Roots: Trans/Women

The duality of trans.

Trans women are women.

Transwomen are transwomen.

Trans women are men.

Trans women are trans men.

Transwomen are women.

Trans Identified Males are men.

Transwomen are transmen.

Trans women are women not trans women.

Trans women are not women they’re transwomen.

Trans women are transwomen are trans women are transwomen.

I AM SO SICK OF TALKING ABOUT THIS!

So let’s talk about it more, shall we?

As I’ve represented above, there’s a wide range of perceptions of who/what trans people are, which are usually VERY context heavy in one’s subjective perception of us. The truth is far more complicated and nuanced than any one such assertion can encompass.

Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to split myself into two halves, and you’re going to (hopefully) have a good time reading about it.

(Thank you very much for reading, by the way!)

TRANS / WOMAN

Let’s begin with the latter.

Woman:

Trans activists are often challenged with the question, “What is a woman?” I’ve grappled with this question for years and the only conclusion I can come to is that there is no adequate trans-inclusive response. It’s an argument we simply cannot win unless we reduce “woman” to mean anyone who identifies as such.

Accepting trans women are women requires adopting a philosophy that values trans women as so similar to adult human females that they should be recognized as what we’ve commonly understood to be women rather than the distinct category transwomen. In valuing similarity with the category, we might accept the term “cisgender,” a term that makes me uncomfortable for many reasons.

First of all, when “cis” was originally coined, it was “cissexual” to compliment “transsexual” as its opposite. In its original meaning, “cissexual” simply meant “one who has not medically transitioned”. It was a term describing a non-transsexual embodiment.

Today, the term has become “cisgender” following the cultural shift away from “transsexual” to “transgender” instead. This term carries quite a bit more baggage. It does not simply refer to a non-transsexual embodiment, it refers to one’s identity.

The exact definition according to the Oxford dictionary reads: “Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.”

But what if someone is gender non-conforming? What if someone is against the idea that any sense of personal identity/gender should be tied with their birth sex at all? What if someone rejects the idea of gender entirely and thinks only in terms of sex? How can we force the term on to such people? How can we make them identify as cis?

We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

My other issue with the term is that it has been co-opted by social justice activists and encoded into the language of privilege hierarchy. To be “cis” is to be a trans oppressor. I never have, and never will look on people who are not trans as my oppressors. It sickens me every time I see activists weaponizing the word to turn ordinary people into a class of trans antagonists.

None of this is to say that “cis” doesn’t have meaning or usefulness. It’s a perfectly valid way of structuring thought to be more trans-inclusive within the categories of “men” and “women” but it is understandable why many find the distinction which excludes us from these categories valid. This typically comes down to a difference in philosophy between valuing our differences over our similarities with those categories or vice versa. In my thinking, I value difference, and so in the ways I choose to identify myself and structure the language I use, I choose to express and respect that value.

I completely understand why most trans people value similarity and choose to instead identify themselves as trans men and women and advocate for the separate categories of cis men and women in society and I would never condemn them for doing so. My intent here is not to attack trans people or challenge this value of similarity over difference, it is only to speak to what I feel is right by my own philosophy and show what it has to offer the world.

Neither philosophy is “correct” and in fact, regardless of which we find greater value in, we trans people have both similarities and differences with men and women.

So, without “cis,” what is a woman?

Women are adult human females. Am I an adult human female? No.

But I am perceived to be one.

Objectively, I am an adult human male.

Subjectively, I am often interpreted as a woman.

You might say that I’m not literally a woman, but figuratively speaking, yes I am. When I am seen in the world and perceived to be an adult human female, I become subject to the same expectations as women. The cultural script I am expected to follow is a woman’s script. If I stray from that script, I am punished for what’s seen as “unwomanly” behavior. When I adhere to it, I am rewarded.

This woman’s script isn’t something that comes from within. It isn’t woven into my identity. It’s something that’s been imposed on me by society based on how I am perceived. Thus, I share subjective circumstance with women. My movement through the world is similarly restricted. People have expectations of me and react to me on the basis of those expectations in the same ways they react to women.

This means that I do experience misogyny. I am oppressed under patriarchal rule. But I recognize that although these things are true on the basis of how I’m perceived, my experiences and oppression differ from women on the basis of my sex. There is a limit to the scope of my womanhood, whereas there is no limit to theirs.

The scope of my womanhood is limited to the moments in which I pass as female. There was a time I lived in stealth, passing every day in every interaction. For that time, I was a woman per the subjective experience of others. Since, I’ve come out of the closet and now am much more open about the fact I’m trans in my interactions. By no means do I come out to every stranger I meet, but if I’m asked, I will tell you the truth, and the same is true if we become friends, co-workers, partners, or otherwise intimate.

