I recently answered a question on Quora which led to a debate. At the time, I didn’t realize what I was getting into – not for the debate itself, but for the personal impact it would have on me. Here’s the question and my answer:
The question is flawed. Just because a person carries a baby in their womb doesn’t make the person a mother. Men can have uteruses, and recently, one who does have a uterus gave birth. That doesn’t make him any less of a man. And in our society, we call parents who happen to be men “father”.
Perhaps we might be better off dropping gendered language from government forms and just specifying “parent”.
The debate started somewhat predictably. I’ll call the other person CC. (Note: I’ve edited comments for clarity and to focus on the issues I’m trying to highlight.)
CC: “Men can have uteruses” – it’s things like these that make it hard for me to fully support transgenders…
I am also for personal liberty – if you were born a guy, but feel like a woman, or vice-versa… do whatever you have to in order to feel better with yourself – I don’t care; it’s your life, and I will support your choices. And I will even use your preferered pronouns (unless it’s some BS like ‘zer’ or ‘zim’). Though if you’re just a bearded guy in a dress, then you’re just a bearded guy in a dress – and not a transwoman.
But things like ‘men can have uteruses’ trully make it hard for me to fully support transgenders.
If I’d been paying closer attention, I would have seen the warning signs… more on that in a moment. First, my reply:
Me: […] A person’s pronouns aren’t preferred, they’re mandatory. You wouldn’t permit someone to repeatedly and intentionally use the wrong pronouns for yourself, so why would it ever be ok to intentionally use the wrong pronouns for someone else?
If you’re a bearded guy, you’re a guy, regardless of what you wear. Being transgender isn’t about the clothes. If you saw a bearded woman, would she be any less of a woman? Of course not. Trans women aren’t guys.
Trans men may still have uteruses. The presence of a uterus doesn’t make them any less men. The anatomy of internal genitalia is one of five sex characteristics, but has no bearing on gender.
Finally, the word “transgender” is an adjective, not a noun. It is grammatically incorrect to refer to a group of people by using only an adjective; it wouldn’t be proper grammar to refer to a group of “talls” — you’d refer to them as tall people. Similarly, it is improper to use the adjective “trans” (short for transgender) as a prefix to the noun “woman”; you wouldn’t say “tallwoman”, but instead, “tall woman”.
Sheesh, cisgenders can be so weird sometimes! 😂
Footnotes:  5 Women Share Why They Grew Out Their Facial Hair
What were the warning signs I missed? They were in the phrase “it’s things like these that make it hard for me to fully support transgenders”. I called out the misuse of the adjective “transgender” as a pluralized noun – that is a fairly common mistake. But the one I missed was “make it hard […] to fully support [trans people]”.
CC: See?! It’s when transgender people write BS like that (again) that makes it hard to support you. No, MY language is NOT mandatoraly [sic] defined by others, including forcing me to use made-up pronouns.
And again: you wrote “Men can have uteruses”. This is wrong. Period.
There it is again: “makes it hard to support you”. By now, I’ve picked up on the theme of support, and I incorporate that into my response.
Me: If you want to claim to be supportive of trans people, you can’t turn around and say “but I won’t support this, this, this, or that”, especially when those things you won’t support are the core parts of being transgender. And most especially when it comes to pronouns – one of the most basic levels of human dignity.
Here’s the basic thing about being transgender: we are exactly who and what we tell you we are. Transgender men are men, transgender women are woman, and non-binary people are valid in their identities. Our bodies don’t define us, and our body parts don’t tell you anything about who we are.
I am a transgender woman. This means I am a woman. A woman who was assigned male at birth, but a woman nonetheless. When I had a penis, it was a woman’s penis, because I was a woman and that was my penis. If a transgender man has a uterus, that is a man’s uterus, because he is a man, and that is his uterus. This is what we mean when we talk about men’s uteruses.
Here are some great images from Sophie Labelle illustrating what I mean:
If you want to reduce people to their body parts and use those parts to define them as people, please don’t think that you’re being supportive of or an ally to transgender people.
