13 Myths and Misconceptions About Trans Women: Part Two
8. You’re appropriating the female body.
Appropriation is about co-opting someone else’s identity. We’re not doing that. We’re expressing our identity. It is not an act of attempting to emulate or express ourselves as The Other, we are attempting to more accurately and honestly express The Self. We don’t transition into being a new or different person. We become more ourselves. We don’t put on a mask, we take one off. We don’t another cliché metaphor, we just cliché metaphor.
It is not YOUR body or sex that is being in any way appropriated or affected. We are making decisions about our own bodies, our own sex, specifically just trying to feel at home within them…. Which is our choice to make. Our bodies, our choices, yeah?
This one is usually based on analogy to cosmetic surgery and eating disorders.
After all, we do teach people to do their best to accept their bodies and not treat themselves with loathing. We rightly teach people that self-acceptance is of great importance to one’s mental and emotional well-being. The appropriate response to body-image issues is therapy, and to reinforce self-acceptance, not to facilitate an obsession with cosmetic surgery or enable an eating disorder.
But gender dysphoria is not as simple as a “body-image issue”, and has been proven unresponsive to therapy and psychotropic medication. There are certain reasonable expectations a person can have for their body, and there are certain conflicts between body map or self image and physical configuration of the body that deserve to be addressed through medical means.
Consider, for instance, the case of skin grafts for a burn victim, plastic surgery for someone with an extreme socially and psychologically debilitating deformity, or prosthesis for an amputee. In these cases, we don’t simply teach self-acceptance. That is part of the process, sure (as it is with gender transition), but we do provide medical intervention and don’t question or belittle their desire for it. They are only asking for a relatively basic level of bodily integrity. That line is subjective but it is present.
If you’re cisgender, ask yourself: were your genitals to be lost or disfigured in an accident, would you want someone to chastise you for wanting a prosthesis or cosmetic surgery? A body consistent with one’s internal conception of sex and gender is a perfectly reasonable thing to want and a very difficult thing to live without.
Furthermore, these kinds of procedures, and gender transition, have specific, defined end-points and goals. Eating disorders and cosmetic surgery do not. Someone with a severe psychological body-image disorder will, presumably, never feel pretty or thin enough. They will remain unhappy, and the physical changes won’t solve the underlying issue. In the case of gender transition, and cosmetic procedures for burns and deformities, there is an end-point and the procedures consistently produce a great deal of psychological and emotional benefit with significant improvements in the patient’s well-being.
Most medical procedures are not simply about sustaining life. They are about maintaining well-being and improving quality of life. That is what transition provides… a quality of life an individual may reasonably expect. No other procedure or treatment has ever been proven effective or helpful in addressing the extreme detriment to mental health caused by Gender Identity Disorder.
10. You don’t really become female. The process is only cosmetic. You’re still technically a man.
I addressed much of this a few weeks ago in this article. It has chickens!
To summarize: there is no particularly valid reason to prioritize the genetic definition of sex above all other aspects of physical sex: hormones, secondary sexual characteristics, genital configuration, etc. Chromosomes actually don’t play nearly as much of a role in human sexual differentiation as we often think they do. The Y chromosome is mostly deteriorating junk DNA that’s only real function is to turn the gonads into testes. In an XX cell, one of the X chromosomes is deactivated. As such, there’s no real functional difference between a “female” cell and a “male” cell. The process of sexual differentiation in humans is not genetic in nature, but hormonal.
As for the matter of being “cosmetically” female… a trans woman’s secondary sexual characteristics are in no substantial way different from that of a cis woman and are formed through the exact same physical processes. If my breasts are to be deemed “cosmetic”, so too must the breasts of any woman at all.
There is no single variable we can point to that suggests someone is “really” female or not. Doing so for any individual trait will necessarily require excluding some cis women from the category. There are some traits that no trans woman possesses, but there will always be cis women who don’t possess those traits either. As such, there is no definitive way that you can suggest trans women are outside of the category “woman” but all cis women are in. At least not without going into tautologies like “only cis women are really women because trans women aren’t really women”. In so far as the term “woman” is to be at all meaningful and consistent, trans women must be included.
First, don’t say “transgenders”. Nouning-the-adjective places the category above the person. Say “transgender women/men/people”.
Transgender is an umbrella term that includes all significant deviation from the norms of gender and sex. Drag queens, transsexual people, cross-dressers, transvestic fetishists, people who identity as trans-masculine or trans-feminine, people who are genderqueer, etc. are all included.
Transsexual refers specifically to people who permanently transition from one sex to another, usually through one or more medical treatments such as hormone replacement therapy and/or genital reconstruction surgery, usually along with legal and social changes such as change of legal name and documentation, alternate gender presentation (clothing, make-up, etc.), voice training and so on.
The adjective “trans”, as in “trans woman”, usually means transsexual but sometimes means transgender. It’s usually clear from context. This article, for instance, has been about transsexual women.
Drag queens are men (typically but not always gay) who dress in an exaggeratedly, campily female way for the sake of performance or entertainment. There is typically very little emphasis placed on actually passing as female but instead on having a particularly ostentatious and fun outfit. This is an act of playing with gender roles, not an act based on expression of a deeper internal sense of self. A drag queen adopts a female persona but will (almost always) have a male gender identity.
Cross-dressers are men with a male gender identity who, for a variety of possible reasons, choose to occasionally dress in women’s clothing and accessories and present as female. The acts of cross-sex presentation are temporary and do not reflect their “true self”.
A transvestic fetishist is a cross-dresser who does so for sexual motivations, due to being aroused or getting an erotic thrill from the cross-sex presentation. They also maintain a male gender identity and the cross-sex presentation is temporary.