Trans:

The truth is I’m trans, and the scope of my transhood is much wider than the scope of my womanhood. At all other places in life where my experience intersects with others, my transhood takes precedence.

When I say I am trans, I mean that I am an adult human transsexual. A transsexual is someone who undergoes medical treatment in order to undergo a binary transition from living perceived as their birth sex to living perceived as the opposite sex. Mutable aspects of our bodies allow us to do so through hormone replacement therapy and various surgical procedures. But it is important to remember that sex itself is not mutable. We can never really change sex.

There are also transgender people. Now, most would tell you that transgender and transsexual mean the same thing. Not long ago, I may have told you the same, but I’ve since found value in making a distinction between the two. In my early 20s, I came out to friends and co-workers and took my first timid steps out of the closet. During that time, I took on a new name, politely asked those in my life to use female pronouns for me, took on a part-time non-conforming lifestyle, and a handful of other changes. In this period, I was what I understand to be transgender. What separates me then from me now is the medical transition I’ve undergone and the fact I now live full time as a transwoman and am legally recognized as such. I’m happy to call such a person trans and treat them as they’d like to be treated socially, especially if they have every intent to medically transition, but it should be recognized and treated distinctly under law/policy.

My official legal status is female. At least, that’s what it says on all my identifying information. There’s heated debate over whether or not this status should apply to me and other trans people under laws and policies. I’ve got mixed feelings on this topic, but what pushes me off the fence is the implications it has for transmen under such laws. Transitioning from female to male, transmen take on a male legal status, which can strip them from access to laws, policies, programs, services etc that they might need.

In my view, it would work best if we were recognized as a distinct class and our laws were coded directly to us, rather than being funneled through laws designed for men/women. We are already recognized as a distinct social class and enabled to specified rights in many ways, such as in anti-discrimination laws and the laws enabling us to legally change our sex/gender markers in the first place. Why not simply apply this same approach where it’s needed and design laws/policies that guarantee trans inclusion through explicit mention?

Regardless, in terms of legality, we do often recognize transhood as a distinct status and I would say that we always should.

Medically speaking, it’s important my transhood be recognized as well. If I’m treated as female, I could be administered the wrong medications, receive improper treatments, be misdiagnosed, etc. There’s a whole host of things that could go wrong. You’d be hard pressed to find a trans person who disagrees. I’ve known many trans people and have never once met one who thought it appropriate to lie about their trans status to their doctor. We aren’t delusional. We understand the medical implications of what we are.

When it comes to spaces in public life, whether I like it or not, I am trans. Intersections in these spaces are very complicated for us come with a lot of nuance. Here, I’m speaking of areas like toilets, changing areas, showers/baths, services, sports, prisons, etc. as well as sexuality and in spaces shared by people of particular sexualities. Generally speaking, I would say that I would be most happy with trans-specific (or single occupancy where appropriate) spaces. However, at the same time, I recognize this is not always practical. It would be a logistical and financial nightmare to create spaces specifically for us, and even if you did, there are simply far too few of us in the world to justify it.

Thus, we opt for nuanced integration. There’s a lot to talk about with regard to all of these spaces. I could delve into my opinions on each here, but it would make this article far too long and I would be digressing far too much. Let’s suffice to say, in addition to what’s already been said, that the fact I am trans takes precedence in all cases. There’s a horrible tendency I’ve noticed for trans activists to be opposed to discourse over these topics on the basis of their mantra: trans women are women. It’s so discouraging to me when I see nuanced discourse being denied to people in favor of the mantra. For such activists, there is no nuance to be explored. Either trans women are women and welcome in all of those spaces without question, or you are a bigot/TERF.

For the record, no, you are not a bigot nor a TERF if you hold concerns over the nuance that comes with our public accommodations. Such concerns are perfectly rational/reasonable and worth addressing in good faith, returning the same reasonability and rationality with any interlocutor. If you’re looking for someone to have that sort of discourse with, please feel free to comment here, contact me via my contact page, or DM @drawnoutofshape on twitter. I’m always happy to discuss those views with anyone.

Several years ago, when I was first becoming interested in radical feminism and gender critique, I went on a forum and asked a group of gender critical feminists a philosophical question:

If we had the technology to enable complete transition of sex leaving trans people indistinguishable from the opposite of our birth sex chromosomally, hormonally, reproductively, etc. would you then recognize transwomen as women?

Going into it, I thought, “Of course they would see me as a woman then. There’d be no way to distinguish me.”

But, I was proven wrong.