If your support of me as a transgender person is contingent on me behaving precisely how you want me to, then no thank you. I will continue to be the outspoken, in-your-face, won’t-back-down kind of strong, feminist, transgender woman I am, and I do not exist for the pleasure of other people. If your support and acceptance of me has conditions, then you really aren’t supporting and accepting me, are you?
The message I’m getting from CC’s comments is basically “if you want me to support you, you’d better behave the way I want/expect you to. When you don’t behave that way, I will remove my support.”
A quote that repeatedly comes to my mind is “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976) By making her support of me conditioned on my behaving how she wants, CC is (consciously or un-) trying to limit the change I’m trying to make.
CC: OF COURSE I can support some things and not support others.. I do support anyone’s right to change their gender (at their own expense, not at the tax-payer’s), but I also KNOW that saying that man can have uterus or that you had a “woman’s penis” is utter stupidity.
“Utter stupidity.” Really? Maybe she’s not understanding (or more likely, not trying to understand) the point I’m trying to make about body parts – it is kind of subtle…
Me: […] I’d suggest you consider a different approach: when encountering something which feels odd or doesn’t make sense about an experience which you personally haven’t had, instead of saying “that cannot be”, try “I don’t understand; would you mind explaining what you mean?”
I am a woman. I always have been. I might have been born in a phenotypically male body, but I was still a woman. Whatever parts I had were my parts – and as a woman, they were a woman’s parts.
I believe that you are getting hung up on the notion that a penis is considered a male body part, and I don’t disagree. But when I’m talking about women/men, I am not talking about female/male. It’s the difference between gender and sex.
Am I making sense? I’m not arguing that a penis isn’t male genitalia, but that physical sex isn’t relevant when talking about one’s gender. A penis is phenotypically male, but when it’s on the body of a person whose gender is woman, it is a woman’s penis.
CC: I can suport [sic] transpeople’s [sic!] rights to be whoever they want (at their expense) without having to accept moronic premises like “men can have uterus” and “women can have penis”. That’s just not true.
You were born a man. You have male chromossomes [sic!!] and you will always have them. However, you took several steps to transform yourself into some gender different from the gender you were born with. I can accept that. I can accept that you are no longer a man – and I’d call you ‘she’ without any problem. But that doesn’t make you a woman. That only makes you a trans-woman [sic!!!].
I left the spelling and grammar mistakes in – I think they help illuminate CC’s state-of-mind.
While the whole response has issues, the part that stands out to me is “[…] that doesn’t make you a woman. That only makes you a trans-woman”. With these words, CC has made clear that she sees transgender women as less-than-women. In CC’s eyes, as a transgender woman, I’m not fully woman.
Me: And with those words, you have shown me that you do not understand what I have said, and you have again invalidated my identity.
My gender has always been woman. I am a tall, intelligent, introverted, well-educated – and yes, transgender – woman. Transgender is one of many many attributes about me, and my being transgender doesn’t make me any less of a woman. Anyone who says or implies otherwise is wrong.
My sex at birth might have been assigned male, but it is now also female. Sex isn’t only chromosomes. Humans are categorized using 5 different sex characteristics, of which chromosomes are only one. Further, you do not have any clue what my chromosomal makeup is – not even I know that, as I’ve never had a karyotype run. The remaining characteristics are gonads (I have none), hormones (mine are and have long been within the typical range for adult human females), anatomy of internal genitalia (I have a vagina), and anatomy of external genitalia (I have a vulva and clitoris). By scientific and medical measures, I am female.
By making these statements and these assumptions, you have shown you really don’t understand what I’ve been saying at all. Further, you appear to be so closed-minded that you are unwilling to learn what the things I’ve been saying even mean. I hope you will decide to open your mind and learn more about this subject, as it is far more complex than mere body parts and chromosomes.
If you are willing to have an open-minded conversation about what really means to be transgender, I welcome that. But any further comments which invalidate my identity are unwelcome. It’s your call.