These distinctions are important. Seriously.
12. Transsexuality is just an invention of the modern medical establishment, a symptom of Western culture.
Hormone replacement therapy and genital reconstruction surgery are modern medical treatments developed to address and accommodate a long-standing human issue.
Gender variance, although it may vary in its particular iteration, will not always be socially accepted or accommodated, and is sometimes only accommodated in very specific ways, occurs in pretty much all cultures and societies throughout human history.
Many cultures were actually fairly accepting and tolerant. Some even imagined transgendered identities to be especially blessed, lucky or powerful… such as a shamanic role for certain North American First Nations “two spirit” identities, the Galli priestesses of Cybele in ancient Greece, the paradoxically respected-and-stigmatized social status of Kathoey in Thailand, the positive social standing of Hjira in India prior to British colonial rule (which brought with it British attitudes towards gender variance), etc.
Gender variance has existed as long as human beings have. Transsexuality is simply a relatively new option for addressing it and meeting the needs of people with a sense of strong disharmony between gender identity and physical sex. It didn’t create us, it is just a means of allowing us to live full, happy, meaningful lives and feel comfortable and at home in our bodies.
First of all, we are women. So there’s that.
I’m not sure why whatever discomfort may arise from a cis woman’s hang-ups about the thought of a trans woman in the same bathroom or changing room or whatever, and the perceived risk, should take precedence over the extreme discomfort and actual physical risk that a trans woman would be forced to endure in using men’s facilities.
An argument I’ve encountered repeatedly is “well what’s to stop some male rapist or child molester or voyeur from putting on some lipstick, claiming to be transgender, and then sexually assaulting your daughters!” (Ominous scary organ chord!).
Well… there has never, ever been such an incident. No man has ever disguised himself as transgender for the sake of perpetrating such a crime. And if what you are worried about is sexual assault and voyeurism then those are the issues you should be targeting, enacting policies against, and the people whom you should be demonizing. Don’t demonize and punish innocent trans people over some wild, imagined hypothetical.
Would you ban lesbians from women’s facilities on the possibility of their voyeurism? No, probably not, and it’s extremely statistically unlikely for lesbians to commit sexual assault in such a setting. But… it’s just as unlikely for trans women to do so. And remember that stuff about our libidos? Our difficulty achieving erection if we even have a penis?
If prevention of sexual assault is something you’re keenly interested in then please start by focusing on dismantling a misogynistic culture that objectifies and devalues women and places their humanity as secondary to their bodies.
There is also a lot of anger and controversy within the feminist community about other types of women’s spaces. A particularly prominent example is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which enforces a trans-exclusionist “Womyn-Born-Womyn” policy (though they allow trans men to attend and perform). Many of the justifications are parallel to those of the Christian right in forbidding us access to women’s bathrooms and changing rooms: we’re really men, it makes the environment unsafe (again, there is absolutely no data whatsoever to support this), what’s to stop men from attending under the pretense of being trans, etc.
But there are additionally complex issues. One is the general transphobic attitudes within certain branches of feminism (particularly radical feminism)…. The notion that we’re enforcing the gender binary (which relates to the “why can’t you just accept yourselves” thing and the confusion of gender identity with gender expression), the weird hypocritically gender-essentialist insistence that although gender is “just a social construct” we are nonetheless completely bound to our assigned sex and may not transcend it, many bio-essentialist claims (such as, literally: “rape is encoded on the Y chromosome”… I’ve actually come across that claim), etc.
It is also sometimes insisted that because we lacked female childhoods and the concomitant gender-socialization that we can’t possibly understand the female experience. That’s true in a sense… there are many aspects of a female life I did not experience and some I never shall. But this is true of every woman. There is no universal, unwavering female narrative that everyone experiences exactly alike. There are as many stories as there are women. To act like any particular thing being absent means someone isn’t “really” a woman and can’t understand womanhood would necessarily mean excluding a whole lot of cis women, too.
All of these notions seem to be acts of bending over backwards and performing intellectual acrobatics to try to disguise their transphobia as being somehow an extension of their feminism when it in fact runs directly contrary to several the fundamental tenets of feminism… that our lives, choices, identities and what we do with our bodies should not be dictated by external forces or forced upon us to conform with what society tells us those with our particular anatomy are supposed to be.
Biology is not destiny. Remember?
In summary, almost all of these misconceptions stem from the assumption that we’re really men, and considering us, our lives, our implications and our choices through a male frame of reference. A woman who is attracted to men is not gay. The existence of a woman as a woman does not reinforce traditional gender roles, nor would the breakdown of those roles cause her to disappear. A woman would not be asked to simply accept a male body. A woman would not be accused of appropriating womanhood, or infiltrating women’s spaces. A woman’s body, and the aspects of it that render it female, are not simply cosmetic.
If there is one myth to debunk from which all others would perish, it’s the notion that our gender is not legitimate. We are women. Just think of us as such, and you’ll get it.
(Featured image is from “A Series of Questions“, a photo essay by L. Weingarten. Check it out to see a version of that photograph that isn’t butchered by my horrible cropping!)
EDIT: When I said that a cross-dresser’s acts of cross-sex presentation do not reflect their “true self”, I should have been more clear: in the case of a CD (as opposed to a trans woman in denial who simply believes herself to be CD), the female presentation / persona isn’t MORE true than the male identity. Both are aspects of that individual’s sense of self. But the primary difference between a genuine CD and a trans woman is that the male identity is not held to be false while the female identity is held to be genuine. Instead, the male identity is still the primary expression of self that is inevitably returned to.