I need to confess something. I am profoundly uncomfortable talking about race. I am uncomfortable talking about it in broad terms or historical terms. I am especially uncomfortable speaking about it in a transracial context. Given recent events, I find many transwomen, myself included, are grappling with the ramifications of progressive double speak as people point out the hypocrisy in identity politics surrounding Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. The discussions over Dolezal’s appropriation of a black identity have lead me wonder, do I appropriate womanhood? Am I, simply by living my life, insulting and mocking women? How can I look uncomfortably at changing race, yet not at gender? I’ve pondered it a great deal and my best answer is an extremely qualified “I don’t think so.” I endeavor to avoid justification and rationalization in my life. I try to face reality as openly and honestly as possible, but I am not perfect and am rife with prejudices known and unknown. As such, it is easy to dismiss my words as justification, and perhaps they are. Ultimately, that is not for me to decide. I only ask that you hear me out.
I should start with what I believe. I believe in biological sex. I believe that gender is a construct used to oppress women based on sex. I believe that gender is harmful to us all and that we all buy into it to one level or another. After all, we are people living in the world. I believe that as a child, I developed an affinity for femininity as a way of expression as well as a dysmorphic disorder in regards to my body. I believe that transition, including the ingestion of synthetic estrogen, has allowed me to become a functional, well adjusted, adult. I know I am not female. I do not make claim to being a woman. I am male. I live as a woman in that the world perceives me as such. I do not make claims to the oppression of women. I do not deny the privilege I enjoyed as a male nor the socialization I endured as a boy. All of these make me who I am. When I transitioned I chose a traditionally feminine name. I could have maintained my old name. There are women who have it, but I did not feel my old name represented me correctly. I perform gender to a certain extent. I enjoy aspects of beauty. I like clothes. I like to appear pretty. None of these make me a woman. If we decouple a feminine presentation from womanhood and a masculine presentation from manhood, then manner of dress is hardly appropriation.
Is the ingestion of hormones and feminization of the male body sexual imperialism? Hmm. Hormones did change my body. They have softened my skin. They have rearranged the distribution of fat in my body. They have enlarged my breasts. They have made it easier for me to be perceived as a woman. All of this is true, but it is not the reason I am thankful I took them. Hormones have balanced me. Through their administration, by a doctor, I have overcome the crippling depression which governed me. I am no longer subject to the emotional highs and lows which ruled me prior. I am even keeled. My dysmorphia has lessened, though not disappeared entirely.
Surgery is the final step in a grim march against our own demons. It is an extreme resolution to an extreme problem. Make no mistake, removal of the penis (technically an inversion) is a radical act to cure a psychological diagnosis. Nothing will make us women. At best we achieve a facsimile of femaleness, but sometimes that is enough. It’s not a guaranteed solution and more than a few regret their decision to have the surgery, but for certain people, people who meet the right psychological profile, I think it is critical, with a caveat. It is imperative that we understand, as transsexuals, that surgery does not make us women. We are no more women post-op than we were before we took our first tab of estradiol.
I believe this is the key to answering the question of appropriation. If we fully admit we are not women. If we do not claim the experiences or the oppression of women. If we work hard as allies in support of women and against gender, which harms us all, then I do not believe we are appropriating. We, as transsexuals, are not taking anything without the permission of women. We are not stealing their culture or their shared history. We are different though we may be perceived as similar. We cannot be women. We have not always been women. To make such statements would be to appropriate the struggles of women, and deny our own. As gender non-conforming males we have our own history and our own heroes. Just as we cannot fully understand what it is like to be female, women cannot understand what it is like to be us. In being honest about who we are, and what we are, we avoid appropriation and open the possibility of a better future for us all.
If the world were different, if gender wasn’t the horrible monster it is then maybe transsexuality doesn’t exist. Maybe males would be content to be pretty and females butch. Maybe hormone therapy and surgery become unnecessary relics of an ignorant past. I’d love to see such a world, but it is not the place in which we live. Transition may not be the best solution, but it is the only one we have. We are not women and never will be. As such, we must be sensitive to the struggles of women. We must be vigilant as to not steal from them. We can not appropriate their struggles and oppression, but we have to acknowledge our reality. We have to accept our feelings and our struggles are real. We have to do what we can to fix ourselves, so that we too can live happy fulfilling lives. We should not feel guilty for finding peace.