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.
15 Comments on “An Uncomfortable Question”
Thank you Diana, for being so candid and open about gender issues.
This is an amazing post. I wish mainstream trans advocacy would take all of these things into account. We shouldn’t have to insist that transwomen are exactly the same as women who were born female in order to advocate for their rights. All people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and to live in a way that feels authentic to them without being discriminated against or made targets of violence. We should be able to acknowledge all that while being honest about the fact that being born and raised female and being born and raised male are two vastly different experiences.
It’s well and thoughtfully said, Diana!
What drove me towards gender critical feminism was the extremely aggressive policing and the attempt to silence us feminists who questioned gender orthodoxy. Many of us also have personal experience with being gender non-conforming, and in my case, I was called transphobic for objecting to being called “cis,” and not going along with the assertion that I have “cis privilege.” But I was arguing with people like Valerie Keefe, and aside from the fact that “she” may not actually be trans at all, I’m wondering how many transwomen are hyperaggressive like Valerie.
For some time now, I have been curious about the prevalence of these attitudes in the trans community. Any transwomen I have encountered offline have been mild-mannered individuals who just want to live their lives without harassment. I’d like to see an article that examines what the actual attitudes are of most trans people towards issues of gender, and not just from the point of view of what may be a tiny but extremely vocal minority.
PS: love the shark!
Thank you for this post!!! I feel like a weight has lifted from me, having found this blog. I am a woman, a feminist (approaching RadFem territory), who is getting sick of being silenced with shouts of “transphobe!!!” and “bigot!!!” every time I question the veracity of transwomens’ claims to womanhood, and the denial that transwomen often come at womanhood with an attitude of male privilege. Because the truth is, I am NOT a transphobe. I love my trans brothers and sisters, but this does not mean that I accept wholesale the idea that a transwoman is the exact same as me, nor do I think transwomen should necessarily always have access to everything (and every place) that women do. Because we’re different. I am so glad to have found this blog, and I look forward to reading more!!!
“Transition may not be the best solution, but it is the only one we have.”
Are you sure that it’s the *only* solution?
Speaking as one half of a dysphoric couple (male and female, co-transitioning), who have tried positive thinking, self-help literature, spirituality, and conversion-type therapy – all without success – before we embarked on the medical transition path, I can at least say we are open-minded to different solutions. It does seem, though, that only transition appears to have any kind of success rate at all.
Thank you so much! The first transwoman I ever got to know at all was in a women’s support group over 20 years ago. She quietly called herself “a woman by choice” and I embraced her as part of the group and cringed and sympathized as she described some of her painful experiences with men. I did not feel colonized. I felt solidarity.
Fast forward twenty years and I am bombarded with labels of transphobe and femmephobe for being critical of Jenner’s coming out party, and told to stand down because “cis” women’s struggles just can’t compare (apparently it’s a competition) with those of trans women. Once again we end up fighting each other instead of fighting the power.
Thank you for being so thoughtful, sister.
Thanks. This is extremely helpful.
hello, it seems the key point of your perspective in this is that you are not ‘appropriating’ women so long as you do not claim to BE a woman. does it then follow that you believe transsexual or transgender males who do insist that they are women, are appropriating womanhood in the same vein as dolezal aporopriated blackness?
I appreciate this post. But it is appropriation. And women can’t challenge it or we risk being abused as TERFs and worse. This is how men defend their supremacy. Always with threats. This is how they own the urban open spaces after dark – with the threat that women who dare to go there will be raped or worse. If transwomen really were women, there would be no threats.
By forcing your way into our midst and not allowing us to resist, you silence us and strengthen the system by which we are oppressed.
There is another, more courageous way: Reject masculinity, accept your male bodies, be our friends. We would welcome you.
I deplore the use of the slur “TERF” and the abusive actions of many transgenderists towards women who challenge them. I believe women should be able to set their own boundaries and those boundaries should be respected.
As for the rest, it has been a long journey to get where I am today. Little by little I make peace with myself, but it’s a slow process and writing helps me work things out. I appreciate you reading and I am definitely open to honest conversation. It is the only way we can move forward and abolish gender.
Bless you. Thank you for writing this. I really want to educate myself, having 3 kids and not having what I felt was ample information or a healthy point of view on the matter. I know I still need to learn more. Most Sincerely. I’m one who finds writing very difficult!