Even if we had a magical tube I could enter and then re-emerge female, I would “technically” be an adult human female, you might even objectively identify me as one, but there’s still a difference.

There’s still the fact that I had the experience of being born male, and the experience living perceived as male up until I stepped into the tube. These historical differences count for so much more than we give them credit. They account for much of our learned behavior, garnered expectations, social mobility, granted opportunity, and personal autonomy. Had I been born female, my experience of the world would have been completely different, as would the world’s experience of me. The ways I would relate to the world and the ways the world would relate to me would be deeply impacted by that difference.

Transwoman:

Now, let’s put my two halves back together and return to our complex reality.

In the past, some women have expressed to me that they aren’t comfortable having intimate conversations with transwomen, “Why?” I would ask, and I’m sure they give me good answers, but I wasn’t willing to hear them and consider the truth they could see plain as day.

It wasn’t until a woman asked me this question, that I finally understood:

“If a person said they were a transwoman and engaged in an intimate trans-centric conversation with me, only to later reveal that they are not actually trans, would I feel lied to/betrayed?”

Yes, yes I would.

I’ve spoken with enough of my trans sisters by now to understand very well that there are just some things, usually very personal, intimate things about my trans experiences that I am only comfortable communicating with other transwomen. I want to communicate those things to someone who can understand and relate to them. If someone claimed to be trans in order to gain that kind of trust and garner that kind of intimate discussion from me under false pretenses, I wouldn’t feel safe communicating with that person anymore.

The same, it seems obvious to me now, is true of women. As I wrote when speaking to my womanhood, there is a lot of circumstance I share with women. I consider them my sisters too, not just transwomen. But there’s still some places I can’t go with them. Things I can’t relate to. Things they might find me knowing offensive after learning they’ve opened up under the false pretense that I’m an adult human female, just as I would be offended if I found I opened up to someone who wasn’t an adult human transsexual.

It’s all very complicated, but truth always is. The truth is that I’m a transwoman who values the difference that makes her distinct from women. I exist in a very complex, nuanced reality that is never easy but comes with its own rewards.

What does, “not a woman” mean exactly? Does this mean I’m a man? No, clearly not. My philosophy is transwomen are transwomen. There is more difference between me and men than between me and women.

It means only that I’m not an adult human female, and I’m not afraid to say it in celebration of difference. I’m an adult human male-to-female transsexual; a transwoman, and proud of it.

I’m not afraid to be present in our complex, nuanced reality and show the world how much a transwoman like me has to offer, bringing the full depth and breadth of my experiences to bear in my creations and interactions.

Roots: Passing

What is “passing” exactly?

Most people have at least a vague concept of what passing means in reference to trans people. If you ask one of us, we’ll describe a myriad of meanings, as passing means something different to each of us based on our personal experiences with the act.

If you listen to many of our stories, a common theme will most certainly emerge that looks something like this:

Passing is a euphoric refuge from a dysphoric experience in a transphobic world.

It allows us to let our guard down and enjoy simply being ourselves, fully equipped with the privilege of being interpreted as male or female when we are in fact transsexual, which allows us freedom of societal mobility and safety from the forces that would disparage us if we were recognized as trans.

That’s the unfortunate state of things for transfolk. We lead a quite frankly terrifying existence which is very often dependent on passing. We are forced into strict gender conformity, the likes of which I haven’t seen imposed since the 1950s. If we stray from it, we risk losing our ability to pass, which can have devastating consequences for us. This goes for transmen and transwomen alike, though the box women are expected to fit into is decisively smaller and more restrictive than that of men.

Our critics might tell us that we are reinforcing an oppressive system by adhering to these standards and attempting to pass, but what needs to be understood is that it’s something we tend toward in order to survive within said system. It’s the same for all people, trans or not. We all tend to adhere to our prescribed standards in order to survive in our societal systems around the world. Challenging them, for most any of us, can be dangerous. We could lose our livelihood. Our social support structures could collapse. Our families and friends could abandon us.

Why? Just because we’ve decided to dress differently or live our lives in a way more appealing to us?

Why do we put so much importance on these prescribed standards in our existences? I’m not going to claim to have any answers. This question is far bigger than me, but I do think it’s an important question to ask. At the very least, I think we all need to examine the qualities of these standards and be willing to challenge them in our daily lives, especially where they intersect with freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.

Passing should not be a prerequisite to our freedoms, rights, or privileges. We should all be allowed to express ourselves, free from disparagement for methods of expression we might find suitable to ourselves in our embodied lives.

What if we could live in a world free from transphobia, where being trans weren’t something we need to hide?

