On 8th March be the best woman you can, however you choose to define it.
The broadcaster and journalist Jenni Murray recently wrote an article in the Sunday Times about trans women. The original article is behind a paywall, but it has been widely re-reported elsewhere, with the heading ‘Trans women shouldn’t call themselves real women’. I came across it because it was widely discussed in forums that I’m part of. As I say, I haven’t seen the original piece and can’t comment on Murray’s original intent and context. However, I do have some thoughts on how people (many of whom similarly didn’t read it) responded.
The first is that this discussion seemed to be very removed from personal experience and unconscious of this. People made statements that seem ‘obvious’ to them. Common themes I’ve seen include: it takes more to put on a dress to be a woman; sex = gender and is a biological fact; surgically altering genitals is not sufficient to alter gender; and that the ways that trans women go about creating a female identity shows an oppressive and patriarch bias. I understand why people think these things. As I say, this things seem ‘obvious’ to them and consistent with their experiences. A few years ago I had thoughts not dissimilar to these. They were fairly unexamined and based on my experiences and innate sense of being a woman. What challenged this and changed my mind however, was when someone I knew transitioned. I’m a polite person, I didn’t voice these opinions. I supported my friend because she was my friend. Having a window on to her experiences and engaging and reflecting was what changed my mind. I learnt a whole new vocabulary, and began to see myself as a ‘ciswoman‘. I learnt that attitudes towards gender reassignment surgery are not uniform and that some transwomen also believe that removing male organs will not make them women, so don’t. I thought about things from a completely different perspective. I began to see that gender was complex. I had taken my own gender as an article of faith and had very little idea of what it meant to me or why I thought that way, until then. However, I did have a very clear idea that I had a gender and that I was a woman. As did my friend. We both identified as women, but that meant different things to us.
A worry about Murray’s article is it’s potential to harm. I came across it in an online forum – being debated in a feminist Facebook group. I think the original poster’s aim was to stimulate debate and conversation. Ostensibly, an admirable goal. However, I thought this as someone who didn’t have a personal stake in it. It struck me that to a transgender woman reading this, it read very differently. Questioning my very existence and entitlement to thoughts and feelings could only come across as hostile. Something is personal if it relates to you personally. Whilst I think it’s okay to questions about issues, I think there are ways and ways of doing so. Compare, 1. ‘A man chopping off a penis doesn’t make him a woman’ to 2. ‘Biological signs of sex, such as genitals, are fundamental to my understanding of gender. Why do some people seem to think differently?’.
My views reflect my experiences. As such I have all sorts of biases and I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than cisgender. There are some excellent people out there who do and make great work about it. My favourite so far are Robot Hugs and Sophie Labelle with Assigned Male.
Happy International Women’s Day.