As you can see, I’m growing tired of this debate – if you can even call it a debate at this point. I don’t want to dismiss her outright, so I offer to continue the conversation if she’s willing to open herself to the information I’m sharing and the points I am making.
CC: Yes, it’s better to end this conversation here. We obviously see the matter with very different lenses, and I don’t believe any of us is willing to change her mind.
Anyway, thank you for still being polite about it and for NOT having gone ‘crying’ to quora modaration [sic], which is quite the norm with transpeople [sic] or their advocates.
Goodbye and have a nice life.
That second paragraph is a backhanded compliment. “Thank you for still being polite about it” — why “still”? What gives CC the impression that I might be inclined to be impolite?
“for NOT having gone ‘crying’ to quora modaration [sic]” Oh! You think I’m otherwise inclined to “cry” to moderators? What gave you that impression?
“which is quite the norm with transpeople [sic] or their advocates.” And there it is – the implicit
prejudice assumption that because I’m trans, that I’m predisposed to rudeness or premature/irrational appeals to authorities. Apparently transgender people and our advocates don’t usually behave the way CC would have us.
I call her out…
Me: (Quoting CC) “[…] ‘crying’ to quora modaration, which is quite the norm with transpeople or their advocates.“
You don’t even know that you’re doing it, do you?
I don’t think that she does.
CC: Ahhhh… there it is: the emotional haemophilia. Lovely.
Like I said: goodbye and have a nice life.
“Emotional haemophilia”? I had to look that one up to make sure I was understanding what she meant. Hemophilia (US English spelling) is a medical condition where the body’s ability for its blood to clot is severely reduced, which can result in a person bleeding severely and often uncontrollably from even the most minor of injuries. So by emotional hemophilia, I believe CC is meaning that I’m suffering severe emotional distress from even the most minor of emotional injuries. To me, her response smacks of privilege.
I mirror her response…
Me: Ahhhh… there is it: the wanton emotional callousness. Lovely.
I admit, I’ve got some snark. Ok, maybe a lot of it. But I’d also grown tired of seeing a lack of care for what transgender people are and what we face.
Being transgender shouldn’t mean that we automatically become educators and advocates, yet we are often forced to decide between standing up for ourselves, or, remaining silent and weathering injustice and aggression.
To me, the issue at the core of this exchange is CC’s refusal to acknowledge that transgender people might have a different perspective on our bodies than she (presumably a cisgender person) has. Pretty much by definition, transgender people’s bodies don’t make sense to the people inhabiting them. Personally, I had a strong sense that I was a girl, but yet learned early on that my body was seen as that of a boy. At that time, I didn’t know the difference between sex (what my body looks like) and gender (how I felt inside).
This incongruence between our sex and gender is central to the transgender experience, and yet, remains widely misunderstood by people who aren’t trans or haven’t learned about transgender people. It’s a struggle (and debate) we are forced to engage in frequently, and that takes time and energy. And, it is emotionally taxing to deal with the effects of being forced to explain ourselves and defend our very existence. This is one burden which transgender (and really, most groups facing oppression) bear, and it’s unfair. Being transgender shouldn’t mean that we automatically become educators and advocates, yet we are often forced to decide between standing up for ourselves and trying to correct misinformation, or, remaining silent and weathering injustice and aggression.
In this case, by answering a question on Quora, I’ve accepted the role of educator and the emotional labor which goes with that. That’s fine – it was my decision, and it wasn’t forced on me. By answering, I accepted that someone might disagree and wouldn’t be open to the information I was sharing.
But what I don’t accept – in fact, I actively reject it – is the attitude of “if you want me to afford you basic human dignity, you have to conform to my expectations for how you look and behave.” And if someone who is vulnerable or oppressed needs support, telling them that you’ll only support them if they do what you want them to do and say what you want them to say is rather despicable.
Unfortunately, I’ve been noticing a trend of this kind of attitude increasing, both online and off. I hope this trend reverses soon!