My particular corner of the world has been kind to me. I’ve not encountered much, if any transphobia in my life. I pass well and am lucky to live in a largely trans-friendly community. I’m out in all aspects of my life. My family knows. Everyone I’m friends with knows. My coworkers know. It’s become something I feel comfortable with being and sharing with others in my life.

It wasn’t always that way for me though.

I was born in Mike Pence’s hometown. If you know anything at all about the man, understand that his hometown is very much like him. The majority are conservative, Christian, and love America. The sort of people who listen to country music. Radio stations blared Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” every Independence Day. Nice folks, mostly.

But they don’t tend to like change.

Transitioning there was terrifying. Between circumstances where I lived and deep concerns over how my family would react, I didn’t come out much until I was 28 when I finally allowed myself to begin Hormone Replacement Therapy. Only my most trusted friends and partners knew I intended to transition.

To my surprise, everyone in my life accepted me, and living as a trans woman was easy because I passed well. I can only imagine how different my life might have been if I hadn’t been able to. It’s granted me so much privilege.

I had the privilege to allow the fact I am trans to disappear and live free from fear of the kind of discrimination transfolk face every day.

And I did.

For around 5 years, only those I had known prior to transition actually knew I was trans. In my day to day life, I was interpreted in the same way as every other woman. When I started the job that led me to my current career, I never came out. No one I worked with knew for several years. We’ll come back to this later.

Being a woman of course came with its own pitfalls and perils. I’ve been a survivor of a constant stream of misogyny, sexual assault, manipulation, discrimination, etc. I’ve been terribly unlucky.

But at least I wasn’t seen as trans for most of it.

Passing was never not important in my mind.

Even when I’d speak out as a trans woman in real life or on social media, I would insist I was a woman and engage in completely pointless arguments with others over it.

“Trans women are men,” cried anti-trans activists.

“Trans women are women,” we cried back, as the phrase became my mantra.

My invocations of this mantra were less a response to the assertion I was a man, and more a desperate effort to pass on a completely different level.

Being trans didn’t matter much to my real life. As I said, in my daily life I was just a woman. And I wanted it to not matter in any context. I wanted the fact I am trans to disappear into the fact I was read as a woman. I rejected my own complex reality as a trans woman and instead opted to erase the idea the word “trans” carried any meaning that I saw as potentially invalidating my womanhood. It was a point I was completely unwilling to capitulate. It was as important to me as passing itself.

I would make arguments such as, “Trans women and tall women are both women,” as if “tall” carried a similar meaning to “trans”.

But in the case of both trans women and tall women, tall women are still tall, and trans women are still trans. Being trans is as inescapable for me as being tall might be for a tall woman.

Trans, I realized, was something I could never not be, rage against my own biology and societal resistance to the idea as I might.

The inevitable conclusion for me was acceptance that trans women, are in fact, transwomen. Once I accepted this truth, doorways opened for me that allowed me to see and appreciate the truly complex reality of my embodied life. The truth was simultaneously beautiful and terribly ugly. I’ve become so much more sensitive to the concerns of others when my complex reality intersects and interplays with their own.

Some of my trans friends and allies have expressed concern for me over my change in attitude, but I can assure everyone my head has never been more clear. As I’ve explained, it’s been a long road for me coming to acceptance of myself as a trans woman, and it feels wonderful to take pride in the fact I am exactly what I am.

My co-workers all know now that I’m trans, and the context under which I came out to them is very much part of my journey toward this newfound level of self-acceptance.

A little bit over a year ago, another co-worker of mine who works in a different area came out and transitioned. One night, co-workers in my area were talking about her and saying some very transphobic things.

It wasn’t easy, but as one co-worker was beginning to talk about his experiences with the one trans person he’s known in his life who rubbed him the wrong way, I interrupted and told him he in fact, knows two. His stunned silence spoke volumes.

I’ve come out in similar contexts to others I work with, and every time it has had overwhelmingly positive effects. Transphobia, at its heart, is a fear of change. People get used to people as they are, and then when they transition, it’s like that person they’ve known dies and something strange and new replaces them.

What my co-workers have realized about their own transphobia is exactly that. I’ve asked several, “Having known me as a woman for years, would it be equally as difficult for you to accept me if I detransitioned and became a man as it is for you to accept transitioning people you know?” The answer has been, “Yes.” in every instance.

My coming out and proudly telling others that I was, in fact, a transwoman completely washed away any transphobia that my co-workers might have held in their hearts.

One day, I would like to see all of society overcome transphobia, so we can all come to share a better, safer society.

Where visibly trans people and passing trans people can live with the same freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.

Where transwomen can be transwomen and transmen can be transmen and live in relative peace with ourselves.

Where our lives, be we trans or not, no longer depend on passing.