“What it means to be a woman” is a subject I aired in a recent post, when I asked (and I was thinking at the time particularly but not only of transsexuals and intersexuals) various rhetorical questions, such as:

Is there really such a sharp biological difference between men and women, a gender dichotomy? Or are gender differences artifically created by social norms so that “feeling like a woman” is itself something artificial? Does it merely mean that you feel comfortable fulfilling a female stereotype? That you have found a “feminine role” where you fit? Even if there is something chemical or physiological in your brain that is somehow female – if you have only ever experienced feeling the way you are (and not the way that, say, a representative sample of people of another gender feel) how do you know that what you feel is “like a woman” rather than just “like you”? I mean, how do you know that what you are feeling is specific to gender rather than to some other aspect of personhood?”

Erika’s post here added some food for thought. She identifies several aspects of femaleness that are part of what it means to be a woman. Most obviously (now that you mention it, I mean) she points out, in addition to the biological bits that I was struggling to get past, the experience of being a woman: the experience of growing up as a girl, of having that gender role assigned from birth, and living that gender role your whole life.

And now, in the context of this post at Grandma was a Suffragette, I find myself thinking about transsexuals again. Kaite talks in that post about a women-born-as-women only event (i.e. excluding transsexuals who were born male but identify as female) and about how acceptable it is for women, and in particular feminists, to exclude “women-born-as-men” from their spaces.

Firstly, let me say that I feel deeply for transsexuals. I do not, cannot, understand quite where they are coming from because I do not and cannot share their experiences and feelings. However, what is clear is that they are people who are irreconcilably at odds with the gender role that society has assigned them, and whose misery when forced into that role is clearly extreme.

In an ideal world, there would be no pre-ordained gender roles, no pressure to conform to gender type and thus no misery caused by any inability to conform. Perhaps in such a world (perhaps) there would be no transsexuals, although I don’t think we know enough about the causes of transsexualism to do more than speculate on that. The point is, we do not live in an ideal world. There are gender roles, and people who feel drastically antipathetic to the roles available to their birth-assigned gender, and more comfortable with or attracted to a role only available to the other gender, end up in a horrible position. They can either go on trying to conform – and end up miserable, risking serious mental illness – or they can go out on a limb, defy expectations and switch to a different role.

My question then is – how should we, as women and as feminists, respond to such people in their “new” female gender? (NB given the context of this post I’m only talking about trans-women.) They are people, certainly, and in some sense at least they are women. But are they women in the fullest sense? Are they lacking something relevant, or should we welcome them into “our” group as “true” women? Are we bigoted if we are wary, suspcious even, of these women-born-as-men?

My own feelings – and I’m trying here to take account of the fact that I may just be bigoted – are that people who are born and grow up as boys and men (albeit that “inside” they “feel” like women, whatever that means) do lack something that other women do not – but I’m not sure whether what they lack is “relevant” in the sense that they cannot truly be women without that something.

Women-born-as-men certainly lack the same kind of experience of being women and girls that women-born-as-women have, and of being treated as such through their formative years. Wearing pink frilly dresses, being cossetted, playing with dolls and toy kitchens, being expected always to be the nurturing, caring one, being groomed for motherhood and wifehood and some nice, ladylike occupation… That kind of girlhood may not be universal, but it is typical and is very different from the typical boyhood, to which a MTF transsexual will have been exposed instead. How far we are shaped by that early experience is hard to say. Perhaps it is “relevant” in the sense I referred to, but perhaps it isn’t really. After all, a trans woman who has lived as a woman for many years will have gained a great deal of experience of being treated as a woman, particularly if she mixes primarily with people who do not know her history.

Women-born-as-men also lack, inevitably, certain biological experiences or influences. The obvious ones (like menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth) are not necessarily relevant because there are some women-born-as-women who do not have those experiences. But I’m not willing to rule out that there may be some other, less obvious biological facts specific to women which trans women do not experience.

In short, I don’t know enough about lots of stuff to be able to claim that MTF transsexuals are, or are not, “true” women in some “full” sense. Given that, and given also that people in such a position are bound to face piles of difficulties to which I do not wish to add, I think I’m willing to try and give them the benefit of any doubts I may have.

But.

I still have a wariness about MTF transsexuals in my space, my womandom. The reason appears, on analysis, to be political.

Hyperjoy7’s comment to Kaite’s post gives a starting point:

Radical Feminism sees [transsexualism] as simply trading one gender role for another. Even were this possible — even if one could somehow “be” a woman without being born female and socialized accordingly — what would be the point of that? It only [shores] up the gender binary. It promotes this idea that some few people “don’t fit” in their gender roles and must “switch” to the other, where they do fit…rather than, as Radical Feminism promotes, pointing out THE PROBLEM [IS] WITH GENDER ROLES/THE GENDER BINARY, PERIOD.

So, it seems, transsexuals want to say: There are gender roles, and this is valid. I belong to gender role X. Unfortunately, I was born, biologically, as gender Y and therefore in order to reflect my true gender I need to switch sides.

But I think I would say (along with radical feminism, apparently): there are gender roles, but this is not valid. If a person wants to fit into a social role then that’s fine – but it is wrong to treat the role as necessarily related to the gender*. The relation is purely social and artificial. If we must try to change something in order to make a person feel more comfortable in the social role he or she has chosen, surely we should try to change the social constructs of gender, not the biological sex of the people who do not fit those constructs.

[*With one important exception – the option of motherhood. But for obvious reasons that is not a gender role that can be relevant to the MTF transsexual. And even then the “role” of mother is not quite so straightforwardly clearcut as all that. For some it is a key part of identity, whereas for others it is not much more than biology. I won’t go into that here, though!]

In other words, by everything they stand for, what transsexuals do does not break down gender divisions. It reinforces them.

I suppose the long and short of it is that, while I do not have a problem with transsexuals as people – they are, after all, making an astonishingly brave decision to step wholly outside what is deemed acceptable in our bigoted society – I do have a problem with the concept of transsexualism as a statement about the reality and validity of gender roles.

[As an aside I do also wonder whether the doctors and other therapists who champion gender reassignment as a “cure” for gender dysphoria are not influenced by their own investment in gender types. What I mean is, I wonder whether they tread down the paths they do because they find the idea that gender roles are to blame in the first place, and should be abolished, even more startling and unacceptable than the idea of people being inexplicably born in the wrong sex and needing medical treatment to “correct” their bodies.]

Here’s another way of looking at it. What I would prefer for society, rather than that there should be opportunities to switch from one biological sex to another, is that the whole concept of socially constructed gender should disappear in favour of an ideal of personhood with underlying biological sex as a characteristic relevant only to medical treatment, reproduction and other aspects of life which genuinely are specific to one sex or the other.

That means that, yes, I am wary of transsexualism as a principle (if not as a coping strategy used by individuals in seriously uncomfortable situations and in a society where relatively inflexible gender roles are a fact of life) and, as a principle, I feel that it is at odds with my feminism.

Being wary does not mean I close the doors entirely to transwomen: I haven’t got a Not Welcome Here sign on my bus. It does mean that I can sympathise with there being some women’s spaces that do exclude women-born-as-men.

But I am also wary of this wariness, very conscious of the risk of bigotry, very glad I haven’t got to decide who gets to ride on Women Only bus… because this isn’t an easy question.

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