, a trans woman hasn’t experienced the oppression that women frequently experience. To that, I remind you that in our thought experiment, the subject also did not directly experience the oppression, but she did observe it; she was present when it happened. Perhaps she even tried to work against it. There is a psychological phenomenon called “vicarious trauma”, where a person who wasn’t subjected to the actual trauma carries emotional residue from witnessing it. PTSD is common in the trans community, even amongst individuals who never directly suffered a singular traumatic event. They are often dealing with the cumulative vicarious trauma of witnessing the oppression of other women. What’s more, some may even have guilt from benefiting from, or even participating in the oppression, even though the participation might have effectively been coerced.
Trans people face another kind of oppression where they are discriminated against for being trans (if others are aware of that fact), and are unable to express and present themselves as their experienced gender (if in the closet). Before coming out, trans people often have to live a double-life, knowing who they are, yet having to present a different façade to the world in order to protect themselves. They suffer when they cannot live authentically, and when they do finally come out and live authentically, they are often discriminated against and face open hostility for doing so. Cisgender women experience different kinds of oppression depending on their culture, their geography, their family, their economic status, and a variety of other factors. Yet we don’t compare types of oppression and grant more validity for certain types of it — oppression is oppression. And trans people have more than their fair share of oppression.
Returning to the beginning of this conversation, when I say that trans women are women, and that they were never not women, I’m not talking about anatomy, and I’m not talking about their experiences with socialization. I’m talking about how they experience the world and relate to it.
One of the most common phrases you hear from trans people is “I always knew/felt that I was different”. They have come to understand that the difference was their gender incongruence. That some of them came to realization later in life that the difference means they are women doesn’t invalidate the experiences they had before the realization – the “difference” was always there. To me, that’s what I mean then I say they never weren’t a woman – they experienced their lives with that difference always there. Their gender was always there.
That’s pretty much it. I know this is long, and I thank you for taking the time to read it. I hope you receive this information as I intend it – not to minimize anyone’s experiences or feelings, but to explain why I feel the way I feel.
I welcome respectful dialogue.